Goodbye BioWare, Hello Indie

The value of the seasoned game industry professional has never been higher. While universities continue to churn out an inexhaustible stream of wide-eyed rookies willing to work endlessly for nothing, veterans are increasingly hard to come by. In this highly skilled, high-budget industry, a well-developed mechanic’s intuition can save a studio millions of dollars. Experience is so valuable now that companies employ lawyers to prevent it from going to the competition.

As BioWare got bigger, so did the budgets and, importantly, the teams.

It’s interesting, then, that many industry veterans are leaving the big studios – and the big salaries — to go indie. I talked to two such veterans, with almost twenty years of experience between them, who decided to leave one of the biggest studios of all — BioWare.

Leaving couldn’t have been an easy decision. BioWare has a stellar reputation in the industry both for the games it makes and as a place to work. Not to mention they were fans before they got hired. “It was my dream job,” says Tobyn Manthorpe, who joined the company to work as an artist on Baldur’s Gate. “I was psyched,” agrees Dan Fedor. A technical artist, he gave up a job with a prominent Manhattan media company, an office overlooking Times Square and half his salary to go to BioWare.

The job turned out to be everything they’d hoped. Fedor remembers: “I was elated for at least a year or two. It didn’t matter what I was doing or who I was doing it for.” Manthorpe found himself shut in a room with three other guys inventing the game that would become Neverwinter Nights. Both were quick to tell me that they would be happy to work there again.

Yet they made the decision to leave. They each have their reasons, but there are some common themes.

Chief among them is the problem of growth. Veterans like these remember a different game industry, one in which a team of less than fifty could make a high-profile game. They lived through BioWare’s growing pains, as it became a multinational corporation and was ultimately acquired by EA. As the company got bigger, so did the budgets and, importantly, the teams. These developers lament the lost esprit de corps that followed.

Fedor describes the good times: “I loved working with certain people, and it didn’t matter what we were doing. We could be in the deepest shit, trudging through Vietnam, and the fact that I had people who had my back-that could carry me pretty far.” Remembering his time on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer (itself a small team), he adds, “The core group of us was under fire constantly and it was nice to be able to turn away from the computer and chuckle to each other and say, ‘You know what, this is crazy but we’re going back in there.'”

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Contrast this with Manthorpe’s experience as a senior artist in the technology group at BioWare. One day, someone on a different project sent him an email angrily questioning his group’s very existence-and cc’d the entire company. Blindsided and feeling unsupported, he found the culture had changed around him. “It was really tough to find out that things weren’t going as well as they were in my head.”

The culture change at BioWare was palpable, to the point that tough questions were being asked at company meetings.

“There was this huge divider between projects,” explains Fedor – a divider he experienced first-hand when he switched from Dragon Age to Mass Effect. At one point, a senior producer took him aside, intent on showing him the ropes, and asked him how long he’d been with the company. “I was at the bottom of the ladder again even though I’d been there for seven years.”

The culture change was palpable, to the point that tough questions were being asked at company meetings. Management maintained that they could keep that small company feel alive as they grew, but Manthorpe wasn’t buying it. “They were trying to keep people around with money.” They weren’t bitter; at this size there simply wasn’t any other way.

Understanding this, Fedor changed careers, becoming a producer in order to join a small research group. He had hoped to be “a larger cog on a smaller machine,” but the project was soon cancelled, landing him on Mass Effect 3 in a role that didn’t suit him. “Being a producer for Mass Effect was the reason why I didn’t ever want to be a producer in the first place,” he explains. “It was being a very tiny cog on a very large machine and generally being told what needed to be done.”

EA’s restrictive policies prevented him from finding a creative outlet on his own. They claim ownership over any competing product – this includes indie games – done by employees, even on their own time. Making games under the table wasn’t an option for Fedor: “The legal implications for one, the stress implications for another. You don’t want to end up being a huge success only to find out you’re bankrupt from lawyer fees.”

Stress became a problem for Fedor: “My jaw was 100 percent clenched all the time. I would bite my tongue in my sleep. I would constantly be gritting my teeth and I didn’t notice it anymore.” He didn’t like the changes he saw in his personality either. “I became a much more curmudgeonly, angry and dismissive person. I would snap at [my girlfriend] just doing dishes.” When he left, it felt right at once. “It was cathartic. I immediately felt better telling [my boss] that I was leaving. Now, suddenly, I’m moving forward again.”

The decision to go indie was easier than the decision to leave. “In almost every situation I was happy, it was a small team and in every situation I was unhappy, it was big,” explains Fedor. “Nothing is smaller than indie.” Going to another studio wasn’t an option for either developer. Leaving BioWare, ultimately, wasn’t really about BioWare. It was about experimentation and autonomy, and in this area no studio can compete with being independent. “That’s the best offer I’ve got. Me paying myself to do whatever the hell I want for the next eighteen months,” says Fedor.

Financial independence is, of course, job one for the independent developer. Fedor “ferreted away” money for years to save up that eighteen-month nest egg. Manthorpe took contract work from BioWare. “I didn’t really go too far from the nest,” he laughs. Fedor explains: “I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to plan on doing it for anything less than a year, ideally closer to two years. You need that time to screw up.”

Manthorpe is on the other end of that proposition. After two years and two games as an independent, he is having to look for more traditional work. In the end he fell victim to the specter that claims most independent developers: It’s terribly hard to get noticed. Manthorpe’s first game, Pistols at Dawn, was released on iOS, and he knew he had to do something creative. “I wanted to do something different,” he says, “because I knew it was about standing out.” And stand out he did. A fan of gaming news website Giant Bomb, he built their entire office, and the four main podcasters-in Lego. He sent it off to them, and watched excitedly as they opened it on-air, giving him the shout-out he was looking for. To no avail. “It absolutely made no dent. [The game] did absolutely terribly. It was definitely under a thousand sales.”

The harsh lesson for anyone contemplating indie game development is that you can be good, hard working and creative, but you will still need to be lucky to succeed.

Undaunted, he applied two key pieces of learning to his next game that marketing is vastly important and he needed a more accessible IP. “People in general are not excited by the genre of pistol duelling in the 18th century,” he says. He knew exactly what his new IP should be: Dragon Age. Manthorpe spent the next five months putting together a demo tailor-made to sell to the Dragon Age team. It had a good-looking 3D engine, character development, fully-voiced cinematics and a novel approach to storytelling. “I wanted to show them that I could do it,” he says. Once the demo was ready, he flew back to Edmonton and pitched it to his old friends at BioWare. He followed up by sending Dragon Age‘s executive producer a custom 3D printed chess piece. BioWare was interested, but – still smarting from the experience of its own iOS game, Mass Effect: Galaxy – ultimately decided to pass.

It was a tough blow. “I didn’t really know where to go from there except that I had made this really cool demo. Well fuck it, let’s just finish it.” Finishing Emissary of War took another year. This time, Manthorpe hired a marketing company and hit the convention circuit himself, “Vying for attention with people who’ve got booth babes.” In the end, it wasn’t enough.

The harsh lesson for anyone contemplating indie game development is that you can be good, hard working and creative, but you will still need to be lucky to succeed.

Unless you define success differently. “Mostly it was about working on what I wanted to work on, and doing it the way I wanted to do it and being able to recapture some of those early BioWare days,” explains Manthorpe, who hasn’t lost his enthusiasm: “You know, I’d love to do it again. Building something from scratch and saying, ‘This is ours’. It’s totally rewarding. I love that.”

Rewarding, yes, but surprising, too. Fedor set out with just two simple rules: “Make your first game small, and make it a baby you’re willing to kill. I’ve violated both of those. Every step of the way I said I wouldn’t and I did. Things change very slowly until you realize they’ve changed to a point where you are in a completely different place.” But he has no regrets about going indie: “It was the right decision, for sure. I needed to do this. I’ve always wanted to do this, so I’m glad I did this. I’ve still got steam left in me.”

You can download Dan Fedor’s game here.

After ten years in the game industry, Brook Bakay quit his dream job to kill babies with writing. You can read about how that’s going on his blog: beesonpie.

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