8 Things We Learned Bootstrapping A Game Studio

The indie game community is a great one and it is truly inspirational to see so many projects springing up. We get a lot out of being a part of that community and as a gesture to give a little back, we’ve compiled a list of 8 tips we would give to anyone looking to Bootstrap a new Game Studio today. We aren’t claiming to have the magic formula, but we offer these as some basic tenants that should definitely be expanded on based on your own objectives.

1. Ensure That Your Game Is Fun Before You Invest

There are few games that cannot be tested entirely through the use of pen and paper. As a rule, you shouldn’t need to invest a single dollar to play-test a game concept. All it takes is some creativity, time and a little bit of intellectual horsepower. Ensuring that your idea is actually fun, and not just a clever half thought, is critical for gaining support from collaborators and for mustering confidence in your own venture.

Before you even bother with the arts and crafts, a quick sanity check of your idea involves approaching a member of your target audience and explaining your concept to them. If you can’t answer all of their questions, you probably need to work on your concept a little harder. If you can’t stir any intrigue in the project, then you might want to reflect on why you imagined that they would have responded differently. If they draw a parallel to another game or system, assuming the comparison is apt, then you can take that level of comprehension as a good sign. If they begin to make suggestions and talk about being excited by the idea, then again that is a good sign. Once you have some positive feedback under your belt, you are probably in your right mind to break out the craft glue and popsicle sticks.

2. Fail Fast

You don’t want to find yourself in a position where you have developed a game for two years, only to release it still-borne into a disinterested market. You need to gauge if there is going to be interest sooner than later. So, while it can’t be helped that often the best ideas take time, you need to support your grander efforts with smaller more tactical ventures that will help you refine your major efforts, get your brand out there and build your experience in managing and delivering products. Ideally, by the time you release your magnum opus, you will have at least one minor success along the way.

3. Fail Cheaply

Start with your ideal product in mind. Then figure out how much it would cost to fabricate as a rudimentary finished product. If your game needs resin models, then consider just using cardboard cut-outs. If your game needs cardboard cut-outs could it be made to work with no figures at all? Eventually as you accept one compromise after another you will hit a threshold beyond which you feel as though any further compromise would impact the play-ability of the game, this may be where you choose to stop. It may take a few iterations on your product before you will be able to deliver on your dream as you had imagined it but lowering your need for starter capital is critical to being able bootstrap multiple projects at the same time, increasing your chance for hitting upon a success.

4. Unify Your Universe If Possible

One of the first things that you will really ‘invest’ in, as far as building up a class of asset for your game studio, is in purchasing and producing Intellectual Property (IP). With failing fast and cheaply in mind, you should have multiple projects running at one time, that means that you will be producing and purchasing intellectual property for multiple ventures all at once. If you can unify those ventures within the same setting or ‘narrative universe’, then your IP can be used across ventures and as you purchase more, you are supporting and improving the value of existing IP.

5. Platform Or Partnership

Assuming that you are starting from the ground floor you are faced with two marketing and distribution strategies, each as daunting as the other. With that said, the choice between which of the two options you need to start with is really made for you. Ideally, you will have commercial distribution partners, but until you build a platform for your brand large enough to have some wins under your belt, you are never going to get those commercial partners. This means that you will need to create a grass-roots social following, with at least one self-distributed successful project in order to have a meaningful conversation with commercial distribution partners, one that might involve those partners investing money or time in your future ventures.

Success in this context, really just means that your project has attracted sufficient demand, after all is said and done, it needn't make you any real profit. In fact, consider aiming to run some quick win projects at-cost, your aim is really to attract consumers and open the gateway for industry connections that can ensure future capital investments see a far greater return than any Kickstarter with a 30% mark-up would ever give you.

6. Monitor Your Cash Flow

If you are boot-strapping a creative venture, it doesn’t really matter what type, you aren’t likely to get finance. Even if you are lucky enough to get some Angel investment, the nature of projects is that you end up dealing with multiple vendors in parallel who require intermittent payment. So irrespective of if you are funding your venture through a credit facility or a lump cash in your pocket, the burn rate of that cash over the course of the project isn’t trivial. If for example you enlist the artist of your dreams but blow your available funds for the month on some impromptu Twitter advertising, you may not be able to pay your artists. You run the risk of compromising the aesthetic, schedule and ultimate quality of your project by failing to manage your cash flow.

More importantly, tracking your cash flow allows you to plan ahead in time and gain a realistic idea of how long your project may take to actually execute. Say for example, that you want to build a simple collectable card game, with thirty cards each with individual artwork. Alright, well if you are dealing with a single artist, that may be financially feasible according to your cash flow, but it will take three years to produce all that art. Want to deliver that in 6 months? Well perhaps your cash flow can only sustain two artists. Now your simple card game has turned into a 1.5-year project, with multiple stakeholders taking up a sizable chunk of your available cash. Not the quick win that you had imagined it might be. All of these considerations fall out of a cursory glance at your cash flow.

7. Beware The Undead PRODUCT

Undead products are sometimes called ‘zombie’ products because they are operating but unable to cover their expenses without constant investment. Every product you release into market has the potential to turn zombie and you need to be vigilant for the signs so that you can act quickly and cut your losses. How confident are you in the roadmap? Have you been disappointed by the performance or reception of the product on three or more consecutive occasions? Are detractors becoming more vocal or are customers of all types becoming less vocal? All signs that you may have come face-to-face with a zombie product.

Once you have identified a zombie product, you’ll need to do one of two things. Either kill it, which may mean ramp-down, divestment (selling) or cutting off funding. Alternatively, you’ll need to look at transformation. Ask yourself, how could this product or the constituent assets be used in some other way that furthers your aims.  

8. Game Projects Are Businesses And Need Business Plans

So, you have a decent project in the pipes, and you have a few recent wins under your belt. You are effectively earning enough money that your investment in new ventures isn’t coming out of your own pocket anymore, which is a relief. Now what exactly is the plan, do you want to grow? You want to start turning over 200% more revenue annually than you are now. Alright, well assuming you can’t pull an enormous pricing leaver, that might involve doubling your productivity, which may involve hiring another staff member, but wait a second that might be more costly than you can afford right now. So perhaps to keep things a little more agile while you are small you could seek out additional partners. So, your Business Plan now becomes finding two additional partners willing to invest time, effort and potentially some money in order to increase your annual turnover by 200%. Grand, now with more cash running through the business you can safely add employees without diluting your capital reserves, venture throughput is increasing, and you are now growing. In short, there is no fixed advice for running a business, so once you have a modicum of success, one of the best things that you can do is seek out and speak to a good accountant.

Businesses don’t need to grow either, perhaps you’re not interested in helming your own corporate flag ship. You could also just want to continue with putting time into the ventures that interest you and that you can produce solo. Your model might be to just start a product up, make it profitable and then sell it off to some other company, one who can manage the growth, operation or ongoing distribution of it. In this instance your Business Plan’s primary objective might be the same as the earlier example, but the way you go about reaching that objective is going to be completely different. You may need to take on considerations around ensuring the tidy transfer of intellectual property, things like creating individual commercial entities for each venture. Again, seeking out and speaking to a good accountant, once you have something to talk about, will serve you well.


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Thomas O'Beirne