Archive for the ‘corporate’ category

Is there another way?

April 19, 2016

Game dev folks, I’d like your thoughts on this one: Michael Martinez, CEO of JuiceBox Games, wrote a smart and heart-felt mini post-mortem of his company, which is shutting down. In it he details the difficulties of running an effective game development business in today’s market. 

I don’t know Martinez, but I agree with most of what he says 100%. And of course I have immense empathy for him and his team, and the difficult decisions he’s had to make.

That said, I’m left with the nagging feeling that he (and many other smart people) have bought into the equation of “game dev success” that requires many millions of dollars of investment. JuiceBox had a $2.54M seed round, the kind of money which then requires hit games to sustain the business. This view is hardly new; it’s how people have been setting up businesses for a long time (and how I’ve set up some of mine in the past). However, it also leads to the kind of tunnel vision that makes the conclusion that “games are a hit-driven business,” inevitable. It’s the classic (if often self-defeating) “go big or go home” mentality that shoves aside all other possibilities. The thing is, I don’t think that conclusion is actually all that inevitable: we can do this differently, with less risk and more success.

(more…)

Advertisements

Onward and Upward, Once Again

June 28, 2013

It may be fitting that it’s been over two years since I’ve posted here. That time was my tenure at social/mobile game developer Kabam. I started there in April of 2011 and ended my time there this week.

In those two-plus years we’ve seen the indie social game market be swallowed by the Big Developers (which is one of the reasons I went to Kabam), seen the apex and initial decline of the Facebook game ecology (arguably after Facebook poisoned the well with a 30% “tax” on sales on their platform), and seen the fast rise of games on mobile phones and tablets.

The span of time when indies were making viable games on phones and tablets was even shorter than it was for web-based social games; successful phone/tablet games are now approaching AAA/console quality, and budgets and schedules are once again skyrocketing, leaving all but the most resourceful developers behind. Free-to-play is no longer an anomaly; there is still a lot to be learned, but companies are reliably making hundreds of millions of dollars in very profitable revenue using this model.

Discoverability is now the big problem for developers: players have to know about your game among the hundreds or thousands coming out every single week, or all your work is for nothing. And this has put Apple and Google in the position of kingmakers more than any publisher or retailer was back in the days of retail-box games.

The big question for many of us is, where does game design fit in this back-to-the-future world of visual polish and revenue-creating pinch-points? I think it’s still an open question. It’s entirely possible to make good games that spread their ability to bring in revenue over a wide range of payment opportunities… but I have yet to see a design (even of my own) where this business model didn’t affect and to some degree twist the design off of its natural course.

I don’t know that this is inevitable, or that better designs necessarily need to avoid various forms of “pay to win,” but I think we will have to explore a lot more to figure this out. And meanwhile, the market moves on, rewarding companies with astounding riches if they manage to strike a balance between accessibility, visual fidelity, and some degree of fun.

In the past two years I’ve worked on some terrific projects and gotten to know a lot of great people. I also learned a ton by being on the front lines of social and mobile game design, development, and operations. But, as always the game market zigs and zags, and companies have to act fast and be nimble just to keep up.

I’ll let Kabam’s strategy speak for itself as it emerges over the coming months. For myself, I’m looking back to my roots as much as possible: real, deep game design and (in some combination) social AI.

I’ve managed to keep up some amount of AI work, even publishing a couple of papers (see the paper “Toward a comprehensive theory of emotions for biological and artificial agents“). I’m now in the process of stripping down and re-architecting the AI “People Engine” itself. I’m going to do my best to chronicle this re-development here, focusing on the more difficult questions I’m facing.

And oh yeah: I am looking for my next opportunity in games. I still believe that games are the vanguard of technology development and adoption. This is the place to be, in one form or another.

Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going

April 11, 2011

“Some people try to turn back their odometers. Not me. I want people to know why I look this way. I’ve traveled a long way and some of the roads weren’t paved.”  – Will Rogers

A lot has happened since I last posted here.  We had one major project slowly grind to a halt, abandoned by the publisher. Not a fun story, even if we did learn a lot.  And we had another flash briefly, just long enough to prove out the design and technology, if not long enough to make back its production costs.

Social games have continued their astonishing fast-forward pace.  The game industry changes faster than any I know of, and I have never seen things change this fast.  One of my new mottos is

If you don’t have whiplash, you’re not paying attention.

What was a wide open blue-ocean part of the games industry a year ago is quickly consolidating and stratifying into Huge Players, Big Players, and Everyone Else.  There are good games and money to be made at each level, but on different scales and with different difficulties. And game designs or production practices that worked less than a year ago have to be discarded now to stay current with the market.

For myself and my company, Online Alchemy, the latest blows we endured were too much.  I’ve rebooted the company before — after a triple-play debacle in 2007 (DARPA project killed by world events, development contract pulled at the last moment, and the long-lamented demise of the Firefly MMO at the hands of Fox and Universal), so I know how to do it.  And I have an amazing team of people to work with.  But the costs of rebooting again now seemed too high and too risky.

So, time for a pivot: I have joined Kabam as an Executive Producer.  This is a terrific company with a clear focus and top-notch talent all around. I’ve been very impressed with the blend of agility and process I’ve found there. I can’t yet say what I’m working on, but as with everything in this part of the industry, all will be clear soon enough.

Online Alchemy will be sticking around, but will be returning to its focus on “social AI” research and development.  This is definitely an area for research, building on the company’s existing work in artificial emotions, relationships, and reputation, but as yet no real consumer market has appeared for such AI.  I still believe one will, but it may be ten or twenty years before it happens.  I’m content to be patient, and persistent.

So, what’s next?

 

Two Great Company Letters

July 10, 2010

Company culture is important to me, and it’s a hard thing to get right.  Every company has a different feel, a different vibe.  I think it’s important to communicate this internally and externally — it’s how you determine who and what your company is.  Every now and again CEOs manage to do this by breaking out of the mold of dreary sameness in their public communications — somehow managing to not be bound by or afraid of their Board, their shareholders, or just looking foolish.

Two recent great examples of this kind of communication came from the CEO of Woot and the crafty pastamancers behind Kingdom of Loathing.

(more…)

Is Facebook Strangling the Golden Geese?

June 22, 2010

Facebook is in the process of introducing Facebook Credits, its entry into the burgeoning ecommerce/virtual currency area.  Given that Facebook is the prime destination for people playing social games, this is hardly surprising.   However, in so doing, is it in danger of driving away the sources of its fast-rising revenue?   Is Facebook strangling the geese that lay its golden eggs?

(more…)

“12 Things Good Bosses Believe”

June 7, 2010

I’ve been a “boss” in one way or another for years, leading projects, teams and companies.  I’ve done pretty well at it more often than not — but I’d be hard pressed to say whether I’m a “good boss” or not.

Nevertheless, I saw this article, 12 Things Good Bosses Believe, on the Harvard Business Review blog, and it really resonated with me.   This is a great list of mostly self-reflective items for those who lead teams and companies that emphasize the kinds of issues bosses juggle.  It offers some humbling, potentially skewering insights, and also gives a lot of food for thought.

(more…)

Company Culture and the 90-minute 15-minute Meeting

March 27, 2010

Company culture is a funny thing.  It’s as essential to the success of any company as anything else, and yet typically gets little serious attention.  We may think about it now and again, but in most companies it happens when no one is looking; there are always seemingly more important things to worry about. The popular wisdom is that the company culture is a reflection of everyone in the company, but most of all of the CEO’s and others leaders’ strengths and weaknesses; for better or worse I believe that’s true (and any company leader should be humbled a bit by that, I think).  Certainly culture is an emergent effect that’s difficult to control. And yet I believe strongly that it has an effect on the kinds of products we produce and how we feel about the experience afterward.

(Hmm, no pithy question or call-to-action here; I’m interested in what makes company culture work – read on, and please add your thoughts!) (more…)