It is common knowledge that you shouldn’t start a gamedev career with a big dream project, yet this is the most common reason why game projects fail. We thought we were special. And if you think that as well, maybe sharing our experience will help you make some better decisions.
We started a bit more than 2 years ago with an idea of “what if there would be two teams in a symmetrical arena with opposite gravity”. It was a student project planned to be done during an event that lasted an academic year. There was no actual intention to make money or release something. Still we thought that releasing a really simple FPS game should be doable in like 6 months.
Pretty soon after testing the opposite gravity idea in a small multiplayer FPS game prototype, it became clear that the idea sucks. At least as an action FPS. So we scrapped the gravity part and kept what was good about it – FPS. Then the feature creep kicked in and we ended up doing an FPS MOBA.
I founded a company to make it official. Spent all my savings on the project. Quit school. It was going really well: we found some additional great people from all around the world and our combined skillset finally seemed to cover all we need to finish the game.
We approached investors with our pitch for the first time. Asked for 50k in exchange for 1% of the company to keep us alive for the next 9 months – seemed like an offer that can’t be refused at that point. Well, luckily it was refused, since we could not have grown at all with so little funding.
We kept working on the game and got approached by an investor ourselves, soon after. This time we had a much more prepared pitch, proposed a much more reasonable valuation and even though asking for the same amount, got much more.
Team kept growing, in both quantity and quality. Yea, we burned with some bad hires, but overall it turned out well. Game was getting better. Backend infrastructure for conveniently testing and iterating on gameplay was finished. Pipeline for deploying the game within 1 hour to both servers and for players to download through their launchers by merely doing git push. Stuff that makes you proud as an engineer and is really essential for effectively developing a multiplayer game.
Finally the vertical slice of the game was ready to see daylight. Plan was not to start rapidly growing an audience, but to have a big enough pool of deeply interested players to get feedback from every few weeks. The first few playtests with a bigger audience were really helpful, but funds were drying out and I started focusing on our next pitch for upcoming funding round.
Now the reality kicked in
Seems like everything is going really well in this story, right? Before taking a step away from development and started deeply thinking about our situation in the context of funding round through the eyes of an investor, it really felt like we were doing really well.
But we were not a single step closer to proving that there is an actual audience for the game – you just can’t evaluate a game properly until it is almost ready. Something we did not think of before.
When at first our guesstimation on how much money we need to develop the game to a beta/early access state, was couple hundred k, then now it is more like few million, and there is no reason to believe the estimation will not increase even more. Sure, we are a small and highly effective team, but the work just never ends. Also, productivity output will not scale linearly with team size.
So let’s say we need 5 million to get the game to a state where we could start earning revenue. Let’s say someone is willing to give that to us for 30% of the company. That means we would need to make 17 million profit for investor to break even. Taxes, publishers fees etc will take roughly half of our revenue, so we need at least 33 million in revenue. On average, to just break even. But investors don’t want to break even or beat inflation with startup investments. 10x return is expected in such high risk ventures. And fast, not in 15 years. How realistic is making 330 million dollar game? With a team that is doing their first game? Hiring big enough team from Estonia, while maintaining the quality? Million other things that can go wrong…
Getting that kind of money when presenting just a mere chance instead of great opportunity seems just so unrealistic that we did not even pitch to anyone.
Finding tiny seed investments can be really easy, but don’t let yourself be fooled that finishing the project with VC funding is something easily accomplishable unless you do something really innovative that will change the world.
Game is not over
We are far from giving up, though. During these 2 years, we have built a strong team that can work effectively in harmony. We do have skillsets to build even the most complex types of games. We have a multiplayer backend ready to be plugged into any type of match based game, if we decide to work on something big again, but not yet. Most importantly, we have built a company with strong cultural values.
We will start again, where we should have – as small as we can think of and appropriate for a team of our size. Not sure what yet. We are open for offers.
Focusing on building a company instead of one big hit game does seem to be the right way to start. Less nerve-racking at least. Just don’t expect starting big will get you to the top faster.