How Not To Game Dev: 2 examples

download

Make something of value, and people will pay you for it. That’s a very nice advice best expressed by Richard St. John in this TED talk, which is actually one of my favorites. It is a simple advice, and a very powerful one, because it starts with making, and ends with money, not the other way around.

Game development is, perhaps far more than any other industry, a passion driven production line where I think the most successful games  are those who placed what value they wanted to provide in front of the money the developers wished to make. But there are many who gets the order mixed up, and some of them don’t even realize it.

Here are two examples of game dev stories that make me cringe because of that:

1. Some insights into the development of WildStar, a new MMO Just Like WoW, Only With More Stuff ™

WIldstar

I played WoW for 6 years. Some of those years were… obsessive. There is a part of me that’s not so proud of all that time I spent in WoW, but I have made so many good friends and so many amazing memories that I simply cannot educate myself to consider that time lost. When my WoW obsession started to dwindle, I turned to other MMOs and none of them was able to hook me. I guess my expectations were set too high, but what ultimately disappointed me in all those other games is their stubborn fixation to earn their success by copying what Blizzard did, “only a little better”.

It was never really any better. And I never really wanted a copy of WoW. I wanted a new adventure.

WildStar is a new MMO that looks toward “prying them [players] away from Blizzard’s clutches“. To do so, the game’s executive producer Jeremy Gaffney claims that what “everybody has failed at, to date, is how can you keep people for the long haul.” His strategy is to “launch with more stuff to do at level cap than anybody has ever, and the monthly updates will seed more, and more, and more“. To do this, he is making use of a team of well over 200 people, in the context of a business landscape that looks like this: “in the box business you can sell 10 million units of that and you don’t care if everybody hates it a month later. In our business, you’re screwed if everybody buys your box and they’re gone a month and a half later.

Allow me to put some more things into perspective. The development of Wildstar started in 2005 – that is 9 years ago. 9 years ago! Per the sneakily linked article somewhere above ;), we know they have more than 200 employees at this moment. They probably scaled up during these 9 years, but imagine how much money were invested in this game! Where do these people find this kind of money? Who the hell is insane enough to pay for this, and why?!

I know why, and Gaffney knows, too, and makes it quite clear: “There’s still a couple billion dollars in it [the MMO market], so that’s the plus side of it — but getting those billions of dollars is challenging“. That’s how you get development funds for 9 freaking years for a non innovative game where you just throw content in like crazy.

This does not seem like game development love to me. I did not play WildStar, and I never will, out of principle.  It might be a good game (I KNOW for a fact that the music is awesome, because my friend Jason Hayes did it, and you know his genius if you ever listened to any of his Warcraft themes), but this article convinced me that it was developed with only one sole motivation in mind, and that motivation is all those money Blizzard proved you can make with a premium MMO. I am sure that out of those 200+ people who work for it, some of them really pour their soul into this project. If Gaffney is wrong about his assumptions, that people just want a WoW like game with more content at level cap, he will not be the one to suffer; those 200+ people will. And he IS wrong, because:

Achievement is the love of watching bars grow — that’s our industry […] I don’t think there’s a more fundamental human need that gets tapped into by these games than watching your bars advance, and that feeling of progression — of being able to say, ‘I am tougher than I was before.’

I am so sorry, Jeremy Gaffney, but I don’t think the majority of the gamers out there play a MMO for the joy  of watching bars grow. That is definitely NOT a fundamental human need in my mind.

2. How to waste 8 years and probably the jobs of many people, to develop the very vague concept of your dream game

37433195da939d8b32613c7fcea36db4_largeDid you hear of Spellbound Studios? There is a chance that you might, if you ever played Desperados or Gothic 4. Those were not bad games. Those were projects that could promise a creative, united team who could quite plausibly dream up an awesome game.

Spellbound, however,  is dead. That’s no news; there are many studios who went belly up in this ever changing industry. From their ashes, a new studio called Black Forrest Games was born, and that is also not surprising as many talented game crafters unite their strengths and forge their paths after their bigger employers close their doors.

What is surprising about this particular team is their courage to share their story, which, in my opinion,  is a great example of how not to run a studio. There is a lot of bad business going on in this industry and a lot of money exchanged based on reasons I cannot comprehend. There are a lot of publishers and developers who don’t commit, but they are the good guys; the bad ones are those who commit and don’t deliver. There is a lot of ego around the idea of creative vision, which is often hollow, unfocused, and uncontrollable, which results in a lot of work tossed away for nothing and a lot of people who are left without jobs.

Spellbound’s story is naively concentrated around a game idea that haunted a core team for years. I really look forward for such creative endeavors because I believe some ideas have a life of their own, and they are meant to be done. Someone once wrote that if you have a game idea that still obsesses you after one year, you should probably do it, because it’s a good one. That’s a dangerous advice I am still processing, because, how does a good idea haunt you, specifically?

I’ve had my share of ideas. Some still haunt me, and I hope they’ll make it in the real world after all. But most get crushed by the Reality wall. This wall, to me, this imaginary, invisible wall is when you explain your idea to someone, and how fast that someone catches on. Many game makers advice to create an “elevator pitch” for your awesome idea, which is a 10 second verbal presentation you could say to someone in an elevator. These 10 seconds are precious and elevator pitches are really hard to do. You need to encompass the essence of your idea and the reason you are so passionate about it in just a few words.  The GOOD ideas are those whose elevator pitches still get your hear race after one year. And you are still able to talk for 10 seconds with enough passion to convince someone in an elevator that your idea is awesome.

Those 10 seconds require a lot of clarity and a lot of planning. In fact, I believe they have another fundamental need, which goes much deeper than just making games, and it involves your expectations from life, your values as a person, and the value of what you are meant to deliver in this world, and how. Do you want to make a game that makes you rich, or a game that you feel has never been done before, a vision, a story, an adventure never before seen by others? A game that would satisfy your thirst as a player, one that you were not able to quench with any other game out there? Do you want to make a single game, or build a team that’s better, happier than any other team in the world? What is your focus, what drives you? The answers, even vague ones, to such questions, should generate a plan, a way ahead, some clarity, something you can honestly promise and vouch for to anyone who is willing to follow you.

I think that is what the Spellbound team lacks. I think that is what their dream game lacks, and why they have done such bad business over the years.

Their vague idea was born from a desire to prepare a demo for a publisher: “our small company shell with just a handful of people putting in their unpaid hours trying to find the next project.  We’re talking with all the publisher reps we can get ahold of to pull out ideas on what their publishers might be looking for.  One of these conversations involves a couple of guys who suggest pitching a game based on a book that one of that company exec’s wrote.” That is a very legitimate and admirable goal, to secure funds for your team, which is why they were trying to figure out “what the publishers might be looking for“. Not them, but The Publishers.

For two years, they try to refine this concept with a focus for publishers, and what might sell the game – the USPs. But since the idea is vague to begin with, the game turns from an exploratory RPG (in my mind) to “a pretty bizarre Hack and Slash meets Survival Horror that never went anywhere” to a sidescroller to a run&gun game that can be backed up on Kickstarter. During this time, the project gets postponed on several occasions, with reasons that could have been valid (find funding for the Dream Game) but were not:

hard work lets our sexy demo also catch the eye of an even larger Japanese powerhouse publisher who offers us a chance to build a completely different triple-A ARPG under their direction.  Dreams of greatness dance in everyone’s eyes.  This could be the ticket to success!  We’re finally playing with the big boys now, and pulling off this game is going to unlock EVERYTHING.  The company staffs up a ton and dives in.  There’s no time and staff left over to do Ravensdale as well, but that doesn’t matter because we are going places now!” But the outcome comes swiftly: “The last milestone is not approved and no payment will happen.  In fact, the whole rest of the project is cancelled and that’s it.[…] Within days, Spellbound bites the dust and everyone gets laid off.

Alas this is not such a tragic story if you are in Germany. “The German government steps in and starts paying unemployment benefits to everyone while it decides what to do with the remnants of the company.” In the meantime, the core team decides to form a new studio, Black Forrest Games, which decides to carry on the Dream Game that, fast forward to the present, has been funded on Kickstarter. The game is called DIESELSTÖRMERS and is presented as a “High-octane carnage for 1-4 players featuring customizable motorguns, gas-guzzling knight armor, generated levels and randomized loot!” They asked for 50000, and vouched for an Early Access release in July, if they reach 55000 USD (they were short of about 2000 USD to reach this stretched goal). This is the only date they vouched for.

I am very grateful for this team to share their story. But because of it, I do not trust they will launch a good game any time soon.