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Interview: Broken Rules on running a studio and Chasing Aurora

I first met the guys from Vienna-studio Broken Rules at the “indie hostel” during GDC. I remember them sitting in the overcrowed lobby, discussing and playtesting a new project and bouncing ideas back and forth. It was an interesting contrast to other indie games, which often are designed by one or maybe two people. I asked Felix Bohatsch how they run their studio.

Broken Rules started out as a student team – today it has 7 team members. Do all of you have the same stake in the company? Does everyone work full-time, or do you rely on additional sources of income to pay your rent?

Clemens, Martin, Peter, Jan and I all have stakes in Broken Rules. These five are also employed full-time at the company. Andrea and Josef are employees and work about half-time.

Until now we only once did contract work and struggled a lot with it. At the end it was not worth it financially. As long as we can afford to, we want to avoid doing contract work in the future. Currently we are only working on our next game Chasing Aurora.

In 2010 Broken Rules merged with iOS developer Radiolaris. What was the reason of merging the two teams?

Merging with Studio Radiolaris was never planned, but when the opportunity showed up we did it. Studio Radiolaris was founded by two people who we knew from university. We used to share an office with them for a long time as well. After developing three games for iOS, Fares, one of the founders, wanted to return back to an academic career. Martin wanted to continue developing games and as we knew and trusted him, it was a logical step to merge the companies, games and talents.

With a bigger team coming from different backgrounds, is it harder to follow a single vision? What are the pros and cons of merging compared to just working together on a project while keeping companies separate?

Yes, it is harder to follow a single vision. We try to periodically re-focus our vision in the team by talking about it, killing darlings and doing esoteric stuff like manually cutting and pasting a giant analog moodboard. Following Gaijin Games’ Storytelling through Symbolism talk at IndieCade 2011 we try not to worry too much about diverging interpretations of the vision, though. Instead we see it as an opportunity that might help us communicate the vision to a broader audience.

One pro of having everyone who’s working on the game in the same company, is that it is easier to deal with financial issues. First it is easier to work for a smaller income, if you also hold stakes in the company. Second we don’t need complicated contracts upfront that try to fairly split the risk and possible future income. Everyone gets paid the same income and if the game is financially successful it simply means that Broken Rules can keep paying and keep developing great games.

Cons are that everyone has a say on the design of the game. We keep things very democratic, and while that can be a bit tedious sometimes, it generally works well for us. It also means that everyone is creatively invested in the game which keeps motivation up and everyone happy during the long process of developing Chasing Aurora.

What does a typical day at your studio look like? What’s the day-to-day process of working together on a Broken Rules game?

Everyone has a slightly different work rythm – and three guys have babys at home, but we have core working hours, where everyone of the team is at the office. Some come and leave earlier, some later, but we usually have a few hours every day where everyone is at the same physical space. This assures face-to-face communication, which we find to be usually faster and more efficient when dealing with problems. It is even more important as we are continually improving our in-house engine Ginkgo in parallel to building Chasing Aurora with the same engine. Things break and it’s way easier to fix bugs when one can look over the shoulder of the one who has a problem.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday we do a SCRUM meeting when everyone is at the office (usually around 11:00 am). These meetings help everyone to be up-to-date on the process of the game and highlight dependencies.

We try to have teams of two to three people working on a specific task. More people make communication harder and less people usually result in insular solutions to a given problem. Four eyes see more than two. When someone is away we try to find tasks that can be worked on alone.

What tools are you using to communicate with each other and to organize your projects?

We try to do most communication while everyone is at the office. We have an analog SCRUM board where the tasks for the next two weeks reside. We adapted SCRUM to our needs. I would say it’s quite a loose and flexible interpretation of it. Basically we write a task and who’s responsible for it on a small piece of paper and stick it to the board. The task starts in the to-do section and then moves from In Progress via Check to (hopefully) Done. We found that sprints of two weeks work best for us. You can read more about how we SCRUM on our blog.

Usually only big tasks like “build situation X”, or “improve flight behaviour” are written down on the SCRUM board. For finer detail we use Basecamp, where we keep todo lists for our smaller tasks and bugs. We also use the messages and writeboard features of Basecamp to slowly communicate about specific design topics.

To structure our process we play test often, basically every three weeks. Usually with about 6 people. These tests give us a deadline to work towards and keep us focused on what the players want of the game.

For milestones we try to use externally dictated moments, mostly festival submission deadlines, conferences or expos. Simply because these are harder to push.

Your first game And Yet It Moves is available on Wii, PC, Mac and Linux. Players can buy it from multiple channels, including Steam, Mac App Store, Humble Bundle, your own website and others. What’s your experience with having a multi-platform strategy? Is the extra work needed to get it on other platforms and channels worth the additional sales? Which channels worked best for you?

Going multi-platform worked great for us. This approach made the long tail of And Yet It Moves possible. Interestingly enough, 2011 was the most successful year for And Yet It Moves financially. Two years after its launch!

The most important channels for And Yet It Moves are Humble Bundle, Steam, Mac App Store and WiiWare.

You’re currently working on an ambitious new game. In Chasing Aurora players control a bird flying over the alps. How did you decide on the game idea and setting? How long did it take to find a vision for the game?

Yes, it definitely is ambitious. To tell you the truth it grew a lot bigger than we originally wanted it to be. We recently realized that our expectations of what a Broken Rules game has to look and feel like, will always make for an ambitious project.

It all started with flying, wind and motion controls. We built a few prototypes that mostly focused on elegance and soaring through channels of wind. After a few month we postponed these ideas and focused on the playfulness of flight and the freedom one gains through it. We build a local multiplayer prototype, which I would say was the starting point of Chasing Aurora.

Mountains where part of the idea from the start. (Fun fact: the original project title was Fujiyama.) Early on we decided to use the Alps as a setting as it is a part of the world we all know very well, as we are living and working in Austria. We wanted to get inspiration from something local, rather than something exotic.

We started brainstorming circa January 2011, while we were working on contract work and still building our own engine. I would say that we only recently pinpointed our vision. So it took us about a year of prototyping and discussion to develop a clear vision of what we want to convey with Chasing Aurora.

How do you fund the development of Chasing Aurora? What development time are you expecting?

We are partially funded by departure, a fund for the creative industries given out by the city of Vienna, and through the sales of And Yet It Moves. We will launch Chasing Aurora in 2012, so we expect a total development time of about 18 month.

Despite common advice of extracting tech from existing projects, you decided to develop your own 2D game engine Ginkgo from scratch, after experiencing trouble with Torque. What have you learned from building your own tools?

It’s both scary and exhilarating at the same time. It’s scary because it takes a lot of time and resources away from working on Chasing Aurora. Ginkgo was mainly made possible because in 2010 we got a subsidy from ZIT (also Vienna) to build the core foundations of it. That was a major point in deciding to build our own engine. The big danger of programming everything ourselves, is that we might get caught up in feature creep. Especially because engine tasks are easier to define and close, thus being more fulfilling to work on, than game tasks. To avoid this we keep a close look on what features are really needed and what things can be done via workarounds instead.

It’s exhilarating because Ginkgo is already such a great tool, that is built exactly to our needs. It really is a joy to work with. And as Ginkgo was planned to be platform independent from the start, we look forward to easily port our future games to multiple platforms. This will hopefully enable an even longer tail for our future games.

What’s your advice for people who both want to make their own games and a living from it?

Do what you love and what you do best. Always keep a close look on what you want to convey with your game, kill your darlings and focus on what the player will experience. Start small and don’t aim too big.