Money money money

"Would you like to start a business with more money or less money?"

Seems like a simple question with a simple answer, right? More money is more better. Gives you the ability to do a lot more a lot faster. Lets you find the best people. More team = more ideas = more feedback.

When we started Wonderspark, one of those questions you have to ask is, "How much money do we need to have a shot at success?" And my answer at the time was that we'd need something on the order of $2,000,000. That'd give us funds for a team of 6-8 people with a couple hundred K (see how you can casually refer to giant piles of money so casually?) for marketing.

It seemed like not an unreasonable amount to raise, coming off having made one of the most successful iOS games ever. But the landscape for raising money had changed, and raising money wasn't where our experience was, and we found it impossible to raise anything like that. In fact, we found it impossible to raise any money from traditional venture capital investors.

And oh, god, in retrospect I'm so glad that was the case.

Instead, we raised our initial capital from friends. We got much less, and had to form a totally different strategy, but at least so far, not having a huge amount of money has been hugely beneficial. Here's a few ways:

  • Focus: Because we didn't have a lot of resources, we had to be very deliberate about when we should hire someone. We absolutely would not hire anyone else, no matter how much we wanted to, no matter how much we felt like we needed to, until we knew we had a concept that was worth hiring someone to help with.

    We weren't going to hire someone & start paying them real $ to help us during the phase where things are the least understood, because that was something we could do for "free" with just the two of us. (And by "free", I mean that we weren't paying our salaries, but we were still burning money every month on living expenses, so even with just the two of us, we're not talking about having infinite time.)

    So we waited. We worked on the concept. We worked on the prototype. We played the game. And it wasn't until we'd gone through five or six major iterations on the game until we felt like, "This is good enough that we should hire someone to help us with it." If we'd hired someone earlier, getting to that core would have taken longer. We'd have tried to "keep them busy" with work, but with work that we'd almost certainly throw away as we changed direction.

    Even after we hired folks, the game changed dramatically. I think if you ask Sean & Kyle whether or not this game is "theirs" the answer would be absolutely yes. Their contributions have shaped the direction of the game in ways that have massively improved it. But you need something to start with. You need a core idea that works. And because we didn't have a lot of money, there was a huge pressure to get that right before we had a lot of people working on it.
     
  • Creativity: I think being resource-constrained is a really great way to work. Why? Because you can't do whatever you want.

    When faced with a problem, you can't go with the first, obvious solution, because usually, it's expensive. You have to figure out a more elegant solution - and in the process of trying to find a cost-effective way of doing something, you find a better, more meaningful, more elegant way of doing something instead.

    I'd love to do full-3D graphics for the game we're working on. In some ways, that'd be super nice. But we can't afford to do that to the level of quality where it'd be worth doing. And as a result, that drove a different, 2D-based solution that (I think) will be better for the game we're making than if we went the full-3D route. It will focus on the things that are important - being able to communicate very specific information and moments of emotional impact in a way that full-3D wouldn't necessarily let us do as well. It'll also be massively cheaper, easier to iterate on, and have a more "signature" style, all of which are also benefits. But the core structure of how the game looks will actually be more in service of the gameplay & the information we need to display, and that's something we wouldn't have gotten the same way if we'd gone with the option we'd likely have gone with if we'd had a bigger budget.
     
  • Flexibility: Step 1: hire a dozen people. Step 2: Start development. Step 3: Realize you need to make a change. Now Step 4 is, "Figure out how to coordinate everyone on the team to make that change in the least demoralizing way." When you have a team of 4, and everyone's engaged in the development of the game, making a change is easy. And that means that for all the times we need to make changes, which is a lot since we're in the process of finding the "fun" of the core mechanics, we just ... change. There are no meetings. There are discussions. Sometimes long ones. Sometimes intense ones. But we talk, then we change (or don't change). That's it.

    If you ramp up your team too early, you lose that flexibility. You get tied into bad decisions because the cost of change gets too high - not just re: morale, but also re: money. You've spent too much, and it's too hard to make the decision to scrap what you've done & change course. A huge part of what we do is we retain that agility as long as possible. Here's a screenshot from our game right now:

Sweet, right?

The answer is "Yes, it is, because even though it looks like it was drawn in 5 seconds (it was), it communicates everything we need to know about the moment effectively. And because it cost so little to do (in both time & $) no one will feel bad if we have to change it."

We've been playing with the game looking more or less like this for nearly a month. And we've learned huge amounts from it. We've changed huge things in it. We've added new interactions, renamed dozens of things, done multiple passes on the interaction UI, etc. etc. etc. And we haven't changed this piece of art. Why? Because right now, it's exactly what we need. It doesn't need to look any better, and Sean's time is better spent on making other parts of the game more understandable.

If we'd had money, we'd have spent time on making this look better. Look nicer. We'd have wanted to have screenshots to show media folks. We'd have wanted to have this look better before we showed it to anyone.

But we don't have money to do that. And so our playable multiplayer alpha build looks exactly like this. And best of all? It's fun.

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When you're resource-constrained, you often have to make compromises and not do exactly what you want. In the process of doing that, it forces you to really think about what you want to do in a way that you don't get when you can just do whatever. More, no one has any expectations about what you're doing. If we'd raised a couple hundred K on Kickstarter, we'd have backers expecting AAA quality (despite the fact that AAA quality costs multiple millions these days, even for simple, small things), and folks would be not just disappointed by how the Alpha looks, they'd be furious.

We're not beholden to that pressure. The only pressure we're beholden to is to do the right thing, as efficiently and within-our-means as possible. As it turns out, that's also a great pressure to face if your goal is to make the best thing you possibly can.