So you want to make a great video game, huh? If you're going to make an amazing game then there are several things you can do to ensure your project's success. This article is designed to help out both small start up companies and freelancers bypass some of the pitfalls that claim many video game projects. I've been a part of over 50 projects in the video game, anime and production industries, and these tips are based off of my personal experiences and other situations that have actually happened. It is my hope that these tips will help more groups complete their game projects.
Setting Things Up
Know the niche or role of your project in the overall video game business before assembling a crew. A project post that has no concrete ideas or planning behind it doesn't get as much positive attention. This has been proven time and time again. If you want to get good, reliable people then first spend some time really fleshing out your project idea. If you can't create graphics for your project, then at least have a solid plot and game play scheme already set up.
Plan, plan and plan some more! You cannot over plan! Be original!!! Frankly, I'm getting tired of all of the MMOs popping up all over the place. Every single day I see a new indie team trying to gather a team to make another fantasy MMO. Why create a game in a market that is over flowing with these kinds of titles? Also, since there are so many titles out there (many by mega publishers) how much of a chance do these small titles have at success? A small team with limited resources (both in man power and funds) will do much better to carve out a niche that isn't being heavily saturated. Think back to all of the blockbuster movies or games and you'll notice they all have something in common: original concepts or techniques.
- The Matrix: Bullet Time amazed viewers and was a brand new effect.
- GTA 3: First major blockbuster game that features wide-open game play. While this had been done before, it hadn't been done to this extent nor had it reached such a global fan base.
- Final Fantasy 7: With amazing cut scenes, plot and summon sequences, FF7 made RPGs cool for much of the entire video game market.
Gathering Up a Top-notch Crew
The people doing the work are extremely important. Make sure you pick people that have a solid track of seeing things through. Ask for samples of their work and also their educational and industry background. This can help you select the best person for your job. Great video games take a long time to create, so having a crew that can start AND FINISH a long term project is vital. The old saying is true: You're only as strong as your weakest team member.
When posting ads for new crew members make sure the post is attractive and professional looking. Nobody wants to join a project when the ad lacks all punctuation, grammar and is misspelled. It gives a bad impression, a lack of attention to detail. Video games, great ones that is, are all about extreme attention to detail. Also try your best to provide any examples of work already done on the project. This can include sections of a game document, actual screen shots, and art and music examples. Remember the project that shows a great deal of preparation, thought, effort and professionalism will get the best responses.
Once you have the crew set up, you need to have everyone sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreements) and keep those on file. Please note that an NDA has nothing to do with ownership of rights. An NDA only protects your secrets and my secrets. Some project leads seem to confuse the two and think that just having a signed NDA means the project now owns any created material. It doesn't!
Have good communication between the crew. From the start, set up a solid policy of communication and stick to it. This means set up the weekly meetings for the same time and day and don't change it and also set up who reports to whom. I've been on some projects where one lead tells me to do one kind of job, while another lead tells me something completely different. Have a chain of command set up and stick to it. This will help bypass many problems and confusion later on. After doing some serious designing and planning you should have some realistic milestones set in place. Do your best to stick to these dates and make appropriate adjustments when a deadline isn't going to be met. Most projects die out for two major reasons:
- The project's progress slows down to such a point that the crew starts to get bored, lose faith or fall apart.
- The deadlines and concepts are unrealistic and the crew becomes frustrated and/or overworked.
Many crews make the mistake of thinking they can catch back up after missing a deadline. This is extremely hard to do because the amount of work just grows and grows. The crew will have to do double time, trying to hurry and fix the work from the missed deadline while trying to get to the work for the upcoming deadline. Be realistic, if you've missed one deadline then it might be best to push all others back some. Otherwise you'll just start missing every deadline. I was actually on a team for about 1.5 years and they missed 10 straight deadlines in a row. It was at that point I left the company. Also, since the company refused to work under contract (against my objections) I was able to take all of the content I owned the rights to with me. Learn from these mistakes!!!
Another important facet of a successful team is honesty. If the team is falling behind, be truthful with the crew. Let them know how things are going and work on solutions to fix the problem. The same company I was talking about in the previous paragraph had this problem too. The CEO and programming lead would say that things are moving along great and that the project was on schedule. This would happen right up until the deadline and then we'd need two more weeks to a month extension. This pattern happened 10 times before I left the company. The CEO confused positive leadership with straight up denial. The entire crew could tell the game was going nowhere, and yet the CEO was telling everyone "we're doing great." It was about as effective as a pilot telling the passengers that everything is fine while the plane is just about to crash into the mountains. Be honest with the crew and they'll work harder for you. Lie to them (especially if you continually lie to them) and resentment and mistrust will seep in.
Always, always, always work under a contract. The contract doesn't have to be super complex, but projects and/or crews working without contracts are seriously unstable. Here is why: From a company's point of view, working without a contract means the creators of all of the content own the rights to that material. This is especially true if a crew member created all of a certain type of content on a computer and software that they own. If they own the hardware and software the content is created on, and they haven't signed the rights of the materials over to the company then THEY own the content. They can stop working, take the material and move on. Since there isn't a contract, legally there isn't much the company can do. This is a strong reason why companies need to put things in writing and have both parties agree to it and sign it. From a crew member's point of view is it vital that you have the agreement set in writing so you can ensure that you get compensated for your work. If you have no contract and the company doesn't pay you it can make fighting for what is owed to you much harder.
Another issue about contracts is to make sure that the contract is correct. I actually had a company state that there were mistakes in the contract and it shouldn't be counted. This was after they and I signed it. Legally at that point it doesn't matter what mistakes are in the contract. The contract, once signed, is a legally binding agreement. Proof read, then proof read again. Have several people proof read it and make sure each detail is what the company wants to state. Otherwise, the company may find itself in a situation it doesn't want to be in.
I once had a project leader tell me that I was making video games for the wrong reason, simply because I wanted to get paid. He said that I didn't care at all about the art of making video games and that I was just out to get as much cash as possible. He couldn't be more mistaken. While I do want to get paid for my work, after all this is how I make my living, I love video games. I love reading about them, creating them and most of all, playing them! This leader has forgotten that video games are a major business! The video game industry has surpassed the annual earnings of Hollywood year after year! For small teams, money is often a sore spot so here are some thoughts to help even the most modest teams (or freelancers) navigate the money ocean.
I strongly urge projects to avoid the equity option as much as possible. Why? For many reasons! First off it makes everyone on the crew work for the possibility of payment. There is a risk that the project will not see the light of day and that means all of the time and energy put into the game is for naught, at least financially speaking.
Another potential problem is having the initial crew setup to receive a percentage of stocks and earnings. What happens if the more people are added to the crew at a later time? The percentages have to change because there are more people to pay. Is it fair to change the numbers after the contracts are signed?
While I understand many crews cannot afford to pay their members, it is important to recognize that a talented crew member may not be willing to work for free forever. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that usually means working for free, but as that person's resume and experience grows they'll probably start expecting some form of compensation. It is also common practice to give projects that are paying first "dibs". This means if you have a hired musician that is working on three projects, two paying and your project isn't, then your project may get the least amount of attention and time. It only makes sense, since these other projects are willing to put forth cash for his time and energy. This also applies to the amount of money offered. How would you split your time between two projects: one paying $500 and one paying $12,000? Most people would do more focus towards the higher paying project.
Make it a priority to know the industry standards! This is important for both the company and the freelancing crew member. I find a formula works best when working with companies. Having a set formula will show the company that you've thought things through and have a system. It will also allow them to estimate how much material they can afford to purchase from you. I've actually had a company opt for more material because they could afford it. For example you can state:
"$20 per each model generated. $10 for each background."
"$20 per each level designed."
"For each minute of audio created, I charge $40."
(These rates are just examples that I thought up. For accurate rates with today's industry standards, do some research before setting your formulas.)
I do quite a bit of consulting and I tell everyone I work with that exclusive rights always cost money. If you're a freelancer, never let a company have exclusive rights to your content for free. It is also important for companies to understand common practices as they relate to rights. It is standard in the industry to charge 10 times the normal rate for exclusive rights. This is fair because exclusive rights means the creator is giving all of the rights to the buyer. This means the buyer can use the content as much as they want without paying any royalties or other fees to the creator. Since this is the only time the creator can profit from their content, they should make sure they get a fair amount.
For the sound designers out there: Unless it is a highly customized and unique sound effect, I usually only offer non-exclusive rights for sound design.
Use your funding well and be conservative with it! I was on a team once that got $50,000 funding for the game. The team was ecstatic! This was for a MMO that had great promise. The CEO then decided to rent out an office building when the team was still spread all over the US and working remote. Then he also decided to get a server farm of 20 computers. These two choices ended up costing the company $1100 per month. Meanwhile the employees were not getting paid at all. Months pass by and the funding runs out, the game is still far from even beta testing and the CEO had to start funding it himself. Now the game is still not finished, no funding in sight and the CEO is just about broke. Meanwhile the office building only has two people in it: the CEO and his secretary and the server farms are completely empty. Any employees that voiced any concern about the status of the game or company was labeled as negative and was either ignored or removed from the team. Not a good business plan for success!
Some Final Thoughts
Know your limitations and do your best to plan out a project that will not surpass them. I've lost count of how many new projects claim to be the "next, most amazing MMORPG for the Xbox360!!!" Most of the time if you dig a little deeper into the post you'll learn that this is a three-person crew that have no funding and cannot offer any compensation to the crew. Odds are this project will be dissolved in two months and never see the finish line. It sounds harsh, but there is so much that goes into game development, not to mention next gen development that most teams require a full time crew of at least 30 people with a big budget. Many indie teams are part-time and have little or no budget to work with.
Baby Steps to Greatness
Lets say that you still have your heart set on making an amazing game for next gen consoles. Notice I didn't say it was impossible! It is a much better track to make several games before your dream project. Create some interesting, creative and original games and market those. Make the projects appropriate for a small crew and get a solid track record of several completed projects. Having finished, published material speaks volumes more than just a game idea. To put it bluntly, many teams can have great ideas... very few can follow through and make the ideas reality.
Learn to Think Like an Investor
This point actually dove tails the previous one, but shows why taking baby steps is so very important. Lets say you have to invest your life savings of $50,000 into one of two projects. You have no choice; I'm pointing a gun to your head. :)
Choice one: Three man crew, no funding, no games completed. A few art samples.
Choice two: Three man crew, small funding (roughly $10,000), have completed and published (available for download) three casual games, have screenshots and demo levels ready to play.
Which project feels more stable, more like a safe bet? After all, investing is a risk and an investor wants to pick the project with the best odds of success. What you want to do is have the best presentation of your project out there. Give a solid track record and you can start to land bigger contracts and get funding. It will be easier to make baby steps and prove yourself (or team) before trying to make a huge project from the get-go.
In everything that you do, always recognize that it will come back to your reputation. Don't take things personally, take them objectively. If someone doesn't like your game, don't get angry ask them why they don't like it. Perhaps they have some valid reasons why they didn't like it. Maybe these reasons could be tweaked and make the overall game a better experience. If you act professional, always try to learn more and work really hard you can go far in this business.
This applies to both companies and freelancers, always be prepared. Always have a demo ready to go and keep your resume updated. These kinds of jobs pop up quickly and get filled even faster. It is no fun to scramble and throw together a last minute demo reel for a job opportunity. Odds are the demo reel will not be as up to date; it will take you longer to put to together and will probably stress you out. Having something ready to go at all times just makes it easier.
Understand IP and Copyright Laws
We've all see projects from "newbies" that want to remake Zelda or making another Dragon Ball Z game. Do some research and read up on copyright laws. It is important to understand that even if you're making a free game the companies that own the rights to these franchises can (and usually will) seek legal action. This is a fight that you don't want to get into and will not win! If you have your heart set on making one of these games, it is always best to write the company and ask for permission to make the game. They may say yes, but odds are they'll say no.
I've found if a game is part of an on-going series, about to be made into a movie or selling really well then the odds is very high that you'll not be allowed to remake or use the franchise. If it is a game that is quite old (more than five years at the least) and has no sequels or movie rights then you might have a chance at it. It is always better to ask first before getting a cease and desist letter from the company lawyers!
I hope that helps, now go make some great video games!!
Nathan Madsen is an active composer and sound designer with over 75 credits in various forms of media. His work has been used in video game, anime (both TV, film and DVD) and other production projects. He also teaches a college class "Audio in Video Games" at DeVry University. His music can be heard at: www.madsenstudios.com