Six months later, and my Entrepreneurship Co-op is over. In case you’re unfamiliar, a co-op (short for “cooperative education”) is when a student works with a company for a set amount of time to further their educational experience. Think of it like an internship, except it’s built into Drexel University’s program. That, and it has to be something directly related to the student’s field of study, so no fetching donuts and coffee all day long. The Entrepreneurship Co-op is a specific opportunity offered by Drexel’s Close School of Entrepreneurship, allowing a student to work full-time on their own company for six months straight. They also receive office space in the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship (a co-working space for student startups) and some funding to put towards their company.
April 1st marks the first day back in classes for me, at which point I’ll be back to the balancing act of Runaway and schoolwork. Am I looking forward to it? Honestly, not really. After all, this was a taste of what the real world is like, minus the pressure of having to also pay rent and all that. But I had the freedom to choose what to do with myself each and every day. But with the co-op done, I’d like to reflect on what we set out to achieve in the six-month period (and whether we did it or not), why we chose those goals, and what’s next for us. In the second part, I’ll more concisely discuss my takeaways from six months spent running a business.
When I first started the co-op, my advisers told me to write down a list of goals, sorted into four categories:
A couple of these terms are very much entrepreneur-oriented as opposed to game developer-oriented, so let’s go through each just in case it’s not clear what they mean.
The product is probably the most straightforward here. Quite simply, Runaway is our product, so what do we need to do to complete Runaway? This is everything development-related, from designing and programming features to creating and implementing art and sound assets. It should also include any work put into the narrative and documentation. In our case, it could be summarized into a few main goals:
Create a feature-complete prototype
Overhaul the game’s visuals to better complement the punk rock themes
Compose several music tracks to be used in-game and in promotional work
Write an outline of a complete narrative
I like to think that we did pretty well with the first two. The first, a feature-complete prototype, was a little tricky to tackle since, early into the co-op, we weren’t sure exactly what the game should be. We have the opportunity through Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio to release a game on the Xbox digital store at the end of this summer, but we weren’t certain we could complete a full narrative game for that. Instead, we decided on creating a multiplayer-focused prequel of sorts and set out to work on that. We’ve added six game modes in this time and refined our movement mechanics. We’ve fleshed out the narrative system with in-game cutscenes and developed a modular backend that will make it very easy to continue working in the project moving forward. We’ve started to really focus on sanding down the game feel, so we’ve worked on adding juice where possible: particles, sound effects, camera shake — stuff like that. While we’re not quite finished, I would definitely say the game is getting there in terms of mechanics.
The visuals, like the mechanics, are not yet exactly where we want them to be, but we’re getting close. During the co-op, we replaced all character animations, our old environment tileset, and the background art with an illustrated style inspired by graffiti. And speaking of graffiti, we’ve also created new tagging artwork. Now, we’re continuing to hone in on the artistic style we want to have in the final game, and we’re experimenting with the best workflow to achieve that. I can’t say much about where we’re going right now, but I’m looking forward to where we’ll be soon.
And then we get to the third and fourth bullet points. Funny thing is, the narrative, while last in this list, should have been among our first priorities. I always had a general sense of what I want the narrative to be and how I want it to feel, but there wasn’t much in concrete detail to go off of. This made it hard to nail down the themes and tone, both of which would have helped the artists and composers in choosing a style. Not to mention, we had a creative chicken-and-egg situation: the artists and composers both said that having some of the other’s work would help them get a better sense of direction. We had put the narrative on hold for awhile since we had pivoted from the large-story game to the smaller prequel, but I circled back around to it when I could to ensure everyone had something to work on. I had to outline what themes I would include in the game and the mood that the game would have, both overall and over time. I also pointed to prior work, both that my team had created and that was already out there, as inspiration for their continued efforts. Now, I’m working on fleshing out the prequel plot for a clearer idea of how many levels we’re going to have and what their setting and content will be. This will help with art, music, and level design moving forward and hopefully prevent some future roadblocks.
Between the above situation and the hardware required to record and edit music, we haven’t been able to compose as much as we’d like to. But we’ve figured out what works best for us, and so the workflow will be stronger moving forward. Luckily, the composers have also been writing music, and what music they’ve already recorded is in the polishing process. So, while we didn’t complete any new tracks during my co-op, we have made progress.
Any tasks related to the team, the people who make the product, would fall under the Company category. It should also involve the business entity from a legal perspective. Our company goals for the co-op were:
Recruit an animator
Create a business bank account
Draft and sign contracts for all team members
Olivia is an incredibly talented illustrator but not particularly experienced with animation. She is capable but not as efficient as someone with a background in it. As such, we agreed it would be best to bring someone else onto the team with the skills needed to create several animations for each character. She suggested a friend of hers named Danny, whom she had met during her studies at the Delaware College of Art and Design. He happily joined, and a mutual friend of Olivia’s and his named Bobby later joined as well to assist him. Another friend of Olivia’s through Pratt Institute named Charles also came on board to help with the in-game illustrations and the narrative. This is all to say that we set out to find one animator and have instead built a very strong art and animations team to further develop and implement our visual style.
The business bank account became an important goal of the co-op since it was required to set up store pages on itch.io, Steam, and the Windows Store. It was also helpful for keeping separate my personal money from the funds used on the company. Down the line, it will be more meaningful because it will prevent co-mingling of funds, which is basically just when someone mixes their personal and business funds (a huge no-no from the IRS). For now, the distinction is a little bit blurry because the co-op funds were given directly to me to use how I see fit. I chose to reinvest it all into the company, but others like to take at least some of it out for their living expenses during the co-op. Because of this, it’s personal income and not business; I honestly don’t know where it fits into co-mingling, but making a company bank account removed any uncertainty.
The last company goal I had was to draft and sign contracts to outline all the terms of work for everyone on the team. This one has proven the most difficult because, put simply, attorneys aren’t cheap. Even with the funding I had secured, we still could not easily afford a lawyer’s services, so we instead looked into local programs that provide pro bono services. Things are now moving along, but given that the services are free and provided by busy people, I can only expect it to take some time.
Critical Resources are all the materials you need to develop your product and company. It can include hardware and software as well as utilities. The most obvious resource any startup needs is money, so a lot of these goals will just be thinking about how to raise some funds. This area will often overlap with others, like in the previous goal of establishing contracts. The primary critical resources we wanted to achieve were:
Dev kits (Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, etc.)
Money (like I said, it’s pretty much a given)
For now, our main goal is to develop the prequel for PC and Xbox. They’re the two platforms most accessible for us, so we do not need any additional hardware to develop for them. We’d love to also develop for the Switch and PlayStation 4, but we don’t have everything we need to put Runaway on them. Much of my time spent on this was really just research — figuring out how to get them. I can’t post publicly here what I’ve found, but I can say that we’re not yet able to develop for Switch and PlayStation 4.
As the second bullet point shows, it all comes down to money. During my co-op, my team and I have explored a few different options for raising some additional capital. Before I talk about what we looked into doing, let’s first look at why we need money. Software licenses aren’t always cheap, be it for Unity Plus or the different Unity Assets we have integrated into Runaway. Not to mention all the other software and services you can use to improve your workflow: Trello/HacknPlan, Google Drive/Dropbox/OneDrive, and many others. As I said above, attorney services are also handy. Not to mention, there are a bunch of expenses associated with running a company: an incorporation fee, yearly taxes, and other costs as the business operates. Promotion is also huge; without aggressive marketing, no one will know your game exists. So, we need money to build and continue to have a website. We need money to take the game to different events. A lot of the time, you have to pay a small fee just to apply for a showcase. If you get in, then you only have to worry about travel and board while there. If you don’t get in (or miss the deadline to apply), then you can pay even more to have a space without the perks of being part of the selective showcase.
Suffice to say, there’s a lot we could use money for. With that in mind, we’ve explored a few different options. I competed in Drexel’s Baiada Incubator Competition as part of Drexel Startup Fest. I’ve looked into the traditional entrepreneurial option of angel investments and venture capitalists, but I’ve decided against it because those investors have such a different mindset than game developers. They generally view games solely as products. They only want to hear about numbers: how many competitors are out there, how much did they sell, and how much do you expect to make. They don’t see games as art, so they will only make decisions to make the most money. On the other hand, publishers (especially indie publishers like Devolver Digital, 11 bit studios, and Raw Fury) see games as an experience and a form of expression. While they certainly don’t want to throw money away for something that will not sell at all, they also care about just what it is they are supporting. They also better understand the industry, so they know how to make games that people want to play. They can assist with development, production, and marketing because they have experience with all of that, where traditional investors may only be able to provide funding. As such, we’re looking into potential publishers. While we don’t feel we are quite ready to reach out yet, I am preparing a pitch so that, when the time comes, we can start some conversations.
Another option is crowdfunding: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and many others. The cool thing about crowdfunding is, you’re dealing directly with the people who will buy your game. It’s a great way to create connections with the people whose opinions matter most, and it allows the most passionate fans to get involved. The trickiest parts of crowdfunding are:
Unless you already have a huge following, it won’t be easy to raise nearly as much money from crowdfunding as through publisher relations, and
Crowdfunding only provides money but not assistance in the other areas of game development like a publisher could.
This isn’t to say we’ve ruled it out. Like with approaching a publisher, building a crowdfunding campaign takes time and plenty of preparation. So you may see news of a Kickstarter from us in the future, but we’re not quite ready yet. For now, we’re just brainstorming how we would do it, if we did.
Market Development, the final category, is about building up an audience for your product. The very first step is always to validate your market, which is to say that you need to figure out if people will want to buy what you want to make. To do this, just get out there and start talking to people. Build a prototype and have them play it. Get their feedback, and go from there. Then, it’s about marketing and promotion so that you can let your target audience know your product exists. The ways we wanted to handle that are:
Redesign the website for a more attractive online presence
Develop a mailing list
Develop our social media presence
Showcase Runaway at the Boston Festival of Indie Games and the Music and Gaming Festival
You can probably guess how well we achieved that first bullet point. Just compare the website we have now with the picture below, which shows the WordPress website I put together a couple of years ago. Sure, the old one could get the job done, but it wasn’t nearly as pretty. It’s not hard to put the information on the page, but that won’t make people want to read it.
We also developed a mailing list, which you can sign up for at the bottom of any page on this website. We’ve stuck to a monthly update schedule as well as special announcements whenever something important happens (like attending an event, publishing a new blog, or releasing a private alpha). It’s a small way to engage people interested in following along with our progress.
I set out to improve our social media presence, which before the co-op was restricted to infrequent tweets. Now, our Twitter is more active. I’m getting in the habit of tweeting twice a week: once on Wednesday for #indiedevhour, and once on Saturday for #screenshotsaturday. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to be perfectly consistent since we don’t have something visual to show every week. But on the weeks where something I can show is planned, I make sure to record a quick gif or video and schedule a tweet on TweetDeck. I also occasionally post on Instagram, though I try to stick to larger announcements like events or the alpha release. This way, different platforms provide different content, giving a reason to subscribe to both — or only one if you only are interested in one type of content.
Probably the most intensive achievement of the co-op for me was attending both the Boston Festival of Indie Games (BostonFIG) and the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest). These opportunities allowed us to showcase our game over the course of around 80 hours in front of people eager to try the newest and coolest games. In preparation for the events, we printed business cards, postcards, and banners. The banners are tall and colorful, so they grab the attentions of passersby and bring them to our booth. The business and postcards are something for us to hand out — a reminder of what we’re working on that people can take home. Business cards are compact, so they’re easier for people to take, whereas postcards are large enough to turn into a decoration. Both have their own appeal, so giving visitors the option of either allows them to choose which one they want. And luckily, some people will want to take several, whether for themselves or to share with friends and family. So to put it simply, the banners bring people in to play the game, and the paper products are for them to take with them when they leave.
At MAGFest, we also tried something new: a graffiti board. As people visited our booth, we gave them sticky notes and markers to design their own tags. A lot of people were shy about it, not feeling themselves too artistic. But we also had quite a few takers, which gave us plenty of inspiration for new graffiti designs in the alpha artwork overhaul. In the future, we’ll continue to bring the board, and we’re also looking into some in-game challenges and merch as rewards to further engage players.
So, we’ve gotten a lot done during this co-op, and we have a lot to do moving forward. In the next part of this blog, I’ll explain some of the lessons I’ve learned during this time that you will hopefully be able to apply to your own ventures. In the meantime, thank you so much for reading, and I hope this was helpful!