Budgeting is vital to the success of an indie studio or start-up and long-running games developer Ron Gilbert is keen to help smaller studios understand why.
In a fascinating and comprehensive blog post on the site for Thimbleweed Park, Gilbert’s Kickstarter-funded point-and-click adventure, the games designer offers a glimpse at the budget for his current project and details the crowdfunded money is allocated.
Thimbleweed Park raised more than $600,000 via its Kickstarter campaign and in this remarkably transparent breakdown, Gilbert reveals where backers money is going. It is a demonstration he hopes will help countless indie studios in the same position.
"Seeing $500,000 in your bank account can make you cocky," Gilbert explained. "It can seem like an endless supply of cash and more money than most people, including me, have ever seen in their bank account. But you have to treat that $500,000 like it’s $5,000 or even $500. Every dollar matters.
"It’s why I like to have a budget… I want to know where every dollar is being spent from here until the end of the project. You start putting line items into the budget and you instantly see your money starting vanish. A few line items later and you’re out of money. It’s sobering and a necessary process. It really makes you appreciate spending anything."
Gilbert adds that if you have a publisher, they are likely to help by poking holes in your budget and challenging your assumptions. However, they will also reduce the budget, often forcing devs to fake it in order to get the publishing deal.
Below is a summary of Gilbert’s breakdown of the Thimbleweed Park budget.
Everyone on the Thimbleweed team is budgeted to work eight hours a day, five days a week, and Gilbert is trying to keep normal hours as long as possible. While he expects this increase towards the end of development, he never budgets crunch time as this sets a "dangerous precedent". The cost of crunch is dealt with later on by hiring someone new, shifting resources or cutting content.
"Gary and I are working for peanuts," he wrote. "Neither of us can afford to work for free for 18 months and we’re making about a quarter of what we could get with ‘real jobs’ but we do need to eat and pay rent.
"Everyone else is working below what they could get, but I do think it’s important to pay people. When someone works for you for free, you aren’t their top priority. You should respect people’s time and talent and pay them for their work. It’s what the Kickstarter money was for after all."
This is an area of the budget that the Monkey Island creator describes as ‘one of the most important and often forgotten roles in a game’.
"It’s money well spent because not testing will cost you down the road in emergency patches, dissatisfied players and crappy review scores," he said. "Our original budget had three testers, but I added a fourth when we added the Xbox. I over budgeted for testing and it’s an area that will probably come in under budget (ass, prepare to be bitten)."
Gilbert stresses that it’s important to differentiate between testing and beta testing.
"Testers don’t just ‘play the game’. They are ‘testing’ the game and that often involves countless hours of playing the same five minutes over and over, trying to get an elusive bug to appear. Testers need to write clear and concise bug reports and endlessly regress bugs to make sure they are fixed. It’s a hard job. Good testers are worth every penny.
"Beta testing is different. Beta testers (an unpaid role) are still finding bugs, but what you’re really looking for are big picture issues, like puzzle complexity, game flow and story clarity. You want beta testers to ‘play’ the game like normal players will and get feedback (mostly through silently watching, analytics and debriefs)."
Music and SFX
Gilbert warns that musicians usually charge by the minute: "So if you’re going to have 15 minutes of unique music and they charge $1000 a minute (not uncommon), then your budget is $15,000. That $1,000 per minute includes a lot of exploration and revisions and mixing.
"If you’re saying "Hey, I’ll do your music for free" you need to ask yourself if you’re willing to spend weeks exploring different styles and tracks while getting constant feedback, then spend months composing it all, then additional months of making little revisions and changes, then producing three, four or five flawless mixes. It’s a lot of work and all the while, you have to hit deadline after deadline. And this is all for a relatively low budget game."
Translations, Voice Recording and Mobile
"I don’t have a good idea what these will cost so I’ve padded the hell out of them and I expect this is where a lot of the slop will come from to fill other leaks," Gilbert wrote.
"I got bids for voice acting and translation then added 30 per cent. I have no idea on iOS and Android. I just chose a big number. This is where the voodoo of budgeting really plays out. If we had a producer, they would be spending more time nailing these numbers down. I’ve added enough extra that I feel comfortable."
And the rest…
Gilbert goes on to discuss the budgets for attending events such as E3 and Gamescom, legal expenses, accounting, software purchases and “the always important Misc”.
"Assuming we don’t get sued, these are fairly predictable and fixed expenses, but don’t forget them," he added.
It’s also important to budget for Kickstarter physical rewards, particularly in the wake of high-profile failures such as the cancelled Yogscast game.
"We have a fixed budget that was based on our final Kickstarter pledge numbers. It’s probably around 25% too high, but that gives us some flexibility to make a better boxed copy or use the money elsewhere on the project. Or, we might have estimated wrong."
Gilbert weighs up all of these costs and it still means heavy expenses for every month of production. And, he says, many Kickstarter creators are underestimating this.
"This is a pretty barebones project (but not scrappy) and it still costs $20,000 to $30,000 a month," Gilbert concluded. "It why when I look at other Kickstarters asking for very little money and they have a three page long team list, I get skeptical."