To prefix this post, I would just like to cover myself by saying that quite a lot of people have previously come to me for advice on starting up a company, developing a game, and generally being an indie dev. So let me start by saying I’m probably not the guy to ask. My experience is limited, I’m the managing director so I’m not directly involved in making the games anymore and I’m still learning the whole process of being an indie and an entrepreneur myself, so it’s basically a case of the blind leading the blind here. That said, if my failings help someone else succeed, then so be it – I’ll explain some of the lesser known pitfalls I’ve pulled myself out of so that hopefully you won’t fall into them as well! Just don’t take this post to be comprehensive or gospel, and don’t assume that it applies to everyone – it was written from my very specific point of view, so no guarantees it can help you!
So with that said, I’m going to paint a picture of how I think 90% of the business plans are going to sound for readers of this blog post. You’re looking to start up an indie dev studio. You’ve got your computer, you’ve got the skills and you’ve got the enthusiasm. A bunch of your friends are interested, and you’re all going to work full time from home, some of you coding and some of you doing art. Either you’re sharing a home, or you plan to use Facebook and Skype, and you’ll share your files using those two methods. You’ve got a game title planned which you think is awesome, and you’re certain that other people are going to enjoy it once you release it. It’s probably a mobile game, you probably want to release it on Android and iOS, and you probably think that it can sell millions. If this broadly describes your thought process or your intentions for the company, hold your hand up now. Is your hand raised? Good, mine is too, so I can probably help you. Is your hand down? Just read on anyway. You might find it useful, or at the very least you can laugh at my previous incompetence. So here goes with 10 things I wish I knew before starting up.
1. Someone has to run the business.
What we at Static Games failed to grasp when starting up was that running a business and a development team is not a small part time job for one of the developers. It’s a lot of work. Seriously. A lot. In fact, I’m now the managing director and that’s what I do full time. I have contributed to the coding and development on occasion, but developing games isn’t actually a part of my regular day job and probably isn’t ever going to be. I was the unlucky member of the team who had to trade off my future developing games and become passionate about running a company instead. Luckily, I enjoy business so this was okay with me, but if you don’t enjoy business, then go out now and find someone who does. Not only that, but make sure they’re comfortable talking to people and giving presentations, or tell them to learn! As an example, I perform networking and gaining contacts, I sort out finances and taxes, I arrange contracts and perform negotiations on the company’s behalf, I look for opportunities such as competitions, loans and grants, I handle project management and keep projects on track, I handle budgeting and ensure that we make good games but within financial parameters, I present whenever the company gives a presentation, I handle paying staff, I sort out any disputes, I make most business decisions, control leadership and direction of the board and the company, and generally perform pretty much any non development related task you can think of… And when I find the time I handle the marketing too. Which leads nicely on to point two…
2. Put as much effort into marketing a game as you do into making it.
There is absolutely no point in making a game if you never tell anyone about it. One thing which we really neglected at Static Games for a very long time was marketing our product and putting our names out there. But if a customer has never heard of your product, or if they never see the game, how do you propose to get this person to buy it? Marketing goes a long way to dictating your sales, and sales are what will determine your money and your success. Marketing doesn’t have to cost anything, and with the internet making it so easy to get your name out there there’s no reason not to start marketing immediately, though most of you won’t! So many people get so caught up in building the product that they neglect building a fan base or letting people know the game exists, and if you release a product with no hype and which no-one knows about, your sales will reflect this. It takes time to build hype and excitement around a product, but it costs nothing to set yourself up on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social media, websites can be made for free on places like Blogspot and WordPress and emailing press and outlets like YouTubers costs you nothing and can build a mutually beneficial relationship. Marketing will take a lot of time, but you need to put a lot in to get a lot out of it. If you’re going to spend months making a game, it make sense to do everything you can to make sure you can sell it.
3. You don’t need money to start up the company, but you do need it to live!
Static Games did not need any money when we started up. We all had a student loan, a laptop to work on, some open source development software and a great sense of enthusiasm and opportunity. However, living costs money, and you really need to factor these costs in before you quit your day job or become an indie dev full time. Remember that a loan or your savings has to last you a very long time here. If your game takes nine months to develop, you need to have money in the bank to pay for rent, bills, food and drink, travel, entertainment, unforeseen costs and much more. If you don’t have more than enough in the bank to pay for all of this, then maybe think again about going indie. Or at the very least, do what some of our team did and get yourself a part time job on the side. There’s absolutely no shame in it – personal survival has to come before business survival.
4. Don’t just think you’ll start making your own IP if you can’t afford it.
Static Games started off with our own IP already in development, and we have made some money off of it. However, it’s worth remembering that you have to make your IP before you can sell it, which can mean long periods with no income, and even then your sales may amount to far less than you can live on. With this in mind, it can sometimes be better to start your company as a work for hire studio. Work for hire is something which Static Games have done a lot of, and it can be much more lucrative than making your own IP when starting up. Certainly, the money is more assured, and to be honest, there are benefits to honing your skills on other people’s products before you start working on your own. As an example here, Remode Studios are successful and after six years are still transitioning into making their own IP. Similarly, our friends at Bournemouth based Amuzo Games, were founded as 4T2 Multimedia in 1998, and have just begun making their first original IP in 2014. Just saying…
5. Start off with a small team.
Seriously, only take on the people you really need. I love our team, but this was a major oversight when we started up. The smaller your costs are at start up, the better; and if you can make your product with fewer people, I would seriously consider doing it. It is a lot easier to make the sales and revenue required for two people to live than it is for seven people. Think of it like this. If you make £40,000 off of your first product, and your development team was two people. You’re both taking home a decent chunk of change. But if this game was made by a team of seven, like us – that money isn’t going to go very far! Unless someone is invaluable to your company or they can speed up product development by a really significant amount of time, it might be worth considering whether you really need them and potentially omitting them from your plans.
6. Don’t make anything too ambitious for your first project.
Okay, so I want you to calculate how long you think it will take you to complete your first product. Now multiply it by two. That’s how long I think your product will take to make. As a minimum. So many people when starting out fail to comprehend quite how long games take to make, so always start off with something that’s fun, but also easy and simple to make. The odds are that it’s going to take longer than you anticipate, and remember, you’ve still got living costs to pay! In addition, it’s unlikely that you’re going to make a splash with your first game, so just try and release something you can make some money off of and hone your skills. If you try and spend too long making a world beater of a game, the likelihood is that you’ll run out of money and have to close down without ever having released anything. Don’t be that studio.
7. Being known is better than protecting your idea.
A lot of indies I’ve met have been very hesitant to talk about what they’re doing or what games they’re developing in case someone steals their idea, and I always find this strange. The successful ones, however, are always chatty and community driven and are more than pleased to talk about what they’re working on. The fact is that the more people know about your game, the better. That’s more people to spread the word and get excited about it, more people who can give you feedback and advice on it, and more people who can inform you of any opportunities that it could offer you. When talking to some people, I get a sense that they’re scared of people stealing their ideas, but the fact that remains is that with thousands of indie developers and thousands of products out there, most ideas just aren’t that original. But if someone did release a game like yours and you have a back catalogue of updates and screenshots on your website, most people will look at that game and go, “Hey, that looks like [insert game name here] by [insert developer name here]”. You don’t lose anything from announcing what you are doing, but you do stand to gain from all the related marketing you’ll get. Just keep that in mind.
8. You will suffer from apathy at some point.
If you’re working from home, you will get hit by the apathy bug sooner or later. Self motivation is a really key thing to indies, and convincing yourself to get up in the morning can be really difficult at times. Morale can drop if you all work in different places and you can’t see the overall progression of the game or the progress made by other people, and motivation is certainly lower when there’s no-one there to give you a kick up the backside. With no rigorous nine-to-five schedule, and only self imposed deadlines to hit, you’re probably going to fall behind at some point, and there will definitely be days when you won’t get up until noon and you only work a five hour day. But it’s really important not to let this be the norm. I have some quotes from a motivational speech made by a man called Eric Thomas, plastered on my desktop background. When I get lazy, I read them. And it works. Find something that motivates you, and keeps you working, no matter what it is. Remember that your team members are counting on you and that you can’t be successful if you don’t put the time and effort in! Find something that motivates you, and find it fast, and trust me when I say you’ll want an office as soon as you can get one! Hard work is the only thing that will finish your product, and the sooner it’s finished, the sooner you can start making money off of it.
9. You’re not just a developer, you’re an entrepreneur.
I suppose this is fundamentally similar to my first point, but remember that you aren’t just a developer. You’re a business owner and your job doesn’t stop when developing the game finishes. Yes you have to make the game, but you also have to market it, publish it, support it and handle all other parts of the production pipeline. You are probably self publishing, making you a publisher just as much as a developer, and it’s important not to forget it. In addition, remember that you need to handle the business, including purchasing insurance, filling out tax returns, setting up a bank account, etc. You have to be more than a developer to succeed!
10. You don’t have to know everything, and you don’t have to take the word of anyone!
When I started Static Games back in April 2013, I knew nothing of business or games development. I just had a positive mindset and a healthy willingness to learn. There’s nothing stopping you starting your business and learning as you go, and truth be told, I think it’s the best way to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from anyone and never be ashamed to admit if you don’t know something. Your honesty and willingness to admit that you aren’t perfect is usually enough to convince people that you’re worth helping and that you have the drive to learn to be successful. Also remember that it’s OK to fail, and that any failing you do during start up is simply a learning experience for something which would have cost a lot of money if you had done it down the line when you’re rolling in it! Always look at failure as a way to learn something new and remember that you can’t improve without first failing – just don’t repeat the same mistake twice! And most importantly, if you have asked someone for advice, always use your own judgement on whether to trust them. Other people might well have more experience than you, and it’s unlikely that they’ll deliberately lead you astray, but some of the worst advice I’ve received whilst running Static Games has come from some of the most successful and higher up members of the industry. Remember, it’s your company and you should do what you think is right for you!