Alright, you've got a game company up and running and you've got a good number of investors and resources at your disposal. What are you going to do now? Well, there are many possibilities but all of them share common mistakes that startup companies make in their first year. I will discuss in this article the 7 things a company should consider and work on, from personal experience working at a startup company for nearly 2 years.
Know your Limits.
I think that the number one issue we had was a team of 5 (well paid) employees with a solid game idea that was unfortunately way too costly and lengthy. I think it is a common thing to see start ups always wanting to jump on the big MMORPG bandwagon because they have played games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and found flaws and mistakes that they think they can fix or make better. This is admirable, but unless you have a huge team and a huge budget it's not very feasible. Just a side note on this issue: World of Warcraft took $200 Million to create, and if you have that kind of capital to spend on one single game, go for it. But the fact of the matter is, World of Warcraft worked off an already pre-existing IP, with a huge fan base, and a strong reputation for making top-quality games. What does your company offer?
So you might ask me: well, why did you join a company that didn't know its limits? I will be brutally honest when I say I was a na?ve, recent graduate with a bachelor's in game design, a twinkle in my eye, and a huge desire to get a job, any job, in any company. I was promised more employees would be hired and I thought, that's wonderful, that means I'd be senior over them. Unfortunately as the months waned on and the bottlenecks began to appear, it became more and more unlikely that we would ever finish the game we started.
If you are a startup, you have no games under your belt as a team. Start with something small, something you can easily distribute, and begin a cash flow. A flash game is a very good way to start. Try to create a goal, such as finish the game from start to finish by 6 months. If you can do that, you can potentially get a revenue stream after 6 months of expenditure.
Buy That Engine!
Probably one of the more annoying things was that our programmers were working on an engine from scratch, because in their college days they found they could make one in a few months. The engine was in development for roughly two and a half years and there was very little to show for it. Not to mention the backup idea was to sell the engine if the game didn't work out; no one ever mentioned that they had to compete with a huge array of other professionally-built engines. I believe, to this day, we could have actually finished something if we had a pre-made engine that they invested some of their money into, and used that to build on top of. Believe it or not, for the year and a half that we sat there working on the artwork, on the animation, and on all the artistic creative aspects of the game, our programmers sat working on an engine. They didn't even touch the basic mechanics of the game. Our character can be imported, it can run, and it can move, but it can't attack, it couldn't interact with anything; it was an empty, void world.
I admit though, we had some really great and innovative ideas, and actual things built which I think would have made our engine stand out a bit more, but the truth is spending a month to try to apply depth into your speed trees isn't worth it. Especially if you have a tight budget and no game or IP under your belt.
And if for some reason you do not heed this warning and decide to build your engine from scratch then I will give you one last bit of advice on this particular subject: Please, please, get the basic components in first, and THEN perfect them. When all was said and done, we didn't have much in the engine, but what we did have was very well crafted to its final stage. But this made us lose a lot of things in the process as well. For example, although we had a great bloom affect, we lacked any way of making water...Though we had a great shader, we couldn't even make basic particles until way down the line.
Design Document: Without It You're a Blind Man Hunting.
Ours was not finished. Ever. There was only one paragraph in it when we started, and we had to take time from all the teammates just to sit down and concept out the general game play. Though eventually we learned from our mistake and tried to fix it for the second title, it was still one of the bigger draw backs to work with. I remember sitting in a meeting room for 5 hours straight, while everyone debated over the smallest little details at how the town progression would develop, and in the end it was entirely scrapped.
The Design Document is one of the first and most important documents you should have. It should be 80% finished by the time you begin your actual artwork and production stage. The 20% head room should be for any changes or sudden limitation you receive through the production progress. On this note, make the design document concrete, easily read and understood. Include a section of what must be in the game, and what is optional.
The design document is also a great way to speed up production and lift morale. There was many a time where I finished an asset and wasn't sure what I needed to work on next. I was always encouraged to take initiative and work on assets without always needing to consult the art director. But this was virtually impossible when you don't really know what is going to be in the game and what is not going to be in the game. And there is nothing more annoying or painful than seeing something you put 10-15 hours worth of work into being thrown away because it didn't fit.
Art Concepts for Artist's Sake!
As an environment artist, I cannot stress this aspect of the pre-production, and production stage, enough. There needs to be concept art, always, for the things you make, and if there isn't a concept art piece for the particular asset, it better be a mundane asset like a particular flower or tree, something I can just as easily Google.
I model, I texture, and I love coming up with my own little buildings and my own style. I love the creative process when it comes to designing something from scratch, but that isn't my job. My job is to take a concept and turn it into a 3d object for the game to use. So if you're going to ask your modelers to work on things, give them the courtesy of providing adequate concept art.
The last few months as I spent time working with people on 3d assets and models, one of the biggest draw back was that no one had any concept art. It would take me more time to create things and, hence, at a higher cost. This isn't to say that when I worked at the said startup company we lacked concept art. We did have concept art, but here's the kicker: It came from China.
Yep, we outsourced our concept art to China, which was a huge mistake. Out of all the things you don't want to outsource it is concept art. A concept artist is supposed to work closely with the director and the producer. They have to draw dozens of pictures a day, with different variations, and out of those dozens only a tiny select few will ever see the light of day. The concept artist has to know what the target audience is, what their cultural background is, what they can put into the game, and what they cannot. They are a walking encyclopedia of random facts and snippets of information.
It would take us at times 3 weeks to get anything good out of a concept art piece, and in those 3 weeks there would be countless hours spent arguing about what we do and do not like. At one point our art director took some of the concept art we got and had to draw over it, just so we could all agree. That wasn't his job, and for a while that was our biggest bottleneck.
Perfectionism. Perfect Quality. These are the signs of someone who doesn't know when to just say "it's good enough". When you are working with a schedule, and hundreds of assets to manage, and even more hundreds of lines of code to look over, you cannot be anal about every small detail. Your game will simply never be finished.
It is alright to go back and touch up some assets, but to completely remake them? That is hours wasted. Our boss was that type of person, who came into our office one day and said "we are going to delete the trees we made a few months ago and start over with this new way and idea". Sure, I am all for having a beautiful game, with beautifully crafted high quality artwork...But this? When you don't even have an IP to work with? When you are being hassled by the investors on a weekly basis asking you, like some child in the backseat, is it finished? Are we there yet? You are asking us to go back and erase hundreds, literally hundreds, of hours spent on assets.
Touching up assets should take no more than 2 hours at most, if it's a texture change then it shouldn't be too drastic. If you are the type of person that knows you're going to go back and make massive changes to your artwork then design the workflow so it can be done extremely easily.
If one is to go back and play World of Warcraft, and run into Ironforge, the dwarven capital city, you will find that the floors do not always align perfectly, and that there are UV maps which are upside down on some of the columns. And this from a game which took $200 million to create, from a company which is known for some of the highest quality games?
Be the Leader!
We had very little leadership. Nothing was accomplished unless everyone had a consensus on the subject at hand. If one person disagreed, it would mean we would spend hours upon hours trying to convince them or negotiate. In the end, this took away time from building the game. In the end, very little was actually made. Sometimes it's great to hear what your employees have to say about the game, as an employee and a creative person I loved giving them my opinions, and where I thought the game should go. But I sincerely wish someone would just say "No, this idea is good, we are going to go by it, end of story", even if the majority believes otherwise. Leadership is pinnacle.
A game company is not a democracy. It is a business. It has a boss, a hierarchy of employees, and each one has their share of responsibilities. It might seem cruel, and it might seem like "Oh I don't want to be like ______ company and not care what my employees say", but you are in every sense of the word: the boss. And despite what you think, when you make a hard decision and stand by it, through thick and thin, your employees will feel more confident. They will feel confident in the entire enterprise, the company, and in you, and that's key for a high level of efficiency.
Publishing and Recognition: Everyone has something at stake!
I've always said it's better to publish a shitty title than to go entirely bankrupt trying to make the next Halo. This held so true in the company I worked for. When we canceled the first project and started on the second one, we got very far, and many times I said we really should Publish it as is and add patches, add fixes, add things for free if need be. To publish it and to see profits roll in, even small ones, would have been unbelievably wonderful. Even if we published as a free-ware game, something people can download and play free of charge, it would be out there, we would have recognition, and a growing community.
If at one point your gut instinct tells you "This game will not be finished in the time allotted" redesign your design document to make it so the game can be finished. Even if you only have 2 weeks of funding left, try to figure out a way to make it so no matter what your game is released. You might not sell many copies, you might even lose money on the whole process, but you have a game out and you can always release patches and updates when needed. Nowadays more and more games come out only 95% finished. Some don't even finish the quality assurance stage, yet are released; the reason for this is much tighter schedules by big name companies like EA.
Last year I bought a game, Sim City Societies, which initially was extremely awesome, but it was incredibly buggy and it took a good whole month and a half before they released a major patch to fix the bugs. It sold fairly well, despite the bad reviews. Because you know what, in a year or two no one is going to remember those reviews at all, and when you have something out, people can Google it, and say "Ahh they made that game ok".
But did you know your staff benefits from a released title more than the game company? I will explain in the conclusive statement below:
It's hard for a start up to get started. I know this, we all know this. Some of us will get very lucky and make the next big hit. But one thing a lot of startups forget is their own employees. I have worked for this company for nearly 2 years, I made a lot of friends, I learned a lot, and I made a lot of good money. But now I am on my 4th month of unemployment, due to the fact that I am still considered an entry level artist even though my artwork does not show that at all (Or so I quote my agent).Talent goes a long way in the industry, but it is secondary only to experience, and experience is one of the hardest things to prove unless you have a title under your belt. Talent get's you in, but to move up, get newer, better positions, there is nothing more valuable than to say that you worked on a title, or two, it shows you know how the process of development is. Only rarely do companies ask for you to have worked on titles that were big hits, and sometimes working on a more well-known title, than a title that was excellent or good is more valuable.
In an industry where the product can take anywhere from a month to a couple of years to create, reputation is key to attaining new investors, and maximizing your base. Start small, plan ahead, grow a reputation, grow a steady income of wealth, and grow your IPs. It is a long climb up, but if you try to shortcut it, you're going to turn a hill into a mountain, and I'd rather climb a hill than a mountain.
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