Maxime Beaudoin is an ex-Ubisoft veteran who co-founded Gingear Studio, an indie development company based in Quebec City. We had a chance to sit down with Maxime to hear about the challenges of owning an independent development studio and learn about the skills and qualities needed to run a video game business.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to open your own independent game development studio?
I started my career at Ubisoft in 2005 in Quebec City, Canada. Back then, I was a 3D graphics programmer working on minor PSP titles (Open Season, Surf’s Up). Then bigger projects were entrusted to the studio, which gave me the opportunity to work on franchises like Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed. On AC Syndicate, I achieved a personal and professional goal when I became technical architect on the core team.
But after ten years, half of which was devoted to the Assassin franchise, I had the impression that I was doing the same thing over and over again. There was nothing new, my work had become routine, and I was always in my comfort zone. I was also tired of working on huge teams (Assassin requires up to a thousand developers at the peak of production), and I clearly prefer the efficiency and comradeship of small teams.
Then came the opportunity to start an indie studio with my girlfriend Julie. I love new challenges, and this seemed like a good plan to have lots of ’em! So we jumped at the chance, and we launched our first game last year: Open Bar, a cute and clever puzzle game for mobile devices.
In today’s competitive video game industry, what separates the successful companies from those that struggle or fail?
As a small independent studio, it’s definitely visibility. On iOS, there are 500 new games published every day. Although the PC market is not there yet, there has been a rapid increase in the number of independent games released on Steam recently. As more and more independent studios are sprouting here and there, I don’t think the situation is going to improve. In a fully saturated market, the vast majority of games go completely unnoticed. Although a feature on a store (iTunes, Google Play) really helps, as soon as the feature is over, the sales dramatically drop. So what can a developer do to improve its chances? Talk with publishers, find the right business partners, work on your unique selling points, and satisfy the needs of a loyal niche.
If someone were to say to you, “You’re the owner of a video game studio? You must be rich!” how might you respond?
Right now, if I was employed at an AAA studio, I would earn thrice my current salary that I’m making as an independent studio owner. I sacrificed my lifestyle, my house, and my car to start Gingear.
Many (most) independent studios do not make enough income with their own titles to be profitable, let alone to finance their next game. A good survival strategy is to do servicing. I recently completed a five-month contract that brought in enough money to keep me going for the entire year. That left me seven months to work on our own intellectual properties, which is great.
Obviously, it is a choice that I make to be able to complete our projects. I could earn a much more interesting annual salary by focusing on servicing, but where is the fun in that?
During your career, what experience or job duty best prepared you for opening and running your own indie games company?
To be honest, not much of my previous experience has anything to do with running an indie games business. That said, my Ubisoft years have prepared me for everything related to the development of games themselves. I learned some very efficient development methodologies (Agile, playtests, how to identify and mitigate risks, planning meaningful milestones, etc), some of which are already put in place at Gingear. The contacts I made in the industry have proven to be quite useful, too.
What non-technical skills are the most important to learn and master for owners of game development studios?
Running a successful games development company is more about business than developing games. Your incredibly awesome game isn’t that great if it doesn’t make enough money to grow your business and your team.
You need leadership, perseverance, self-confidence, and resourcefulness. Work on your pitch; it is going to be very useful when you try to convince an eventual business partner. Be stress tolerant and learn to cope with failure. You are going to fail at one point or another, so be ready!
Also, be social, and get in touch with local game developers. When we entered the circle of indie devs in Quebec City, it helped us a lot to be able to pick their brains once in a while.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of developing a video game that average “gamers” may not be aware of?
Nearly everything, from design to promotion. In a game, most of the work is invisible and abstract: creative direction, game design, level design, programming, and audio are all underrated. Actually, the only thing that most gamers are totally aware of is beautiful graphics.
For me, game design was a particularly difficult challenge to face. Before Gingear, I never did any serious game design, and I was under the impression that anyone could improvise himself as a game designer. That could not be further from the truth! On Open Bar, I spent five months prototyping puzzle mechanics before nailing the final design. Since the end result is so simple, most people don’t realize all the effort that was put into it. The simplest games are often the hardest to design.
Talk about the life cycle of developing a typical video game. How long does it take from initial concept to working prototype to finished product to profitability?
The time it takes to make a decent game varies widely and ranges from a few months to a few years. Note that the budget does not necessarily match the development time. Some AAA games are done in one year, while some indie games like The Witness took as much as seven years to complete.
In the first half of the development cycle, pre-production, we explore different ideas and concepts and we prototype a lot. When we find a good idea, we elaborate on it and eventually create a level or a small part of the game that looks and plays as close as possible to the intended final result. That’s what we call a vertical slice. It’s an efficient way to confirm that the game is going to be fun and that the game systems work well together.
Now that we have a recipe, we can start production. This is when the team size sometimes grows quite a lot in order to finish the game as quickly as possible. The end of production is usually very intense; we try to balance everything while fixing tons of bugs every day. That’s actually why some games are so bugged when they are released. Since stabilization is done at the very end of the project, there’s no room for error. This is a symptom of poor planning.
Once the game is finished, if you work in an AAA development studio, you are either on vacation or are working on a day 1 patch. But if you are an indie developer, there is still a lot of work to do! You have already started promoting the game during production, but the closer the launch day comes, the more it becomes a focus. You might be extremely tired, but it doesn’t matter because you have to create trailers, screenshots, and a press kit and reach journalists and reviewers to get as much attention as possible for your game’s launch.
Since your company has only developed one game so far, do you plan on releasing more games in the future?
Yes, of course! We are currently working on our second project codenamed Maya. It is a puzzle platformer for consoles and PC. We are still in the early design stage, so we prefer not to reveal more at the moment. If everything goes according to plan, we aim for a launch at the end of 2019 or early 2020.
What advice would you give a video game enthusiast or programmer who is considering a career in video game development?
I often receive emails from computer science students who want to work in the video game industry, and that question comes up every time. If I had to give a single piece of advice, it would be: make a game!
Back in the early 2000s when I was a student myself, I was constantly working on personal projects: games, prototypes, programming experiments, and so on. It definitely helped me to get a job at Ubisoft a few years later. Game studios are interested in motivated people who are passionate about video games. The best way to prove it is to make games in your spare time.
Today, making a game is easier and more accessible than ever with Unity and Unreal. Download an engine, follow tutorials and create something cool. It’s a great way to learn, it’s fun, and it will give you a pretty good idea what making games is all about.
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