Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues isn’t just made with money from Richard Garriott, nay, it’s made with money from tons of fans who have poured millions into the game. Richard Garriott himself has also put his money where his mouth is, leveraging himself as much as he could possibly afford to make Shroud of the Avatar not only a success, but a game that his fans desperately desire.
When you have a publisher behind your game, you’re given a finite amount of cash in order to produce a product that, hopefully, will sell beyond the original investment. Let’s say you’re given $20 million, you then have to figure out how to turn that $20 million into a game that’ll make, at the very least, the $20 million back, plus whatever additional expenses beyond that (marketing, distribution, etc.). You divide features into “possible,” “probable,” and “hopeful.” Then you start work.
With a publisher layer, there is a lot of things up in the air, especially in MMO development. The publisher / investors could demand the game launch ahead of schedule, to start pulling back their investment (especially during economic turmoil) or they could refuse to fund past a specific point, if the original investment isn’t enough to keep things going.
Developers who turn to crowdfunding don’t have such restrictions, which number far beyond the scope of this quaint article on SotA’s burn rate and actions that Garriott and his team make to insure that their game is not only going to launch, but it’s going to be a success, cooking as long as it needs in development to work, but not wasting a single bit of that cook time. The only restriction that they do have is first, the limited budget that they receive off of Kickstarter or whatever platform they start with, and then a forecast of how much money they may continue to raise from there.
I had the chance to sit down and have a brief chat with Richard Garriott about SotA’s burn rate (the term used to describe spending more cash than you have coming in, considering development is front heavy on spend) and what working conditions are like at Portalarium, and needless to say I was shocked about how much passion and commitment that Garriott and his team puts toward their game. One thing that’s critical to understand, above all else, is that these cost saving measures aren’t there just for Garriott to make money off of the game, he’s in it for as much as or near to what the backers are in it for.
Conventions and trade shows are very expensive, but often considered one of the most important aspects of marketing because it’s where you can get your game in front of not only journalists, publishers, potential investors, etc. but also, depending on the show, fans as well. It’s often the first place players can get their hands on the game.
Garriott refuses to spend money on trade shows, because that would be an excess waste of backer funds. Instead, Garriott lives the hobo life, camping out in other’s booths when he can, and only attending shows where they’re invited for free. Last year Garriott was camping in the Plantronics booth, this year he was camping in the Razer booth (CEO Min-Liang Tan is a Shroud of the Avatar fan).
For Dragon Con, he arrived as a guest of the convention, which doesn’t come free. While guests don’t have to pay to arrive, they do need to contribute in various forms. For Garriott it was at least four panels that I knew of, which are awesome, but still it is much cheaper for Garriott to come as a guest of a convention like Dragon Con, stay at an AirBNB, and fly coach then it is to have a booth at E3.
Events like E3 are very costly, you can maybe get away with as little as $30,000 for a booth if you do all of the work yourself and train your staff in the ways of carpentry, to stay in a 100 sq. ft. small space that provides no value. That $30,000 would likely barely even cover the rent for a 500 sq. ft. space, much less the insurance, other expenses, and then even having the booth built, which again is expensive unless you want to teach your main programmer how to use a bench saw. I’d estimate the average cost for a conservative booth at E3 to be around $100,000, including travel, build, and everything else, and that’s again for a really small space.
This all assumes you get in fast enough to even get space. This also assumes there is any return on your investment, that the $20,000 and beyond cost for exhibiting gets you that in return.
When you’re paying to play a game and provide it with the funds necessary to see fruition, would you like to think your $40 contribution was 0.04% of the necessary funds for them to hang out at a convention, or 11% of the plane ticket to meet fans at something like Dragon Con?
It’s admirable though, so much to me, that he chooses fan conventions and works so hard to conserve money – events like Dragon Con are not press events and while Ten Ton Hammer is so grateful we were allowed to attend as press, it’s made very clear that the event exists for its fans and that fans come first, which is where Garriott & co. would rather spend their time and money than to try and impress people at a trade show.
I don’t know about you, but that kind of stuff warms my heart so much and gives me goosebumps.
The team at Portalarium work in perfectly acceptable conditions, but each sacrifice a lot to keep the company’s spend down. They use Spartan style desk setup which is actually hard to find an office space that’ll let you do it. Offices have electricity and air conditioning set to a perfect level depending on the number of people that are allowed to occupy a specific amount of square feet. One office should have one person in it, but they’ll put two or three desks in that office space in order to save on rent.
“If a building knows we’re about to put that much density in it, they go thank you but no thank you.”
The issue is that there isn’t enough electricity and air conditioning for that space, so they have to leave the doors open and run power cords through wire tacks / wire raceways to help balance the power load. This has made them finding office space rather difficult, because no one really wants someone to pay for less space for more people, but they do it to save the backer’s money. This is changing, as they’re not penny pinching so hard, but at the same time it’s an example of the level of detail they go into to avoid wasting money.
As you can see in the above photo, conditions are perfectly fine, and there is still a full desk space to be used, so it’s not as if the employees are suffering, and it saves money in the long run.
Garriott, like many other crowdfunded studio leads, takes the lowest possible salary for benefits. For him, its minimum wage at any point the studio isn’t making a profit, which also includes the need to have a year+ of operating expenses before they’ll even consider any of the income profitable (the game must flow). Not only is this a major sacrifice, but we must all consider that Garriott has millions invested into the game.
“I have been at minimum wage at any time our revenue has been below breakeven, I take the first sacrifice of going back to minimum wage. At any time we’re profitable, I go back to making the same salary as other senior managers which is low compared to anywhere else in the industry and I’ve put millions of my own dollars into it. I say all of that just to say that this project is incredibly meaningful to me. I need it to succeed, I’ve funded it to the best that I can personally, but we are literally reliant on our backers.”
Garriott went on to explain that in his financial position, he’s tapped out on what he can contribute to the game. Going to space isn’t cheap, which he has no regrets on, but he’s spent his life savings multiple times on attempting to go and going, along with a vast number of other projects he’s worked on. It’s not a matter of him not wanting to give it more, it’s that his family’s financial security is at stake if he overextends himself any further.
That’s not to say that the game is in fear of running out of cash, but it’s to say that he’s thrown his money where his mouth is, and the game’s success or failure will determine if he’ll see a return on that investment, both monetarily and in the satisfaction of appeasing the fans of the Ultima series who some have been hanging around since the late 70s, early 80s.
Shroud of the Avatar is self-published with the funds that come directly from backers of the project. Garriott, someone who has worked with publishers the majority of his professional career, has not let a single one touch SotA, and for good reason – it’s just not a valid option for the project they’re working on.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be opposed to speaking to a publisher if I thought it would work, but I just don’t think we’d succeed that way. I think the way we’re doing it is right for the team, right for the users, and as long as we can pull it off, we’re doing our damnedest to be as frugal as possible. That’s not to say we won’t spend to get a tool to build a feature our users want, or the hours to build a feature that they want, but try not to spend a penny more. Even those robots? Those came out of my pocket.”
I’m sure that a publisher could probably throw more money at SotA, but is more money what it takes to make a good game, or having the freedom to do what you want, release how you want, and the full control to dictate how the game is developed? That’s the point of the backers and that’s why they believe in.
The Conference Room
So when you’re talking about saving money on office space, another way that you can save is, well, to use the extra room in the conference room to store extra belongings.
“In our conference room, one thing I like to do is put our whole team’s history up on the wall, which is as much the team’s history as my own, you know going back to the earliest Ultimas. I have this really nice wall with our story, except that’s our place where we store our extra crates of mice, and we have servers in there where we hold the main game code, and it’s not even a rack. Literally folding tables stacked on top of each other with computers and boxes, kind of bowing a little bit, and in the middle of my story of how aren’t we impressive developers look at our history, pay no attention to the piles of junk, and pay no attention to the refrigerator and freezer we inherited, that buzzes because the fan goes out. Okay, we’re getting our new offices, which we’re doing in November, let’s make sure the kitchen is behind a door and our conference room can tell a story without being interrupted by piles of junk.”
Their conference room is literally their storage area right now. This is going to change in their next office move, but for right now they’re literally piling things up in the conference room as if they were working out of a garage. That’s really admirable.
Garriott needs to be in office as much as possible, it’s a team effort, and he’s integral to the team. To make sure he’s able to be around and to never make the team feel their abandoned (my words not his) which I think is critical in development, considering Richard Garriott is involved in a lot more than SotA, like curing congestion in the streets of Austin or involved in various space flight programs.
“Every morning when I’m in New York, I log into one of our three robots. Because I’m in New York, I’m an hour earlier than Texas, so I’m actually one of the first in the office. I greet every employee as they come into the door, I attend every meeting, and I attend as normal but as a robot body. At the end of the day, around 5 to 6 o’clock I sign off.”
As noted above, he bought the robots with his own money, since he couldn't see asking his backers to pay for something he wanted.
So Much More
My time chatting with Garriott was limited, but nevertheless, there are more stories to tell and I’m committed to chasing them down, because this to me is one of the most interesting parts of game development and sort of history in the making. Even in 2015, game development is a harsh world, and to see your dreams come to fruition sacrifices have to be made, especially for something like Shroud of the Avatar which most publishers would probably never, ever allow it to be made in the way that it is. It caters to a specific market, that isn’t the largest possible, and as such it’s up to both fans and the developers to make it the best possible thing for that market space.
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