The Bedroom Coder’s Business Model
More Fun, Less Ferrari
Remember the old days? You know, when computers were extremely interesting machines with incredible potential, and you just had to have one for yourself? Mess about, hack, read, code, write, whatever. Sooner or later you got into games: playing them, thinking about them, designing them, coding games of your own – generally burning the candle at both ends into the wee, small hours.
Some people, either by luck, persistence, or sheer hard work, even prospered from their labours, and before you knew it, the games industry was born. From listings in the back of computer magazines, flogging cassettes and floppy disks at computer shows, to the online distribution and global retail channels we see today – the industry has gone from an acorn to an oak tree.
* * *
What happened? Where did the frontier spirit go?
Sure, some grey-bearded frontiersmen now have a few Ferrari’s in the garage, but what’s left for the bedroom coders of today?
More importantly, how can you survive as a bedroom coder these days and have some chance of going it alone rather than selling your soul by working for a games sweat shop with a 1% chance of having your name on the back of a DVD jewel case on a shelf in Electronics Boutique?
Well, the answer’s right there in your bedroom.
Let me point out your obvious characteristics.
1. You’ve got enough money to have a good time, socialising, entertainment, etc., but otherwise, you’re penniless.
2. You’ve got enough time to mess about, to do what’s fun, but not really enough time for all that business management malarkey (administration, accounts, marketing, fund raising, writing business plans, buttering up publishers, etc.).
3. You’ve got enough skills to do what’s fun and interesting, and learn enough IT admin to keep things running smoothly, but again, you’re not really au fait with the business management side of things.
4. You’ve got a bedroom, a computer, an Internet connection, a brain and highly honed Quake/Unreal/CounterStrike skills, but haven’t yet got round to finishing that 3D engine, physics engine, AI engine, scenery editor, etc. and you certainly can’t afford the middleware or tools licenses without compromising publishing rights, royalties, IP, etc.
5. You’ve got ideas, creativity, enthusiasm, motivation, a positive outlook, the guts to persevere, and in general ‘Carpe Diem’ is your motto, but frankly, the resources you have at your disposal, the clout you have in the industry, and the influence you have among your peers… isn’t really there (yet!).
Now, let me observe your inclinations:
1. You would like to continue what you’re doing (making games).
2. It would be great if people would pay you to create games, especially if that meant you could afford a mortgage and have the title deeds to your own bedroom.
3. It would be really great if you could create the games you want to create, and not those of a marketing yes-man who wants yet another racing game.
4. It would be greatest of all if you could have a chance of becoming world famous, or at least, get your name in Develop now and then – especially if that meant you could afford a Ferrari (thanks Owain).
And finally, let’s list the obvious conclusions:
1. You get adopted by rich parents, OR
2. You get a job in the games industry.
Ok, so hands up everyone who plumped for ‘get a job in the games industry’?
Never mind, there’s hope for you yet. If you have got a job in the games industry and realise it’s all been a terrible mistake, and you wish you were back in your bedroom where things were really great: no deadlines, no boss, no timesheets, no punctuality, no commuting, no responsibility; well, there’s a chance you can go back.
I just happen to have stumbled across this magic formula called ‘The Bedroom Coder’s Business Model’ that makes it all possible. However, be careful, because none of the corporate minded employers in the industry wants you getting any crackpot ideas that you can down tools and give up work before the gold master is released. You’ll thus hear quite a few decrying this magic formula, saying it’s mumbo jumbo, mixed up nonsense, and that it’ll never fly.
Anyway, if you want to see the magic work, you’ll either have to be a bedroom coder, or you’ll at least have to pretend you are (and only try this in your bedroom – definitely not at the office).
Games are art – works of creativity created by coders, graphic artists, animators, musicians, designers.
Code is art. Artwork is art. Design is art. Game-play is art.
Game developers are all artists.
Art is not utility. Art is not necessity. Art is not function. Art is not commodity.
Art enhances life. Art is pleasure, ideas, aesthetics, enjoyment, entertainment.
Games are art. They are nothing else.
The better the art, the more people like it.
The better a game, the more players will want to play it
People like art. People like games. People play games. Players play games.
People buy art if they can’t get it for nothing.
People buy new art when they’re bored of the old.
Players will buy games if they can’t get them for nothing
Players buy new games when they’re bored of the old.
People will pay artists to create art
You are an artist.
Players will pay YOU to create games.
Some call that bloody obvious. Some might call it syllogistic prestidigitation. Some might even call it disintermediation. Whatever you call it, you’ve got to admit, it’s a conclusion that means “There’s gold to be found in them thar hills!”. All we’ve got to do is figure out how to extract it with the least amount of effort.
When you try and condense a non-obvious idea down to its barest essentials you can end up with something apparently very simple, so simple it seems obvious. In this case we’re just saying “The bedroom coder sells games to players”. It ends up appearing like an obvious, albeit unrealisable aspiration, with no clue as to the enabling mechanism. So, let’s have a go at keeping the idea as simple as possible, but no simpler:
By selling a game directly to the most enthusiastic portion of its potential audience in a single transaction, not only do concerns of copy protection disappear, but utilisation of Open Source middleware becomes possible, given that the game’s source code also needs no protection. Episodic release together with viral marketing provided by a game’s core fan base, provide a steady revenue stream that, whilst too small for a typical, retail oriented publisher, is ample for a self-funded development team.
Near zero overheads means remuneration only needs to cover direct labour, and this does not require a return from every player in perpetuity, only a return from a significant consortium of players willing to finance the game’s release. Web based facilities to enable such online, en masse transactions, are already in development.
Sounds like a dot-com scam eh? Maybe we can put it into less poncy lingo?
If they sponge off their parents, a bunch of bedroom coders and other artists can make a game using free or open source components, advertise it on a web site, and when enough prospective players pledge enough money for it, collect the pledges and release it. They don’t need to give a damn about piracy or having to give away the source code – because they’ve just been paid in full. In fact, the more widely the game is copied, the more players that will pledge for the next episode that they’ve already started working on! When 10,000 players are pledging a quid apiece, that might provide just enough dosh to avoid a proper job...
Well, that’ll do for starters. Feel free to create your own variation.
Remember. Bedroom coders are artists, just as much as animators or other artists are.
The thing about art, about originality and creativity in games, is that it’s done for love, for love of a good game. It’s not about churning out commoditised games and demanding that anyone who illegitimately evaluates this pulp gets thrown in prison. All that’s required is a fair deal between artist and audience.
Why do I harp on about games as ‘art’? Because, we need to break down the corporate mindset that has infected each one of us. There is no god given right to be able to charge anyone who sets eyes on our art a price of our choosing. The notion that there is, is a potentially lucrative one certainly, but it is not cast in one of Moses’ stone tablets.
Art is for mankind.
Artists who would be unhappy, even though say, being amply funded by the Arts Council, to see people enjoying their art, their games, who hadn’t paid to, are Scrooges of the first order.
All I’m suggesting is that instead of the Arts Council, bedroom coders appeal directly to their keenest fans. If you cut out the middle-man, the funding you can obtain from just this small section of your market, should be enough to meet your costs in full. Anything more is a blessing.
If after getting ten grand and bunking off on a snowboarding trip in Tibet you discover that a few million Chinese have gladly paid for their copies at market stalls, don’t think of this as lost revenue, but as a compliment and just reward for all the entrepreneurs that realised they could add value by copying it onto CDs. These few millions to swell your audience may well be where you get the bulk of funding for your next episode.
Ok, so let’s get on with it. What’s the ‘why’ and where’s the ‘how’?
Well, the ‘why’, is your set of objectives, and the ‘how’ is your method. I can only guess at your objectives, but if it’s a good guess, then I hope you’ll see how the method gets you towards meeting them.
So what are your primary objectives? How about these:
1) To survive
2) To have fun and a comfortable lifestyle
3) To create art, to make games according to one’s own ideals
Feel free to change the order of priority as you see fit.
Of course, how the flip you do this is another matter. Indeed, it’s the whole basis for this article, so I’d better go into some detail.
The key of course, is to do it all on a shoe-string.
Use your own bedroom, your own computer.
You don’t need funding apart from subsistence.
Use free or open source software.
Therefore, don’t buy stuff, and don’t sell your soul. Leech off your folks, work in the local wine bar, get a part-time job, etc. Whatever you do, do not sell your soul, i.e. don’t exchange your future output for a shiny new guitar today and incredible royalties tomorrow.
Use Open Source rather than proprietary middleware, even if the latter supplies free developer licenses[*]. Of course, if a proprietary middleware vendor (like SleepyCat) has a dual license, that’s fine.
Do the work.
Don’t be shy of teaming up.
It’s surprising how much free support you can find.
Maximise the time you have whilst you’re enthusiastic. That’s when you’re most productive. When writing games becomes a bind, then you’re in trouble, and probably in the wrong job.
Find others who are interested in the same area. Combine forces. Combine skills. Get the game finished sooner. A tenth of the reward in a tenth of the time may well be better than the full reward much later.
Take advantage of the free collaborative facilities and resources offered by such organisations as SourceForge. They don’t mind you keeping your game software closed until release, as long as you will eventually release it Open Source.
Advertise as soon as possible.
Demonstrate as soon as possible.
If you want recognition, you need to communicate the fact that your art exists – you need to collect an audience.
If you want to make any money, it’s also really only going to come from this audience. They’re the only ones that appreciate your art anyway.
Talk to your players. Even if you’re still at the design stage, the sooner you get to establish your existence in the minds of even a few potential players, the better. Remember, albeit experienced by few other businesses, your greatest fans will beat a path to your door even if you don’t advertise. Or rather, players will find your game via Google if it’s described on your site in accordance with their search criteria. Moreover, once they’ve discovered you they will do your marketing for you. They’ll be pleased that you’re recognising them directly as the true commissioners of your game (rather than publishers). They’ll be keen to help recruit an army of like-minded fans if it means the game will get to them sooner.
Naturally, actions speak louder than words. Get a demo done as soon as possible. This is the major key to credibility (and no, I don’t practice what I preach). However, bear in mind that if it’s based on Open Source code that you’ll have to release the source to your demo too. Funnily enough, this then makes the case for you to make free demos out of proprietary components, precisely because many of them permit free distribution of closed executables (DirectX say), but to make your final release out of Open Source components so you can make money. It’s a weird world isn’t it?
Release early, release often – episodic content.
Don’t release until you’ve got the dosh.
Use en masse transaction services such as DigitalArtAuction.com
The important thing is to get an audience sooner rather than later – if it grows exponentially (virally), then it can have a dramatic effect on timescales if the gap between releases is short.
For example, if in the time you’d develop a large game, you can produce ten episodes worth a tenth the value (but with coincidental increases in quality) and double the audience after each one, then this multiplies the reward a hundred fold (210 ÷ 10). Don’t get carried away by this chess board arithmetic though – it’s the principle that’s important.
Copyright has turned into a wet paper bag. If you sell a thousand copies of something good today, there will be a million copies of it tomorrow. You can’t prosecute a million punters.
The solution is to not let the horse bolt out of the stable until you’ve sold it. Therefore your greatest security concern is to be very, very careful your source code, the game content, and playable versions of these do not get leaked out of your team (cf the undesired leak of ID’s Doom III alpha). Every copy is a potential leak.
Obviously, it’s easier to ensure that no one makes illegitimate copies of one CD protected by lock and key, than it is of ten million CDs protected by this magic sigil:
If you were wondering how you get paid before the player gets the game, the trick is to deal with them directly, i.e. you say to your audience “Given I can establish I have produced a great game, I will release this game to you, source code and all, if you pay me what you and I collectively think would be a reasonable retail price”.
There will soon be online auction facilities that allow you to do this; to value and sell works of digital art. I’ve started the ball rolling with a web site I prepared earlier called www.digitalartauction.com. Incidentally, if any of the better funded entrepreneurs in the games industry fancy helping things move along, it’ll be very welcome.
The idea’s very simple, and anyone can roll their own site if they want. Just allow prospective players to say how much they’d pay if the game was up to scratch and when a trusted third party says it is up to scratch, well, pick a price and sell the game at that price to all those players who met or exceeded it. It may be that at a quid a throw you’ll make more money than at two quid a throw, but whatever price you pick, anyone who didn’t think it was worth that much, won’t pay anything, and everyone else will only pay the price you ask. This way, players are much more likely to offer a higher amount, in the knowledge that if they’ve overestimated the market value, they’ll still pay this lower amount. It works in this way, because we’re trying to replicate the retail price setting process. We are not trying to beg players for generous donations, we’re asking them to estimate what they reckon a fair retail price would be, and to back it up by committing themselves to purchase if the final price is the same or lower, i.e. if it’s a fair deal or bargain.
An important thing to note, is that you don’t have to release or sell if you don’t want to. If your audience isn’t growing fast enough or doesn’t have the kind of pocket depth you were hoping for, you don’t have to accept their offer. If you think the retail route is better after all, you can still take your game (in that glorious state of release readiness) to a publisher and see if they’ll take it on (perhaps funding the replacement of the Open Source components with proprietary ones if the publisher is so minded). It’s a win-win situation.
So that’s the method: subsist, work, advertise, sell. The worst that can happen is that you don’t sell, but then at least it’s training and the entrepreneurial experience may look good on a CV if you throw in the towel and apply for a job.
The tricky piece of the jigsaw though, is that ‘sell’ step. Support for en masse transactions isn’t really with us yet, but there are a few folk working on it. For the time being it’s a matter of collecting PayPal payments and cheques (refunding/returning them if the deal fails).
Few have done this before. Stephen King has dabbled with the idea of selling his books this way, and Marillion has part-funded an album in a similar way (Anoraknophobia obtained 12,674 pre-orders from 30,000 fans). I don’t think anyone’s sold a game this way yet, so yours could be the first, but there have been a couple of recent proprietary software packages that have been, or are in the process of being, rescued from closed-source oblivion:
The Blender community recently stumped up $100k for release of the source code.
1) They were convinced the software was up to scratch.
2) They knew how much money was required by the owner.
3) Each donor appreciated that even though many people would benefit who hadn’t contributed, the release of the software even for their own benefit was worth a personal contribution.
4) The community reassured itself that donations were worthwhile, by the visibility of early donors and steady accumulation of the total fund.
www.freepepper.org is attempting to replicate the success of the Blender sale, and currently has $360, on its way to $11,000.
[*] Proprietary middleware is fine if you’re going the conventional route, or even the online publishing route (RealArcade+LithTech, Valve’s Steam, etc.), but you’ll probably have a lot of haggling on your hands if you try the en masse publishing route I’ll be suggesting further on (not only concerning the equivalent royalty, but also the need for unfettered duplication). On another tack, ‘proprietary’ is sometimes a priori incompatible with ‘open source’ (bit of a religious war there – if you didn’t know already).