How to make games on a low budget

So you’re convinced, as I am, that games are a great way of reaching new audiences and engaging them meaningfully with your message or content. But you have little or no money, what to do? It’s all very well when you have upwards of £40k to spend (and ideally even more), but what about when you don’t? Are you excluded from creating or commissioning games?

Well no, I don’t think you are. But you’re going to have to do things a bit differently. You may have to give up a certain amount of control, and be relaxed about where games end up. But you probably should be anyway, the point is to get your message out there, right?

What not to do

I’ve recently heard about two separate organisations that were looking for proposals for educational games for between £500 and £2500, which made me gasp, I must admit. Taking this approach to doing games on a budget – just not paying much for them – is a very bad idea, for a number of reasons. I speak from experience, believe me.

Low budget projects are ALWAYS the projects that cause the most problems and take the longest. Your game will naturally take a back seat with the agency or developer when higher paying jobs come their way, and fair enough. As the commissioner, you won’t have much clout or sway over how the project develops, and aren’t likely to have much opportunity to change it as changes=time=money. Unless the agency/developer is bad at handling that equation, in which case they are likely to go bust trying to complete your game.

It’s the old cost/time/quality triangle. If the cost goes down, either the amount time goes up or quality goes down. Or, more likely, both. And since time=money, as established, the true cost actually becomes much higher for everyone involved. No-one wins and it’s bad for everyone’s business.

Instead, maybe try one of these options.

Find more money: other funding sources

There are a number of sources of funding for games out there. My old employer, the Wellcome Trust, is keen to encourage more games on biomedical subjects and offers a number of potential grants (this development grant, for example). Other public engagement funds are also likely to cover games projects, even if they don’t explicitly state that. Look at what people like Nesta or the Arts Council are currently offering in the way of funding. IdeasTap appears to have quite a lot of funding bodies listed on its website too.

I’ll add in more examples here as I come across them, but please do suggest any you know of.

A tip. Always always always, with any grant application, get in touch with people at the funding body to find out more and get advice on whether your project is suitable, or find out what you might need to do to make it suitable. Public engagement funding in particular is likely to need some sort of decent evaluation of impact built in, so don’t just say you’ll count the number of hits, give it some thought.

Find more money: partnerships and co-investment

You might not have the money, but presumably you do have something great to offer – content, domain expertise, a well respected brand etc. All of these might well be appealing to someone who does have money. A games agency might be interested in developing something in return for profit share. A company might see a good fit with their aims and want to sponsor your project. Another similar organisation (arts, cultural, educational?) might be interested in a partnership, or perhaps a group of you could club together and pool budgets. A broadcaster such as the BBC or other online platform might be interested too.

Partnerships of this sort can be tricky, true. All parties need to be very clear about their roles, where IP rests, where the final sign-off lies and so on before getting too far along with it. Get an agreement in place as soon as you can, and you may have to be prepared to relinquish some control. Regular communication is obviously really important too.

There are potential benefits beyond just the extra budget though. Your partner might also have additional expertise or resources, for example in marketing, that could be very handy. They might have their own large audience which you would then have access to. Choosing partners for what else they can offer is therefore wise as well.

Use existing game creation tools

You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch when creating a game, there are a number of tools out there that can simplify the process. Perhaps you or someone in your organisation could even have a go at making one yourselves.

I haven’t tried many of these tools, so can’t vouch for them. I know GameStar Mechanic has been successfully used to get kids building games, as has interactive fiction creator Quest (which I am a big fan of), which should be a good indicator of their ease of us. GameMaker: Studio by YoYo games is another possibility.

Googling for game creation tools throws up loads more options, Sploder, The Game Creators, Game Gonzo and more. Anyone used any of these and had a good/bad experience?

Run games jams or competitions

Games jams involve inviting lots games designers or games development team to spend usually 24 or 48 hours rapidly building a game on a particular theme. They’ve become more and more popular recently. Done well, this could be a good way of getting lots of games about your subject matter of interest out there. Done badly, though, they can feel exploitative and yucky.

It’s probably wise to work with someone who has run successful games jams in the past, and understand what it takes to make them work. Or work with a regular games jam event. You need to make sure people have a reason to be there, that their time is valued and that they are in some way compensated for it. Oh, and that they keep hold of the IP. The ones that Wellcome ran simply paid developers for their time, and then ran it as a competition so that the winners got money to develop their game further.

Update: This “Hack Day Manifesto” provides some useful advice for running events such as these (via @oonaghtweets and @dannybirchall on twitter)

Game design students

There are many game design courses out there. I haven’t actually tried this myself, but another option might be to work with a university or other teaching organisation that has a games design course to provide a brief for students.

Are you involved with a game design course that would be up for doing something like this? Let me know in the comments!

Try something different

Does it have to be a slick online game? Could you create a paper or card game and then make it available online? Add new rules to an existing game a la the brilliant Boardgame Remix Kit? Maybe if you want to get it into schools, you should just do something simpler like provide pictures and lesson plan suggestions and upload it to TES. Or do the same with instructions for a live or pervasive game that students could play?

And finally

Thanks to Sharna Jackson, Phil Stuart and Kim Plowright for their suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this post. If you have any more thoughts, funding sources etc, please do add these in the comments and I will update the post.


Updating to add some very useful additional thoughts from others following a discussion on the LinkedIn Games Based Learning Group.

Dustin Chertoff: The more the commissioner has completed up front, in terms of both art assets and game design, the cheaper it will be to actually develop the game. But that also means the commissioner is likely to be more resistant to the inevitable change requests from the developer saying “such and such feature doesn’t work or is too complicated.” A co-design between the commissioner and the developer is very useful in this regard, unless the commissioner already has a strong game development background (which is usually not the case).

As far as keeping project costs down, engines such as Unity3D are a huge development boon. Devs can start working on game system development much faster and there is a huge library of tools and assets available that further cut down development time.

Even so, from my experience it still takes a team of 3 (2 devs, 1 artist) working full time around 20k USD about 1.5-2 months to design, develop, test, and polish a relatively simple game. It does become faster and cheaper to add more content once you get the core game systems developed and tested though. But the low-cost commissions I’ve seen never have money beyond that first version.

Mathew Georghiou: Budget is always an issue and most people do not understand the complexity and effort required to develop a game as compared to other types of applications. There has been some industry research done that suggests the average mobile app costs $20,000-$40,000 to develop, and that seems to mirror my experience and that of Dustin’s comment above.

Some very basic apps can be done for less, but there will always be some significant compromises required as you have identified in your article.

The best advice is to always consult with someone with experience before designing your specifications or budget, and certainly before issuing an RFP, so that you can make sure to develop a plan that is feasible.

Peter Stidwill:  Although not a tip, this visual document from the Games for Impact academic consortium here in the States has some ballpark figures for professional game development. This is helpful to point to when trying to set expectations about what can be achieved. – see ‘Production cost estimate’

10 thoughts on “How to make games on a low budget”

  1. Yes yes yes Martha! I am so into this. I’m trying to bring games to the table in my current job and it’s harder than it sounds (funding can’t always be given directly to a project in large organisations, and budgets are often set before opportunities arise), but I believe, and will share this. 🙂

  2. Thanks Pam and Hannah for comments! Hannah I feel your pain. Hope this is useful, I think there are ways and means. Your Tate Kids experience in getting a lot out of not much budget should come in handy 🙂

  3. You mentioned game creation tools in this article.
    I am currently doing 3d models for a gaming company who have an open source game engine which works in a unique way to create games. It is designed to help the non tech person make their own games.
    Maybe this is a tool that maybe mentioned?

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