Exclusive Interview: The GameDev Business Handbook Writer Michael Futter
It never fails: you mention that you work in video games, and people think it must be the most fun job in the world. But making games isn’t easy, and running a game development studio is even tougher. That said, if you’re serious about making games, and starting your own company to do it, there are resources you can consult. Written by Michael Futter, who was the news editor at GameInformer.com (and is thus, full disclosure, someone I’ve hung out with at video game events), The GameDev Business Handbook Writer (hardcover, digital) is a helpful and detailed looked at how to open and run an indie game studio. Though in trading emails with him about this book — which will be out in October — he admitted that he didn’t just rely on what he learned while writing news stories about when the new Halo would be released.
Obviously, The GameDev Business Handbook is a how-to book for someone who wants to run an indie game studio. But how detailed does the book get? Like, does it get into the nitty gritty of running a studio on a day-to-day basis, or does it take a more macro approach?
The GameDev Business Handbook was conceived and written as a foundational text. The book is designed for students and startups. We want readers to feel confident taking part in conversations about finance, intellectual property, employment, studio management, etc. When people finish reading the book, we want them to know how to ask questions about their unique situations, because we’ve given them the tools and knowledge that serves as a foundation.
Why did you decide to go this way with it?
We’ve had a number of conversations with students and developers starting out about concepts featured in The GameDev Business Handbook. And one thing we learned early on is that people want us to start at the beginning. That’s exactly what this book is: a beginning to understanding just what it takes to build and sustain a video game studio.
In putting this together, you spoke with a number of different developers, including Nina Kristensen from Ninja Theory’s [Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Heavenly Sword] and Klei Entertainment’s Jamie Cheng [Don’t Starve, Mark Of The Ninja]. How did you decide who you’d talk to, and who you wouldn’t?
We took a very positive approach to interviewing, rather than an exclusionary one. We identified people who were doing great work and who have faced challenges, too. The book features a number of success stories, sure. And it also features moments of raw honesty and introspection. For instance, Nina spoke about the personal financial risk she and the other Ninja Theory founders took when starting up. Jordan Weisman from Harebrained Schemes spoke to me frankly about challenges he has faced throughout his career.
What was the biggest thing they added to The GameDev Business Handbook?
We think it’s important that we’re presenting perspectives, anecdotes, and case studies from people who are currently facing the challenges that up-and-coming developers will face. We also spoke with publishers, who shared their philosophies and expectations for working with developers. PR and media experts shared tips that will help developers work more effectively with the press. We spent time researching every individual and studio before our interviews to find the right topics for each discussion.
For instance, Ron Gilbert posted extensively about budgeting for Thimbleweed Park. We wanted to get his perspectives, since budgeting is whispered about as if it were Voldemort.
It was also important for us to chat with Nathan Vella about Capybara’s history in work-for-hire, because that type of development and business structure is so wildly different than games based on original intellectual property.
You spoke to more than two dozen developers. Did they ever contradict each other?
We were excited when developers contradicted each other. It drives the point home that there is no magic bullet. Within an evolving industry like video games, there is enormous diversity of management and operational styles. There are a lot of wrong ways to do things, and there are many right ways. Contradiction from developers allows readers to find one of the many right ways to approach their work. In these instances, the text is about giving readers the tools to have important discussions and reach conclusions that fit their goals and personal style.
Along with the developers, you also talked to some attorneys who’ve worked in the video game realm. Why was it important to include them in this process?
Our attorney contributors protect developers every day, which includes making sure they don’t make potentially catastrophic mistakes. Their guidance helped us focus our sections that discuss legal issues. While we’re careful to caution that our book isn’t a substitute for legal counsel, ensuring that our content was timely, relevant, and correct was vital.
Instructional books such as this are often dry and straight-forward. But this is video games we’re talking about. And it’s you were talking about. So, did you strike a humorous tone at all in The GameDev Business Handbook?
We kept the tone light, for sure. The first few chapters are heavier on financial concepts, because we needed to approach it that way. We can’t talk about crowdfunding until we dive into budgeting. You can’t build out a discussion about working with publishing partners until you understand how your own business is structured. As we get deeper into the book, we integrate more anecdotes and interviews. We reference those foundational concepts, but show how they integrate with all of the ways you’ll approach business decisions. Finding the balance was a constant check-and-recheck process to ensure we weren’t being too dense or too flippant.
Speaking of humor, the book does have some fun illustrations, and a fun cover. It kind of looks like you did them in Minecraft. Who did these illustrations and why did you hire them for this? Besides the fact that they’re your daughter and it would’ve made dinner awkward if you hadn’t, of course.
Mike Bithell [whose game company, Bithell Games, is publishing The GameDev Business Handbook] had the idea to create all the art using 3D assets. Our assets were licensed from Synty Studios, and the images featured in the book were created by Gareth Davies, who worked with Mike on Subsurface Circular. They were designed to help keep the tone light, and I hope people love Gareth’s work as much as we do.
Another thing I thought was funny was that on the website you’ve set up to promote the book you say, “This isn’t a ‘get rich’ book that’s going to tell you how to find ‘fame and fortune.’ (Sorry.)” Why did you feel the need to include this?
From the first meeting we had about The GameDev Business Handbook, above all else, we agreed that this couldn’t be written or positioned as something that is going to make people money overnight. Instead, we approached this with the ethos of a text book. We are imparting information that we hope people will use as reference as they start their careers and for years to come.
Prior to writing this book, you worked as a game journalist, and wrote the news section for Game Informer‘s website. Is it safe to assume there’s a section in The GameDev Business Handbook about dealing with us weasely journalists?
There is a chapter about respectfully dealing with the press, Paul!
The public relations chapter was a challenge to write, because I’ve been so close to those interactions. I had to be very careful as I was writing it, making sure that I brought in another journalist, Polygon managing editor Chelsea Stark, to comment. Alexander Sliwinski, who was my opposite number in news coverage at Joystiq prior to joining Bithell Games, also helped shape that chapter. I also took the advice of both of my editors, Susan Arendt and JC Fletcher, who have worked extensively in game journalism. There’s a lot of me in that chapter, but it brings together guidance from a number of seasoned journalism veterans.
Did you include anything in that section that you only thought to include because you had been a weasely journalist yourself?
I’m more of a bear.
Seriously, though, I’ll let readers suss out what those things might be.
When you spoke to your fellow journalists for this book, did any of them suggest anything that surprised you?
I’m going to disappoint here. Nothing I discussed with other journalists while writing the book shocked or surprised me.
Now, The GameDev Business Handbook is about indie game studios. But will the information inside also work for a non-indie studio? Or is there something in the book about making that transition, and why you should or should not do it?
“Independent” in the context of game companies means different things to different people. For instance, Activision purchased its independence from Vivendi a few years back. However, Activision is still a public company and, therefore, wouldn’t be considered “independent” the way those of us in the video game world think of it. We don’t cover the process of going public or being acquired by a publisher. We’re seeing less of that happening these days, as more studios, like those represented in The GameDev Business Handbook, are staying independent.
It doesn’t sound like it, but do you think there’s any reason someone who’s just a fan of games, and isn’t looking to get into development, would want to read The GameDev Business Handbook?
There are lots of reasons. With the barrier between developers and players nearly imperceptible due to social media access, core consumers have taken a greater interest in the process and practice of making games and engage creators about those decisions. The book demystifies how the industry works and discusses some of the legal considerations that go into protecting intellectual property. For instance, why fan games get shut down. I think fans would come away understanding more about a topic about which they are so passionate.
Finally, if someone looking to open their own indie game studio reads The GameDev Business Handbook, and helpful, what other book about video game development would you suggest they read next and why that one?
As we were researching what texts were available and current, we were extremely impressed by the Business & Legal Primer For Game Development by Greg Boyd and Brian Green. If you want a deeper dive into the legal issues around games after you’ve read The GameDev Business Handbook, that’s a great resource.