Category Archives: Game Production

A playbook for cutting the corporate purse strings

Two and a half years ago, I left the security of a stable job at Electronic Arts to cofound a now failed start up with a longtime colleague. Based on our time making free-to-play games at EA, we saw an opportunity to build the business backend as a service for game developers. We were both burnt out from a challenging year at EA after our GM left to cofound a well-funded, all-star game studio. We both had enough savings to cover a year of independence on a tight budget. We both wanted the freedom to pursue side projects and agreed on a Google style 20% personal time plan.

I intended to check two items off my life goals list. I wanted to found a startup and I wanted to make some small, independent games. I had a partner I trusted and a shared vision. He found a technical cofounder from his network to join our team. We hired a lawyer. We incorporated. We pursued advisors, crafted a pitch deck, built a technical foundation and started hunting for investment. We went full Silicon Valley.

As my ultimate role was imagined as developer relations and evangelism, I started attending conferences and giving lectures on free-to-play game design. A strange thing happened. People started asking if I would consult on their games. Keenly aware of my bank balance, I started accepting jobs. I hired a personal lawyer and accountant. I set up a monetization design consultancy. Fearful of going broke and excited by the opportunities presented to me, the dream of making small games faded into the background.

12 months ago on the Jewish New Year, I wrote about our hours old decision to shutter the startup. Now I am celebrating the New Year again. It is a time for personal reflection and new beginnings. As I survived another year on my own, it feels like the perfect time to look back and detail the many lessons I have learned since cutting the corporate purse strings in favor of independence.
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Escaping the indie shame spiral

On the second day of GDC, I presented Escaping the Indie Shame Spiral as part of the Indie Soapbox session at the IGS. I wanted to expand on the information I presented it in the talk and share it beyond those developers who could afford to attend GDC.

Defining the Indie Shame Spiral

When I left EA after a 4 year stint at the company I had two goals. One was to found a start-up and the other to finally build and release some of the art game concepts I had been mentally developing for years. The start-up goal was realized, but after a year and half we shuttered our doors after failing to secure funding via the venture ecosystem or Kickstarter. My indie game aspirations quickly fell by the wayside as opportunities to consult presented themselves. I have been lucky enough to build a business as a monetization design consultant and my initial savings have been largely untouched thanks to freelance work over the past two years. I have contributed to a lot of games and have traveled the world to speak at conferences on the topic of F2P design. Yet the longer I go without filling my dream of completing one of my art games, the more regret I feel.

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So you’re a manager now

You’re good at your job. You’re a leader within your discipline and your job title may or may not say it. You’re one of the more senior members on the team. And one day you are told that you are in charge of other people. These people are probably your friends. You play games with them during lunch and go grab drinks after work on Fridays. Now you’re their boss.

Back before I went indie to work on Enhanced Wars, I was a producer of the Dragon Age Legends game team. Near the outset of the project, as his already heroic work load continued to grow, my boss started handing off some people management to different members of the studio. By the time the game team hit its peak at 25 members, I was the direct manager of 19 of them. Learning to manage people was a trial by fire, and I made many mistakes along the way.

Management is a whole second job and skill set. It is time consuming, tricky work that involves human dynamics and ambiguity. If you are the type of person who is very comfortable putting on headphones and coding, animating or working on spreadsheets all day then these soft skills may or may not come naturally to you. My goal is to give you something of a map to what being a manager really means.
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Know when to fold ’em: how to quit your live, free-to-play game

Recently, I listened to an episode of Freakanomics Radio called The Upside of Quitting which discusses why it is so hard to quit and how it can be extremely valuable to do so. It made me reflect upon a relatively new issue facing modern game developers: how do you know it is time to quit working on your live game?

In a landscape including free-to-play, mobile, Steam, Ouya, Kickstarter, Desura, alpha funding, etc, there are more ways than ever to release a game and continually improve it. And there are cases, such as the story of Wild Ones’ ascension to become Playdom’s top performing game, which show it is possible to grow your audience through strong game design. But by and large game development is a career of passion, and when it is not just A game but YOUR game out there in the world, it can be impossible to ignore your sunk costs and objectively decide whether or not to continue working on your game.
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Balancing your game with tuning reports

To call the Quarter Spiral team process centric would be a bit of an understatement. Two of the three team members have served as producers of software development teams. We love scrum methodology and have been doing weekly sprints with point tracking and post mortems since the first week of our existence. As our tiny team is spread out across two continents, rooting ourselves in process has been essential to maintaining development momentum and creating trust that each team member is pulling his weight.

This devotion to process can be extended to game design and, in this instance, tuning and balance. By nature, game balance is subjective. What feels “just right” for one team member or especially devoted forum goer may be frustratingly overpowered for another. I believe it is impossible to ever get tuning perfect; it can only ever be good enough and with enough feedback, continuously improved.
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I built my career on a QA job – a response to Nathan (RC) Peters

After two years I was forced to hand in my employee badge for Pandemic Studios, a broken man.

I was taking 4 vicodin a day to dull the pain of a herniated disc in my lower back. Wrist braces adorned both my arms to help control the repetitive stress injury induced by long days of playing Star Wars: Battlefront and typing. The herniated disc – acquired on a rare crunch time day off as I stood up from my couch at home – gave me a bit of a limp, and as I hobbled through the halls of Pandemic Studios you could hear the painkillers rattle in my pocket.

I was heartbroken. I was rejected. I could not fathom why I was let go from the team I had sacrificed so much for. In time, I would grow to understand the incredible gift I had been given in my two years of industry experience at Pandemic. But at the time I was too immature, too angry and too disillusioned to process my experiences clearly.
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6 process tips for virtual teams

Before Alex and I decided to start Quarter Spiral, we both spent a significant amount of time as Producers leading teams at BioWare. In the San Francisco studio, he led the platform technology team and I ran the game team. Although we both have creative backgrounds as designers (he graphics, me games) we both learned to love process. As a team leader, I put down the game design document and picked up the process as my tool of quality and control.

So the very first day Alex and I met to discuss our product vision, we opened up Pivotal Tracker and wrote stories in a backlog. The first full time day for Quarter Spiral, the three co-founders met on Skype for sprint planning. Before the second day was over, Alex and I had already held an ad hoc meeting to review the process we cobbled together; dissatisfied with some kludginess we began to make changes.

Quarter Spiral has been a virtual team from day one. Being virtual is key to keeping our burn rate low and working cohesively while spanning from the west coast of California to the northern tip of Germany. As such, a strong focus on process has been key to keeping our team humming as we build product. Along the way, we’ve picked up some tips and tricks that keep our virtual team strong.
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Embrace the Inner A-hole

or, What to do when Scrum Fails?

During a GDC beer break, I had an interesting talk about scrum with a former colleague who works as a scrum master type (your studio may classify him as a development director, producer or project manager depending on culture).  He vented his frustration with his current game team.  Like me, he is a believer in scrum methodology and has seen it catalyze teams into cohesive units that produce powerful results and ship great games.

But, scrum only works when team culture buys in to the philosophy.  My colleague is fighting widespread ambivalence.  He faces ambivalence from studio leaders, who are stretched too thin to deliver their influence and feedback against a timeline, helping create stability.  He faces ambivalence from senior team members, who are content to finish their individual tasks without reinforcing the team-centric mentality.  He faces ambivalence from junior team members, who are not mature enough to have internal motivation driving the completion of committed tasks.  He is fighting an uphill culture battle with no support and he is losing.

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Game Production Hotline

On Sunday, I moderated a panel at the 2012 Flash Games Summit on the life of flash developers.  I was joined by some of my favorite developers: Andrew Sega (Mytheria/Armor Wars), Dan Stradwick (Monsters’ Den) and Sean McGee (Thing Thing Arena/Endless Zombie Rampage).  During the panel, and in discussions throughout the day, feature creep, difficulty finishing games and not knowing when a game was complete were frequent topics.  For instance, Dan has been working on Monsters’ Den Chronicle for 2 years.  The first year was spent working on a hugely ambitious Monsters’ Den Godfall, before he decided to do something of a smaller scope and ship quickly (inspired by Andy Moore’s SteamBirds talk from the previous year’s FGS).  One year later, the third entry in the series plays fantastically and is nearing distribution.

In the past year, when Dan would tweet about feature creep, I replied by asking if he needed me to fly to Australia and use my Producer super powers to help him ship the game.  After a day at FGS, I had a brilliant idea.  I want to set up the official Game Producer Hotline.  For the low, low price of $0.99 you can call and tell me about the mind blowing feature you want to add to your game.  I will listen thoughtfully, ask questions and then say “No.  It’s a great idea but ship without it.”

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