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Getting the most out of a games incubator

The early stages of running a new business is difficult, and this is no less true for game developers. Fortunately, there are programs and initiatives out there that can help give you and your new studio a leg up when it comes to overcoming the initial hurdles.

Incubators are one such initiative. As opposed to accelerators, which are focused on quickly growing established businesses with a minimum viable product, incubators tend to offer support over a longer period – often several months – as well as mentorship. Some even offer a co-working space, while others cater to remote studios, such as the upcoming Tentacle Zone incubator.

Regardless of the benefits an incubator offers, simply being part of the program does not guarantee success for your studio. Instead, it’s about maximising the opportunities these programs offer you, and in this article, we’ll explore the best ways to get the most out of an incubator with some of the alumni from previous Tentacle Zone cohorts.

This guide will cover

The benefits of being in an incubator
What to consider before applying
What to expect from an incubator
How to get the most out of an incubator
What to do after the program ends

The benefits of being in an incubator

The whole purpose of taking part in an incubator is to learn the basics of building and running a business.

Seyed Nasrollahi, founder of Unifiq Games, says they can be especially beneficial for “new and smaller studios with little or no experience in the games industry.”

He adds: “Having mentors who I made long-term relationships with and continued supporting me even after the incubator [was also a benefit]. And a demo day where I had the opportunity to pitch my project to publishers and broaden my network.”

Elena Höge is founder of Yaldi Games and was part of Tentacle Zone’s 2021 cohort, as well as at least three other incubators. She says incubators can be a great place for developers to meet others in similar situations as theirs and to grow their network, and discusses the other support such programs can offer.

“Peer-to-peer coaching/challenge discussions are formidable tools to solve problems or gain new perspectives,” she says. “The Royal Bank of Scotland accelerator had those sessions twice per month. Working on our own studio-specific decks, market data, and the big ‘why’ was one of the most amazing parts from the Indielabs Accelerator. It enabled me to build an investor pitch deck during the accelerator, AND practice pitching it to an experienced round of investors – something I never managed to do on my own.”

Echoing Nasrollahi, she adds that mentors can become long-term connections you can turn to throughout your career.

“Mentoring is not only amazing for learning but they can also turn into great friends,” she says. “I remember connecting to Peter van der Watt through the London Games Accelerator, and we still chat often, even two years later.”

Salman Shurie, founder of Gesinimo Games and also part of the 2021 Tentacle Zone cohort, says forging connections was a key reason why he signed up to an incubator, adding that taking part has “helped create opportunities for me that I didn’t know existed for the work I did.”

“It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of feeling the ills of imposter syndrome and get tunnel vision from working on your lonesome if you aren’t already working in a team,” he says. “It’s through these connections that I was able to finally make a living from working independently on my games and I’ll forever be thankful for it.”

What to consider before applying

It’s inadvisable to simply apply for an incubator without considering what you want to get out of it. Shurie encourages studios to have a clear end goal for whichever project they are working on, whether it’s preparing a pitch deck or completing a playable build, vertical slice, or even a full game.

“With this goal in mind you’ll be able to focus on getting the right questions or answers that could have the most benefit,” he says.

Höge adds that it’s also important to research the incubators available and ensure the ones you apply for are the best for your studio. Only three of the accelerators she has taken part in were focused on gaming, and Tentacle Zone was her first games-centric incubator. While many business practices can apply across different sectors, consider whether you need something specific to the video games industry.

Höge also urges developers to look at what the incubator is actually offering. “Having a program of speakers is nice, but having the chance to be connected to mentors is even better. Some incubators (especially equity-focused ones) come with investment too, but that is not usual in the gaming industry. So getting great speakers and access to mentors is already a premium offering.”

Shurie also recommends speaking to people who have previously been through the incubators you’re applying for. Look into the history of the previous cohorts, what they have done after the program ended, and find out if you can learn what their experience was like, while also comparing against your own goals to see if it would be the right fit.

What to expect from an incubator

Shurie says there are two things that stand out to him as important parts of a useful incubator program; the first being organisers that actively foster conversations between the studios in each cohort.

“This is incredibly important – it’s hard enough to get people to feel comfortable enough to ask questions without thinking that their world could fall apart from a small mistake or lapse in knowledge, especially when they’re really early in their career – I was really guilty of this,” he says. “Building a space where folks can celebrate each other’s success, mention potential opportunities and offer advice within their area of expertise brings so much benefit during and after that program is finished.”

The second is building rapport between the developer cohort and experienced individuals in the industry. “Having the forum to learn from people also active in the industry in different fields can also bring similar benefits to the first point but can also be a means to have people cheering you on in places you didn’t expect.”

Meanwhile, Unifiq Games’ Nasrollahi adds a list of things he hopes to see from an incubator, including:

Regular masterclasses
Mentoring scheme
Technical office hours with experts
Group presentations
Pitch practice
In-person events
Industry networking events
Discounts to game exhibits and conferences
A demo day with publishers and investors

“When looking into an incubator, I look at the curriculum being delivered, the people delivering the sessions, and if there is a mentoring scheme which I can benefit from a personal mentor over the course of the incubator,” he explains.

“Participation in an incubator should really prepare you for the real world, and help you build a strong network within the industry.”

How to get the most out of an incubator

As with so many things in life, when it comes to incubators you get out what you put in. The organisers can provide plenty of support and mentorship, but it’s down to the participating developers to truly reap the benefits.

“To get the maximum out of incubators, you should not only attend all the talks, but connect with the speakers afterwards, through LinkedIn for example, and start a conversation,” says Höge. “There is a lot of knowledge to be gained in occasional conversations and catchups, because everyone is going their own way, making experiences, learning and unlocking new contacts.”

Höge also says that, when possible, you should ensure you choose the right mentor for your situation. A design-focused mentor will expand your knowledge in a different way to a business-focused one.

“Ideally you can also connect your teammates with mentors, or ask your mentors if they know people that could mentor the lead roles of your studio. Everything is about forging relationships, so stay in touch with people.”

Nasrollahi adds it’s important to be humble and willing to learn from others. “It is generally difficult to attend all the incubator sessions, but it is important to manage one’s time such that to maximise benefits from the incubator.”

He adds that it’s crucial developers ask questions, whether it’s at the end of a masterclass or in a regular meeting with mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, as this is a prime opportunity to get the answers you need.

What to do after the program ends

When the incubator is over, developers will no doubt still have more they need to learn. The key is not to lose momentum, but to build on your experience in the incubator.

“Keep in touch with your peers and mentors,” says Nasrollahi. “Act on the lessons you learned. Study the recommended references that were provided by the instructors.”

Höge adds: “Small and new studios only need to do one thing: to grow. Applying their newfound knowledge and network, they need to unlock the funding needed to create their products and then build a sustainable business from it. It’s not easy, but incubators will help them prepare. And the connections they made, and the knowledge they absorbed, will help them make better decisions and fewer mistakes.”

Just as developers should have a goal before entering an incubator, Shurie says they should also have a clear objective when they finish.

“In my personal point of view, it’s having a finished product under your belt as soon as possible,” he concludes. “This could be from breaking down a huge game you have in the works to a smaller digestible chunk to build up an audience faster for the full version, or just having a full product out there for people.

“The moments in my career that have brought some of the most eyes to my work have been after a release of a game. Keeping the momentum of releases whether it’s once every few months or years is great and all, but don’t forget to take care of yourself, too! Your health and well-being is always more important than a game.”

More Academy guides to Selling Games

Our guides cover various aspects of the development and publishing process, whether you’re a young game developer about to start a new project or an industry veteran:

The hidden costs of indie game development
Rami Ismail’s top ten tips on surviving the indiepocalypse
So, you want to establish your own pizza plac… Oh, wait, game dev studio?
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