Monday, January 7, 2008

The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company

I win the lottery and get to finance a videogame?

The first thing I do is take the "defined IP" and throw it in the garbage. It is bass-ackwards for the money man to start with the concept and then hire the people to fit the concept. That's like top-down command - the generals in their pyjamas and slippers in the chateaus, separated from reality, while the grunts are in the trenches on the frontlines. The best you'll get is mediocre shit that only knows how to play the game of game dev. (Hey, Thomas Edison, I want to hire you to be the inventor. What's that, you wanna make some thing called a "light bulb". Who the hell wants that? Put it away because I've already got some defined IP here.)

The next thing I do is throw it open. Do a game *project*. Pitch me baby! Whaddaygot that's worth doin'?

No don't like it. Got anything else?

No, don't like it. Got anything else?

Yah, okay that's it. Let's take a look at that one.

This way I haven't hired some mediocre fuck who just looks at game dev as if it's a job - like engineering or accounting. I have his whole body, mind and soul. He's a true believer. It's *his* game we're making.

Now, since it's *his* game we're making, I'm gonna make a deal to reflect that. (Why? Simple. I want to make money. You don't make money making shit. You get what you pay for.)

First off, this game is its own company. The actual games is going to be sold by a separate marketing company (the marketing entity - let's call it the publisher), but it (the game) lives and dies as its own company. It's own venture.

Next, we talk and make a good deal, one that he feels is fair - not one I'm going to put on the table, take-it-or-leave-it. Why? Because I don't want the bullshit you might give me just to work-to-rule. I want your [b]best stuff[/b]. I want your A-game! I never spout bullshit like "Wanted: A designer with passion to take games to the next level; compensation = a fucking salary"! That's horseshit, we all know it. Only mediocre designers like that kind of deal (because they suck). The only way the powers-that-be get away with it is because game designers, for all their talent, have no guts to stand up for themselves and take what is theirs. So the good ones sneak around and hide. I know that. And it's true for you, too. I know you have dreams tucked away in your little designers notebooks there. Dreams you sneak around in the dark with, and hope one day to get made. Dreams you know will absolutely rule, that you are saving for that day, years from now, when you think you might somehow get the energy and contacts to finally *finally* make a game company to go into production (the rigmarole of making a company being a process we both know is an incredibly inefficient hazing ritual designed by the cynical overly analytical types that crush the life out of gamedev - which is precisely why filmmakers don't waste a lot of time managing companies [they have other things to do...]). So to get at these dreams I'm going to cut to the fucking chase and allow you to jump the queue. But I know I'm gonna have to do two things to get that: 1.) listen to and be open to these concepts; 2.) compensate you for them in a way that my risk (burn rate) is minimal, but you get compensated *if* they turn out profitable.

I've already established a willingness to listen, so how do I compensate you?

First, you get average-to-low fee up front (preferably low). You wanna work in something you believe in, you have to take equity, which means taking on risk. (Well, okay... If you're a veteran, or your idea is good [or part of a franchise maybe], you get a pretty substantial fee up front.)

Now, if it sells well, you get a piece or a fee paid for anything that spins off from this concept. You get a fee piece of the budget to any sequels, if it gets turned into a film, TV show, comic book, novelization, training application. You name it. That's what you get. It's fair. So give me your A-game.

Either that, or we give you a piece of the gross sales of the game (though you'd truly need to be a veteran for that). Remember: I'm not fucking around. I'm not interested in you being yes-man to the piece of shit game we've assigned you - I'm asking what you think. It's your chance. (If you hand me anything tired - like an old genre game but with a few extra doo-dads - you're fucking gone. So be passionate and aim high.)

(Hell, if you - personally - have an agent, I'll work with them too. But just remember... Your A game!... I want it. I am not prepared to *actually believe* - like so many suits do - that my own shit smells like roses. So don't dick me around.)

Next, I have only 1 or 2 designers and we prototype. Like for maybe 6 months to a year. Wow! Think of my burn rate! Two people! Do I even need an office to do this? I doubt it. Come over to my apartment dude. Let's make this bitch. I hire high school or university students for some playtest sessions. We're talkin' small flash games or even a tabletop version. I get at the fun. The programmers and analytical types are leery of this: you can't test framerates or polys with a tabletop. Fuck it. I'm interested in the fun factor! If I capture it here, I know I'll be able to duplicate it in the electronic version.

Six months to a year later, I have a prototype, plus a fully-fleshed out design doc. Now I cast to build it.

Of course if six months to a year later we have a piece of poo - the prototype just didn't turn out - well, it gets canned. But not a huge loss since we didn't ramp fully up anyway.

I go to outsourcers to build this bugger into a real finished game. Not offshorers - outsourcers (there's a difference). Gimme your portfolio? This is the IP we have developed, what is your work like? Does your work fit this project? How does your style fit the concept? Don't worry about fuckin' job stability. If you want fucking job stability, what are you doing in the entertainment industry (that's what games are part of) - become an accountant; I don't want you here: get out of my office. I want aggressiveness and passion. If you are hot, I'm willing to cut a deal like I did with the above parties. You manage your outsourcing company, you provide me with the stuff you agree to, you take care of your own internal shit (I don't wanna see it), and get it to me more or less on time (I'm not as much of a stickler on deadlines because my burn rate is next to zilch [my whole game company runs out of a tiny little office]; and I am WAY more concerned with quality than schedules).

How do I cast these suppliers? I trust the magic new thing called - wait for it - intuition! Intuition and perception! Things that analytical types distrust (because they can't be measured with numbers) but which lead to truly amazing new discoveries (and not tediously boring shit which is what analytical types make because they are bean-counters). I don't give a shit about experience. What I want is talent.

What does my company look like? You're right: it's a fucking zoo! All the little scaredy-dweebs who just want to remake D&D or want to make efficient coding processes (instead of effective games) are scared shitless by the creative energy here; but that's okay because they are deadwood and I want them out of my eyesight. My place is a beautiful, low-burn-rate zoo. (Can't say this is what it looks like in the offices of my outsourcers. Maybe the coding outsourcer's place is a friggin' zen garden of quietude - though more likely it's the office of Epic Games, id software or some other middleware provider. But they run their show the way they want to, I run mine the way I want to.) And my zoo is just bursting with creative energy, and - working in conjunction with my outsourcers - turns out something so amazingly new and inspiring you can't help but stare at it in wonder.

When it's over, all the parties go their own way for a break. Some go on to different games - done in this manner again, moving at their (the creators') pace. (Imagine that!) Again - this isn't a gawdamn factory! It's a creative hothouse! A studio, by the actual definition of the word. But we know who we are now. We have worked with each other. I can call them up again, if I find a project that fits them. We are making a game dev community. Which is far more important than a mere company. A community! One that is open, where people feel they can continually bring their A-game out in the open. Where they can try to sell their A-game, instead of sneaking around in the shadows while they eek out a living developing stuff from unoriginal shit concepts that bean-counting executives think are cool but really are garbage.

My marketing company sells the output of this one-project-game-company. And I then the time comes for me to say, "I'm lookin' to do another game! Hey world, show me what ya got!"

And that's how I do it if I win the lottery ticket.

...Or meet a visionary.


Patrick said...

Yeah I hear that. I'm so sick of my jurisprudence being second guessed by suits. That said, my mainline right now is a relationship not unlike the one described here, not a bad deal.

By the way, outsourcing to people who don't live in the USA doesn't nessecarily imply a lack of quality.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Fair enough on the outsourcing comment. I only wanted to make the distinction because everyone in gamedev who talks about "outsourcing" now typically thinks the only reason to do it is to save money. To me that is the, quote-endquote, "offshoring" situation - and it's not really good for game development in general because, again, it's a focus on efficiency, NOT effectiveness. (Efficiency and effectiveness being entirely different - as you know, but as many bean-counters or code-tyrants do not.)

If they are outsourcing to you for quality reasons - because you have demonstrated talent and so on - then that's good for all parties (including the general game industry), even if you happen to be physically offshore.

Son of Bryce said...

The idea of outsourcing the game development is interesting to me. Are there cases where this works well?

When I think of outsourcing, the games that come to mind are Q Entertainment's Ninety-Nine Nights and Mistwalker's Blue Dragon. As far as I know, the companies were responsible for design and outsourced the actual game development. From what I've read, Mistwalker's games haven't lived up to the expectations of the creative forces at the reigns so it makes me wonder if the outsourcing affected the quality of the games negatively.

I read a Peter Molyneux interview where he basically said that Lionhead Studios HAD to get bought out because the company had ballooned so much from their success. What do you do with a team of 50 when the game ships and there's nothing else to keep them busy? If you keep the company small then I suppose that you wouldn't have to layoff workers during downtime. In that case, the outsourcing company will handle all the layoffs, ha.

Anonymous said...

If I come up with an awesome idea why should I risk you messing it up and paying me dirt with no job security?
I could just take out a loan and shoulder it myself. After all, you don't bring much to the table other than piddly pay. You ain't gonna manage it (you already said its gonna be a zoo), nor are you designing it, nor do you have the resources to throw at it, you don't know how to code, or market.

You say you want to negotiate a deal I'd like, but you hope it would be for piddly pay because obviously I'd be stupid if I didnt go for the "cut of the profits". But what if I wanted big pay up front and you keep the profits if any, after all, the game is going to be good since you approved it. Is that a deal you can make?

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Anonymous, the model I describe is precisely the way movies are made. It's a zoo - controlled chaos - and frankly that's exactly what it should be. Nobody ever created anything breathtaking in a locked-down environment where people were more focused on efficiency (like factory managers) than creativity.

Yes, I'm gonna manage it. But I'm not going to *micro-manage* it - which is the way everything happens in the game industry (they efficiently micro-manage the best stuff out of things). The idea is to create an incubating environment where you foster creativity. The outsourced part is the making of the game.

I mean, you don't honestly believe that if, say, you want to build a house for yourself you have to set up a construction company, do you? It's the same idea. Outsource, buddy. It's the way the world works.

So what I provide in this scenario is the money to make the game and a fair deal for you - the individual designer - not a fucking wage. That means if the game is a hit, you get rich, and you have power to call your next shot.

Yes, if you want a big fee up front, you can get it.

Nobody in the movie industry would ever want a cut of profits, because frankly movies never make a profit. The accountants assure that. Mainly it's because the one movie that makes a profit pays for the nine that lose money. Points of net profit are known as "monkey points" in the movie industry - because they are used to sucker outsiders. Soon it will be the same way in the game industry - if it isn't that way already.

The only thing that's worth anything is a fee, a piece of whatever budget, or a piece of the gross (the latter only goes to stars, but you can regularly get the former). You can command these things for the title you're working on, and if you're an originator of an IP you can get paid for spin-offs of that IP.

The last thing I say is this: if you come to me claiming you have a great idea for a game, but then say you're looking for job security, I don't even want to hear you. Get out. You're risk-averse. I'm looking for risk-takers, not wimps - people with passion, not 'fraidy cats. Become a factory worker and don't waste my time.

Anonymous said...

Look, if you don't have any history of publishing anything I would not want a "cut of the profits" because experience has taught me that there aren't going to be any. What do you take me for? What are you bringing to the table, I've got a list of games I've seen to ship, what do you have? You say you have money, but all I'm seeing you say you'll give me is a small wage.

Anonymous said...

Look, if you don't have any history of publishing anything I would not want a "cut of the profits" because experience has taught me that there aren't going to be any. What do you take me for? What are you bringing to the table, I've got a list of games I've seen to ship, what do you have? You say you have money, but all I'm seeing you say you'll give me is a small wage.

Anonymous said...

Stop being a dick, other anonymous, he has an interesting theory, you don't have to shit all over it because you're so jaded from working in the very system he finds so appalling. You're not what he's looking for with this. He wants passion and he wants vision and he wants risk-takers and dreamers.

Sirlin said...

Grassroots Gamemaster is my dream come true. Sign me up. My response is here.

Pip said...

I know I can sometimes come off as maybe just some dismissible Sirlin fanboy... but he *has* taught me more about game-design, development, competition, creativity, ambition, etc. than any other person I've ever dealt with closely.

So... me too! I totally agree and want to be on-board with this lottery plan as well.

Apparently, I'm such a crazy developer, so risk-eager, so non-homogenized, such a wrench when they demand I be a gear, that I'm being squeezed right out of the industrial machinery that manufactures such shit all over our "entertainment" industry.

Since I last worked with Sirlin (on Death, Jr. at Backbone back in 2005), I've been hired && fired by:

* Z-Axis on X-Men 3: The Movie Game (lasted there 10 weeks)

* Sony R&&D on COLLADA, PSGL, && PS3's SDK (4 months)

* Emergent on Gamebryo's Server Element (10 months)

* Trilogy on Virtual Pimp My Ride and similar There Engine licenses (9 weeks)

* 7Studios on tools for the four signed titles they intend to have in production soon (8 weeks)

7 fired me yesterday. None of those five places made any serious complaints about my performance prior to my final day. None gave severance. None were willing to budge at all on trying to work out our differences (each staunchly adamant that our irreconcilable differences were unequivocal and essentially due to the unacceptable risk I posed). Most of them pretended to have spoken with me about several problems prior and wholeheartedly expected me to sign-off on their documents of fabricated offenses (since that's what wolves who consider humans mere "resources" require as termination-procedure diligence to limit their liability).

Their facade, their Emperor's dress, proudly heralded as a resplendent weaving of integrity, respect for eccentricity, appreciation of passion, vim, and vigor, loyalty, empathy, honor... all alpha-blended into oblivion as expediently as cleared bits in a clock-cycle. They know their shallow notions of such parroted ideals are token buzzwords which stand grossly ill-prepared to encompass me and all my peers who truly manifest them. Our vibrant examples expose these hypocritical impostors.

I worked hard at every job. I cared too much. I wrote myriad tools to identify, constrain, or resolve critical problems. I made many friends among the developers who sweat over creativity and quality... but only enemies among the pretentious politicking overseers. I advocated, argued, and agitated for beneficial change. I designed and implemented several single-handedly (particularly when that seemed the expedient way to convince others improvement was attainable).

The shrewd stakeholders each discarded me without warning... as though worthless.

Our industry is fundamentally fucking broken right now. Uniformity has almost strangled profundity to death. The IGDA is being hijacked by those who would justify the squelching of disturbing criticisms. The cowards and bean-counters, these dreamless and heartless, they make all the decisions and erect scarecrows and scapegoats to shoulder all the blame. Their short-sightedness is contagious. I guess I have to keep rocking the boat because one of these times, I'm finally going to cause it to capsize... and hopefully several new swimmers will journey to a glorious new Atlantis with me. ;)

So just say when, because I'm getting damn accustomed to hovering on the brink of homeless and starving, and keeping me destitute suits the risk-averse just fine. I'm still embracing risks that could reward us by seeing kilograms of shit shoveled away from our pure entertainment. The spirit of play is a phoenix... so there's more to these ashes than meets the eye. ;)

Ja matta.


P.S. So now my dilemma becomes: Do I expend half of the money I may need to survive on to buy my way into GDC with hopes of landing another job within the system that can only regurgitate me with increasing urgency... or do I save more for ramen while I explore less costly ways to establish survivable income? I've interviewed almost everywhere. So many people now bar even my preliminary consideration, maybe the bleach-drunk flock just won't permit this black-sheep back in. I'd appreciate any advice anyone could care to offer. =)

Christopher J. Rock said...

Damn, this is a good post. Fuckin up the fuck ups and screamin what needs be screamed.

Rawdge said...

Jesus. Finally, someone who gets it. I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone at all left in the gaming industry who didn't get themselves all fucked up about actually being in the game industry.

Here's an industry that claims to climb over itself looking for innovation, creativity, passion and whatever the hell else their job-listings proclaim, yet god forbid you actually display any of those "symptoms" of disease.

The *LAST* thing the gaming industry wants, it seems, are original thinkers or original ideas. Because original thinkers and original ideas can't be converted into a specific, quantifiable bottom-line dollar amount, and that's truly terrifying to these companies.

Fuck 'em. The only way to do it is gather people whose talents you trust, and do it yourself.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Thanks Rawdge.

About your comment on "just doing it" yourself, I like that spirit. What I don't like is when there is an industry of middle-men who are sitting there waiting to exploit those people who "just do it". Who let them "just do it", but then peg them into a box when it's done. So after you "just did it", and you got the deal and the advance, but you don't see any profit; or if you did make a profit you get stuck remaking your game in sequels; or maybe you just did it and you want your name featured prominently on the box or title screen.

And so on. We need a new deal - a new way of playing the game of "game dev".

Rawdge said...


I know what you're talking about. I've got a problem with that too. Part of what I mean by the "just do it" attitude (should I be TM'ing Nike here or something"?) relies heavily on, essentially, an underlying idealist attitude as well. But it's an idealism rooted in principle.

Today's gaming landscape is somewhat different from the ages past of one or two people being able to conceive and make a game in their garage. But it's not altogether different, if that makes any sense. But in a very significant way, it's almost come full circle. Allow me to elaborate, if I may.

During the infancy of game development, it wasn't only not unheard of, but nearly reliant upon, one or two individuals (or an otherwise very small group of individuals) producing a game, from start to finish, in a campus computer lab, or in a garage (or mom's basement). Then, during the past 10-15 years, gaming development had grown in scale to the grand-scale Dev Teams and truly stupendous budgets. That concept of large-scale game development had all but removed the possibility of the ultimately small scale (read: singular or independent) developer being able to release a game to market.

However, today, with the emergence of casual games, or more specifically, Flash-based games, there's the emergence of a whole new market for the singular game developer.

While this isn't necessarily an easy way to break into the industry, it IS entirely possible for a lone game developer to get recognition for their game development skills and talents. Flash games, by their nature, are typically smaller scale than, say, Bethesda's "Oblivion" or Epic's "Gears of War." Flash games just can't quite get that large if they're coming from one singular person.

However, game mechanics are game mechanics, and if something is FUN to play, people will play it. The amount of portal sites that have emerged which host Flash based games is verging on the ridiculous. But what those sites are doing is creating a democracy of sorts where players get to pretty much vote for their favorite game, whether directly (through rating systems) or indirectly (simply through a matter of tracking how often any one game has been played). This allows for a singular (or small scale group) of developers to showcase their talent and skill.

Granted, not all Flash-based games would survive the transition from small to large scale gameplay, but the fact remains that there is a means to judge whether a developer "gets it" or not. If the game is a disaster, no one is going to play it. Alternatively, if the game is good, people will pounce on it. The nature of participation on the internet very nearly demands that sort of interaction.

While these sorts of games may not present the pinnacle of complex game design, they are able to showcase whether or not a particular developer "gets it" or not.

Let's face it, everyone who's ever played a game has the belief that they're able to design a game. There is some tiny grain of merit to that thought (I'll get into that some other time) generally, these people are wrong, and if they try their hand at game design in the Flash-based or casual arena, their abilities (or lack there of) will come to light before the whole of the intertubes.

The developers who are successful at what they do at this level can serve as a sort of "farm team" for larger scale game development. Not everyone of them will make it to the world of professional design, but there is definitely a degree of weeding out that takes place at this level.

So, how does this tie into the idealistic principles I mentioned above? Well, what it comes down to is that if an independent developer of this level is able to do a bang up job of designing a game, then, in my personal opinion, something like the LGC can look to that pool of developers as a source (though surely not the ONLY source) of finding those folks who have already cut their teeth on game design. It's up those types of developers to be willing to stick it through, and work with the LGC to create the game they've always wanted to create, rather than jumping in with a larger scale developer of publishing company that is willing to pay them large bucks for their ideas, but typically disregard their talent. That's definitely where the idealism and principles come into play.

Personally, I think it'd be up to the LGC to establish itself (and it's reputation) to a point where fledging game developers would choose to jump on with the LGC and not with the potentially sweeter (one-time; monetarily) deals that a larger entity could offer them.

Ultimately, it's up to the skilled and talented developer to *choose* to *WANT* to work with the LGC, as opposed to another conglomerate that might be willing to offer them big bucks, comparatively speaking, up front.

The LGC will have to establish itself as the preferred choice for emerging developers. This could potentially be a difficult choice for the novice game designer who is faced with the choice of big bucks up front (and a career of drone-ism) or the LGC who may be offering smaller DIRECT monetary awards for their skills and talents.

So, to summarize, the LGC would need to *clearly* show that it is a better choice than jumping on board with a more established and bigger name publisher, that is, when it comes to the novice - or unsigned, free agent - developer.

~ Rawdge

P.S. Sorry if I got long winded. I was *ahem* "celebrating" Tax Day.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

It's weird to hear my own words come full circle. I've been telling people small prototypes - on flash and tabletop and whatever - are the way to go for a long time now. So you're really preaching to the converted, Rawdge.

However, here is one thing I take issue with: your statement that the other companies can offer the big bucks while LGC doesn't. It seems to me that if you work for EA as a lead whatever and earn, say, a five-figure salary from a game that goes one to make hundreds of millions, you'd be a damn fool not to jump onto something like LGC. If you were a name developer, we would offer a piece of the gross buddy. GROSS! To YOU! Not some game company you were working for. That's humongous compared to the peanuts that you would earn in the conventional game industry.

If I'm gonna give out a piece of gross, I'm not interested in hiring students. I want the best out there.