Thursday, February 16, 2012

Starting A New Game Company

I just got an email from someone starting a new game company. I get these questions every now and then, so I figured I would paste one of my responses in the (admittedly dusty) blog so everyone can ready it:

[Name Hidden]-

Congratulations on your foray in the the world of game development! Thanks for thinking of me.

Forming and running a successful company… any company… requires a specific set of management skills that includes leader, to parent, to Darth Vader, to friend. Successful management is an interesting balance of leading, leading by example, and cajoling. Having been in the military you probably have a pretty good handle on what it takes to manage top down. That was likely useful experience. But to succeed in games you will have to figure out how to balance this type of direct leadership with inspiration, friendship, and camaraderie. After all, there is no tour of duty in a game company, and no penalty for going AWOL. Balancing your role at the top is probably the most important part of running a company. Great leaders in business, like Steve Jobs, are sometimes loved, sometimes hated, but almost always respected. You will have to figure out how to achieve that balance in your own style. The best game makers master that balance. Failures, even if they were brilliant game designers, often fail in leadership.

Once you have that down you need to make a great game that is profitable. Well put. To do this, you have to focus on both halves of this question. Many developers make the games they want to play. That works if the game you want to play is a game that lots of people also want to play AND is not already out there. If you have obscure tastes, and you'll know this because you will talk about your games as "art" instead of "entertainment," then you will have to get lucky and strike a cord. Most of the time those games fail to be commercial successes. But assuming for a moment that your tastes run somewhere near the pack, the key is to make a game that satisfies without being utterly derivative. I call this "filling a hole".

Lots of beginning game designers simply try to make a "better" version of a game they love. Say… MW3. There are two problems with this. The first is that most beginning game designers don't have a snowballs chance in hell of making a better game than MW3. From talent to budget to knowhow they will simply fall flat. Way flat. Can't see it from the side flat. But equally as important, there is already a MW3 and tens of millions of players want the sequel. You won't even have to match the game (highly unlikely) you will have to somehow convince people to abandon their favorite series (damn near impossible). A better strategy is to say "where isn't there a MW3 where I can make a game like MW3?" That is a hole, and you plan to fill it.

I can give you some examples: There wasn't a fighting game on the early 3DO. Before the big publishers got around to releasing the Mortal Combats of the world, we filled the hole with Way of the Warrior. It may not have been a triumph of game design, but it WAS a hole in the library that people wanted to fill. So we sold a lot of them. That gave us a chance to make a character action game called Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation. We filled another hole. Nintendo had Mario, and Sega had Sonic, but Sony had squat for their new system. We gave them Crash, which wasn't a ripoff, it was a truly good game in its own right. Then the PlayStation became the best selling of those platforms. Bingo.

It doesn't always have to be so blatantly obvious as these examples, but the "fill the hole" principle is a good one to keep in mind. Don't try to do "Angry Pigs" for iPhone. Do something fun, interesting, technically proficient, and unique for some platform. Fill a hole. If you get all those just right you will succeed.

And make sure you know the business model. Know your break-even units and be honest with yourself about your odds of making it. Or if you are free to play then know how many MAU's you need at what conversion rate you need to break even. Not every game gets 100mm MAU's. Know the business BEFORE you launch the game. Unless it is a charity endeavor, of course. By the way: most games don't just rise to the top of the iTunes rankings. They get pushed. Pushed is a nice way of saying that they game the system with cash, targeted buying, piggybacking on an already successful title (hopefully your own), or something else. Make sure you know the game.

As for getting your name out there? Hell, my days in gaming predated Facebook and Twitter and Blogs. You will have to ask someone younger about that. But I do have one piece of advice: Don't oversell your product. It is a common, and truly sad, occurrence for first timers (and even some veterans) to go out and do press about how their game kicks all kinds of hell over the competition well before they even have a playable demo. That makes you look like a fool. Don't sell anything you can't put in someones hands and prove. If you stick to that methodology you will gain their respect. Even if that game doesn't succeeded, they'll believe you when you come around again to tell them what you have the next time. Leave the "change the world" hype to the guys in Silicon Valley raising tens of millions of dollars for a month or two of hacked code.

You make games, son. The proof is in the product.

Good Luck!


Monday, February 7, 2011

Check out Andy Gavin's Blog "All Things Andy Gavin"

He and I have a six part series on the making of Crash Bandicoot.

Skip to link directly...

Segment 1
Segment 2
Segment 3
Segment 4
Segment 5
Segment 6

Promise it's worth it!

Friday, December 10, 2010

DLC - Force for Good or Force for Evil?

A few e-mails I have received in response to my interview on Epic Battle Axe 098 focus on DLC as a negative, or a money grab by publishers. Frankly, I have a really hard time feeling the pain.

Rick wrote:

Since DLC came into our lives, gamer life has been in some sort off turmoil. Nowadays you never know if a game has that full value of an entertaining compelling story that it follows through till the end. Game developers too gladly release DLC with the attachment of “full gaming experience” and tie- in the story that’s not embedded in the game itself on release.

We pay a lot off money on release to see what happens to our favourite characters, only to find out that the story just doesn’t end there.

Compare today's games to the games developers worked on just six years ago when I was at Naughty Dog and the original XBox and PS2 were on the shelf. The scope and scale is almost incomparable! Budgets have doubled at minimum, tripling or more in many cases. Teams have doubled, and outsourcing is a must to keep up with production needs. Projects are taking far longer to complete. Yet the price on the shelf is roughly the same. Taking inflation into account, games may actually be cheaper!

I also fail to see any evidence that developers are removing content from the games they release in order to sell it later. DLC currently sells to a small subset of the gamers playing the full game. To risk bad reviews, a feeling unfulfilled expectations, or other negative response to the full game because important parts of the game were removed would be a bad strategy. It simply isn't being done.

To my knowledge, most DLC content is created after finishing the full game. In other words, if the developers were including the DLC, the games might have to be delayed. If there weren't a possibility of increased revenue from DLC it wouldn't be rolled into the game... it simply wouldn't be done.

Admittedly, there is certainly some strategy being deployed in creating plot "holes" and other opportunities to work the DLC into the game's universe. But again, I don't see this as a strategy to decrease the value proposition of the full game so much as create an opportunity for the DLC to make sense in the universe the game plays in. "I didn't get the full story" is about as fair a complaint for DLC as it is for sequels. The Death Star was destroyed, how dare George Lucas build it again... over 2 movies no less... and make me pay for two more tickets to get the complete story!

And there are cases of truly inspired DLC that obviously are wholly new experiences. I submit the Red Dead Redemption's Zombie expansion as an example of this.

As I responded to Rick:

DLC itself is not causing the problem. Certainly we can imagine a world in which every game fully completes the story and DLC is just added on top. Think the Zombie addition to Red Dead Redemption. That was clearly an optional add-on and not a plot addition. So if DLC is being abused then that is a decision of the game creators. In this case you are correct that gamer revolt (not buying DLC) is a fair response. I am pro-market. If you feel you are being ripped off, then don't buy. At the price offered, I thought the Zombie addition to Red Dead was a GREAT deal, and a wonderful way to get more of a game I loved.

I don't think on average Games are being shortened by DLC. If anything, games are getting bigger, longer, and fuller. You now often get a full 1 player game, multiplayer, and co-op for a single price. That almost NEVER happened in the old days. Having said that, development times are getting longer. So Naughty Dog used to be able to put out a game a year during Crash. Then Jak became a 2 year production. Though after I left Naughty Dog remained one of the most efficient devs out there, maintaining 2 year cycles, most other teams (especially Take 2 and RockStar) moved to 3 year or more cycles. As a fan of a game it sucks to wait 3 years for a sequel. DLC keeps the game fresh during that time. Without DLC, single team development (not like COD with multiple teams working on every other project) becomes a waiting game.

If you don't like DLC, don't buy it. But I fail to understand the agony.


Question about Connectivity and Collection

Since I did the Epic Battle Axe 098 interview I have gotten a lot of responses and questions about my suggestions regarding digital distribution. I thought I would share some of the correspondance...


I've followed some of your work over the years and
recently your opinions presented in an interview on the Epic
Battle Cry podcast really caught my attention. For
quite a while now I have been somewhat disheartened by the
different tactics for distribution in the video game
industry. Simply put, I am almost a video collector
more than a player at times, and I more often than not enjoy
experiencing titles that are more than a decade old.
While I still enjoy current generation games, I fear that my
chance to catch a missed gem years down the road will not be
possible anymore with the large move towards digital
distribution. Even recently my chance for digital
content was held up by a recent move and short term
unemployment limiting internet connectivity. Lumped
with the increasing cost of products I am worried that my
favorite pass time will only be past time from now on.
I want to know if there is a way that your ideas regarding
varying pricing and
distribution options that you expressed could be
viable with a way to still retain a physical medium in the
future? The only idea that comes to my mind is
somewhat of a mix of the free/small fee to play with
purchasing further content and somehow allowing that to
count towards an eventual discount on a physical medium full
game purchase. Am I thinking even remotely
realistically here or will this always be a dream from your
perspective? Thank you for your time with this and I
truly appreciate your incite, industry work, and
contributions to the gaming media as well....


You bring up multiple issues, all of them valid.

I salute your collectors desire. I often fret that games that I made years just 10 ago are meaningless to the broad market while movies and music made in the 60's are still wildly consumed. Games do keep getting better (unlike music, which is probably equally as good at any time before), so to a certain extent I understand this. But part of it is lack of access. People don't want to have 15 consoles and PC's in their house, so they jettison the older ones along with the games.

Digital Distribution has actually HELPED review this trend. A variety of price points and distribution types has given a second life to titles that wouldn't have made sense any other way. I submit Sonic on the iPhone, or XBox Live Arcade games. In the future, I hope games are more like movies and music and more items down the "long tail" are available. With easy distribution, content creators are incentivised to bring old games out again. It's cheap to "port" to the new distribution medium, and the distribution platform puts it EVERYWHERE, so the game doesn't have to make much to overcome this cost. With a box, you have to print a minimum amount just to put it in every store in the hope someone walks by and wants it.

That does leave the collector somewhat out of sorts with no physical good to put on a shelf. I am not sure what to say about this. I think there will be other things to collect, as the "Top Tier" games recently have shown with collectable extras that they package in to a limited edition release. Perhaps the first X people to buy online will get one in the future. I guess I have to admit that long term the collector probably comes out of a switch to digital distribution less happy. That is unless the game business figures out something to distribute physically besides the game, or the collector starts collecting something other than the box.

The other topic you brought up, being able to play games offline when times get tough is also an interesting one. Certainly, you can't play any of the facebook games that are currently out without online, or WOW for that matter. And of course, you can't play COD multiplayer without a connection. Because of their boxed history, this is often not the case with single player boxed titles. Yet even today, if you don't have a connection, you probably aren't playing the most recent, bug free version of a boxed title. Almost all games update the minute you first start them up. The way software is being created and maintained is changing rapidly. Games used to be "final" when they were shipped. That isn't the case anymore. Almost all games are in constant flux and updating. So even without digital distribution, you are cut off from the games improvements, all multiplayer, xbox live style achievement sharing, etc. etc. I would bet that this continues in only one direction... less and less capability unless the game is plugged in. So I think this is a losing battle box or not. Unfortunately, I would imagine being online is going to be necessary for game players in the future no matter how the game is distributed.

That indeed sucks for those that aren't financially in a position to keep themselves connected. Having said that, in the future being unconnected at home might mean that a lot more than games won't work! TV's (google tv, hulu) , Music Streaming (pandora), Movie Watching (netflix), Book reading (kindle), and other forms of entertainment are starting to rely more and more on constant connection. And that isn't even anticipating a future when your refrigerator wants to be online.

I don't know how to solve that problem. It seems to me that it is far bigger issue than games though!

Thanks for adding to the conversation. As I hope you can see, everything you said is valid and stimulating... I am assimilating!

Good Luck with your collecting...


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It's a Good Day to be a Flamer. Is it a Good Day to be a Gamer?

By now many of you have read that Jason West and Vincent Zampella have formed a new company, Respawn, with a juicy deal from EA.

First let's get this out of the way: I was wrong. In my Face!

Now let's set the record straight: I am happy for them. I wouldn't wish anything to be different. In fact, if I had any say, then there wouldn't be so many clouds around their departure and all parties, including Acivision, would be happy with the situation.

I wish there would be a precedent set that indeed made the greater part of my statement, that diversity of product is in jeopardy in the AAA business, wrong as well.

What flamers don't understand is that I don't wish that diversity is in Jeopardy, or that developers can't get new gigs, but the opposite. I predicted the trend, but I wish to be wrong. This is similar to predicting global warming. None of the scientists are excited for possible polar bear extinctions. They hope they are wrong, or that some unknown variable might change the course. I wish it was ALL really in my face.

Those of you that read my Response to Bonus Round 402 Section 3, and have a greater depth than the average flamer, will realize this is a more nuanced situation. Again, I HOPE that Vince and Jason do create a great new IP, but there is a lot not to like.

First and most obvious, this is not the workings of a healthy industry. If starting a new development team requires lawsuits by both parties (with a possible further one from Activision claiming tortiuos interference against EA), an uncertain future for the team at the publisher, and possible loss of royalties for the leaving developer then this really will be the exception to the rule.

How many developers are going to follow in their footsteps if this is the case? If Activision does sue EA, then how many publishers will give the needed financing the next new development team to leave? I don't want to weigh in on the case itself, but it is certain that a lawsuit is miserable for all parties involved and that it will take years to resolve. That is unless Jason and Vince are willing to give up a good deal of their royalties in a settlement.

Lawsuits are also a major distraction. Jason and Vince will be fighting in court at the same time that they are trying to build a new team. And building a new team is a major challenge. They will have to hire 100+ people and get an engine and development system in place. Most people aren't aware of how hard this is today. Once more for the record, I hope they succeed, but we are far from certain that they will be able to create a new team and a successful new IP at the same time. It is a massive undertaking.

There is some word that other members of IW may follow them, and this is relevant to the discussion about diversity. If enough of them leave that Activision feels it has to use another team to continue COD then we haven't increased diversity... we've just shifted a team to independence. This would be similar to the Bungie spinoff, which created an independent developer (in a much more peaceful way) but didn't add to the number of teams in the business. This still remains to be seen.

So it is a great day for flamers (what day isn't?), but is it really a good day for Gamers?

Time will tell.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Response to Bonus Round 402 Section 3

This is my response to those that would refute the thesis I put forward in Part 3 of Bonus Round 402.

Can well known developers, or groups of developers, leave a team (through choice or dissolution), start a new development studio, and get a deal with a top publisher with enough financial backing to make something creative and meaningful in the AAA space and thus prevent the industry from losing diversity in product?

This is the question that I posed, and then suggested that in my opinion the answer is a resounding NO.

Many of the responses I got to this question from the panel and in the forums forget why I posed the question in the first place, and attempt to minimize the question by finding exceptions to the rule and fringe cases. This is useless in refuting the thesis.

For example, I think we can all agree that falling out of a plane at 30,000 feet is deadly. Yet the grandfather of a high school friend did just that in WWII and survived basically unscathed. In fact it is not unheard of. But these exceptions do not mean that falling out of a plane is safe.

To support my argument I will speak in norms and generalities. If the question is relevant and the industry works in the way I suggest the MAJORITY of the time then we do indeed face a problem. I will break the question into four parts, first a sanity check on the value of the question itself, and then three assertions embedded in the question.

Shane is irrefutably wrong in his assertion that recent layoffs in the industry are normal and recurring. Not only has EA layed off a record number of people in the last year, but after the taping of the panel Activision also layed off a large number of people and shuttered multiple teams. The two biggest publishers laying off thousands of people at almost the same time is unprecedented. This is not my opinion, a simple check of past years press releases bear this out.

I do not debate that good developers can leave and sign smaller projects (<15 million dollars for this argument), but those developers are leaving the AAA business rather than doing anything relevant to support creativity in that space. Sure, they might eventually grow to get a shot at something bigger, but since smaller projects also take significant amounts of time this doesn’t solve the midterm problem that I propose lies in the 2-5 year window.

I do not debate that complete teams of independent developers can move around at will and get amazing deals. But if Insomniac, Epic, or Valve moves from one publisher to another then they are not bringing more diversity to the AAA space or replacing the lost teams. They are part of the current diversity already. New teams need to be created to replace teams that have disappeared.

There can be no argument that IF out of work developers (or those that chose to leave) cannot sign new AAA deals then fewer people and fewer teams working on these games will negatively impact the number of these titles released. Fewer titles should also mean less diversity unless somehow the industry simultaneously finds a will to experiment at the same time as it is losing projects. I would find that hard to believe. If anything, teams that remain intact will be focused on “proven” product, especially if they are publisher internal, and not in trying something new.

Thus the question is relevant.

I can quickly dispense with the first part of my question: “Can a well known developer, or group of developers, leave a team (through choice or dissolution), start a new development studio?” I will assume that there is no impediment to doing so. Thus there should be no argument by those that disagree with me so far.

The second part of the question: “can such a developer get a deal with a top publisher with enough financial backing to make something creative and meaningful in the AAA space” is the meat of the discussion.

To simplify this discussion I assume that talented developers will ALWAYS make something creative and meaningful if given 1) enough money and 2) enough freedom to do so. This is certainly not true but I am willing to accept the most generous of arguments against my overall point because this is not where I believe the problems lie.

The crux of my argument is that no publisher will sign a small band of developers, even a very talented one, to build a new team to do a 40+ million dollar title, so their only choice is to join an internal team that the publisher deems could be better led. Thus, even if they get the money, they likely won’t get the freedom. This is not because of any conspiracy against or unfairness towards developers; it is an unfortunate reality of the size and difficulty of building these products. There are hundreds of reasons that these titles are too big for a new team to tackle, but there are some easy ways to look at it.

A new developer would need to build a 120-person team. Hiring quickly, the team might try to find more than a person a day. I submit that this is impossible if quality is to be maintained. Going slowly, the team might grow at a person every 3 days. Possible, but the cost of idle hands, or managing a growing team efficiently while money is being spent on those already hired in that first year, not to mention the lengthened development cycle makes the risk adverse publisher refuse.

Once that team is made, there is a “rhythm,” the complex inter-working of a well built team, needs to be built. My old team Naughty Dog is a great team capable of making a game like Uncharted because they have built up and maintained this rhythm for over a decade and a half, broken if at all only by a transition to new management that we painstakingly strung over 2 years to insure that Evan, the new team leader, would be ready to take over and maintain that rhythm (by this I mean to take no credit for their amazing work on the Uncharted titles after I left). Rhythm involves everything from agreeing on methodology, acceptance of leadership, to existing engines, technical shortcuts, and an internal language. Again, full teams have it. Building it from scratch is really hard and usually takes multiple projects.

Publishers don’t want to pay to build an independent developer, taking the risks as the team is built, to end up having them leave as a complete unit to work elsewhere once the teething pains are over. Independent developers are REALLY hard to build today. I submit that this is a non-starter.

So what about internal? This is the most likely exception that would prove my theory wrong. The money would be there, most of the team is up and running, and they may even have the rhythm needed to make a great title. The publisher is much more likely to make this deal, but would it lead to something creative and meaningful?

I’m not sure. Would they get a chance to do something creative? Maybe, but I suggest that the first project is more likely to fix a team that is building a franchise title. Even if this is not the case, the very fact that they are joining an existing team weakens the argument that this is a source of NEW development ability. They are replacing a team, not adding to them. What about all the layed off developers? In any event, it isn’t exactly the panacea of creativity we were looking for.

Thus, it is not a question of talent, but rather a question of real world risk and practicality that would keep even the most well intentioned publisher and developer from signing a deal that risks enough money to do something creative and meaningful as an independent. And as an internal replacement, what is the real impact? Maybe I am stating the problem too forcefully, and joining an existing internal team to improve it and make something creative greatly lessons my thesis. Maybe, but I love the industry and I wouldn’t want to hang my hat on this as its future.

The fact that seemingly independent developers started by legends in Japan form all the time is a red herring. There are lots of reasons for these seemingly independent developers in Japan, much of it stemming from the strict seniority and pay structures inside Japanese companies, but one thing they do not usually lead to is new creative talent in the business. Most often, the same developer works with the same team for the same publisher. Hardly a counterpoint.

The third and last part of my question is: “can this happen enough that it will prevent the industry from losing diversity in product?” This is the most ignored part of the discussion. The entire point of asking the question was the impact on the industry AS A WHOLE. If one or three exceptions to the rule exist, but a dozen indeed follow my prediction, then the industry has a NET loss of development teams and a NET loss of diversity of product. I would still see that as a problem.

Coming up with Miyamoto-san, Will Wright, or a few others as exceptions is not a counter-argument. Miyamoto-san might certainly be the man to survive “jumping out of the plane”. But besides the ludicrousness of suggesting that Miyamoto-san would leave Nintendo, the fact that he might do so and would immediately get hired by another publisher does not refute the argument that this not the case for the vast majority of developers that create the backbone of the thesis.

Of course, a really successful developer might self finance. That is extremely rare and won’t have a large impact on the thesis. There are certainly some who can, but the number is extremely small. Again, they would be the exception and not the rule, and they are probably already making independent games.

What happens to the business if the vast majority of developers cannot sign new deals as I propose? That is the reason I proposed the question, not whether the rules apply to every last person in the development community.

In fact, through no malice on the part of publishers, developers, or anybody else, I think we do indeed have the problem I proposed. I believe that less AAA titles will be started in the next year, and a few years from now that will be felt on the shelf. I am neither pessimistic about the industry, angry at anybody or anything, or otherwise guided by any ill will towards gamers or the business. I am simply making a prediction that I believe to be true. I have no ability to control the outcome, and I would not wish for my opinion to bear out if I was. In fact, I hope I am wrong.

And finally, to those that pointed to the fact that I said on the panel that I couldn’t get a deal as proof that this was “all about me” are utterly missing the point. I was saying am the only one on the panel who has been out in the real world talking to publishers about making AAA games. Other developer(s) may prove me wrong (and I hope they do!), but with no disrespect to my fellow panelists, they have no actual experience to back up what they were saying.

Naughty Dog's 10 Awards and the Completion of a Dream.

I just got back from DICE feeling like a million bucks.

Naughty Dog, the company I co-founded with Andy Gavin in 1985 basically swept the AIAS awards with 10 wins including game of the year.

Though I didn't have any involvement in the making of the Uncharted titles (I left Naughty Dog in 2004), I still take a great deal of pride in their completion of the team goal of linking story and game in a seamless way. Though it isn't obvious, we wanted to do much of Uncharted 2's storytelling as long ago as the first Crash title, but we didn't have the technology or experience to do much story at all in the Crash games.

I still have a binder with dozens of pages of never used background and story that were supposed to link some of the first levels in the first game. Alas, nobody will ever know that Dr. Cortex was a brainy child born into a family of circus clowns or that all of the early boss characters (and Crash) were the result a brainwashing machine that involved bombarding innocent animals with tons of pop culture entertainment. Pinstripe was forced to watch the godfather, while Koala Kong got Stallone movies, etc.

With the launch of the PlayStation 2 I pushed the team to take the challenge more seriously and each Jak title moved the dream forward, though we were still constrained by hardware, our own software, and what turned out to be years of experimenting in just how to get it right.

Again, I claim no responsibility for Uncharted or Uncharted 2, but the Naughty Dog methodology of mixing storytelling seamlessly with gameplay finally worked, and I am proud to have been part of at least the early parts of the journey that got them there. Evan, Christophe, Amy, and the rest of the team should feel incredibly proud of what they achieved.

Congratulations to Naughty Dog, still at the top of the game!