Mike: Welcome to the Goodman Jones podcast. I’m Mike Marlow and today I’m joined by Ashley Wharfe from Waving Bear Studios.
Ashley: Thanks for having me.
Mike: We’re here today to talk about the business of game development. We’re in a world at the moment where a lot of people are looking for different forms of entertainment. So one of those forms of entertainment that have seen a rise in popularity is computer games. I myself have had friends that have never played games before asking me what steam was and how to install it? So we thought we’d get Ash who is a bonafide games developer onto the podcast today to talk about the trials and tribulations that starting a business up for games development is, and the things that they’ve done, the things they’ve done right, the things they’ve done wrong and what they would do in hindsight. So Ash, tell us a bit about the four of you and how you got started?
Ashley: Yes, absolutely. So we’re Waving Bear Studio. So it’s me and three other founders, Dan, Lucy, and Matt. We originally met each other during our undergraduate studies at Portsmouth University. We are working on various projects together. I first met Matt working on a VR simulation for a YouTuber client. And then after he finished university, we found about a tech incubator down in Falmouth that offered the opportunity to fund startups for a year in the tech sector. So I got a message from Matt asking me if I fancy moving down to Cornwall.
Mike: Yes. It’s a lovely part of the world. Is it a techie university? And is that what brought you here?
Ashley: It’s a very arts base university with a lot of folks on video games. They have a separate warehouse space entirely for a giant development studio for their video game students. And the incubator we joined is actually partly funded by the university and it’s on the campus. And our new studio space that we moved into a couple of weeks back is also on the campus. So we’re quite familiar with Portsmouth university.
Mike: In regards to, you’ve decided at this point you’re going to start up a company rather than joining an existing game developer. What made you want to start up yourself?
Ashley: I think because I’m an artist, that’s my role in the development team. And I think it’s a big thing about being creative and exploring your own ideas. And once you join a big triple-A studio you get to work on these amazing titles, you know, really exciting high-quality massive production teams. But until you’re in the higher positions you lose a bit of that control, you’re doing other people’s designs. Whereas for us starting the studio ourselves we’re in the driving seat all the time. We decide where the game’s going to go, what’s going to go in the game, and what it’s going to look like. And it just also has a lot more creative freedom, which is really exciting when you’re working in the sector.
Mike: Yes. And I guess with the positives come the negatives. Not only do you have complete artistic control of the game, but also you have complete control of all the business side of things which doesn’t come naturally to you guys.
Ashley: No, absolutely. The four of us we’re all from creative backgrounds myself and Dan is our CTO we’re from gaming backgrounds, Lucy and Matt are from animation backgrounds. So when we started building this studio we suddenly find that there’s a whole world of business that we’d never really experienced before. And we were very much learning as we go along. And I think we still are learning as we go along, to be honest.
Mike: And on that, how much did you know, and how did you set yourself up and that sort of thing?
Ashley: Well, the incubator helped a lot of others to start. They offered a master’s in entrepreneurship, alongside its funding, which was great. It introduced us to a lot of the world. From my undergraduate days, we knew a bit about project management and we’re quite used to agile structures, but the whole world of investment and funding, that was all brand new to us and it was quite an exciting journey to go along and sort of learning that as we were doing it.
Mike: So in terms of video games development companies there’s a lot of things initially to think about and perhaps a bit more complicated than a normal company or a normal business would be. And part of that is that you have to plan for the future. So no matter how big you are, no matter how much money you have at startup, you have to prepare early on as to where you think your end goal is going to be. So for companies like yours you’ve got to think about things like how you’re setting up shareholdings and that sort of thing.
And it’s that sort of thing I imagine they helped you out with initially, but there are also things in terms of, it’s not just shareholdings, it’s what’s going to happen when the game is finished. Are we going to carry on going? And the restrictions there are behind some of the tax release and that sort of stuff because of how you’ve set up completely. You’re relatively far through your development of stuff and what mistakes have you made and what triumphs have you had on the way?
Ashley: Let’s start with mistakes, I think one of the things looking back the whole team can agree on. It’s never too early to start building up your community and to start building up that fan base, and that’s something at different periods of our development we’ve not necessarily ignored, but we’ve kind of almost forgotten about. So it was one period where we did a massive revamp of the game; we completely changed the art style, changed a lot of mechanics, and rebuilt a lot of it from the ground up.
And during that period we’ll go quiet doing a lot behind the scenes, and then when we came back, the product that we were then put in front of our existing fan base was very different than when they signed up. And we feel if we’d sort of been more transparent during that period, showing the changes slowly, it would have been a lot easier. Having said that we’ve now been building the community. It’s a massive focus of ours at the moment, and we are up on the rise, all our follower’s counts are constantly going up. And the fan base we have now are ones who are actually engaged in the project and enjoy the product and are really excited by this house when it comes out.
Mike: Another point I guess, would be from the business side one thing that a normal business wouldn’t have to deal with is tax relief. Now, the reason I’m bringing this up, because did you guys know much about things like video games tax relief before you started?
Ashley: So before we started, we had no idea it existed. Luckily for us, when we were on the incubator, a member of the BFI came down and spoke to us about tax relief, and we immediately ran away to our desktops and started filling in the application as soon as possible. But I mean, it’s a great help and it’s going to be a great help going forward. Again, as I said, a lot of what we’ve learned, we’ve learned as we’ve gone along and looking back, you know if we’ve known that from the beginning, there was a lot of development costs we probably could have claimed, which would have been quite helpful.
Mike: So for those of you listening who haven’t heard of it, video games tax relief is tax relief available for video game developers and it allows you to get extra reliefs based on how much you spent developing a game. To do that you need to pass a cultural test which should be passable by any UK based games Development Company. And this is because you have to earn 16 points out of 31, and 11 of those are just for being British or EU based. So for the vast majority of small to medium-sized companies, most of their employees will be in the same sort of place.
It’s not a case that you have to go and make your game have Big Ben in it or make it based in London with British flags everywhere. You get points for things like British voice actors, a British lead, you even get points for having a nondescript lead. So someone who isn’t obviously foreign, which means that although there is a small limitation that’s not aimed at British companies. So if you’re a British game developer you need to be claiming this, it is a lot of free money. And in terms of development, it definitely helps in terms of funding which is one of the biggest issues in video game development. Ash, you touched on funding there and when we talked, Ash and I met at Insomnia 65?
Ashley: I believe, yes 65.
Mike: Yes 65, where you were out showing off an early version of your game to all the people at the event there. In terms of investment, how have you gone about attempting to get it, or how have you attempted to get funding?
Ashley: Yes. So originally when we were first coming out of the incubator, so we’ve been developing for about a year that was around about the same time we met at insomnia. Our strategy was very much going the traditional model of getting a publisher on the project. They would cover the funding, the marketing, all those costs, and then we’d be good to go. As we sort of moved on we found the industry has changed a bit recently, publishers very much seem to come on towards the end of a project now and do that closing funding and just cover the marketing.
So we then began looking at the equity investment route, and we’re very lucky, our incubator, one of the guys who helped out their financial advisor, he happens to have a couple of investments on the side, and he really liked what we were doing. He’d been following us for just over a year, so he came on board in our first round and then opened up his contact book. We saw he brought on a couple more investors and managed to close two rounds during the Coronavirus.
We were very lucky. We were very fortunate. But leading up to that there were a lot of cold emails to publishers that ended up going nowhere. There were conversation that went a bit further with both publishers and investors that ended up going nowhere. And we always had the mindset we were going to get the money. It was just a case of where it came from and luckily it worked out.
Mike: So in terms of, just again, publishers tend to come to an agreement where they take a share of the profits of a specific game, and they’re often relatively large in terms of between 20 to 40%, which is quite a lot. But also it does mean that they end up having perhaps a grip on creative control that you wouldn’t want to have on creative control. The more control you give away, the less of your game it becomes. So by taking on equity there are potential restrictions on how those equity people can deal with you and so on and so forth. Are there any tips on how to present the finances to encourage investors?
Ashley: Yes. So that’s very much, again, something we had to learn on the fly. None of us come from a financial background. So I remember one of the very first iterations of our pitch deck, the finances in hindsight were an absolute mess. And we got very few replies to that one. Luckily one of the great things about the incubator down here is we have a network now of tech businesses. So we reached out to one of our friends who has a tech business called Codices. They’ve been doing their journey a bit longer than us, and it was very much can you please help us? We don’t know what we’re doing here.
And so I’d say one, have your budget very clearly defined, that should be quite easy to work out. We know when the game’s coming out, we know what a monthly burn rate is and just present that nice in a spreadsheet. And then forecasts we think we very much had to learn. And for us, that was just very much a case of looking at games with a similar market, very similar mechanics, similar sort of team size and all that data is available online for how well they sold, how many units, what sort of profit that was given and just present that nicely in a way that investors can understand, even if they’re not from the game’s world.
And can sort of just look at a spreadsheet and say, okay, got so many copies that explain itself and that’s what runway is going to give him off the launch.
Mike: So, in terms of the things you were mentioning there, things like budgets and cash flow it is definitely something that is very financially based, and walking into it is definitely something that it was probably quite a steep learning curve.
Mike: Because with budgets it’s very easy to be either too negative or too generous on yourself trying to get the right balance to show investors that you’re going to make a profit, but also that the budget is realistic is a really big skill.
Ashley: Yes. Absolutely.
Mike: Okay. So the big, massive issue in the games development industry is discoverability, and for people who don’t know what I mean by that, that is marketing. So being able to be discovered on a platform like Steam, like Nintendo, like the Google play store and so on and so forth. How have you tried to engage with potential customers and how hard has it been to generate interest?
Ashley: Yes. And as you said, the gaming market is a very saturated market and multiple titles come a day. So discoverability is really important. For us, the tactic has always been try as many different techniques as possible. So our biggest reach is on social media. We’ve found Instagram’s done really well for our product. It’s got quite a nice art style so it’s a very visual, medium, and trying every technique with that from paid ads to, we’re going to look into reaching out to influencers as we come closer to launch. It’s trying every variety of content. Everything from behind the scenes videos to very nice final renders to trying funny memes and viral images and seeing how well that does.
Mike: I saw it on your Twitter. So for anyone who’s listening to this, they probably know what Among Us is. So I see, you’ve tried to tap into that popularity. So Among Us is actually a good example of an indie game gone absolutely mental. Yes. That’s a studio of three people. And I think if you go anywhere near Facebook, you’ll see people playing it.
Ashley: Oh yes, absolutely.
Mike: It is that good. And during COVID games like that have become much more popular and that’s because they’re party games. So it’s a group of people who get a group of people together, have a bit of a laugh, have a yell at each other, and those have become too prevalent because that’s how people are keeping connected in a non-meeting face to face world.
Ashley: Yes. I’ve certainly found that during a lockdown with a bunch of my old university friends, we used to meet up quite regularly and obviously haven’t been able to, we’re all scattered across the country, but we’ve been playing, you know, we played Among Us the other day it is a very fun game.
Mike: Another big one is Fall Guys that’s just come out, that’s a bigger studio, but it’s the same sort of thing in terms of being discovered, they got some people on board, not necessarily what you would describe as a stereotypical gamer, but just average Joe on the street, just having a laugh, jumping around, getting smacked by whirling bits and pieces.
Ashley: Yes. I think it is a lot of fun.
Mike: And of course anyone who is playing Fall Guys knows that as soon as they get that first crown that’s them set for life.
Ashley: Oh yes.
Mike: That is basically the greatest achievement that you could ever have.
Ashley: That’s where your life will peak.
Mike: Okay. So in terms of the future, what is the future for you guys? Where’s the roadmap going? Any other tips you would give to new developers, existing developers now?
Ashley: Yes. So in terms of the future, I see, we’re still working towards the launch of Stuffed around the middle of next year. So a big part between now and then is going to be marketing, getting out doing hopefully some open betas. Where we can get people to jump on, play the game early and we can find out what they like, what they don’t like. What’s a great way to bug test the game for free. And then yes, beyond Stuffed we’d love to spoil post-launch seems to be a trend in the industry these days is the online games with multiple updates.
And as I said, we really want to explore while we sort of use that period to grow the studio, move on to wherever the next title is going to be. As well as taking the Stuffed IP and seeing what other revenue streams we can generate from that, whether that be merchandise, whether that be looking into other forms of media, such as webcomic, little animations.
Mike: And my next point is that once you have a successful game, it’s all about attempting to a lot of companies that will have a little life in that they’ll get a lot of money for a little bit as everyone who’s going to buy buys it. As I learned in developed Brighton, there’s a way of extending the life of a game and sometimes you’ll get things like expansions like Total War does. A Total War hammer is about 30,000 expansions at this point, or there’s merchandise keeping people excited to keep on getting people engaged in the game and then releasing customisation packs. Are you looking for any other revenue streams, for example, commercial or charity applications or anything like that?
Ashley: I think we’re mostly trying to keep it at least for the moment within the video game sector. I’ve talked in the team about doing charity events. But certainly, when the product is live, we could use the title to fundraise and support. We did a while back towards the start of COVID. We try to use our social platforms to help raise some funds in NHS because it is very important we think too, you know, give back. Games have been great during the last period where people have been locked at home and they want to escape on some entertainment and they’re trying to use that for good. as well as generating revenue is always a bonus.
Mike: I also want to pick up on the elephant in the room and that is the Coronavirus. So funny enough, as you said, you were very lucky in terms of getting funding during this period, as in the industry at the moment, and in most industries at the moment investment has gone down. But as I was saying earlier, engagement in games has gone up I think Yuki released statistics that said it was a 150% increase in the reach of computer games. I’d like to get your thoughts, perhaps what people think of computer gamers and give computer game developments that working from home should be pretty simple, and it should be a pretty easy thing.
However, games like Shadowlands, Fur, World of Warcraft, and other big AAA games have claimed that actually working from home has increased the time it’s taking to develop. So a lot of these big companies are now pushing back their releases.
Mike: And what issues have you guys found in terms of this? You’re all in an office now, in the great city of, it’s not a city, great town of Falmouth. Did things slow down for you when you’re on your own or did you find that everything was quicker? How have you found it in the last six months?
Ashley: Yes, so we are, I say fortunate. The four co-founders we all live together in a small little flat in Falmouth. So when locked down here, we very much just picks up all the PC equipment and moved it all to our kitchen table. And at first, it seemed great. We were much more productive and nothing else to do. So we were hammering away. And then as time went on, you kind of realise you need that separation. It is so much nicer now we’re back in the office and home life and work-life are different. But during the periods, just as it was started, we were bringing on another developer. So from day one, she was working remotely.
And during those six months, we also contracted out our audio work to two guys in LA so they all were working remotely. And I think because we started with them remotely, we have that pipeline from the beginning. It wasn’t a sudden shock, but now that we’re back in the office and people can start coming in, it does feel much more streamlined because when you’re getting feedback on work, so wherever a mechanics has just been put in or an art piece has been finished, you’re not sending it into Slack or via email and then waiting for feedback. You can just turn and look at each other’s screens. I think that’s really important.
Mike: So do you find obviously with a bunch of people who all live together, it was a bit easier. But in terms of feedback, I think you would just sit there as part of a group, it’s easier to do that in person. Although game development is a truly international thing. There is always something about working as a group, in a team, in an office together. I had conversations with Chris Phillip who runs offices in London and they get lots of game developers who then work together. And what he said is that it increases productivity for all of the gaming studios in the room, because if they needed textured grass and they haven’t got expertise in there could be another game developer from a different studio that is really good at that and they can just walk over the room. Whereas this point you have to contact someone more officially.
Mike: I would say.
Ashley: Over email and emails can be ignored.
Ashley: In person, it’s harder to ignore.
Mike: And I think if we’re talking about that sort of thing as well, I always find when I’m working and this is not in games development, I’m an accountant. If I can see other people around and I’m struggling with some work or I’m under pressure on another one, if I can look around and see everyone else is under pressure as well, it makes me feel that it’s not just me, it’s actually everyone else. You see it feels like you’re more part of a group environment. And even though a lot of what you do is digital, it’s still good to have people around to share the burden of your development.
Ashley: I much prefer working with everyone next to me. Just be able to turn around, brainstorm, and to get feedback on everything and we have a giant whiteboard set up.
Mike: And to take the p**s if necessary.
Ashley: Absolutely. Yeah. A workplace banter, you don’t get that when you’re working remotely. I think that’s very important in bringing the team together, if you can’t take the mic out of each other, you’re not going to see it through to the end.
Mike: So in terms of funding, were there any tax things that you used personally as a team, as there are some tax schemes available for you?
Ashley: Yeah. So again, this was like we learned as we went along, schemed with SEIS, which allows when you bring equity investors on, it gives them tax relief to make the investment less risky on their end. That was something we learned again from our incubator and the application it can be a bit weird for games teams sometimes because they’re not a massive fan of project funding or project-based companies. So when we were applying, it was very much about planning for the future rather than just talking about, hey, we’re making this awesome video game. It was okay. Well, these are our plans beyond that video game.
These are our revenue streams. This is how the studio is going to survive beyond launch. And luckily there was another game studio based in Falmouth called Moonshine who had gone through the application before and had been approved. So we were constantly back and forth with them to get them to check our application. But the application process is actually quite simple. There’s a lot you have to fill in, you have to set up business plans forecasts. I think there’s a form you fill out online, but once you’ve done those it’s really useful. And certainly, when we were talking to investors it was a point that blew up excitement in them. It made us a lot more of an investible opportunity.
Mike: I mean there is SEIS but there’s also EIS. So EIS is like the next level. So the investors who invest in your company at EIS level, you can invest up to 5 million in a company with the EIS, which is when you get bigger because it’s the sort of thing that you’d be looking at. SEIS is limited to 150,000, but these things are good at getting investors in because they gain tax credits from it which is quite significant. And based on the money you put in so 50% earn 30% it’s worth looking into these things because not only does it mean that it encourages investors, it doesn’t allow the investors to have any control in what you do, which is a big worry for you as a game studio as it is, because you don’t want people coming in who own more of the company than you to then try and push their idea onto your vision.
Mike: When you’re setting up a games company, there’s a lot from the startup that you have to consider, especially with funding, things like loans from the bank that can happen. But loans from the bank can only happen if you’re a video games tax relief because they can then base their loan with that as security. And then there are more stringent things that a bank loan might do like forcing you to do an audit, which would be horrible if you’re being audited. That’s a lot of pressure on a group of four people, whereas if you’re a larger company, maybe if someone’s offering finance but you need to have an audit that shouldn’t be too bad. The best sort of funding is self-funding, but you can also fund things like early access.
Ashley: Yeah. Early access is a thing we explored early on before we had done these investment rounds this year. It was something we were exploring, you know, which allows you to bring in revenue before the game is finished. Now, we’ve got the development funding covered it’s something we decided against in the end, especially we’ve got quite a multiplayer-focused on our game. And there’s always that fear that if you release it early and the community’s not there and the servers are dead on day one, no one’s joining the multi-player lobby’s you’ll get hit by reviews straight away.
And all the reviews will read the same thing saying, no, one’s playing the game and you’re dead in the water from the start. So we decided against it because it gave us more time to build up our community. So that on launched we know there are going to be players there ready.
Mike: It’s also potentially if something’s really, really buggy on early access that you are giving yourself negative reviews when people are reviewing an unfinished game and that is, these people might pay full price when it’s finished, but right now they’re not paying full price for an unfinished game and they will still own the game when it’s finished. So it’s kind of, give and take. You’re not giving up control, but you’re not going to earn as much because you’re selling your game at a low price when it’s not finished.
And perhaps it’s probably quite demoralising if you released a game that wasn’t at the standard, you would want it to be, and then people keep on telling you it’s not the standard you want it to be. Then it is a demoralising thing, which may mean as you say, you’re dead in the water before you start.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly, that’s why we decided to go down the route of looking at doing open betas up until launch. We still allow players to play the game before it’s out to get a taste for it. But I think just in general people are a lot more accepting if you play a free weekend beta and there’s a couple of bugs, you expect it. Whereas there’s almost an expectation that an early access game should be bug-free and it never is
Mike: So one thing we haven’t done yet, how’d you get your pricing right?
Ashley: I think a lot of working out what our price was going to be was looking at what’s already on the market and seeing for a game with this much content in it how much are people willing to pay. And with our game, we have a lot of family-friendly focus on it. We want kids to be able to play it and to enjoy it. So it was very much what we don’t want them to be spending too much money. We know how much they’ve got to spend. And so, yeah thinking about your consumers, thinking about competitors.
And if you look at AAA games at the moment, I believe the next-gen console is price points of about 70 pounds per title, which a lot of people aren’t going to be able to afford. Whereas with indie games you can do it at a lot lower price and people will have a whole library full of indie games.
Mike: So on that, I suppose we haven’t actually talked about Stuffed yet. Just tell us about Stuffed and what it’s all about.
Ashley: Yeah. So Stuffed is a game where you play as a Teddy bear, defending a little girl on the Ecuador reef from her nightmares. So the idea we really wanted to explore the title was taking the games we enjoy as adult gamers, the mature first-person shooters like Call of Duty, Killing Floor, and presenting that in a way that wasn’t over glorifying violence but had a much more family-friendly aesthetic.
So a lot of people have coined the term Call of Duty meets Toy Story to explain the game. So we have a lot of fun with it. So it does use some shooting mechanics, but you’re not using guns. You’re kind of taking the Home Alone approach where everything is built out of household objects. So we have one gun where it is a skateboard deck, we have a Pringles tube on it and a little dolls hand shoots golf balls down. We have a Cola Canon handle. So a curly can handle. It’s a lot of fun.
Every time you play the map is randomly generated. The main thinking behind that is we are a small team at the time we were only four developers. On one hand, it’s a great way for us to create as much content as possible. But on the other hand for the consumer it means they can have a different experience every time they open up the title and increase the replay factor of the title and there’s also some progression within each session. So the longer you play the higher you get the more powerful your character is going to become, the more abilities, you learn a lot.
Mike: I mean, that was part of what we’re talking about in some ways it’s a good marketing strategy because you are in a position where nothing’s the same. Whereas I think the untitled goose game, I think there are four sections. I completed it in, I think, an hour, which is probably long, because there’s not much to it, and that’s an award-winning game. But ultimately that isn’t going to generate the same sorts of re-playability as something that changes every time. The idea that the first time you play it that would be different.
Then you go in again and you do it differently and you get that bit further on. And presumably the waves of evil gnomes, they will get harder and harder as you go along. But then you get stuck again and then you play again and it’s totally different. And it just means you play more and more and more, and it increases the life of the game. It keeps it in the spotlight. It’s not just everyone’s playing it for an hour and then putting it down.
Ashley: Yeah. Absolutely, we really wanted to give the players some sort of a wow moments where, you know, saying that’s never happened in a play session before suddenly happens or you get the dream combination of the map is exactly how you want it. The weapons you find in the order are the exact way you wanted it. And you suddenly have this play session where it’s absolutely fantastic and you’re reaching a really high score.
Mike: It’s a play style that you would use in one way and then if you did it a second time, you’re not picking up the same abilities, the same weapons. So you have to play differently and it’s a different experience each time.
Ashley: Yeah. It’s more about adapting to the circumstances and learning a game off by heart and being able to, you know, speed, run it in X amount of time.
Ashley: This is our first title as a studio. So a lot of the development has been bootstrapped from an MVP stage up until where we are now, building up the launch. We’re building off a lot of the old systems. I mean the place in the beginning. And there’s a lot we’ve learned from doing that. There’s a lot of things where we’re looking back and if we start the project again and we’ve delayed certain frameworks in place earlier on, so going forward is us saying, we know what to do for the next title. Also, we’ve been growing the team constantly as the development is going on. So we have a bigger team to start from the next stage and hopefully, we’ll have a chance to grow it as we begin the next title as well.
And a big part of that team growing has been learning some project management in how we delegate tasks because when it was just the four of us, we had one animator, one character artist, one environment artist, and one programmer. So it was very easy to look and go, okay, that’s your role, that’s your role, that’s your role, and if everyone does their role everything gets done in time. If you sort of bring on more programmers, more artists and there’s that overlap in skills, it’s getting more sophisticated planning in place and making sure if something relicensed another task being done that it’s done in the right order.
Mike: Thanks for your time, Ash.
Ashley: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Mike: And we hope that the launch of the beta, later on, goes well. And where can we find you? Where can we follow you?
Ashley: You can find us across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I believe we have links to that. And also if you want to follow the title, we’ll see any open betas or launch wishlist us on Steam. I believe there’ll be a link for that as well. And you can find more information about the game, videos, pictures, and screenshots, all of that on all of those.
Mike: Thank you for listening. If you want more information about the business of game development feel free to send us an email and ask any questions you want based on all the things we’ve talked about today and all the tax issues and all that sort of thing. Send us an email, give us a call and we’ll get back to you. Thanks a lot for listening.
Waving Bear’s first game title on Steam: