Incorporating and running a video game studio is a challenge. Doing so requires advanced legal, fiscal, and practical know-how. Even seasoned industry veterans struggle occasionally with the procedural nuances of starting a business. For newly minted independent developers, the startup process is doubly difficult, and oftentimes very intimidating.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two Chicago-based developers & entrepreneurs, Tony Le and Cameron Cintron. Tony is the Founder and Managing Director of two businesses: tvledesign LLC and Azure Games LLC. Cameron is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Azure Games LLC, as well as a Game Programmer at Blue Street Studios. They were willing to share some of their experiences with the incorporation process, teambuilding, and the Chicago indie game scene.
Ross: Tony, you’ve started two companies. Why did you want to start your own business, and did you encounter any difficulties?
Tony: I realized after attending the Chicago Video Game Law Summit that I needed to protect my work and invest in a company. The only issue I had was the money. There are plenty of websites that take care of [incorporating a business] for you, but going through the process and making sure that they do it correctly is difficult.
Ross: How do you prioritize what legal protections you secure first?
Tony: Your studio name and trademarks are the top priority. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a foundation to start with. We had a bad experience where we had a logo and a website all set up and a company in Canada had an extremely similar brand. It would have become a trademark issue down the line. It stinks to find out you registered your name, but now you have to change it, along with all your contracts, domains, and registrations.
Ross: Why incorporate a studio as a limited liability corporation instead of just forming a general partnership?
Tony: Obviously, LLC’s protect you from personal liability, so if anything were to happen, you wouldn’t be losing any of your personal assets. Only company assets. General partnerships don’t do that. One difficulty though, and not necessarily just with LLC’s, is coming up with contracts for different scenarios. Finding contracts that fit specific work, and particular needs, is a challenge.
Ross: What is something you wish you had known before putting a team and company together?
Tony: One of the things I wish I had known was how to actually put the team together and keep it together. We had a lot of turnover initially. Some advice I would give others is: instead of filling the position to fill it, really get to know why you are filling it and who is fit for it.
Ross: Cameron, what is it like being part of the management of the corporation? What are some of your expectations from a partner?
Cameron: As a manager I’m able to delegate tasks and contribute to the designs of the product. I work with Tony on matters like finances and office management that I wouldn’t be able to as just an employee. I like being able to make big decisions, and I like having someone I can trust to help make those decisions with me. In a partner, I want someone who is like-minded and someone that I can trust. In working with Tony, it’s been a pleasure because our skillsets complement each other and we can play to each of our strengths.
Ross: When putting a team together do you look for technical skills or a personal connection?
Tony. Both. Say we need an artist. We need someone who is enthusiastic about it and who wants to do it. We don’t want someone who is disinterested and uncommitted, even if they are extremely talented.
Cameron: That’s right. If they have other priorities, they aren’t committed to us, and we’re waiting on them. That’s not a good fit. It’s important to be able to trust them, work with them, and count on them.
Ross: Many studios outsource their work. Are your team members local or remote?
Tony: Right now mostly local. We used to have more long distance folks, but communication became an issue, so we try not to rely on remote work.
Cameron: At some point though, you do go through everyone who is local, and then it can be good to get a diverse range of skills from outside the local community. It’s not a bad idea to use people who work remotely, just the wrong people.
Ross: How do you handle your companies’ intellectual property, and more specifically, the work your employees and independent contractors make?
Tony: We own it, but if someone has a great idea that doesn’t fit what we’re doing and we’re unable to use it at the time, we encourage them to take it somewhere it can succeed, even if it’s not with us. We only ask that they come to us with it first and give us the heads up so that there’s no confusion or competition down the line. Our community should be flexible on things like that and encouraging of creation.
Cameron: Definitely. We want to try to promote the community and not choke it.
Ross: How would you characterize Chicago’s independent game scene?
Tony: It’s great! We have so many local meetups, and so many organizations. When we get together it’s friendly and no one gets talked down to. It’s very diverse and supportive.
Cameron: For sure, and there’s so much here. We have an art community, a film community, and the indie scene is strong. All of those people can transition to games very easily. The great thing about this industry is you can incorporate every other to make something beautiful.
Tony: Beautiful…and a little chaotic. In the best way possible.