Going Mercenary: Startup Costs of an Independent Game Developer

3D and UX Design for Games, VR and Animation

Going Mercenary: Startup Costs of an Independent Game Developer

May 30, 2012 Uncategorized 6

Ex-Zynga programmer turned Mercenary Games squad leader talks about going indie, setting up a successful Kickstarter campaign and how much it costs to start and continue operating as an independent developer.

In-Game Screenshot of FleetCOMM by Mercenary Games

Had a chance to write about some crowdfunding stuff last week in an interview with Jon Kimmich on putting together a campaign, the effect of crowdfunding on the games industry ecosystem, advice for the startup developer etc.

Which got me curious about where that money goes – when an indie team has a successful campaign, what do they spend that money on?

Slade Villena, ex-Zynga programmer turned mercenary (Mercenary Games in fact, heh), was awesomely generous with his time and spent many Skype hours in the intercontinental time vortex answering all my questions.


When did you guys decide to go for crowdfunding?

So, in terms of numbers, on why we needed Kickstarter – so far, the only two “full time” employees on the project are the two programmers. My artists, musicians, and my level designer all have other jobs – plus they’re still paying for school and university. They’ve been operating on my funds, when I was still going mercenary for other crews: all my salary from Zynga? That went to pay out to my crew for gear.

If I had to calculate the TOTAL cost I’ve spent personally on this project, it would easily reach 8k. Not counting the 2 years my partner sank into design time with me.

This kept us going for 6 months…then it ran out and it was our moment of truth. Everyone needed something to just keep surviving: tuition, rent, food, gear.

So we crammed for 2 weeks making our initial video and the pitch for Kickstarter.


How did you work out how much you would need?

First I figured out my living costs, then used that as the base figure for each of my 6 crew. We got that successfully, and more, enough to pay for legal, contracts, IP protection, etc

Total Raised from the Operation Vigrior campaign: $15,772 (of a $12,000 goal)

  • $13,000: room and board for the summer for all crew members
  • $760: contracts and legal fees
  • $500: LLC setup, website and domain maintenance
  • $500: Preliminary iOS gear for 1 developer
  • $416: Ben Canant’s royalty for making the awesome video and voice work
  • Total Remaining: $596


So What Happens Next?

This is just “Summer funding”

Come September it’s time for to deliver the PC build and we can’t really depend on sales during that time. Plus there’s a holding period on cash from Desura.

We want to start developing on iOS as soon as possible and my crew needs the gear for it.

We’ve set up a campaign on Indiegogo to fund the iOS cycle this fall – I want to pad my crew with an “insurance buffer” they can live on while we wait for sales.

And then there’s PAX 10 – if we break in we have to think about hotel fees, transport, booth gear…


Later that day…

After wrapping up the interview with Slade I tabbed over to a recent update on Slade’s Gamasutra blog where he’s announced an alpha-fundy perk: The “OMNI-PASS” – an all access pass to the entire game, in every iteration, all its expansions and DLC for every platform they support…forever. For $15. SO good!

Heh, reminds me of the early days of Minecraft when I found myself torn between kicking my game dev students off the server or telling them to keep playing because it was so damn cool.

If you’re setting up your own crowdfunding campaign, have a look at the IndieGoGo campaign Slade’s put together for examples of supporter perks, a breakdown of what still needs to be funded and sweet screenshots. Should give you some ideas for your own campaign, after you’ve worked out what operating costs you have to cover and for how long.


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6 Responses

  1. Ivan Beram says:

    Ah, new indie deadline… PAX-10, June 15.

    • Epona says:

      Ah hah! Yes! Good point!

      • Ivan Beram says:

        As long as your game is “in at least beta form.”

        I think in my case submitting next year is more likely, but, that’s just my own situation and game. If others think they meet that criteria or can by the due date then, they should give it a shot.

        It’s worth doing so just for the work you get done =).

  2. Slade V says:

    Beta form seems to be a debatable standard these days. Our crew is going for core functionality setup. Or, basically, if the entire level editor is working, and any given level is playable, we consider that a beta state.

    • Ivan Beram says:

      I think a lot of the (borrowed) development nomenclature’s “meaning” is debatable, along with, its appropriateness for game development; but, I’m probably alone on that one ;).

  3. AAYUSH SAXENA says:

    I am doing some research (as a part of MBA schedule) on social gaming. I want to know the start up expenses like licensing, Technology Platform, IP License from Owners, License for testing and approval for Games etc.
    My email – aayush82@hotmail.com
    Thanks in advance.

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