Starting your own studio can be a scary experience.
What are the things you wish you were told before you did this?
As an enthusiastic indie developer, it’s easy to only think about the game itself; after all, this is the fire that fuels everything else and the reason you’re here. There’s a lot to do to design, build and launch a game but one area which can get overlooked is the actual business side of running a studio.
Whatever kind of business you have there are day-to-day operations to set up and run such as payroll, admin, accounting, legal support and software licenses not to mention premises, facilities and infrastructure.
“There’s a whole bunch of things to consider on top of game operations” points out David Kewal, MD of Stoker Games who developed the Kickstarted game Eminence. “Begin thinking about these areas once things start getting serious” he suggests, as well as preparing early for funding.
“I wish I had known that there are investors/funds who specifically cater to game studios well in advance,” he adds.
There are many funding opportunities available so give yourself plenty time to research your options and get in early applications. UKIE, Creative England, Greenshoots and Microsoft Ventures among others all offer funding routes and they can help to make sure you are up to date with the tax breaks too.
When running a business, overheads come in many forms not just financial so optimising every step of your process is a continual goal. All the resources that go in to your game have a cost – time, money, people, skill, experience, capability – and all of these impact your efficiency as a developer, keeping an ambitious but realistic track towards your goal is a fine balance.
“It's easy to create games but it's really hard to finish them,” says Andrew Bennison, MD of Manchester-based indie Prospect Games. “I would tell my past self to keep the quality but make sure you don't set the bar so high that you can never reach it.”
Mark Williams, technology director at VooFoo Studios underlines this warning of being over-ambitious: “Always aim high,” he says, “but don’t waste time chasing something just outside your reach."
In particular for start-ups doing work-for-hire, Williams suggests quick wins are key. “Start with projects that you can easily win contracts for, and don't spend months with all your resources spent on one pitch that you may not win."
There’s a very practical side to going it alone, too. Keeping a strong personal discipline and accountability is central according to Kevin Chandler, co-founder of Bevel Studios.
“Being your own boss doesn't mean you don't have one,” he explains. “Establish a well-defined working day to keep you productive and minimise distractions. If you find yourself questioning, criticising and judging yourself, learn to realise you’re only capable of so much."
Tom Beardsmore, CEO of Coatsink, agrees: “Trying to do everything on your own will leave you exhausted and result in poorer quality output. Wise collaboration and delegation play a key role for many indies, look for great partners to work with and remember you're only as good as the company you keep. Pick your team carefully and you'll flourish together."
One of the attractions of setting up as an indie is the opportunity to build a culture of camaraderie and sharing within a strong dev community. There are several forums available such as TIGSource and Indiegamer and social media which can all be a great way to create a presence, grow your network and gain feedback from the community.
The most solid relationships, however, are built through meeting other business founders face-to-face, whether that be at local indie meet-ups or bigger-scale events like EGX Rezzed. As long as you’re not giving away IP it’s fine to be open about some of the challenges, and you’ll probably find you’re not alone. Listen to the lessons others have learned and be generous of your experiences in return.
“Ideas are cheap, execution is what matters,” explains Simon Hade, co-founder of Space Ape Games. “Share what you’re doing and your idea will benefit from exposure and feedback”.
Chandler agrees, advising developers to be unafraid to evaluate their game and keep clear sight of the target audience: “Get feedback on your game as early and regularly as possible, it seems obvious but this has the potential to help avoid costly mistakes and gives you the extra confidence you'll need further down the line."
A snapshot of other tips that came from our indie network:
- Research funding and apply early.
- Be prepared to run a business not just make a game.
- Set up your company as a legal entity; don’t forget details like insurance.
- Set a thorough budget plan and control your overheads.
- Have your monetisation strategy in place.
- Don’t underestimate marketing and distribution effort.
- Plan in regular updates to your game.
- Thoroughly research the right engine and software tech.
- Test your game, self-critique and invite feedback.
- Tap in to the dev community.
- Go to indie-specific events.
- In design or code, recycle rather than re-invent.
- Delegate/collaborate with great people.
Of course, the ideas in this list only scratch the surface. From our research, a lot of what indie devs have learned isn’t a silver bullet task list, instead there is focus on attitude; how to adjust perspective, maintain a positive outlook and stay productive when things get bumpy.
“I don't think anyone else can prepare you for starting a business. It all comes down to the research you put in and your willingness to learn as you go,” concludes Bennison.
As the likes of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson famously expound, businesses that stay the course accept that learning from failure is a part of success. The familiar challenges facing indie devs can generate totally different results born of a different approach. It’s not just what you do but how you do things which form who you are as a studio and what outcome your games can achieve.
“Those early days are about building your reputation” Williams encourages “It’s difficult, but it gets easier."