Kris Durrschmidt is the co-founder, CEO and creative director of Crazy Viking Studios, an indie game development shop in the Seattle area. In the days just prior to completing his first major title, we spoke with him about life as a self-employed indie dev, the ups and downs of having complete creative control, and how to stay motivated.
In Part 2 of this interview, we’ll chat about running a Kickstarter, the future of the videogame industry, and advice for devs starting their careers in games. And – bonus! – the unsavory art portfolio that landed Kris his first industry job!
Ditching the Mainstream
You worked at a large, multi-team studio for ten years. What made you decide to leave the mainstream and start your own indie project?
I have to tell you first why I stuck with a company for a decade: Love. I loved the people there. I loved what they did every day and the passion those people brought to their work.
We worked mostly on licensed properties and most of us tried very hard to change the perception of what a licensed property could be for a video game. I enjoyed those years, working on a huge range of genres and handheld devices. I love classic gaming and during those days, prior to this indie renaissance we appear to be enjoying, I felt like handheld gaming was the best place to keep classic gaming alive.
That sounds like a great gig. Why did you leave?
It comes down to something really very silly: Buttons. I love games that require buttons. When the studio moved to mobile/phone/tablet games, it went into a direction I wasn’t in love with. Make no mistake, I love quite a few mobile games, but the majority of them just are not for me. Not because they are on phones and tablets, but because I do not prefer my games to be “touch only”.
Some pro devs dislike we went indie, but some indies don't like that we used to work professionally. Wtf, didn't know it is so clique-y.
— Crazy Viking Studios (@VOLGARR) July 27, 2013
Adjusting to Indie Life
What are some differences between working at a studio and working for yourself? Was it difficult to adjust?
HAHA! There are MANY huge differences! I’ll try to name a few.
Money. At a studio you get paid for X time you give the company. 40 hours (or more) a week and you get a salary. But working for yourself is a hustle every day. When working for yourself, the potential to make greater income is there. But there is also the chance you will go horribly broke doing it. There is comfort in working for another studio as the finances are something, as an employee, you don’t have to worry about every day. When you are working for yourself it is always on your mind. Always. The entirety of your business’s success or failure is on your shoulders. That is a very scary thing to a lot of people and I think it is probably why so few do it. It isn’t easy.
Self motivation. When I tell people this, I have gotten some raised eyebrows and the response of “Many employers look for self-motivated employees. It is something many expect in the work place.” Yes this is true, but the level of how much discipline and self motivation is required to be self employed or to be an independent game studio is on a whole different level.
When you work for someone else it is expected that you get to work by a certain time, have lunch at a certain time and go home at a certain time. It is usually someone else’s responsibility to provide you with tasks to complete, and your self motivation comes from interesting ways to solve problems handed to you from your employer. When you are independent you have no one telling you when to get up in the morning, when work is done for the day, what days you get to take off. Do you even bother putting on clothes to go to work? It is very easy to not work, to just goof off all day instead. Many collaborations and small game studios die from this all the time.
Trying to get in crazy shape so I can go as Volgarr for Halloween this year…but I might end up just being Karnov instead.
— Crazy Viking Studios (@VOLGARR) August 2, 2013
How do you stay focused and productive when that social framework isn’t there?
For me, my office is right across the hall from where I wake up. Every day I get up in the morning, take a shower get dressed like I am going to work. Enter my office and shut the door. It is work sanctuary. From 9am-4pm I respond to emails and handle the business of the studio. From 4-5pm, dinner. 5pm until about 11pm I am the studio artist.
This normally happens 6 days a week and I take Sunday off. However, since I am close to shipping Volgarr the Viking right now I’m working 7 days a week. When the work day is done I change my clothes into something more comfortable and go play Xbox or something in the living room or watch a movie. This helps me separate work and home life while working from home. It is also important to make sure you get some exercise. Very important.
That’s a really creative solution. Any other differences between working at a studio and working at home?
People! You get very used to seeing people every day at a bigger studio. When you work hard with and see the same people every day, you build strong friendships with them and they become part of your family. After all you spend more time with them than you do at your own home with your own wives, kids, husbands, girlfriend and boyfriends and whatever your family situation is.
One of the biggest struggles for me was how suddenly lonely I felt. Not getting to shake people’s hands. Hear about their adventures and the excitement they had for whatever projects they were working on. How their families were doing. Staying connected to the real world becomes hard to maintain and ends up being something you recognize is something you now need to put effort into.
The transition is a shock. It isn’t for everyone and it does take awhile to get used to. I didn’t hit my stride and sensibilities for this type of work for a good 5 months or so.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to working for a big studio? Or are you “indie for-evah?”
Don’t know! Take it one day at a time. I focus on hopefully making a good game people like, and we’ll assess what we need to do to make the next one. Does this mean the studio will grow? Maybe? We have discussed some of the games on our slate of things we would like to do that would require more help. Does that mean eventually we end up with an office space and 10 employees?
At the same time, what does indie for-evah mean? I know there are great properties out there our studio would love to work on if the chance ever came about. Like collaborating with Sega or Capcom on something. They have a few properties that excite [my business partner] Taron and I both. Everything we do may not always be considered indie, but we are indie now and for the foreseeable future and always in our hearts.
You Can’t Please Everybody
For many people, having “complete creative control” over their design would be the holy grail. But it can be a double-edged sword. What are the pros and cons?
This one is easy. The pro is that it is yours. No one gets to tell you what to do. You get to tell the story that you want, how you want it. The caveat being that you are still potentially limited by finances and timelines. Something that people don’t realize is that unless you are lucky enough to live rent-free, games are always on a timeline – people have to pay bills. So most of the time, you don’t get to take as long as you want to make something. Most of us are not Blizzard Entertainment. Oh and don’t be 3D Realms. Set deadlines for yourself, people. Stick to them. You will thank yourself later.
The cons are that not everyone is going to love what you make. Some people may even hate it. The trick is to be okay with that and not let it bother you. It is okay for someone to prefer Star Trek to Star Wars. I personally like Star Wars and the JJ Abrams Treks. I’m sure that is going to spark geek debates about my credibility all over the place now. Yet, that is what is cool about our medium. There is something for everybody.
Continue reading Part 2 of the interview (running a Kickstarter, the future of the videogame industry, and advice for devs starting their careers in games).
Kristofor Durrschmidt has worked in the videogame industry for over a decade as a Lead Artist and a Lead Designer. He started his own indie game studio in 2012. Kris can be reached via LinkedIn or at Crazy Viking Studios.
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