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Do you Really Need to Start a Studio to Make Games?
by Alfe Clemencio on 08/04/14 09:14:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So one day I saw this article on Polygon entitled What does it really cost to open an indie studio? All your money, most of your lifeI agree with the facts of it. It really isn't for everyone at first. Especially for those who wish to make the game they want to make and try to sell it somewhat commercially. But then what did those game developers who didn't "start a studio" to make their games?

Ask yourself if you really want to live that tense lifestyle or if you want to just make games.

Of course, they are the "bedroom/basement programmers" image we have when we think indie games. Yet how much do we really talk about that image? How many articles appear on game development websites that talk about bedroom/basement programmers?

We'll skip talking about setting up and go into more why you would or wouldn't start a studio. By this we mean the quit-day-job-and-rent-an-office studio. We'll do the same with going bedroom/basement indie.

Why You Should Start a Studio

Starting a studio is not a bad thing despite what my tone is making. It's a great sign that you reached a turning point or milestone. However a milestone usually implies you've already achieved something beforehand.

You should start a studio if:

  • You already released a game that you can live off of
  • You got funding from some kind of investment and they expect you to get an office
  • You understand how to start and run a business or can hire someone who can
  • You want to increase the production value of your games and have the money for it

The pressure of money will affect what game you ultimately choose to make. Being a bedroom indie means that you will get more freedom from such pressures to make the game you truly want. 

So in a basic sense, you should do it if you have money with experience (your own or hired).

However for the average bright-eyed game developer this isn't in the cards. Or maybe they already have a family to support and such. What can they do?

Why You Should go Bedroom/Basement Game Developer

How about doing game development as a hobby first to see? Work on it in your spare time and occasionally contract out help for stuff like art and music. Or look for free-to-use-commercially art/music resources. You don't need to risk everything to do it and keep your day job.

You should go bedroom/basement indie game dev if:

  • You have to support a family
  • You don't have that much money
  • You are unsure if you can handle the risk of starting a studio
  • You want experience
  • You really want the freedom to make what you want without financial pressure

You hear a lot of stories about how the indies risk everything to chase their dream. Keep in mind that it's always more interesting to hear about people who risk it all compared to those who didn't take that much risk. Ask yourself if you really want to live that tense lifestyle or if you want to just make games.

Also having your living based on your game development definitely creates that pressure to succeed. The pressure of money will affect what game you ultimately choose to make. Being a bedroom indie means that you will get more freedom from such pressures to make the game you truly want.

It Just a Matter of Timing and Progression, Which you Should Know Best by Now 

It's not a question if which is of these are better than the other. If you are a gamer then no one else should know it better than you. It's more of a matter of progression. Just like the progression in way too many of the video games you play, right? Take on a monster without enough experience and you're going to get crushed. No different here.

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Sarah Herzog
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Unfortunately, some people are unable to work on their own projects while keeping their day jobs. I'm extraordinarily lucky to work for a game company that allows me to create and release my own projects, but many companies specifically forbid this. Even so, I am finding it increasingly frustrating not being able to devote my full time to the games I WANT to work on. The time is coming before long that I'm going to have to take the plunge and do indie development full time, regardless of the risks.

I do think it's probably best to go the bedroom/basement route as long as you are able to, however.

Andrew Haining
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I completely agree, I've been employed in the games industry for nearly 10 years and I've been working in my spare time for 3 on my own game. So far I've risked nothing and am not at all worried about deadlines or money, supporting my kids or paying my mortgage. It's helping me make a better game. If it's unsuccessful I don't need to worry, I can get straight into the next one, which allows me to make a riskier game i.e. a game closer to the game I want to make.

Guillaume Boucher-Vidal
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Or maybe you shouldn't let your fear of failure define who you are and what you should do?

- I didn't have a game I could life off from. Heck, no one even knew who I was in the industry.
- I didn't have funds aside from my own meager savings.
- I didn't have any business experience or formation.

Yet, I built a game studio and I'm working full time on a game I am crazy passionate about. I have absolutely no regret. I am happy, proud and I now have a killer resume to fall back on.

I won't wait decades for the perfect context to jump on my lap before starting to work on my dream. If everyone thought like you did, we wouldn't have a lot going on in the game industry.

Someone will always have a better context than you, a safer proposition, better talent, better experience, better funds. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try to compete, it just means you have to understand you'll be fighting an uphill battle.

Not everyone have an entrepreneurial spirit and that's quite okay, but don't tell those who do that they are doing it wrong. You know what will happen if I fail with this studio? I'll make another one.

Brian Mumphrey
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I really enjoyed your article on polygon. It gave a great sense of what it's like and the cost of both financially, physically and emotional taxing starting and running your own studio. It's extremely rough to do and it's awesome that people like you go through the trouble to follow your dreams.

That said, I really don't think it's right to accuse Alfe of letting his fear of failure define who he, and anyone else takes that route, is. Not everyone has the same situation, either it be financial or any other defining factors that go into building your own business from the ground up. The only thing I can see in his entire post that might come off fire and brimstone is the last part about being crushed by a monster you're not prepared to face. And to be honest, that's not bad advice for anyone with little to no experience in these things.

You seem to have quiet a bit of experience in the industry according to your linkdin page which just reinforces his last comment about knowing what's going on before you step in the ring. You even say it yourself, "Not everyone have an entrepreneurial spirit and that's quite okay, but don't tell those who do that they are doing it wrong." If they already have the entrepreneurial spirit, they probably are already doing it, will be doing it or will look at this post and say " This isn't me, I'm going to do this because I love the work and what's involved, even if it is going to be hard on various angles and I have to give up a lot to do it." To use your logic backwards, you could be encouraging someone into starting their studio that has no business attempting with such little experience, money and or what have you and could completely fail, loose everything and potentially go through some rough stuff they had no intention of dealing with. All they wanted to do was make games. Sounds a bit ridiculous? Absolutely, because the human factor, the fact the we all choose our own path and have will, is taken out as if to say these words are damning and no one can resist but to follow through or not on their dreams because someone made a post about it.

The other people who will get scared away, or play it safe were already in that mind set for the most part. Again, I think both your posts are great, and both offer 2 different sides of the same coin.

Guillaume Boucher-Vidal
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The author says you should not start a studio if you don't meet all the requirements he listed. That's what I was answering to by saying you shouldn't let your context define you. Those who decide to do games on their off times are quite welcome to do it, I have zero beef with that.

Also, he is suggesting to wait for an investment before starting a studio, but chances of raising money for a studio before fully committing yourself to that project are quasi null. This is genuinely bad advice. Investors are looking for fully committed individuals (crowdfunding being an exception to this rule at the moment) to partner with. If you have a dream, you must take every step you can to make it happen. You must create a context in which the opportunities will present themselves to you, and that usually requires going all in.

Nick Harris
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I read your article over at Polygon and tried to find out what GoD Factory: Wingmen was actually about to no avail. The links to 4v4 space combat are clear enough, but what is this GoD franchise that you speak of. Perhaps, I had missed it, but everywhere I looked it just restated the same few gameplay mechanics without the benefit of a framing narrative. I think it is very easy to get lost in the details of coding, running a business and ensuring that your personal relationships do not suffer comparative neglect, whilst failing to realise that most prospective player will react to the name and first screenshot:

I'm only speaking out to be constructive, but without knowing what 'GoD' means, I'd be inclined to rework the title so you didn't need it in there. 'Factory' isn't that sexy a word, as it bears negative associations with the polluted skies of our Victorian industrial past. As the developer, the ability to build your own ship may be a feature you feel is essential to push to the fore by including it in the title. However, you'd probably have more luck with a name like "SpaceCraft" than "GoD Factory: Wingmen".

I'm not so arrogant to suggest that you use this as the name of your game, it is just a for instance. I've personally had difficulties in naming my own space game, which combines at least four genres, and ended up asking for help in a public forum for suggestions. I got back one word, which didn't appear to be already in use by anyone, which describes it incredibly broadly and I probably wouldn't have thought of out of a desire to convey everything about it in the title.

Don't forget, a picture is worth a thousand words and you have excellent gameplay videos, so all you may be looking for from your title is an evocative hook that does not misrepresent or end up incorrectly categorising the game like some poorly titled library book.

Good luck wth your endeavours.

Alfe Clemencio
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I'm definitely not saying you shouldn't try to compete if you don't have a studio. Depending on how you plan things out and do things you can make a game that makes you look like a major corporation while being a bedroom developer.

Alfe Clemencio
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I think these points you are making assume you want an investor in the first place. Not everyone wants an investor.

And that statement I made about why you should start a studio is generally an "or" statement though having more than one is good.

Brian Mumphrey
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I think you're reading into his post a little bit too much, At no point does he say you SHOULDN'T start a studio because of these things. He does however discuss reasons you SHOULD, and to be honest I'm not even sure he said anywhere these are carved in stone reasons. Maybe I'm misunderstanding his post, but I think what hes doing is simply pointing out some good guide lines to follow if you are considering it but are unsure. There's nothing in his entire post that says "you're doing it wrong." Not even a little bit. I think he's just simply offering some advice for people who are stuck in the middle. Also, I had zero idea or thought you had "beef" with anyone doing the bedroom route. The blog post, my response and everyone else here is saying you have to go your own route and find what works best for you, either it be the bedroom route or starting a studio. Plain and simple. There is no "better way," and not to beat a dead horse, but even he says it in the last paragraph "It's not a question if which is of these are better than the other."

You make a good point about not being able to find investors if you don't show you are committed. Absolutely, that just makes sense, who would want to back someone who isn't going to give it their all. At the same time, going all in and forming a studio right off the bat and putting yourself at a possible financial risk isn't the only way to do this. Some people start out in their basement, put their ideas out for the world to see and get invested in because even though they had 2 kids, a wife, a day job and other friends and family to fit in they still got their ideas out and dream done and showed off a damn good prototype, alpha or beta etc. Is this the only way? Of course not. Is it a good way? Well that depends on the person and the situations they find themselves in.

Also, saying people shouldn't let their context/fear define you is still presumptuous. In no way shape or form do I understand what it is like to try and raise a family while striking out on my own. So for me to tell someone who has a completely different life with responsibilities, risks, and current life situations that they should go bedroom or studio route is wrong. I don't know them, their past or any of the pressures they go through. I wouldn't presume to tell you that you'd be safer, happier or more successful going the bedroom developer way, nor would I suggest how and what way you should follow your dreams. They're YOUR dreams, so why not let others handle their dreams in their own way. Telling people they need to go all in is genuinely bad advice imo. Suggesting it and saying it's one way to do? That's stellar advice.

Nick DeCastro
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Congratulations on pursuing your dream.
Keep in mind that not everyone is in the same life situation that you are.
Many people are living paycheck to paycheck, paying a mortgage, have a car loan/lease and have multiple dependents. They have financial realities that prevent them from doing what they want. It's not fear; it's responsibilities.
That's why this article was well written to cover both options depending on your situation. Also, you mention you've started a studio and are working on a game. Great! But have you made enough money from selling that game to sustain the lifestyle you want and continue to make more games?
I suspect that if the answer was yes then your internet comments would be written with an encouraging tone, not a critical one.

Nick Harris
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I agree with all of your points. I've spent about £1000 per year funding my project. I would never have been able to tolerate the pressure of deadlines and thankfully my life is simple and free from responsibilities, allowing me to teach myself everything I need to know in order to someday complete my project. I'm not seeking remuneration, as it is just nice to have something to keep me busy so that I avoid getting bored and depressed. Many people can spend a lot more of their disposable income on their 'hobby', so were I to finish and receive constructive criticism that would be enough. As soon as you start to think about 'how to get rich' you are complicating what should be a single goal of 'having fun, making fun'. Money should be the last thing on your mind.

Brian Woody
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I don't feel like those have to be the polar opposite ends of the spectrum; there's definitely a grey area. Today, with services like Legal Zoom, it's easier than ever for even the most uneducated person to form an LLC. You don't need an expensive office or anything like that, making it possible to be a "basement developer" while still developing through an LLC, which I feel is a cheap and effective option. I believe it cost me about $400 to get my studio LLC off the ground, if I remember correctly.

sean lindskog
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Making a game involves falling on your face a lot, along the way.

I'd hold off going "all in" (quitting your job and pouring all your money into a studio) until you've had a chance to make some of these mistakes in a lower-stakes setting. Even bringing a very simple game to completion beforehand is going to teach you a lot about games.

Some folks might be all "go for it" / "trial by fire" / "jump in without looking" by nature. There's not much that'll stop them regardless of what advice you give. But for those who want to play your cards smart, I recommend you take time to learn your craft well before betting the farm. If you go big, and fail utterly, you might be financially screwed for a long time, and the experience may permanently sour you on making games. You want to set yourself up for success as much as possible.

But in the end, you still gotta make the leap.

edwin zeng
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It is already possible for one person to do their own mobile game(s) and put in advertisement monetization as the revenue base. In fact, the amount made from ads can already exceed the total amount of median monthly salaries for at least a few years. Of course, it may vary due to the popularity of the mobile game.

The fact is that I found at least one developer alone blogging about his minor success (~$100k total) from his mobile game(s) which I honestly have never heard of. So being alone actually increases your sustainability by a lot.

Thibaut Aubrun
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I wonder if I should start a studio. I am a full time indie game dev since 2007 but the pressure to search contract to earn enough money to live and invest in my own production is very hard to support.

I will start a studio only if a business angel will invest in it, because I run out of money now. I hope my last game I just start releasing, will earn enough cash. Else ...

Judy Tyrer
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I contest this article's basic premise that the difference between a studio and someone just making a game is brick & mortar. Distributed development allows us to work as a team remotely from one another without the overhead of brick&mortar. I can't fathom why people still do the brick & mortar thing other than to get investors who are not technically savvy enough to understand the tools available for distributed development.

Brian Mumphrey
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Ever since the first time I heard about distributed development or remote studio development ( hopefully I'm not confusing these two as being similar or the same) I was hoping it would become more and more common. The idea of it and from what I've seen put into practice seems to curb a lot of the overhead and cost you could incur running a studio in an office space which frees up A LOT of money to be put back into the project. I still think there's a place for the large studios and benefits, closer discussions and quicker communication through group meetings and even the possible comradery of a tight nit studio that is in close proximity to each other. These are hard to replicate other than video chat and such which doesn't offer the same interaction as being in person, but I think it depends on the team if this is something that is needed or is just icing on the cake as far as the atmosphere for a team goes.

Pros and cons for both options, I think I enjoy the idea of a remote team more than anything else for the flexibilty. That's just me though.