Playground Games' Trevor Williams on building up a new studio
[This article is from a series of special features on starting your own studio, as found in Develop #133, which is available through your browser and on iPad. We'll be posting up further articles in the coming days.]
Running your own company is an exercise in managing and dealing with extremes – both operationally and emotionally. It’s a real rollercoaster ride.
You have to drag your way through the tough times, sometimes fighting and scraping to stay alive, but at the same time trying not to become so jaded that you cannot enjoy the highs. I think it would be fair to say that pretty much every start-up experiences both extremes, even if the high is just enjoying the freedom to make your own decisions.
I am lucky enough to be one of the founders and directors at Playground Games. We have just finished our first game – Forza Horizon. Our review embargo lifted recently and the scores started dropping in. IGN gave it nine-out-of-ten; Eurogamer the same. And then an email popped in from Alan Hartman who runs Turn 10 Studios – our partner.
It told us that GiantBomb had given us five-out-of-five. Forza Horizon received more than ten 90 per cent-plus reviews in the first 24 hours. Our Twitter feed was alive with congratulations and plaudits. We were delighted. We had worked incredibly hard on that game.
So what makes a successful start-up? I’ve been involved in founding three studios, and they were all very different.
I think the first thing I would say is that starting up your own company is not for everyone. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Getting a new company off the ground is bloody hard work and the line between success and failure is wafer thin. I think it was Napoleon who said ‘give me lucky generals’. He wasn’t wrong. The difference between success and failure can often be nothing more than a bit of luck.
And having a good idea is usually not enough. You need to be able to execute and embed that idea within a business – or at least convince your potential funders.
In fact, starting up a games company doesn’t have to be driven at all by having a great game idea.
It is often about knowing what you are good at and then selling that as a service. Even if your ideal is to make your own games, lots of very credible businesses start out as outsourcers and then use that as a base to develop their own titles.
If you are trying to secure external funding to start your business then you will need a more formal business plan. You may be able to get help putting that together, but the core business premise has to come from you, the founders.
We funded Playground with our own money – trying to convince investors to put cash into a console development business was pretty difficult.
Although our team had a phenomenal pedigree, it was difficult to predict our success – and the new disruptive business models were more interesting for investors.
And be prepared to deal with some areas with which you may have had very little experience – particularly finance and legals. You will spend more time than you ever thought possible thinking, worrying and dreaming about money, cashflows and those the people you owe money to – the creditors.
If you thought car dealers were experts in what some call ‘man maths’, just wait until you start your own company.
I feel like I have only just got started and I have already blown my word count. I know, I talk too much. So to finish, just a couple of quick bits of advice.
Get a good lawyer and set your company and contracts up properly. This is easy to sweep under the table at the beginning, but dealing with it later can be difficult and messy. If you are doing development deals, use a solicitor with games experience.
We use John Schorah – who is all kinds of awesome – but Paul Gardner and Alex Chapman both have excellent reputations too.
Look after your staff. Your staff are your lifeblood. Anyone can buy the kit and rent an office; the guys who actually produce the games are what make games development companies special.
If you are looking to recruit staff, consider running some ads as well as partnering with agencies. You may remember those somewhat annoying bright blue covers we ran on Develop about a year ago? They were extremely effective and when we rationalised the cost, they were a fraction of the equivalent agency fees.
Above all, try to enjoy it. Be proud and appreciate everything you achieve. We are extremely proud of both Playground Games and our first game Forza Horizon. We have a talented team of 82 people, a great office, bleeding-edge kit and an extremely supportive partner in Turn 10 Studios. We took a risk, but it was considered and we are now enjoying the success. Good luck with your own start-up.
Trevor Williams is Playground Games chief operating officer. An industry veteran with prolific experience, he has previously served at Codemasters, Activision, Vivendi, Swordfish, Rage and Elite Systems. www.playground-games.com
Follow all Develop's start your own studio features, using the Start-up Special tag.