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Starting an Indie Game Studio (Part 2)

Ever thought about going it on your own? I share my insights on what it takes to start an indie game studio from my own experience.

The urge to start an indie studio runs strong in many game developers.  This isn’t too surprising.  Game developers are, by nature, a very creative group, and the lure of going indie brings visions of creative freedom.  It’s easy to imagine a wonderful life where you spend all day pursing your game development dreams!

This post is part two of an ongoing series.  If you haven’t already done so, make sure you read part one at

In my first article, I posed several questions for aspiring studio founders to consider:
Have you ever started and run a business?

  • Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur or a technical/creative person (e.g. a programmer, artists, esigner)?
  • What would you think if you had to give up (or severely curtail) your technical/creative role to start your studio?
  • How many studios have you worked for as an employee?
  • How many games have you worked on that were actually published?
  • Do you have money to invest in the business?
  • Do you have other skilled team members who are willing to work for free or very little money?

We discussed the first two questions in part one.  Now, let’s tackle two more.

What would you think if you had to give up (or severely curtail) your technical/creative role to start your studio?

If you are really good at what you do, you will succeed, right? Actually, this type of thinking is a big mistake.  Just because you are a good programmer/designer/artist doesn’t mean you will be able to succeed on your own.  In fact, even if you make the greatest game ever, there is still no guarantee that you will succeed.

There is much more to making it in business than just technical expertise.  Here are a few other things that you will have to succeed at:

  • Pay the bills
  • Pay your developers
  • Pay yourself
  • Manage the team
  • Manage the project(s)
  • Find projects
  • Manage your clients
  • Collect payments
  • Market the game

You have to first succeed as a business before you can succeed as a game studio. You will find it pretty hard to continue if you can’t make money and pay the bills and people who work with you. 
If you are the founder of a new game studio, then the responsibility is going to fall on you to do everything that needs to be done. Assuming that you cannot afford to hire an office manager, producer, and marketing team, you will have to learn how to do all of these things.  And that takes time!

My own experience is that managing an indie studio is a full time job.  As a programmer, I love to code. However, if the studio isn’t managed correctly, then nothing else is going to work out. For me, coding has to come last.

I start every day with the administrative tasks that need to be done.  This typically takes at least half the day, but often the whole day.  Then I turn to any coding that needs to be done.  I sometimes work sixteen hours a day.  If this sounds insane, then maybe you should reconsider starting your own studio.

How many studios have you worked for as an employee?

I occasionally run across a student who wants to go independent right out of school.  He wants to skip all the time he would waste working for someone else and just work for himself.  He has such a great idea that it cannot fail.  In fact, it is such a good idea that people will flock to him and develop it for free on their own time. The game will be published, gamers will flock to it, and nirvana will soon follow.

I’m not saying that students, or anyone else, are doomed to failure if they start a studio right out of school. I am saying that it is exceedingly rare to for such ventures to succeed.  The experience gained by working as an employee of another studio is invaluable.

When I decided to switch from general business programming to game programming, I had already been self-employed for fifteen years.  I had been coding for over thirty years.  I still didn’t feel qualified to start my own studio.  Instead, went to work for someone else so I could see first-hand how a game studio was run.

Working for an existing studio gives you the opportunity to watch and learn in a real-world environment.  If you pay attention, you can learn two important lessons: what to do and what not to do!

My suggestion is that you take at least a year to work for another game studio.  While you are there, open your eyes and ears to everything that is going on.  Ask people about their jobs and how they do them.  If possible, get involved in as many different aspects of the studio as you can. 

I am a strong believer that the best game developers are those who become familiar with all aspects of game development, and this is doubly true of anyone who wants to start their own studio.  Here are some questions you should be asking:

  • How are games chosen or rejected for development? Who makes those decisions?
  • Who decides what stays in a game and what gets cut?
  • How long does it take from the time a game is conceived to when it is finally released?
  • What happens after a game is released? Marketing? Customer support?
  • What is the relationship between the studio and the gamers who play their games?
  • What is the relationship between management and those making the games? Are the people working here satisfied? Motivated? Why or why not?

Of course, the list above is just a start. The point is that there is no other way for you to really learn these things without actually experiencing them.  Be a sponge!

If it turns out to be impossible for you to get a job at a game studio, then reach build a network with people who are already in the industry and see if you can find people to help mentor you.  Most people in the game industry are very friendly and love to talk about what they do! 

You might try GameMentorOnline, a mentoring website that matches prospective developers (protégés) with experience mentors.  Check it out at

That’s it for this post.  Stay tuned for more indie goodness soon!

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