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So... You Want to Make Video Games? Part 3: Plan

Failure to plan, when making games, is planning to fail
So... You Want to Make Video Games? Part 3: Plan
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So far, in our exclusive serialisation of Nick Pendriis's game design bible, So... You Want to Make Video Games?, we've discussed how to develop your ideas into workable concepts, and those concepts into designs.

Here in part three, Pendriis takes us into the essential planning stage, where you figure out how to begin building on your design foundations.

If you've not checked out the previous phases yet, here's an overview of what you've missed, and what's to come.

  1. CONCEPT: Find a strong idea.
  2. DESIGN: Make test versions and create a blueprint.
  3. PLAN: Organise the project carefully.
  4. BUILD: Create the computer code.
  5. ASSETS: Create visuals, audio and words.
  6. TEST, FIX & PUBLISH: Look for problems, resolve them, release the game to the public.
  7. PROMOTE and SUPPORT: Announce the game and respond to feedback.

Here's Nick Pendriis to introduce us to phase three.

So far, we’ve got an idea and a clear design, which we’ve tested out and documented. Now we're ready to plan the actual development of our game, based on its particular requirements.

Every project is unique and needs to be planned individually, with military precision. Making software is a complex process and lots of things could go wrong – very easily! By planning carefully at this stage, we avoid a lot of problems later on.

Fail to plan = plan to fail.

Essentially we need to come up with a list of ingredients and a to-do list. As we’ve seen, game companies usually have a project manager or producer for keeping the team on track. They organise and maintain schedules, knowing that every minute of each team member’s time costs money.

The team behind Assassin’s Creed II was around 450 people. Grand Theft Auto V involved over 1,000 people. For projects of this scale, good planning is everything.

Thankfully, for your first game, things will be much, much easier. However, you still need to plan.

So let’s do that.

#1: Plan outline

  • Make a list of game elements to create.
  • Calculate time and money required.
  • Put deadlines on calendar.
  • Program the game.
  • Create assets.
  • Test the game.
  • Publish.
  • Promote.
  • Next steps.

Contingency plans

Always prepare for the worst. No project goes exactly according to plan, so the best plans actually allow for this. Unexpected problems will definitely arise, you can be sure of that, and you should add extra time and money to your plan, so when they happen, you’re able to deal with them effectively.

Always have a “plan B”!

Think your game will take a month to program? Allow four to six months. Something will go wrong - like a sneaky bug that takes weeks to track and squash, or a hard drive malfunction, or you may get sick - and if you don’t factor in these emergencies, your plan will fall to bits.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray!”

- Translated from Robert Burns, circa 1785.

Always remember, it is far better to finish ahead of schedule than behind. Likewise, it’s better to budget for more money than necessary, rather than running out before the project is finished.

Back up

One habit you will need to form: back your work up compulsively! You do NOT want to see years of your life disappearing with a single, gut-wrenching hard drive malfunction. Memory sticks are easily affordable and it’s always wise to have an offline backup. Cloud storage is both free and secure and definitely worth using but you should keep your own local backup too.

Dropbox is a fine example of a cloud service and has native apps for most platforms. It feels good to know that if anything goes horribly wrong, there’s still a safe copy on the Dropbox server.

Equally, keep hitting the “SAVE” button. Often! Software crashes all the time and when it happens, you don’t want hours of work getting lost in the process. Train yourself to save regularly – over time this will be stored in your muscle memory and one day you’ll be glad!

#2: The business of games

It’s really important to remember – there’s a big difference between making games for fun and making them for profit. If you want a career in the games industry, don’t have any illusions. It’s a tough business and it will be hard work. Of course, there are plenty of rewards too.

If you are making games professionally, this is the point where you take your idea and your plan to the business people.

There are two important things to bear in mind here.

  1. In most cases, it costs money to make games of a professional quality. A lot of money.
  2. If a game costs money to make, it needs to make money when it’s finished. Serious money.

Unless you have considerable savings in the bank, you’ll probably need investors to put money into the project and they don’t give money away for nothing. Your plan needs to convince them that your game will succeed!

What is your strategy for making money? Selling the game for a fixed price? Going down the “freemium” route, where the game is free but players can buy in-game items or advantages? Or perhaps you’ll make it free with advertising?

You should consider your monetisation strategy very seriously. It’s not unusual to re-write plans many times. If you’re making games for business, your plan needs to be business-like.

Ian Livingstone CBE, Co-founder, Games Workshop
Ian Livingstone CBE, Co-founder, Games Workshop

These are Ian's top ten tips for planning a new game:

  1. Do not be afraid of failure. Learning from failure should be seen as positive and helpful. Failure is success as a work-in-progress.
  2. Retain ownership of your Intellectual Property. Try to avoid trading it away for project finance.
  3. Do what you are good at. Partner with somebody to do the stuff you don’t want to do.
  4. Make yourself investor-ready before asking for investor money.
  5. It's all about discovery. There are currently 2 million apps trying to reach 2 billion smartphone users. What's your user acquisition, retention and monetisation strategy?
  6. Ideas are cheap. Just get on with making a game and get it out there. If it fails, forget it and make another.
  7. Be yourself and follow your heart. Try not to be a ‘me-too’ in games design.
  8. Build community.
  9. Data is all important.
  10. Enjoy what you do or do something else.

Ian co-created the popular Fighting Fantasy interactive game books, co-founded Games Workshop and steered Eidos until it was bought by Square Enix. He has received a BAFTA award and a CBE for his contributions to gaming.

#3: The big league

Video games can outsell even the biggest Hollywood movies. The obvious illustration for this is Grand Theft Auto V, which broke seven Guinness World Records and is the benchmark for all future blockbuster games. It sold around 11.2 million copies on the day it was released and made over a billion dollars in three days, beating juggernaut movies like Avatar and The Avengers. GTA developers Rockstar have certainly earned their name!

The popular PlayStation game Uncharted 3 cost 25 million dollars (£15 million) to develop, while GTA V took a massive 255 million dollars (£170 million) (source: The Huffington Post).

Smartphone apps aren’t cheap either. The original Angry Birds, the fifty-second game from the developers, cost an estimated 135,000 dollars (£80,000), not including updates, spin-offs, or sequels.

Studio costs

How can video games possibly cost that much to make? Well first and foremost, a developer needs a studio, which is either bought or rented. The actual workspace itself is an obvious requirement and it needs to be big enough. That’s going to take a big chunk of cash. You can’t work in an empty space, so there has to be furniture. It also needs kitting out with hardware and software for everyone that will work there. It needs services too, like electricity, Internet, water and security. These aren’t one-off payments, they’re regular.

This is already getting expensive and so far, we haven’t looked at hiring staff. Imagine a studio with a hundred or more people working in it. That’s a hundred plus wages on top of the studio costs. By law, you have to pay insurance. Maybe there’s staff medical. The costs quickly mount up and when the game ships, there will be publishing, distribution and marketing to pay for.

Obviously your first few games won’t require a budget of millions but you should understand the basic principles. Making games professionally means making money, pure and simple. Gaming is a highly competitive global industry, churning through billions of dollars every year. If you’re not ready to enter such a cut-throat market, stick to making games as a hobby. It’s a lot more fun and much less stressful!


So the business of games is extremely serious and a game development studio has many running costs. Someone needs to pay them until the game is ready to sell and at that point, someone has to pay to market it. So investors are required to put money into the project. Naturally, they aren’t doing it for free. They are expecting to make a profit.

Of course, the more money they spend, the more sales are required. As a rough guide, a console game that cost 100 million dollars (£60 million) to develop, needs to sell 10 million units in the shops. At least.

At this level of game making, the stakes are high, literally. The investors are taking a calculated risk, gambling their own money on the strength of the game design, the IP and the business plan. These need to be incredibly strong, before investors will put thousands or millions of pounds (dollars, yen or euros) into the project. They need to be super-confident that they will make a big profit.

Is your game idea truly a winner, worth mega-bucks?

#4: Unique Selling Point

As discussed at the beginning of this book, there are a lot of games out there. Too many for any one human to play in an average lifetime. A lot of them are very similar to each other and there are new projects being started every minute. What investors are looking for is a “differentiator” - something different or special about a game, developer or brand.

In business terms, this is often referred to as a “USP”. Why will people choose to buy this particular game? What’s fresh about it? Without that hook, investors are likely to pass on the opportunity.

Independents day

However, there are rays of hope. Once in a while, a lone hobbyist makes something exciting that catches players’ imaginations and takes off. An excellent example is mobile chart-topper Flappy Bird, proving that a solo programmer can still create a hit game.

Just remember that it’s incredibly rare and Flappy Bird, despite its brief popularity, still didn’t make the developer enough money to retire on – although he can certainly relax while he works on his next project.

Of course, the prime example of indie success is Minecraft.

It’s so popular that I shouldn’t need to quote any figures but if you didn’t know already, Minecraft has sold over 35 million copies. At the end of the day, an inventive idea that players love can succeed.

Building games for fun doesn’t require money, just time and enthusiasm. If you’re planning to make games for a living though, money is very much required. Either you’ll be working for a studio and they’ll have the financial commitments, or you’ll be an independent and it’s up to you to find the backing. You need to live somewhere and eat, while you’re working away on your hit game.

Be realistic. No developer makes one game and then retires on the profit… but some people have used their success wisely and gone on to do bigger things. Honestly, most of us make games for the same reason that people play them, just because we love doing it. Money isn’t a goal, it’s just a way of making more ambitious games!

However, for those situations where money really is needed, there are some funding options available to indies and small studios.


Once you’ve learned a bit about making games and have a few projects under your belt, you’ll have some skills, maybe a small team and probably some online contacts. If you feel ready to do some serious development, there is a source of investment open to anyone. It’s called “crowdfunding”.

At Kickstarter and other similar sites, the public invest in, or sponsor, worthwhile projects and they often receive special rewards for doing so. This has worked for a lot of exciting projects, where fans generate enough money to fund ambitious projects, sometimes raising millions of dollars.

Virtual reality headset Oculus started life on Kickstarter. It gathered more than nine thousand backers who pledged over 2 million dollars (£1.2 million) between them – obliterating the $250,000 (£153,000) goal.

Recently Facebook paid 2 billion dollars (£1.2 billion) for the company.

In essence, your game stands just as much chance as anybody else’s project. However, there are lots of people asking for funding, so your campaign needs to be powerful to stand out. The public, like any other investors, will need really strong reasons to contribute their money.

You owe it to your game to invest serious amounts of time and energy into creating the right Kickstarter campaign and motivating every contact you have to share the news. For every success story, there are way more failures.

The biggest successes on Kickstarter already have a well-known project or existing support, or offer something fresh and exciting, like an affordable VR headset. Many Kickstarters have large online communities behind them. To stand a chance of competing against them, you’ll need to bring your A-game and appeal to the crowd.

“Most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

- Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple.

Be modest too. Don’t ask for millions when you’re still fresh out of the gate. Keep things lean, aim to fund a small beta version of the game. Be completely transparent and honest with your campaign and involve sponsors early in the process. Model your strategy on other successful campaigns but don’t copy them or lose your identity.

Finally, don’t expect to succeed but remember that it can be done. Just be grateful if you do get funding and make something amazing!

#5: Branding and product placement

Tim Wright, video game musician: "Minimise your risk. Google the people you are about to do business with; read about them on developer forums, check them out on websites that reveal their trading history and investigate their current assets - all this information is available free on the Internet. If you're happy that, generally speaking, they are liked and trusted, that's a good first step.

"Next, ask for money up-front. If they truly like your project they'll give you a deposit. Over the entire project, try to get double or even triple what you think you'll spend but stick to your original budget as much as possible. If you're very lucky that might just cover your development, taking into account mishaps, failures and do-it-overs. It's all about cash flow. Having enough money at the end of one project to kick start the next is your aim.

"Finally, don't be tempted to leave too much money in the company. Have you just made enough money to buy a house? Then buy a house. You'll have somewhere to live. Letting that money slowly dwindle away on your ‘amazing new idea that needs 20 people to create’ won't give you a warm place to sleep at night."

Tim has created music for Lemmings, Wipeout and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, as well as turning the PlayStation into a music studio.

Branding and product placement

No brand will pay you for including their product in your game. Unless you work for a juggernaut like Sega or Rockstar.

A lot of people have this idea but it just isn’t a viable source of financial backing, certainly when you’re still making a name for yourself. Big brands make their own games to promote their products, often calling on the talents of seasoned developers for hire.

On the other hand, this means there is plenty of well-paid work out there for teams that can develop games for brands. It’s an excellent way to gain experience and have your work played by large audiences. Teams can hone their skills this way, while earning funds to put into their own games later.

Sponsorship and competitions

Sometimes there are events and competitions for aspiring game makers. These not only offer a chance of winning funding or equipment, they also provide a platform for getting your work noticed and gathering valuable feedback. There are various competitions appearing every year, so keep hitting the search engines to find them.

There are a few regular competitions, including those below.


With so much at stake, something that’s vitally important to all game developers is secrecy and keeping project information private. It takes months, often years, to make a video game and talking about the project is a complete fail. The PR department is there to talk about it at the right time. Everyone else has signed a non-disclosure agreement or “NDA”.

The consequences of breaking this contract are not good and at the very least, you’d lose your job and damage your career chances. The worst case scenario will see you in court and that’s not pretty.

Of course, if you’re excited about the project you’re working on, you want to tell everyone but learn to shut up and always check with a boss or advisor before saying anything. That’s a necessary job skill for anyone in the games industry. Master it quickly!

#6: Privacy and security

It is crucial to be data-safe. Personally. If you’re not protecting your own information, how can you protect anything else? Lock down your devices and social network settings. Password protect everything. Keep your Bluetooth off when you don’t need it. Be mildly paranoid about using public Wi-Fi and shared networks. Turn off any location settings, unless you deliberately wish to broadcast your whereabouts.

This should all be standard practice anyway but you can always be more secure. Additionally, keep your devices virus, spyware and spamware free. If you have confidential information on your phone or computer (such as e-mails, to-do lists, schedules or contact information) and it gets leaked, you are technically responsible – unless you can demonstrate how careful you’re being.

Personal protection = project protection.

So, with a sturdy plan and any necessary financial backing in place – and everything tightly sealed - we’re ready to start construction.

The next section, Building, explains how.