Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 26, 2011
The Rampant One is off running rampant in New Orleans, and while I’m away, the community gets to play. Actually, they can play any time they want – I love to add extra voices here to Tales of the Rampant Coyote. Today’s post is a wonderful bit of insight from a man who’s been in the belly of the beast. Or, rather, in the belly of one of the most celebrated CRPG makers in North America. He’s recently left his dream job for a dream shot of another kind: Going “rogue” as an indie.
I give you Dan, of GameDevGoneRogue. Enjoy:
Hi All! My name’s Daniel, and Jay graciously invited me to write a guest post on his blog while he’s away. I’m a former BioWare employee of 7 years, who’s recently decided to take the indie plunge. And I’ve started a blog about my experiences during the transition.
When I first spoke with Jay about the guest post, he indicated that he’d be interested in hearing about lessons I’ve learned while at BioWare. It’s an interesting question. I actually owe BioWare a lot in that respect. I feel I’ve learned a ton during my time there, but it’s tricky separating what one knows now from what one knew before. There are a couple that spring to mind, however. I’ll start with the biggest question I had when starting out.
Where do BioWare games come from?
Before I joined the industry, I had visions that a handful of people sat in a meeting room, possibly into late hours and over empty pizza boxes, and hashed out what the next game would be. Coke would be consumed, and ideas “spitballed.” Then, when satisfied and at a consensus, they would gather the team, make an announcement, and employees would dash off to make it a reality.
And my dream was to eventually, through hard work and diligence, to be invited to one of those spitballing meetings.
It doesn’t quite work that way, but it’s not completely wrong either. The truth is, each game comes to be in a different way. Most often, the core leadership of one project moves on to spitball the next. It makes sense. If you’ve got a good bunch finishing up game A, you might as well let them take a crack at game B. They’ve proven themselves, so it’s a good bet they’ll do well again. Especially if game B is similar in nature to game A. Some project leaders involve their teams more. Other times, these are very closed meetings.
In some cases, project leadership teams lose members or fragment to do different projects. Or a project appears first, and a team must be assembled to make it. When these situations happen, new leaders have to be chosen. Usually, these leaders are chosen from within the company. People who have experience, have learned the culture, and have proven themselves reliable. I guess this is where I thought I could get through the door.
So did I? At the end of my 6th year, I’m happy to say I got a taste of it. Part of it was luck: I happened to hear about an up-and-coming project as I was finishing DA:O, and I happened to know the guy running it. I did a metric poop-ton of research and preparation to make myself as valuable as possible, and I approached him at a party to ask how it was going. We had a good chat, and that eventually turned into a new role on his team.
Let me tell you, it was everything I hoped for. It was brainstorming, market research, business planning, you name it. We tossed ideas around, we prototyped, we spent late nights chatting over beers about our ideas. I felt more invigorated and engaged than any other time in my career. Unfortunately, reality sometimes has other plans. In our case, market conditions and studio needs meant that we had to put those ideas on hold to work on more pressing projects. It was a blast while it lasted, though!
I also got to see one other game ideation process from a slightly different angle: I pitched a game to BioWare. It was a small game. Less than a man-year of total work. I figured I was still fairly newbish, so smaller would be a safer bet. But, as it turned out…
Small games aren’t necessarily an easier sell than big games
The thing about studios is, they’re expensive to run. And more to the point, employees are expensive to keep. Employees need salaries, sure. But they also need benefits. And equipment. And space to work in. And support staff. This all adds up, unsurprisingly. A useful “napkin math” figure I learned while in the industry is that your average employee costs twice their salary over a year. Think about that, for a moment. Let’s say your average employee is making $50k per year. That probably means you cost your employer $100k annually. That’s over $8k per month!
So when it came to pitching my small game idea, the question of money inevitably came up. I met with our director of finance, and we started working some numbers. Suffice to say, even a small team over a small time adds up. And that doesn’t include overhead for a product website, marketing, community management, etc. It became pretty evident to me that my barrier to profit was much higher than I realized.
And that wasn’t even my pitch’s fatal flaw. In fact, the pitch itself was quite well received. I was shocked by what good sports they were, entertaining my pitch, hashing out the finance plan, bringing in other project leads for input. In actual fact, my flaw was gameplay. I have to admit, even I didn’t have a clear idea how the “core nugget” of gameplay worked. My pitch and my prototype both sort of danced around it, and implied something fun would happen. But it wasn’t there yet.
It was a big lesson for me, and I had a lot of fun learning it. And it’s safe to say, the bug bit me hard during this process. Shaping a product; its game mechanics; its art style; its business plan; its market strategy…I was hooked.
But if I wanted BioWare to make my game, I would have to make it something BioWare fans would love. This, it turns out, is a tricky proposition because…
You can’t please all the fans all the time
BioWare wants to do right by its fans. It really does. Many of its employees (if not most, nowadays) are former fans of BioWare games. So they have an inherent interest in making quality games.
The trouble is, fans. Yeah, that isn’t a complete sentence. Its incomplete for a reason. “Fans” means a lot of things. Take a look at TV Tropes’s list of fandom sub tropes. Reading just a few of those will alternately make your heart soar, or harden like stone. It’s hard to summarize the effect fans have on game development in one word or sentence. When one creates a work that becomes popular, there are a lot of people watching you closely to see what you make next. And not all of these people want the same thing. So when your next product inevitably lands slightly outside their circle of expectations, they become disappointed. And often vocal.
I can’t tell you how many times we, as employees, scoured the internet for reviews, forums, anything to tell us what the world thought of our work. Did we do right? What can we improve? You have to have a thick skin to deal with what you find. There’s a saying. I’m not sure who said it first, but I first heard it while at BioWare. It goes, “If we could give people a magic hat that would create for them the exact RPG experience they’d always dreamed of, they’d complain about the color of the hat.”
That about sums up where most employees arrive after reading too many forums. You just lose heart, and stop reading forums. There are a few who soldier on, taking the flak, and trying to get to the bottom of the feedback. There are even those BioWare hired to do so. But most devs eventually lose heart and just tune it out. Which is probably a good thing, frankly. Because if everything you do is going to piss someone off anyway, you might as well do what feels right. You’ll be more engaged in something you believe in, and probably make a better product for those who actually want it.
I think I’ll stop there. There are other lessons I’ve learned, to be sure. I could talk a bit about humility as a core value, the need for tools and pipeline specialists, and intra-studio communications. But I’m getting rather long-winded already. Perhaps I’ll follow-up with a second batch during Jay’s next vacation!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading, and thanks again to Jay for the opportunity to guest-post! I welcome any feedback you might have, both on the topics and the writing. Maybe you have contrary wisdom to contribute, maybe you saw a grammar mistake, or maybe you experienced the same things. Let us know! (I promise to read this forum if you do 😉
Filed Under: Biz, Game Development, Guest Posts - Comments: 25 Comments to Read