Political Entrepreneurism

I was playing a game.  This game: Empire Total War.

I’m Canadian, which means I’m aware of US history, but not passionately linked to it. I understand the American War of Independence, but I didn’t have a lot of emotions to go along with the story. Playing the game brought a new angle to me.  Playing the game made me identify with the founding fathers as fellow entrepreneurs. These were people weren’t concerned with how to cover their ass at the next shareholders meeting or how to get past the next corporate downsizing.  These fellows were here to found a country. There was no manual, no wikipedia for country-building.  They could have taken the monarchy as a model and riffed on the concept, but they chose a new direction, based on hope and good intent.  Pretty heady stuff.  I’m betting there were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of moments of self-doubt.  I’m also certain there were mistakes and blunders throughout the process.  I think this is what we’ve lost as a society, the will of good people to stand up and try to make a change for a higher goal, not purely self-interest.  Self-Interest is a natural part of any equation and I don’t think it should be excluded.  I do however, believe there is room for more than just self-interest in your decision making.  I think purpose is an amazing thing.  When someone is filled with purpose they tend to go beyond self-interest and reach into greater things.  I encourage everyone to go out and try to think of some greater purpose that they can be part of and embrace that purpose throughout your life.

Pretty heady stuff to come out of a video game. 😉

-Trent

My two cents on social gaming

Periodically, I connect up with people I know from the industry. Beers are consumed and we wander through some random strings of discussion.  For some reason though, we always talk about the opportunity spaces and where you could jump in and be successful.

After a recent discussion around social gaming I sat back and thought about the last 16 years I’ve been in game development and the cycles I’ve seen. Over the years there have been a number of new technologies and new platforms and each one tends to follow a similar cycle. Here’s what I think are the sign posts along the way.

The Cycle:
1) A new opportunity space pops up. Unless it is directly linked to a large company who has had historic success in the area, Nobody believes in the opportunity.

2) A mix of new start-ups and established companies dabble in the space. The new start-ups are rough and experimental and the established companies fail to understand the space and simply port existing content.

3) Someone (typically a slightly larger start-up) puts most of the pieces together and builds a new product that captures the strengths of the platform and is polished in execution. They succeed beyond expectation

4) The gold rush ensues. Every start up in the area chases after the platform and it quickly becomes saturated with imitations of the large success.

5) The older established companies who failed with early ports now have a model to follow and they bring higher production values and established Intellectual Properties into the space. At this point the market is quite saturated.  The smaller developers start to die off as they can no longer meet the quality bar set by the big players.   Only a few of the new start-ups manage to succeed, most often lead by the early successors in the space.

6) Market saturation and consolidation. The successful companies start to buy each other up. the market has reached saturation and to get market share they take it from each other. The space starts to look unappealing from a development standpoint and start-ups move to another frontier.

History
Nice model, but is it real? Well, let’s look back to history.
Remember the Dune RTS by Westwood? It started the RTS frenzy.  Following Dune, a small developer named Blizzard stepped into the space with “Warcraft”.    A few other good successes happened, such as Westwood’s “Command and Conquer” and Chris Taylor’s “Total Annihilation”.  After that, the floodgates opened and the RTS genre was flooded.   The big brands continued to have success, with a few new titles like Microsoft’s “Age of Empires” emerging in the later stages of the cycle.   Following the high point in the cycle,  a ton of new RTS titles failed, so interest fell off and most developers turned away from the RTS genre.  The few established players in the space continue to be the big winners (Starcraft 2 anyone?)

How about the iPhone?

Early on, nobody thought cell phone games would be that successful. There were a few evangelists running around, but from a game developer standpoint, the overhead of the other platforms (poor performance, interpreted code) kept everybody away. The iPhone was new and wasn’t from a know player in the gaming space or the phone space, so inital interest was muted. A number of small scale start-ups started to experiment in the space and some early successes came along. Then, some other developers started to understand the platform and managed some large success (iFart, Koi Pond) , which got other people very interested in the space. The gold rush ensued. The quality of the average title started to increase, raising the barrier to entry for developers. Then, once the platform was better understood, the established brands (EA, Popcap) started to bring over established IP to the space.   Pretty soon the top 10 and even top 20 were dominated by well know IP titles, like Scrabble, Tetris, Plants vs Zombies (which is great on the iPad by the way).  There are still a few successes by smaller developers (Angry Birds) but, for the most part the market is maturing rapidly and undergoing consolidation.

I argue Facebook games are going through the same cycle right now and that the easy money has already been made. We are in the later stages of the gold rush and you are seeing all the typical signs, consolidation, the entrance of established players and a saturation of the space with new titles.  I’m excited by all the new gamers these services have brought to computer games and I’m looking forward to converting as may of them as possible into Beamdog gamers.

So, what is the next big thing? To use an american courtroom drama saying, “I’ll have to plead the fifth”.

Thanks for reading,
-Trent

Torchlight

I recently went back to Torchlight, after finishing the story a few months ago, and I still get excited when I fire the game up.  To me, this is the future of game development, a smaller team, a clear goal and a polished execution.  The Runic fellows did an excellent job building to triple “A” gameplay without going crazy on the feature sauce.  If you haven’t yet played it you need to get out there and grab this game.  Try the demo, that’s how they got me.

We need to get this game on Beamdog.  When the sequel comes out, I’ll be front and center downloading it the instant it goes live.  Hopefully earlier if we can persuade those Runic fellows that Torchlight belongs on Beamdog.  I’m a big fan of guys who can do it outside the system and they pulled it off in spades.

With the recent announcement of Torchlight II shows these are some pretty business savvy fellows.  Rather than hold off to do the MMO they realized a Torchlight II with a few more features (cough, multiplayer) would be a great interm release.  Well done fellows.

-Trent

Game Unionization

Every few years this topic comes up and I always have a hard time collecting my thoughts around it.  So rather than collect my thoughts I’ll just do a raw dump and see what it all comes out as:
Unionization to me is a scary topic.  Typically it happens in an environment where the workers are oppressed (gaming, check), there is an imbalance of reward (gaming, check) and they workers are easily replaced (gaming, no check).  What we are seeing is a further constriction of the console and PC gaming space.  When I started in the industry the top 200 titles a year made a decent return.  The market was smaller, but the costs were a lot lower as well.  In the last few years things have advanced very fast to the top 20-30 titles making money and the rest either breaking even or losing big.  The problem is due to a few issues:
  1. The crazy cost of development – When you have to roll $30 million into a game when you already have an engine, there isn’t a lot of room for failure
  2. The crazy cost ..  I did this already, but the freedom to innovate just got flushed down the toilet with the high cost.  VP’s of this and that don’t want to be the guy who get scapegoated and fired when a risky title tanks.  Much easier to make modern era shooter 12 and call it a day
  3. Casual games.  – Some people who used to play console and PC have given up and are just playing casual stuff.  A lot of potential new gamer blood hasn’t started on console and PC because they hit Facebook first.  I hope *.ville is the training wheels and pretty soon people will be ready for more, but the exploitative nature of these games makes me concerned we may lose potential customers as they exit gaming all together.
  4. Fat – Face it, Industries get fat over the years.  Some companies get fat, have a heart attack and just die.  Others get fat, and get into a treadmill of exploitation to survive.  Any company gains mass over the years as you add people and process.
Ok, so I’m way the hell off track here.
In my opinion, unions block the healthy cycle of creative people and replaces it with a widget fits slot methodology.  I think developers need to be better business people and we need to change the default funding model, not bring in unions.   Look at the budget of a triple A Hollywood title.  You bring unions and the overhead they bring to the gaming space and we’ll be hitting those budget levels in no time flat.  Which to me would kill any slight innovation remaining in the space.
-Trent
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Technology vs Product companies

Apple is not a technology company. Sounds crazy doesnt it? My hypothesis is that Apple has become a product company and as such is oriented around different priorities than other technology firms.

Ive been in game development for 15 years and Ive seen a wide variety of game products created and some were true products, while others were more technology showcases. Technology is seductive. Technology is excessively seductive to software developers. Good technology offers a chance to show your naked ability, almost a billboard for your skills. As a result, technology development can be somewhat masturbatory in nature and gone too far can lead to disaster.

During my career at Bioware we had a term for technology gone awry, we called it Cathedral Building. What happens is the developer focus shifts from developing a solution to a problem to developing a beautiful bit of code or architecture for a system. The end result isnt a solution to a problem, the result is usually overcomplexity and a poor user experience. What does any of this have to do with Apple, you ask? Well, unlike most technology companies, where the means sometimes becomes the purpose, Apple is able to keep the true target in focus and create great products and not great code.

Im not an Apple fanboy, in fact I was a hardcore PC guy for the last 20 years. Im starting to become an Apple fan, not because of the cult of Steve, but because they make some good products, they concentrate on the user experience.

Im a fan of Google, but I can see the differences in the software. Google is a technology company who happens to make products. They dont follow through A-Z in the same way Apple does on user experience and polish. Id argue that Google has become obsessed with everything in a browser even when it doesnt make sense. They are pursuing the technology, not the problem. Now, Im a user of Gmail and Google docs and I think these are great products (free helps a lot). These make sense in the current connected world, where collaboration is a requirement. Some of the newer initiatives seem off track and seem to ignore some truths. We are in an era of unprecedented processing power at our fingertips. My iPhone has more power than most of the computers I developed games on over the years. To me it makes a ton of sense to use that local processing power as much as possible. That power can be used to deliver consistent, quality user experiences. To push everything into a browser (which to me feels like a sub-OS) ignores the quality you can deliver by leveraging all that local power. As a developer I also want to optimally use every pixel on the screen for my software, especially on the smaller mobile screens, A browser does not let me do this and in fact forces a number of unpleasant concessions on my software, limited my ability to deliver a quality experience. Technology is a means, not the end.

The major technology company offender Ive seen lately has been Microsoft. Ive used Microsoft products since I started using PCs and Ive always had a love/hate relationship with the software. Ive lost count of how many times Ive wanted to administer a virtual punch to some Microsoft developer for some haywire feature. MS has been focused on platform and software justification for a long time now. Rather than creating the best solution for problems they look for problems that the platform they have can help with. The end result is often a square peg in a round hole, like all the tablet computers MS has built over the years. They also lack an ability to turn a new concept into reality. Take Microsoft surface. When it was first shown, it blew a ton of people away, but, where is it? Why couldnt I have a surface based PC years ago? Id argue it didnt fit with the MS goals of pushing the platform and software so they didnt fast track it to market.

I recently read an article calling for the death of Microsoft in the Globe and Mail. I think it is sensationalist, but they are somewhat correct in the assessment of an inability to innovate at the company. Theyve lost focus on the user experience.

So, since this is my blog and Im allowed to ramble, Ill end this discussion on technology vs product. Apple is doing some things well right now by focusing on the typical user experience and the product. Google is doing quite good, but I think is at risk of getting lost in the technology. As for Microsoft, I personally know some smart people who work there and the problem isnt in the trenches. The problem is leadership and vision, or rather lack of both. Without a clear focus from the top on the user and the product you have a rudderless technology company. In summation, product and user experience is what technology development is about, not just technology development for its own sake.

Toyota Acceleration

I own a 2010 Toyota Rav4. Ive had the gas pedal fix done to avoid the unintended acceleration problem. While the solution has cured the major issue, I think the cause for alarm was actually three seperate concerns, only one of which the fix dealt with. The other factors are a non-linear throttle mapping and an aggressive transmission controller. The throttle has about a 1/4 of slow response to it, but the next 1/4 is quite agressive. This is done in performance cars to make the vehicle feel more responsive as it requires less throttle input to get rapid acceleration (Porsche Sport mode in the Cayman S is one case).

The transmission quickly shifts to higher gears to maximize fuel economy, it is almost annoying how fast it goes up in gear.
If you put the three issues together, a slow returning (or non-returning) accelerator pedal, a non-linear acceleration ramp and a rapid upshifting transmission the result is potentially quite dangerous.
I like Toyota, Our last four family vehicles have been Toyotas. I firmly believe every vehicle has flaws, as every car I have ever driven had some issue or compromise which I noticed and modified my driving around. My reason for writing this is to advise other owners what the roots of the issue are and suggest driving style modification to avoid any potential problems.
So, my personal adjustment in driving style has been to push into the throttle slower, remain light on the pedal and put the transmission shifter in the 4th gear position, to stop the shift up to 5th. If you dive hard into the pedal, the Rav4 will respond quite quickly and the upshift will surge the vehicle forward. If you drop out of the throttle at this point the vehicle will still accelerate for a half second as the gear change will still accelerate the vehicle due to the rpm the engine is rotating at vs the new gear ratio (as all vehicles do if you drop throttle as the shift occurs).

So, stay calm and be aware of the behaviours of your vehicle.

-Trent

PC Game retail

Wow,  I recently passed through a few “big name” game stores and other than a few major titles there were hardly any PC games displayed.  There was a good collection of new Xbox 360 and PS3 stuff, a ton of used titles (probably half the store), but maybe a quarter of a rack for PC games.  Sure, part of the reason has been the gold rush to the consoles, with a number of traditional PC developers walking away from the platform to chase the money.  Sadly, another part is the PC gaming experience itself.  You go out, buy new title X, drop it in your system and it spends 20 minutes installing.  Then either some warning about DirectX or it just starts installing stuff.  Then the inevitable driver hunt starts.  One to two hours or so after the disk was put in the system the first signs of life out of the title.  Not what I would write up as a great user experience.    My worst ever experience was recently with Batman: Arkham Asylum.  After a long install process, It asked me if I wanted to install Windows Live, I said no.  The installer told me I couldn’t save my games unless I installed Live.  I don’t like threats and I don’t like force installed software, so I was already ticked off.  I don’t remember my XBox Live account password so I set up a new account.  It took  forever, forced two reboots of the system, installed a ton of crap and then, about an hour after I “completed” installing the game I was actually able to play.  Brutal, just brutal.

The final part of the PC retail slide is piracy.  Nobody has a really clear picture of how many sales are lost, but the numbers are pretty staggering.  If the game is that much hassle to get legitimately, piracy actually seems the easier route.  to my mind, iTunes has proven if you make it easier to buy content than pirate, the consumers will come.   On the other hand, I look at digital distribution and my poster title for doing it right, “Torchlight”.  The Runic fellows crafted a great experience, built a good demo and skipped the retail hassle altogether.    My experience was totally different, I see the title in a download store, download a quick demo, play the demo to the end and decide to buy the game.  The game installs quick and I load up from the end of the demo and keep playing.  Slick, well thought out and well executed.  The PC can be a great platform and kudos to the runic fellows for hitting it.

My whole reason for starting Beamdog was to re-invent the PC as a gaming platform and I’m pretty confident with a game development mindset, hard work and a strong vision to re-define the user experience we can be successful.  As a long-time (15 years or so) game developer I have a massive loyalty to the fans who purchase games, as they are the air developers breathe.  I also have a strong loyalty to fellow developers and ensuring they can make an honest living off of the hard work they put into the titles they lovingly craft.  I want to create a situation when all parties win and I think we are on the right track.  We are closing in on our open Beta and I’m looking forward to sharing our approach with the world.

Regards,

-Trent

Getting into the Games Industry

After returning from GDC and getting asked the standard question of “how to get into the games industry”  I thought I’d put my experience down on paper.

I personally got into the games industry through a mixture of  luck, hard work and timing.   The most important factor was probably the timing.

Rather than apply for jobs, we decided to do a start-up game development studio.

We started development on our first title at the end of the 16 bit game cycle.  We built a tiny shareware title called “Blasteriods 3D” as a proof of concept and we learned a number of key things:

  1. 640 K is not very big.  We took up 618K, which meant you had to “himem” a bunch of stuff to get “Blasteroids 3D” to run.  This wasn’t very user-friendly.
  2. Sound engines are crazy hard to write, in the end we licensed the software.
  3. Big shareware demos can lead to no sales of the full game.  Why pay for it if you can get it for free?

After Blasteroids 3D we started on “Metal Hive”, which later became “Shattered Steel”.  We had joined the game industry at a perfect time as Doom was out using the Dos 4GW 32 bit extender.  This transition meant all the existing developers had to re-learn a ton of content and a great number of tools had to be re-written completely.  This was an excellent time to be a new startup as we didn’t have to run very hard to catch up to the industry.  During the development of “Shattered Steel” we also got in with some new business partners and founded Bioware.  “Shattered Steel” went through some pretty rocky periods during development and it also had lessons to teach

  1. You can’t do it all yourself.  My brother was the sole engine programmer on the title and he didn’t do well under the pressure.  I was the sole artist on the project after moving over from programming and I couldn’t get up to “AAA” quality by myself.  I’m not sure if I ever got up to “AAA” quality as an artist, but that is a point for another discussion
  2. You need to agree up front on the desired outcome before you head off down the tracks.  We had a lot of dreams of game features and business success and in the end most didn’t pan out.

During the development of “Shattered Steel”, Greg and Ray had started another little team and were working on a Windows 95 isometric game they called “Battleground Infinity” .   “Infinity” was a windows 95 application when most people were still writing dos games.  Again, we had a window where other developers had to re-tool and re-learn.  The technical team behind Infinity was from a database tools background, so they were able to handle large volumes of data much better than most game development teams of the period.  After a lack of interest from most publishing partners around “Battleground Infinity”, it was shown to our “Shattered Steel” producer, Feargus Urquhart.  Feargus looked at the demo and stated it would be a great fit with the Dungeons and Dragons license that Interplay had.  Without much debate the title was signed and “Baldur’s Gate” was into development.

From the examples above you can see how we were exceptionally lucky with timing in terms of disruptive platform cycles and a fellow named Feargus suggesting the D&D license.

For new people starting out, it can be hard to get hired into the industry, but if you do your own venture and you look for the technology transitions where you can catch up faster, if you get lucky and you happen to make something pretty cool it can be an uncommon path into the industry.  Look for the new platforms, look for the advantages your team can bring to the table and most importantly be realistic about what you can accomplish.  The games industry is littered with the corpses of companies that thought five guys could build an “AAA” MMO in a basement.  This is an exciting time, the iPhone is nearing the end of the disruptive phase as the bigger developers have tooled up for the new platform, but there is still a lot of room in the other fringe spaces opening up.  I’m personally seeing a huge opportunity in the smaller scale PC downloadable titles.

Regards,

-Trent

Why most Video Games for Movies are bad

I was just reading about District 9 and why the director, Neil Blomkamp was concerned about making a video game.  Here’s the link:  http://www.digitalspy.com/gaming/news/a195643/blomkamp-unsure-about-district-9-game.html

The reason most Movie based Video Games are bad is because many game publishers believe they can be. Much as Uwe Boll was widely hated for making horrible (and they were horrible) movies about successful video games, most publishers commit the exact same offence.

Uwe Boll had a system, take a successful video game property, hopefully with a million-plus fan base, and make a movie as cheap as possible.  The reason this all went so bad is that Uwe didn’t care about the property or the fans of the titles.  Digging into the core promise of any title is hard, as is understanding the fan base and what appeals to them about the property.  Additionally, quality doesn’t appear on schedules, quality comes from creators who put something of themselves into what they do.  Uwe wanted to shoot a movie, get it to the theater, have the fans of the game show up and pay.  After that, he was just waiting to collect the paycheque and move on to the next thing.  The less money Uwe spends up front, the faster he gets to profit.  Luckily, the movie industry seems to have recently figured out that a good movie is a better investment.  Long-term you build a franchise that keeps the fans coming back.

The Game industry hasn’t got there yet.  Video game publishers are short-term focused businesses first and foremost, and they know the equation just as well as Uwe.  Since video game Directors lack the visibility of movie Directors, most people associate quality games with Publishers, not teams and individuals.  The truth is Modern Warfare 2 quality has little to do with Activision, other than providing patient capital, and a lot more to do with the Team behind it.  Jason West knows what the fans of the series want and he’s willing to work hard to make it happen.  Jason cares about delivering a great experience and it shows.  EA’s upcoming game Mass Effect 2 is going to be a great game, why?  EA very little to do with it.  You dig into Mass Effect 2 and you find a Director who loves what he is making in Casey Hudson.  You look around Casey and you see a team of very skilled individuals and they care about what they are building, they think about what the players are going to experience and what the promise of the title is.  The sad truth is, these people are pretty rare in the industry.  They have great skills, but little ego.  They put the player ahead of their own interests and the payoff is a great game.  They have a vision of what the final game can be and they are able to communicate that vision to the team.  After that it is all about constant communication, iteration, tuning of the Vision and trusting the skills of the people working on the title.

I’m not positive, but I’ll bet most movie video game deals get set up by business people at the movie studio and the publisher.  These guys don’t think about the quality of the team that will be working on the title, just like Uwe, they are thinking about time to market, cash invested and what percentage of the movie fan base will grab the title.  In many cases, if the publisher has a great Director and team they are working on the publishers own intellectual property anyway, so they pull together who they can, give them a ship date, a budget and a kick in the butt to get moving.  Now, I’ve never shot a movie, but I have Directed a video game, http://nwn.bioware.com/about/awards.html , so, I’m not sure if this is as true with movies, but with games, when you finish a hard push into the middle of production and you can finally see the whole project, you can finally see what you’ve got, warts and all.  This is the time when great games don’t look great at all.  In fact, they mostly look broken.  This is the most challenging time of development and it takes guts and vision to see the other side of the valley.  This is where a great Director and a great team really shine.  This is also when most publishers start clamping down hard trying to control costs and pull in the ship date.  Games are a commercial venture,as are movies, so this has to happen to some extent otherwise people would polish forever and never ship (see my other post on Window of Opportunity).  But this is where great games happen.

In my career I was lucky enough to work on a number of Dungeons and Dragons titles.  As a D&D fan I understood the core promise of D&D and I did everything in my power to realize the promise of the system.

If Mr. Blomkamp wants a great video game to fit with District 9 he should start by digging into the credits or some great games and looking for someone who he can collaborate with.  The next part of the equation would be some patient, creative capital.  By this I mean investors who would be willing to make the right call for the long term and create a great game, understanding this will likely mean a longer development cycle and higher costs.  The capital could come from a publisher or it could come from some other source.  If you add up the money from the last two Modern Warfare games, you get an idea of the potential of the space.  The third part of the equation is the team.  Teams are damn hard to build, good teams can take years to gel properly.  The team needs to be pulled together by the Director and it will take time, so again the need for patient capital and vision.  The rest is just execution, marketing and distribution.

My $0.02

-Trent

Office meetings

It is important to keep a few regularly scheduled meetings. I try to meet with these two at least a few times per week.
Meet Mr. 125 lb Muay Thai bag and Mr. Speedbag. We hold short, but intense sessions where a lot of points are sorted out.