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How game devs can hire the best talent, even without salaries

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Nine Dots is a small indie start-up. The studio was founded three years ago, and we're currently a team of seven full-time developers.

Here's the catch: until recently, no one was paid a salary in the company. Fellow indie developers and start-up entrepreneurs always ask me the same thing: Where and how did I get these people?

I've spoken about the cost, both in terms of currency and mental health, you pay when you open a studio. Now let's talk about staffing it with high-quality talent. When you can’t pay people up front, you need to be able to convince them that you’re a good bet. This is how I did so.

Having a vision

The first mistake most people make when they start out is to focus on their game idea. The right people will join you if they believe in the company's vision, not in a game concept.

The company's vision is not just a catchy phrase you scribble down in a business plan that will never be read by anyone. I become enthusiastic whenever I talk about the vision behind Nine Dots, and this enthusiasm helps in generating interest.

This means your vision has to be something you truly believe in. Ultimately, the company's vision is what sets you apart. In a way, it's what determines your Unique Selling Proposition to the talent you recruit. You won't have someone jump on board for an indie project with no salary if they don't believe as strongly as you in the vision.

Don't focus on the game, focus on the studio you are building. You must demonstrate that you know where you are going in the long term. The first project will not be as good as the second one, and you'll scare people away if you look like all you care about is making your game idea a reality. They aren't doing it for you.

What we had to offer

I founded the company with the intent to create a very different development culture. That alone is by far my strongest selling point. Here's a list of things we do that no other studio around can offer:

No crunch time: My team almost never works more than 40 hours a week, and we have a hard cap at 52 hours. As the CEO I can't always follow that rule myself, but that’s only to ensure that the others don't have to break the cap themselves.

Everyone has a creative input: Developers feel like they are just a cog in the machine at many studios. Here we make sure the game's direction fits well with everyone, we play the game together every Friday and we listen to everyone’s comments on how we can improve the game.

We don't claim to own your soul: No one here signs a non-concurrence agreement that states you can't work on side projects. In fact, on the contrary, we encourage our team to have side projects, as it helps them learn new skills and they bring back this experience within the studio. We don’t own the total of your creativity, just the work you put into the game we work on together.

It's everyone's success: Everyone in the team will have a cut of the revenues of the game. In our case it was the only revenue we had for quite a while, but even now that we’ve secured some funds and can pay salaries, we intend to keep a share of the revenue to split among the team, for as long as the developer stays at Nine Dots.

Clarification: What I wanted to say but formulated poorly here is not that if the team leaves, they will no longer get their revenue share on the game they worked on for no salary, effectively "trapping" them into Nine Dots if they want to see the color of the money they earned. What I rather meant was that even once we have the funds to pay salaries in full to the full team, we still intend to do a revenue share with the developer involved (in a lesser amount, given that the risk is not the same), but only for as long as they stay within the company (since this money would be given as a bonus and not as a royalty). By wanting to be succinct, I effectively made it sound like a much worst deal than it really is. Sorry for the confusion.

We make the games we want: I've heard so many developers say that in X years of making games professionally, they never worked on a game they actually liked. That’s an efficient way to kill someone’s dream and passion. You can’t understand the audience unless you're part of it.

Recruitment works just like marketing. You need a unique selling proposition, and that is your company's vision and the type of games you intend to make.

The advantages of taking part in a start-up

I didn't have a salary to offer, at least not yet. That was a cold, hard, heart-breaking truth. However, it doesn't mean that being part of a bootstrapping start-up is a bad move for your career. We intend to grow, and being part of it at the start is a sure way to climb up the ladder quickly. Also, while it's a huge risk financially, it has a much higher potential return.

My team isn't working for free and we aren't doing it because we're young and stupid idealists. We're doing it because we believe that we can make a successful product. Being a smaller team, it also means that we don't need hundreds of thousands of sales to be highly profitable. In fact, it's possible that it will end up much more profitable than getting paid a regular developer salary. Admittedly, statistically the odds aren't in our favor on that goal.

We make few compromises and that is why passionate developers would want to join us. It's important for any start-up, not only indie game development studios, to have something to offer that is clearly different from everyone else.

There are clear advantages to be taking part in a start-up, and it is important to express these advantages. From less overhead to ownership in ideas and profits, you’re taking a risk in the hopes of a large, or at least sustainable, reward.

Location, location, location

There was so much raw talent that was unused here in Quebec it made my location easy to pick. There are schools teaching hundreds of students every year in all fields related to game development.

These students are often told that studios are looking for experience when hiring, as if there was a better way to get people of experience than by forming them yourself. Many of these developers would end up in QA for a few years before possibly moving to another field.

I went straight to the source

I worked in QA for over three years and I've seen extremely talented people getting de-motivated after years working as testers. I wanted to give them a chance to make games with a professional team, and it turns out that having such an opportunity to offer was enough for a lot of them, even without a salary.

So I went straight to the source. I went to portfolio nights, I talked with the students and the teachers, telling them I was starting a business and was looking for people to join me. Schools know that most of their students won't find a job in the field in which they studied, and it looks bad for them. So when I tell them I have openings in a startup they are not only receptive, they will actually collaborate with you to great length if you show professionalism.

I asked the directors of multiple programs to give me contact information of their best students that hadn't yet found a job. I also went to industry events, and offered to go in the classrooms to talk about independent game development. To this day, even though I'm not looking for more people to join our team at the moment, I stay involved with schools and help students build their portfolios to be ready for the industry.

It has paid off. I've met a lot of students personally during these events, but I also received list after list of people to contact. I interviewed them one by one, choosing those who had talent up to my expectations and who shared the company's vision. I had to make a few tough calls, and turned down many offers. Most of them were fully aware of our inability to pay up front when they contacted me, agreeing to a revenue-sharing model.

Talk with schools directly and give the hard working students a chance to show what they are capable of.

As an anecdote, the hardest role to fill was an animator. While our need for one was dire, we decided to wait until we find someone that was truly up to our expectations, and that meant waiting for the right person even though development had already started on our first game. It's not that we didn't have any candidates, but their portfolios did not suggest that they were ready to join us. It took over a month, but we ended up with someone very talented that was clearly the right match for the team.

Even when it means getting late on your schedule, even when you don't have a salary to offer, you can't afford to let someone join the team if he's not up to par with the others. Be patient!

As a developer, how to find the right team to join

We’ve all heard the expression "this is why we can’t have nice things". I’ve heard of many persons who were exploited as they wanted to join on such opportunities as the one I was offering myself. Not everyone is trustworthy and it’s important to be aware of the risks. There are plenty of teams looking for additional talent. You can find them on Kickstarter, in forums like TIGsource, on portals like Newgrounds or simply by word of mouth.

Being an "idea guy" isn’t enough

The first thing to find out: Are the founders investing their own money in the project? I’m not talking hypothetical money here. If they aren’t willing (or able) to invest at least $15,000 from their own pocket, chances are that they are not committed or prepared enough to succeed. This one is pretty harsh, but it’s a reality; in almost every case, you need to invest that kind of money to get somewhere. If a founder doesn’t want to take risks, there is no reason why you should.

The next thing you need to know is what exactly will be the role of the founder. Being an "idea guy" isn’t enough. At Nine Dots, I was taking care of administrative duties, marketing, production, game design and level design. I’m also kind of an odd one here since most good founders will have more "concrete" skills to offer, such as coding or art.

Another thing to be very wary of is any founder who makes promises of success. Nothing is that easy, there is no recipe for guaranteed success in games and anyone claiming the contrary is either out of touch with reality or dishonest.

There are other questions you need to ask yourself before jumping in. Does the founder seem to have a sound plan and a deep understanding of the game industry? Is the vision of the company something you could see yourself dedicating years of your life to, with no guarantee to make an income out of it? Are you willing to do more than your core skill to see the company succeed? What exactly is the deal and what do you intend to take out of the experience?

The most important question of all is: do you trust the people you are joining?

Conclusion

The simple truth is that there are more people who want to make video games than there are jobs in the industry, by a very large margin. If you know how to introduce yourself, have a coherent vision as to what you want to accomplish and understand that what you have to offer is mutually beneficial, you will be able to find developers to work with you. Selecting who you recruit is more important than finding interested developers.

Of course, living in Quebec offered a lot of advantages.

In the end, what matters most is to find people who share your vision and who will be able to contribute as much as you to the project. You have to know what you're getting into and why, while being aware of what you're willing to risk and the potential rewards. We've just released our first big game, so we'll see how it all worked out. Good luck.