Let's Start A Studio! (and other terrible ideas)

Not so long ago I asked our Twitter followers what they thought about an advice blog on starting and running an indie studio. I was surprised to see some very enthusiastic responses, and decided the best person to begin this conversation with was our very own studio co-head: Ruben Farrus.

Ruben has 10+ years of experience taking games from inception to launch. He’s worked at studios such as Electronic Arts and Eidos Montreal, but is most known for his game design work for indie darling Papo & Yo. As of the past 5 years, Ruben and co-founder Tali Goldstein have been running Casa Rara Studio where they develop weird and wonderful VR, AR and game projects. They’ve made games for clients such as the National Film Board of Canada, CBC/Radio-Canada and Urbania. The core team has either shipped or had a pivotal role on some of the most important games produced in Canada over the last 10 years. 

I figured when the two of us sat down I’d start with the simple question of “how do you know you should open your own studio”? Believe it or not, this opened the floodgates. So here I give you Part 1 of our Starting an Indie Studio series! Ruben also adds the disclaimer that he only came to this knowledge by failing and doing the opposite of pretty much everything he’s about to say. So, take this all with a grain of salt! 

1. Solo dev or Studio?

The first thing you should know before making any leaps is an obvious one: there is a huge difference between being a solo dev/two person dev team and running your own studio. When you open a studio, according to Ruben, you have essentially made a pact with yourself to be comfortable, or attempt to be comfortable with the unknown. Make sure you know the “why” of why you want to start a studio and really examine whether there are holes in your argument. Make sure you have the right answer for you before choosing to play on hard mode! 

However, a big hint that maybe running an Indie Studio is for you is if the idea of a 300 person team sounds deeply unappealing. For Ruben, working in AAA meant an awesome opportunity to build his CV before moving to smaller studios and seeing how games can be made on less budget and less people. This was a great way to measure how interested he was in this idea he was beginning to conjure (hint: it was the idea of making his own studio). Ruben realized working for or creating a small game studio means you need to love having a big impact on the projects you’re making, and you’ll likely need to tackle all kinds of jobs that are typically given to several people in an AAA studio. Ruben, however, felt this power was perfect for him, even joking  “I’m a control freak, so [having my own studio] is my jam!”


2. You better love people!

In some ways, despite the fact that you may not have a team of 300 people, you will need to get comfy with the fact that you’re spending a lot of time together. Ruben attests to success often being a product of “having the right people” on a team. However, sometimes this isn’t always immediately obvious. My question to you, not just as a person who wants to work in indie, but also in owning a studio is whether or not you feel you can communicate under deeply uncomfortable and often anxiety-inducing situations. 

Before I got my job here I sat through a number of interviews with Ruben and Tali where we got to chat about not only my skill set and work history, but also situations in which I had failed, or messed up. If you feel you can answer these kinds of questions honestly with yourself (or even in the face of a job you really want), then that’s a great start. I definitely think some honesty about what kind of person you are under stress is important, but even more so, have you been working on your stress management?

Ruben then proceeded to say that the best part of having his own studio was that he now gets to “pick the best”. At this point, I try not to let my ego explode. 

However, I can easily say that this is the happiest I’ve been in a work environment in a long time, so our studio is pretty fantastic and full of “the best” kind of people. Also, no one is holding a gun to my head while I write this, I just felt the need to share that with y’all.


3. Get comfy with uncomfy!

Ruben believes “success” (like a surprise hit, or making big bucks, etc) can absolutely happen when making games with your own studio, but ultimately, you can never fully plan for it. In fact, you can’t even plan for failure either (nor should you, obviously).

“It's actually harder to pursue success with a ‘clear image’ of the future in your head,”  Ruben confessed, “Instead, approach every little challenge with an ‘I’m-going-to-try-something-I’ve-never-done-before’ attitude”. When you’re in early stages for your game you can’t just rely on plans like “I’m gonna make this game and then I’m gonna get a publisher” because let’s be honest, it’s more complex than that, especially if you’re brand new on the scene. 

For example, Ruben recalls what he was thinking when he was initially planning for his first game; He had made a timeline for something to take six months of time. Lo and behold, it ended up taking closer to two years! Maybe six months is possible for some, but especially on your first game, you need to be open to that not being the case.

The only thing we can do to prepare ourselves for failure is to build our skills: our flexibility, our attentiveness, how quickly we can react and make smart and good changes. We can’t stop failure, just how we act when faced with it. Not to mention, the only way to develop these skills, or practice, is to actively fail!  

Ruben then suggests to me one of his favourite books, the one that he believes helped him move from a failed previous project to our current project: The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin. I haven’t read it myself yet, but plan to, especially considering how often Ruben mentions its impact on him.


4. A note on perfectionism

Ruben’s perfectionism is something he has battled off and on since he was a child, so much so that our most recent game in progress, Mini Maker, tackles this issue as one of its main themes. What I personally love about this game is how it gamefies this destruction of perfectionism.

Truthfully, a few members of our team have perfectionism in our veins, which may be why we feel so deeply connected to making this game. Mini Maker is our reminder to self that the want for perfection doesn’t go away, but joy can be found in spite of it. After all, isn’t it exhausting to hear self-deprecating noise all the time?

Just over a week ago when we received a disappointing e-mail, Ruben reminded me that “all we can do is try our best with the tools we’re given and the cards we’re dealt, and hopefully have fun in the process”. So please, whether you open your own studio or not, have fun in the process.