One of the things my dad always told me is if you can’t find the job you want, create it. When I started Stigma Games it was because I wanted to be a game designer. So I created a job, but not the one I intended.
Last night, I went to 5th Planet Games. They are now the largest game studio in the Greater Sacramento area. Rob Winkler, the founder and CEO, gave a speech to a group of us about how he got his company off the ground, what challenges they faced, etc. I know a couple people that work there and they’re great people. Rob was pretty humble and self deprecating about how he pulled it off, but it was obvious he was a lot smarter than he let on. But he did mention that his goal was to be a game designer and how he had to let that go and realize he was an administrator instead. I’m there too.
This is something I have to come to grips with. The more I trust other people on the team to do design work and the more I step up and be a leader, the more successful Stigma Games will be. About a month ago, 5th Planet put out a job posting that they were looking for a game designer / writer. So 5th Planet is a company I know, I’m friends with people that work there, I’d get to work in a company with a really fun office culture—a dream job. This is exactly what I was looking for a year and a half ago when I started Stigma Games. I did consider applying, but I knew they’d make me give up Stigma Games. When I talked to Rob last night (after everyone left, I hung out and talked to him for a while) he told me that yes, he would have made me quit Stigma Games to take the position.
But I think that job posting was the final straw that made me realize that leading a game development company was what I wanted more than being a game designer. Now we’re still not funded, and that’s ok. We’ll get there. But I know now I’m doing what it is I really want to do.
Rob said that 5th Planet started with he and some of his friends that played Ever Quest together, who decided to make a game. They made the game in Flash, something none of them knew how to use at the time, so they bought a book to learn how. They went through the book, and four months later, released their game and started making enough money in the first couple weeks to back pay all of the artists for their work. He said he moved in with his mom so she could support him while all of the money that came in went to his employees. Imagine for the first year or so, he didn't collect a dime of revenue, investing everything back into the company.
They’re doing something else right. They’re getting an amazing 15% conversion rate. “Conversion Rate” is a fancy term that means how many players in a free to play game actually spend money. People that spend money in free to play games are called “whales.” Zynga's entire business model was how to attract and cater to whales and they only get about a 4% conversion rate. Many companies only get about a 2-3% conversion rate. So 15% is massive. How do they do it?
He explained about obsessively dedicated they are to their fan base. He mentioned that about once a month, they fly a player out to Roseville for the weekend so they can hang out and talk about one of their games. They will show that player they changes that they’re planning and get feedback from the player face to face.
Now contrast that with something that happened about a decade ago when an executive from Ever Quest once said to a disgruntled player on their forums to shut up and give him the $10 bucks a month subscription fee so he could buy another Ferrari. Nice, huh?
In management, there is a concept called TQM. It stands for Total Quality Management. The basic idea of TQM is that if you treat your employees really well, they will treat their customers really well. If they hate their job, they will treat their customers poorly. Rob may or may not have ever heard of TQM, but he’s obviously practicing it. I got a tour of the place. There were separate rooms for just Nintendo games, another for just Xbox games, another for Play Station. The entire upstairs was another game room for table top games. They did movie nights. Essentially, they spend a lot of time team building and making employees happy. They’re moving to a bigger office in a month or so. They could always pile more people into their existing studio and convert some game rooms into office space, but since employee happiness is their primary focus, that won’t do.
I found it really inspiring to hear Rob’s story because he’s succeeded going down the same path, using the same methods that I want to do. And though Rob attributed much of their success to luck, he was being too humble. Indeed, they were not lucky. They put all their eggs in the Facebook game basket and survived the social media game bubble burst, transitioning quickly to other platforms like Armor Games and Kongregate. He also said something else important. He said at one point, the one game that they had out was broken. It was broken for about a week and they didn't know how to fix it. But despite the fact that the game was unplayable, players still kept buying things, which kept them afloat financially. The players did so because 5th Planet Games had done such a great job communicating with their player base, that the players had faith enough in them that the problems would get fixed and everything would be fine.
There’s one huge thing we’re doing differently. Whereas 5th Planet out sources all their art, all our art (and well, everything) is done locally. Will that pay off for us? We’ll find out. But the reason why 5th Planet outsources is because they can’t find talented artists locally. Certainly, talented artists in this area are hard to find. It’s a catch 22. Talented artists don’t have a lot of employment options here, so they leave to the bay area or LA. Then game companies here outsource artists from the bay area.
How do we get around that catch 22? Now, Stigma Games isn't the only unfunded game company in town trying to get off the ground. We are in direct competition with the other unfunded game company, fighting over the same limited human resources of people that have skills and are able to donate their time. In the short term, for us to help each other hurts us. But in the long term, the more successful other companies in the area are, the more opportunities there are for talented people in the area to find employment opportunities. So instead of seeing each other as rivals, we should see each other as pillars towards creating the type of game development community that will bring us success towards forming triple AAA game development studios.
In the meantime, there are things I can do to try and develop the talent we do have in the area. For one, I give tests to people that apply. We get about 1 new person every day or two applying. Some of the emails I get are from people that say simply, “I don’t know how to code or do art, but I’d like to help in anyway I can. You can teach me!” Those people, I just can’t use. Then there are artists that aren't at a level we can use, which is obvious after I get an art test back from them. What I do at that point, instead of just turning them down, I write them back telling them why I’m turning them down, and what they can do to reach a level where I would tell them yes. How many people will let you take a test as many times as you want and tell you what to do the next time?
There was one case where I turned a person down without getting into why. He also took four months to do something I could have done in an afternoon and the finished product wasn't great. But otherwise, I’m pretty good at getting back to people. Some artist cheat, and send me what they have part way through and ask me questions on how to move on. That’s fine. I want artists to pass, so I’ll help them pass art tests.
About half the time when I give art / design / writing tests, I never hear back from them again. That number is around 70% for programmers that I never hear from again. I don’t really know why I have a much harder time with programmers. Of the artists that don’t pass, about half of them don’t try and redo it. One of those artists actually insulted me for not recognizing what an amazing talent she was. Wow. Just wow. All I can say, is I hope one day when she’s older, she’ll have enough good sense to be embarrassed that she sent me the email that she did. But who knows? I didn't even respond to it.
I got hit up at once by several art students looking for work experience credits. I’m happy to say that there are four colleges in the area that give their students college credits for interning for Stigma Games. I’m still a little unsure how to deal with that. If the students isn't at a level that we can use and I’ll be spending a lot of my time holding their hand, is it worth it? Maybe not in the short run. But maybe so in the long run. Today’s young artist might be tomorrow’s star. We’ll see.