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Rok Breulj shares what it’s like to run a game studio

In Meaningful work interviews I talk to people about their area of work and expertise to better understand what they do and why it matters to them.

Rok Breulj is the founder of Proxy Studios, a small indie game studio that makes PC games. Their biggest title to date is Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War. He shared how to get into game development, what it takes to get a big IP license such as Warhammer 40k, and the skills required to complete a video game.

How do you describe what you do?

Our writer once described me as a quirky coder. That description is not without merit. Besides coding, I manage team, marketing, and PR communications. I talk to players and make both low-level and high-level decisions. I’ve implemented a lot of our UI and UX, our platform-support systems, production pipelines and the multiplayer backend, but lately I’ve been focusing on project management and marketing.

What’s the size of your team?

We are four core team members from Slovenia, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. We work with several external contractors that help us with different aspects of our projects. We’ve been working remotely from the very beginning of our company.

How do you organize your workday? How do you balance between meetings and work time?

It depends on what phase the project is. In the beginning, we’ll have more meetings around game design and project structure. That can be pretty stressful–getting everyone on the same page and agreeing on things. But once you get a budget and momentum going, it gets easier. We only have one standing weekly meeting, and the rest we schedule as needed. A review of contractors’ illustrations would prompt such a meeting.

I start my day with sports and transition to working at 9-10 am and continue until about 2 pm. These are my most productive hours, and it’s when I code and do similar focused work. Sometimes we do pair programming as it’s very beneficial in the early stages of the project when you’re creating the foundational systems and architecture of the system. Later in the day, I do less intense things like email, checking player feedback, or research.

How did you get started on this path of having a game studio?

In high school, I played thousands of hours of Guild Wars, an MMORPG. There I met my current business partner. We ran our guild, and we were in first place for a year.

My cofounder was already studying Computer Science and wanted to make computer games. I got interested in making games too, and I started learning C++ in the summer before my first year of Computer Science studies. He helped me review my code and gave me pointers where I could do better. I was also looking at his code, and we continued our collaboration from there.

Eventually, we made an independent student game that ultimately failed. We did learn a lot from it and got an honorable mention at IGF (Independent Games Festival).

This recognition got us in touch with a UK publisher, and my partner got a job working for them. Later on, the publisher asked us if we wanted to do our own project and if we had any ideas. We got a bit of funding to make Pandora: First Contact. It was successful for that time and the fact that we were still finishing our studies. Eventually, the same publisher asked us if we wanted to do anything with the Warhammer license, and we pitched a project, got accepted, and created Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War. This time we were very successful.

What’s your advice for people that want to get into the business of making games?

Make as many projects and little games as you can. Just make anything. Don’t focus too much on networking. It’s mostly a waste of time. The publishers are looking for a portfolio and understanding of what you’ve done. You’re going to impress them with that and not by talking and being nice to them.

These can be little projects with a specific focus, such as trying a unique game design or diligently working on a mod for an existing game. You need to have something playable. Learn a bit of everything in the beginning, especially if you want to start a studio. You’re going to need to know how the whole game comes together and everything that’s involved. It takes the skills of coordinating with other people, managing the art and code, and the process of game design. You’ll get opportunities to impress some of your peers at first. Afterward, you’ll be able to impress some people with money, which will open up new opportunities for you.

We hear of these big teams of people making games. How does a single person even begin to approach something so complex?

There are two possible directions. You can make a fancy version with a small scope. You could take Unreal Engine, which is free, and complete a small fleshed-out project. For example, if you make a combat simulation of some sort, it can just be one level, or it can just be two characters fighting. If you do that well and pay attention to detail, you can impress a lot of people.

The other direction could be a more straightforward game, and the graphics could be elementary 3D shapes. Create a whole game and show that you understand everything that’s involved.

If either direction turns out to be a success, you can expand and iterate on it.

How long does it take you to release a new project?

Warhammer 40,000: Gladius took three years to make. But then we’ve also been releasing additional content for it, which has been another three years.

How do you keep focus for three years?

It’s a challenge. I think you have to keep it interesting for yourself. Wearing multiple hats works very well for me. One day I’m doing game design, deciding which functions or units will be in the game. On another day, I’m implementing the integration with Steam. I might also be thinking or working on PR and marketing. There’s always something to do.

It’s also not as bad as it sounds because as there are natural phases to the project. In the beginning, it’s design and more deep thought oriented. You’re trying to make good decisions and working on prototypes. Later on, you’re deep in the production cycle. You’re integrating assets, managing people, and dealing with all the challenges that crop up.

It might be more challenging if you’re doing it alone. If you have good teammates that are into different aspects of it, you’ll motivate each other. 

Anything else that you’d like for people to understand about making games for a living?

If you’re starting your own company, you need to have business and marketing skills. You need to build things that people will want to play. You need to understand what’s financially viable and is at the same time interesting enough so that you’ll be able to finish it.

Understanding games is also a skill you need to develop. Just like filmmakers watch films and think about them, you should do the same with games. Think about what makes a particular game stand out, what its competitors are, and what else you can learn from it.

Our first project only had a multiplayer mode, plus it was a hardcore strategy game. It didn’t have enough players, so it never took off.

What did you learn about marketing indie games?

You should be smart with how you allocate your resources. As an indie you usually can’t just spend $100,000s on advertising,  elaborate promotional videos or gold sponsorships.

One thing that you can do is to leverage Steam’s algorithms so that they’ll promote your game for you. There’s a concept called “wishlist velocity” that affects how much visibility you get on Steam. So you can take part in events that integrate into Steam, and you can buy placement on their events list. It will make more people aware of your game, and they’ll wishlist it. Great marketing also has an effect — awesome screenshots and understanding how people navigate the Steam store.

The best resource on this topic is The GameDiscoverCo newsletter.

Do you have any resources or general recommendations?

Books on Effective C++ by Scott Meyers help with essential guidelines for how to write good C++. It’s such a big language, and it’s easy to get it wrong. In general, be a perfectionist when you start to code and fade out the overthinking later.

Naval Ravikant is full of endless wisdoms on life–especially the topics of wealth and happiness. He vocalizes some of the lessons I’ve learned through experience. Have a look at the Almanack of Naval Ravikant. My favorite lesson is to relentlessly value my time. Make sure that what I do is in the direction of what I want.

What I learned from talking with Rok

Game design is business, art, and skill. You need to be open to multidisciplinary work to make it happen in practice.

Building in public and releasing your work to the public leads to better and more opportunities.

Communication is what makes teams work. You can’t work alone and expect good results. You also need to study and learn all the time as the world and markets keep changing.