7 Tips For Bootstrapping Your Social Gaming Startup

If you have or are planning to get into social game development on a tiny budget, you need to get financially creative and learn to bootstrap. The practice of bootstrapping a startup is essentially an act of balancing costs against revenues, and it applies as much to a game development studio as any other business. Do it right, and your business will likely survive long enough for your games to have a chance of success — something that’s a necessity given how many small studios and bedroom entrepreneurs are jumping into the social game development space. Here are a few tips on bootstrapping as relevant to game development.

While the costs of developing online social games is far less than for more traditional computer games, there are still costs. If your budget is small, your time to market might be longer than you’d like, which can make the difference between success and failure. Bootstrapping can make the difference to survival.

Bootstrapping has a simple principle: spend as little as possible and differentiate between needs and wants. Then reinvest most or all earnings back into the business, at least until it is financially self-sufficient. This often means minimizing or deferring salaries and keeping all development and operating costs down. Spend on only the absolute necessities, and hold off until absolutely necesssary. In other words, an extra 30″ monitor might be nice for viewing game graphics, but do you really need it right now? If you need an extra monitor, can you make do with something smaller? Do you really need that fancy chair and powerful sound system? Can you rent/ lease equipment instead of buying, as a business write-off? Get into this frame of mind, of asking “do I need it now?” if you want to bootstrap effectively.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to bootstrap and finance a startup, which we won’t go into here, but there are also design and development practices that can help a startup out of the bootstrapping stage sooner, and on the way to social gaming success. While some of the following tips apply to a game studio at any financial stage, all contribute either directly or indirectly towards monetizing your game at the lowest operating costs.

  1. Put thought into your design. These days, it’s far too easy to slap together a game and publish it online, hoping the money will come. The old saying “If you build it, they will come” is not necessarily applicable to game publishing. For example, there are over 500K games on Facebook. A few industry experts at GDC 2010 suggested that most of these games are published by inexperienced developers, and that just a little bit more thought in design can help you stand out. By standing out, you improve the chances of gaining a larger player base and thus increase monetization opportunties. This doesn’t mean you need a slick interface and an excessive number of game levels, just that refining your game experience beyond that of similar games will likely be worth the effort. Start somewhere acceptable, then improve your game over time. Online games have an advantage this way over boxed computer games.
  2. Study game player psychology. As the legendary computer gaming veteran Sid Meier said at GDC 2010, you as a developer have to admit that game play is a psychological experience. Study this aspect of game design, and you’ll have an edge on the games that don’t take player psychology into consideration. Evoke player emotions to make for a more engaging and addictive game experience, to draw players back again. Repeat players tend to become more loyally, which increases the chances of clickthrough on ads and conversion to micropayments for virtual goods and services.
  3. Leverage social media.
    • Your social game shouldn’t just run on a social network, it should leverage the network to attract new users. Add social features to your game, which allow users to brag about their accomplishments, invite friends, gift them, etc.
    • Use Twitter to generate interest.
    • Use Facebook to build a fanbase, then leverage your following, crowdsource for feedback and ideas.
    • Be active on whatever social networks you think are appropriate, and interact with fans and followers. Post relevant information and ask them to reshare that info with their networks.
  4. Crowdsource game beta testing. You need real players to try your game, not just your developers. If you have to pay, Flash Game License apparently leases testers out at about $1/user. However, you can crowdsource for testers on your own, if you’ve built a Facebook fanbase and/or Twitter following. Broadcast a message request game testers, and play on the “exclusive opportunity” angle by limiting the number of tester slots. Motivate people to become testers by offering extra points or virtual goods discounts.
  5. Show’em how. Showing video trailers of your game can drum up interest, especially if your studio only has one game. No one knows your brand yet. Use your website and/or Facebook Fan Page to give players tips and tricks, in video and text format. This builds loyalty and, you guessed yet, increases monetization opportunities.
  6. Monetize. Use in-game advertising and offer virtual goods and services to earn revenues. You can also use Flash Game License for brand sponsorship opportunities, but at roughly US$5K earnings per sponsorship — according to one GDC 2010 speaker — for a Flash game with 2-3 months development effort, this may not be a viable financial option. Cloning your own game and releasing on multiple Flash game portals under different titles and with slightly different features is a monetization strategy that might work. The key is to use in-game ads and offers, at the least. Use of virtual currency comes when game players feel engaged and addicted.
  7. Monitor metrics. Slapping on monetization features and driving traffic isn’t enough. Build in the ability for your team to track your game’s social metrics (and non-social), and then study and analyze.
    • Track your DAU, WAU and MAU (Daily, Weekly and Monthly Active Users). If these are significant, CPM (Cost per Mille) ads on, say, your Facebook app’s main page can generate revenue.
    • Study session durations, and track over time. Are users starting to spend more time per session? Can you reward them for their loyalty?
    • Determine where players are stopping play. Maybe there are bugs or other problems with your game. Taking action to improve the game experience goes a long way towards monetization.
    • Most importantly, track server usage, especially peak usage, because if your game goes popular, you might just have to scale up resources.

Are you a social game developer? If you have any other tips for bootstrapping a new game development studio, feel free to share in the comments.

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