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What Small Game Studios Can Learn From Big Gaming Studios

Steve P. Young

Written by Steve P. Young on November 18, 2020, LinkedIn

4 minute read

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    Joakim Achren, Founder and CEO at Elite Game Developers, has been a games entrepreneur for the last 15 years and previously founded Next Games, Ironstar Helsinki, and was an early employee at Supercell.

    He now runs Elite Game Developers as a resource to teach founders proven strategies to build healthy and profitable games companies.

    In this interview, you will discover:

    • Things Joakim would do differently if he started today versus in 2013
    • How to decide whether to work with a publisher or self-publish
    • Common mistakes indie gaming companies make
    • Licensing as a growth strategy
    • The biggest factor for retention in games
    • Mistakes game developers make when it comes to monetization
    • Lessons learned from going IPO.

    What would you do different?

    What would you do differently if you were starting a game company today?

    I was a coder when I started my first games company back in 2005. I had the itch to run a startup and it was very challenging because people do not have access to the information that we have nowadays.

    Today, we have ten times more gaming companies than we had 15 years ago. This means you have a lot more people to ask questions and to ask help from. 

    One thing that I would do differently is to go and find people to learn from. Back in the day, we had Remedy Entertainment in Finland which created cool games like Max Payne and Alan Wake. I would reach out to the CEO and ask if he can help me out a bit so I would know what to do.

    One of the reasons why I push my content out to people is because it’s a way for me to scale the help I provide to developers. Writing a blog, for example, reaches thousands of people around the world versus taking calls everyday. 

    Do you suggest seeking a publisher or publishing on your own?

    This depends on how experienced you are.

    If you are in the beginning stages of your career and do not have much traction yet, you can work with publishers and as they can accelerate your learning. You can study how they test different ideas, how they market, etc. 

    When choosing a publisher, look for those who are also best in giving feedback and aim to to help you grow.

    Some publishers are great at numbers but don’t really give help on the creative side.

    Apart from this, go listen to podcasts, check out resources, talk to people and join communities -- these will be the building blocks towards learning more about the industry and  can get you ready to do the publishing yourself. 

    Common Mistakes

    What are the common mistakes you see indie game developers make compared to the ones who are funded or are from the bigger game studios?

    Find your audience versus making games for yourself. Begin creating your game by thinking about somebody else enjoying it rather than just yourself. 

    Your goal should be to entertain an audience -- this should be the biggest takeaways for indies. 

    Licensing

    Is licensing a growth strategy and would you still do it today? 

    Our CEO was creating relationships with studios and producers in Hollywood and we saw a huge opportunity to go after big IPs who wanted to get into gaming. Therefore, we started pitching to studios and investors such as AMC for The Walking Dead.

    Even if The Walking Dead isn’t as huge as it was before, the fan base will never really go away so there’s always content coming in on that IP. 

    If you structure deals where it makes sense for all parties involved, there is profit to be made so this is a good opportunity that you wouldn’t want to pass on. 

    Retention

    What is the biggest factor for retention? 

    Speaking from my own 15-year experience, I would definitely say it’s the core gameplay. 

    Whether you are going for something that’s casual or not, your core gameplay should be unique. This would make it worth testing, then you can just build on top of that. 

    What mistakes do you see game developers make when it comes to monetization?

    Let’s talk about game ads. Back in the day, ads were thought to bring the quality of the game down but now, very few games come without ads. 

    The whole thing about ads being bad is no longer in effect. 

    It’s a big spectrum -- you are going to have thousands of players, not all of them will be spending money so a lot of them would love a rewarded video ad. 

    Having ads also creates pacing, which is important in mobile games. Reacting quickly inside a game causes fatigue so ads can give your players the mental break they need. Ads provide a breathing room for when they might just need to put their phone down, or break out a session naturally and give your levels the right cadence so they don’t get burned out. 

    Also, some people say it's hard to do in-app purchases in casual games but it’s actually all about how you approach your offering. A lot of studios have managed to keep players playing for weeks, months, years, so that players feel that they have now invested so much time that they are happy to put money down to get some cool, new things inside of the game. Getting them those new experiences should be what you should be thinking about.

    IPO

    What were the lessons you learned from going IPO? 

    Going IPO changes how you operate -- you were a private company before, and you’re a public one now. It’s like starting another company, in a sense. It removes privacy as you now need to talk about what you are doing and there is more sensitivity with everything. 

    It’s not all about having a great time doing a lot of game projects because even though you have the cash, remember that the public market will want returns. You need to have an understanding of the hit-driven nature of gaming.

    A new life starts after going IPO so you need to really think about what you want to achieve by doing so. Think about why you want to go public?