Why on earth would anyone start up an independent games development studio in a time when devs all over the world are being put to the sword? When even the biggest publishers are taking out their marketing inadequacies on our creative brothers and sisters on the battlefront, canning them rather than the people behind the lines who decide on the budgets and timescales? Well, in the case of Eclipse Interactive, it wasn’t that we had a burning desire to turn a large fortune into a non-existent one (not that anyone involved in this story had large fortunes to begin with—or have them now for that matter—or are likely to have one any time soon). Rather we did it because we felt it was the right time and the right place, and we had the right people for just such a venture.
Les Ellis is co-founder and Director of independent development studio Eclipse Interactive based in Manchester in the UK. Formerly a games journalist for 13 years, Les has been producing titles across genres and formats for many of the major publishers in the UK, US and Japan. After a year developing for PC, iPhone, Android and other high-end mobile gaming systems, Eclipse is making the move into console and downloadable/online gaming as well as community games. Watch this space
Eclipse Interactive was formed from the ashes of a Manchesterbased Eidos internal studio. During one of the many restructures and reshuffles going on in London, “management” decided to close the studio (along with the entire division it belonged to), throwing a bunch of tight-knit teams into turmoil and leaving a bunch of developers feeling that they had been screwed by a publisher— again. By a strange coincidence, Nic Garner and I had been having a few preliminary conversations about going for it with a start-up studio, and needless to say the Eidos collapse accelerated these conversations.
“That early experience confirmed a valuable lesson for any independent developer: Having ongoing conversations with potential publisher partners constantly is essential.”
We were lucky in that we knew a couple of different publishers who could potentially put a few small projects our way to start us off. Thanks to some shrewd negotiation and arm-twisting on Nic’s part we even managed to secure signing fees and great milestone arrangements, meaning that we could launch our business without taking on a penny of debt— pretty unique for an indie start-up in this day and age. From day one we were completely self-sufficient and not dependant on outside money from people who might not understand how the games industry works.
It’s probably just as well seeing as the British banks are in such turmoil at the moment that the only people who can get money out of them seem to be their own directors. Maybe we should have started up a bank instead. That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing, even at the start. The very day that we opened our doors (after a couple of months of hard work behind the scenes), one of our promised projects was pulled—even though it was already staffed and ready to go. Although it caused a few sleepless nights, luck was on our side, and new projects came along to replace it. Shame though, as the promise of turning that original game IP into a series of games was certainly an alluring one. That early experience confirmed a valuable lesson for any independent developer: Having ongoing conversations with potential publisher partners constantly is essential. Even if you can’t take on new work right away, you never know when a promised project might be pulled. Maintaining strong, active relationships with a variety of publishers is the best way to ensure that you can always find something to fill the void.
This article is from from the
Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine
There will be many development people reading this who know exactly what I look like. And I don’t mean in some carefully-posed corporate photograph either. I mean in the shambolic, 3D, real-world flesh. In fact they will be far more familiar with my ugly appearance than that of just about any other co-worker from Marketing. The reason for this is very simple and very complicated at the same time. For I am a practitioner of a dark management art called MBWA. An art so powerful that it was behind Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard building the biggest technology company in the world from an investment of just $538. An art that is often unknown by modern managers yet which yields almost mystical powers in those that have the vital knowledge. An art that has also been instrumental in the success of many of the the most successful companies on Earth, including Apple, GE, Wal-Mart, Pepsi, Disney, Dell, 3M, Lucasfilm and McDonalds—to name a few.
Bruce Everiss is a veteran games industry marketer who has been walking about at leading-edge UK companies including Imagine, Codemasters and Miles Gordon Technology since the mid-1970s. He regularly blogs at www.bruceongames.com.
The Power of MBWA
To understand just a small part of the powers of MBWA in publishing a game that is a commercial success, there is an essential fact that everyone in the games industry needs to know. And that fact is that if a game has zero marketing it will have zero sales. Given that, just telling your mum about it constitutes marketing. You see, development and marketing work hand-in-hand. Like a rifle and bullet, they are pretty useless in isolation, yet used properly together they make a lethal combination. But in the real world of the modern game industry they rarely work together as they are supposed to—and it is the fault of the marketing people. It is their job to communicate. And in order to communicate they need knowledge. In fact they need more than knowledge, they need passion and commitment as well. Which can only come from visiting the team that makes the game they are marketing. Frequently.
MBWA is an acronym for Management By Walking (or Wandering) About.
MBWA is an acronym for Management By Walking (or Wandering) About. Seriously. If you Google it you will find that it is a well-regarded professional management technique. Books have been written about it, and it is well proven to be mightily effective, as the many number one games I have worked on help to illustrate. Yet too many managers in the video game industry do not know that it exists. They hide behind their keyboards and go to endless, time-wasting meetings with other marketing people instead. Which is a pity because MBWA is especially effective when you are bringing together disparate groups with widely differing skills, all in an effort to hit the bull’s-eye with that metaphorical rifle.
This article is from from the
Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine
Noah Falstein looks back at his work on the legendary arcade game Sinistar, working in the the coin-op era, the birth of game designers and the aftermath of Sinistar.
My first officially published computer game was a coin-operated arcade game called Sinistar, released by Williams Electronics in 1983. I’ve subsequently worked on a lot of games, including million-unit-sellers like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Empire at War. But when someone finds out that I was the Project Leader and co-designer of Sinistar, that tends to elicit a stronger reaction than anything I’ve done since. (Maybe I peaked early!) In any case, here are some personal reminiscences that I hope will amuse and instruct—if only to provide some relief—that you don’t have to work back in the ancient world of stone knives, bearskins, and 1-megahertz 8-bit processors. (I should add that any errors in this history are purely my responsibility. Although I’ve recently worked on some Brain Age-style memory enhancing games, sadly they haven’t quite worked in my case!)
The Coin-Op Era
When I came to Williams Electronics in 1982, the videogame world looked quite different than it does today. For one thing, arcades were at their peak, and home game consoles like the Atari VCS were dominated by conversions of arcade titles. A big hit like PacMan could sell 100,000 copies into the arcades—seemingly small numbers by today’s standards; but considering that arcade games cost around $1,500 new in 1982 dollars, it was still a pretty impressive chunk of change (quite literally, since they earned their keep one quarter at a time). Good machines could earn back their initial price in 10 weeks or fewer, and it was pure profit for the arcade owners from then on. Although my first job in the industry was at Milton Bradley (now part of Hasbro), all of my projects there were cancelled by management before publication. So when I landed the job at Williams, I felt like I had arrived in the big leagues. Instead of programming Atari VCS games for a system with a 6502 processor, 2K of ROM, and 256 bytes of RAM, I was now working on systems with the more capable 6809 processor and much larger ROMs. Even so, the full game code and artwork fit into less memory than a single jpeg image in this article.
In fact, it wasn’t until I met John that I even realized that game designer was a possible occupation.
One of the first people I got to know at Williams was John Newcomer, who was the first full-time game designer I’d ever met. In fact, it wasn’t until I met John that I even realized that game designer was a possible occupation. The games I had worked on up to that time were designed by the people who programmed them—and we also served as artist, sound designer, and producer for the most part. Williams did things on a larger scale, and it was exciting. John showed me a portfolio of hand-drawn concepts he’d worked on, including Joust, the game he was currently helping to finish. My first job was playtesting Joust, and I believe I showed a talent for finding crash bugs. Meanwhile, John had another concept he called Juggernaut (a working title) which involved a giant skull in space being attacked by hordes of minions. Since that project had progressed for a while but stalled out, I was offered the chance to lead a fresh team to do what we would now call a reboot of the Juggernaut concept. I eagerly agreed.
Trip Hawkins of Digital Chocolate discusses the early days of EA, the core principal the publisher was started with, launching the 3DO game console, licensing technology, Digital Chocolate and much more in this issue’s cover story
Let’s talk about the launch of EA. What got you started?
Well, you really have to think back to the beginning. When I was a kid, I started playing games and discovered that I was really excited when I played them. I could tell that I was thinking and I was engaged and I was in the flow, and I thought it was a really great activity. This was the golden age of television, and I was having trouble getting my friends to play games with me because they wanted to watch TV. I particularly liked games that had something to do with real life. Of course in those days there were war games, Strat-O-Matic sports simulation games with cards and dice, and things like D&D were being invented. Those games were more elaborate and complicated because they were trying to do something real. You didn’t have a computer, so you had to be the computer—and that was even more alienating. Fewer of your friends were going to be willing to do it. I got exposed to a computer kit that a friend of my father had built. This was around 1970 I think, or ’71. He built a PDP 8, and that’s when the light bulb went on. I realized: Hey, we can put these games in the computer and then it will be a lot easier for players to get to the heart of what they’re trying to enjoy without having to do all this administration and computation. So that’s pretty much when I decided I wanted to do games as a career. But I hadn’t finished school, and I didn’t really know that much about business.
“I designed a sports simulation game—a football game with cards and charts and dice—and in the process I confirmed for myself that I was an entrepreneur and I wanted to do it again.”
I designed a sports simulation game—a football game with cards and charts and dice—and in the process I confirmed for myself that I was an entrepreneur and I wanted to do it again. But as I said, I knew this really should be done with computers—so I spent the next 10 years planning the launch of Electronic Arts, including how I tailored my education, summer jobs, where I wanted to go to work. There was one point in 1975 where I very deliberately plotted it out and concluded that I was going to start Electronic Arts in 1982. On January 1, 1982, I slipped my resignation under Steve Jobs’ door, and the following month I went off and met with Don Valentine and kind of got his encouragement. He offered to let me use office space at his venture capital firm, but by then, I had already been planning and working on it for some time.
What were some of the core principles upon which EA was founded?
If you look at the seminal ideas around the foundation of EA, one of them was direct distribution. I had figured out how important that was at Apple. Apple had initially gone through distributors, but because Apple was growing so fast, it couldn’t keep up with the growth. Eventually Apple decided to go direct, but then there were all these transition problems and lawsuits and chaos. I decided that, first of all, I’d rather go direct right from the beginning and avoid that kind of a transition. While I was at Apple, I also figured out the whole idea of software artists.
I realized that they were very much creative brains and divas—like in Hollywood or other creative industries or arts—and they needed to be managed accordingly
I was working with really brilliant software engineers, and I realized that they were very much creative brains and divas—like in Hollywood or other creative industries or arts—and they needed to be managed accordingly. At the time, I really thought that was the big idea. And then a third component was the idea of technology leverage. If you’re Richie Valens, and you’ve got a guitar and a tape recorder, you can do a demo tape of La Bamba and get that in front of a record producer. But the record producer is eventually going want to bring you into a place called a studio—with much better sound-proofing, a lot of equipment, the ability to record things properly—so that you can be brought to market in a really professional manner with high production values. I thought: Why don’t we make the equivalent of that for our software artists? It became known as the artist’s workstation. Continue Reading This Article >>>
This article is from from the
Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine
When you tell people you make games for a living they generally say something like, “Wow, that doesn’t even sound like a job,” or “If that’s work, what could you possibly do for fun?” And for the most part it’s true: Making games beats the heck out of, say, cleaning sewers or performing rectal exams (which is sort of the same thing, when you think about it).
But here’s what we know that outsiders don’t: Some aspects of this job just SUCK. And we don’t want to whine about it, but occasionally there’s something therapeutic about going on a little rant about the stuff we don’t like. Right?
Industrial Depression is a recurring column for just such rants. It will be our quiet little way of purging (there’s that image again) so that we can refocus our energies on making everyone else wish they had our jobs.
Do not argue. Do not plead.
Being laid off sucks
Being laid off sucks. Everyone knows it, but until it happens to you, you can’t know just how much it sucks. If you’re lucky you’ll never find out firsthand, but the likelihood is that at least a third of us will be laid off over the course of our careers. While it’s something no one wants to happen, having some preparation and foreknowledge of what to do if it does happen to you can make the situation a lot less traumatic.
The Dreaded Meeting with HR
Say you are summoned into the room with HR and told you are done. Now what?
For starters: Do not argue. Do not plead. The business decision to let you go has already been made, and making a fuss in the termination interview isn‘t going to change that. No one is going to slap his head and say, “Oh man, you are right. We shouldn’t let you go. Let’s just forget this ever happened.”
Will I have to move? What if I run out of money? What about my kid’s medical insurance?
On the contrary, protesting is going to make you look like you absolutely should be let go (and it may prompt a call to security). Rather than put up a fight, just sit there, listen and nod appropriately, and don’t make a really bad situation worse. Chances are, the people on the other side of the table aren’t any more thrilled about it than you are (who wants to tell someone else that they’re losing their livelihood?).
As you walk away from that meeting, the soul searching will begin: Was it me? Was I just not good enough? Did someone not like me enough? Then you start feeling angry: That company sucks. Management sucks. The publisher sucks. I’m being treated unfairly and like a number. No one cares. At the same time, you begin to consider the unknown: Will I have to move? What if I run out of money? What about my kids’ medical insurance? Shell-shocked, you run through the whole gamut of emotions until you get to the ultimate question: What do I do now?
The main thing to realize at this point is: It’s not you. It’s them. Chances are that being laid off isn’t your fault—especially in this economic climate. Many companies are tightening belts, trying to figure out how to survive the reduction in available funding for game development.
It’s no secret that salary and benefits account for 80% of a game developer’s overhead
It’s no secret that salary and benefits account for 80% of a game developer’s overhead—particularly since the bulk of its income comes in one burst after shipping. Thus, when a developer has to reduce costs, the first (and perhaps only) place to look is at the salaries of the rank and file. It’s usually true what they say: “It’s not personal; it’s business.”
Another thing to bear in mind is that just because you were let go doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the bottom 10% or 20%. The decision on who to let go varies from place to place and can depend on current production status. If you are at the tail-end of production then tools guys probably aren’t the most important people to keep on staff, for example. QA will be high on the list of potential cut-backs if projects are in Pre-Pro. Expensive people will often be vulnerable as well—the thinking being that it’s better to keep two average people on staff rather than one great but extremely expensive person. There may even be a situation in which a whole game gets cancelled and the entire team let go—and that would certainly not be about who is best.
It may be a blessing in disguise
Even if it is personal—if your manager decides to use a company-wide layoff as an excuse to get rid of people considered problematic with no questions asked—it may be a blessing in disguise. Rather than make a fuss about it and call out that manager, it’s better to consider it a lucky escape; at least you won’t have to deal with that bad manager in the future.
Resist the temptation to vent your anger on your blog or Facebook or Twitter
But first things first. Get your stuff out of the building and do not get angry with anyone who might be staying when you aren’t. It’s not their fault—taking out your frustration on those who still have a job might seem satisfying at that particular moment, but long-term you’ll regret it. Likewise, you should resist the temptation to vent your anger on your blog or Facebook or Twitter. Maintain your dignity and self-control and you will preserve valuable relationships (and potential references) in the process.
If your company offers any outplacement assistance, take it. In the coming months you’ll need every job hunting assistance you can get. Remember to ask for unpaid vacation and PTO time as well. Other things to ask: Will I get a reference? Will there be severance? How much and when do I get it? Does it come with any strings attached (restrictions on future employment or hiring, for example)?
When you are paid severance, many companies will require that you sign some sort of release that prevents you from suing them later or from making public statements about your former employers. Read what they give you, but keep in mind that if you choose not to sign you may be forgoing severance as well. (Needless to say, if you have questions about the terms of the severance you should seek the counsel of a qualified professional.)
Long before he was elected governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a really, really bad actor. His multimillion-dollar blockbusters were almost universally films in which he did little but grunt and shoot and blow stuff up. But the movies in which he actually, you know, talked and stuff? Yuck. Case in point: Twins, the 1988 turkey in which “Ahnold,” this big, buff behemoth, was supposed to be the twin of wee little Danny DeVito. Oh, the hilarity. Put a big dude and a little dude together and say they’re twins. Get it?!
Yeah, neither did we. I guess we now know why Arnold went into politics. Still, as bad as Twins was, its premise actually reminds me of what we’re seeing in game development these days.
We have the big-budget, mega-games in one camp (see: Ahnold) and the small-budget, casual efforts in another (see: DeVito). We’re all in the same industry, but we don’t look much alike. That’s where Gamesauce comes in. It was created to ensure that we as an industry take the best of both worlds to make the best games possible.
As an industry, we need to adjust our focus away from rigid product lines and categories and toward the real lifeblood of our business: the consumer. This small shift in thinking will help us see that at the core of it all, we’re here to appeal to gamers. There are gamers who spend hours tethered to their consoles, others downloading games onto their iPhones, and some merely playing Minesweeper during conference calls. (And many who do all three— perhaps during the same conference call.) The motives and pleasures of those playing games are basically the same; the primary differences are the platform and style of game-play.
Games have always been more about diversion than budget anyway. There’s a vast audience, and successful games all achieve the same result: They provide fun and a little escape from our monotonous workday existence. Without game developers like us, they’d still be dealing Solitaire from a deck of playing cards. Or worse yet: Sitting around watching Twins.
Over the past 30 years, the games industry has helped a lot of people discover that they actually like to play video games. The key has been long hours and painstaking efforts of many of you who have created revolutionary gaming experiences.
Think of Gamesauce as a tribute to those efforts—and as our contribution to the advancement of gaming. Let’s work together to make high-quality games that billions will enjoy a lot more than they enjoy watching a roided-out governor and his balding, five-foot twin. We’re all family after all.
This article is from from the
Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine
Scott Miller of 3D Realms discusses Duke Nukem, publishers, Tomb Raider, Hollywood, Star Wars, the importance of a strong lead and fixing the industry in 10 Questions from the Fall 2009 issue of the Gamesauce Magazine.
1) We keep hearing about transmedia. What exactly does that mean, anyway?
Star Wars is my best example of an entertainment property strong with the transmedia force. In fact, I’m working with a co-author to write a book about this topic—a book that will become a film, a graphic novel, a hit music CD, and a videogame. That’s the whole point, right?
A storyverse is to stories what GTA is to FMV games like Dragon’s Lair.
To make a transmedia property, you need first to build a “storyverse.” This is my catchy coinage to describe a broad and deep foundation of characters, settings, dramatic set-ups, conflicts, themes, mythology, rules, and hooks. But, the purpose of a storyverse is not to define a single story. Instead (and this is critical), its purpose is to create a uniquely compelling playground of story possibilities. A storyverse is to stories what GTA is to FMV games like Dragon’s Lair. (An extra life to those who don’t need to Google “FMV games.”)
In short, you want to both create and constrain a rich possibility space for stories to emerge. For Star Wars, we have a great supply of the characters (including heroes and villains), the planets and outer space (locations), the force (mythology), several conflicts between characters and factions, and unique hooks (Force powers and the lightsaber) within the storyverse.
2) How do you prepare IP for transmedia?
The secret sauce is all common sense stuff
The secret sauce is all common sense stuff. But, above all, two things are required. The first is a strong lead character (James Bond, Spider-Man), or several strong characters (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), along with a good supporting cast of secondary characters. Both Star Wars and Star Trek score well in this department. The second requirement is unique hooks like the Force and the lightsaber, both of which translate into unique and compelling gameplay features. I’m certain George Lucas wasn’t thinking about videogames when he wrote the script for Star Wars, but these hooks are what make it so unique and compelling as a videogame franchise. These hooks are what differentiate Star Wars from Star Trek, a franchise that has not successfully crossed into videogames, despite dozens of expensive attempts.
I find it revealing, in fact, that of the tens of thousands of films, novels, TV shows, and comics that have been successful in the linear media, only a dozen or so are consistently successful on the nonlinear, interactive side of the fence. That short list includes Star Wars, Spider-Man, James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and only a few others with a track record worth bragging about. That’s because so few have those inherent hooks that translate into unique, compelling game-play features.
Kids will indiscriminately buy anything that’s based on a brand they already like.
Here’s where I need to unveil a big caveat. Kid properties don’t count. Kids will indiscriminately buy anything that’s based on a brand they already like, and so they fall willingly for transmedia efforts, even all of the bad ones. THQ became one of the top-tier publishers by taking successful non-transmedia TV shows and making (mostly crappy) games. With adults, though, that emu won’t fly.
3) When making a new IP, what’s important and what’s not?
I have a strong interest in creating transmedia properties. Why do anything less? While they can be creatively rewarding, they are also more challenging due to increased pre-planning. In this area I feel like my studio has done well with several of the properties we brought to the market, including Wolfenstein 3D (the last Id Software game to star a named hero), Duke Nukem, and Max Payne. Prey also has potential: MSNBC rated it as one of the five games released in 2006 that should be made into a film, alongside Halo and three others.
Games I’ve been involved with have always focused on lead characters with notable, strong personalities. This goes back to the early ‘90s when I realized that all of the popular comics were named after their lead character, like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. I figured out that this spotlight on the lead character greatly helped burn the character’s name into readers’ minds, plus it allowed maximum flexibility with future stories. Let me give you an idea of what I mean: As I said when it was first released, Eidos made a boneheaded mistake naming their female Indiana Jones game Tomb Raider.
Eidos made a boneheaded mistake naming their female Indiana Jones game Tomb Raider.
Instead, they should have named it Lara Croft. Think about it: By using Tomb Raider as the brand name for this franchise, each game MUST be about raiding a tomb, otherwise the name doesn’t make sense. In effect, this name entombs the franchise into a limited, repetitive set of stories over its lifespan. Maybe that’s interesting to ancient Egyptians, but we current day humans prefer more variety to our stories. Additionally, Lara Croft is a star character that Eidos obviously wants to promote, but they must also spend time and money promoting the frivolous Tomb Raider brand. Had they named the game Lara Croft, they would have instantly avoided both of these problems.
6) Where does the money keep coming from for 3DR and what would you do differently with Duke Nukem?
I get this question a lot. Then I remind people that Duke Nukem 3D was made for $300,000, and we made back 25 times our investment—not to mention all of the third-party Duke console games that sold well. Plus, we made a killing with Wolfenstein 3D. And we made the biggest killing on Max Payne! We made $30 million in royalties on that game (off of a $2.5 million investment), plus another $48 million selling the IP to our publisher.
We made the biggest killing on Max Payne
Oh, and we were also part owners of Gathering of Developers when that was sold to Take2. And finally, we have been pretty lucky with other investments, both in the stock market and in other studios. The bottom-line is that it really shows how important it is to own your own brands. It is only through ownership that a studio can truly create wealth and long-term sustainability.
Even so, I think I would have abandoned internal development six or seven years ago. I much prefer to work with external studios to develop games, as we did with Max Payne and Prey. Radar is following this very model, with no internal development. I wanted 3D Realms to switch to this model years ago, as it’s much more cost effective for us, with lower risk. For other independent developers this advice doesn’t apply. What I’d recommend for them is to not strive for perfection, which is the enemy of completion. For practically all aspects of a game, 80% is good enough.