Five Realistic Steps To Starting A Game Development Company

Update 4/24/15: This has been the most popular article on MBG, so I just updated it. Also, for more information about getting started in the games business, take a look at my other articles on my Getting Started Making Games page.

Lately, I have read a couple of blog articles about starting your own game company. To me, they are too short, overly simplistic, and not very complete. So, I decided to start at the beginning, and write a step by step approach to starting your own development company. I hope to string all of these articles together, along with a few of the posts I have already written, and create a freely downloadble eBook. I will still circle back around and finish the “How much money can Indie games make” series, but it will be a part of the eBook.
You’ve played games since you could walk. Fond memories of your NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, GameCube, and PS2 fill your brain like your console collection that fills your closet. Your Gameboys are piled up in a box that you just can’t bring yourself to give away. Your collection of current hardware, i.e. Wii, PS3, DS, Xbox 360, and a hopped up PC hooked to the Internet powers your play while you are saving up for your new XBox 720 or PS4. Meanwhile you are constantly playing on your phone or tablet device as well. Your game collection looks like a museum or a small library, with countless birthday presents, allowances, and parental gifts adding up to thousands and thousands of dollars worth of investment. Playing this collection of games over the years must make you an EXPERT on gaming! Well, at least on playing them. Making them is a different story.

Game publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet, you know that mostly you are unsatisfied with the majority of the big, hyped up releases, and you think you could do better. Even the constant wave of thousands of cheap games on mobile devices are not as good as you are imagining. Well, it isn’t easy, but you can make a living by making games. There are many ways to make a living in the game industry, for instance, you could go the traditional route and become an employee of a major publisher such as Electronic Arts or Activision or you could become an employee of a large developer that works for one of these companies. Going this route is a standard career progression of going to school to learn your craft, applying, getting hired, and working your way up the political ladder. Well, this eBook isn’t going to be about this career path.

Instead, I will help you explore how to start your own game development company. Having been a life long entrepreneur, I’m not too excited about a 9-5 job (or 9-10PM more realistically), kissing corporate ass or dealing with the internal politics of large companies. Working in a large “game factory” has perks such as seemingly large pay, great health benefits, plus you get to work on AAA titles that should top the sales charts. But, it is also well known that these companies build their business plans around burning out bright eyed young graduates by requiring incredibly long work weeks for months on end. In addition, you will not get to make these games better. All of the creativity is tied up in upper management and third party licenses, and, at best, you are a modern day factory worker, working on the smallest detail of a huge project that you may not fully understand or even agree is a good game.

In contrast, you can start your own game company, work at least as hard, and probably not make enough money to make a living. But, and this is a big but, at the end of the day you are constantly challenged, you get to be creative every day, and most importantly, you own everything you make including your “Intellectual Property” (game ideas, art, game play mechanisms, source code, etc.). If you can stick out the lean beginning years by following my advice of right sizing your life and keeping your day job, eventually you will have a portfolio of products that will provide you with enough income to live on, and you will be the envy of nearly everyone working at the game factories. So, if you are still with me, let’s get down to specific steps of how to start your own game company.

First, you need to realize there are many levels at which you can play in this market, and, unless you are very good or very lucky, you will need to take a turn in each of them. I will quickly go through each of the stages to give an overiew of the process, then come back in more detail on each of the specifics later in the book.

Step #1: Hobbyist

This is where you find out if you have any aptitude for this business and begin to learn your craft. Everything at this stage should be fun because if you are not having fun here, then you need to find a different career. Just like painting or making music, anybody at any age can participate as a game making hobbyist, and that may be as far as you ever go with game making. If you have never programmed, I recommend that you learn Javascript. It is one of the easiest languages to learn, yet it can be used professionally for games, servers, and web programming. To easily learn some of the language syntax, I think the best free source of information is Kahn Academy’s JS: Drawing and Animation course.

Self Promotion alert! After Kahn Academy’s course, I recommend that you try to make a Javascript mod in Spotkin’s Contraption Maker game. The reason for having you start programming on a mod in Contraption Maker is because for no extra work you get to have access to our professional drawing routines, physics, art, etc. This is a gentle way work on Javascript programming without having to set up a development environment, worry about browser security or setting up a web server, and once you have created a mod, it is easy to share with friends and show it to the world.

Contraption Maker Javascript Modding Screen

Contraption Maker Javascript Modding Screen

If you find it fun, now it is time to move up to a real game making “engine“, and you might as well invest in an engine that has the ability to take you from hobbyist to commercial developer, from simple PC/Mac to Mobile Devices. For the tool of choice, I’m going to recommend the Atomic Game Engine. Atomic has a free version to get started, and from there you can add on additional platforms and versions. I recommend Atomic because a lot of the programming takes place in Javascript, yet the C++ engine source code is available on GitHub in Open Source format. So, you can do day to day programming in Javascript, but the heavy lifting can be done in C++ if you need a really great performance for something like a fast Physics engine or complex AI.

Atomic Game Engine 3D Editor

Atomic Game Engine 3D Editor

In your hobbyist days, spend time learning more about programming, work through tutorials, and generally have fun. Make bubble poppers, scrolling shoot ‘em ups, Space Invaders, Pac Man, text games, etc. Keep the scope small, learn from others, but most of all get a bunch of things done (this will be important later when it comes time to join a team).

Step #2: Educational, Resume Building

Now, you are getting serious and it is time to really learn about your craft and pull together your resume and portfolio to show the world what you can do. If you are a programmer, you are starting to learn the basics, but now you NEED to learn C++, so get a compiler and read some books on programming theory. If you are an artist, you can start with the free and Open Source Blender (which I think is awesome), but it is time to start thinking about how you can get a commercially accepted 3D modeling program like 3D Studio Max or Maya (big bucks, so start saving now), and really learning the nitty details. You are pulling together tools for a life time of learning and productivity, so you need to change your mindset to one of “investing”, i.e. don’t skimp on the tools. Get the best you can afford.

Do you need to go to school to learn this stuff? I’m going to go against the grain and say no. This will be controversial, but I have to say that I never look at education when I make hiring or partnering decisions. I look at results. Many of the best programmers that I know did not complete their university education. By the time they went to college, they had already learned, on their own, what they were going to learn in college. They simply could not dumb themselves down to the level needed to get their degree.

But, if you need formal education to gets results, that is fine too. Like I said, results speak for themselves, just don’t expect to roll out of a degree factory with nothing but your Senior project and get a job or get on a team. Instead, build up your resume with research into graphics, create small innovative games or applications, learn to program on the web, check out Python, Ruby on Rails, and Javascript. Understand how the web works. Understand how PC and GPU architectures work. Check out some cyber security majors that are offered online. Learn OpenGL and Direct-X. Contribute to an Open Source project or contribute back attention getting programming resources to the Unity Store. Do you feel it? You are starting to become a programming “Jedi“. Each technology you learn creates a result that adds to your portfolio, and each one gets easier to learn. I’ll cover all of this more specifically for programmers, artists, and producers/designers later in the book.

Regardless of your craft, in preparation to getting on a real team you need to start a Blog and keep it up to date with interesting and informative articles about your journey. Put up a web page or Wiki showing off all of your projects. Give them away for free download. Become active in the prominent game development communities such as the Unity Forums or GarageGames. Write articles for Gamasutra or #AltDevBlogADay. You need to give of yourself in this stage to build up the the credibility needed to get on a great team.

In addition to building up your reputation in your field, it is time to start getting your resume out into the broader business communities. First of all, pull all of your college drinking pictures off of Facebook and clean up your old feeds or make it all completely private (for reasons unknown to me, lots of people still use FB for business). Open a Twitter account and start following industry leaders in your area. Put your resume and experience up on LinkedIn and start building up your connections. I will cover all of this in more depth in a later post, but for now, click here are some awesome tips from professional game artist Jon Jones about these types of activities (specifically for artists, but apply to nearly any career).

Step #3: Spare Time, Secondary Revenue Stream

If you are young enough, did a good enough job in the Education/Resume step, and have a low enough burn rate, you may be able to skip this step. But, if you already have a full time job, family, and lots of obligations, dipping your toe into the water by creating a game in your spare time and bringing it to market will give you an idea of how much money you can make and whether or not you like doing this. Keep in mind that this stage keeps you in line with the Foundational Five tenant of “Don’t quit your day job” that I have espoused since we started GarageGames and covered in this article, Five Foundational Steps To Surviving As A Game Developer in my Make It Big In Games blog.

Assuming you have built up your craft and “street cred” enough to be in a small team where everybody is working for future royalties, it is time to make a game that you think will make money. Picking the right game is the hard part here. Later in this book, there are a couple of chapters devoted to this subject. You need to find a game that has a defensible design twist and you know you can get completed. I see way too many development teams shoot for the moon on their first title, never get it done, get discouraged, and give up. Instead, SHIP SOMETHING. At this stage, it does not really matter if it makes a lot of money. There are so many things to learn by polishing and completing a game to commercial standards, going through the QA process, learning the sales and marketing process, and interacting directly with your customers that the educational process is actually worth more than the money you make from shipping your first game.

Now that you have a shipping game, you can better judge how to make a game that will make you more money. Remember, multiple sources of income will be your objective here. You are trying to determine if you have the ability or the desire move to the next level. It may be fun and lucrative enough for you to make anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand extra dollars per month, and you decide to stay at this level.

Step #4: Full Time Developer, Supplemented by Contracts

You’ve made a couple of part time, secondary revenue games, you think you like this lifestyle, and you are ready to take the plunge. Hold on. Before you quit your day job, make sure to line up some contracts to keep revenue flowing while you create your first real Indie game. Now your day job is your contracts, and you can start scaling them back as your games become more successful. (How to find contracts will be covered later in the book).

Once you “jump off the cliff” you get to experience the entreprenurial terror that all self-employed small business owners experience. But, you also get to experience the sheer joy and satisfaction that comes with knowing that you are not depending on anybody but yourself to make your living. Most people don’t realize it, but no job is secure. At any point in time, the people running the company you work for are getting pressure that you have no control over. That pressure can come from shareholders, higher up managers, cash flow issues, or any other number of issues that you have absolutely no control over, but could end your job at any time. Even at a huge company like Electronic Arts, security at a job is an illusion. Just ask the “churn” employees. Those are the people that spent a year on the front lines, putting in a lot of crunch time, only to be let go due to the requirement that all managers replace the “bottom 10-12%” of their employees every year. If you are running your own company, at least you know when you are in trouble.

Step #5: Full Time, Your Games Only

This is your goal. Your day job and your Indie game development and publishing venture are one and the same. You stroll down the hallway to your home office and work on whatever you want every day. Some of your time is spent in development, some in design, some in marketing, and some on bizdev. Every day is a changing, challenging lifestyle that can’t be beat.

It’s just you and two or three other guys against the world. You will love your products, and they will become much like your children. Remember that you will be living with these products for a LONG time, so you need to make sure you like, no love, them. Don’t do it just for the money. Make games that you are proud of. I can tell you from experience that nothing feels better about standing up for a game or design that nobody thought would be sell, then proving “them” wrong when it sells well. But, even if it does not sell well, at least you feel good about making a game you believe in. There are many strategies for balancing risk vs. innovation, making a portfolio of games, and running your company at this stage that I will cover later in the book.

A Word About What It Takes

Why is this SO hard? You may be thinking, “jeez, this is a really long article, and all of this sounds really hard.” Well, it is hard. If you are looking for “10 Easy Steps to Game Development Success“, then you need to look elsewhere. This entire process will take years to complete, but, on the bright side, if you do it right, each step of the process should be an adventure that is fun and challenging. Why does it take so long? Because you are competing against other people that have taken a long time to become great programmers, artists, designers, or producers. For some reason, many people think that making games should be easy, since playing them is so much fun. They tend to think that by buying a game engine, they should be able to bust something out in a matter of months that will make them a lot of money. That won’t happen.

Why should making games good enough that people want to buy them be any easier than any other artistic profession? I always like to think of making games as a lot like making rock music. It takes a group of people that all have specialized skills and it takes a long time to learn your “instrument” or craft. When we started GarageGames, we used to make the analogy that game engines are like guitars, and that by supplying the Torque Game Engine for $100, we finally enabled people to focus on making their game rather than taking a couple of years to make a game engine before they could start making their game. But, just because the engine is available and cheap does not mean it is easy to make a game. It is just that it is possible for many more people, rather than being impossible.
Taking the rock band analogy further, imagine going to Guitar Center one day and buying a shiny new Fender Stratocaster guitar. How long do you think it would take to become good enough to make songs that people would want to pay for? A month? A year? Two years? Now you are are getting close. The answer is, it takes years to get good enough to even make music that people want to listen to, let alone pay for. But, just like making games, every step of the process is fun. First you are amazed at how cool your new guitar is, then you start learning how to play by taking a few lessons, talking to your friend that knows how to play, downloading tablature from the Internet, listening to MP3’s and playing by ear, etc. Next, you hook up with a couple of friends and try your hand at covering some of your favorite rock songs. You suck, but you have never had this much fun in your life. Eventually, you think you are ready to play in front of people, so you agree to lug all of your equipment over to a friend’s outdoor party. You suck again, Joey’s bass was too loud, your guitar was way out of tune, and Jimmy’s high hat fell over in the middle of your best song, but, on that one song, somebody clapped and gave you the “horns” hand signal. You are all hooked, and dedicate yourself to even more practice and even start writing your own original songs. You continue to level up, getting bigger local crowds, and eventually regional crowds powered by your Facebook, Google+, and blog connections. Eventually you are making a living making music.

If this process sounds famiar to the above steps that I described for making your game company, it’s because it is. Ironically, people understand how long it takes to get good enough to make music for a living, but making games is a different story. OK, enough theory, let’s get down to it. In the next article, I will cover the different “crafts” or roles needed to have a successful game development company.

If you are still with me, make sure to check out my latest game Contraption Maker. I have joined with all of the old member of The Incredible Machine to make this game everything we wanted it to be when we created it back in the 1990’s.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker ::: Make It Big In Games Blog ::: GarageGames

54 thoughts on “Five Realistic Steps To Starting A Game Development Company

  1. If you're just a gamer, this is a longshot. You have to be an artist, you have to have passion.

    I sit behind my computer for hours playing with 3DS Max cause I actually enjoy it. I feel some sort of accomplishment by creating something that's really special and that I love.

    If you don't have the passion or truly love this job like a geek, then you will struggle and find out you really hate it. Believe me with all the programs, engines etc.. it feels like an infinite amount of stuff to study.

  2. classical music says:

    Music can be a really good hobby more than playing xbox, I just love the way technology and music combines

  3. If I had my way, I would start my own game development company for the sole purpose of rescuing franchises like Banjo-Kazooie, Tempo, High Seas Havoc, Ristar, Chameleon Twist, Kaio: King of Pirates, etc., as well as make awesome titles for franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Boom is by all means unacceptable, and I really want to work on a MvC2-style fighting game, and Sonic Adventure 3).

    I have played numerous games since the 4th generation, but I don’t have the skill or mindset to actually develop and program a game myself. However, I have seen so many reviews on bad games that look appealing, but and loaded with gameplay flaws, to the point that I could h’ve the games fixed myself, so long as I know what the flaws are.

    As for picking up obscure franchises and overlooked games, it’s no secret that:
    -Companies like Sunsoft, Atlus, and Rare, left Nintendo’s library around the Gamecube era.
    -There are just too many gritty realistic shooting games like Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed, The Order, Halo, Elder Scrolls, Portal, Bionic Commando, Conduit, Titanfall, anything printed on the cover of Gameinformer magazines! (Just to name a few).
    -Not too many game franchises are around anymore.
    -Recent first-party Nintendo titles have been……..meh
    -There’s an over-abundance of bland generic indie games (Blek is one of many)
    -And SEGA (Iizuka) has not only disowned anything from the classic Sonic era that isn’t Sonic 1, 2, CD, 3 & Knuckles (that includes, SegaSonic Arcade, Sonic Triple Trouble, Tails Adventures, Knuckles Chaotix, Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Championship, the few existing concepts of Sonic X-treme, and Sonic R), but allowed Sonic Boom to become a thing, and when that game failed, shifted the franchise towards mobile and PC games.

    Remember a time where video games were appealing to the eyes and fun? Well I do. With those things in mind, I just want to get involved creatively and rescue all my cherished franchises, as well as fix any games with gameplay flaws, such as Bubsy (not Bubsy 3D), Shaq Fu, even E.T. (yes, a dated/infamous game like that), and make them passable.

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