March 19, 2012 8:00 AM | John Polson
[Written by Mike Rose on Gamasutra]
Philadelphia-based developer Cipher Prime is an indie games studio with a clear-cut vision. The team has a set focus on games that explore the link between music and interactivity, with a wealthy back catalog of successful experiments in the field.
But the fun that the studio has had developing its games, Auditorium, Fractal and Pulse hasn't always been easy-going, as development has been very touch-and-go over the years, co-founder and creative director Will Stallwood tells Gamasutra.
"The first year was extremely rough and scary," he admits. "We started out in my apartment and moved into a very tiny office a few months in."
"A great deal of our success was based on constant freelance work as well as donations. The donations were hefty, but they certainly didn't pay for much. In fact, the donations only covered a small portion of development."
In the beginning, the team was forced to work a grueling 15 hours a day, 7 days a week -- 9 hours a day spent on freelance projects, and an extra 6 hours on its first game Auditorium. This went on for 8 months straight, and was "an uphill battle," says Stallwood.
Stallwood's advice to indie developers starting up as full-time is that you should have around $20,000 stored away -- but even that probably won't be enough to keep you going unless you take on freelance work too, as Cipher Prime did.
"Your best bet is to take on part-time work at something you're proficient at while you work on your game," he explains. "That first game can easily be the hardest. There are many ways to do it, but you're going to need an alternative income in the long run."
Gamasutra asks Stallwood if he thinks being indie is expensive, to which he replies, "Is running a business expensive? Definitely. Taxes, payroll, rent, hardware, software licenses, etc. It adds up."
He continues, "Is being indie expensive? This is a loaded question. We've received criticisms from people who wonder why we have an office and spend money on Unity Pro and Adobe software when we could be meeting over Skype, having periodic group meetups in cafes, and going fully open source with all our development tools. If that's all an indie developer requires, then no, it's not extremely expensive."
As an example, Stallwood turns back to the company's first game Auditorium, and how he and his team managed to survive.
"We built Auditorium out of our old 180 sq. ft. interactive media design 'office.' The game was essentially funded through PayPal donations. Auditorium got a lot of acclaim and we accepted publishing deals to port Auditorium to platforms that we wouldn't have been able to reach out to otherwise."
From this success, the studio was then able to explore self-publishing for its next game Fractal.
"For Fractal, we sold ourselves and also had a publishing deal for the iPad version (the deal is now concluded and we're handling Fractal sales ourselves)."
Finally, with Cipher Prime's latest game to date, Pulse, the company self-published, and the game has been Cipher Prime's best-selling title up to now.
"Are we an indie studio? It probably depends on who you ask," Stallwood quips. "At the end of the day, we're not hobbyists anymore, this is our full-time job."
For the next game, Cipher Prime is exploring the possibilities of funding video games even further, with a Kickstarter in place for Auditorium sequel Duet. It is looking for $60,000 to fund the game, and Stallwood believes the company will also have around $35-45,000 to play with on top of that from sales of past games during the development period.
The Kickstarter description suggests that it will take the studio a minimum of six months to develop the game, although Stallwood says that this is "actually a fairly pessimistic estimate."
"We chose Kickstarter mainly because we think it was a much better fit, accountability-wise, for us," he explains. "Auditorium Duet is intended to be much more ambitious than our previous and current projects. The biggest issue is what we're envisioning for multiplayer, which is an aspect of game development we haven't delved too deeply into before, as well as how we're planning to integrate music into the game."
He acknowledges that the $100,000 the team is planning to throw at the project is "a lot of money for development for a studio of our size," but believes that "it's an honest estimate of what we believe we need to keep the studio open while we work on making the game as great as we want it to be."
He adds, "With Kickstarter, we either get the $60,000 or we don't. If we used Indiegogo and raised half of what we needed, we'd have a great deal less than we need to make the game but we'd still be expected to make it. We'd just end up making a less polished game, and that's not what we want at all."
"We'd rather take the cushion money described above to work on smaller, safer games and shelve our Duet dream for another day," he says.