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

  • Duncan

    Excuse me while I pull up a desk. I’m assuming that there will be a test. Of course there will be a test, it’s called life. I’m pumped! Time to get started.

  • Preston

    I cannot wait for the next in the series of this book.
    I check this blog atleast 3 times a day, and I can tell you, because i’ve read alot of game development type blogs like this, that yours is by FAR the best i’ve ever read and I have the most interest in it.

    I’ve never went down this Indie road, I’ve never considered this as a career for myself, but I can relate to this feeling of success by completing a project.

    I like to write, I love to read over my writing, and even if my writing may suck, I still read it over a million times cause im so proud that I can write somthing that looks even anything remotely professional.

    Maybe I should be a journalist rather than a game developer? Perhaps, but for now I can just answer one thing, I am looking foward to the next installment.

    Keep them coming, you have a very loyal fan right here.
    You’re awesone, Jeff.

  • Jason

    Very down to Earth advice for beginners.

    As a full time indie, I’d like to comment that making games–even your own–is still work, and some of it is not fun (especially when you’ve been staring at the game for 8 months and just want to be finished). You have to force yourself to keep working just like being dragged into work when you’re a 9-to-5er for someone else. It takes an incredible amount of self discipline that you might not expect to need. But it’s worth it when you’re done.

    (Should “hobbiest” be “hobbyist”? Or is it clever wordplay that went over my head?) :)

  • Jeff Tunnell

    Damn, the spelling checker on Writely said it was wrong, but didn’t have a suggestion, so I thought it just wasn’t in the dictionary and I was right. Oh weel, I’m a game maker, not a writer.


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  • Juuso Hietalahti – Game Producer

    Good stuff Jeff. Those steps are the ones to follow, no job is secure.

  • Josh

    Another great article! I can’t wait for these blogs when they come out. I’m gonna go digg this.

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  • Bartoneus

    I’m very intrigued and waiting for the next part, about the many different “crafts” involved. Mainly because I can’t program for the life of me, so I need to rely on other things, but I got a very strong feeling from this article that if you’re not a programmer you shouldn’t even try the game industry.

  • Jay Barnson

    Great entry! And spot on!

    I would say that working for a pro, established game company at first *IS* a good way to build up that education & resume. But if you aren’t careful and lucky, it could also suck out your love of games and game development.

  • Collin

    Is there something similar to the free version of ‘Game Maker’ for the hobbyist running Mac OSX?

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  • Psychochild

    Great info, Jeff, stuff I agree with strongly.

    Well, except for one point:

    I firmly believe you should get a degree before trying to get a job in game development. If you apply to large companies, you will be competing with people that have degrees and thus be at a disadvantage. Even if starting your own company, taking classes on business, accounting, etc, can help tremendously. My minor in Business has helped me considerably in running my own business.

    In addition, you can make some valuable contacts at the university that could help you later. College students are notorious gamers and it is easier to find people to work on a project together. Also, despite all the work, college is a time when you will have the energy and time to really work on a game project. It becomes much harder once you have an actual standard of living, wife, kids, loan payments, etc.

    My thoughts. Personally, I’d still hire a highly qualified person without a degree myself, but it is a lot easier to get your foot in the door with the degree and the freedom college affords.

    Have fun,

  • moo

    Duncan said: “Of course there will be a test, it’s called life.”

    Reminds me of a great quote I read recently (in the Yellow Pages, of all places):

    “Life is a harsh teacher. It gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.”

  • raigan

    i’m glad that there are people getting the word out that you can make games without millions of dollars.

    however, just to play devil’s advocate.. i disagree that you need to make games which are polished to the degree that current “commercial” indie games are. if you beleive that game development is a creative endeavour, like writing fiction or music, approaching it as a business or career first and foremost is maybe sort of starting off on the wrong foot.

    if you look at punk (70s/80s punk, not skatepunk) or independent/underground hiphop, you only need to be proficient enough with your craft (programming, guitar, etc) so that you can express yourself. polish and technical proficiency isn’t nearly as important as having something to say.. a unique or interesting createive vision. it may take years of practise and experimentation to find your voice, but i think that _that_ should be the focus — learning and exploring things in order to discover yourself and develop your abilities and interests, instead of simply to develop a toolset that you can leverage.

    i’m not disagreeing with any of this advice, which is great btw, i just feel that if you look at picasso, the beatles, etc.. none of them approached what they did as a business first — they started with the knowledge that they had talent and a desire to create, and simply started creating — later they found ways to commercialize it.

    then again

  • Preston

    I know this has nothing to do with this article or whatever, but Raigan, your ‘N game’ rocks.

  • John Nelson

    I really enjoyed th article. The term used for the game company I worked at was sweat shop. The pay and hours was really bad, but it was the most fun I ever had at a job. I learned quite a bit from being on the frontlines. Now I am much older and have started my own game company. I have licensed multiple engines and created tech demos with each one to see which game fits which engine technology. The Torque engine is one of those. Keep up the great blog!

  • Troy Gilbert

    @raigan: While I would agree with you that having something to say is definitely a critical component, the harsh realities of business is that polish and proficiency succeed.

    I think it’s naieve to think that because music like punk is so raw it indicates that it’s successful practicioners don’t have polish or technical proficiency. While there are of course exceptions, it’s unwise for folks to plan on being that exception. The successful musicians and artists in the independent scene have incredible skill, often having extensive “classical” skill that they eschew for their own aesthetic.

    Of course, the biggest difference is that, whether we like it or not, game development is still an engineering practice in most scenarios. Our tools have not quite reach the sophistication where games can be “drafted” with the intuition of an artist or musician.

    Also, don’t underestimate the technical proficiency required for a great deal of music… it’s very little relatively speaking. For many styles, personal voice is the only thing that separates one garage guitarist from another, at least early in their careers. Game development is simply “harder,” whether it’s due to the almost universal reliance on mathematics and logic, or the non-linear planning required, etc.

    That being said… I would say that I very much would like to see game development one day be just like you suggest; the industry’s stagnation is spurred on by these barriers. I think tools like Flash, which blur the line between interactivity and art (and you’ve obviously had some success there), make steps in the right direction.

  • Jeff Tunnell

    @Raigan: I think it would be awesome for people to make “punk rock” games if they see fit. In fact, that is one of the reasons that I wanted to start GarageGames. I wanted to see what would happen if great tools were given to the masses. In my opinion, there is not yet enough experimentation. Too many people are hooked on the idea that they need to make money. However, since my article was about how to make money, I focused on the steps you need to go through to increase your chances of commercial success.

    You don’t need polished games to have a success. Bridge Construction Set was not all that polished when GarageGames first published it, yet it has sold very well. Focus on fun first and polish later.

  • http://nope Hidden

    Great read, Jeff!

    I just got back from a game developement job – managed by people who have no idea what games are all about. I can’t wait to meet you and the company.

  • Paul D’Elia

    I thought N was pretty sleek for a Flash game raigan =P. I burned hours beating all the levels in 1.3. Anyway, “polish” is a relative term, and a lot of that depends on the audience for your game. Zombie Smashers X2 is literally a punk rock game, full of hacked together graphics and code, yet it’s fun as hell to play and suits the attitude of the game well. If you’re making a casual puzzle game, with that audience you need to have more a focus on a clean, intuitive, interface and all the other kinds of “polished” elements of a game.

  • Phil Carlisle

    I also want to defend the degree route. If only because I think the time you have away from the commercial pressure of having to work is still time you can develop your game. Think of it as the student equivalent of “dont give up your day job”.

    I always tell my students, its not what we teach them on the course that will get them a job, its what THEY teach themselves on the course. The good ones have a portfolio of work when they leave that would be hard to put together otherwise (without having huge pressure from your parents for instance).

    Plus I like to think it opens up your mind to be educated.

  • Jason L.

    To comment on the degree route. Gaining one is not something everyone has the opportunity to do. Nor is it something everyone can achieve. That does not mean they can’t be successful in the field.

    For my point I’ll base it off my own personal scenario. For starters I am ADHD so my ability to concentrate on things that do not interest me are next to nil. Anything “basic” and my mind will be off on other things. When it comes to programming issues like when to use a ; and when not to are the areas I have the most trouble with. Learning anything by reading a book is damn near pointless, as I just don’t seem to retain anything I read from them, nor is it all that easy for me to follow whats being taught.

    That does not mean I can’t work with code. Nor does it mean I can’t find issues within a piece of problematic code. the way I learn is almost the reverse in that I need to start with something complex and then tear it apart, after that I can then use the information from that process in other areas.

    Thinking about it right now, I don’t think I can even create a working Hello World program. But as for CASE based AI files..


    Now beyond my own learning issues, theres also the external issues. Right now even if I wanted to go back to school for anything, my daily life just does not allow for enough time. With working 12hrs a day just to pay my bills ect, I can’t afford the expense nor the time to get a degree. I still don’t even have the right to say I’m educated to a high school degree, as I left in grade 11 and haven’t gone to obtain it.

    Until recently however I was employed in the industry by a company that has an active retail mmorpg. I started as a paying customer of said game, got a position doing ingame support, moved onto QA Testing, and started doing work in the items databases, and general contention creation aspects of the game, including upto making new AI scripts for the NPC’s. The only aspects of the game that I didn’t work on was the main source code for the engine, or the art side of things, as the main source was inhouse only, and I’m lousy on the art side of things as it just doesn’t interest me. All the work I did was part time from my own home in a drastically different timezone from the main office, and if I had desired I would have been still employed there as I left the company on my own accord.

    These days I’m not active in any part of the industry at all, nor do I expect to be for some time. However when I do get back into things again, I suspect it will most likely be on the indie front, but I’m not as much interested in working on complete games as I am the engines behind them. While I love playing games, on the creation side the “Torque” & “Havoc” aspects of the industry are alot more interesting to me. Creating complex systems has much more of an appeal.

    That said, while some companies may push away anyone that does not have that “piece of paper”, those who like me who can’t realistically obtain one should not be discouraged, as there are many ways into the industry.

    And in reply to Phil’s closing remarks(not direct at, but in general), my mind is always open to be educated, I spend most of my free time absorbing any and all knowledge that interests me, I dislike not having a “piece of paper” stating the fact that I let an institution teach me what I know held over my head.

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  • Norv Brooks

    Great article, Jeff. Looking forward to the follow up. You wrote in your article: “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, …” (found in the section Spare Time, Secondary Revenue Stream) I really agree with this sentiment. To be an Indie, being self-displined and have that stick-to-it mentality I think is very important.

    As to Raigan’s comments and others’ responses, it seems to me you covered that angle in the early stage HOBBYIST. Raigan’s comments certainly proved to be a springboard for discussion.

  • Apparatus

    Lovely article. I must agree it’s a good, very good one. Raigan pointed out something I agree with too…

    can’t wait for the eBook.

    Thank you Jeff.

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  • raigan

    @ Jeff: there are already a lot of more “punk-ish” types of games, especially in freeware (as someone else mentioned, Zombie Smashers is a great example).. sadly the audience isn’t quite there yet. And about the business-oriented slant of the article, i have a unique argument which will follow below ;)

    @ Troy: i really do think that the vast majority of 1st generation punk (70s/80s) were of sub-standard proficiency, it’s not naivety.. although these days i agree that “punk” groups are just as proficient as any other genre. The important thing is that any proficiency that bands like Blag Flag/Dead Kennedys/Minor Threat did posess arose as a side-product of expressing themselves, and not as a result of explicitly developing their skills because doing so would increase their chances of commercial success.. many members of such bands (Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra.. most of the Ramones?) would be considered very amateur or totally untrained, and that didn’t stop them from creating extremely interesting work.

    @ Norv: I don’t feel that it’s “hobbyist” at all to put what _you_ want to do in front of what consumers desire; I think that a strong commitment to creating work you believe in is the hallmark of the professional. Perhaps if we were manufacturing a commodity like toothpaste this would be different. If Beethoven had composed music based on what he thought people wanted to hear, wouldn’t that make him less of a professional than if he had simply composed the music he felt inside of himself?! And yet this is the strategy that many game developers believe to be “professional”.

    If you look at the all-time most commercially successful musical groups or film directors, not very many of them started with a practise that was predicated on being commercially successful; they put their own desires as creators first.

    It’s true that Beatles- or Lucas-esque success stories may be the minority statistically.. but neverthelesss they at least suggest possible truth in the thesis that **ultimately the best strategy to persue, if you really want to acheive commercial success, is to ignore commercial factors and do whatever you feel you need to do, regardless of the immediate/short-term commercial ramifications.**

    If the Beatles has listened to the feedback given to them by indistry professionals who knew about the market (i.e “guitar bands are out”), they never would have succeeded.. they succeeded only because they made decisions which were in the short term detrimental to commercial success!

    Attempting to become commercially successful by persuing strategies which directly increase your chances of commercial success just seems a bit too close to naive hill-climbing.. which we all know is a terrible way to reach the globally optimal result ;)

    The main reason i wanted to provide a dissenting point of view wasn’t that i think the business side isn’t important, but that (due to whatever historical or cultural reasons) the vast majority of game developers seem to approach making games as “let’s create a product that the market demands” as opposed to “let’s express ourselves”, and that really seems to me to be a recipe for commercial failure in the long run.

    While there are certainly many musical groups who formed with the intention of establishing a commercially successful career making music, how many of them are really interesting or inspirational? There may be a dozen “Spice Girls” success stories for every Robert Rodriguez, but does that really mean that the former is a better career model to persue?

    Nirvana, the Beatles, Dead Kennedys, etc. didn’t get together and say “hey guys, starting a band makes terrific business sense”, because it _didn’t_ make sense! From the point of view of supporting themselves, turning a profit, establishing a career, etc.. what they were doing was dead wrong, even stupid. However, they did what they knew they wanted to do, and as a result worked their way out of any spurrious local minima to acheive great things.

    I think that it’s really important that indie developers consider that the most important difference between “indie” and “commercial” in other industries (such as music and film) may be that the former create works based on personal vision and self-expression while the latter produce works based on sales estimates. Without this vital distinction the only thing that seperates indies from commercial groups is production values, which is a field in which indies will never be able to compete.

  • Phil Carlisle

    I think one of the problems with the analogy between music and video game creation is that games are FAR FAR harder to produce than music.

    Music is an inherent ability for many people. Ok, it takes training to understand notation, but clearly people can hear and develop thier own music without that understanding. Intuitively they can develop nice sounding tunes (just look at the proliferation of these programs which have sample loops and people can shove tracks together).

    Games are much more like an on/off switch. You cant “half do” a game. It either functions, or it doesnt. You can execute badly, sure. But fundamentally there is a big hill to climb before you can produce ANYTHING of meaning.

    So yes, I support the assertion of games = music. I just think games = incredibly intricate and technically challenging music :)

    BTW: I always regarded the games industry and music industry to be very similar too. I’m not sure I still hold with it, but certainly it seems to be very similar. Lots of big labels spreading the hope of massive success when the reality is very different.

    I was always hoping just to get the games equivalent of a great gigging band going. I still do.

    I dont care about signing for a major label. I dont really care about fame or even adulation. I care about making things I am happy with.

    I guess in most cases in the games industry, that is incredibly rare. How many people realistically get to create the games of thier dreams?

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  • Erik Chan – Double Jump Studios

    Awesome article Jeff! You absolutely hit the spot about starting a video game company. From big publishers burning out young graduates, having the skill and credentials, enjoying making the game you own, etc…it’s all true.

    I’ve recently finally started my own game studio, and am pretty curious myself to see whether the need to make multiple games is neccessary to accumulate enough experience to make a solid quality game.
    What do you think about creating a small game and spending the time to refine it (which may take even longer than development itself) so that it is polished? This industry is based on ‘hits’ (quality) and not quantity; it takes one good game to make it big doesn’t it?

  • Jeff Tunnell


    I’m sticking with the music analogy. I think it is getting truer every day. As cheap and powerful tools proliferate, as more site spring up that allow people to connect, as more information about how to start and get better become the norm, anybody can do this, and do it well. Four guys in a garage will not make the big over produced crap that is flowing fromt he game studios, but I four guys in a garage could have made Guitar Hero or the original Sim City or The Incredible Machine or Marble Blast, and in two of those cases they were made with way less.

    @Raigan: I agree that freeware is where it is at. Notice that I put alot of emphasis in my article about the hobbyist stage. Many, many people could just stay at that level and never worry about making money. Ironically, I’m kind of back at that stage. I’m working on things that I want to make, and I don’t always worry about making money.

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  • Steve Bosman

    Interesting read – not that at my age I see myself becoming a games developer. You might like to know there is a broken link to Torque Game Builder (an extra http// has slipped in somehow).

  • Nils

    why do I always get the feeling such blogs/articles are just viral marketing for Torque…

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  • David R. Lambert

    Thanks Jeff, anxiously awaiting the next installment.

  • Adib Murad

    “You suck (…) You suck again (…) Eventually you are making a living making music.”

    … and you may still suck, but have your own crowd of faithful fans over the internet.

  • playhard

    I would like to know if you guys have an idea of how to make an online game. I want to start a business. I need someone that knows how to create a game.

  • mathias

    Very good article .
    But, and this is a big but, at the end of the day you are constantly challenged, you get to be creative every day,
    I agree a 100%

    Tres bon article
    Mathias from Montreal ,Canada

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    Thanks for the info. May God have mercy on us all.

  • steffenj

    uuuuh, Jeff … it's been almost 3 years now — is the mentioned eBook available by now? I can't seem to find it. Reading this 3 year old blog entry i'm looking forward to it now. Hey, if you need help with writing, i can lend you some time and fill in the spaces. ;)

  • Jeff Tunnell

    Uuuh. Well, the eBook about how to get started in the games biz is still coming soon now :) Seriously, I really do want to finish it up, but with selling GarageGames to IAC, working on Instant Action, and now starting up PushButton Labs, getting PushButton Engine out, and working on Grunts: Skirmish, something had to go. The eBook didn't make the list. Maybe it'll become the Duke Nuke'm of eBooks :)

  • Paid Survey

    Great blog, love the layout!

  • Yellowstone Camping

    “What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger” best states the essence of this motivating article. Once you fail, there's always the embracing ambiance of the outdoors to help pamper you and clear your mind of the things that bothers you and hinders you from achieving your goal.

  • wu3d

    I liked your article and I have been interested in making games. I have a potential team that are willing to help me make my design doc into a game. The question i have is, how do you ship a game and who do you ship it to?