In life, I tend to follow small advice but ignore anything too all encompassing. Tell me how to improve my google rank or chill drinks faster and I’ll give it a shot. Advise me to go to university for eight years before trying to do what I want and I’ll immediately look for a shortcut. And on the whole I’ve been quite satisfied with the results so I felt confident when ignoring the most often repeated piece of advice about starting a game company – start small with your first release.
Right advice for maybe the wrong reasons
The reasons for advising caution usually revolve around logistics and the inability to predict the crushing number of tasks required to release a game. Aside from feature creep, bugs and technical issues, a small team can be overwhelmed by the non-game making decisions involved in incorporating, marketing, PR, customer support and all the departments the development team would dearly love to ignore. But I spent decades in real-life physical businesses. My skillset is particularly suited to handling exactly the sort of tasks that would seem alien (and unpleasant) to an artist or programmer. In the Silicon Valley crew, I’m mentally Richard but skill-wise more Jared and Bachman.
Where I didn’t expect to fail (repeatedly) is right out of the block with staffing. My overwhelming experience in the real world indicated that when people apply for a job, and you accept, treat them well, pay them and give room for growth, they tend to stick around for a long time. My limited online experience reinforced the notion; the site writers have been far more stable and reliable than I expected from freelance game journalists. But when trying to retain artists, I feel like Quasimodo, benign and well intentioned but apparently repellent.
Ignoring the obvious
I see three probable reasons for my unexpected HR failures:
- 1) Just bad luck; three artists not working out is demoralizing but still a small sample size. Maybe there’s no underlying reason, just bad timing with whatever three individuals had going on in their own lives.
- 2) I did something wrong as a manager and provided a less than pleasant working experience.
- 3) I asked for a commitment they didn’t trust or want to give
In evaluating these possible reasons, I can narrow things down a bit:
- 1) I don’t have the luxury of trying an appropriate sample size. Each failure eats months of progress and since they happened so early in the process I simply can’t waste more time.
- 2) I will keep this possibility in mind and try to do better, but still think I’m relatively good at this. And all three artists seemed to be happy and enjoying themselves right until the moment they quit or disappeared.
- 3) What I failed to full internalize is that for an artist looking to get into games, pay and work conditions are not the sole or even primary deciding factors. More important is whether the game will actually get made. They need experience in something that gets published, so they can show it to future employers. Screenshots of vaporware is far less effective than a successful game currently available on steam, I imagine.
And while in the real world I had a big building with lots of staff and parking spaces and board rooms to reassure applicants that they’re not joining someone’s fevered dream, my game company is currently little more than a series of blog posts and grand(iose?) ideas.
Following advice now
I can do something about #3 above so I’m going to Jared it and pivot. I need to produce something smaller. Aside from learning a whole bunch of things about the process I’ll also have something to show prospective applicants when it’s time to expand. Because artist aside, I’d still need a programmer and having one quit mid-production would be too crushing.
But I still want to make that game. So ideally this pivot could also advance that effort.
Enter the Personal DM CYOA Maker (working title)
The game always had two goals. The first was to let you play within an extremely statistically detailed simulation of a city and the gladiator trade in particular. The second was to recreate some of the magic of tabletop role playing, where a human DM reacts to your actions in a personal and satisfying way.
In order to accomplish the second goal I designed an adaptive CYOA engine to integrate into all aspects of the game. That engine is the new pivot. Treating it like a standalone product will let me iron out the complexities before leaping into the full game. It will also force me to polish it to a higher level than a simple production tool which will help with user created content in the long run. Finally, it’s a product that deserves to exist on its own.
Long before I started the site or taking steps towards making the game I wanted to enter the industry in a low-commitment way. Being a writer I thought an interactive fiction game would be the best starting point for a non-programmer and spent considerable time looking at the various engines available.
What I wanted was a customizable role playing game system grafted onto branching storylines. I especially wanted an easy way to modify the text, so characters with high scouting skills could see more and sneaky characters could enter scenes differently. I wanted the branching to be tied to the RPG variables and stats and I wanted the ability to add static art and maybe get some help with an inventory and mapping system.
What I found floated around that concept, either focusing almost entirely on the branching at the cost of RPG elements (twine, choice of), or going in the other direction and providing a full RPG experience with sprites and manual actions (RPG Maker) which required more programming to do correctly than I wanted to learn.
So what’s next now?
From a design perspective I have to stop working on various game specific systems and focus on the CYOA maker as it’s own entity. That means opening up flexibility in some areas which would have been set for my specific game. In a perfect world, future game makers might use the tool to produce all sorts of content I am not anticipating and I’d want to give them as robust and comfortable a tool to do so as possible. If I do a good enough job it might carry on facilitating content production long after I start working on the game itself.
From a logistics perspective much of the same setup work for the company is still required. Grants still need to be applied for, websites and infrastructure set up. But it’s all smaller scale. Things like art, sound and promotion material can take a back seat as it’s not the sort of product that needs to land with an instant splash.
From a staffing perspective things become more manageable. It’s the sort of project I could use a development company instead of trying to find an individual. I wouldn’t want that arrangement for something as long developing (and supporting) as the game but it does completely buffer out the danger of losing the only programmer mid-production. It’s also not a bad thing to get used to the more stringent documentation a company needs vs. an individual programmer sharing the same physical space.
What happens to the game?
Parts of it will still continue to develop. I’ll still have a big chunk of time while the programmers are chugging away in which to write. The CYOA maker will need some stories at launch, both to show what’s possible and to make it real. So once the design is set I’ll continue creating the game’s world, just in story format. I’ll also continue developing the game’s systems.
All of the stuff that would have come mid-way through the games production, the annoying legalities and boring infrastructure will already be in place because I’ll have to do most of it for the CYOA maker anyway. I’ll have minor relationships with the groups I need to get to know (other journalists, Steam and other platforms, contractors, etc.) already established. All that stuff would have felt like an annoying distraction if tackled mid-production, now it will mostly be done.
So if all goes well, the maker releases and I resume working on the game while gauging the maker’s own success. If it fails to make a splash it’ll still be a fantastic tool I’ll use throughout the game’s development and hopefully fans will use it to make their own content. If it gains any sort of traction on its own it can continue evolving separately from the game, with its own resources.