There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Everything in the full picture of setting up an incubator is interrelated. Hence, every decision will influence or constrain another decision.
Thinking about how to convey knowledge to a start-up team is firmly intertwined with the incubation environment, the availability of staff / mentors, and the question of required remuneration. But, also the topic will drive the decision. Some topics lend themselves to “bulk” knowledge transfer. Other topics need an individual exchange. For some topics you need to know the team and others can be done in a more generic fashion.
Building a game and a company is intense, and teams need to prioritise their tasks very strictly. Prioritising participation in a traditional incubation programme makes sense if all or most of its parts are relevant for the team’s situation. Since the game industry is complex and quite particular in its needs, this mostly happens if the programme is clearly tailored for a specific type of team – the status of production and business development, platforms, business model, and to some extent even the type of games. When this isn’t the case, expecting the team to attend the sessions regularly can be counterproductive. Thus, many incubators have switched from a rigid programme to a highly flexible and open format. This allows for a more customised incubation experience. On the flip side, these models often also require a significant amount of industry specialist mentors – which are a rare resource in most areas.
The models of incubation introduced here are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They can often be included in each other or used in parallel to match local needs and constraints.
A game incubation programme can be embedded in a larger incubation / acceleration center, or it can be a part of game education. Both approaches make sense in the right environment – as does an independent game incubation programme.
Embedding a game incubation programme into an incubation center can save resources. Some education topics, like the basics of setting up a company, company culture, and some forms of funding, can be taught together with other programmes, while more game-specific topics are organised separately. Sharing spaces and hardware is also wise. On the flip side, it may require a lot of careful planning and branding to show that the incubation programme indeed has the required expertise for games, too.
An incubation programme that works as a part or continuation of a game education programme can encourage entrepreneurship effectively. Entrepreneurial students have a clear path forward and they can regularly meet young game entrepreneurs, possibly even successful ones. These programmes also have the benefit of all the incubatees having a similar level of base knowledge – they all are or have been in the same educational programme. The staff might even know their incubatees personally before they even join the incubator, and be able to offer hands-on support forming the team. In some areas, it’s also significantly simpler to figure out funding for an incubator if it is embedded in an educational programme.
A bootcamp-type of incubation is a short and very intense period of building one or several key features of their business or product strategy and getting education and feedback from mentors and peers. The bootcamp can last between a few days to several months, as in the case of Stugan1Stugan: stugan.com, where the main focus is challenging teams to question their own business ideas and initial strategies. These intense programmes consist of pitching workshops, polishing the core mission and vision of the company / product, SWOT analysis, etc., thereby providing a reality-check and solution-driven approach to emerging challenges by fellow teams, mentors and coaches within the programme.
Sometimes the traditional pipeline model of incubation fits the situation and goals well. In the traditional model, a fixed period of incubation time is cut into blocks by different lectures, workshops, and check-in events, like demo days or pitching, with a graduation in the end. This type of incubation is heavily goal-oriented and aims to accelerate the development of the teams. However, it is not an acceleration programme, since the teams are early stage and likely will not to reach a significant amount of customers or income during the incubation period. The teams still have a lot of work to do before their product is crystallised enough to be accelerated as a business case.
The pipeline model often doesn’t leave much space for experimentation and pivots, when the fixed time period and a rigid model of education pushes the teams to work on one idea only to be in sync with the programme – which is not necessarily the smartest way to build games when you’re early in the development. It’s also problematic for games that take a long time to develop, and the programme is hard to design if the teams are in different stages or have clearly different needs. A pipeline model might work well for relatively lightweight mobile games that can be built and tested fast in a time-limited environment, for example.
Due to the limitations of the pipeline incubation model for games, the open-ended programmes are becoming more and more common. They can take many forms, ranging from a shared office with mostly peer-2-peer support to a versatile mix-and-match programme with mentoring, lectures, and networking. Their duration can be completely open or periodically renewed on the condition of reaching goals set together with the incubation staff. Their offering can include a mix of services: an office, lectures, workshops, coaching and mentoring, peer support, networking, and more. An open-ended programme also leaves more room to build a community and crowdsource some free-form peer support.
An open-ended programme can be very flexible and leave more room for iteration, experimentation, and pivots. The lack of clear structure and progress requirements puts a lot of responsibility on the team. Independence and self-knowledge are required, and they can be supported by coaching by the incubation staff. When designing the programme, the staff should pay attention to the delicate balance between clarity and flexibility.
Knowledge sharing and peer support between teams can be extremely fruitful, especially if there is a bigger network of teams that are in different stages of development. However, it’s worth noting that this isn’t something that will happen just by calling a group of people “a network”. It can take a long period of carefully building structures to make sharing easy, nurturing a culture of sharing, and encouraging the teams to trust and know themselves well enough to share, listen and learn in a way that best supports them. When a functional network has been built, it still needs maintenance but becomes very cost-effective and can also support the overall culture of the industry ecosystem.
It’s worth noting that a peer-2-peer network can take many different forms – it could be location-based (a shared office building), regular events, curated peer mentoring, or a fully online community, for example. Again, the right approach depends on the environment, strategy, and goals.