How To Start An Indie Game Studio


You want to start your own Indie Game Studio? Cool, I like your ambition.

I’ve been part of 5 Start-Up companies / businesses during my career, a couple of them games studios, a couple them not. Some of them succeeded, some of them didn’t. Some of them I was a Founder, some I wasn’t. One thing is certain if you start your own Indie Studio – you’ll learn a crapton that you didn’t already know.

Before we dive into the specifics of starting a studio, I’d like to clarify a few things:

What is an Indie Game Studio?

If you are making games with the intention of making money, then technically you already have set up an Indie Game Studio. You see, the word “Studio” has a literal meaning but it also has a popular meaning.

The literal meaning of Indie Studio: Any individual or team working to make Indie Games in order to make money. Ie. You’re a dude in his parent’s studio making iOS games, then you’re a studio.

The popular, formal meaning of Indie Studio: Creating a team of individuals, often working together in a physical space, often with investment or an equity agreement to manage what happens with profits.

To be clear, using the word “Studio” implies that you are making games professionally, for a living, either full time or in every second of your free time. It implies that you are looking to be profitable, possibly that you are needing investment and that you have a multiple-year, multiple-games outlook. If you ask people what is the most important thing about starting a studio, the most common answer will be “money”… because people think a Studio is an office full of computers and game creators.

Are you ready to start an Indie Game Studio?

Here’s some tough love. If you have never made a commercially-released game before, you ARE NOT ready to start an Indie Studio.

Yes, you are ready to make games and yes you are ready to team up with some buddies to make those games, but if you try to “open a Studio” you are going to get very stuck and distracted and make all the rookies mistakes that I hope you can avoid (and that I, myself have made at one time or other).

I love checklists. Here’s a spiffy checklist to know if you are ready to start a formal Indie Game Studio. If you answer yes to all of these, you are ready:

  1. Have you made and commercially released a game before? Even a small mobile game that you made on your own counts, so long as you actually launched it.
  2. Do you have some sort of tangible “making the game” skill, such as design, programming or art? In other words, don’t try to open a game studio if you don’t have something you can contribute yet to actually making the game.
  3. Do you have a clear vision on the first game you will make? Have you researched the concept, designed the core features and got lots of feedback from your target audience?
  4. Do you have enough money (or a day job) to last at least 6 months with no income from your game studio?
  5. Do you have enough money to pay contractors or employees to create the aspects of the game that you yourself don’t have the skills to create (eg. creating art if you are not an artist).
  6. Do you have a fleshed out business plan? It doesn’t need to be huge, a 1-page business plan will do.
  7. Are you ready and willing to spend 25% to 50% of your time on marketing and community development or on App Engine Optimization… or do you have a Founding partner who will do it?
  8. Are you ready and willing to fail, but also ready and willing to work every day for months without giving up?

Do you actually need to start an Indie Game Studio?

Probably not. At least, not a formal studio. For most people here’s what I recommend:

Just start making your game. Don’t register your business, don’t get investment, don’t incorporate, don’t get business cards, don’t get a logo made, don’t get a shareholder’s agreement. Sure, give yourself / your team a “studio” name so that you know what to put in the required fields when you submit your game to the App Store or portal or wherever you’ll sell it, but that its.

Only formalise your Studio once one of three things is about to happen:

A. You are about to make lots of money; or
B. You are about to receive significant investment money
C. You need to look formalised and professional in order to attract partners or investors… and either have some hot leads, or are willing to spend a lot of time finding them.

Otherwise, just start making your game without worrying about the “Studio” part because its just going to suck up valuable time and energy and take you away from making the game. And at the end of the day, so many people fail because they don’t even finish the game. Focus on finishing your game first and “studio” stuff second.

“BUT!” I hear you say, “what if I need a big team and lots of money and a formal studio to make my game?”

Okay, if you answered yes to the checklist and you feel that you’ve got to create a formal Indie Game Studio to succeed…

How do you formally create an Indie Game Studio?

Once you’ve decided that you need to formalise your Studio, here are the steps I recommend:

  1. Pick a name for your studio. Google around to check that no one else is using it. Grab a website URL that roughly matches it (although don’t sweat on having the most incredible URL for your studio, it doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as your game). Register the company with your government authorities (this is super specific to where you live, so you should look it up as per your area). Registering is different from incorporating. In my opinion you should not incorporate until the very last moment. The “liability protection” people talk about with incorporating isn’t what we think it is – do some research on this for your country, but don’t assume that you are covered from everything because you incorporated.
  2. Write out a very clear business plan. Don’t so much worry about the format, or the length (it can be anything from 1 page onwards) just focus on answering the categories:
    • What are we going to make?
    • Who is going to make it?
    • How are we going to make it?
    • How much money do we need and what will we spend it on?
    • How much money do we expect to make and when will we make it?
    • How will we sell, market and promote our game?
    • If seeking investment, what do our investors get in return for their money?
  3. As with my advice above, DO NOT go and get business cards, logo, corporate website, etc until you absolutely have to.
  4. If you are working at a physical location, find an office space where your team can work. Pay as little as you can and try to plan for 50% expansion, not 200% expansion. Purchase just the equipment you need today. Look to get everything second hand, even computers.
  5. If you are working remotely, audit what software your team already has and buy as little new stuff as possible.
  6. Write out an agreement that includes all the team members / investors / partners / etc and be very clear on who does what, who owns what and who can and cant make decisions. In my experience I do this without a lawyer until investment is involved. Or you can use standard templates for such documents (on places such as
  7. Get yourself some project management tools such as Pivotal Tracker and Slack,
  8. Outline a clear set of project management processes.
  9. Outline the roles and responsibilities each person on the team will have.
  10. Use places like Elance to find any contractors you might need.

…while at the same time as doing all these, you should be building your game!

There are many, many more small and large details that will come up as you start your studio, build a team, deal with finances, manage a Kickstarter campaign, start branding and positioning your products, dealing with legal issues and so on. Of course, given that I’m a Game Career Coach, I highly recommend that you surround yourself with experienced coaches, mentors and partners who can help you avoid the big traps and pitfalls of starting a studio.

Final Comments

It’s a tough journey but it can be very rewarding and an opportunity for incredible growth and learning. Don’t expect to make money on your first game because you wont. This means that you shouldn’t fart around making the first game. Do it quickly and use it as practice.

Also, ask ANY games industry veteran or Indie Developer who has been around for a game or two and they will tell you the same thing:

It always takes longer than you expect (to do everything). So do your best to plan for the worst case scenario and then double your estimates. Trust me. Its true. Just ask anyone who’s been making games for a while and they will give you that knowing nod.

BUT!… Don’t give up. If you work hard, learn from your mistakes and listen to your community the its not a matter of IF you will succeed, its a matter of WHEN.

About The Author

Rick Davidson

Career Coach, Life Coach and Game Development Expert.