Starting Your Own Thing – by Junebud’s Ola Holmdahl

Ola Holmdahl

Ola Holmdahl is CEO and game designer at Junebud AB. Ola’s previous career includes managing the game design program at the University of Skövde, doing lead game design at DICE and creating concept art for various games. In a previous life he was a freelance artist and an academic (but not at the same time). In his first contribution for Gamesauce, he will be talking about starting up your own studio and moving it forward in the browser 3D, Free-2-Play segment of the international market.

Some game developers harbor the dream of starting our own company. Others want creative freedom and long for a space free of upper management and publisher dictates. Some want the complete command that comes with running things yourself. Most dream of striking gold and retiring early, or at least the guarantee that if your games do well, so do you. No matter the reason, we should remember to do it for love of the work, since there are even fewer guarantees here than elsewhere in life.

Quantum Leap

It's 3 in the morning and the crunch has been slain. Is that a smile on the lips of a weary game director? Co-founder Calle Lundgren and I go all the way back to Codename Eagle.

It's 3.00 in the morning and the crunch has been slain. Is that a smile on the lips of a weary game director? Co-founder Calle Lundgren and I go all the way back to Codename Eagle.

My own experience is that most ambitious projects like ours never get off the ground, so the first step is easy: get going! That way you’ve already separated yourself from all the dreamers and schemers. If you stop to calculate all the risks and requirements before you make your move, odds are you’ll freeze up with analysis paralysis. Do what you always do: your best, and lots of it.
Your company has to make games that have a market and a realistic revenue model. Just making ”good games” and hoping to be ”discovered” is possible but hard, if you want to grow a company with employees and reliable market share. Adjust your product line-up to your ambitions. If you want to expand your company, you need to be realistic and market-oriented. If creative freedom is your alpha and omega, build an indie studio around yourself and maybe a few friends.

”If creative freedom is your alpha and omega, build an indie studio around yourself and maybe a few friends.”

With Junebud we started out by deciding on market and business model. We felt confident we could make a good game in several different genres and technologies, so in 2008 we asked ourselves where the market would be in a couple of years, and what could be done with a small-to-mid-size team. Online and social gaming were already projected to be the driving growth segments of the global revenue from games. On top of that we knew straight away we wanted to do a ‘free’ type model, and quickly found browser 3D to be mature enough to support interesting projects.

2008 was an interesting time to start a browser-based Free-2-Play company. Free games had been good business since the early days of the decade and there were plenty of excellent products and companies to draw inspiration from. Free access to games seemed natural after growing up with swapped cassette tapes for the Commodore 64 and first hand experience of later file sharing cultures. Free-2-Play offered a convincing way of monetizing the part of the audience that could and would pay.

The main problem we ran into in the Fall of ’08 was funding. At the height of the then-raging financial crisis we couldn’t find seed capital in any of our available networks. That resulted in a prolonged period of self funding and liberal use of sweat equity. Sweat equity basically means working long hours without compensation. Investors like it. We successfully raised our first round of private capital in the Spring of ’09.

From plan to product

Isn't this what outsiders think game design is? High level ideas on a whiteboard, all nice and cartoony looking. My old students might kill me if they saw this.

Isn't this what outsiders think game design is? High level ideas on a whiteboard, all nice and cartoony looking. My old students might kill me if they saw this.

Our first organizational challenge, as we saw it, was to leverage our skill in making traditional 3D multiplayer games into a light weight, online only, casual package. We spent a fair amount of time testing paper designs and prototyping digitally. At the end of that period we had arrived at the idea of an action adventure MMO with plenty of platforming in it. Our game, MilMo, was born.

”Our theory was that by bringing on devs without powerful preconceptions of what was possible (or even conventional) it would be easier to move ahead with speed and confidence.”

The second organizational challenge was to assemble and train a crack team of motivated game makers. We knew from the outset that we wanted young people with fresh ideas, because we wanted to break new ground. Our theory was that by bringing on devs without powerful preconceptions of what was possible (or even conventional), it would be easier to move ahead with speed and confidence. This idea has proved to be very successful so far.

Our third organizational challenge was to structure the company around an online service rather than a physical product. We knew we would have players online around the clock and that we needed to have solid pipelines for adding new content and fixing bugs on the go. As a service, the real work begins on the day the game ships – a huge structural change for us.

For us, Eric Ries’ idea of Lean Start-up and related concepts such as minimum viable product and minimum desirable product have been guiding lights. After working with conventional AAA productions, it’s counter-intuitive to put a game to market when it is really only a vertical slice. But the rewards of Live Development have been quick to manifest. It speeds up the iterative process, helps you understand your customers and allows you to streamline marketing. It also helps you overcome that deadly fear of failure! To paraphrase George S. Patton, ”A good plan executed today beats a perfect plan executed at some point in the future.”

Wrapping up

This screenshot proved successful in our  marketing. Our best guess is that it sells the concept of a 3D world well to FB users.

This screenshot proved successful in our marketing. Our best guess is that it sells the concept of a 3D world well to FB users.

We’re still learning, but we’re also proud to have put a beautiful and entertaining 3D MMO to market after only a year of development. At the time of writing, Junebud is still in the process of growing MilMo on the global market. It’s been live for a little over a year and expands every month, both in terms of active users, feature set and amount of content.

Read more about Holmdahl’s adventures to grow Junebud and develop Milmo into a full-fledged Facebook game on their well-tended development blog.

Ola can be reached at ola.holmdahl@gamesauce.org.

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