BUILDING A GAMING STARTUP
In a mix of technology and creative media, gaming startups and studios are in a very unique and interesting industry. So interesting in fact, that there have been recent venture funds launched just focusing on gaming startups.
These companies, both large and small, have captured our attention and given rise to a community of gamers building and sharing things people enjoy.
In this panel discussion, we talked to some of the most prominent and up-and-coming game studios in the city.
Dan Butchko, Founder of Playcrafting, NYC’s largest community of gamers and game developers, moderated this panel. Thanks so much to these folks for sharing tips and experience:
- David Grijns, Founder and Managing Director of Defiant Studios
- Vassiliki Khonsari, Director/Producer/Co-Founder of iNK Stories
- Andrew Ow, Founder of Haiku Games
- Nicholas Fortugno, Co-Founder & CCO of Playmatics
- Mitu Khandaker, Assistant Professor at NYU Game Center
SO YOU WANT TO BREAK INTO THE GAMES INDUSTRY…
The feelings were unanimous — the gaming industry is hard, and the word of the night was “hustle.” In the spirit of the tone that evening, let’s dive right into some tough realities and things to expect.
Disclaimer: do not get discouraged. With unwavering belief in your vision, tenacity and what Andrew Ow dubs as “Founders’ Willpower,” creating a life in this industry can be possible.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Expect to constantly be proving yourself, your team and your vision. Operating in this industry is a game of sales that lasts 24/7. “You are always selling,” as David puts it. David’s experience at Defiant Studios deals with multi-million dollar contracts for AAA games and even he says “once the contract is signed, the celebration lasts one day.” Then it’s back to constant proving of yourself, your team and vision to the people backing it as well as everyone they report to.
Expect every new project to be like starting from scratch — no matter what. Nicholas shared a semi-baffling story about assembling a team who effectively built and developed a game together. He then approached the same investors who funded the first project to fund this new one. This was the same team, but they were operating under a different name: Playmatics. The potential funders still looked at him with a request for proof of what Playmatics had built. Moral of the story? No matter how seasoned you get, working in this industry will almost always feel like startup mode.
Assess your tolerance for risk. Sage advice from Vassiliki who also adds “understand your own parameters, where you’re willing to go with money, your time, your team,” because again, this industry is a hustle. Based off his experience working on AAA games, David adds this hard truth: “understand you may not collect a salary for one to two years, if ever.”
“There is a necessity and obligation to dream in all our endeavors. It’s really a question of your appetite for risk” – David Grijns
Ok so if you’re feeling like your projected success rate is equal to the likelihood of surviving a husk in Fortnight, you’re not wrong.
But fear not. There are ways to make it work. Here are some things to consider.
ONLY WORK WITH AN EXCEPTIONAL TEAM
“Even things that seem to be insurmountable, having the right combination of engineers, artists, designers, creative director in the room — you will see miracles” – David Grijns
Make sure you have really good engineers. They will be crucial to your success and “will save you a thousand times over,” says David. Make sure they know C++, C sharp, they’re excellent at linear algebra, etc.
Be diligent about hiring. “The way that you recruit needs to be an almost perfect process,” says David. If you hire one wrong person, you don’t necessarily know that for a year in game development. How to know? Other people want to leave the company, things aren’t getting delivered to spec, morale breaks down because you’ve hired someone no one likes. “Don’t hire people who are available immediately; take your time,” he adds.
Have someone on your team who knows how to sell a room. Again, this industry is a series of constantly proving yourself and your vision. Pitching your game is going to be huge and your team will be doing a lot of it. Make sure you have someone on your team who is incredible at pitching and believe deeply
Pick the right co-founder. Co-founder issues come in all shapes and sizes. Mitu suggests to be wary of this and give the book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, a read first.
GAMES AS ART VS. GAMES AS BUSINESS
As a gaming startup, yes you are dreamers, artists and storytellers, but at the end of the day, this is still business. Find a way to marry together your team’s creative vision AND the realities of running a business. As Nicholas says, “if you want to have a good gaming business, you’re going to have to succeed on both these accounts.” Luckily, according to Mitu, “the two things don’t always have to be at odds with each other.”
Vassiliki advises to get clear on what your company, your studio and your mission is about. Then figure out how that can fit into the market accordingly. You can also work in different mediums where there is more budget.
Mitu suggests “taking an incremental step to do something experimental.” She suggests you bring yourself through these two questions:
→ What has worked in the past?
→ What is an interesting twist I could potentially take on that?
Nicholas takes a similar approach with his “art meets business” Venn Diagram concept. He asks:
→ What is my team excited and passionate to do?
→ What is the market willing to pay for?
“Though you are guessing what both these things are, find something in between,” he says, and create something from there.
DO YOU NEED FINANCES AT THE BEGINNING?
The short answer is no.
David did not raise any money with his studio at the beginning. The reason being “you do not want to answer to anybody. When you are building AAA games, your timeframes are years.” They do however work with publishers and clients and have monthly milestone deliverables. Whether this is you or you just don’t have any budget yet, here are other things you can do with zero dollars:
Build community: Find people in your niche who might be interested in your game and just start showing it to them. Show them early build, take their advice. Share your building process on Twitch or YouTube, adds Mitu. All this will also set your foundation for an audience if you decide to launch a kickstarter.
Hack the marketing system. Do the egg on instagram thing. What is going to stand out in your marketing message? How will you make it completely creative, different and unique?
Apply for art grants. There are art institutions and cultural institutions out there giving money to projects like yours. Sundance and Tribeca Film Festival offer funding for gamers. Fractured Atlas is another, and even if you don’t get funding from them, they “will give you giant piles of resources” as Nicholas puts it, so you can find other organizations who might fund you. Also google “arts non profit partners” for more opportunities like this.
Find other institutions to give you money. For impact-related games, research organizations related to your niche. A lot of them are open to funding content on gaming platforms. For example, if your game is focused on LGBTQ issues, there are LGBTQ organizations out there who would be willing to fund you. Nicholas also told us about the individual who wanted to create a Lewis and Clark video game, so he got a number of historical societies on board and effectively got it made. Start thinking from this angle. “These are often people who don’t know how to look for you” says Nicholas, but they want to. Meet them where they are.
“In the end if you don’t succeed… make sure you were using someone else’s money.” – David
Get clear on your unique selling points. “Tell us why should I care?” as David puts it.
Have an elevator pitch. According to David, the definition of this is a “pitch for people who don’t have an imagination.” Here’s an example recipe:
- 2 – 3 sentence statement
- Use other games as examples (reference games that have sold tens of millions of units)
David offered this as example (somewhat in jest but also somewhat serious)
Elevator Pitch Ex: “This is Left for Dead, meets Diablo, meets Destiny. Except that it has 4 player co-op and it includes giraffes.”
Get SPECIFIC about what kind of expert you are and make it known. “Own the space around what your expertise is,” suggests Mitu. “Are you somebody who’s an expert in creating narrative games? Are you a puzzle designing expert? Create things around that and make it known that’s your forte.”
Build a community as early as you can. Start communicating to this community, use them as a test audience to “help guide and shape your mission” and marketing. Find out from them what’s working and what’s not working. All advice from Vassiliki. You can also stream your building process on Twitch or create a YouTube channel, adds Mitu. Then be consistent, adds Nicholas.
Hit a nerve in society. This is a unique situation but with 1979, Vassiliki’s project, they realized their game “hit a nerve” when the news and journalists picked up the story. Granted this was a unique situation and getting a Forbes article like they did is no easy feat — but the lesson to glean here is that leveraging personal stories, being thoughtful about your positioning and getting strategic about how you present work to journalists matter.
Make sure your search terms are correct in the app store. If you’re like Andrew at Haiku Games, paying attention to the app store is key. Know what games people are playing and how they are finding them. Understand your search terms, make sure they’re correct, optimize them. Apple of course hasn’t told us exactly how to do this (otherwise everyone would hack the system), but execute trial and error. You can also try releasing games faster. Make shorter games and see how they do.
Get active in the gaming landscape. Don’t think your success will come by working on your crafit, siloed in the basement. This is a collaborative industry. “Every opportunity I’ve had come up in my career has been this weird, fortuitous thing that sort of came up because of some connection I had made years previously,” says Mitu. Get involved with Playcrafting, NYC’s largest community of gamers and game developers. Go to Game Jams. You could find people to collaborate, establish yourself, or (best case scenario) find people who could eventually offer seed money.
A QUICK NOTE ABOUT TRADE SHOWS
Be strategic about how many trade shows you attend. Going to a trade show to pitch your game gets expensive. You’re paying for a ticket, hotel, transportation all to get yourself in front of what sometimes is an “unwilling audience,” as David puts it. On the other hand, as Nicholas points out, in some ways it is an investment for a potential job (or business relationship). Do the math and think about the likelihood of landing something at said trade show. If you do hit something while you’re there, “that money [you spent] is nothing,” says Nicholas. Do keep in mind that the odds of landing funding or something of the likes is extremely low. Don’t get discouraged. “When you go to the networking meeting and nothing happens, that’s what was supposed to happen,” says Nicholas. The relationship can come back, years down the road. That’s just the way it is.
Trade show hack from Mitu: DON’T buy a ticket to every trade show, but DO get yourself to the trade show. “There are 14,000 game developers descending on SF,” she says. Get into town and go hang out in hotel lobbies. That’s where everyone is anyways. 😉
If you DO buy the ticket, get the most bang for your buck. Take David’s advice: “Structure your time wisely… make sure your calendar is booked. Schedule meetings back to back, every 30 minutes… make sure your time is really well spent.”
HOW TO PITCH TO INVESTORS
Here are some tips for getting investors excited:
Know that you might not know. Pitching an investor is going to be a little different every time. Each investor has a different agenda, there are things that might be going on that you could never guess. As Mitu says,“there’s always going to be some element of taking a stab in the dark. First you have to get over that.”
Be authentic and concise.
Show them “why you.” Show your pedigree, show the prowess of your team, show why your team is ideally positioned and perfect for developing this game. Be clear on your game’s USPs (user selling points), build an argument and build a case.
Pitch as though these people have zero imagination. It is your job to create a clear picture. Whoever you’re pitching to should not need to “imagine” at all. Do all the heavy lifting you possibly can and paint the picture for them. Technical tips:
- Make visuals (that use very little text)
- Create a game design document
- Communicate the moment-to-moment gameplay
- Convey the visuals and aesthetics
- Think through all the key buckets you need to explore and create a roadmap for your potential investors with ALL the dots connected.
Provide a prototype. This also will show that your team is capable of “producing something together” which is something investors are looking for as Mitu says.
Show them ROI. As David reports, investors want to see a “10x ROI within 18 – 24 months.” This is tough because as anyone developing AAA games, it might take 3 – 4 years before anyone ever sees a product.
Prove you have a team that’s capable of building something. Especially because we’re not in Seattle, Montreal, SF or any of those cities with gaming studio prowess, “there’s a natural suspicion that exists in New York” for any publisher or investor who could potentially back your game. Expect that you are going to have to continually prove that your team is capable over and over and over. Show them any examples of what your team has built together.
Then be sure to keep your investors (or anyone who funds you) by always staying as true to your word as possible. “When you client is told something, [make sure] they can take that to the bank,” says David. You need to build their trust. Also, give them in-depth updates like David’s team does. They create hour-long narrative videos each month.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOUR GAME IS SUCCESSFUL?
Building a game is a “weird combination of science and art. In that combination there is a formula for success …. except nobody knows what that formula is.” – David Grijns
And the entire panel agrees.
However here are some tips they feel will increase the likelihood for success:
Create games that purposely speak to people. Pay attention to the culture around you and what’s going on right now. Nicholas suggests looking at the following and figuring out how your creativity can fit into any of these:
- What are people talking about right now?
- What are the technologies that are interesting to people right now?
- What are the subjects that are interesting to people right now?
- What are the spaces that are interesting to people right now?
- What are the stories people are finding interesting?
“We somehow act like art doesn’t relate to other human beings,” he adds, but “people should understand your art. It should speak to people because you’re trying to speak to people.” This will also make it more likely that the market will accept your vision.
Pay attention to the trends and rhythms in gaming. At one point, everyone was into zombies, then vampires, then fantasy. The gaming industry keeps evolving in regards to what people are interested in. You need to be on the leading edge of that. Pay attention. Let it inform your decisions around what kinds of games you build.
“Show the audience something that it doesn’t know it likes, but it does.” Well-said by Nicholas. People don’t know what they like. It’s your job as a developer to show them. If you’re paying attention to what’s going on, culturally and the trends and rhythms, and then you create from there — you have the potential to make money in this industry.
Learn to love the hustle. The common theme of the night was “hustle.” This industry is clearly not for the faint of heart. Expect to be hustling constantly — hustling to keep on the brink of what’s new, hustling by constantly pitching yourself, hustling to prove yourself and your team again and again. Learn to love “the act of keeping yourself alive in a hustl-ey business.” Have fun with “figuring it out” again and again, says Nicholas.
IN THE END…
The panel made it very clear this is a tough industry to be successful in, but it is possible. Make sure you are deeply passionate about the projects you work on, stand up for your vision again and again, assemble an exceptional team, learn to love the hustle, adapt to what is going on in society and in your industry, keep going even after you have little to show after two years of work. “You will have moments of great uncertainty. Use it to empower yourself. Take the doubt, fear, uncertainty and darkness and find a way to convert those things into energy.” – David Grijns
TOOLS & RESOURCES
Marketing + Networking