I talk to a lot of developers about games, and have a checklist of things I’ve found worth considering if thinking about starting a games studio.
The first thing to consider if you are starting out is, do you want to do this as a hobby or as a business? I feel the word ‘hobby’ can be seen lesser than ‘business’, although many great achievements in the history of humanity have stemmed from hobbies, and there are millions of businesses out there that achieve very little. Regardless, making games as a profession is a business and approaching it as such is the key to surviving the industry.
The games industry is very competitive, although I don’t think it is as competitive as some people make it out to be. A large portion of developers don’t treat their studio as a business, so just having some basic knowledge on project management and market research will put you way ahead of the pack. Further, treating it as a business makes it easier for funders to work with you.
The list below is a brief look at a range of topics, more information is available online or in books. As with any advice, take with a pinch of salt and continue researching -
Register a company
You can do this on Companies House for upwards of £12 and information like addresses, directors and shares can be changed later. Also look at offers banks are offering for business bank accounts – these usually charge a monthly fee but some banks will give the first year free. When choosing a business name, pick something that is easily searchable (strange spellings, generic names or single common words should be avoided). A key benefit of being a company is that your finances are protected if everything go wrong – called limited liability.
Get into the habit of bookkeeping
Do not mix your personal and business finances. Keep all your receipts and invoices and get into the habit of cataloguing this at least monthly. Get familiar with spreadsheets (Google Docs is free, as is Open Office, though a lot of organisations use Excel)
Identify potential sources of help
Local to you there will be a business assistance programme that offers workshops and mentoring (usually free). Some also offer funding to get you started. Getting familiar with specialist organisations is also useful in terms of increasing your knowledge and networking ( UKIE is the national trade body for games in the UK, ourselves at Creative England for all types of screen-based creative studios outside London, as well as the BGI, Women in Games, Games London and others.)
Look at SEIS funding
The Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme is open to businesses under 3 years old – essentially it is a government programme that reduces the risk for people to invest in your company.
The games industry in the UK isn’t too big – so get to know them! Attend local events if you’re lucky enough to live near a ‘hub’ consider the larger events like EGX or Develop if you can afford it, get in touch with your local universities. Business cards are useful to have, but at the very least there should be an easy way to contact you (social media, a website).
Research the market
Before you start designing a game you need to know if anyone will play it. What games are people playing at the moment? What games are coming out soon? And fundamentally – who is your audience?
Design a game
This should be straightforward enough – but bear in mind what it is you can do right now, and what you learn from this game will go on to inform the next project. It is better to finish a small game than never finish a big one.
Design the support for your game
Alongside the game is everything else. How many staff will you need? What’s the marketing strategy? What’s the project timeline? How long will you support the game after release? Thinking of all these things as early as possible is important. If you don’t know how to do it, it’s easier to ask someone else rather than learn yourself.
Create a budget
Consider how long it will take to make the game, multiply by the number of hours people will work on the game and add time for freelancers. This is your core budget. Additionally, budget for marketing, licenses, QA and so on. Then add on an additional 20% as a buffer. Then compare the total to your market research data to work out how many units you need to sell.
Create a pitch deck
Bearing in mind the above points, create a pitch deck (a 10-20 page document to show to investors). Be clear what the player does, what the market is and why your game should be invested in rather than others. Consider multiple pitch decks – one for the project you are working on, but also one for your business – and keep them updated. You never know when you might have to pitch.
Send to financers
There are a lot of organisations that will fund your game, each with their own objectives and what they can offer. Make a shortlist of publishers, funding bodies and other sources of finance and see which is best suited to your game. Understanding the point of view of someone who will finance you is important; at a basic level – if you are eligible and what are the terms of investment, at a higher level – is there a gap in their portfolio for your game? Remember that financiers are investing in you and your team. Also understand that many games financiers use a ‘portfolio’ approach, which means they invest a modest amount in many games studios, then go in stronger with the few that then ‘have traction’ in sales in the market.
List all the ways you could get funding – business support, SEIS, crowd-funding, publishing deal, government grant, Venture Capitalists and so on – and consider a strategy for each. A majority of these are people-based, so networking at events to make those contacts improves your chances than pitching cold.
Get a solicitor and an accountant
There are specialist solicitors and accountants for the entertainment industry, and specific ones for games. Ask other developers on their experience and be willing to shop about – they work for you. Either of these roles aren't necessary, but good to research early on should you need them later when time may be crucial.
VGTR (Video Games Tax-Relief)
Be familiar with VGTR (up to 20% of costs developing your game can be returned) – so keeping track of your expenditure is important. More information can be found on the website.
If you’re working with a publisher or similar, they could do this for you, if not – it is important to tell people about your game otherwise people won’t play it. Consider a (specialist) marketing agency to help you, alternatively, make it a habit to promote your game. Concept art, screenshots and gifs, a trailer, being played by streamers, showing at events and so on are all ways to talk about your game.
Consider early on about merchandising and contact an organisation willing to handle this for you. From clothing to board games to dolls, there is the potential for additional revenue to come into your game (particularly if at the design stage it has a broad appeal). But make them your contractor, and retain your IP.
Surviving (as a business)
Have at least a three year plan in mind in terms of growth and other games you have in mind. Be willing to work for hire or freelance if you need to. Most businesses don’t last twelve months. Most studios never finish a game. Most games don’t profit. If you do any of these, you are doing well, if you haven’t done these, reflect on why and keep going.
Surviving (as a person)
All of the above is quite complex and taxing. Delegate as much as you can to your team, and also take time to be with your family and friends (and pets). If you ignore your mental health your physical health will suffer. Have something else in your life that isn’t game development.
That’s more or less it, to begin. Creative England offer a lot of workshops and support that go into more detail on a number of the topics above, so follow our Games account on Twitter for more information.
The Gamedev Business Handbook - recent book on business of game dev
The GDC Vault - various videos on game dev (look at postmortems)
Grey Alien Games Blog - good blog from UK-based studio
GamesIndustry.Biz - news website to keep up to date on changes in industry