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A couple of time each month, somebody sends me an email: “I’ve got a great game idea, what can I do with it?” I’m happy to answer questions, but I figure a lot of people wonder the same things without emailing me - or anybody else - about it. That’s why I’ve decided to write these answers to common questions.
I’ve got a great game idea! Can I send it to a publisher or a game studio so they’ll make a game out of it? I’m confident it’s going to be a big hit!
Sadly, no. Barring the occasional contest, I don’t know of any studio or publisher who accepts outside game ideas for development. Believe me when I say I wish it were different, but that’s the reality of things. Other people won’t make your game for you, no matter how good you think your idea is.
I’m serious about this and I’m willing to work hard to make this game a reality. Isn’t there a way to create this game?
While publishers and studios won’t just take an outside game idea, it’s still possible to make your idea - but it’s going to be tough. Obviously, the bigger the game the harder it will be to make. If your idea is for a variant of Tetris, it should be fairly easy to make, if your idea is for a MMORPG in the real world like Grand Theft Auto (only bigger) it’s going to be very hard. Somehow, most people seem to have ideas that fit into the latter category.
The two basic approaches to transforming your idea into something concrete are:
- Join an existing team and convince them to work on your project
- Make it yourself
How do I join an existing team?
You need to get a job working there. The higher up you are in the hierarchy and the closer you are to the production of new projects, the more likely you’ll be able to get them to accept your game concept. A studio’s creative director has more chance to see his ideas created than the human resources intern.
Obviously, if you have no experience in the gaming industry, you’re not likely to get a job at the top echelons. The exception might be if you have professional experience in management - many studios are willing to hire managers from other industries, especially from other entertainment fields (TV, movies, etc.) or from software development firms. If you don’t have that kind of experience, you’ll have to get a “regular” job and work your way up.
Getting a job in games development is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but there’s plenty of information on the subject. I recommend you go take a look at the IGDA FAQ.
Ok, I’ve joined a team. How do I convince them to take on my project?
That’s the tricky part, and there’s no silver bullet. Try to see first if the company is interested in creating original games. A lot of studios only make games as requested by publishers (e.g. games based on movies and such) so convincing them to take a chance with a different approach is going to be tougher.
Many studios have a process to submit ideas internally. You can try submitting your idea this way and follow up to make sure it’s not forgotten. You’ll probably have to work hard to convince people that your idea is good - it might be obvious for you, but it’s not obvious for others.
How do I convince people that my idea is great?
The best approach is to show rather than tell. Show them a prototype of your game and they’re likely to believe it’s good than if you just talk about it. Games must be played to be enjoyed, so a playable prototype will speak much louder than words. You can make a prototype in many ways, from actually coding it (Flash makes that fairly easy) to making a boardgame version of your concept. Use your imagination - the more concrete your concept becomes, the more convincing it will be.
I’d rather create the game myself rather than join an existing team. How do I do that?
The best approach depends on the scope of the project you’re making. If you’re making a simple, casual game then it’s not too hard. Just a few people can make a small game fairly quickly. An experienced programmer and an artist can make a professional quality puzzle game in just a few months. The scope of those projects is small enough that they can be done part time, so you can keep your day job while your work on your game.
My idea is for a bigger game than that - it’s for a top of the line, triple-A console title. How can I make that?
Modern day games have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and require large teams working full-time for years. Unless you’re rich, you can’t make that by yourself. The typical approach is to get a publisher to finance development. To convince a publisher, you’ll need an impressive prototype of the game.
The prototype for a project of intermediate scope (say a Nintendo DS title) can probably be done in a similar way to making a casual game: by assembling a small team and working on it in your spare time. The prototype for a large project can be a fairly big project in itself, bigger than what you could possibly do in your spare time (some prototypes have a million dollar budget).
Once you have your prototype, you can show it to publishers and hopefully one will pick it up. This is far from certain, however, especially if this is your studio’s first project. Publishers are wary of giving millions of dollars to a studio who hasn’t proven they’ll do anything good with those millions.
This doesn’t seem easy. Isn’t there another way to get to the point where I can create my own game ideas?
Most studios don’t start by making big original titles. What they do is start small and save profits until they’ve got enough money to finance the creation of a prototype to shop around publishers. This means you don’t get to work on your own creation for a while, but it’s safer.
How do I start a small studio?
What you can do is make small games with just a few people and expand as your income grows. Good types of games to create this way include:
- Downloadable casual games: This market is booming right now and you can create your own game ideas rather than work on a license. Competition is increasing, and so are budgets, so it might be harder to create a competitive game.
- Mobile games: The field hasn’t grown as quickly as analyst thought it would and there’s stiff competition, but the games are very small so there’s still space for a start-up team. In fact, I know of a small team of students who were recently able to find a publisher for the mobile game they’d been developing in their spare time. Most games are created from specific requests by publishers, though.
- Advergames: They’re games created to advertise products. They’re mostly web-based games that companies put on their website. The field seems to be doing really well right now, with demand from companies outstripping offer from studios, based from what I hear from a friend in the field. Working on a game based on Cheetohs may not seem exciting, but the companies usually leave you lots of creative space about what to do from a gameplay standpoint.
- Indie games: Downloadable games from independent developers are gaining in popularity. If you can find a good niche, you can get a devoted fanbase. The games are small, but you have full creative control. Becoming profitable might be more difficult than with other approaches though.
Overall, the safest approach is to do the games that somebody with money is willing to pay you to do (mobile games or advergames). You save some of the profit from those projects to invest in slightly bigger projects that give you a larger part of the profits (casual and indie games) and keep growing until you have the money, manpower and contacts to make a prototype of the big game you’ve always wanted to make and pitch it to a publisher.
Is that approach really safe?
It’s about as safe as starting any new company, which is to say “not at all”. Most start-ups fail, so you should be aware of the risk. That’s why starting by working in your spare time is a good idea: if it fails, you still have your regular job to fall back to. That said, it’s certainly possible to succeed and to do very well.
Can I get funding from other sources?
Of course. Just like any company, you can get funding from just about anyone willing to give you money: the 3 F (Family, Friends and Fools), governmental programs, venture capitalists, etc. There are plenty of books on entrepreneurship that can help you with this better than I ever could.
How can I protect my idea?
Copyright is your best protection, since it prevents other people from copying the expression of your idea. It doesn’t protect the idea itself, however, so somebody could clone your game concept by changing some aspects of it and there’s nothing you could do about it.
Patents may be usable in theory - I think the rules for Monopoly have been patented for example - but nobody does that. It’s a very complicated and expensive process and it’s not certain it actually works legally. Most people in the industry see very negatively the idea of patenting gameplay, so trying to patent your game might hinder you more than it might help.
Trademarks only cover brands, so they could only be used to cover the name of your game. Since the publisher is likely to change the name of your game before it goes on sale, it’s not worth registering the trademark for an unreleased game.
I personally believe that most people with game ideas worry too much about protecting them. It’s hard enough to convince somebody that a game is good enough to invest money in it, without putting legal hurdles in your way. You’re better to tell about your idea to everyone you meet than to try hide it under a veil of secrecy. People willing to invest in your game have very little to win and a lot to lose if they decide to steal your concept, so they’re unlikely to do it.
I’ve got more questions, what can I do?
Ask them in the comments below, so everyone can see the answer.