So you’ve got a killer idea for a new mobile game that’s going to top charts and shake up the top grossing elite? Where should you start when setting up a new mobile games studio? How should you tackle financing, hiring and strategy?
We asked founders and investors with hard-earned experience to offer their advice to any aspiring startup founder. There are challenges unique to mobile games, but the opportunities are huge – and this ever-changing market throws up new categories and new business types every few months, so it’s fertile ground for bold new ideas.
Find the right founding team
What’s the most important thing to get right when starting your own mobile games business? Veteran investor and mentor Nick Button-Brown says it’s the founding team.
"Ideally, this is a group of people that have skills that balance each other, as well as experience covering a range of game development functions and have worked together well in the past,” he tells us.
“The key for me is that balance between vision and delivery, needing part of the team pushing to make the best possible game being balanced by the need to deliver it in a reasonable time and with the money that you have available.
“At many stages of running a studio you will have difficult days and new challenges that need to be overcome, and having a team that enjoys working together makes that much easier to achieve.”
Petaverse Network and Tiny Rebel Labs CEO Susan Cummings agrees. “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are,” she says. “Don't be afraid to hire people who are better at things than you are. And most important – hire a great COO to support you.”
Define your ‘north star’
Landmark Games CEO and co-founder Dave Burpitt says new businesses need a clear vision and to identify “a problem that they intend to fix for their customer.”
“For a game studio, this may seem like an odd proposal as we are essentially providing entertainment value,” says Burpitt. “However, it can help to define a north star that clearly sets out the target audience and value proposition – what are you going to offer that can't be found elsewhere? The main thing is that you have a north star you – and your founders – believe in.”
And then, of course, there’s assessing the current marketplace and developing ideas from there. It’s an approach indie game developer Sophie Artemigi says has been helpful to her. “I personally find direction as a business owner by looking at the strategies of similar companies and relentlessly copying them until I figure out which parts work for me and my team,” she says.
Petaverse Network’s Cummings says that founders run on passion – so make sure the business you’re setting up is true to your personal mission. “Being a founder is like running a never-ending marathon so it's important you believe in and love what you are building – not just building to the current ‘fad’,” she says. “Fads change and if you're not 100% behind what you're building, you'll end up in a bad place when the tides shift.”
Investor and mentor Button-Brown agrees – and says that passion for the project helps founders get stakeholders invested in the project, figuratively and literally. “There needs to be an emotional attachment to that opportunity or the story of what you are trying to do, meaning that other people – investors, publishers and employees – want to be part of the journey and want to help you to be successful,” he says.
Find out about funding
It’s not cheap to hire game developers, artists, marketeers, analysts and more. So mobile, more so than PC and console, is driven by a large and active community of investors, platforms, publishers and venture capitalists that offer funding and other support. Smaller projects can be funded by grants, too, and it’s important to understand what you’re giving away in exchange for investment, says indie developer Sophie Artemigi.
“With each of these sources, there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of money available to you and the power you give up when you accept the funds,” she tells us. “Studios can raise millions with Venture Capital firms, but those VCs will try and protect their investment by controlling future business decisions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, developers who bootstrap have to answer to no-one. That said, this means that they can’t invest in themselves properly and grow their studios.”
Landmark Games boss Burpitt says VC funding is really only suited to folks with a large-scale vision. “VCs are looking for the next billion-dollar company, so make sure your team is comfortable with that expectation,” he says. “Does it align with your own ambition of one day running a global studio, potentially with hundreds of staff?”
There’s also publisher and platform deals, as well as taking work-for-hire projects, which can generate income while you work on your own game. Burpitt has sage advice for those looking at both of these avenues.
“Publishers and platforms will want to see an amazing game pitch, with as much of the work already done as possible,” he says. “Work-for-hire can be a reliable and profitable source of income but a distraction to making your own games, plus you are competing with dedicated agencies so customer service needs to be a top priority.”
“Talk with multiple founders to get a good sense of the challenges and strategy for each type of funding route, there will be lots to consider and prepare for,” Burpitt continues. “Consider who on the team is responsible for fundraising, as this person is going to be extremely busy and likely unable to contribute to both the game and business development at the same time.”
Button-Brown says it’s important to seek out government and trade body funding too. “There are some fantastic schemes like the UK Games Fund and other government money such as Innovate UK, that can give some money to help the project or company,” he says.
There are also schemes like Barclays’ own mobile games growth programme which helps fledgling games businesses spread their wings further and connects startups to investors, mentors and more.
Define your roadmap
Getting hiring right while securing investment can’t really happen without a compelling business plan. Having helped a multitude of businesses launch and grow, Button-Brown has some compelling advice on this front. For a start, he says your business plan doesn’t need to be a big formal document.
Think of it more like a presentation: state your vision, the opportunity, explain what you’re trying to do, who the team is and why that team is the best fit for the task. A view of the market opportunity and the competition and comparatives is also important.
Next, you need to think deeply about the process behind getting your game made. “You will need to have a thought-through roadmap which has a good view of the whole company and project at a high level, as well as dealing with the next few steps in some detail,” says Button-Brown.
“This isn’t so much about the exact details of what the plan says, but more about having gone through the thought processes of understanding what is needed, as well as having looked at the risks and mitigations and dealing with contingencies as well as having multiple confirmation points. For example: ‘In March we will have a prototype that we can test with a tight friends and family group, and in September we will have all the core game mechanics built before we spend a lot of time on content creation.’
“You probably will need to have done a P&L, at least showing how you are funding the business and spending the money. It needs to be realistic and not overly optimistic, and shows you being able to deliver without running out of money before the next financing, money raise or income.”
Be prepared for detours
Of course, running a business is never easy or predictable. Our founders each suggest staying open to drastic course-corrections and pivots when the opportunity arises, and to build flexibility into your business plan.
“I’ve always heard that you should budget 20% for wiggle room,” says indie developer Artemigi. “I don’t think there’s any reason behind that number, but the men in suits seem to think it makes sense so why not. I personally prefer to cut features instead of raising my budget when things don’t go to plan but it’s definitely good to have a safety net if you can get one.”
Landmark Games’ Burpitt suggests making sure your vision is “clear but not restrictive” so your business can adapt to changing platform policy, market conditions and other unexpected bumps in the road.
“The best rule – and also the hardest to stick to – is to get the game tested with the target audience as soon as possible and move on quickly if there is a lack of evidence that you're sat on a rocket-ship of a product,” he says.
“Often, the only way to effectively improve a game is by making a huge pivot, or dropping it entirely and trying something else. It's an emotional hurdle but once you're over it, you'll likely look back and wish you did it sooner to give more runway to your next amazing idea.”
Cummings says that this level of flexibility needs to be instilled in your team, too. “The most important thing is building an agile team that can adapt as the product evolves and the market fit becomes clear – sometimes that means your team will feel like they are throwing work away but it's all part of the process and getting to a solid place with the game,” she says.
“Ideally, you raise enough [funding] for two years of runway but keep in mind the need to keep up with cost of living challenges and having enough staff that people can take breaks when they need to, to avoid crunch culture.”
If your business does have to take a sharp left turn, make sure your investors are aware and supportive, adds Button-Brown. “It is extremely difficult to raise money for pivots or changes of plans, as people providing the money would prefer to make that decision based on where you and they are at the time of the change, rather than approve something they may not have any influence over.”
And remember, there’s always support out there for founders, particularly from investors, platforms, publishers and schemes designed to help your studio grow.
Shake as many hands as you can, ask for advice from contemporaries and be prepared to change course – running a business is the most challenging, maddening but potentially rewarding thing one can do – so try to enjoy the ride.
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