72 tips on starting your own game studio

72 tips on starting your own game studio
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 27th 2014 at 11:35AM

Expert advice on building your own development team

There’s never been an easier time to branch out on your own, but there are many things you need to consider before hand – at least 72 of them, in fact. Develop asks industry experts, indies and more to share their wisdom.

Getting started

1. “Before you start your company, ask yourself why are you doing this – and give a very honest answer. Do you want fame or fortune? To be celebrated as an artist or be a powerful force in the games business? All are cool. Just make sure you identify your true passion, because making games isn’t easy and you will need that higher purpose to drive you forward.”
Imre Jele, Bossa Studios

2. “Figure out the studio you want to be in five years time, and constantly ask yourself if what you are doing gets you closer to that goal.”
Dan Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room

3. “Double every time estimate you make. You might be great at estimating how long something will take, but 1,001 things will get in the way.”
Will Wright, Hidden Armada

4. “Remember you are not just building a creative team – you are also starting a commercial entity. Do not take this lightly; it will make or break you.”
Simon Bennett, Roll7

5. “Treat it like a business. Document and create agreements with everyone you work with. Make it clear from the beginning the IP ownership rights and how individuals will get paid. Get it out of the way in the beginning so you’re all on the same page. “
Frank Delise, Autodesk

6. “You will wear many hats: business, PR, HR. Don’t be afraid to show what you’re working on. Ideas are cheap, execution is key.”
Marc Williamson, Tag Games

7. “For any small indie studio, be prepared to spend a LOT of time doing tasks other than actually making the games.”
Charlie Czerkawski, Guerilla Tea

8. “Think about your audience. What platforms are they on? What devices are they using? Where might they be in the future? What devices will they buy? Make sure your content is ready to go wherever they are by using the right cross-platform tools from the outset. A flexible, future-proof foundation for your game means it’ll stay relevant and engaging for longer.”
Charlie Peachey, Marmalade Technologies

Finding funding

9. “Always have a plan B when it comes to funding. It doesn’t matter if it’s savings, freelance work or selling body parts. If there’s one thing not guaranteed in video games, it’s the ability to make money.”
Nicoll Hunt, I Fight Bears

10. “Research which pots of money you can access. Make sure you know about UK tax breaks to get 20 per cent back off your game production costs, as well as the R&D tax breaks. Understand how to value what IP you have – not just the game, but tech, people and skills too. Know what kinds of investors you should be targeting for the stage you are at.”
Jo Twist, UKIE

11. “If you can fund a game yourself, it’s worth it. The extra pressure or loss of IP isn’t. You’ll find that it saps a lot of your time with with negotiating, builds, formalities, lawyers – when you can just get on and make it”
Katie Goode, Preloaded

12. “Plan your finances accordingly. Avoid all expenses that are not absolutely essential. You can get a lot for free if you ask nicely and create some interest in what you’re doing: for example, extended trial licenses for software, expo fees and so on.
Russ Clarke, Payload Studios

13. “Raise money for development, not marketing. It’s easy to find marketing dollars if you have good beta metrics. It’s hard to raise money for your third game idea when you’ve killed the first two. Find investors who understand this.”
Simon Hade, Space Ape Games

14. “Don’t register for VAT until you need to. Learn about games tax relief.”
Fiona Stewart, Formerdroid

15. “Funding sources are often weary about giving cash to people – there is no guarantee you’ll do what you say with the money. Instead, ask your sources to fund more tangible things that developers need, such as PCs and other equipment.”
Joe Brammer, Deco Digital

16. “The lesson that has cost us (literally) most dearly is not allowing enough in the budget for the tech spend. It’s like building your own house: whatever you had in the budget originally, quadruple it and you’re probably about right. Ignore this advice at your peril!”
Jessica Curry, The Chinese Room

17. “Accept you will need to have good relationships with ‘professionals’ – accountants, lawyers, people in banks.”
Paras Khona, Mediatonic

18. “If you’re looking to start your own studio and don’t have deep pockets of your own, you’ll first need some funding in order to pay salaries, purchase hardware and software and to travel
to events. Initially you’ll need a prototype of a
game to appease investors and a previous track record helps.”
Dan Da Rocha, Mudvark

Opening an office

19. “Don’t be too quick to rent space for your studio. It’s a waste of money. Don’t underestimate how expensive it is to run and maintain a studio and staff. Make sure you’ve worked with your team on several projects before forming a registered company.”
Fiona Stewart, Formerdroid

20. “Only get a physical office when you really need one. A comfortable chair and a reliable internet connection are far more important.”
Nicoll Hunt, I Fight Bears

21. “If you’re in an area marked for regional development, speak to the local councils. There are often fantastic deals available. Try to find somewhere that has space, working air conditioning and that gives you space inside and outside the office to move around.”
Robert Troughton, Epic Games UK

22. “Working remotely can be hard to manage so be sure to maintain strong processes for the team. Have a daily call and cover what each team member did yesterday, will do today and if they have any blockers. Don’t point the finger, as this will never help you to improve.”
JP Vaughan, Rocket Rainbow

Down to business

23. “Mastering the commercial side of development is critical, not just for building and maintaining a sustainable business but for attracting investors. So many developers ignore this, focus on the creative and technical side and go under within 18 months.”
Nick Gibson, Games Investor Consulting

24. “Don’t agree to deals too quickly. Thoroughly assess all options, take advice and decide
what is most important
to your business.”
Alex McLean, Engine Room Games

25. “The business side is important. Get some advice from professionals all working in the industry. They are expensive by the hour, but you’ll only need a little advice and it could save you a lot later. Most will be happy to chat free for an hour on the phone.”
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds

26. “Don’t forget the details: contracts, accounts, shareholder relations and other non-game-related stuff. Agree who is responsible for each one of these things, and make sure they have sufficient time and resources to do them.”
Vincent Scheurer, Payload Studios

27. “Try and keep up-to-date accounts. They will help you to make some crucial business decisions like tightening the purse strings and potentially weathering a storm. A useful and free accounting tool is Manager.io – it can also be used to produce invoices to bill any clients.”
JP Vaughan, Rocket Rainbow

28. “Most of your time will go on admin, chores, following up business leads and so on. This burden grows with your team. Don’t expect to spend all your time developing, and don’t be afraid to spread some of the boring work out to your collaborators. There are no prizes for shouldering the heaviest burden.”
Russ Clarke, Payload Studios

Legal considerations

29. “Use a lawyer for contracts. Employment and copyright laws are very complicated. Just because you commissioned and paid for a specific asset doesn’t mean that you can use it wherever you want.”
Danielle Swank, Barking Mouse studio

30. “Make a contract for a rainy day and always consider those rainy days before signing.”
Barry Hoffman, Eutechnyx

31. “Get the ownership structure right with your co-founders – it can save a lot of boardroom arguments down the line. That means: agree shareholdings fairly upfront. Get it properly documented. Use a shareholder agreement to establish how to run the company. Build a good relationship with a games industry lawyer who can help advise the studio, make introductions and show when to spend money on legal stuff but also when not to. The games industry is slowly becoming more regulated: keep an eye on data privacy, consumer law, marketing law and free-to-play regulation developments.”
Jas Purewal, Purewal & Partners

Get connected

32. “Get your company incorporated. It’s surprisingly easy, not too expensive, and pays dividends in the long run. It can protect you from personal liability, and allow you to involve founders, partners and investors in a variety of different ways. It can also have tax benefits, among a variety of other things. Pick a name for your studio or products, and check whether it is available. Think about filing some trademark protection and tying up some domains for it early to avoid other people stealing your thunder.”
Mark Fardell, Jagex

33. “Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, your studio will need the help of others to truly prosper. Opportunities, friendship and knowledge comes from committing time to building and maintaining those relationships.”
Alex McLean, Engine Room Games

34. “Use social media. Get posting and follow people and organisations who are saying something interesting. Don’t be too serious, but be professional as well. People like personality.”
Jo Twist, UKIE

35. “Get involved in your community. Studios have their own challenges, but there’s no need to figure them all out yourself. Many indie developers are more than happy to share their hard won experiences. If there are no local studios, reach out over social media and get to know people at conferences.”
Jim Fleming, Barking Mouse Studio

36. “After a meeting, connect on social media to remain memorable.”
Barry Hoffman, Eutechnyx

Recruiting a team

37. “Get to as many conferences as you can afford to – financially and time-wise. Don’t ignore the ‘little people’ – sometimes they turn big and, if you weren’t notable enough to remember, that could bite you in the future when you want their help. Help others as you would hope others help yourself (you can have that corny tag line for free).”
Robert Troughton, Epic Games UK

38. “Networking is not all boys’ clubs and backslapping. The industry is really mutually supportive, and getting to know people within it can help you punch above your weight as you’re starting out. In the throes of setting up or mid-development, spending time with people in the same boat can be the difference that keeps you sane.”
Helen Burnill, Mediatonic

39. “If you are a boss, be a good one. Encourage people, don’t beat them. You will get much more out of them.”
Fiona Stewart, Formerdroid

40. “Time logged in trenches is the biggest indicator of success for a team. Focus less on the game design and more on getting a handful of front line doers (developers, artist, etcetera) who have worked together before to invest themselves in the project.”
Simon Hade, Space Ape Games

41. “Be very careful when recruiting staff who are working at other studios. Misunderstandings and overreactions can be damaging. Remember: the people you are trying to hire have their own career plans, and may not tell you everything. Check for problematic contract clauses early on, and insist on getting stuff in writing so there are no surprises down the line.”
Russ Clarke, Payload Studios

42. “Finding a team to work for free with the promise of equity and royalties can seem daunting, but it is very possible. When I was, the first thing some artists wanted to talk about was money. The guys I chose wanted to be here no matter what, but they knew that I wasn’t able to accumulate funds to pay them out of nowhere, so from the start I made sure everyone was prepared to survive for six months off whatever we could.”
Joe Brammer, Deco Digital

43. “Find a good partner. Starting a studio is like getting married and having a baby all at once. It’s a bunch of sleepless nights and new expenses. So make sure you find someone who can share the load with you.”
Danielle Swank, Barking Mouse Studio

44. “Find people to work with that are reliable and that you like. When you find working relationships like these, work extra hard to maintain them – when people have fun making an experience it shows in the game.”
Oliver Clarke, Modern Dream

545. “Advisers, investors and top developers tell me time and again that the management team is the top priority. Build the strongest management and leadership team you possibly can.”
Richard Wilson, TIGA

46. “Take ownership of studio recruitment from day one. Don’t be led by external agents or influences who might try to exploit your business naivety. Set your own culture and quality standard and stick to it relentlessly without compromise. Your early hires will be key to your future success.”
Peter Lovell, Jagex

47. “While your team is small, you may feel you are missing certain specialty professions, but don’t hire these skills in permanently before you know you need them full time. Instead contract experts or even trade resources with other start-ups.”
Mike Burnham, Marmalade Game Studio

Spreading the word

48. “Promote early and often. Tell the world about your studio and game as soon as you can, and share any updates with how it’s going. If you wait until the game’s ready, it’ll be too late.”
Will Wright, Hidden Armada

49. “PR has become a two-step rocket: use PR to reach partners, then partners can kick-start traffic.”
Barry Hoffman, Eutechnyx

50. “Spend more time and attention on PR than games development.”
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds

51. “Work out your studio USPs from the get-go, establish strong, active social channels, and plan what you want to achieve. Schedule time in for promotional work – or get outside help – but don’t ignore it at your peril. Establish yourself as people with vision and experts in particular fields, then offer your opinion to the press on relevant trends. It’s a great way to establish your reputation long before you’ve any game content to show.”
Natalie Griffith, Press Space PR

52. “Journalists want to write about stories. A new game from a new developer is not a story. Talk about what makes you different.”
Nicoll Hunt, I Fight Bears

53. “Include your staff in your PR with regular social media announcements, magazine articles and so on. This can be a great morale boost. Try to consider everybody within this, not just your management and leads.”
Robert Troughton, Epic Games UK

54. “Don’t underestimate the power of online marketing. Make sure you line up some good online reviewers for your projects – they can go a long way in getting your title noticed, especially during a Kickstarter launch.”
Frank Delise, Autodesk

55. “If you want to know why average looking games do well and something you love is a ‘sleeper hit’, it may be the dev being sensible enough to stash some cash away for advertising. Be ready to gamble £1,000 on absolutely nothing when there’s the chance it’ll bring in £2,000 in sales. Alternatively, spend money on booths at things like EGX, which get you some great face-time with gamers.”
Dan Marshall, Size Five Games

Choosing the right tools

56. “Don’t re-invent the wheel. More often than not, someone has already produced the tools and tech you need for far less than it will cost you to produce it. There are powerful game engines available for very reasonable money. The same applies to applications for artists, coders and designers. Only invest in what you need.”
Oliver Clarke, Modern Dream

57. “There are loads of affordable back-end and middleware services available to support you with technology and save your precious time while starting out. Spend your time focusing on growth and making games, not chasing your tail with functionality.”
Adam Fletcher, Mediatonic

General advice

58. “Keep developing your pipeline. You’ll never find the most optimal way to work straight from starting up. Look into any software suggestions made by employees – they normally know more about their discipline than you.”
Simon Doyle, Team Junkfish

59. “Give your people the best tools, even if more expensive, as your people costs are the highest when making games.”
Barry Hoffman, Eutechnyx

60. “It is important to innovate, to stand out. The mobile and tablet arena is an incredibly crowded marketplace, so whether it is a striking art and animation style like Futurlab’s Velocity 2x or an ingenious approach to audio like Somethin’ Else’s Papa Sangre, ask yourself how you can make something genuinely different.”
Richard Wilson, TIGA

61. “There’s the ‘Right Solution’ and the ‘Best Solution For Now’. Learn when to choose between the two, and when to revise that choice. Starting simple and iterating quickly is usually a good rule for most of what you’ll do. Stay up to date with what your competition is doing, and if you don’t have any, ask why.”
Alex McLean, Engine Room Games

62. “Get a mentor. Having someone who’s been through the process of setting up a business to talk to is invaluable. They’ll be able to tell you how to fill in Needlessly Wordy Form No.114, or perhaps – more importantly – that if you don’t fill it in, you’ll lose 30 per cent of your revenues.”
Simon Doyle, Team Junkfish

63. “Games built without knowing who the audience is and what they want are doomed to fail. Imagine a single person who’d love your game – but you need to understand that person fully. The other 999,999 players can come afterwards.”
Imre Jele, Bossa Studios

64. “Work smarter, not harder. Find tools and services to make your job easier – you’re going to spend so much time organising and communicating that when it actually comes to doing work, you need to be as efficient as possible.”
Matt Zanetti, Guerilla Tea

65. “Focus on making unique features that make your games great – and use off-the-shelf solutions for everything you possibly can. Once you’ve created a feature or mechanic, iterate. The best learning technique is to do something once and straight away do it again, but better – make creativity part of your muscle memory.”
Harvey Elliott, Marmalade Technologies

66. “Be unique. Never go head to head with another game that’s already out and successful.”
Philip Oliver, Radiant Worlds

67. “It’s easy to work long hours and let your personal life fall by the wayside. Taking a break can help you refocus – burnout can be detrimental to your company’s success. Humans were not made to sit at a computer for 12+ hours a day. This sounds like a no-brainer but when you get into the start-up zone, it’s hard to think about anything else but the business.”
Dan Da Rocha, Mudvark

68. “Joining a trade body is an excellent way to get support for you, your company, save money on services, events and tools, and have personal introductions made for you. You also get a say in policy decisions that affect you.”
Jo Twist, UKIE

69. “If you hope to generate revenue, your business strategy needs to be more creative and sturdy than any of your game concepts. Do your research. Find an area where you can stand out, however niche it may be, and always focus on your core competence or IP, rather than chasing all of the other gold prospectors into obscurity!”
Nick Pendriis, Hoverfly Studio

70. “One great exercise as you’re building your next game is writing the back of the box: What would it say? Why is it unique and fun? What sets it apart? Do a mock review: What would reviewers write about your game? It may help you with your pitch, either for Kickstarter or to a publisher.”
Frank Delise, Autodesk

71. “If your first game’s launch is only a few months away, start planning game No.2. It’s easy to fall into the trap of over-focusing on finishing your game. It’s likely that after your game is released you’ll be supporting it, so get used to juggling both.”
Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, The Tiniest Shark

72. “The best way to stand out is to create something different, wacky, and game-changing. Outflank the triple-As with oddball weirdness – at least you’ll get talked about: exposure is 90 per cent of the battle. And for goodness sake, if you’re making a clone, just stop.”
Kevin Beimers, Italic Pig