50 Principles for Gaming Startups

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I wanted to write out my 50 principles for success with gaming startups. All of them will help you imagine a better game development startup, and I hope they inspire you.

Starting 

1. Start with Why: Game devs often seek 80% proven ideas and 20% innovation. Rather, devs should ask WHY, to find “reason for being”. Find your Ikigai: what you’re good at, what can make you money, and what the world needs.

2. Reason to start: Don’t start a company just because you got laid off. BUT if getting laid off made you realize you should have quit months ago to work on a problem that you’ve got a burning desire to solve, then now’s the time.

3. Co-founders: Make sure your co-founders can work and hang out together. One way to figure this out before starting is by jamming and shipping a small game together. This will reveal the people around you.

4. Diversity: Build diversity when you hire for your startup. Better games can be made when the team is wildly diverse.

5. Aim for revenue: Build a revenue-first gaming startup, from day one.

6. Change the world through games: If you are doing a games startup, it’s never been a better time to think about ways to change the world with your creations.

7. Profit: The best game startup experience is when you finally are able to pay salaries from your game revenues.

People

8. Several co-founders: I started my first game company as a solo founder. I often felt that I didn’t have anybody to talk to, or to share the burden of keeping things together. The bigger the founder team, the more you can spread the burden and the effort.

9. Startup hiring 101: You need to get people who can do 10x jobs. Not to spend the time of ten people, but to handle lots of mixed roles at once. I.e. programmer-artist-marketing gal.

10. Stay small: Bring on people who can get things done and who can work in several areas. Artist and programmer combos. Realize that startups aren’t smaller versions of big companies.

11. Allow side projects: How about games companies allow game side projects for their developers? And if the developer leaves to pursue the project full-time, the company would loan or invest $10k into the project.

12. Show gratitude: At Next Games, we had a weekly event called Kudos, where everyone gave a wrapped candy to someone. When giving the candy, they’d need to say what company value this person had represented in the actions during the week.

Failure

13. How to treat failure: The only certainty in game dev: game projects will often fail. It’s almost a guarantee that our games one, two and three will not work. The only way we can prepare is to anticipate failures and learn from what happened.

14. Pre-mortem: The game dev who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise.

15. Celebrate failure: All your game dev failures are valuable.

16. Reflect on failure: It’s a shame when a game project fails and people just move on, without reflection on what happened. When you fail, learn from it.

17. Postmortems: When I hear of a gaming company not doing postmortems, I’m not betting on them being around for long.

Leadership

18. Art of storytelling: Startup founders should Learn storytelling. What is the “bigger than life” idea that you have? Investors bet on big dreams, people join startups to go on an adventure. You want to dream of something that seems hard and challenging. Don’t conform.

19. Good enough: Perfection is the enemy of game development. Your content will never be perfect. Don’t be afraid to ship asap and iterate from there with updates.

20. Safe environment: If you want to build trust in your startup culture, make sure that people KNOW that they can speak up without losing their job or ruining their career. If not explicitly stated, things will go unspoken.

21. Take bold steps with courage: Growth is always uncomfortable.

22. Build a multi-discipline team: Modern game devs need to build games with market knowledge, QA, user acquisition, data mining, analyzing, price adjusting, ad units, optimization. Growing the game used to be the job of a publisher.

23. Leverage external knowledge: CEOs need to look at the community that’s around them, all the other companies in the ecosystem. Ask questions, figure things out, don’t let the game run the business, but let your curiosity run the business.

Funding

24. Bootstrap first: When starting a games company, I’d advise to bootstrap it to profitability. I’ve seen too many founders sucked into the infinite fundraising loop.

25. Don’t celebrate funding too much: No amount of money will make a bad game a good one.

26. Understand the VC model: Investor asks “What needs to happen for this to become big?” If you’re going the VC route, you need to think about this question. Look at a big company. How did they do it? Reverse engineer that. Rewind time back to see what steps they took.

27. Why some get funded and others don’t: Especially in mobile, experienced founders can start producing games off the bat. Inexperienced founders need to develop muscle memory on game dev and publishing. That’s why investors are wary of investing in studios without mobile dev “full-stack” expertise.

Learning

28. What successful gaming entrepreneurs do: They don’t optimize for what they’ve always done, but they think outside of the box. Also, they know that doing what everybody else is doing won’t get them far.

29. Share and get feedback: I wish that more people in game dev would be thinking in public.

30. Ask for advice: Seek for help from other founders and CEO. Ask them to look at your deck, your game idea. Listen to lots of advice but only follow little of it. Distill the best advise.

31. Understand what matters: DAU should be stated as a vanity metric. You might have 1m DAU, but if none of them are paying and 90% churn after their first day, it’s not sustainable. This is why metrics like retention are more interesting.

32. Build learning into everyday work: Learn from failure. Instead of letting a game project fail in an epic way, why not fail in small ways, and learn constantly.

33. Allocate time for learning: Failure is painful, and it is a bad thing, only if you don’t learn from it.

Game development

34. Optimize for player retention: Most games only become commercially successful, if they can keep players playing for a long time. Long term engagement comes from interesting short, mid and long term player goals.

35. Understand your audience: People in gaming often focus on discussing features for their game. ”When we add PVP, we’ll be killing it” or ”We need to add more social features. The discussion should be around the benefits and values that the game is providing to the players.

36. Have a product strategy: Here’s some product strategy thinking for gaming startups. 1. Why not start with a low-risk game that takes a few months to develop and launch? 2. How about doing that bigger game when you’ve secured incoming revenue from your low-risk games?

37. What really moves the needle: Never have I seen graphics improvements increase player retention.

38. Secure your tech: Nothing has killed mobile games quicker than tech issues at launch.

39. Take your time: Long soft launches are game development in public.

40. Make game dev an iterative feedback loop: Game devs in soft launch should treat everything as experiments. Not ”getting out of soft launch asap.” Each update is an opportunity to fail fast, learn, and grow.
Think different

41. Build an audience before you build a game: Start by owning an audience who will buy your game. Not by building the game and then developing an audience.

42. Manage expectations: My hard-earned wisdom is that a gaming entrepreneur doesn’t need to build the next Supercell to be fulfilled.

43. Find your niche: Two problems. 1) Game developers can’t get players to play their game. 2) A group of players doesn’t have any games to play. It makes more sense to solve the latter.

44. Understand business considerations: The games industry needs smart founders. Too many build games they want, versus identifying audiences who are lacking a game.

45. Full-stack game developer: What does a skilled game dev look like in 2020? They have differentiating creativity and data-informed decision making.

Long term thinking

46. Optimizing for long-term gains: Pay yourself a healthy salary, but don’t upgrade your lifestyle after some early success. Optimize to be running the games company still in ten years. These things take time, so enjoy the journey.

47. Believe in something big: Aim for Mars and you’ll at least get to the Moon. My first company built virtual worlds for Nokia phones. A big idea which failed, but we tried lots of things; learned a lot. The next big idea went much better.

48. No exit insight: Building a new game studio takes time. Plan to be building the company for ten years before it’s a success. Then, if success happens earlier, it would be a lucky break, but not planned for.

49. See things through, even when it’s painful: When you finally soft launch, it can feel crushing if the numbers suck. Before any game project, consider soft launch as only being 10% into the project. It’s a long road.

50. What will go wrong: Starting a new games company isn’t a walk in the park. It’s more like a polar expedition a 100 years ago, where so many things can and will go wrong.

And a bonus:

51. Cash cows: Games that are making steady revenue matter so much for gaming companies. They enable a culture of game dev craft, you don’t have to ”bet the farm” on a project. And when a project fails, it can be celebrated.

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