When we started brainstorming for what would eventually become Weird Ghosts, we spent several months talking to funders and game developers across the world to learn how we could build a fund that would actually meet the needs of underrepresented game creators. During this time, we also sent out a survey through our networks about the barriers to funding for Canadian indie game developers, particularly those from marginalized populations. Between the survey and these conversations, we have heard countless stories about the difficulties accessing funding and staying afloat as an indie game dev in Canada.
In this blog post, we reflect on what we have learned from these stories so far and how they have helped shape the way we structure Weird Ghosts. By writing this, we hope to create an archive of the current funding landscape in Canada, as well as make suggestions for future improvements.
What we Learned
Location and Access
Our survey responses came from six provinces, predominantly Ontario and Quebec (where we are located) as well as Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and British Columbia. The results revealed that, although funding is difficult to access for game devs in major cities and provinces, it is even harder for those in locations such as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, where provincial funding support can be extremely extractive. The Territories are also severely underrepresented in indie game communities in Canada, and this can be seen in our survey results as well.
Many of the people we heard from have had difficulty finding communities of other game devs where they feel welcome, particularly those who are from more remote areas or come from a marginalized identity group. Without community, many early game devs aren’t able to gain experience or access the resources they need to receive funding.
Several of the people we heard from described how early mentorship and access to communities would have prevented later issues with their studio. Although adequate funding is necessary for early studios, without mentorship and other resources, that funding can only go so far. Money alone can’t address the lack of experience that so many early studios have.
Early Studios and the Lack of Experience
Applying for funding involves knowing the “unwritten rules of applications,” such as how to write a grant, how best to pitch your studio/project, how to make a budget, and so on. Many early studios also don’t know how to run a business, such as schedule and communicate about production, manage employees, or deal with conflicts. Marketing is also a big mystery for many early studios. Even those who have gained experience from years of applying for funding find that years of rejections has hurt their confidence and self-esteem, which becomes its own barrier.
Without access to communities and resources, these early studios are set up to fail, and therefore most funding goes to those who already have experience, such as those who have worked for AAA studios before or have other industry connections.
One of the biggest challenges of the funding landscape right now is that teams need money to make money. Many funds require that teams already have funding in order to receive more, or they only cover certain costs, meaning that studios have to scramble to fill the gaps in capital. One of our investees described to us how the funding cycle leaves him and his team “on a constant hamster wheel” of barriers.
Survival and Sustainability
The people that we are interested in funding are the ones who haven’t had those previous supports and opportunities that appeal to funders. These are often people without any cushion of capital or resources to rely on. There are also many broader systemic issues facing underrepresented game devs, such as the costs of capitalism, climate change, the pandemic, and more.
Many of the stories we heard from our communities were ones of simple survival. Of wanting enough money to live on and pay others to live on. Of wanting access to healthcare, childcare, and food. So many indie game devs across Canada have to juggle freelance work or other jobs to make game development a survivable possibility.
Survival should be the bare minimum offered by funding. Teams should be able to sustain themselves and thrive. Many people found it difficult to sustain a team when all the funding they were getting was project-based, thereby leaving them with no opportunities to build a solid and healthy foundation for their studio.
Further, many teams have difficulty finding the time to apply for funding. Some of the survey respondents expressed spending anywhere from 5-16 hours a week looking for and applying to funds. Many talked about how applications can take many weeks or months to prepare and that they still rarely receive any funding. All of this work becomes time taken away from making games and actually building the studio.
Risks, Repayment, and Autonomy
For many early studios, having control over what they make is extremely important, especially for people who have been excluded and marginalized within games communities before. However, many existing funds require studios to give up their IP or equity in exchange for funding, forcing indies to choose between compromising their goals or getting the resources they need.
Our research showed that many underrepresented game devs are very wary of repayment and are looking for no-strings-attached funding and grants that won’t leave them in debt. Several of them described funds with extremely extractive recoups that would leave the studio unable to pay themselves or would take too much away from the company. In the case where recoup is necessary for a fund, the desire was to let studios cover their costs first so that they can survive even without releasing a mass hit.
Although funding is meant to help studios survive and thrive, these stories showed us that sometimes the funding itself can become a barrier to making games and fostering community the way so many early indie studios would like to.
What We Created
Above, we’ve identified many of the barriers to accessing funding that face indie game developers today in Canada. Based on what we learned, here is how we’ve aimed to address these in building Weird Ghosts.
Location and Access
To help address the provincial funding challenges, we’ve made our fund Canada-wide. That said, we are also currently guilty of only really reaching those from major cities and the most populous provinces. We are trying to expand our reach to all the Provinces and Territories by working with existing media and games organisations across the country.
With the pandemic, we have focused entirely on digital communities. Although this has limitations, it also means that we can put all our investees across the country in contact with one another, despite location, which can benefit those from more rural locations as well as those with access needs.
Mentorship and community are an essential part of Weird Ghosts’ funding. In collaboration with Gamma Space, we offer mentorship and community support so that studios can work through their challenges and goals early on in the process. We believe this is a fundamental step not only for making studios more sustainable, but helping promote healthy work environments.
Early Studios and Lack of Experience
Weird Ghosts focuses specifically on funding early studios through both grants and investments. Our Baby Ghost grant is meant to support studios with both mentorship and no-strings-attached capital so that they can make some of those early steps in development that other funds require. Teams should leave the Baby Ghosts program feeling prepared to apply for further funding. In the future, we also plan on hosting grant application workshops and other informative programs for starter studios to break down some of the barriers in knowledge.
Based on our survey responses, we also aim to help offer experience by giving teams a chance to pitch their work and providing them with thorough feedback afterwards. Some of our respondents described how they never know why they are being rejected for funding and so we aim to be as transparent as we can about our rejections and acceptances to help studios prepare for future applications.
We also heard from studios that they don’t always have the resources to incorporate, but funds often require incorporation. In response to this, we’ve made both our grants and investments available for unincorporated studios.
Survival and Sustainability
We want to make Weird Ghosts a fund that allows studios to exist sustainably. Funding of course is part of this, but we also want to help teams meet their goals through mentorship and highlight their voices and needs above our own. We hope to use this blog as a space for this work. Our current investment strategy is based on what we have learned so far, but we plan to continue learning and changing this strategy based on the needs of our communities.
In terms of time and commitment, we made our application as short as possible so that it will take studios less time to apply than traditional funding. We are hoping to also provide a sample pitch deck on our website for studios who haven’t made one before. We want to be a resource of useful information for early studios, even if they don’t end up working with us.
Risks, Repayment, and Autonomy
As mentioned above, we offer no-strings-attached grants and mentorship for early studios to build their first demo and prepare for future funding applications. We also offer investments with recoup, using a Shared Earnings Agreement. Read our blog post for more details, but the shared earnings model allows us to recoup enough to support other studios, while also allowing studios to pay themselves first.
The Shared Earnings Agreement puts more risk on Weird Ghosts than early studios and allows for slower, more affordable payback. This is the first time this kind of model has been used in games, but we’re hopeful that it can offer more sustainable futures for studios.
We aren’t interested in taking away the autonomy of studios. Too many games and stories are missing from indie games right now because of barriers to funding.
Our goal is to keep trying to make space for those missing voices. We hope that we can look back on this document in another year and see even more ways to improve.
We’re grateful for everyone who has shared their stories with us so far. We are always looking for feedback on how to improve our fund, so don’t hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.