Ten Steps to Starting an Indie Studio
It was once said that if you wanted to start a restaurant, it’d be less painful to just take all the money and light it on fire.
While running an Indie game Startup may not be quite as dangerous as starting a restaurant (or as painful as lighting stacks of money on fire), there are certainly hazards to be aware of, and avoid.
Here at Boximals Studios we’ve been through all the ups and downs of creating, and maintaining a Startup, and would like to help others through those tenuous first few months of life. We are a mobile games startup based out of Vancouver that has just received its first round of seed capital to complete our first children’s game, Boximals ABC’s.
Step 1: Get an Idea
There’s a lot of games out there. Mobile, Triple A, Social, Flash based, free to play, free, paid download... the list goes on and on. The first step to being successful as a studio is making sure the product you are creating fits in a niche, but also does something new and unique. If you’re making a Tower Defense game, find a way to spruce it up. If your game doesn’t have a way to stand out, it’ll get lost in the shuffle.
Step 2: Vett it. Is it as good as you think it is?
Now that you’ve got your amazing and wonderful new idea, take a long, hard look at it. One thing that is an Indie game killer is to get ⅓ of ½ the way through development and suddenly need to change things, or mix it up, because the idea isn’t working. Look for other games in the genre, and find out where their polish is, and where their weak spots are. Improve, and make sure the designs are solid, from the ground up. Outside opinions are very important here. If you have friends or contacts in the industry, talk to them. Give them a 30 second pitch. If you don’t have those contacts, find gamers and ask them. They’ll tell you what is fun.
Step Three: You just realized your idea is wrong. Refine It. Keep refining till it’s gold.
Your wonderful idea has four clones on Newgrounds. What do you do? Even an idea that’s been around the block a dozen times can have life breathed into it. Tower Defense is an eponymous style of game, but there are dozens of ways to approach it. Find a new one. Keep digging at the idea, until it’s perfect.
Step Four: Building a Team
The next step is finding people with whom you can work with. Existing as a startup company means you’re all going to be sharing a lot of thinking and breathing room for the next few months and it is imperative that you’re with people you know, trust and can work with. It’s safe to say that there are a lot of companies with good ideas that we’ve never heard of because somewhere along the line personality conflicts broke apart a project.
It’s important to note that this holds true for companies that work remotely. Some projects are done with staff members who live all over the world, and this is a reasonable and viable way to work on a game. Social media, and programs like Skype and Google Hangouts allow for ease of communication almost as if everyone was sitting in the same room. As history has taught us though, conflicts can pass through even international borders, and the team has to be able to work closely, but not afraid to critique and examine each other’s ideas.
The most important part of funding a startup or indie game company is having a strong project leader. While it is always good to have a unified vision of where the game is going, someone has to be the task master. This is why shows have Showrunners, and major game Studios have Creative Directors. This job is to keep all the squabbles in line, keep the project moving forward and make sure it all stays on schedule. Without a strong voice in command, it is much more probable that a project will run into complications and it progresses, as many voices are raised, and no one to drown them out.
Step Five: Build a Prototype. Bootstrap it. Test it. Not Good? Build it again.
Getting money for an indie project is hard, but it’s a helluva lot easier with a prototype that shows potential. Get something out there that shows off your team, their ability and their commitment. It doesn’t even have to work all that well, as long it can convey something special. Include as much documentation possible. It may seem silly, but world building documents, and stuff like story docs, even if they aren’t important to a game, demonstrates work.
Step Five: Prepare a Business Plan and Pitch.
This is where it’s going to be handy to know that person with a business background. Another huge step towards successfully getting funding or grants is being able to show on paper that money, and time, aren’t being wasted. Being able to pitch your product is an incredibly valuable necessity. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, if you can’t explain it well, it won’t fly.
Step Six: Financing and Funding. Where to get the money?
In both Canada and the US there are technology grants and independent funding available, but these can be very hard to get, especially without a proof of product. Do the research, and find out what grants are available. Look for financing firms in the tech sector (They do exist), but also do your research on those firms. Just because someone says they want to give you money doesn’t mean they have your, or the project’s, best interests at heart.
That being said, bootstrapping a project is an alternative. There have been a lot of greater projects built on no one’s dime, just hard work and a lot of caffeine. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get grants. It’s part of building a solid team to make sure you have people with you who are willing to work on a project they believe in. There is also the option for private funding equity. Seed capital and angel investors are out there, and while finding them can be a bit challenging, they tend to offer more money, and without the paperwork required for grants.
Step Seven: Juggle Scope, Time, Cost. What every Project Manager lives for.
Make sure your project is one that is doable in scope. It’s wonderful to approach a game with a thousand high flying dreams, but it’s better to be realistic. Wanting to make an indie game that has interactive storylines, real-time combat and realistic combat, along with all the other buzz words is fantastic, but also take into account what the team can accomplish in a reasonable time frame. The truth is that the long game development drags on, the less a chance there will be of it being finished. Especially if no one is being paid. Other projects come up, people get unmotivated, they stop checking in, the go back to school, get a full time job... the reasons are endless, and valid. Starting a project with the proper scope in mind will mean that the game will get created, and released. Just because a game is released and ends up on a flash game site with no monetization doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Some of those small flash based companies have ended up releasing a popular project for iOS or Android, raking in the money and going on to make sequels or other games that fit a higher scope, as dictated by having funding and income.
Building a solid project plan really helps in this stage. If a project runs over long, and over budget (And let’s face it, most game projects do), it’s the project manager’s job to find a way to salvage, and keep going. Maybe the money runs out. That doesn’t mean development has to stop.
Step Eight: Criticism, Critiques and Constructive Feedback
This ability to deliver, and receive, criticism is something that is imperative in all team members, and especially for the project lead. Workshopping ideas among a team is the best way to make sure that a project is attaining the highest level of quality, but that means being able to constructively give and take. TV shows are written in this workshopping method, where a script is brought to a writers room and everyone involved takes their time to pick it apart, but also praise its strengths. This applies to all levels of game design, not just writing. Art, mechanics, economy and writing should all be examined by all team members to make sure a universal vision is being attained. Here is where that ability to work well with your team members will be truly tested, but to succeed in the industry, especially on a triple A level, the ability to see a critique as not being an attack is crucial.
It’s important to realize that everyone is working towards a better project, and all feedback should be taken as building towards that.
Step Nine: Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
While it may seem obvious that feedback is beneficial, it’s also important to note where it is coming from. Critical analysis from within the team is great, but outside sources is even better. A team member may be blinded by their own achievements, and fail to see where work needs to be done. Playtesting with the target demographic as much as possible is the key to a great product, and one of the most important aspects of developing a game. If there is a lot of negative feedback about as aspect of the game, find a way to change it. Writers know that sometimes you need to kill off what is most darling to your heart in a piece of work, and the same applies for game development. If you find you’re developing around an idea to keep it in, maybe it’s time to get rid of it.
Step Ten: Launch
After all those blood, sweat and tears it’s time to launch. Do your research, makes sure you’re launching at a time so as not to go against competition, and good luck! Hopefully this is just one minor stepping stone towards greatness.