Darkened Software

Start ups

Companies, aim for the win instead of aiming to just stay alive

by on Sep.06, 2011, under Industry, Lessons, Start ups

Here is a hypothetical question, imagine that you own a small game company that is just getting started, and you have been offered 2 contracts.

First contract: Standard 1.5 year slightly aggressive schedule to take an IP from company X and do something with it at basically cost plus a small profit.  It is pretty safe, the publisher needs to have something out with the movie / book / whatever and thus it is almost guaranteed your company will have the money to survive for contract period.  If you play it right you might build a relationship with the publisher and even have more work lined up for when this contract is over.

Second contact: Not so standard 4 month very aggressive prototype to see if you can either take or create and IP that the company can use to fill one of their publishing slots.  This will take everything your little company has got and when it is over if the publisher does not pick it up you are 95% likely to go under as there is really not enough time to line up anything else up.  If you succeed in impressing them with the demo they have the resources and are willing to go big with it which could make your company a known entity.

Many CEO’s would take the first contract as they believe it less risky, they know they will be able to pay their employee’s for the next 1.5 years and keep the company afloat.  They will not have to go through the painful process of laying people off or shutting their doors and all those other fears that keep CEO’s up at night.  The sigma of having to close down your studio is often too much and most CEO’s will take many tradeoffs to ensure the long term survival of their company.

Few CEO’s would take the second contract as they believe it is reckless to take such a high chance they will be shut down in 4 months.  While true it might not be the contract a CEO would want to take if they just signed a 5 year office space lease and put their house up as a deposit.  It’s higher short term risk is more than made up for by its much lower long term risk.  Now, how to back up this theory.

A pattern I see over and over again is small companies start out with tons of energy as they believe they are going to take over the world.  That first project is tough as they are just starting out and have a shoe string budget that they make up for by putting in their blood, sweat and tears.  Now that first project is a safe project which is much more likely to not sell 3 million copies ( > 90% don’t ) and does not make them all billionaires.   So the company starts their second project but this time it will not be with nearly as much energy.  The tools and tech are still just as crappy this time around but with the new found reality check from shipping a dud this time it really starts to bother people.  People quickly get upset that things are not vastly improved this time around and they are still being asked to put in a lot of hours to compensate / compete with bigger budget development houses.  Its not that people don’t want to fix things but the company does not have the money or means to do it so everyone is forced to live in frustration.  Soon people start to leave and the churn just makes the situation worse.

How many good people are still working there after the second project also fails to sell crazy numbers and the third project starts?  It is typically a very small number.  So the big risk is not so much starting a company and going under in 4 months when everyone can still get jobs again.  The real big risk is starting a company and struggling in misery for 8 year before finally going under because even college graduates know better to work in your sweat shop.  When you own a small company your only goal is to get from broke to well funded before all the good will of your employees is used up.  In the highly competitive game world that means going after the high risk but high reward situations that can get you to the big time.

As much as I dislike the term it is very true, the game industry needs to learn to “Fail Faster”

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Book review: Bootstrap – Lessons learned…

by on Aug.07, 2010, under Start ups

Bootstrap the book

I highly recommends this book to anyone thinking about starting their own company.  The writing was very good and it seemed to parallel a lot of my own experiences I had at the small game start up Secret Level.  Besides a very interesting story about him starting, running and selling his company off.  He manages to stress 6 very good points:

  1. Avoid Venture Capital  if at all possible, it can sink you fast as you tend to spend more time worrying about that then making products.
  2. Every time you get 10x bigger you have to re-investigate how you do everything because it is most likely no longer efficient
  3. A product has to be 4-5 times better than it predecessor to get people to take their wallets out.  I swear even the biggest companies today make the mistake of thinking that if they can make something twice as good that everyone will come to them.
  4. Obsolete your own products before your competition does it for you.
  5. Do not spend very much time with getting acquired, other company can sink you with talks, negotiations, due diligence and then pick you up for cheap as your going under.
  6. Product analysis is determining both the market waves &  tech waves, then seeing if you can ride the crest or will be pushing against  the undertow.

There is a lot more more lessons in this book but I think those are the most important ones that he does the best job of breaking down in his book.

Other peoples hard earned experience, don’t travel into the unknown without it.

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My time at CrowdStar, Casual Game Space

by on Mar.26, 2009, under Industry, Start ups

A good friend, Jeffrey Tseng had left secret level months before I did and went off to co-found a little Casual Game company called CrowdStar.  I had been interviewing around for a little while but had not really found anything that was compelling, challenging or closer to home in the console space so when Jeff mentioned that they were looking for programmers I kind of jumped.  Learning all new technology would be challenging at least and casual games was definitely a growth market.  Plus the thought of having things like instant feedback on your games, millions of testers, releases any time you want, short schedules, low cost of development with more creative freedom sounded very interesting.  Could be a refreshing change of pace to someone burnt out with year long death marches.

It was interesting for a little while learning the different tech, new market and how you would go about starting companies in the casual space.  It was even interesting learning about how Facebook worked, talking to angle investors and learning how the business models were rapidly evolving.  The contrast of developments environments were very interesting.  In console’s you spend all your time trying to figure out how they might play a game and ensure they will have fun regardless of the path they take.  In casual games the quote I loved the most was ” Our customer are monkeys, they do what we tell them”.

But something was just wrong about the whole thing, it only held part of my interest and I could not get into over drive about my job.  Started thinking it was just because it was not getting me closer to my eventual goal of starting a company.   So I managed to get myself and some angle investors very excited about doing poker related training games and tools in the casual space.   We got very close on paper but after several false starts we could not come up with a deal that was worth the risk on my side.  While going through that process I was really into the planning and deal making side, but still not really into the creating demo’s and tech side like I use to be.

It did not matter though, my wife’s health decided to hit a critical point and I dropped everything get the family ready for what likely could have easily been the worst case situation.  Well the interesting thing about down time is you think a lot, and in no time it was crystal clear in my mind what was wrong.

After 9 years into the game industry I have still not lead or even been on a AAA game and it is eating my insides out.  I have spent years collecting knowledge that has never even had the chance to be put to use, basically I still got a lot of shit to prove.  Well now I have a new mission, take all the time needed to find the perfect lead programmer job at a company that only makes AAA titles with real budgets and normal schedules.  Extra credit if my commute can be < 15 min as well.

1.5 weeks later after going through LinkedIn search I open up good old Gamasutra to read a job posting that could have read “Seeking Travis Johnston”  in the title.  Game on…

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My time at Secret Level, Sega Studio’s

by on Mar.25, 2009, under Industry, Start ups

Sega studio’s had been looking for a studio to take some of their IP’s and re-make them for the next gen consoles.   Since we were just down the street and we had worked with Sega West’s President Simon Jeffery before when he was running Lucas Arts, he dropped in to see if we were interested.  We went through the catalog and found the Golden Axe IP, it had been in storage long enough that it was ripe for a next gen remake.  We showed them some tech demo’s that we were doing and somehow got into a contract with them for a prototype.

A short time after that Sega West got some orders from Japan to build some internal development capabilities and they decided to acquire it rather than do mass hiring to try and grow it out.  Since we were already working with them we were high on the list of targets and they started looking into us seriously.  We were tired of several years of living project to project and welcomed the thought of dependable budgets and steady paychecks.  Several months of them interviewing key players, looking at all our tools and tech, sending in auditors to review our finances they decided to enter exclusive buy out talks with us and start discussing the price.

There is nothing like that in the world, after several years of running flat out just to stay above water there was finally going to be a payout.  The countless lost weekend of doing anything to make a milestone, years of sleeping on a couch, the millions of threats of divorce were all suddenly going to be worth it.  It is validation like you have never felt before.  Jeremy and Otavio did right years earlier by bringing the core people into the company ownership circle.  Then they went even further by ensuring that everyone at the company got a piece of the buyout action and a 2 year staying bonus.  Not a lot of owners stick by their peeps like that.

With Sega came access to a whole empire of developers and companies, they were looking to get more tech reuse out of their empire and we were looking to help facilitate it.  So after finishing the Army game they put me in charge of getting our  tech in the hands of other developers and supporting them.  Never really backed the way it should have been and it died on the vine when it was realized the GoldenAxe (GA) project was going south.  Sega had been really hands off thus far after the buy out but now was getting worried and shut down everything not GA to try to get us focused again.  At some point it became clear that GA needed more money to almost restart the design process over again and help develop the engine faster.  Somehow the scary suggestion was put forth of starting a second team so we could take on a second project and then they could justify giving us more money which we could use for both.

Well if you have proven you can not do one project, why not do two right?  It was not quite that bad, the second project would be a movie license which would help us avoid many of the mistakes we had made on GA.  With Jeremy now acting lead on GA I offered to take that off his hands but thankfully he suggested I head up the second project which would be Ironman.  Scary in it’s own right as it had a 14 month schedule for global release on a engine that was not yet done and a team that was not hired yet.

With so many things against it that project was amazing in that it got done at all and was as good a game as it was.  We had to hired fast and managed to get enough of a team together to kick out a E3 demo in 2 months.  This was my third driving home late accident, luckily this time I did not total my vehicle.  Somehow we got the engine done, built a game on top of it and localized it everywhere before the movie date.  Not only that the engine was stable and complete enough to get through submission 1st time in 2/3 cases.

The game sold well enough but sadly got hammered in the reviews and we did not get as much political win with Sega as we needed.  I got moved to a tech director role but it was kind of pointless as I was not in a position to change anything that needed fixing but just fight a lot of political battles.  After GA shipped Sega shrunk us down to a one team company to focus on Ironman II.  Completely burnt out from the last 7 years and not really excited about being lead on another short scheduled movie project.  I talked with Jeremy who had really been doing a dual role as my CEO and mentor for the last 7 years.  Couple beers later and it became clear it was time for a new challenge.

When you think about it, it was just unbelievable lucky that so many things did not kill us and we survived to come out much stronger on the other side.  Now what?  Was I burnt out on big development efforts or just need a smaller commute, change of scene, real budget and reasonable schedule?

After looking around locally for awhile I did not see anything I wanted to jump into.  Well then  lets try the growing casual games market.

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My time at Secret Level, The big publisher era

by on Mar.25, 2009, under Graphics, Industry, Interviews, Lessons, Programming, Start ups

One of the big problems with working at a port houses is there is typically not just not enough extra funds in port projects to sustain the company in a dry spell.  So not only do they have to have signed  projects at all times they need a couple in the wings in case anything goes wrong.  That is a hard balance to keep right, you do not want to string to many companies along as you will eventually piss them off.  So typically you end up taking on to much and then ruin your reputation as you only half do all your projects.

So with our reputation being pretty good at the moment but at risk of being over stretched we started trying to get in with bigger publishers and longer projects.  We started an MMO with Lucas Arts but it got shut down when they realized that anything not in the Star Wars IP would never sell.  Then we got to do a our first non port project with Wizards of the coast that resulted in Magic the Gathering for xBox; got critical acclaim but did not sell well.  Then we got our biggest chance yet, EA partners needed someone to do a port of Odd World’s Stranger from the xBox to the PS2.

Microsoft had finally dropped them as their publisher and EA was interested in picking up the IP but needed PS2 numbers to make it work.  Getting in good with EA Partners would indeed lead to many other fat projects and untold wealth.  I think everyone had this on the mind to much as we went to check out the project and see if we could help.  Other companies had turned them down and said it could not be done.  Warning sign #1 we ignored.  It looked hard, there was no doubt about that.  But nothing is truly impossible so we decided to get involved and see were it lead.

This was the closest I came to quitting as things went from just plain bad to crazy in < 1 month.  EA needed to ship the two projects at the same time, they were going to hold the xBox version for the PS2 one, but they did not want to hold it for long.  So porting was going to start on a still rapidly evolving game and code base.  We did not know the Microsoft had been sending them engineers to help optimize their game for months as it had been unplayable slow.  It took two weeks just to get the code base to compile on the PS2.  I found a blog post from their lead programmer about how he hated designing for porting and actively worked against it.  EA would not accept any schedule and kept stopping us to consider ways to make it faster and kept trying to bring in even more companies to help. I had seen this play out before and I was pretty sure our reward for failing EA in any way would be the end of the company.  Most companies that got a EA injection imploded hard after they left.  It was during this crunch I totaled my first vehicle while driving my 2 hour commute home late one night.

As things looked more and more dire we finally had a meeting to voted on going forward with this project and all the programmers were thumbs down.  Amazingly Jeremy and Reeve took it ok, they were initially pretty sad but suddenly the sequel to Magic the gathering fell through and they moved on to sign us up to do and XBox and PS2 port of America’s Army with Ubi-Soft.  Ubi-Soft also another big publisher that we had supported before in the unreal days was a good opportunity.  Sadly this project was not and it came really close to killing the company.  Somehow it ran for till almost till Alpha without ever having a real schedule.

I was just finishing up another failed investigation; this time to do Robotica with Sony Studio’s.  Yet another really big publisher that it would have been nice to work with.  Interesting problem with big publishers we were finding is they have lots of money and time so they do not have to commit to anything in any hurry.  This can be hell on your budget and often you can not wait until they get their act together.

About this time Ubi-Soft looked in and realized how screwed up Army was, then sent three producers to live on site and verify every detail.   About this time the lead programmer decided to leave and I got pulled on to finish it up.  Well with producers on site and changing their mind in every meeting, things got even harder and only a ton of late nights and Crown Royal saved the xBox version of that project.  It was during this crunch I totaled my second vehicle while driving home late one night after several days of min sleep before Beta.    Sadly we still had a PS2 version to ship and people were all ready burnt out, we finally give them a PS2 first submission disk and that day they officially cancel the project.  Dam that was another 6 months of crunch for nothing…

That may have killed us right there but lucky just before this another company had been looking to acquire some US studio’s and our living paycheck to paycheck days were over.

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