Wednesday, October 10, 2012

One year ago

A year ago today, I decided to start this project.  I knew I would learn a lot in the first year as I will continue to learn as time goes on.  Here’s a look back.

When this all started, I worked really hard to try and convince people to come aboard, sending long emails to people I found on Sacramento game development sites and other places, really selling the idea of the game and why I thought it would be successful.  I learned pretty quickly, however, that nearly everyone I talked to wanted to jump in immediately no matter what the game was like.  After meeting with one programmer and talking for an hour about how the engine worked, I was struck by the fact he was ready to get started, and he never even asked me what the game was about.  I told him we were making a Hello Kitty 3rd person shooter game.  He didn't even blink an eye, which kind of worried me, to be honest.

Now, that doesn't mean everyone I recruited who were enthusiastic about joining actually stuck around.  In fact, over half the people I recruit end up quitting the team in the first week—many without even logging in to our wiki, forums, or engine to even start working or learn anything about the game.

That’s strange.  Why meet with someone, say you’re interested and excited, then get home and not even look at anything?  But I've actually done the same thing myself.  You hear about a game project and you absolutely want to be involved.  Then you get home and think, “Um, what was I thinking?  I don’t have time for this,” so you watch tv for a while, play WoW, get caught up on homework, and forget about the game project you agreed to work on.  Not to mention, building fun and exciting games is cool, but spending 10 hours trying to figure out why the importer plugin for the rock you spent the last 3 days modeling isn't working, can be a drag.  I had a teacher once say, “Live life to the fullest!” is a great slogan until you have to put gas in your car, wash the dishes, and do the less glamorous things in life.  Game development is real, actual work.  You have to love every part of it or do something else.

I've gotten a lot better at weeding out people that I think won’t last long.  It’s tough when you’re understaffed, to not take any warm body willing to volunteer.  But having people come and go really hurts morale, so it’s something that you have to resist doing as a recruiter in this situation.  I try and give people I recruit tests, not to test their skills, but to test how serious they are before I introduce them to the team.

This is even a problem in funded game companies.  One of the main reasons why game companies only want to hire people with experience is because they want to make sure that they’re hiring people that are sure they actually want to make games and have proven they want to do so by doing it for a year or more.  Hiring people that quit a month later can be really expensive for a company.  There’s a big difference between recruiting volunteers and hiring professionals, but there is some cross over.  I’m glad on some level to be learning these things while we’re not funded, and I can make mistakes without losing money.

Project Management
If recruiting is hard, project management is pretty tough too.  Making sure that 25 people all have stuff to do is a full time job in its own.  I've had to learn how to program in the HeroEngine so I can write pseudo code to give tasks to the programmers.  Then for the artists--how to take a 2d concept piece, turn it into a 3d model, sculpt it, retopologize it if needed, uv unwrap, texture it, bake normal maps from holy poly versions, and rig and animate it if needed, and how to convert all the diffuse, normal, transparencies, and specularity maps into special HeroEngine shaders.  I’m lucky in that I have a decent amount of experience as a C++ programmer, so I’m familiar with object oriented design, and I have a long time 3D art background.  I’m not all that great at either, but it’s really helpful that I at least understand both sides of things really well.

I’ll admit, I do get a little self conscious if I’m not coding or creating art assets—aka, if I don’t have something I can directly point to and say, “See?  I’m contributing too!”  I still have a little “why do I get to be in charge,” insecurity.  I really need to get over that.  I let those insecurities slip, and it’s just bad news when I do.  It gives the team the impression that maybe I can’t pull this off and maybe the project will never take off.  I read once that confidence is the greatest gift a leader can give their team.  If we can pull off everything we have planned, Dawnshine will be a huge success.  I need to stop being so insecure and remind myself that this game has the potential to be paradigm shifting.  Yep, I said it.  Now I need to act on that.

Business Development
I've learned an awful lot about how funding works.  I knew very little about it before hand, and I still have a lot more to learn.  I know I've posted about Loki’s Planet in the past.  They were a funded company, and I had a dim view of venture capitalists due to listening their CEO and to other frustrated entrepreneurs about how difficult VCs are to work with.  Part of my dismal view of investors came from my dismal view of record companies and how they screw over bands—as if investors give you a little bit of money and hope you take off with that alone.  But that’s completely the wrong idea.  In theory, investors keep giving you money as long as they think your company will take off.  And if they signed on, but figure out later that they don’t have the money to make it happen, they will sell off some of their own shares to someone that will.  Good investors are business partners and will work hard to make things happen for the company they invest in.

Aside from that, working for Loki’s Planet taught me a crap load about how game PR and marketing works.  I really enjoyed talking to marketing directors from big companies and understanding things from their perspectives.  Dawnshine is a long way from needing a business / marketing team, but I feel a lot more prepared for when we do.  I know I’ll learn a lot from that once it’s in full swing.

Game Design
Over a billion people on the planet alive today have played a video game once in their lives.  Many of them have ideas for making their own game.  Of those millions of people, many of them think their ideas are unique and interesting.  The idea of getting together a bunch of people to all work on your brilliant game idea sounds like a lot of fun.  But here on Earth, in our current dimension of existence, it doesn't really work that way.  You don’t get a bunch of people together and expect people to read your mind or make decisions on their own.  If people aren't given exact, detailed instructions, they either get frustrated and stop working or they guess at stuff and do work far removed from what the rest of the team is doing.

Game design is a huge, huge amount of work.  It’s essentially like writing book reports filled with technical details as a full time job.  If you aren't a fan of math, you’re not going to like game design.  It’s a lot of mathematical formulas, flow charts, and logic trees.  It’s a lot of asset creation lists and details.

I really had no idea when I started this a year ago, just how much work was really involved with being a game designer.  Just art assets, a detailed asset creation list for a game can include thousands of items.  World of Warcraft had over 10,000 sound files when Burning Crusade launched—that’s just audio assets.  Can you imagine writing out 10,000 descriptions for sounds that you want the audio team to go record?  If you think, "They're audio people and gamers.  They know what kind of sounds are needed in a game.  They can figure it out," then you'd be wrong.  Letting your team guess at stuff like that is a really, really bad idea.

I got smart and instead of telling the art team the lore and history and asking them to start drawing stuff, I started smaller.  We’re working on a single village and detailing out everything that would reasonably be in that one village.  We’re not even doing the whole village.  I broke it up into 5 parts.  In the end, it will be one of 25-30 villages in one of the 16 zones of one of the 4 factions.  We’re going to spend the next several months working on it.  For years, I've heard players complain about how game studios are lazy because they recycle art assets.

Well, here's to another year closer to our goal.