Evergreen has been in development for around 2 years now. We are not finished but I thought we could share what we have learned so far about the cost of making our first indie game, as well as where the money that we have received came from.
When we first formed as a studio we found that finding data on how much games cost to make was very difficult, which made it hard for us to put together realistic estimates for ourselves and when pitching Evergreen to funding bodies. The figures we could find were made murky by kickstarter projects which funded only a fraction of the actual cost of development and a positive bias on projects that had smooth development and had successful releases.
Our experience might be quite different to game devs from outside Australia, as a large part of our cost of living expenses have been provided by the Australian Government, and we realise that we are lucky in this regard. We generally knew where the money for rent, or our next meal was coming from and we tip our hats to the many devs around the world who took much larger risks in countries without a safety net like Australia.
One of the first questions we are often asked when the finance of game dev comes up is “where do you get your money from?” Without any existing titles to fund development we have relied primarily on the local and federal government grants, support from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, and from funding given out to fund startups in the local area.
Centrelink - Approximately $87,750
During the first year of Evergreen’s development we were studying as part of the AIE’s Incubator program and were eligible for a student allowance under the Australian Government’s Centrelink program. Since then some of the team have continued to study and receive the payments, and other team members have moved to the New Enterprise Investment Scheme which funds cost of living for people starting up small businesses. These payments cover the basic cost for a person receiving them and we would not have been able to work on Evergreen full time if they did not exist.
AIE Post Incubator Grant - $29,942
After finishing the AIE’s Incubator program we were eligible to apply for a part of a $150,000 grant pool which was competed for by post Incubator teams from Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne. After delivering a pitch for the company and our game we were successful and were one of a handful of funded teams in 2015. The AIE’s grant is unique in that they will allow for a portion of the grant to go towards costs of living for the developers, which is something no other grant we have applied for will allow. We are given money after the completion of development milestones which can lead to a fair amount of pressure as deadlines approach. Thankfully, AIE recognises the unpredictable nature of the field and has been willing to give us some flexibility when we've needed it. This grant came with some obligations for crediting AIE in Evergreen (which we would have done anyway).
Contract Work - $??,??
Two of the members of Siege Sloth have taken up occasional contract work to fund their cost of living after completing the Incubator Program. Since this money does not go through Siege Sloth the numbers are outside of the scope of this article but writing about it is necessary to get a full idea of where the money for Evergreen’s development comes from.
We have kept a casual eye out for jobs we can take on as a company, but work that fits our schedule and makes use of our full range of skills are rare and nothing has panned out for us so far. Doing contract work can be a good way to fund development for a time while also gaining skills but it can lead to conflicting priorities between the contract work and work on company IP.
AIE Business Development Grant - $15,000
Each member of Siege Sloth’s enrollment in the AIE Incubator Program came with a $3,000 individual grant, intended to help with company startup costs. We used this money to buy some much needed equipment (like a NAS for SVN repo and backups) as well as to buy advertising materials for demoing at PAX Prime later that year. Much of the money has been put aside and is being used when unexpected costs or events have popped up during development.
InnovationACT - $10,000
InnovationACT is a local organisation that centers around teaching business skills to students with entrepreneurial aspirations. The program culminates in a pitching competition where participants can win some seed funding for their innovative businesses ideas. We took part in this program in 2014 and were one of five teams lucky enough to receive a share of the funding.
ACT Government - $3,010
In the lead up to our trip to PAX Prime in 2015 we became aware of a grant being offered by our state government that would partially fund approved expenses for Canberran companies that were aiming to export a product overseas. We had a meeting with a representative from the Government and were surprised by how supportive he seemed towards the idea. After completing an application and being accepted we were able to get half of the money that we spent on approved expenses (like airfares, hotels, and food) for the PAX trip.
The entire process was surprisingly painless though as an additional condition of the grant we have to acknowledge the help of the ACT government in Evergreen’s credits as well as certain advertising materials. We have since approached them about future trips and the potential for funding from other grant programs.
Stir - $1,000
Stir is a platform that provides crowd-voted micro grants for creative projects in the Canberra region. It relies on locals voting your idea to the top in a set time frame in order to receive funding. We used the money to go to AVCon in Adelaide and show off Evergreen.
$13,800 Dollars Spent + $16,950 in Sponsored activities / resources
One of the main hurdles for indie developers today is getting a game noticed by the intended audience. Early on we decided that we would have to get Evergreen into player’s hands in order for them to understand what the game was about. To that end we have used a large portion of our marketing budget to attend conventions which has allowed us to talk to players and get feedback on the progress of Evergreen as well as build a small but passionate community around the game.
Marketing Budget Cost Breakdown
Most of the fields in the above graph should be self explanatory, but there are two which will need some further explanation.
Other refers to all of the advertising expenses that don’t fall into another category nicely. Many of the costs in this category could have been avoided with a better media strategy and are the result of Evergreen’s shifting release date. The biggest available expense in this category was the production of a video for a Kickstarter campaign that we ultimately decided not to run soon after filming. This choice was the result of a few factors, including advice from industry experts and some of our other costs falling significantly short of our predictions. We could have also saved a lot of money by having a better idea of when we were going to release and only attending shows when the game was more likely to gain press and fan attention.
Sponsored activities / resources represents advertising activities that Siege Sloth didn’t pay for but were instead provided for us. The bulk of this section can be attributed to the trip to PAX Prime that the AIE incubator provided when we went through the program.
The sponsored activities / resources also covers the times we have saved on booth space by attending a con as part of the AIE booth, and the free booth space at the Indie Megabooth last year care of the Megabooth Alumni program and Stage 2 Studios.
$6,112 Dollars Spent + $34,450 in Sponsored activities / resources
Having a dedicated office space has been a huge help to Siege Sloth Games and the development of Evergreen. It allows us to collaborate efficiently and having a physical space to allow you to change into a work mindset definitely helps the team’s productivity. Our office also adds to our credibility when dealing with clients for contract work or when meeting media or representatives from the government. Other costs such as bank fees, equipment, and the cost of filing tax returns would be incurred even if we did not have a dedicated office.
Office Cost Breakdown
Insurance was needed to fulfill the requirements of our heavily subsidised lease. It covers us against fire, glass breakage, and theft and also covers the company from public liability both in the office and when we have booth space at conventions. This public liability is needed by some conventions so we would likely have at least this cover even without the office.
Rent for us is extremely cheap due to support from the AIE in conjunction with Canberra Technology Park. Without this support we would not be able to work together in a space, and a large portion of the Sponsored activities / resources category in office costs is accounting for the full amount that a space like ours would normally cost if we were located elsewhere.
The cheapest office space for a team our size in our area would have cost us $24,000. Because of our situation, rent has cost us only $500.
Equipment covers routers, cables, and network storage. Our computers were provided by the AIE as part of the incubator program and are accounted for in the Sponsored activities / resources category instead of here. A large portion of this cost was incurred when we purchased two monitors for each station which is nice but isn’t necessary in order to start work.
Tax covers the cost of hiring an accountant to submit our tax return for the 2014-2015 tax year in Australia, and the costs involved in lodging the small amount of paperwork that we had to provide the IRS in order to get onto steam and pay a US based contractor.
Other covers the costs of the second hand furniture that we purchased when setting up the office as well as miscellaneous costs like pens, paper, and other consumables.
$15,195 Dollars Spent + $341,588-$940,000 in Sponsored activities / resources
The cost of allowing a team to work solidly for the required time is often one of the largest hurdles to making games. At the beginning of Evergreen we decided to do our best to work on it full time, but we also realised that bare necessities like food, shelter, and transport all incur their own costs and that sometimes having the money to pay for these things would have to come first.
During the first year of development we were also taking part in the AIE’s incubator program and were eligible for government cost of living support as students. Once that year was over some of the team continued to study and receive a payment while the other team members lived off savings or took on contract work to make ends meet.
This year two of the team members have signed onto the government NEIS program. It required 6 weeks of full time work from one of us (in the form of a cert IV in small business) before we could start receiving payments and the necessary reporting adds a significant amount of administration overhead. This scheme will only support us for 9 months and can even end before that if our business does not show results.
While the company can’t afford to pay us even a minimum wage, we can afford to pay each founding member $50 a week to offset some of the extra costs of working. While this money isn’t 100% necessary (and would be the first cut when things get tight) the money does help to relieve some of the strain that comes with having an income that only just covers your food and rent, as is the case with most of the team.
We also very roughly calculated the costs that we would have incurred on staffing if the core team were paid at both Australian Minimum Wage and at an industry standard wage. These numbers are a ballpark and things like super contributions and other fees and taxes have not been taken into account.
Pay per hour Hours Worked Total
Minimum Wage $17.29 Approx 20,800 $340,000
Industry Wage $45 Approx 20,800 $940,000
The above described values equal our sweat equity in the project and company. The minimum wage amount is a realistic figure of the minimum needed to continue operating as we are during the next project. In order to continue with a new project after Evergreen we will need to do one or more of:
Recoup at least close to the minimum wage in sales
Limit the scope of any future project dramatically
Work on our own IP in tandem with contract work
Subsidise this difference with grants or other funding
$1,516 Dollars Spent + $1,400 in Sponsored activities / resources
While we try to keep all jobs in house and do our best to learn what’s needed sometimes a task needs specialist knowledge and experience that it just isn’t practical for us to learn. We have covered the cost of an accountant in the Tax section above and we also have contractors for:
Engineering expert to help with the custom physics system that Evergreen requires
We have only paid for a fraction of the sound that we will need for the final game and we estimate the final costs will be closer to the 5k mark for even our basic needs. We have come to realise the critical nature of sound in games and the difference it can make in turning what seems like a student project into a polished product. Because of that we have already decided to exceed our sound budget and put some of our unallocated money into extra music and sound effects.
We have only managed to get the cost of sound so low because a (very skilled) friend is creating music for us at a low rate, with sales based bonuses upon the game's release, and we are working with a very qualified sound engineer who is excited by the project and was happy to work within an indie budget.
$137 Dollars Spent + $500 in Sponsored activities / resources
Since we have embarked on the development of Evergreen the landscape for game development software has changed dramatically. These changes make obtaining and using professional grade software free or very cheap during development and rely on payments once a product is released.
This has resulted in much lower software costs then we were anticipating but we do have to keep in mind that for the most part we have only deferred the cost of using these programs and that the more software we use during development the higher the costs we will incur when we release.
Evergreen is by no means complete, and while these numbers represent a large fraction of the development costs they do not represent the full cost of making a game. We hope that this overview has been helpful and we are committed to transparency in both our company and Evergreen’s development.
So far we have spent over $36k in cash during Evergreen’s development, with much more value being added by taking advantage of government programs, the support of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, as well as other companies and programs. We realise that not everyone is going to have access to the same programs and opportunities which we have been lucky enough receive but we have found that it is well worth looking into these sort of programs both locally and federally.
We have found that even outside of the games space a company with a strong business plan can be taken seriously, and we hope that this article will allow new startups to refine their own projections and put themselves into the public eye and show that indie game production can lead to successful businesses while also providing joy, a place to relax, a useful tool in a number of industries or a unique and modern artistic expression.