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Attempted Advice: So You Want to Start Your Own Game Company?

Over the years, folks have emailed me for advice on various things, and while I can’t claim to be some great authority on a whole lot, I have picked up some stuff, which I will share and hope it’s of some use. I've been a part of two start-ups now and watched the workings of others, and I'll smoosh together that experience into a terrifying amalgam of advice! Here we go!

Be careful of copyright. If you want to keep that company name (or any other game or product name), make very certain that nobody else has it. Search it multiple times, ask other people to run checks for you, be extremely thorough, and cover your bases. Once you’re certain you’re in the clear, apply for a copyright for the name (likely not as necessary but probably not a bad step).

Keep an eye on the scene. Very often, your strongest tool will be the people in a community, ideally the one in your area, but often online as well. Involving yourself in the development scene (especially for indies) is wise. Don’t run in expecting to get a bunch back right away, but take it as an opportunity to learn, find potential collaborators, or even just talk shop. Things like game jams are also amazing chances to get to exercise your skills and see the strengths of others, not to mention advance your own!

Get a reliable source of business advice and accounting. A lot of accountants have little to no idea how to handle businesses that deal with entertainment, especially games (even here in Washington, which is chock-full of game companies), and a lot of tax set-ups are based on the idea of outputting a consistent physical product. A lot of the best advice on this can be found via your peers (another good reason to be involved in a scene, as mentioned above), but this shouldn’t get you off the hook for basic knowledge. Look up what you can, educate yourself as well as you’re able, and when you do find a decent source, check that information against their knowledge and course-correct yourself if you find out something is wrong. Also: it’s never a bad idea to set aside more than you think you’d need for taxes, because protecting against unpleasant surprises is a good thing.

Get a good but simple website. Something easily searchable and streamlined is key – and there are plenty of great sites that will help you build one for free, with nice slick templating. Don’t bother with stuff like forums: they’re hard to maintain and moderate, and can become an easy target for hackers and trolls. Start simple, and educate yourself on the website-making tools before you dive into a full suite of options – even if you’re a pro at building sites, it’s best to start small and focused. Look at other company websites that you like and try to assess pros and cons of them, and use that to help you figure out what you want for yours.

Don’t count on a single funding source. This is especially true when it comes to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter: unfortunately, unless you’re making a boardgame, the days of getting $150K to make a videogame are long over. It can help get a project wider showings and more polish, perhaps, or release on a different platform, but the odds of full-project funding are narrow… and can often be troublesome to account for. Publishers aren’t a guarantee of success, either: there are countless stories of games being shuttered by publishers who decide to not take the risk, or switch management, or so on, and developers bear the brunt. With a secondary funding source, there’s a chance to keep development going while trying to find a new primary supporter. This isn’t an easy thing to do by any means, just having extra cash lying around and all, but remember games can be incredibly expensive to make, even when scaled down.

Start small. You might want to leap right in to making that glorious big game you’ve always wanted… but that might not be a good idea. You’ll likely be dealing with a fresh team, maybe a new engine, possibly new tools, etc. Give yourself some yardage to make something smaller: maybe not a full game, but proofs of concept, experiments, etc. Potentially these can become full games – more than a few fantastic games have had their origins as little game jam projects – but even if they just exist as experiments, it can help you overcome early development obstacles and identify pipeline issues before there’s a full game at stake. Keeping it simple might feel frustrating at first, but proving you can do something scaled-down and then building on it is a better recipe for success. Plus, it’s a proven adage in game development that things will always take longer than you think they will!

Pick your engine carefully. Don’t just leap for the thing that’s the most cheap, the most common, the most flashy, the most anything just because it’s “most.” Talk to peers, read articles, see what are best for the kinds of games you want to make. You won’t be married to one for good, but it’s not a bad plan to imagine making more than one game with it.

Don’t build everything yourself (if you can help it). If you’re working in a more popular engine, there are a tremendous amount of programs and plug-ins that likely do exactly what you’re looking for, and also art assets and sound libraries to take advantage of. Take the time to research the tools out there and try them out for yourself if you can.

Save your knowledge. Even if it’s just you, having a careful source of documentation – like a wiki or Google Drive – is incredibly helpful. If people are coming on to the team, if you have to take a break from the project and come back later, if you’re on a task and lose sight of a goal and need a refresher… for whatever reason, having solid documentation that is kept up-to-date in an easily searchable or accessible source is incredibly helpful, if not outright essential.

Keep an eye on what’s out there. This is both for what’s in the market – Steam releases, consoles, etc. – but knowledge amongst developers. Read articles and watch videos (if you can get access to the GDC Vault, it might be worth it to subscribe). Take everything with a grain of salt, of course, since not every development experience is the same, but also take very good notes.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive array of advice – or even what I would consider more than a starter list – but I hope this wad of knowledge helps!


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