At the end of May, I decided to start my own game development studio. I've been a professional game designer for more than 13 years, so I had a lot of contacts. The missing element has always been a business partner who didn't seem ready to sell me out at the first opportunity - and I finally stumbled upon one. That seemed like providence to me, so we decided to go ahead and do it. Only one thing was missing:
I've been unemployed for 6 months, and my partner is self-employed as an artisan - which isn't an overwhelmingly lucrative occupation. We both have families to support, so we really couldn't afford to work for free for a year or more - we needed to build the studio with nearly zero cash invested, and we needed to see returns ASAP.
So here's how we went about it:
My partner has some layout and photoshop experience. I have extensive design & scripting experience. I knew that we needed art support and at least half a programmer. I called around and found two more people who were willing to invest their time with us on our venture. Both were artists with strong design skills, including effects and 3D art. My partner volunteered his garage/office for our workspace, as well as his two computers. Our two artists both had laptops they were willing to carry. We had one meeting this week to discuss high-level goals for the studio, including a name. Everyone was asked to bring in game ideas the next week for discussion. The only conclusion we came to during this first week was that we would initially focus on mobile games for iPhone and Android.
Total expenditures at the end of week 1: $0
We had two meetings this week. At the first meeting we discussed our game concepts. Several of them were excellent, but one really jumped out at us as being both conceptually solid & tremendously simple. We also batted around studio names via e-mail, and came up with something simple we all could agree on. After this first meeting, my partner and I filed a DBA (Doing Business As) through LegalZoom for $99. We also bought two chairs and two small desks at Wal-Mart for about $70. I had a whiteboard which we installed, but we needed markers & erasers, which ran us about $12.
At our second meeting this week it was time to get down to brass tacks - deciding how we would author the game. It looked like I was going to be shouldering the majority of code duties, so I wanted something based on lua - which I am very familiar with. Within an hour we had identified Corona as our SDK. Corona is a very lightweight wrapper for iPhone and Android based on lua, which was perfect for me. But best of all Corona has a great business model - it costs nothing to register and start using the application - you can even create Android device builds right away! But you need to pay a registration fee to create valid builds for sale in the Apple or Android stores. This means that Ansca (the owners of Corona) have a financial interest in seeing developers actually finish products - unlike other lightweight engines, who just want you to pay their license fee.
We knew we'd have to pay $349 a year to publish our games, but that cost wouldn't come until we were ready to ship.
Total expenditures at the end of week 2: $181
Week 3 started with a bang when I showed the team a playable prototype of the game I had assembled over the weekend. It was pretty rough, but it functioned. The rest of the team dived right into the process of identifying our game's aesthetic identity - but I knew we had a more pressing mechanical need: we needed source control. Source control is what separates real developers from friends just screwing around. Source control lets everyone know that you are taking things seriously - because you care enough to protect and back-up your code & assets. So I started looking into possible solutions, as well as finding the dedicated server we'd need to run most of them.
Very quickly I decided that what I really wanted was our own Perforce server. Most professional teams I've worked on use Perforce, and I knew the other people at the company all had extensive experience with it. But Perforce is pretty spendy - it's $1000 per user, or roughly $300 / year per user if you buy licenses. That couldn't work for us at this cash-poor juncture. But I did some digging about evaluation licenses, and I discovered that you can use a free license so long as you have only 2 clients, or fewer than 1000 files in your depot.
Fewer than 1000 files? I knew we could hold our modest game to that limit no problem. Heck, we could probably make 3 games without going over that limit.
The server machine was a bit harder - I ended up taking my daughter's PC away, leaving her to share a PC with my step-daughter. They'll be able to cope with the situation, I'm sure. After a couple days of rough work & configuration issues, I had a Perforce server running which could be remote accessed from our homes.
Sticking with this vein of free software, we added several other programs to our company's roster: Pixelformer, Paint.Net, and Inkscape covered graphical authoring needs. Textpad has been my editor and IDE of choice for more than a decade. Audacity is the gold-standard for manipulating audio, but I make more use of sfxr.exe - a freeware program I found a few years ago which generates random noises according to a simple set of sliders. For coordinating our work we set up an account at Pivotal Tracker. We also had a Dropbox account which we used to share art assets.
My partner, looking out for our business interests, insisted that we register our domain name and sign up for a package deal with 1&1 - we registered our domain, set up simple web-hosting, and got company e-mail for less than $20. Some of those costs will expand in the future after our trial period expires, but I'm comfortable with that.
Total expenditures at the end of week 3: $200
We solidified our company hours at the start of this week - everyone on the team would work on-site Tuesdays and Thursdays for at least 5 hours. A reasonable amount of work still takes place at home, but we needed face time to keep the energy up. I started this week with a major re-write of our game, which made be realize that being both the lead programmer and the lead designer made both jobs more difficult. Grrr...
Our website and logo started taking shape this week - I was only tangentially involved in those projects. But the only important thing to note is that no additional money was spent this week. Yay!
Total expenditures at the end of week 4: $200
This was a critical week for the company, because my partner and I had decided that we would re-evaluate our progress, and decide whether or not it made sense to keep moving forward. We looked at things like progress on the game, average time worked by each team-member each week, costs, and so forth. We also took a hard look at what sort of income we might expect from our first project. Our progress was very good - especially considering all the time I lost doing the re-write in week 4, so we decided to move ahead and incorporate the business.
Incorporating is an important step to take before your business makes money, but it's expensive and complicated. Wanting to avoid these sort of complications is a big reason I haven't founded a company before now! We settled on an incorporated name, and decided to form a LLC (limited-liability company). LegalZoom once again made everything easy, and we even paid a bit extra to get access to their boiler-plate documents for things like labor contracts, Invention agreements, and the like. All together this step cost $572.
Total expenditures at the end of week 5: $772
In week six we finally nailed down our mechanics, and produced several playable levels. I even coded an in-app level editor (we might ship with it, or we might not) which allowed everyone on the team to build levels easily. With our game-play thus validated, we were able to move on to figuring out final steps like menus, credits, and overall presentation systems.
With all of those elements being produced, we decided it was time to bite the bullet and pay our Corona subscription fee. We also had to enroll in the Apple developer's program, which in $99/year. Together that made $448.
Total expenditures at the end of week 6: $1220
Our game is taking shape - we plan on 2 or 3 weeks of bug-fixing, optimization, and level-building. But all the money has been spent, and the company is running. I didn't mention any of the financial planning which went alongside all of our decisions - things like deciding on a price-point, whether or not we would use in-app purchases, ad banners, Lite and Premium versions... there were dozens of decisions along the way which will have significant financial impacts in the future.
I've mostly glossed over the process of actually designing & building the game. Partly that was done to keep it a surprise for our launch, but mostly it is because I was less interesting in the game than I was in looking at how possible it all was to really start a company from nothing in such a short period of time.
We've made great use of free resources - our location, computers, plus all of the software mentioned in part 3. It really has become almost criminally easy to get your foot into the door. Or, perhaps, to build a door around your foot.