Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Fall of a Major Independent Game Studio

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 6, 2010

Note: “Independent” in this context means not owned by a publisher. Not “indie.”

Sensory Sweep Studio was, by studio head Dave Rushton’s calculation, the largest independent video game studio in North America at one point (after Bioware was bought out by EA). I’m not exactly sure of it’s size, but when I was working there it was around 200 employees, maybe a little north of there at one point. The new facilities that were finished shortly after I got there were pretty cool – they had the tiles of the break room arranged like the pixels of a Space Invaders game. I seriously do believe that Dave intended for it to be a great place to work, a place for people who loved making games to be happy.

And then… well, this happened.

It didn’t happen all at once. Fortunately, I’d been through the “Dot Com Crash” circa 2000 – 2001, and already knew the warning signs of a company teetering on the brink. I started job hunting in earnest with the first bounced paycheck (which was replaced with a new paycheck – which also bounced. Third time, fortunately, was the charm).  They paychecks continued to become more erratic. I was torn between a professional desire and obligation to my team, and a desire to escape while the getting was good. Eventually, as my morale dropped through the floor of the basement, my self-preservation instinct in high gear, and a good job offer landed in my pocket, the latter won out.

Which means I’m one of the lucky ones. Another six weeks, and I would have been one of the stiffed employees this article was talking about.

I do not understand enough about running a business of that size, and I was (fortunately) not privy at all to what was going on behind the closed doors there. So I can’t really offer any kind of specific opinion on what should have been done differently.  But while we do talk of companies laying off developers for one reason or another, this is a reminder of what happens to a company that DOESN’T do that.

The other point here is that this really scares me if I ever get to the point where Rampant Games goes full time and actually has employees.  I’m a long way from worrying about that, but still…  A business owner who is “smoking hopium” too long and plays too many accounting games just to avoid making hard decisions for too long can find themselves in this kind of disaster. A kind of disaster that could lead to jail time and never being able to work in the industry again.

Sobering stuff.

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