For those of us who have been in the games industry for a few years, we all recall the frustration of working on console platforms. Not so much frustration with the technology but with those who represented the Publishers – the people who paid for us to develop – frustration with Producers.
During my times, I was lucky enough to work with some excellent Producers but I also worked with some guys who really shouldn’t be put in charge of an international corporations $10,000,000 budget! Anyway, back during those times amongst the requests to make the grass greener and allow the player to complete a lap by pressing one button with the controller on their head (yes, that did actually happen!), we all dreamed of a time when we would no longer need Publishers to provide our revenue and negotiate retail space for our products. We all thought it would be fantastic to be able to develop our own products without their input and sell our products direct to our customers. It would be amazing…
…and a few years ago it all came true. The plethora of digital stores allowed us to self-publish our own creations and customer expectation on mobile and handheld platforms meant that budgets were low enough that developers could self-fund. It was all we ever dreamed of, the barriers to entry had been well and truly removed.
And it was awful! What we never considered was that the removal of the barriers along with the multitude of easy-to-use middleware solutions soon meant that anyone could create and release a digital product, no matter how tacky or pointless. We started to drown in a sea of fart apps and (lets be honest) total crap. Now, the major issue we face is not trying to manage an errant Publishing producer who wants to make a tiny change that would cost £20,000 (although they won’t of course pay for it), but fighting through the crud to generate awareness for our products.
So we come to my main concern about the future of the independent games industry. Being based in Dundee, I see many microstudios popup with dreams of being the next Rovio (btw, before raising them as the poster-child of current development, read about their history and how difficult it has been for them) but unfortunately many of them have little idea of the business and commercial side of game development. There is a expectation that quality == revenue which if you dig below the surface of app downloads and sales, you will see most definitely isn’t the case.
With this in mind, I would like to offer some thoughts and ideas on things the consider **before** deciding to open a new games studio.
Firstly, if you are doing this purely for the money then turn around now and start looking for a job with an established studio. A huge number of gaming start-ups do not make any money – it is only a tiny percentage of those that do generate strong revenues – numbers that will allow you not to worry about working again!
Now we have established that you really want to go ahead with this, the first thing you should do is to establish a formal company – registered a Companies House. This will not only provide some legitimacy, but also allows you and your fellow developers to formalise shareholdings and provides that limited liability that you hopefully will never need!
Once registered you may want to consider registering for VAT if you think revenues will be high enough. If you are employing anyone you will also need to register for PAYE – both are easily done via the HMRC website.
Don’t start developing yet though. You do need to consider what would happen if one of your happy team decides to leave. Remember that many co-founders of companies end up splitting up at some point due to disagreement or worse and you need to ensure that you are covered in this event. Probably the best way is with a Shareholders Agreement but this will cost money to get drawn up. Before you ignore this issue though, just think about what would happen if you are halfway through a product and one of the shareholders leaves – what happens to the work they have contributed? Do they own it or does the company own it? Do you have the work assigned to the company and if you release the product what will happen?
Right, so that is all sorted out – time to start developing surely? Well, not really… What sort of product are you making and how have you decided what to develop? Have you carried out any marketing to determine if there is anyone out there who wants your product or are you arrogant enough to think that what you want to play is what everyone else wants to play? If you haven’t carried out any marketing research then you are already on your way to enjoying <100 sales on the App Store -- in this day and age, creating a product for a specific market is **THE most important** start your project can make.
Nearly there surely? You know what you want to develop and have carried out some basic marketing research to identify a need. It is time to develop but before you start you need to ask yourself 'How?'. Are you going to use middleware which will allow for speedier prototyping and release or are you going to start from scratch? Are you going to use industry standard tools like Max, Maya, Photoshop, Perforce, Visual Studio etc..? If so, do you have licenses or indeed the finances to purchase such licenses as they don't come cheap. It is possible to get free licenses for some tools such as Perforce through their small indie processes - likewise Microsoft run BizSpark which can get you free licenses if you have a successful application. If these don't work then look at cheaper or open source tools - think about Blender instead of Max/Maya, Pixelmator or the free GIMP instead of Photo$hop, InkScape instead of Illustrator - there are many other solutions available.
Let's fast forward six months. You do have your product out in the market don't you - six months should be plenty of time? One issue I see time and time again (and have done it many times myself) is the search for perfection. Constantly tweaking and changing a product over and over again, adding more and more features and severe feature creep. Whilst we all want our products to be the best they can possible be, there comes a time when continued tweaking just wastes time and money and generates no additional revenue. Aim to push out a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as soon as possible to generate feedback from customers and react to any feedback that makes sense.
Think about platforms. If you chose a middleware solution for your core tech, utilise the different platforms they offer. You are thinking about platforms other than iOS aren't you? Look at all options such as the Play Store, Amazon, Nook, Samsung and all the other digital store options. Run tests on localisation to see if it makes a difference to your products (it didn't for any of ours but some products see positive growth when localised)
This should give you a few things to think about - I will add Part 2 to this at some point and finish it off 🙂