A year as a full time indie: business advice for the ones starting.

My journey as an entrepreneur began a year ago. In this time I have learned some lessons that I’d like to share with you.

When you read stories about indie developers you usually see:

  • Postmortems of games: What went wrong, what went right, and some lessons learned on the way.
  • Disaster stories: people that tried and fail miserably, run out of money after 6 months, etc.
  • Very successful stories: Minecraft, Stardew Valley, etc.

But usually not so many people tell the story from the point of view of the business. After a year running my indie studio I’ve also noticed that a lot of people really know how to make a game (and do it very well!) but don’t know the basics of the business. And it is sad because I see a lot of talented people that fail because they didn’t take in account the basic business rules.

I, by no means, am an expert in business. My expertise is software development and that’s what I am. But when I decided to run my company I had to wear another hat and learn stuff as fast as I could. I also have to say I try to learn and listen as much advice as I can from others with more experience in entrepreneurship. And I always try to keep an open mind to critics and reviews because I think that’s the only way to learn.

Having said that, here is a list of advice that I learned and I would like to share with you. I really hope this helps building your dream game and succeeding selling it.

Write a business plan

Before I started the company I wrote a business and financial plan for the next 3 years. I had somebody review it and I tried to exaggerate as much as possible in the financial expenses part to try to cover the worse case scenario. I too have a mortgage o pay so I needed to really know how long will my savings last and if this will be viable at all. I also planned in case I need to do some contractor work on the side. So I have 2 scenarios one with me full time in this, another one with part time contractor work. So far I didn’t need to do the second.

So really, PLAN AHEAD! And don’t count on your first game being a huge success and from then on everything will be easy. My plan is for 3 years and I planned to do 1 game per year or so. I am a bit behind schedule but I still think it’s possible to follow my plan. Think also that the Candy Crush people succeeded after their game number 27 and a huge amount of luck. So again: plan for the long run and try to cover the worse case scenario.

Hire a lawyer

After doing the business plan the next thing I did was contacting a lawyer. Yes, this costs money (again that is why you need the business and financial plan!) but saves you so many headaches in the future it is priceless. The other members of the team are friends of mine but still, we all signed a contract and it is all legally correct. We later had a problem with one member of the team and the contract saved me from a very ugly situation.

My lawyer is specialised in intelectual property and video games. He’s a very nice guy and he’s paid by request. So that means if I need an NDA I contact him and he writes it for me, he’ll charge me for that a fixed price. He doesn’t charge me every month a fee and I get free consultations for small stuff (questions that I could have, etc). He is part of a big lawyer firm where I am but they also work with small companies like mine, so they have nice prices for us. They believe in long term relationships 🙂 So search for somebody like that, I’m sure you’ll find it.

Get an accountant/financial advisor

Another thing I did was hiring an accountant. I think this is less important but I do not want headaches with the tax department. Specially because I’m living abroad and I don’t know all the laws for taxes properly. This is a monthly expense. I also asked them advice on business stuff like what was the best company form for me, if there were some subsidies, etc. Not 100% needed but I though I rather have somebody worrying about this than me.

After having those three things in place, register your business. When or how to do it can be a question for the accountant since it depends a lot on the law of the country where you are.

Make a game that can sell, not the one you’d like to play

About the game to do, my strategy is first study the market and find out what can potentially sell in there. In my case it has been the Nintendo Switch (although we’ll launch also on the other consoles) and the casual/family market. I say this because I see a lot of indies trying to do a game that they would love to play or make and that is wrong if there is no market for it.

If you really want to live of making games you have to do a game that will sell! I personally like other kinds of games than the one I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter. It is still fun working on it.

Limit the scope of the game

I know everybody wants to do the next RPG, or the next Diablo, or the next . But we have to be realistic: you are probably a one-man company. In some (lucky) cases you may be like us: a group of 4 people, each of us doing one task. That means our time and money are limited. So it is better to first do a “small” game, learn from it, and do a better one afterwards using what you learned. To be efficient (in time and money) you’ll want to do this in the shortest time possible.

We are aiming to have the game ready in 1 year and we are still in schedule. And my plan is for 1 game per year (approx.) Take in account that a lot of things can happen so there can be delays on your planning. Also that you’ll need to figure out a lot of things for the first game that you’ll know for the second one, so not everything is negative!

Be professional

If you really want to be taken seriously by publishers, colleagues, investors, etc you need to be profesional. This means that if you need to do a trailer, don’t do it yourself by capturing a video from Unity. Hire a company to do a professional trailer. It really makes a difference and other companies will see that you are serious about this. I know, this costs money, but increases a lot your chances of be taken seriously and getting funded or getting interest from the press/players etc.

Also another advice that I got from a friend and that I tend to do a lot: don’t show that you are inferior or worse than you are. For example don’t say as an introduction: “I am a small studio”. Avoid saying that you are small, you are a studio and you’re serious about it. You are not worse than the others!

I say this because I also have impostor syndrome and it is difficult to me to describe what I do as “good”. I always think that I’m worse than the rest, or that I don’t deserve success. This is quite normal in software development don’t worry. Just take in account that if you sell yourself like that nobody will think you are good!

You need to invest money to make money

As you have seen there are some costs that you’ll need to face, like paying an accountant or a company to make a trailer. Also, if you want to publish yourself in consoles you’ll need to buy the development kits too. And so on.

Don’t see these costs as throwing money out of the window but as an investment. If you invest now to look more professional or to get better quality you increase the chances of revenue later.

Marketing!!!

You probably already know that you need marketing. But you need to be clever about this. You want to distinguish yourself from the other millions of games out there. And you want people to know you. For that please hire a marketing company.

Posting yourself in social networks or even worse, just publishing the game in Steam and wait for people to play it is not going to work. There are hundreds of other games out there and you will have very little visibility. Yes, some games like Minecraft or Stardew Valley became viral and sold millions almost without any marketing. But that is not the norm. That is a rare case and it’s most likely that your game is not going to be the next Minecraft. So again, to increase the chances of success let professionals help you.

Consider having a publisher

For the above points (investments, marketing, trailers, etc) it may be a good idea to get help from a publisher. They will help you porting the game to all platforms (and getting Devkits, licenses from Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, etc) They can also help funding the development and later with the marketing.

This is not mandatory but it may be a good idea to get help from them for the first game, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. And especially for the marketing and QA part.

They can work with a revenue share model so in many cases you’ll sign a deal where they give money in advance and later they’ll take a cut on your revenue. Remember also that if they invest money for the development up front, they’ll have to recover that first before paying you.

Prepare a good pitch

This is also very important since this will be your “cover letter” for a publisher. You want to first have a one-line sentence describing your game. This is the elevator pitch. So think about something that can describe your game in a very simple and clear way. What is it about? 
For us the shortest way to describe the game is: Cooperative puzzle arcade game where you have to push blocks to defeat the monsters to go to the next stage.

Apart from that you’ll probably need to prepare a presentation to pitch it to publishers, console manufacturers and such. My advice is get help from a designer for this presentation so it looks nice and professional. Include in there a slide with who are you, describe the members of the team and the experience that they have, another one with a summary of the game, previous experience (if you have that). From then on I will recommend to break the mechanics of the game and explain each of them in a slide with a gif. Be visual and clear. A gif can explain it way better than a long paragraph.

It can be interesting also to prepare a press kit. You can do it with this free tool: dopresskit.com

If you want to publish in console, contact them early!

If you decide to do the ports yourself and self publish in the stores you’ll need to contact Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Do it as early in the process as possible because they can take months. Especially Nintendo, since nowadays everybody wants to publish in Switch.

Take in account that they also take a percentage of the sale and it’s usually around 30%. You will also need a development kit and that costs money too. I can’t really say how much due to NDA agreements but prepare to pay more than a normal console.

This is something that the publisher can deal with if you decide to use one. But just in case you don’t it’s important to take it in account.

Recommended Book

I’d like to mention a book that helped me a lot understanding more the business side of this adventure and with the budgeting at the beginning and such. It is The GameDev Business Handbook by Michael Futter. You can grab a physical or digital copy here: http://www.gamedevbizbook.com/

I am by no means affiliated with the author but it has helped me a lot. Also, I’d like to personally thank Mike because he helped me with very good advice some months ago 🙂

This is all the advice I have. I hope it is helpful and I wish you good luck in your project. If you have doubts please leave a comment. You also can join our discord in https://discord.gg/9M6BT67 to ask us questions directly about this or anything related to game development.

See you next time!

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