Darkened Software

Tag: Game Industry

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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What happened to leaders having values

by on May.02, 2011, under Lessons

I have ran into way too many “Lead Programmers” lately that were not really leading but more like just holding things together.  These are smart enough guys that know what needs to be done and were successful at getting people organized enough to do it.  But they were not really leading the group forward, inspiring excellence or making their work environment a better place.  In fact no one on the team really knew what they stood for, what the future would bring or even why they worked for them vs anyone else.  If people on your team work for you because “It does not suck” you kind of have a big problem (although not the worst possible one) and are not getting the best out of your team.  Which means you have failed…

What gives, 10 years ago it seemed that every 3rd lead in our industry was a serious butt kicking freak of nature that was getting crazy amounts of work done.  Today it is not uncommon to go through 3 different companies before finding on of these guys.  I have a couple theories as to why the leaders in the game industry are not what they use to be just a short decade ago.  First, game companies have been trying to “Grow Up” and might have inadvertently taken this politically correct thing a little to far.  Leaders are now judged more on the results of the “360 degree” reviews held every year and less on their ability to get their team to produce great results.  Thus leads have adapted by becoming the lowest common denominator in terms of their personality so they never get negative remarks in their reviews.  It makes them safe; Safe = Bland; bland does not inspire.

Now this be itself does not have to be a problem if leads could pick the people they work with.  They would just hire or gather people that like their motives, personalities, directions, values and then they could both inspire people and get good 360 degree reviews from everyone.  But the second problem is companies do not like the HR management restrictions this causes, they like the idea of being able to move anyone anywhere at any time and thus vastly overvalue leaders that seem to be able to manage anyone.  Well that is fine if you never want great performance and just lowest common denominator output from your teams.

Maybe I am just getting old and bitter but I do not want to spend the rest of my career trying to please everyone just to end up hating myself more and more each day.  I want to collect a bunch of people that share some common values and charge off into the world of orders of magnitude more productive and happier team than 90% of the other ones out there.  I am more than willing to accept that not everyone will like working with me or in the environments I create for my teams.  They should move on and find a place that better meets their need, companies should recognize that this is a good thing.  Because if they allow a leader to build a team that gets inspired it will make the rest of the teams in the company look like they are standing still.

Likely you can’t get your company to change their review policy’s for leads and they are unwilling to give you more control over who gets assigned to work with you.  One thing you do often control as a lead is the people you hire into the company even if they are not on your team.  So during every interview I try to impart on them what environment I am creating and find out if they are going to respond well to it in case I work with them on the next project.  My top 3 values that directly influence my teams environment.

  1. Accomplishment – My biggest motivator is to succeed at something, thus I now only pick projects that can be made to succeed and then make sure they do.  There is no more fighting the good fight but it was sadly doomed from the start, there is only time spent charging toward the inevitable ship parties.  Its not that I do not like a good challenge, challenges are the times you learn the most and I like to learn.  But I am not longer young enough to believe I can move mountains with my bare hands and old enough to know that if I am asked to I can just move on.
  2. Impact – My second biggest motivator is creating something that will make a difference, thus I now try to only pick project that when we get done there will be a shot heard around the world.  Long ago I lost the ability to make myself happy solely through the learning that came just by working on anything at all.  I am now experienced, somewhat jaded so I need projects that if completed there will be a payoff that satisfies higher psychological goals.  No more crappy clone games or another under powered engine that will be forgotten once the company eventually goes under.
  3. Intelligence – My third biggest motivator is I only want to reach my goals through acquiring and applying knowledge to the problems in my world.  I do not want to solve anything through insane work hours, taking stupid amounts of risk, or anything else that causes enough stress that my non-work life is impacted.  If our only way to meaningfully contribute to a project is by is by dropping our lives and coding 14 hours a day till it is done then I am not going to be signing us up for it.  Every day we are going to learn more so we can do it better and faster than all the rest which leaves us more time to learn and get even smarter.

Now there are 50 or so values that leaders could have selected from as their top 3, and they are all going to sound pretty good if you list them out.  Who is going to say they do not want want a leader that values honesty, family, creativity, caring, dedication or any of the other ones.  What they have to realize is that these are the 3 things that provide the greatest influence on a leaders every decision.  eg.  If I have surplus budget and the option to spend it on training for the team or pizza night at the bowling alley then given my values you know which it is likely going to get spent on.  If you are the kind of person depending on their work life for a good chunk of their social life then your going to be often disappointed and my team might not be the best fit for you.

The important thing is you figure out what your values are, how you are shaping your projects around them and make sure the team knows what it is signing up for and going to get back in return.  The right people will eventually build around it and then you can make the serious butt kicking freak of nature team that gets crazy amounts of work done while making it look easy.

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Why small companies should never use recruiters

by on Aug.19, 2010, under Industry

I now believe there is 2 fundamental problems with people that one would get through a recruiter.

  1. Who would leave their career path in the hands of a someone else that based on the economics of the situation can not have your best interest in mind.  They get more money for placing in the harder to fill spots, so their job is to try and convince you to take a terrible or risky job.  They spend a lot of time trying to spin it but if it was a good job at a good company it would have been filled by one ad placed on gamasutra for a fraction of the price.
  2. Who can not take the time to search gamasutra, linked in, and jobs pages of their favorite companies.  Searching for a job takes about 1/2 hour a day at the most, maybe more if you find something you like and need to write a cover letter.

Neither of these traits sounds like something I in general want in a programmer.

Then there is the problem of dealing with recruiters in general.

  1. Shelling out and additional 20% of employee’s wages in recruiter fees.
  2. They will be calling him/her to move again as soon as he passes the 2-3 month contracted must stay period.
  3. 90% of the people the bring you are remote and there is an additional 20k in moving needed if not visa issues.
  4. If they have dealt with your company for awhile they coach the candidates and your interview process becomes less effective.

So recruiters get paid a lot of money to bring you temp false hope in the form of coached candidates.

What is the little company that does not have a big reputation yet suppose to do?  They do not have people hitting their website every day hoping there is jobs opening up.  These companies put job posts up and only get 1000’s requests for internship from the local universities.

First line of their job post should be:

Company ownership after 1 year.

This will ensure they stay 4 times longer than the average recruiter candidate will stay for.  This will attract the risk takers you want and will ensure they will be bought into the entire project.

Sadly most small companies will not consider this.  They will offer royalties or something like that but everyone knows that it is < 5% to ever even pay out.  Yet companies still stay afloat and manage to make money.  Why are companies not sharing that with their employees that are also sharing the risk.  Small company owners can be 33% owners of nothing because they only have temp’s and interns or 20% owners something great if they just got the right employee’s.

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Interviewing with two game console dev support teams

by on Jul.27, 2010, under Graphics, Programming

Some time ago I interviewed at Sony based on the recommendations of a friend who had joined their R&D department and was really loving his new job.  Their R&D department at the time only need a hard core graphics specialist but they had some other positions that they wanted to interview me for.  So I took a day and went to see what things were all about at Sony.  Most of their jobs were doing some sort of lead tech support for other developers so I expected I would get grilled on:

  • Tech & coding skills
  • Customer support
  • Documentation
  • Time management skills

After an entire day of interviews I had not had any questions on anything that was not tech & coding.  In fact many of the questions were so esoteric that I do not believe they were really looking for a programmer but a PS3 manual with a better personality.

eg. Interviewer:   How many instructions would this take on the cell processor

float temp = (bool) 0;

Me:  Not sure, why would you ever cast a bool to a float?

Interviewer:  You wouldn’t, but if you did how many instructions would it be?

Me:  Not sure, on the PS2 they had an Zero register so it would have been 1 instruction but since your asking I am sure that is no longer the case.

Interviewer:  See he does not know.

This in my mind clears up a lot of stuff, if they do not value customer support, documentation or coding samples to even ask about it in a interview then it is no wonder they are so badly know for the poorest developer support in the industry.

Contrast that to the interviews at Microsoft I recently went through for similar positions.  The first half of the day was all about tech and coding but they asked relevant questions about algorithms, error checking, comments and architecture.  Second part of the day was all about dealing with customers, creating white papers, writing good sample code and other tasks.  Last part of the interview was about what makes great games and user experiences, tech trends and how it will shape the games of the future and last how to communicate and let people know how to take advantage of it.

Perfectly clear why in one generation Microsoft has taken over the console market, they understand what is real dev support is and know that supporting the dev teams has to be the one of the core’s pillars in getting the best games.

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Is it still bad for your career to leave before a project is done?

by on Apr.06, 2010, under Development, Industry, Interviews

When I starting in this industry it was almost a sin to leave a project before it was done and hiring managers would burn resumes with more than a couple non completed projects on them.  In fact it was better to say you had been unemployed for all that time than to say you left a project before it shipped.  Sadly their are still hiring managers stuck in the 1990’s mind set and will toss resumes with a little jumping around.  Here is why that mind set has to change.

Given the current length of development cycles developers can no longer just stick around and finish out bad games just so they have another completed game on their resume.  That would kill their chance of ever working on a hit game.

  • Average Career is 40 years, 25 – 65
  • Average AAA console dev cycle at this time is ~3 years
  • 40 / 3 = 13 chances to make a hit AAA game.
  • < 5% of all released games are multi-million selling unit hits

Thus you have ~65% chance to work on a hit game if you finish everything you start and that is not really great odds when you think about it.

But if you drop the requirement for finishing games and leave as soon as you determine the company is both not on the right path and not likely to turn it around.

  • 6 months average time on a project
  • 40 / .5 = 80 chances to make a hit AAA game.

Thus you now have 800% chance to work on a hit game taking your career odds from 35% chance of being meaningless to working on 8 successful titles.

I am by no means recommending this as a career path unless you want to be a game industry contractor.  Given that leads have to worry about people leaving at critical times right before shipping and major milestones they are still not going to like seeing a resume full of six month stints.  The average consensus is if they see a run of 4 companies jumps with no explanation ( ie they all went under ) then they would only look to hire them as a last resort.

So every once in awhile you are going to finish a game even if it is not a good one and thus the strategy becomes:

  • 3 year to finish game + 3 * 6 months  ~= 1 year on average
  • 40 / 1 ~= 40 chances to work on a hit AAA game

This you now only have a 400% chance to work on a hit game but it ensures your resume never becomes a complete liability.  Of course if you really want to max your odds of working on AAA games then your mission should be to just keep applying at one of the proven developers like Blizzard, Bungie and Naught Dog.  It will likely take you a long time to get in there but when you do you are almost 100% to ship some hit games.  On the other hand if you like to play the odds and bet on the small unproven companies were the payoff can be very big then this might be the strategy for you.

Resumes with a little company jumping in their histories are often not flawed developers but ones that understand the reality of game development and are not going to waste their time at bad companies.  These are the people you want to interview, not the drones working at bad companies just to collect a check and only leave when they have ran the company into bankruptcy.

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