Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Game Dev’s Story, Part XI: The End of an Era

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 10, 2012

So at this point, you probably have a pretty good idea of how I got to be a game developer. Normally, at this point, the most interesting parts would be behind us. But the story is about to take a twist.

But first, there’s the death of Singletrac.

The first two years of SingleTrac’s existence were pretty amazing. But in spite of (or maybe because of) with the success of all of our games the first two years, things began going downhill. I won’t pretend that I understand why. While I was given some raises and bonuses and promoted up to a “senior” software developer, I was still just one of the foot soldiers doing my job while the brass did their thing. This is a game dev’s story, not the story of a studio, so in spite of being in the middle of it, I really don’t know what happened. Mine was a mouse-eye view. But here’s my perspective, and what I learned.

The big rumbling was that in spite of our perceived success with all four of our titles thus far (Warhawk, Twisted Metal, Twisted Metal 2, and Jet Moto), SingleTrac didn’t receive huge gobs of money. That’s kinda how the mainstream business works. As an unknown studio, the publisher took the risk with us, and the publisher consequently reaped the lion’s share of the profit.  While I might quibble over the percentages (and yeah, I do…), I cannot argue that the premise is unfair. As an unknown with zero track record, Sony took a big risk on us initially to fund the company, and it was a gamble that I assume paid off handsomely. But the terms of that initial deal were apparently (again, I’m not privy to the details, just the scuttlebutt) not in our favor should the games do much better than expected. So while SingleTrac was able to afford to not only stay in business but to modestly grow, and at least give me a pretty decent raise to something that approached “industry standard wages,” it wasn’t like we were all able to go out and buy fly yellow Hummers.

I think this led our company president to tell us in one company meeting that we were now an “intellectual property” company. Which was weird for me, because I thought we were a game company. But he evidently saw where the value really was. The guys who owned the IP rights – like Disney – were at the top of the heat. The lowly developers? Pretty much the bottom of the food chain.

So we decided to branch out. We eventually made a deal with Microsoft for a couple of games, though that ended up coming down to a single game: Outwars. We continued to work with Sony on a sequel to Jet Moto. And, a year or so later, we were trying to find a buyer. We were eventually bought by GT Interactive, which then was bought by Infogrammes, which then bought Atari and started migrating to that brand name.

I’ve chronicled the development (and problems) involved in making Outwars already. I just linked to that rather than rehash it here.

After Outwars, or more specifically after we discovered that Outwars was not a hit game (and neither was any of SingleTrac’s other non-Sony offerings, for that matter, in spite of their quality IMO – Streak remains  a personal favorite), I found myself moved to working on a budget title (Snowmobile Racing, and its sequel, Snowmobile Championship 2000), which I later understood was a developed in order to fulfill a contractual obligation with GT Interactive / Infogrammes for a productivity level in terms of number of games in order to receive extra money from our buy-out agreement.

To be fair, I got a nice bonus from it, which was nice. But I also hurt myself on those projects. In order to hit the deadline, I killed myself on the Snowmobile projects. I was working in excess of 90-hour weeks in order to get the game finished on time. My family suffered.  When it was done, and it was… well, not great, but serviceable (I think it sold something like 20,000 copies… which would be awesome if I were an indie!), I found I’d died a little inside. One the one hand, my love of just making games had diminished. On the other, however, I came to appreciate the idea of ‘budget’ games, a growing market.

I did get a couple of high-points from this. In-between games, our team got to take a snowmobiling vacation research trip to Yellowstone Park. It was awesome, especially after the stress of getting an entire game completed and out the door in just over 90 days. And later, I was invited to our first (and, as it turned out, last) “GT Technical Summit” with some of the top developers of several of GTs studios in Las Vegas. It was only something like fifty people at the two-day event. I got to hang out with legends like Ron Gilbert and Bob Bates. There was a brand new studio (which didn’t last long, much to GT’s embarrassment) made up of Origin alumni called “Bootprint Interactive.” A lot of the guys from Cavedog were there, showing us the technology for their newest games (as well as explaining the technical hurdles they overcame making Total Annihilation and TA: Kingdoms).  This was even cooler than the Game Developer’s Conference for me, mainly for to the more intimate setting. I learned a lot about how the other guys did it.

But all of these companies there weren’t long for the world. You can see what happened to Cavedog shortly thereafter about this same time period by reading its Wiki.  It’s parent didn’t last a lot longer. Bootprint never got off the ground. Legend lasted quite a bit longer, but troubles were hitting. And Singletrac? SingleTrac hadn’t had a hit game in a while, and we were clearly in the midst of painful political strife both internally, and between us and our parent company. We had a couple rounds of layoffs. A lot of the “key people” from the early days had left the company to start a new one. The writing should have been on the wall for me, but I was too inexperienced to see it.  I’d been moved over to the Animorphs team to help that team with the licensed game that was having all kinds of problems of its own. I was again working rough hours (though not as bad as they’d been while I was doing Snowmobile Racing). On Valentine’s Day 2000, I got up extra early to go in to work so I could get home at a reasonable hour to celebrate the holiday with my wife and family. My wife and I argued that morning, as we had a bit over the last year over my hours. It was harder to make excuses because my heart wasn’t really into making the games anymore, after five-and-a-half years at the company. I was tired. I promised I’d work something out, but I didn’t know what.

A little after lunchtime someone came by my cubicle and asked why half the company was gone. I said I didn’t know, but I was sure it was nothing. Fifteen minutes later, those of us who had not been quietly invited to the ‘meeting upstairs’ were rounded up and rather rudely laid off. Singletrac was completely shuttered a few months later (after releasing Animorphs), and that was that.

I was terrified. This had been my only job since college, and I had a family to feed. What would I do? I had five weeks of severance pay to figure something out! Would I stay in games? It was, I had heard, very difficult to make the switch between the games business and ‘serious’ software development.

I heard a rumor, as I was moving my box of stuff out to my car along with the half of the company that had been let go, that the local branch of Acclaim (formerly “Sculptured Software”) was hiring. That have me a glimmer of hope as we gave each other – ‘survivors’ and refugees both – somber but heartfelt goodbyes.

To end this on a much happier note… by the end of the day, I’d been contacted by Acclaim. A lot of us were. They were desperate for experienced game programmers, and hearing of the layoffs at SingleTrac was a blessing for them. They had a group interview for us the next morning, and shortly thereafter gave us an offer that I’ve never had before and probably never will again: They couldn’t use us for two weeks, but they were desperate and would begin our salary immediately after we accepted the offer.

I said yes. The offer was a raise over what I’d been getting at Singletrac. And I’d be able to stay local, and still work in games. Sweetheart deal right? So there I was, with more than double my salary and two weeks with nothing to do.

I told my wife, “Grab the kids and pack the bags. We’re going to Disneyland.” And we did.

What I learned:

The ‘warning signs’ I saw and ignored at SingleTrac helped me know when it was time to jump ship from my last gig in the games biz. Once bitten, twice shy.

I also burned myself out during the last year or so at SingleTrac in a way that I don’t know I ever fully recovered from. I’d made myself physically ill, and put my family – the most important thing in my life – in jeopardy.  Why? The bonus wasn’t worth it. The stock options were definitely not worth it.  I am forever indebted to my team at SingleTrac and have no regrets about the choice I made to be there – I learned a lot, and grew a lot professionally. But when it was all over – I still have my family, while the company is long gone.  That was an important lesson in priorities.

That doesn’t mean that pulling the crunch mode hours and the occasional all-nighter is off-limits. Things gotta get done – especially when it’s a sprint to make a milestone or to get that bonus. It’s the extendo-crunch-time thing, though, that really chews up developers and spits them out.

Another thing I learned was the power of strong marketing. After Sony, nothing we did really performed well. I don’t think these were exclusively the problem of the games. Yeah, I think we erred on Outwars (and some of that was probably my fault, though I technically didn’t have any authority over the game) and made it more of a niche title than we should have.  And we made some bad decisions (which were not my fault, as it was actually over my objections) to stick with older technology during development which we had to reverse late in development – but too late to change art most art assets to take advantage of the better technology.

I think I did get a feel for the danger of a studio growing too big. On the one hand, it feels safer – you don’t put all your eggs in one basket anymore. You can have several “bets” going at one time, in the hopes that one hit will carry the rest of the company through. But a larger studio (I think at its peak SingleTrac – all by itself – was around 80 or 90 employees) has a ferocious burn-rate. And more (and longer) meetings. And less flexibility. And much, much more politics. And less feeling of a personal ‘stake’ in the games.

And while I disagree (still) with the direction of focusing out company on being an “IP company,” I have learned that the core idea was correct: It’s all about owning the rights. The rights to your games (hey, indies, I’m talking to you) are critical. You may not be able to exploit them yourself – we certainly didn’t do a good job of it without Sony’s help. But that doesn’t mean they should be treated as valueless. Owning the I.P. rights means owning the right to have other people make money for you. It means being in control of your own destiny.

Next time, I’m going to talk about my brief stint at Acclaim – which unbeknownst to me wasn’t too far behind all these other companies for its own collapse – and my path to GOING INDIE!

Filed Under: A Game Dev's Story - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • JeffSullins said,

    ‘I told my wife, “Grab the kids and pack the bags. We’re going to Disneyland.” And we did.’ — love it!