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How to Start Your Own Studio

UK developers share advice for any up-and-coming teams that want to get into the business of making games

Tom Regan 

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Despite what we’ve all been conditioned to think, playtime is serious business. 

In 2017, 32.4 million people in the UK identified themselves as gamers, collectively spending a jaw-dropping £3.17 billion on the hobby that year. The Edinburgh developed Grand Theft Auto 5 has made more money than the likes of Avatar and Star Wars combined, cementing GTA 5 as the highest grossing entertainment product of all time. 

Yet, while the majority of that £3.17 billion spend goes to games made by well-funded AAA studios, the last decade has also seen the rise of the indie developer. Whether it’s the solo-developed smash hit Stardew Valley or the inescapable global (and originally bedroom-made ) phenomenon Minecraft, indie games have slowly become as successful as their AAA brethren. Now thanks to free game engines and the ability to self-publish, there’s never been a better time to start your own game studio.

Wondering how you can set up a studio and make your dream video game a reality? Here are some essential tips from some of the UK’s most beloved indie developers.

 Secure funding

Whether it’s via an investor, crowdfunding, a loan, publisher or simply just you and your friends’ shared pool of savings, you’re going to need some capital in order to kickstart your gaming dreams. For many new studios, funding is a massive hurdle to overcome – and usually one that needs to be addressed right out of the gate.

“Initially, my founders and I had a small amount of savings (enough for a small wage for six people for six months),” says Gavin Price, managing director of Yooka-Laylee developer Playtonic Games.  “A few short months into our existence, our crowdfunding campaign went incredibly well and put revenue in the bank meaning we could scale up to 20 people and had two years of funding.”

Aj Grand-Scrutton, CEO of Dlala Studios – the team behind the return of Battletoads - adds: “We started the studio in 2012 with £3,000 between us in savings – which we thought would last us four months. The small amount of money we had meant that any meeting or conference we could only afford to send one of us.  Six months in, after the money had well and truly gone, we got offered an incubation deal with Microsoft which then kept us funded through to 2014.”

Absolutely Games’ CEO James Brooksby says his new studio, formed earlier this year, gathered its seed round of funding from a variety of sources.

“Alongside my own funds, I found a small group of investors, one of which is a good friend who believes in the vision of the company,” he says. “For the next round, two Angels invested, both of whom are strategic and one that has invested in me before.”

An office isn’t essential, but it will greatly improve studio culture

If there’s ever a time where people are questioning traditional working practices, it’s now. With COVID-19 destabilising traditional working culture, many studios are suddenly being forced to adapt, working on projects of all sizes while miles apart. 

The question is, do new studios really need to be sharing an office space? While there are sufficient tools in place for games to be made completely remotely, most studio heads agree that working in shared spaces makes game development far easier.

“We [needed an office] - but that doesn't mean everyone does,” says Joe Brammer, CEO of Battalion 1944 developer Bulkhead Interactive. “We didn't know what we were doing - we'd never really worked together before, barely knew each other. So, it was a bonding thing as well as a collaborative 'enhancer'. I'm positive we wouldn't have made it without [an office].”

Brooksby adds: “We don’t ’need’ an office, but it is useful. The games industry is fortunate in that it is people, computers and the internet. We are working just fine from home, and keep efficiency up - in fact there are some efficiency benefits.However, we will want a location in time – probably more of a ’hub’, where we can have some meetings, invite guests, and where some who can’t work from home can work.”

Grand-Scrutton reports that Dlala avoids remote working when it comes to its full-time staff: “Twice in Dlala’s eight-year history we’ve had to work from home and that has taught us that we really excel when we’re together and are building off of each other’s energy."

Have an accountant from day one

Unless you or someone on your team happens to have accounts experience, you’ll want to get an accountant on board as early as possible. While making games is what you’re all here for, running a studio is also a business – and you’ll need someone on board who can help you treat it accordingly.

“Absolutely get an accountant,” says Price. “We could handle our bookkeeping and payroll ourselves. However, time spent doing that is time not spent doing what we should be doing.  Our video game tax relief claims and advice around company structure and plans have also been invaluable too.”

Grand-Scrutton adds: “We had an accountant within our first eight months of forming the studio - in fact, we still have the same one now. The only reason we didn’t have one before then is because we had literally no money coming in. Our accountant has helped us to save hundreds of thousands of pounds over the last eight years, and is one of the most essential expenditures we have as a studio.”

Brammer adds that if your studio grows to the point where you can issue shares or split up the ownership of the company in any way, it’s vital to go to an accountant or lawyer to get it right.

“If you don’t, this can hurt you down the line when it comes to investment or IPOs and so on,” he warns.

As your studio grows, you’ll need an HR person

You’ve just started making your game and have found yourself a nice shed for your small team to work in – understandably, getting an HR person is probably the last thing on your mind. Yet, as your new studio begins to grow, this seemingly unimportant hire will become incredibly crucial. 

“We are now 70 people,” says Brammer. “Really, we needed a HR person at about 40, but we were told by a friend who runs a large esports company that as soon as you hit 50 you need infrastructure and process. He specifically meant HR, and he was right. At 25 to 30 people we hired an office manager who now acts as our financial controller and office management. But at 50 people, we hired a HR manager who also works as a recruitment manager. That's been an amazing addition to our team.”

Price adds: “We’ve grown to 25 people now, and to date with the help of our peers and partners managed HR needs internally. However we now feel it’s the right time to hire a focused HR solution - whether that’s outsourcing or creating a full-time position.”

Working extra hours is part of the job – crunch isn’t 

With video games encompassing writing, art direction, music, architecture and psychology, the medium is essentially a ‘greatest hits’ collection of every other existing artform. It’s no surprise, then, that game development is a hugely complex and time-consuming beast. 

As many AAA studios are coming under fire for the gruelling hours they demand of their staff, you’d think that crunch is inevitable. According to these developers, however, carefully planning means your new studio can avoid the ‘c’ word altogether. 

“Crunch is not the nature of the beast and in my previous companies we avoided it almost completely,” says Brooksby. I think that crunch culture should not be accepted as ’the way‘ – that is just not true. The project does not fit in the time remaining? Do something about it, but don’t hurt your team. Now we have much longer tail, live service and early release games, it truly is a marathon.” 

Brammer adds: “We never want people giving up their weekends or spending 14 hours in an office. But realistically, sometimes working 10 hours instead of eight... Yeah, that might happen. Just as it would in any other industry. Employers need to be smart and compassionate and employees need to be reasonable and care about the team they're working with.”

Price concludes that not enough success stories about avoiding crunch are shared across the industry. 

“We have had people work longer than contracted hours - but not in an abusive way that the word crunch alludes to,” he says.  “In all my time in the industry, I’ve worked alongside individuals who balance time with quality and strive to create the best games possible with the time given - and have donated more of their free time to helping achieve that.”

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