For this interview I sit down with Sjoerd ‘Hourences’ de Jong. He’s an Unreal Engine Expert who started out building custom maps for Unreal Tournament. Fast forward nearly two decades later and Sjoerd has worked on more than ten games, released three games with his own development studio, won over a dozen prizes and written two books. He also coordinates the game development education over at Futuregames and he’s the evangelist for the Unreal Engine in Europe for Epic Games. He visits hundreds of studios and conferences a year, so he has a very wide view on the game industry. Sjoerd is like an unstoppable machine so trust me when I say, I feel honored to talk to him about living the Indie life.
Hello Sjoerd, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with me. Looking at what you’ve done and what you are still doing, I can’t help but wonder, how do you manage your time? Do you even get the chance to see your friends and family?
I work very long days and have done so since pretty much the very moment I started. Over the past 5 years I am probably at about 70 hours a week average or so. I rarely take weekend days. I have to say though that creating The Solus Project has been particularly taxing, so I am likely going to scale down some from here on out. On The Solus Project I was responsible for large parts of all development and business, alongside my responsibilities for Epic Games, and the education program at Futuregames in Stockholm. That was basically running 5+ jobs at the same time, for years on end.
I am able to schedule everything I do really tightly because I am in full control of my own schedule. I know exactly what is happening, when, and why which helps a lot. This would be far harder to accomplish within a larger team or company since you’d automatically get dependencies and communication to take care of. In a strange kind of way doing a lot myself saves me time in some regards. Also because I have been doing every aspect of my work for many years now, I have a lot of routines and prior experience to fall back on, and that has allowed me to get a lot more done in a small amount of time over the years.
When I started out making levels I remembered that I found it difficult to work focused for 6 hours or more a day, since it is mentally taxing work, but as the years passed I can now easily push it up to 12 hours a day for years on end creating levels and still not really feel any drop in attention or mental fatigue. I do get more impatient over the years though. I want faster results, and skip the boring parts of making levels. In the past I have hired people just to deal with placing all the models for example so I can deal with the more fun start and end parts of creating levels for example.
Talking about time management, we all know the horror stories of crunch time during game development. How do you decide what needs to be done first to finish a game? How do you schedule finishing everything, like art, sound, AI, gameplay, etc, on time? Or does independent mean you can do things on your pace?
Technically you could do it on your own pace, but in reality no matter how much money or time you have, you also need to consider the level of motivation of yourself and your team. That is a resource too. People lose their energy and interest slowly over time. Some lose it faster than others, but everyone, me included, will lose it. So as an indie I primarily fight my dwindling energy levels. The exhaustion too. Making a game like this adds considerable weight on your shoulders over a long period of time. It increases the pressure on a relationship or marriage too. And so on.
Once you announced the game, you also need to take marketing into account. You have a marketing campaign planned out. If the game takes longer then your marketing campaign will likely go down the drain and that is a big issue. So being indie definitely doesn’t mean you can take your time as you see fit.I always try to objectively look at everything that needs to be done, and to identify what I should do first I look for 3 things. How time consuming and difficult is it? How big is the impact? How urgent is it?
What I find particularly interesting is how a lot of developers often focus primarily on task and bug priority. Provided something is not game breaking, I reason that if I were to add or fix 1 particular important feature or bug, and invest 6 hours into doing so, I would have paid 6 hours to improve for example 1 minute of gameplay in 1 specific spot in the game. But if I were to fix 100 minor issues in those same 6 hours, then there would be a significant chance of all that having a greater impact on the perceived overall quality of the game than that 1 single bigger 6 hour feature or bug fix. All that aside, I do a lot on a “go with the flow” kind of basis, and it tends to simply work out. I’ve made so many levels over the years I know pretty much exactly how long something takes, and it all just goes by itself to be honest.
You are responsible for your own quality control. People who work on projects for a long time can lose focus on the bigger picture. How do you decide when something is good enough?
First of all we bring in external testers every now and then. Before Early Access we had test sessions with game dev students, and then of course during Early Access you get a lot of feedback from the community too. Bringing someone to your office and sitting next to them watching them play is vital I think. We’ve learned so much from doing that in all of our games. We have them play the entire game start to end, and analyze how they think. That is crucial. If you rely on your testers to tell you what they think you’d get a just a fraction of the feedback you need. When we made The Ball we brought in a tester at some point, and I sat next to him watching him play. After an hour he stopped and described me 5 problems he experienced so far, but during that same hour I had noticed and written down over 300 problems.
I tend to be very demanding on myself too, and very precise. I regard “public beta” the moment that I can play a game or level and not find almost a single problem. If you have trouble keeping an eye out on the bigger picture I suggest you print out a bunch of papers using some massive font, with the key points of your game. For example “Exploration - Mystery - Adventure - Aliens”. And every time you think or encounter anything look up to above your desk and read what you wrote. Is it compatible with your core values? Does it add to or strengthen them? If not, forget whatever you were thinking, or find a way of making it strengthen the very heart and soul of your game.
Your team is spread out across Europe. How do you organize the project without having everyone in the same location?
Key is to keep the team small, and to keep the hierarchy flat. Preferably keep everyone in the same time zone too. The bigger the team, the more need for hierarchy and communication you have, and those are exactly two of the things that are more difficult to do when you are a distributed team. Proper meetings are hard to do online, and people misinterpret each other much more easily if they are not meeting face to face. You don’t want to have 10 leads and producers all trying to push the project in a certain direction, or trying to understand what the rest of the team needs or can/can’t do.
Another problem is that without being able to overhear each other in an office, have a face to face meeting, or go out for lunch together, it is very easy for information to go around between only a few people in the team. For that reason we stay very small, and very flat. Basically everyone reports to me and I then redistribute info to the others in the team. At most you should have 1 to a maximum of 4 people who developers report to and who form the decision making core of your team. Anything more than that and you should completely change your team organization, and become very strict and rigid in how people communicate, at what times, and so forth.
Because we are so small and have all decisions go through me, we don’t do much formal planning. We use Slack, and a Perforce server, and some emails. That is it. I basically just remember every bit of information, all estimations, etc at any given time, and schedule it all accordingly in my brain. It wouldn’t work for a bigger team, but for us it saves time instead of writing it all down. With a massive game, just a few people and 3 years of development, we only overshot our initial release date by 3 months so that is pretty good I’d say.
How would you define being an Indie? Is it working without a big publisher or perhaps working with a small team?
I think being indie is much more about a mindset than it is about things such as budget or team size. To create your own original games, out of pure passion and love for the medium, with no or few compromises towards external parties, and even if it comes with a degree of hardship involved due to lack of manpower, money, or marketing to name a few. Basically an indie for me is someone who makes games out of passion. If you’d start a new game by researching which features and themes sell the most to which demographics, and what your projected sales would be like if you’d add in X or Y, I think that is the point you stop being indie. Obviously you need to make money, and paying a bit more attention to the business side of things wouldn’t hurt many indies (usually a weak point for them), but getting rich should not be the driving motivation why you make games as an indie developer.
Without a publisher, do you still have milestones or vertical slices to deliver?
If you want you could yes. It usually is a great idea to set clear and short-term goals for yourself, so I’d do it anyway with or without publisher. You do need to be more disciplined though without publisher. There is no one checking up on you or forcing you to stick to your own deadlines, so you will need to be strict for yourself. If you tell yourself or your own team that next week content X must be done, it must really be finished then. Otherwise you will lose the faith and trust of your team.
How do you select your employees? Also, how do they get paid? Do you pay them a monthly salary or are they getting paid in royalties once the game is out? Plus, is it more difficult to attract people when you are a small studio?
We’ve done a bit of everything during the production of our games. We’ve asked some friends to do a few things left and right for free. We’ve had some employees as well who we paid steadily every month. We’ve had freelancers who got paid per object. We’ve taken in interns. And so forth. As a small developer you basically do whatever helps you along, so any and all approaches are viable as long as all involved parties feel ok with it.
Usually the most important people in the team we set up with royalties. Those are the people who form the heart of the team so you want them to be as involved and as invested as possible. At the same time royalties are a challenging thing to work with. There is only 100%, and you won’t ever get more than that. What I mean is that if you pay people based on the time they put in, and it turns out that you need more time to finish the game then you can always find money somewhere, somehow probably to cover for that. But once you distributed your 100 available percentage points, you have absolutely nothing left to work with anymore to recruit additional help and you will get stuck. I see a lot of indie teams primarily resort to royalties but unless your team and product is small, or nearly finished, that is simply not sustainable.
We don’t tend to have difficulties attracting people, we have existing games out there, and people know me. If you are a new team and you have difficulties attracting people I would analyze the way the majorities of indie and hobbyist teams try to recruit people, and then avoid the mistakes they make. Show people you are serious and deeply invested in it yourself. Have a fully working vertical slice ready, or a superb and realistic pitch concept, preferably backed up by some form of track record.
I’d say the by far hardest part of being an indie is not attracting people, it is retaining them. Even if you pay them a proper salary and give them a long term contract eventually they will feel the lure of a bigger company, and before you know it they’re off to some AAA company. That happened to us multiple times over during the development of our games. You simply cannot match the salaries of large studios, or the “coolness” factor, or for that matter the perceived stability a larger company offers.
How do you budget your development? Is using an existing engine always cheaper than building your own? Do you think that this new trend of “marketplaces” for game engines with pre-made assets and code allows developers to cut corners?
Making games is a risky business. It is kind of like predicting which pop song is going to be the next number 1. Everyone tries, but no one has as of yet really found any real pattern to it. You can try to play the system and the market if you have sufficient means, and improve your chances, but ultimately there is a significant luck factor involved. That makes budgeting hard. As an indie with no real marketing budget and without a large existing portfolio of games or a community, it is hard to come up with minimum revenue numbers you can base production on, so we tend to stay as absolute low cost as possible. We do not pay ourselves during production, only the external people, and we do not have an office.
If you should make your own engine or use an existing one depends entirely on the game you want to build. There is a difference between a game 2D game on mobile and a high end 3D PC game. I think that unless you are a very large company with very deep pockets, like EA or Ubisoft, trying to build your own engine for any kind of 3D game is madness in the year 2016. The engines out there are so good nowadays, so powerful, and have required such a massive investment from the companies who built them, that there is no way you can ever compete and catch up with those. Don’t spend your time trying to build the engine, spend it on making your game better.
Marketplaces are great. Development is risky enough already, so anything we can do to cut costs and risks, and speed up development is much appreciated. The flipside to that is that they do enable a lot more games to be made though, which in turn leads to greater market saturation. Which in turn makes it actually harder to make games for a living, but I don’t think there is much we can do about that. Anything we do to improve our game development efficiency will have that saturation as outcome, but stopping our drive for improvement and efficiency is not an option.
You’ve made The Solus Project without the help of crowdfunding. What was the reasoning behind this? What do you think of crowdfunding in general? Is it worth it?
I don't really believe in Kickstarter. Kickstarter takes a huge amount of time to do well and is a job in itself. I know quite a few people who tried. Even when they succeeded it took them so much time and money to do, that a good portion of the money they got from Kickstarter would have to go to simply paying for the effort it took to do the KS in the first place. That is a big commitment, and time you take away from the game, so you need to make sure the payback you get is worth it. If Kickstarter fails you also fail publicly. You can’t go to a publisher afterwards and say "we’ve got this cool game" because they will say "yeah, but the public isn't into it, look at your Kickstarter".
If you compare the amount of money you would possible make after covering for the effort it took to do, to the risk involved that if you fail you also potentially lose other opportunities, then the investment is pretty big. The risk is pretty big. But unless you make hundreds of thousands (you likely won't) the payback is too small in my opinion. Look at it this way. If you see how much trouble we have with The Solus Project in getting press traction with a full and finished released game, then imagine how hard it is to get anyone to care about some Kickstarter.
Do you often cut features or change the design while making a game?
A game will always change as you make it. It is pretty much unavoidable. As you build a game and begin to better understand how it plays, you will always realize new possibilities and ideas, or identify problems you did not foresee. That said I don’t like cutting things. I never have. I view re-doing or cutting features and content as a design failure. As humans we are all about efficiency, and the most efficient way of creating X is by ensuring we don’t have to redo or change the outcome halfway in. Our ambition should be to strife to do things as accurate and as perfect as we can. Aside from that, not adjusting your scope to the resources you have would be a terrible mistake as well, and one that I’ve unfortunately seen many do in the industry.
Both of these points basically tie into the very foundation of game development, and there are two completely different schools of thought here. On one hand you got the notion that design should be left free. That you should not constrain yourself by imposing limits on your creativity, and that you should try things out freely and if they don’t work redo or cut them freely.
But on the other hand you can argue that the design of a game should take place within the boundaries of those things you have no control over. Such as technological limitations, budget and so forth. And that redoing things means a failure in looking ahead, planning, and analyzing your design ahead of implementation. In fact you could go as far as claiming that designing something within specific boundaries requires more creativity than being left completely free with what you come up with. I’d say this is what has driven our entire history. Human evolution has mostly been geared towards us solving specific problems within a set of very clear boundaries, and it is how we operate best.
I try to strike a balance when I work. Out of the box thinking, but at the same time still keeping that imaginary box near as well. If it turns out a certain part of a level doesn’t work for example, perhaps there is a way of reusing it elsewhere? Perhaps we can redesign it instead of dumping everything? Or we could simplify it? If it is boring or empty, we can perhaps make it easier for the player to get through the area so we simply lessen the impact of the problem? Is the problem that affects this part of the level perhaps also found elsewhere in the game? If yes, then perhaps we must identify a game wide solution instead of focusing on the level? And so forth. My rule is to cut as little as possible. In The Solus Project we made quite a few changes to some of the levels. Some of the changes were radical, but we never redid or removed entire areas. We have always found ways of reshaping existing content and features in creative and time efficient ways.
How do you market your game and do you spend any money on it or is all word to mouth advertising? What did you do for The Solus Project for instance?
We’ve spent some money on traveling to various conferences, but not on online ads or such. We don’t feel they work well enough unless you have enough money to push it through properly. We are mostly taking the indie route with marketing. An interesting thing we did was to partner up with tech companies such as Tobii. We agreed to have them use the game to showcase their eye tracking tech, and in return they took us to places like GDC. Another partnership had us have a booth at CES. And then our partnership with Microsoft for Xbox had the game playable at E3, Gamescom, Paris Games Week and so on. That has been a great way of covering these kind of major conferences while on a tight budget.
Along with the help of a marketing agency and our partner studio Grip Digital, we’ve emailed thousands of contacts and streamers. We also met up with them in person at places like E3 to try and get major press interested. We spent quite a bit of time on Reddit and other major communities to present the game and talk to fans, plus we looked up quite a few non-English press and approached the most important ones in their own language. We think it is vital to focus not only on the biggest sites, but also go after all the communities and non-English press. I feel many indies skip out on those, and it gives you more opportunities with them.
Towards streamers we manufactured a survival kit with physical items in it such as energy food and a USB power bank, and we then shipped these to the biggest streamers as a gift. We also ensured the game has all kinds of stuff in it that works well in a stream, or promotes discussions online. For example all the cult references to things like Stargate, Lost, Half Life, and so on, but also gruesome things like our many baby skeletons, or the many secrets within secrets in the world. All of it was meant to get people talking about it online. Starbreeze has also been so nice to do a Payday 2 mask special with us, driving tens of thousands of people to us. Aside from that our reviews have been consistently great, and we even got VR support as well.
The return on all of this has been small however. When we announced and release it in Early Access we had millions of people who saw the game. 1 million+ visited the Steam store page overnight for example, but the new huge updates we did after the initial release barely got any traction. Few picked that up. The full release also went by silently. Getting people to care has been light years harder than any other part of development. Even after having been at all conferences, with a large and very visual game, and with the help of major partners like Microsoft. It’s still super hard.
With a game this size and these visuals you'd say they would jump on top of it. But while we do get more attention and sell more than your average indie title on Steam, it is nowhere near enough to fund a game this size. If you would have done this game "properly" with an office and full time devs you probably would have had to have 6-8 people full time for two years to pull this off. That means you'd burn something like 40.000 USD a month, and that is without paying anyone well or having much reserve. You look at a 1 million dollar budget minimum, or roughly 175-200 000 sales.
That scares me the most. We will make some money because we worked for nothing for years, but if you'd want to grow the business and have an office, it is just plain impossible unless you get lucky. We've had the exact same situation with the past two games too. The only reason we make money is because we barely spend any, but from a business point of view we have no way forward making indie games (even of this complexity). There is just not enough return to be able to properly grow the company. We also noticed that even when press picks it up, the impact on sales is minimal. A lot of people simply wait for the sales, but then when the sales happen so much other stuff happens they often simply forget. There were 12 000 titles on sale during the last Steam Summer Sales for example.
How do you survive on your own in this competitive industry? Do you think Indie’s need to work together? Also, what aspects in this industry challenges Indies the most?
To be honest, it’s getting harder and harder to survive as an indie. We’ve never before had this many channels to sell our content through and this many great tools and engines, resources, communities and so forth, but the market saturation is really tough to deal with. We don’t make games. We primarily create entertainment, and as of such, we compete with every other form of entertainment out there. And that is a lot.
Even if we’d just stick to games only, then you’d see that not only are there ever more games released, games nowadays are also ever longer playable. A game from many years ago is still perfectly playable, so you build up an ever growing library of content you can keep yourself busy with. And no matter how rich you are, we all have only a limited number of hours a day to spend on entertaining ourselves. In that light I think greater cooperation is key. Indies all have their own audiences and press contacts. We should group up with other Indies making games similar to our own to stand stronger. To have an easier time to get visibility or reach your audience. I’d love to see that happening.
Indies have done well the last ten years. Where do you think the industry is headed?
It’s hard to say. Given the market saturation will increase, I think it will in turn drive further fragmentation. When you deal with a very saturated environment you tend to focus or specialise, so I think the push from developers for catering to more niche audiences is set to continue. In terms of fragmentation, we are getting more and more consoles and devices too. VR being a notable one. And at some point we are going to get AR, which is most likely going to go mass market. I think that is probably going to be the next big step for games, but it won’t be PC/Console style titles. It will create its own set of rules and games.
As various developing economies get richer and more prosperous over the coming years. More and more markets will open up there too, requiring sometimes entirely different kind of games. Again, fragmentation will occur there too. Traditionally, we mostly have had only Japanese and Western games. In the future we will have a whole lot more, and over time some of those might become major export products of those regions.
It's amazing to see how much information you have shared with us Sjoerd 'Hourences' de Jong. This will really help aspiring Indie developers. Thank you very much. You can also follow Sjoerd 'Hourences' de Jong on Twitter. His latest game The Solus Project is available on Steam. It will be coming to the Xbox One this Friday. I reviewed the game for Eurogamer Benelux and gave it a 'Recommended' badge. Make sure to check it out!