I’ve been asked to talk a bit about what it takes to create and manage a game studio these days. In the following lines, I’ll try to recount all the important facts in the life of our small and still young company and what led to its creation in the first place.
Alkemi today is a team of 2 people (one of the original founder aka me, Alain, and Christophe my colleague). At the end of 2012, Mickael, the other original founder decided to go his own way because our views had sadly become quite incompatible. He just started a new small entity which is called Potion of Wit to develop his own projects but we’re still in good terms and work together for contract jobs.
We’ll come back to our present situation, but first let’s take a look at the origin of the project… and even before that to the first time I contemplated the idea of making games as a job.
We were in 2002. I was in my 3rd year to get my PhD in organic chemistry (no kidding) when I decided with friends after a long night of role playing games to create a game studio. Retrospectively, we were young, full of dreams but more than that, full of sh… We spent the next five years learning our trade : I mean stop dreaming about making games but learning the actual skills required. I very progressively became an apt if not brilliant 2D and 3D artist and I also learned to code thanks to Flash in the last years. In these five years, we never came close to actually making a 3D game with our in-house engine. We paid the rent and our low salaries by doing websites, flash apps, serious games, or pro apps. 6 months before I got fed up with all this, I actually developed by myself my 2 first real games which were small flash advergames… and I left, really pissed with this personal failure, and more so for not leaving earlier.
When I left in 2007, one of my client hired me because he was creating a new web agency and since he was also looking for a server side developer I recommended my friend Mickael. At this point, I had never worked with Mickael, we were just board games buddies. We’ve spent 2 years in this company and though we really worked mainly on dull jobs for clients directly spawned by hell itself (very similar to those), we’ve learned A LOT. About productivity, about planification, about management… I’ve learned in this agency that you can actually ask for a fair amount of money if you’re good enough at your trade and you know how to sell your work. Another really important point : I’ve met and worked with Christophe for nearly 2 years over there.
It’s the beginning of 2009, Mickael and I are bored to death by our daily jobs and we start talking about leaving. We’re both hardcore players (role playing, board games, video games), we’ve both been meddling professionaly or not with game creation and I f…ing want another shot at this! It’s decided : we will found Alkemi. Why Alkemi ? Sounds like alchemy which is near enough my old love chemistry. You’ve got ‘Al’ for Alain, ‘Mi’ for Mickael, and ‘Ke’… let’s just say, it’s an open door for someone who knows about it. We leave the agency without Christophe. Honestly at this point, he’s not convinced we’re going anywhere. He confessed that much to me a few months ago.
July 2009 was the real beginning even if the company was officialy created in November. Rule #1 : in france, you don’t want to create a company if you don’t have a bill to send to someone. If you don’t see money coming right around the corner, just sit tight and keep on working at home (Mickael’s living room for us). During the summer, Mickael spent two months learning a lot of new things for him: until then he was mainly a web developer but he started to learn AS3, Haxe, the basics of 3D, and a lot of techniques required for game development. For me, july and august were used to create our first Flash game which was supposed to be the first piece of our showcase. I came up with the web version of Transcripted, the mashup of two games I love : geometry wars and Zuma. Additionally, I created the bases of our in-house flash blitting lib (AlkemiTools) which was then overhauled by Mickael. At that point we kept on prototyping small ideas (with more or less success honestly) but we needed money…
The gaming industry is not wealthy. If you want money, don’t come this way. Minecraft, angrybirds… these are anomalies. Most studios struggle for their lives and releasing a game, even on Steam, doesn’t mean you’ll make any kind of serious money with it (trust me, I know about this). When we created Alkemi, the deal was very clear between Mickael and me : if we didn’t think we could earn our lives with decent salaries, we would just stop. I’m married, I have two kids, a credit for the house… I’m past working for free. We knew making games or working for game studios was economically dangerous but we knew a field where there’s always money : marketing, commercials. Successful web agencies can earn a lot of money and we had plenty of experience in that field. So we decided to divide our time between working for web agencies and working on our own productions.
It soon appeared that if we worked 40% of our time at a decent rate, we could finance the other 60% to do as we wished. To be honest let’s, say 50% and 10% of paperwork, we’re not in wonderland and bills and taxes don’t get paid by themselves. Roughly, for a company like Alkemi and if you’re a team of two, you need 5000 to 7500 euros per month to keep things going. Obviously salaries and taxes represent most of the bulk but you’ve also got to pay for expensive but absolutely essential things like an accountant. And that would be my rule #2 : don’t be stingy when it comes to choosing your accounting firm. You don’t want to do these things by yourself. Time is money and in the long run, you’ll save a lot of money by not doing paperwork all day long.
October 2009, that’s when we also became an anomaly : honestly it only took a round of twelve emails to the most interesting agencies in France to get one meeting (if you got to work for commercials, let it be with talented people for interesting clients eh ?). From that single interview, and with a lot of work afterwards, we secured one, two, three regular customers. We are hired because we are flexible, we are experienced, and I hope because we make a damn good job every single time. To explain a bit more how lucky we were, one of our biggest contracts was signed thanks to a random guy I’ve met through battle.net on Starcraft 2! We’re definitively not a reference when it comes to commercial prospection. I can’t really elaborate about my customers and the work we do… NDAs and stuff of course. I just want to say that most of them are really great and talented guys. I can’t think of a more pleasing and profitable way to finance our productions.
Earn enough money? Check! Know the tools to make games? Check! It’s 2010 and we have to decide what we do next. Alkemi was still 2 people at the time and to preserve balance we had decided that Mickael and I would lead a game project alternatively. It was Mickael’s turn and we agreed to try a social game on facebook : The Academy.
There was still all this hype around social games and though I profoundly hate those games as a player, Mickael wanted to give it a shot and make his own variation on the genre. We’ve spent 7 months working on this game (at 60%). Mickael did the whole development and me the art. Economical result : just enough to pay the bill for servers. Of course, to make one of these games take off you need :
A – be one of the first out there and a touch of luck
B – millions of friends on Facebook
C – a lot of cash to buy millions of friends on Facebook ( aka Zynga’s way )
D – obiwan kenobi
Still it was one more really cool showcase example of what we could do and a great achievement for just the two of us : our first ‘big’ game. I’m afraid the game is not online anymore because of a forced server migration by our provider, but try to imagine a mafia clone with PvP based on a bidding system closer to a board game than a traditional social game.
November 2010… what now? Well, it was my turn. I always have a few ideas of games I want to make, but at the time the clearest, safest thing to do seemed to be a full fledged desktop game out of Transcripted. We knew from the web version that this bizarre mashup was actually working. It was kinda like my baby idea and I wanted to make it grow to its full potential.
Soon, the exciting 2011-2013 period…