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Guest post: Why redundancy happens in game development

By on October 5, 2010

As part of the rebrand of GAMESbrief (coming soon), I’m actively looking for guest posts on interesting topics. This post by Simeon Pashley, who blogs at www.game-linchpin, originally appeared on his website.

Simeon Pashley

It’s worth understanding why redundancies are a natural consequence for an independent studio when they finish a project.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the end of the project is always the point when the team is the largest, QA come onboard, people are generally added to get the project delivered to a high enough quality.

So, what happens when the project ships? What do all of these people do? As much as we’d like to believe that 100% of the team have meaningful work, it’s not going to be the case.

With the best will in the world a studio will plan follow-on revenue generating work but it’s incredibly rare that this work magically dove-tails into utilising 100% of the available team, or even a reasonable chunk of the team. Support work, patching and concepting future projects may all soak up some people but all of this work is still supported by the revenue of the game that’s now shipped and the cash flow has likely stopped.

It’s quite common for studios to work for payments that are milestone-based and low margin so they can remain competitively priced and also pay the wages but this money stops at the point of delivery. Some games are developed against an advance for royalties that usually means the game was developed for almost no profit on the basis of a big upside should the royalties kick in.

Publishers are generally not interested in paying for your team to idle around between projects, they want to pay for the work only and even then it needs to be competitively priced.

The danger is obviously the low and frequently negative profit margins during development that don’t provide a buffer to get the studio through the gaps between work.

Imagine you’ve made a generous 15% net profit over the life of the project and you haven’t spent any of this money on other things and it’s just sitting in the bank. The obvious extension to this is that if nothing changes you can remain open for 15% of the projects duration before your cash runs out and you’re bankrupt. So, if your project took 9 months to make, you’ve got enough money to fund you through a gap of 1 month. Using this example, if the team is reduced to 25% of its size then the money will last 4 times longer for those that are still resident.

In reality, it’s not that straightforward because there’s a lot of other factors coming into play and you’ve now got a big team in place and a lot of mouths to feed so you’re commitment is high. No business operates in this way and net profit doesn’t go into the bank for a rainy day. It’s typically used to fund other opportunities to expand the business such as paying for over promising / under delivering, concepting, attending conferences, preparing pitches, R&D and a load of other things. Making people redundant also costs money too so it’s not something a business can enter into lightly.

So, the natural conclusion is that a studio can’t operate by employing 100% of the team 100% of the time and support that entire infrastructure when there’s little or no money coming in. It’s simply not going to work.

The only sustainable way for single project independent studios to keep this going is to operate on a Core+Contract basis where everyone involved works on the understanding that the Core is a small set of people that are central to the business and it’s buffered up with Contract / Outsource work that is clearly only commissioned when it’s needed. In this way everyone knows what their commitment is and there’s fewer surprises. The non-Core people are typically more expensive than permanent *but* it ultimately works out to be more cost effective once you factor in the recruit/redundancy/gap costs. The team shrinks back to the Core in between projects.

Sensible studios plan for all of these things and build their business with this in mind and also build in some contingency into their costs to enable them to burn some of their profits to keep a consistent team running during the lean times. Larger studios can also mitigate this by having multiple projects and moving people between projects as the natural ebb and flow of project demands occur.

If you’re a work-for-hire/self-funded studio working for little profit who employs 100% of your staff on a permanent basis then expect redundancies at the end of every project and or the business completely failing.

As the saying goes: Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.

  • As a business owner, think about this when you’re starting out as it can make a real difference to the viability of your business.
  • As a developer, look at the business you’re working in for the signs of whether or not your likely to be around when the project finishes.

About Simeon Pashley

  • David

    Great post, a bit said to see it that way but oh well, just the truth

    What’s your take on the solution that studios like DICE have been taking of using spare ppl between projects to release “smaller” games like Battlefield 1943 for XBLA?
    Are they usually worthwhile? Or is it taking unecessary risks with the money leftovers?

  • Chadley_chad

    (Unfortunately) this would be the ideal model for EVERY business … and it’s certainly one of the selling points a recruitment agency would use to justify its existence; i.e. employ a small core of permanent workers equivalent to the maximum number of staff you need during your lowest periods, then hire temporary staff as and when demand grows. As the report says, these temporary staff will cost more but averaged out over the year, overall staffing costs would be less!

    I guess the reason why this doesn’t actually work for business comes down to the fact good relevant employees are reliably hard to find (and most recruitment agencies themselves offer poor service)

  • http://game-linchpin.com Simeon Pashley

    Hi, anything helps between projects to soak up the slack, doing small projects is a great way to generate revenue for the business too.

  • http://game-linchpin.com Simeon Pashley

    This model does work for game developers, large & small. It’s a core fundamental principal of lean startup/MVC businesses too.

    I agree that finding good relevant staff who can deliver quality work is tough but this is where the balance has to be found and made. This is where building a great network of people you’ve worked with or come recommended is absolutely key too. You need to build your own business with this in mind as it means you have to be very good at briefing the work, tracking it and evaluating the results to make sure everything is meeting expectations.

    This approach also scales for outsourcing larger components such as UI, stages, DLC packs, sequels and even whole SKUs to other businesses works. There’s a good collection of companies out there who can help you with this work.

  • http://game-linchpin.com Simeon Pashley

    @nick – the 2nd URL is wrong, it should be http://game-linchpin.com

    thanks