Ever wondered how the magic is done, which means, how a game studio gets organized?
Apart from the task of strict game developing (creating the art, writing, coding, bug testing...) there's a lot of tasks to deal with in this long journey of not only creating a game, but making it reach an audience of players.
Old romans used real lives to learn and extract knowledge. That was called "exemplum" and is not so far from what I am trying to do here. So, in order to learn and maybe teach in the process, I will focus on a real studio. For that reason, similar to the article featuring Aloft Studio, I invited Emiliano Pastorelli, from Hammer&Ravens studio. He is the director of the project and the crew, which means he has been leading the development of Empires in Ruins videogame for five years. That's not a negligible task. I am sure his experience will be gold to aspiring gamedevs, so here we go!
VIC: Thanks Emiliano for willing to answer these questions that, I am sure, a lot of beginner game developers have in their minds. I would like to open with the legal matters: which bureaucracy is necessary for funding your own game studio? Creating a trademark, legal issues...
HAMMER&RAVENS: Well, first of all, you need to open a company, and that can be either an easy inexpensive task or a costly nightmare, depending on the country you open it up. We picked Estonia as it's the country where I've spent the last 6 years, and it couldn't have been simpler and smoother. Mostly everything is handled online through the eID card and costs are very low. We couldn't have been luckier about that.
Trademark registration can also be done online through the euipo.europa.eu (at least for Europe), but that has quite a starting cost, so in general i would suggest registering it only once you are absolutely sure of what you need, what you want and having some hundred thousands euro to spend. Besides, a brand has an automated "protection" itself based on the use you make of it (cryptical but reliable words from our lawyer meaning that nobody can use the same brand, even though not trademarked, to produce a similar product as yours or that might confuse the user). Trademarking is needed only if you want to prevent ANY use at all of your brand, and for an indie studio, if a company makes a car gadget with your game name, usually it is not the biggest problem.
VIC: Speaking of brands, why you choose Hammer&Ravens for a name? What's the story behind?
HAMMER&RAVENS: Well, the responsible for that is me, and the passion for norse mythology I have always carried with me. To those unfamiliar, the Hammer draws its inspiration from Mjolner, the hammer of Thor, while the two ravens are Huginn and Muninn, memory and thought, the two ravens of Odin. We picked these symbols not just as classic nerdy icons, but because of what they represented for us in this quest to make a game (that we never expect to be a short or an easy one). Thor is a stubborn god, grumpy and unrelenting in pursuing his objectives, no matter how crazy they might be. Huginn and Muninn every day fly across Midgard (Earth) and report to Odin so that he knows everything that happens and can act accordingly. I could go on forever about symbolisms we found in those icons, I should stop before I fill up a full page 😉
VIC: Another capital issue: money. How much is the lowest budget to begin? Where does the money come from?
HAMMER&RAVENS: The lowest budget to begin with depends on the composition of the team and what external support or tools you might need. Costs can be fairly limited (of course if you neglect the "hidden" cost of endless hours of work thrown at it) if your team covers all the skills you need for production. The money to cover the additional costs (i.e. some assets, Unity licenses, the costs for the soundtrack production, etc), in our case comes from savings and freelancing gigs. Freelancing is done as seldom as possible as it delays the game production, but it is necessary to eat, pay the rent and cover up some of the expenses. Balancing that out with the work on the game is the key to survive as long as possible to see the release day before we're too old to enjoy it, or before ending up living under a bridge 😉
VIC: How does work get organize?
HAMMER&RAVENS: Our team is very modular by definition, with me leading the project and coordinating the separate pipelines. We try to keep it as agile as possible, using a Slack chat with separate channels, several trello tables and lately, as we need to crunch and push faster than before, also freedcamp to set weekly and monthly deadlines for the separate part of the production.
Our team largest component is the graphical pipeline. In general, for example for the enemy units it is structured so: Konrad produces the concept art for the enemy models, Alex models and texture them, John rigs and animate them, and finally George, the supervisor of the graphics department, polishes models and materials, renders them out in all the animations and finally packs them into sprite sheets (beside some special abilities ones each unit has 32 frames for 4 directions for Walk, Idle, Attack, Death). George and Alessio work on the static 3d assets, sharing the production and with again George taking care of the final polishing and rendering.
Then when i get the packed sprite sheets, I import them into unity, build the animations and implement them as prefabs, storing them in the data structures. Marcus is taking care of the SFX crafting and the whole 3D sound and audio engine, producing a modular asset he constantly update with new SFXs and modified features so to follow the evolution of the game itself.
Alban is on the UI/UX refactoring, playing the game build, taking notes, then sketching up and using invis.io to produce mockup versions of it for the testing. Once this design phase is completed, he will receive support from Konrad and George to produce the final visual assets, and I will take care of integrating them in game with animation and overall polishing.
I take care of the overall programming, keeping the separate deadlines aligned with each other and the internet and bureaucratic front face of the game and company.
VIC: About the Plot and design. Who writes the story of of Empires in Ruins, creates the units, balances damage, all that kind of stuff?
HAMMER&RAVENS: That is mainly me, with of course the whole team chipping in every time I propose an idea so that we can brainstorm and make the possible best out if it. Years ago, before even considering the making of a videogame, I decided that I wanted to write a fantasy book (it was a recurring thing since I was a child, usually I never went past 100 pages though). This time I believed in the task much more (and basically had to abort it with the beginning of the work in the game), but the book reached 620 pages. It was a low-magic military fantasy inspired by Ericsson and Cook's sagas, with grim characters, extremely corrupted societies, and not much glory or shiny paladins. I saw it a bit as a mirror of modern society. When the idea of making a game started, I picked a very small Principality (that even for the book standards was particularly unpleasant, governed by smug conservative noblemen) from the setting and from that a very secondary character for the player to impersonate: a grumpy alcoholic Sergeant, Hans Heimer. Despite a period of apparent peace, the little principality had old grudges with neighboring small kingdom, that had a slightly more steampunkish look to it. The opposing parties were set. Having a quite clear style in mind helped us designing the armies and the architectural look with a certain ease. After that, it was (and still is) a constant iteration process in order to balance them out in game, with me setting the stats and the skills, sending out a build for the team to test, and being insulted endlessly when they get killed too easily during the first battle of the tutorial.
VIC: For an independent Developer, what could be the plan on marketing and promotion?
HAMMER&RAVENS: First of all, the foundation of every indie, a constant online presence throughout the whole development is the key. Post daily and weekly screenshots and blogposts on Facebook, Twitter, IndieDB, Youtube, Reddit, etc etc is a vital part of Indie marketing.
Then when the time of release slowly approaches and you start having some decent material to show off (as it started happening now), start contacting the press for Q&As and interviews about the game and the team. Once the game will be ready, reach out for every single press contact you find (trying to focus on those journalists and websites that you deem more fitting for your target players), get ready to send out a LOT of game keys to Youtubers, and probably it makes sense to buy some ads on Facebook and on the right websites. And of course not to forget gamescon, but only when you feel the game can face public semi-unassisted usage, otherwise it can easily turn against you.
One little bonus thing we have when the final promotion time comes are resin models of our game towers handmade by the artisans of dungeonext.com, that we think can be pretty appealing as gadgets.
VIC: When the game is ready, how to distribute it?
HAMMER&RAVENS: Everywhere you can is the key rule. The more people that see it, the more people that you might sell it to. Steam of course is a vital one (we are luckily already Greenlit so we will escape the changes brought on by Steam Direct in spring), then Gog, Greenman Gaming, Humble Bundle, IndieGameStand, etc etc. Last years, european VAT laws made extremely difficult to sell the game directly through your website too, as you shall apply for each buyer the VAT of their own country. As you can imagine this overcomplicates things both in terms of selling engine and accounting. The solution is to use some widget provided for example by Humble Bundle to sell from your website. Of course they are not completely free, but that seems to be the only way to go.
VIC: When did you start developing Empires in ruins? At what point are you today?
HAMMER&RAVENS: The very first EiR (that shares not even a single line of code or file with the current version) got started by me and George in 2012 if memory doesn't fail me. It was 3D based and involved none of the 4X or turn based feature that the current one has. We saw that one more as a learning project to familiarize with Unity and the making of games. A couple of years later we decided that going for 3D meant competing with an endless competition that spanned across indies and AAA studios. Therefore we decided to take back the old memories from teenager years classics like AoE or Warcraft, modernize them and try to make something new out of it. The current EiR it's more or less 4 years old now. In the last two years, we found more likeminded and skilled people that decided to believe in our dream, and so here we are, a team of eight sailing towards victory or towards a rock ;). As for the current state of the game, I can say that finally things start to get finalized and click together. There is still a lot of work, but we finished the buildings, we implemented most of the engine, we are about to finalize all the units, etc etc. We won't reveal yet the release date we forecast, but we see summer as a realistic period for us to finally take this endeavour to an end.
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