- Hades, an indie game in which players must fight their way out of the Greek underworld, has become an unexpected smash hit.
- The $25 game was made by a core team of 20 people at Supergiant Games, and is outselling titles from much larger video game studios.
- Supergiant Games studio director Amir Rao said when he moved into his father's house with his cofounder in 2009 to start the company, he had no idea whether the venture would work out.
- Rao shared lessons he's learned from over a decade of making critically-adored indie titles on how to manage the incredible workload of making games and foster a creative work environment.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Supergiant Games co-founders Amir Rao and Gavin Simon left their jobs at industry titan EA Games in 2009 and moved into Rao's father's house together to make games, they didn't know if things would pan out. But Rao was reassured by advice from his father, who told him that he was young enough that he could find another job and start over if the venture sunk.
"That was probably a silly thing to take for granted," Rao told Business Insider, "but it did help us in terms of trying to find our footing and take a risk."
More than a decade later, the gamble has paid off. Hades, a dungeon-crawling game in which players hack and slash their way out of an underworld with the aid of a pantheon of amorous Greek gods, is a smash hit. Since being released, the game has reached the top ranks of the Steam store and topped the best-selling games list on Nintendo's Switch gaming system. A indie game made by 20 people has displaced titles made by far larger studios with vaster resources.
A smash hit from day one
The game has been available to a limited number of players while being developed since 2018, but in the first few days of its wide release, the game — which costs $25 across the Nintendo Switch, Epic, and Steam stores— sold 300,000 copies, according to Supergiant. The studio declined to comment on its exact total revenue.
The game is also a critical darling. Reviewers have raved about the game's likable characters, addictive death-and-rebirth gameplay, and unconventional approach to storytelling.
Rao is flabbergasted by the game's success.
"We're really, really, really surprised by the overwhelming reception that we received for Hades," Rao said.
The games industry has changed greatly since 2009, making Rao hesitant to give out guidance to founders who aspire to the same success as Supergiant.
"My first piece of advice is beware of advice," Rao said.
What he can do is share lessons in how to manage the incredible workload of developing a video game with a small team, while fostering the kind of creative environment that leads to distinct games like Hades.
When Supergiant started in 2009, Rao and Simon were its sole workers. By the time they released their first game Bastion in 2011, the team had grown to seven people. Through its next two games Transistor and Pyre, the company employed only a dozen people. By the time it started working on Hades, Supergiant employed 20 people.
"We generally hire when we hit the point where there's too much for one person to do," Rao said.
Keeping the team small doesn't just make running the studio more manageable — it also makes it easier for individual workers to put their unique creative stamp on different aspects of the game like its art style and music, giving the endeavour a more personal feel than games pushed out by teams of hundreds of developers.
"That's something that's been important to us, that the game feels like people made it," Rao said. "So including new voices in that takes time, and you have to do it slowly and deliberately."
The video games industry is notorious for encouraging overwork. In 2018, Rockstar cofounder Dan Houser sparked criticism from developers when he bragged to New York Magazine that developers had taken on 100-hour work weeks to ensure Red Dead Redemption 2 was ready in time.
At a small studio, the lack of extra hands increases the workload. Rao realized as Supergiant grew that he wouldn't be able to maintain the alchemical mixture of creativity he prized if his team was stretched thin.
"If you're working a lot, it's because there's so much to do, and there's only a small number of you to do it," Rao said. "And so setting reasonable limits with yourself and with your peers, and the people around you, is essentially the only way you're going to be able to do it over a long period of time."
Supergiant has imposed a number of measures to ensure the studio doesn't push its workers beyond their limits, including cutting off work emails on the weekend and tailoring work schedules around people's lives.
The company also used to offer unlimited vacation days.
"But we found that very few people would take advantage of them, because there is so much to do," Rao said.
That prompted the company to switch to making 20 vacation days a year mandatory.
Rao said that without practices like these, the high workload and creative energy of Supergiant would be impossible to maintain.
"Over time, the vision of what we were trying to do came into focus," Rao said. "To make games that spark your imagination, like the games you played as a kid. To build on the strengths of the people here and embrace the constraints that we have as a small team, and try and make games around those constraints. To try and work in a sustainable way."
Got tips about video games or entrepreneurship? Email Max Jungreis at [email protected], DM him on Twitter @MaxJungreis, or contact him on encrypted messaging app Signal at (907) 947-0299.
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