Archive for the ‘practice’ 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.

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The Next Book You Should Read

April 6, 2015

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, and its time may have passed. But I keep finding people who haven’t read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.. If you’re someone who leads creative teams (or is just interested in how this is done), this book should be next on your list. In fact, set aside whatever management book you’re reading now and go get this one. It’ll be better.

Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar, and according to many is largely responsible for its continued success in delivering movie after movie that are both commercial and creative hits. In this book he goes through war stories and “lessons learned” that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a leadership or management book. But Catmull adds to this his unique perspective applicable to leading teams that have to be both outstandingly creative and also commercially successful. How to do this is, to point a finer point on it, something that the games industry has yet to figure out.

Among the worthwhile points made in the book are some specific practices that I believe can benefit any creative team, if their management will implement them — and stick to them. The last chapter (actually after the Afterword), “Starting Points,” offers “Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture.” any of which are useful on their own. You’ve no doubt seen many of these before, but reading about them in context and in actual use at Pixar gives them new life.

The Braintrust
To me the single best practice that I got out of this book was the use and structure of Pixar’s Braintrust. This is a group of people — all experienced enough to get out of their own way and act in a service position rather than feeding their own egos — who review and help develop each of their movies from initial pitch to final cut.

But here’s the significant thing: this isn’t an “executive review committee” that each director comes before as a supplicant, waiting for approval or the ax to fall. It’s not where business decisions are made. It’s not even where creative decisions are made. The Braintrust reviews a movie in progress (and they must be seasoned enough to see past rough cuts) and calls out issues they see. But then they don’t try to fix them. They may not even offer solutions. The director is responsible for taking the feedback and figuring out how best to address it. There’s a story in the book, for example, about a problematic scene in The Incredibles (p102-103). The group discussed the problem, and then later the director returned with a solution that none of them had foreseen — or that anyone would have seen in a typical “management” meeting.

Feeding the Beast and nurturing Ugly Babies
Another key idea that resonates well with any creative team is that of the “Ugly Baby” vs. “the Beast” (pp 129-138).  “The Beast” is that which must be fed — the never-ending pressure and need for commercially viable products. “You’ve got to to feed the beast.” We’ve either all heard that or lived it, often sacrificing creativity and originality to do so — which is how Disney churned out a series of lackluster movies years ago, and how many game studios continue to pump out a seemingly unending array of uninspiring games. The “ugly baby” is a reference to how almost any new idea is at first “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” As Catmull says, these need to be nurtured, but this is in opposition to the needs of the Beast. Which is why we in games so often kill our ugly babies.

As one example, he details the development of the movie Up. The movie as pitched was nothing like it is now: the story originally began with a king and his two sons living in a castle in the sky. The princes, who hate each other, fall off the cloud and land on earth. There they have to learn the lessons of life, and in the process are befriended by a strange tall bird.

As you can imagine, the movie went through many, many iterations to get from there to the masterpiece we have today. In fact, Catmull says, the only two things to survive the entire process are the title and the tall bird. The director, Pete Docter, went through revision after revision, eventually converging on the story and world he and his team wanted to bring to light. Docter’s comments in the book on the difficulty and necessity of failure in finding the right story are illuminating.

I could go on, but I’ll end this with one final quote from the book about failure and the desire management often has to control everything in the creative process:

Whether you’re coming up with a fashion line or an ad campaign or a car design, the creative process is an expensive undertaking, and blind alleys and unforeseen snafus inevitably drive up your costs. The stakes are so high, and the crises that pop up can be so unpredictable, that we try to exert control. the potential cost of failure appears far more damaging than that of micromanaging. But if we shun such necessary investment — tightening up controls because we fear the risk of being exposed for having made a bad bet — we become the kind of rigid thinkers and managers who impede creativity.

If you are someone who leads creative teams, or who ever hopes to do so, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And by the looks of the mountain of creatively vacant products our industry (and others like it) continues to drive to the market day after day, the wisdom accumulated by Catmull and Pixar is something we desperately need.

Beta?

November 10, 2010

Recently when talking about an upcoming project, I was asked whether we were going to put “Beta” on it.

I’m not even sure what that means now.  What does it mean to say your game or app is “in beta” these days? (more…)

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.

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Why Blizzard and Zuckerberg Are Wrong

July 8, 2010

or, The Persistent Case for Social Scientists

There are some lessons people in online businesses persistently don’t learn.  A lot of these are grouped into the area of “social concerns are just as real as technical ones” or “social issues do not have technical solutions.”

Recently a couple of major players in the online space have shown a stunning lack of regard for social concerns in ways that have long-term effects and that can safely be filed under “Lessons Learned.” (more…)

Dangerous Curves and Social Games 2.0

June 18, 2010

I’ve written here a few times about the business model for social games and why I think this is a very good area to be working in.  I continue to believe this is a large market in its early stages, with more people spending more on virtual goods in the past year, and with  at least one recent study predicting incredible revenue growth over the next few years. We’ve all seen the meteoric rise in this sector in the past couple of years, both at the top end in Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish (now EA), and in the medium-size and long-tail developers.

But recently, some of the shine seems to have come off this area. This is most clearly seen in the dropping MAU and DAU in the top social games — Farmville for example has dropped from a high of about 83M MAU in March to 66M today.   66M is still a number that no one else can touch, but it’s also a huge drop in a game that had been rising steadily.

And it’s not just Farmville.  If you look at the graphs for the top games that have been around for a while, rising continually (e.g., Texas HoldEm, Cafe World, Pet Society), each shows a peak and a subsequent fall-off.   Notably, this isn’t just due to the age of the game: some more recent games like Treasure Isle and Hotel City show the same dangerous curve at around the same time, even though they haven’t been around as long.  Some like Nightclub City show a rising MAU curve — but a daily users curve that has peaked, indicating that the trailing MAU indicator will show this soon too.  Still others, despite strong PR-backed launches in what seemed like good areas, have fared much worse from the start (indicating among other things how critical repeat play is to the success of these games).

So other than the fact that simply putting out a social game isn’t a license to print money, what does this mean? (more…)

Resiliency

June 12, 2010

Venture Hacks has a couple of pointers to very interesting and complementary articles.  Their post links to one by Michael Wolff, talking about the events in the life of a particular entrepreneur:

“Windows knocked him off the main stage for 10 years; then the Internet seemed to sideline him; not to mention that serious business people (along with many others) thought he was nutty; then he had problems with the SEC (and not insignificant ones); then he nearly died.”

No hyperbole, either.  Getting up and coming back after all that to become possibly the most influential tech CEO on the planet, someone described as “the last mogul”?  That is resiliency — which is the subject of the second article, from Mark Suster at Both Sides of the Table.

Without a doubt entrepreneurs need resiliency, for the exact reasons that Suster brings out in his article (every entrepreneur I know has stories like his).  But this isn’t just for entrepreneurs, it’s something everyone needs.

None of us get through life without our share of setbacks.  As Suster quotes Winston Churchill, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

All of us need to get up and dust ourselves off now and again.  The kinds of things Steve Jobs has been through puts the things I’ve had to endure in perspective. I guess if he can keep coming back, so can I — and so can you.