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Got Game Ideas, But No Experience and No Money

How Do I Build A Team Without Paying Anyone Up Front

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns no longer available, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis.

This is a collection of "The Games Game" columns on related questions. You could read them all in order, or click a link and jump to the desired column. Below the columns, I include some "Idea guy" Q&As from the Sloperama Game Design bulletin board. The columns and the Q&As are in chronological order.

In a way, this FAQ is an extension to FAQ 1. Also recommended reading!

The Games Game
Hit the Trenches Before Starting a Studio
March 2003

Dear Tom:
I'm currently in year 4 of 5 of an Electronic Systems and Software Systems double major in Engineering. I love playing games and have read everything I can get my hands on about making games. Unfortunately, I live in the middle of nowhere in Canada and there are no professional game developers anywhere in my province.
In an effort to gain some experience, I have teamed up with a few like-minded friends (all of us with different complementary skills) and we are working on creating our own game for some experience. I've had some general computer/programming work experience thanks to some co-op work, but no gaming-specific experience. I would really like to stay in this city and start my own development studio. Is that a realistic option or should I not even consider it without first working in the industry? Is it possible to recruit/partner with some experienced industry professionals to help get our company started? What do you recommend?
Mark Dynna

Dear Mark,
It's a good idea to work on an indy project to further your education on the process of making a game. Once you've graduated, I highly recommend that you move temporarily to Vancouver or Montreal, and get a job in a game company. You would be amazed how much you can learn about the game industry with two or three years of practical industry experience. That knowledge will be invaluable to you when you move back to your home town and start your own studio.
If you skip the game job and try to start your own studio, you have to learn everything the hard way. It's harder to make contacts within the industry. It's harder to get capital to fund your company. It's harder to find people to hire. It's harder to get contracts. And a lack of understanding about employment law, contracts, industry distribution practices, and a myriad of other things will hamper your efforts at every turn.
Just working at a game company, you will be exposed to all of these things and more. You'll learn about office politics and the dynamics of teamwork. You'll get to see how your released product is handled by the publisher or parent company. You'll experience firsthand how contract clauses affect everything, from design to sales to royalties to bonus checks.
If you try to learn all these things by doing them yourself, you can crash and burn gloriously - it'll be a sight to see for those around you, but it can be unpleasant (to say the least) for you!
College degrees and indy projects cannot begin to approach the benefits of working at a game company. You'll make contacts, both at your employer's company and at other companies you work with. Those contacts will be invaluable to you. And your name in the credits will give you cachet (that's an old-fashioned French word meaning "props"). Above, I mentioned "two or three years," but before forming your own company you will want to attain the level of technical director or at least lead programmer. And that could well take four years or more. Consider it an extension of your current educational process, only you get paid too!
© 2003 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
We All Have Great Ideas
November 2003

Dear Tom,
I am a first year student at the Art Institute of LA, and a QA tester at Activision. I was curious as to how I can at this early stage start pitching game concepts. Obviously, I have no studio, just an idea. Are publishers interested in buying design documents, the way scripts are sold in Hollywood? Or are they looking for the total package, a studio that will not just pitch the idea but also be able to deliver the finished product?
Name Withheld

Dear Withheld,
Many publishers do accept concept submissions from individuals, but the chances of getting anywhere with that sort of submission are extremely slim. Having worked at Activision, I know that most testers are temporary help, as opposed to permanent employees. So in effect you are an outsider (even though you work on the premises). Even if you were a permanent employee of the company, there probably isn't a formal submission process to get ideas greenlit. It's been a couple years since I left Activision - so I'm speaking in generalities that apply industrywide. Some companies may have that sort of formal process for submitting ideas. Of course, as I wrote in my September column, any concepts created by employees usually belong to the company anyway (depending on the inventions clauses in their employment contracts or the employee handbook).
The surest path to having a submission accepted and greenlit is to be a superstar first (like Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, Tom Clancy, or Steven Spielberg). But most of us hope that our creations will eventually get us even halfway to such heights!
Second best is to own your own development company. Of course, it takes many years to reach that plateau, too. Put yourself in the shoes of a submissions manager at a game company for a moment. A tester in QA has submitted an idea on paper. And the president of a game development company has submitted a working demo of his game idea. It's up to you to decide which one is worth a commitment of hundreds of thousands of dollars - or even millions of dollars - in order to fully develop the concept into a game. You're risking a lot of the company's money, not to mention your credibility and your job. It's a no-brainer; you'd go with the experienced developer, the guy who can do much more than just write his ideas on paper. But there's a lot more to it than that. Word count limitations prohibit my going into much more detail here. There's lots more about pitching game ideas on my website and in the IGDA's own Game Submission Guide.
You have ideas. I have ideas. We all have ideas for games. There just isn't enough time and money to make them all. It's fine to share your ideas with your coworkers, but I recommend that you keep working on more concepts. Write them down and put them away. Dust them off again after a few months and see which ones still blow you away. You can take your concepts and turn them into a sort of design portfolio. Work hard and wait for that golden opportunity. Bring out your portfolio and show your stuff when the time is ripe.
© 2003 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
Idea Guy
September, 2008

Dear Tom,
I'm not in the game industry and I can't program, but I've written a full GDD for my spectacular game idea. My plan is to find some talented individuals and offer them a piece of the royalties when my game sells, in exchange for their participation in making the game a reality.
1. Where should I do my recruiting? I was thinking local universities.
2. What legal steps should I take? I was thinking LLC, copyright registration, NDAs. Maybe some sort of royalty promissory note?
3. How much of a piece of the pie should I offer? I was thinking 60% for myself since it's my idea, and split up the rest between the team members.
4. How do I make sure the team members actually do what they're supposed to do?
I have lots more questions, but these are the biggest unknowns in my plan at the moment.
Lightbulb Above Head

Hello Lightbulb,
First I'll tell you why this is a bad plan, then I'll offer my suggestions for how you should proceed instead.
I. Why your plan is bad.
You're working off some huge misconceptions. You think that a game idea has intrinsic value. You think a game idea is enough of a basis to start a money-making venture. You think that getting people to work for nothing up front is a good substitute for a solid business plan. You think that inexperienced people will be willing and able to work hard and effectively to bring your idea to fruition. You think that these people will all agree that your idea is as spectacular as you do.
The thinking at the base of your plan is all wrong. It's a foundation of quicksand. Besides, you don't have a plan for how to make money with the finished game.
II. A better way to go.
Since you're a brilliant game designer, you should go for a career in game design. See the difference? This isn't about one game idea - it's about a career designing games.
A. Form an indie team, not with the expectation of everybody making a profit, but with the goal of building careers.
B. Sure, present your game idea to the team. But understand that they may reject it and reach consensus on a different game idea, one that they can all be passionate about. You can write the GDD for that idea.
C. If they do like your game idea and decide to work on it, never act as if it's your project. It's got to be a team effort or it's doomed to fail.
D. Execute a collaboration agreement. Establish ownership rights before starting work. See the indie game developers startup kit at
E. Make yourself useful in the work effort. You can't be just the idea guy. You need to be a productive collaborative member of the team.
F. Once the game is done, enter it in indie competitions, design more games, make more games. Realize that your team may break up or reorganize along the way.
G. After you have two or three projects under your belt, get a job in games. Maybe start a company someday.
Next month's column I talk to a guy asked by someone like you to work on his pet game idea for future potential royalties. You'll get to see it from the other side, and why I advise him not to go along with your unworkable scheme.
© 2008 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
Don't Buy Into Big Ideas
October, 2008

Hey Tom,
This guy wants me to work for him on his game idea but he can't pay me now. He says he'll pay me later when the game makes money. I'm acing my classes and I've got an easy class schedule anyway, so I think I can manage the time to work on his game. I'm kind of tempted to do it because it'll be good practice, but he says I can't put his game in my portfolio. I could use the money when the game ships, and that's where my question is. How much of the proceeds should I ask for? I was thinking 60% since I'll be doing all the programming and level design, and there'll be an artist on the project too. And I'm thinking the copyright in the code should belong to me. What do you think?
Head in clouds

Hi Head,
I think you're headin' for trouble with this guy.
First off, the two of you (leaving the artist out of this for the moment) have vastly different expectations regarding the money issue. You're thinking you're doing 60% of the work so should get 60% of the profits. He's surely thinking the idea's 100% his and he deserves the lion's share, but out of the generosity of his heart, he'll give you a small piece of the pie.
Secondly, you're both totally deluding yourselves about the game's money-making potential. Think about it. He doesn't have enough money to pay you to develop his brilliant game. After you finish the game, what makes you think he's going to be able to get the thing published? It's called "marketing," and it costs money. Remember, he doesn't have any.
Thirdly, how big is the design? These guys are always designing MMOs. At some point, he'll probably realize it's too much to chew, and he'll change the plan. "Let's just do a demo instead," he'll say. "We'll use that to get funding." That means a lot more time until you see a payday, and a much smaller piece of the pie. Speaking of which, don't forget that the game will also need sound and music. Everybody always overlooks audio.
What about the ownership and rights issue? You want copyright in the code, he wants copyright in the game, he doesn't even want you using the game in your portfolio, let's call the whole thing off.
Guys like him are a dime a dozen. Got a great idea, but no money and no talent for making games, so they have to wheedle somebody else into doing the work for them. My recommendation is that you just say no. Concentrate on your degree, then work on your portfolio. Do build indie games, but not in hopes of selling them. Rather, because you love games and it's good practice so you can get a job. After holding a game job for a few years, then you'll know enough to play the startup game.
The bottom line is that what this guy is offering you is not a good opportunity. I know, he's a smooth talker. He paints a beautiful picture of a wonderful future. But don't buy what he's selling. It's going to end badly, especially for you. Even if the project succeeds in making a game, it'll never make any money. Tell the guy to read last month's column - I wrote it just for guys like him.
© 2008 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
The Indie Imbroglio
October 2009

Dear Tom,
I've noticed what appears to be an anti-indie bias in your columns. Care to explain?
Indie in Indiana

Dear Indie,
I have nothing against indies! But I wonder which meaning of "indie" you're thinking about:
1. A group endeavoring to build a commercial product, with hopes of becoming the next Id (a developer who creates their own brainchildren and gets them distributed by a major publisher).
2. A group of amateurs, each one with their own expectations for the project (some wanting to make money from it after it sells, others hoping to make a portfolio piece, others just enjoying an interesting craft).
3. A group of students working on the brilliant and innovative game that could win the next IGF and get picked up by Microsoft for Xbox Live, so the members can all get jobs in the industry.
4. A group of young cheap talented guys, all working on the brainchild of the group's organizer, who's promised them all a piece of the royalties when the game becomes a hit (and said organizer doesn't even have a realistic publishing plan).
5. A group of young professionals, all with day jobs, who enjoy making games as a hobby, all working together to make a little extra money maybe, or at least have a "guys' night out" once in a while.
6. A bunch of like-minded high school kids who form a "company" and then have to go on the Internet to find out things like how to learn a language, which language they should learn, how to incorporate graphics and sound...
There are other types of indies beyond those. But those will do for now.

1. In the case of group type 1, I hope that the individuals have game industry experience, or at least some form of exposure to the process. And I also hope that they have a business person in charge, and some funding. If they do not have those things, then I feel sorry for them.
2. Group type 2 is doomed to break up, probably sooner rather than later.
3. I love group type 3 to pieces! But I hope they can keep roofs over their heads and food on their plates for the duration.
4. I detest the organizer of group type 4. He's a leech.
5. I like group type 5. I wish them well.
6. Type 6 is sweetly na´ve to think that what they're forming is a "company."

Most of the problems people run into with indie development are:
a. Expecting others to buy into your brilliant idea, and/or trying to start an indie project based on just your own brilliant idea. Someone who goes into it with this expectation is likely to be disappointed.
b. Not having agreement with the other team members on the end purpose for making the game. I think I covered this sufficiently above.
c. Not in agreement with the other team members on ownership. Ownership of the finished game, ownership of the assets of the unfinished game should the team break up before finishing it. How to apportion proceeds or even credit for participation in the project.
d. Without any inkling of what to do to make money from the game, if and when it is finished. The money-making portion of the plan has to be part of the startup plan. Making money from the finished product requires an entirely different mindset, an entirely different set of skills, an entirely different process, from the easy part (the making of the game).

So it's not that I am anti-indie. I just wish folks would know what they were getting themselves into, and would go about it with a smart and realistic plan.
© 2009 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
Got Design, Now What?
August 2010

I've been working a simple role playing game for some time. I think it is
nearing completion. Once the design is complete do you have any advice as to
how to go about producing the game? I'll need to hire a programmer and
contract out for art development. I'm now considering using the Unity engine.
How would I go about estimating a budget, determining the level of experience
I should be looking for as well as if I should expect to find someone

Hello Maurice,
First thing you have to do before spending any money is to make a business plan. Normally we think of business plans as a document used to obtain funding. That's not necessarily what I'm proposing in your case--especially if you're going to self-fund. I suggest, though, that if you organize your thinking, in a business plan, you'll accomplish a lot of important things.
In your business plan, make sure you specify the business reason. That is to say, your overall goal in making the game. You didn't say, so I have to make guesses. Are you making the game in order to sell copies and make a profit? Or are you making the game just because it's an idea you have to see through, and if so, what will you do with it after you've made it? Or are you doing this as a portfolio piece to leverage a job in the industry? One of Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is "begin with the end in mind." By knowing your overall goal, you can prioritize your action plan.
If your overall goal is to make a profit, how are you going to do that with just one game? One game idea is not a business plan. So if you have just one game idea, where are you going to get more ideas?
What's the platform? I assume your game will be a PC game or will work in a browser, since the mainstream consoles are not particularly open to amateurs or novices. You need to research your target platform and the currently favored business models. In other words, as I said to Travis in my June 2010 column, "Read, read, read." His question was a little similar to yours, so I recommend you read it, and the September 2008 column. The March 2003 column is starting to sound a little outdated in the current climate, but you could check that out too. Click "Archives" above to access those.
Lastly, to answer the two questions you actually asked: how to budget and where to look for people. First, determine what you can afford. Determine your budget and timeline. You can look at the latest Salary Survey figures at for the current amounts people in the industry get paid. That's not what you're going to pay, though, unless you hire people full-time. Contractors cost more (because they have to pay for their own insurance, for one thing), and people in other countries cost less. According to a Beriah study, you can save up to 80% if you hire Asian developers, 23% if you hire Europeans. But those savings can be seriously eaten into by other costs: learning curves, change requests, communication difficulties. I wrote about how to create budgets in FAQ 62 on my website. And I suggest that you network a lot, starting with your local IGDA chapter. If there isn't one, start one. If there is one but it's not active, become an activist and get it rebooted. And let the development people decide what engine to use.
© 2010 Tom Sloper

The Games Game
A Handful of Big Ideas
July, 2013

Submitted by user: Daniel.K
Like so many people here, I dream of being a game designer. Unfortunately I have no experience with computer game design, and no coding or other relevant skills. I do, however, have a handful Big Ideas for games. As far as I can tell, these Big Ideas haven't been tried yet, and to my eyes they seem quite promising.
How ought I go about finding out whether my Big Ideas have merit? Part of me wants to just post them online, email them to people in the industry, etc. but then another part of me is worried that if they turn out to be good ideas after all I'll have given them away without opportunity to profit from them.
--Tire Dovesittingonem

Hi, Daniel.
I'm sorry to have to burst a bubble, but game ideas are not unusual or valuable. I'm sure your ideas are good, but when you consider that it would cost anywhere between $50,000 and $50,000,000 (fifty thousand and fifty million US dollars) to make each one of them, you start to see the problem. Anybody who steals just one of your ideas to build it is costing himself a ton of money, and needs to have a vast infrastructure in place in order to turn that game into a profit.
Everybody in the game industry has as many ideas as you do, and their ideas are just as good as yours. So it's unusual in the industry to accept, much less compensate, outside ideas. Most game companies don't accept outside submissions.
The game industry doesn't even need people with game ideas. The big money is in franchise games, not new ideas. What the industry needs is people who can make games, and make games very well.
The job of the game designer isn't to come up with game ideas; it's to work out the details of a game that's been decided upon by game executives. Game executives are the real decision makers; so if you want to carry through your game ideas, your best bet is to become a game executive and start or acquire your own game company.
If you want feedback on your game ideas, I can suggest a couple of ways you can go about it.
Daniel Cook has written an article you should read, "Why You Should Share Your Game Designs," at After you read that article, if you want to post some concepts, you can do that at's Game Design forum, or other online indie game development forums.
Another way is to prepare your designs into an industry standard format and hire a consultant to write an analysis for you. When people approach me to do this, I always ask what the business idea is. If the idea is "I'm going to submit this to Square Enix and hope they buy it from me," I refuse the job, because I don't like to take money from fools (by which I mean people who are deluding/fooling themselves with pipe dreams). So if you want to pay a consultant to analyze your designs, you need to have a non-foolish business idea.
You should read some of the articles on my website, Read FAQs 1, 11, 21, 31, 35, and 43.
To sum up: if you want to become a game designer and build your own game ideas, you should get experience in the game industry, become an executive, and start your own company.
© 2013 Tom Sloper

The Idea Man writeth

>From: Rogan R
>Sent: Monday, June 16, 2014 2:04 PM
>Subject: A not-so-typical email
>Hello sir. Today I discovered your website after searching for resources that I could use to help me. I've gone through parts relevant to me, and realized that I fall into the category of people you are not very fond of. However, I do believe that I am quite different than the rest.
>First of, I'm not looking for some "get rich quick" scheme. I'm not interested in selling my intellectual rights. Many people I've explained my idea to have told me it's the ultimate idea, but I know that only a specific kind of gamer will believe it to be so. I am looking for help developing it, not selling the rights. I'm willing to work my ass off to achieve it, but my skills alone (which admittedly isn't very much) won't be able to achieve it, but I need to be with the creative team that builds it from the ground up, because this is my mind-child that I want to be raised properly.
>My only question in this particular email is whether or not this is a realistic goal for someone with absolutely no industry experience.
>Sincerely, Rogan R

Hi, Rogan. You wrote:

Subject: A not-so-typical email
It may not be typical for you, but I get emails like this all the time.

I do believe that I am quite different than the rest.
Everybody says that.

I know that only a specific kind of gamer will believe it to be so.
We call that a "niche game," or a game for a "niche audience." Since you're going to go into business with this knowledge that you're targeting a niche audience, you'll need to do some research and make some supportable estimates for how many copies of your game you can sell (or how much money your game can make through whatever monetization method you're planning).

I need to be with the creative team that builds it from the ground up, because this is my mind-child that I want to be raised properly.
Do I understand you to be saying that your role would be Lead Designer? It's unlikely you can get people to follow you into the gator-infested swamp if you have absolutely no experience with live alligators, or swamp navigation. Or maybe you're just saying you want "creative control" - the right to nix decisions made by a professional designer. If so, you'll likely go through a lot of designers, so I hope you have a lot of money.

whether or not this is a realistic goal for someone with absolutely no industry experience.
It's not.
How old are you?
What's your level of education?
What's your current occupation?
How much money do you have?
What country do you live in?
What's your plan for making money from the game once it has been made, and do you have a business plan that shows how much it'll cost to make that game - can you break even and start showing a profit in five years or less? Once your game has been released, what then - is your business going to make other games? Because one game is not a business.
I don't need answers to the above questions - I just ask them so you can honestly evaluate your idea on your own.
Good luck!
Tom Sloper
Creator of
the game advice FAQs -- donations appreciated.

Los Angeles, California, USA
June 16, 2014

Where do I get a Game Time watch? How do I get my idea made into a working game?

>From: Ethan A
>Sent: Thursday, July 16, 2015 12:48 PM
>Subject: The Game Time Watch
>Dear Mr. Sloper,
> I am a young vintage videogame fanatic (Which may sound weird, but believe me I love them) and I don't care for the new Smart Watches. I have always admired the Game Time Watch. However, I can not seem to find any on the market and I was wondering if you game tell me where my best chance to find one at a reasonable price would be. Also, I have read the entirety of your "Game Design 101" and I loved it. So, I have a gaming idea of my own, but I do not have the skill or the funds to make it happen and I have been rejected contact with the developers of Electronic Arts, Konami, Microsoft, and PlayStation. I do not want to reveal my idea to them because in their automated response emails they say that if you tell them your idea then they are not responsible if their company makes a similar game. I just fear it being stolen and I would have put the idea in this email, but on your website it states that you own this email and you will post it on a public bulletin board. So, how do I make this happen, who do I talk to, how to I reach them or the companies I have tried to contact already, and I would appreciate if you added any other elements of game developing that I am missing. Thank you for your time.
>Ethan A

Hi, Ethan. Nice to hear from you. You wrote:

I was wondering if you [can] tell me where my best chance to find [a Game Time watch for sale?]
You could try eBay. Or maybe Packrat Video Games (Google it). Good luck!

I have a gaming idea of my own, but I do not have the skill or the funds to make it happen
But what is it you want to do with your idea? I mean, after your game has been made, then what? What is your business idea? How do you plan for the game to be disseminated to the game playing public, and how do you figure the game will make back its cost of development?
Have you written a business plan? You say you've read the entirety of my "Game Design 101," so you should have read FAQs 1, 11, 21, 29, and 60 already. Or are you only talking about FAQ 1? Maybe you should re-read FAQ 1, and read FAQ 60.
If you have no skills useful in the making of a game, the only way to get a game made is to pay people to make it for you. End of story. If at the end of that story you have no way to get the funds (either by friends, family, fools, or crowdfunding), then what some people do is try to convince skilled people to make the game in anticipation of getting paid back when the game earns money, but in order to convince people to do that, you'd have to show them a solid business plan, and you'd have to look like someone with some industry chops or at least some useful game dev skills.

I have been rejected contact with the developers of Electronic Arts, Konami, Microsoft, and PlayStation. I do not want to reveal my idea to them because in their automated response emails they say that if you tell them your idea then they are not responsible if their company makes a similar game.
Yes. I said that much, did I not, in FAQs 11 and 21? I stand by what I wrote in FAQ 1 - you sound to me like you are fairly young (and in fact, you started your email by saying you are young), and if you want to make video games, why don't you go for a career making video games? Read more of my FAQs.

Tom Sloper
Creator of
the game advice FAQs -- donations appreciated.

Los Angeles, California, USA
June 16, 2015

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