Words of Wisdom: Advice on Starting an Indie Studio

Of course it could be a mistake for you to listen to any advice from me since what the hell do I know? I'm a guy with a blog. On the INTERNET.

One last PAX East related post! At the conference I was on two panels (Indies Will Shoot you in the Knees, and I Have a Great Idea for a Game), both of which had similar themes of giving aspiring indie developers some helpful info. Rather than rehash everything that was discussed (like Chris’ cat penis drawings) I’ll just go over some highlights.

Start up advice in no particular order:

  • Don’t go it alone! Find other people to work with who complement your abilities. There are extraordinarily few people who can support themselves by making video games alone, and if you’re reading an advice blog post on starting up a video game studio you’re not one of them.
  • Honestly look at your (or your team’s) abilities and assess what your weaknesses are in terms of game development. Once you’ve done that, fix those problems! Don’t just hope they’ll go away. Conversely focus on your strengths when making your game.
  • If you are depending on the venture for a living then be sure to have a go-to-market plan that is better than “We’re gonna release it on the iPhone!” Marketing and distribution is really important, be sure to figure out a way that your game will be sold in a way that can actually make you money.
  • Find smart people who have done this thing before and get advice from them on a regular basis. You can ask them to officially advise you if you’d like. These people should be local if possible since it’ll be easier to meet with them.
  • Raise money! You need money! Without money, you can’t do anything. With money you won’t be going out of business. It’s ok to ask friends and family to give you some money to get started. Also, there is no shame in going to a publisher for funding! While it may not be “indie” according to some I would argue that making your original, innovative game is what is important, not where the money comes from.
  • Be prepared to work really, really, REALLY hard. You’re probably going to be busting your ass for a while. This pretty much goes for any start up you might be thinking about, not just an indie studio.
  • Take care of the legal stuff. If multiple people are founding the studio, draw up formal papers saying who owns what and how much. Form a company. A coding bug can cause you to lose a day or two of work; a legal bug can cause you to lose the company. Be careful!
  • Try to strike out in a new direction with your game. If you are just copying another title out there you probably won’t be able to do it very well, and your chances of success will be small. Make something original! Think about all the successful indies you know – they ALL have some serious creativity and originality in their game, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have hit it big.
  • Make your game! If you aren’t making a game, you’re not indie! Don’t just talk about it, do it!

Ok, that’s it for now. I know we talked about a lot more stuff than what I listed here but we can always do a follow up post if I missed a bunch of critical stuff. Other panelists (Darius, Chris, Ichiro, Scott), please feel free to jump in and remind me about anything good I might be missing here.

Of course, if I’m gonna have a post like this I have to open it to questions. Ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer!


  1. Aside from salaries, what is it necessary to spend money on? You give the impression that you couldn’t possibly boot strap an indie studio. Is that really so?

    Love all the other points, but want more info on that one!


  2. You’re right, salaries are the biggest slice of the pie and you can easily wind up paying 2/3 – 3/4 of your expenses in that way. I wouldn’t brush this aside though, as it’s very hard for people to justify working on something for a long time and with their full attention if they aren’t getting paid, and you may not be able to find the best people if you aren’t offering them enough to get by on.

    Other big things you may need to spend money on: Rent (you’re thinking “Why get an office?”, but I’ll point out that it’s worth paying a few hundred bucks a month to get real office space if it means you and your team will be more productive and efficient), legal/lawyers (this one is tricky, and can either be very cheap or expensive depending on how careful you are), and equipment (computers, dev kits, software, licenses).

    You can bootstrap an indie studio if you have another source of income. But if you’re working full time on this, plan on raising money. Hell, even if you’re working part time and getting a pay check from another job I’d say that you’re still better off (9 times out of 10) raising money instead of continuing part time.

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