Category Archives: entrepreneurship

Angel investor admits mistake; world doesn’t end

I don’t normally call-out individual investors, but this tweet from Max Niederhofer underlines something I’ve been thinking about for a while: I’d like to see a culture of equity investors admitting (publically) their missed investments as often as they big-up the ones they made.

Biggest angel investing screwup of mine of the last 18 months: not accepting @begemann’s offer of getting into @wooga. 18M monthly players!

And of course – aside from the investor issue – it’s interesting just how big Wooga is right now.

Anyway, I’d like to celebrate Max (and others) for publically admitting he misjudged that investment. I wish more investors would do this, on a regular basis.

Why should an investor keep quiet?

I make no claim to know the mind of investors. The nearest I can come is that – for a while – I sat on an investment team that made recommendations on investments from $0.5m up to $10m. I loved the experience of being on “the other side” of the table. But I only did it for a year or so – I’m in unfamiliar territory here.

Some guesses / intuitions from that experience (and from conversations I’ve had with investors over the years):

  1. The suspicion that you might scare-off new startups when they hear you rejected other startups that they consider similar to themselves. Fair enough – although I think this does a disservice to entrepreneurs; we’re not stupid – we know that investors make mistakes, and we expect them to learn from them, I think many of us would be more eager rather than less (“they’re probably smarting from that mistake, and more likely to jump on a similar opportunity like US!”)
  2. Funds, especially, sell themselves on their reputation for making “the right” decisions. Every few years, they have to persuade a bunch of very rich individuals to part with tens of millions of dollars, on nothing more than the faith that the fund will invest it more intelligently than the investor would have themself. They don’t want to tarnish their reputation by admitting the profits they “failed” to secure for their own investors.
  3. Angels have a similar reputation issue, but with Funds, rather than with investors. My impression is that this relationship is a lot less fragile / critical – but if an Angel is respected by a Fund as a canny selector of good startups, it could make it much easier for said Angel to cash-out when they need to. Although… that exit may itself make the Angel look bad (why are they getting out? What gives?) so I’m not sure this is so important
  4. Pride. Both personal and professional.
  5. Fear of revealing their personal “investment strategy” to their rival investors. I’ve heard Angels talk about how they have a secret sauce in their choice of investments – one they guard as vigorously as Coca Cola’s – but I’m not sure how important this really is. “Security by obscurity”, and all that…
  6. Um. Others?

Why should an investor confess?

As an entrepreneur, when I’m sifting through potential investors, I’d like to know:

  1. Does this guy track their failures as well as success – do they live by the same rules they expect us to, i.e. “test and prove and IMprove”, or are they stewing in a soup of arrogance and ignorance?
    1. An investor that gets better each year is one I want on my board – chances are, their advice and input will be better year on year. Not stagnant.
  2. Market opinion: what other entrepreneurs came to you with serious investment offers? Social proof works both ways, guys…
    1. Every investor will boast about the good investments they made, but that tends to be a small pot. Sure, they see 20 (or 200) pitches a year – but how many of those pitches are from smart entrepreneurs? Do the smart guys avoid this investor, or do they swarm to them?
  3. Market exposure: what has motivated them in the past to make yes/no decisions? Not theoretical (fakeable) ideals – but actual deals they’ve rejected. (again, finding out the deals they accepted is relatively easy / common)
    1. Does this investor get enough exposure to the “real” spectrum of startup opportunities? Or do they only deal with – say – Financial Services tech startups? Will I end up having to (re-)educate them on the realities of (say) Social Media startups, because although they’ve funded one … that’s the only one they’ve ever seen (and they judge everything else by that one)?
  4. Honesty. With personal recognition of past mistakes, and the dose of humility that required.
    1. Yeah. Most people don’t care about this one. I do. If I’m holding myself and my colleagues to these standards (and I do) … why should investors get a bye?

I’ve got an idea; I’ll give you 25%…

…if you:

  1. finish it
  2. and design it
  3. and build it
  4. and test it
  5. and refine it
  6. and launch it
  7. and sell it
  8. and market it

…for me.

This was the tempting offer whispered in my ear this evening by a hard-up web-developer at a networking event, once we were alone, and he’d heard I developed iPhone apps.

For the record, this is the worst offer I’ve ever had – even in the days of the iPhone goldrush (2008, mid 2009) the least I was offered was “one third”. Since then, even the unrealistic offers usually start at $2,000 cash up-front.

I smiled, and said nothing.

I carried on the conversation, when he suddenly broke into a long (minutes) tirade of abuse in the middle of the venue, because I’d “blown [him] off” when he’d “offered to share [his] great idea”.

I stood there in silence for another 30 seconds, wondering what to do: should I respond in kind? should I try to help him? should I walk away?

I decided to try and help him. I asked him to think about how his offer sounded to someone who makes apps for clients every day. (he ranted about how I thought I “was the Big Man – BUT YOU’RE NOT!”). I apologized profusely for offending him, and said I’d try to explain (he told me to “scuttle off, little man”). I made one more attempt – I pointed out that after inadvertently offending him, I was at least trying to make amends, and all he seemed to want to do was insult me. He sneered.

So, my public-service act for the day:

How much does it cost to develop an iPhone application? (tl;dr – $250,000 for a good one)

(note: when we talk to clients, I advise them the sane limit is c. $150k for a great one, or $75k for a good one. The $250k figure is accurate if you’re doing own-IP and it HAS to be awesome (like twitterific, quoted) – but you always end up spending more when it’s your own IP – or if you work with extremely expensive digital agencies who don’t have in-house iPhone specialists. Most of the good, solid iPhone dev teams are about half that price)

NB: this problem (“I’ve got an idea, I’ll let you have it in return for a profit share”) is prevalent among people who know nothing about computer games, as much as for people who know nothing about generic iPhone apps (but who read the papers and think they’re sitting on a goldmine. That’s very interesting in and of itself…

At the end of the day, I walked away from Mr. Abusive. Some people just don’t want to be helped, sadly…

How much money do game developers earn?

Another excellent post by Christer – a Direct of tech @ SCEA – on calculating independent, verfiable salaries for people in videogames industry:

“Unlike salary surveys, where people can claim arbitrary wages (and the submitted salaries are never posted), the H1-B data contains actual wages! In other words, it is a rare opportunity to get some objective data points on industry salaries.”

I’m a huge fan of these unbiased, fact-based analyses. c.f. my posts from a few years ago on predicting MMO subscriber numbers in similar fashion. These DO NOT invalidate other forms of estimation – but they provide an independent figure that “anyone” can re-calculate for themselves, at any time, and check the info / update it.

Christer’s mined some great data here – all the big names are represented. A tiny sampling (go to the original post for tonnes more):

Employer Job title Wage
Disney Online Director, Technology $157,500
Electronic Arts Technical Director $150,000
Blizzard Entertainment Senior Software Engineer II $150,000

I’ve been thinking of updating my old posts on salaries for startups – what can/should/would you pay to your first employees? I’m wondering now if I can shore that up with extra data from the VISA programmes; maybe not quite the same volume of data, but should be a substantial amount there. Unlike Christer’s set, it’s likely to be a lot more skewed :( – startups can rarely afford to recruit internationally, as compared to large corporates who do it as a matter of course.

Get VC funding for your startup: the process

One of the most useful (and short) posts I’ve ever seen (*) on raising VC money. This post from Mark Suster encapsulates key things that every VC knows and feels is so obvious they wont even mention … But which new entrepreneurs have no way of knowing:

http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2011/01/11/going-to-raise-vc-heres-a-primer-on-process-people-deck/

…and if you’re raising money in europe (by which i mean “london”, in practice), i encourage you to benchmark your experience against this list.

There are still, even today, plenty of so-called VC firms in London whose processes are opaque, elongated, archaic, or pointlessly troublesome. If your VC wont stick to this process demand to know why not – and ask yourself how much trouble it will cause you down the line?

E.g. If your VC is a spinout from a London hedge fund, they may have an investment banking twist on process, that anyone from the city would recognize, but whose origins are in servicing a very different audience from entrepreneurs.

(*) – of course, im assuming you read http://venturehacks.com already. If not, youve got a lot of reading to do, and probably need to start again from scratch on your funding strategy :).

Ubisoft wounds games-tech industry

Ubisoft just bought Qazal – one of the last providers of networking tech for games. Congrats to the Qazal folks; although the price isn’t mentioned, I’d imagine a lot of them have picked up a nice windfall from this.

The problem

Two problems: one immediate, anti-competitive, affecting games using this tech; the other long-term, and damaging for the *entire* games industry.

Your competitor owns your tech

Simple. Ubisoft is a large publisher, big enough that whoever is publishing *your* game probably competes directly with them.

Even if you don’t use Qazal yet, if you’re a developer you now have the problem that Ubisoft has an extra stick to beat you into submission when you’re looking for a publisher for your next game:

“Yes, this publishing deal screws you over, and you get 50% less royalty than with our competitors. But you want to use Qazal, don’t you? Well, unless you accept this 1-sided deal, we’ll make sure you either can’t use Qazal, or we’ll quietly – unofficially – make sure you get terrible support, screwed over, etc”

NB: Qazal guys have made it clear they won’t stand for this. Unfortunately, Criterion guys said much the same thing when EA bought them. Turns out that guys with sticks can protest all they want, but the guys with machine guns tend to win the argument.

“You’ve killed us all”

Remember when the Swine Flu started, govts panicked that this virulent disease – started no-one quite knew where – might become a pandemic? Maybe just one chance interaction between pig and man that would bring down mankind. Maybe …

Over the past few years, there’s been a series of aggressive, destructive, anti-competitive acquisitions of games-middleware companies.

It seems *likely* that the Ubisoft/Qazal purchase will be more of the same – no matter what they say. It may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Already, development teams – or, more accurately, the people that run them – are actively avoiding using middleware. The common refrain is “we’ve been so badly burned by Renderware/Demonware/[insert here] that we now have an exec-level policy that we must not use middleware unless it’s from a company that has practically zero chance of being purchased by our major competitor”.

In the short term, EA and Activision got to laugh at everyone else and dance and sing and claim their brilliance.

But already there are lots of smart industry people who have avoided founding new middleware companies (and I suspect there are plenty that started but died) because of this: too many of their desired customers are refusing to buy, on principle.

It may take 5+ years for the full impact to be felt, but I’m confident it will be felt.

To be clear: we’re not talking about things like Unreal3 here, we’re talking about focussed technology solutions to game-development problems. The dominant players of the industry bemoan the escalating costs of production, but the great innovations in cost – cheap, effective, nimble tech – have traditionally come from small middleware startups. Not from monolithic tech spinouts like U3.

What’s in it for Ubi?

No matter the protestations of innocence, AFAICS there’s a problem of mis-aligned interests.

Ubi will materially suffer *not at all* if Qazal is no longer licensed – the revenue (so far as I can see) is relatively tiny, and it’s non-core to their business. Unless they want to become a “tech selling company”, they will never care much about it. They won’t even care that much about the lost “shared R&D costs” they’ll just be happy to have the smart people in-house.

However, Ubi now has an enormous sword of damocles they can use both to bully and to materially harm their competitors: at any moment, they can turn off the tap.

You can write the cleverest contract in the world, to protect your project, and yet STILL Ubi may screw you over. The team leads may not notice – protected by said contract – but the TDs will (wasted investment of time and research/training with Q).

And the CTO will be livid (because the lead time to build up an internal expertise is measured in years – and they’ll have to start from scratch just to persuade the Finance division to let them have the money, which could take a year or more on its own).

Hiring people smarter than you

Startup CEOs are often advised to do this, but few people explain how the heck to do that, and its far easier said than done.

Ben’s got a great approach: actually do each of the jobs yourself, for real, before hiring people into them.

This resonates with my own experience, where “deliberate self obsolescence” has proved the most effective strategy for hiring senior management. Do everything yourself, and keep trying to make yourself redundant, by finding the most time-consuming thing you’re currently doing, and hiring someone else to do it.

This approach also neatly solves the eternal problem of “which role do we hire next?” – in a *prioritasable* fashion (which is important if you believe in scrum/agile/lean measurement, and can’t accept the answer “all of them!”).

PS a lovely quote in the linked post:

“The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you).”

QFT.

Personally, I finally escaped from this trap only when I started hiring on “enthusiasm” rather than on “skill”. So far, it’s not lead me astray…

VCs, Angels, and Beta Pages: They’re wrong

There is a curse afflicting the startup world right now. It’s insidious, it’s harmful, and – as a potential customer – I’m fed up of running into these brick walls of customer-hatred. Each time it happens, yet another startup generates massive harm for itself, and I’d like to see this madness STOP.

(by “startup world” I mean: West-coast USA-style startups – i.e. Silicon Valley VC’s and Angels, the startups they back, the people seeking money from there, and any startup that follows their way of thinking. I do *not* mean – for instance – old-style Europe startups, who haven’t even grasped the idea of a pre-funded “beta” release yet. This post probably will sound new and scary to some of them. For everyone else, this is already standard practice)

EDIT: I forgot (!) to add: when it works, for the startups that use it sparingly, and for the *minority* that are well-suited to it, it works fine. But the current trend is for *everyone* to try it – and that’s where the failure lies. “When all you have is a hammer…”

What are we talking about?

Startups today are advised to build a micro-website with just 1-3 pages that gathers people’s email addresses and does nothing else. This is supposed to show “traction” (in the number of emails captured) and “early lead generation” (by creating a pre-made mailing list of potential customers you can later approach), as well as “idea/product feedback from potential customers” (soliciting opinions from these people by emailing them and trying-out your ideas on a fresh audience – BEFORE spending the money to make the product).

I can’t remember where I first saw this, but its been promoted by a number of major VC’s on their blogs and tweets, and it’s generally seen as a sign that a startup is hip and modern and knows its shit. From memory, it’s been popularized too by things like Y Combinator, Seedcamp, etc – the places that up-and-coming startups go to learn “how to be better at being a startup”.

The importance of courting Early Adopters

First para of wikipedia’s summary on what is an Early Adopter?

Typically this will be a customer who, in addition to using the vendor’s product or technology, will also provide considerable and candid feedback to help the vendor refine its future product releases, as well as the associated means of distribution, service, and support.

Why do we care about these people? Because we certainly do care; we care very much. Startups pore vast amounts of energy into wooing this crowd.

In this context, there’s several valuable uses of these people (

  1. They’re customers: they’ll pay us
  2. They’re “easy sell”: by their nature, and their needs, they’ll buy the product with only a small amount of urging
  3. They’re trendstters: they will do considerable amounts of marketing *on our behalf*, unasked-for, and unpaid
  4. They’re vocal on feedback: they give us huge amounts of valuable insight into what’s good and bad about our product, and what we could/should/mustn’t change about it. Ditto for pricing. Ditto for marketing. Everything, really – they’re like the world’s most friendly and hard-working investor, giving the most honest feedback about the company’s products every single day

Three things on that list shine brightly, and are where old-style startups haven’t caught up yet: these people massively reduce the startup’s SALES and MARKETING costs. A small, lean startup doesn’t yet have the cash to hire a sales team. Nor a marketing team. Also, the founders usually don’t *quite* know what it is they’re selling, or how best to describe it.

These early adopters make SALES EASY, they do FREE MARKETING, and they ADVISE ON WRITING A BETTER SALES MESSAGE. Wow. Awesome!

When Early Adopters Turn Bad

Let’s look at the *second* para of Wikipedia’s description:

The relationship is synergistic, with the customer having early (and sometimes unique, or at least uniquely early) access to an advantageous new product or technology.

i.e. for all that FREE juicy goodness your Early Adopters are giving you, you’re expected (usually: required) to give back, in spades. Usually what you give back is worth more in cash than what you receive – but it’s all about timing. The cash “cost” to you is due in the future, in the long-term product discounts, etc. Whereas the cash “benefit” to you is accrued in the present, in the form of increased sales *today*. And cashflow is the thin that tends to kill startups, so this is hugely valuable for you.

And – unfortunately – these “beta” websites tend to completely ignore the “give back” part of the relationship.

Here’s the problem: if you piss-off the visitors to that micro-site, you generate *disproportionately* large hatred of your company, your team, and your product. Just as an Early Adopter is inclined to tell everyone how wonderful your product is (even though it doesn’t work yet, and they’ve only got a partial version) … they’ll equally tell everyone how terrible your product is (even though it’s not finished, and they’ve only got partial info).

These people don’t conveniently sit around waiting to SERVE YOUR STARTUP … no, they’re people with reputations of their own, with thoughts and feelings. That’s what makes them so valuable – other people trust and listen to them. And that means they’re expected/required to report the bad along with the good. Upset them at your peril.

What does a potential customer want?

When they come to your website, an Early Adopter has a rough pyramid of needs. The more convinced they are of your product – OR the more it seems to fit a problem they already know they have – the further down this list they’ll go:

  1. information
  2. a demo
  3. a service/product
  4. purchase-form

…and they’re impatient, by nature. If you convince them with your first sentence that your product is even ATTEMPTING to fix a problem that’s causing them major pain right now, they may well *immediately* run to your “pricing” link, straight from the home page.

Incidentally … in that case, here is a person TRYING TO GIVE YOU MONEY. You don’t always want their money – it might come with too many strings attached – but, generally, you probably do. You certainly want to consider it, not cut-them off mid-stride and tell them to piss off and leave you alone (which is what a lot of sites do).

It takes two to trade

But lets go back to the most basic need: information.

Someone comes to your site. Why?

You can bet that – no matter what else – they want Information. Who you are, what you’re selling, why is it useful … might they want to use/buy it for themselves?

And here is where most of these beta sites today do a full-frontal face-plant straight onto the tarmac.

Here’s what most sites do:

  1. I won’t let you see the site until you fill in a form
  2. Give me your email address
  3. I’ll show you a webpage telling you nothing, but vaguely promising to contact you “at some time in the future”
  4. The rest of my site is completely empty

This reminds me of The Pirate Code, courtesy Disney:

  1. Take what you can
  2. Give nothing in return

“Synergistic”, says Wikipedia: i.e. a trade, an equivalence: you rub my back, I rub yours.

Only … with these startups, it’s all about TAKING the customer’s info, and then sending them away empty-handed. No wonder a lot of visitors come away with a vague sense of having just been scammed – this is exactly how most con-artists work!

Why? Why, for the love of all that is good?

Not every startup is created equal; if the founder of Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or … etc … choose to start a new startup now, with a new product, then you can be sure thousands of people will beat a path to their door just on spec of who the founder is. They don’t know what it will be, but they know they want in – if only for the bragging rights to say “First!”.

To a lesser extent, there are startups whose product approaches a need so great, and so tightly defined, and so cutting-edge … that customers will again come beating down the door IRRESPECTIVE of any sense of rationality or sense.

But, for most startups, that’s not the case.

For most startups, if you throw up a “gathering email addresses TRUST ME I’M NOT A PORN-IN-YOUR-INBOX SITE REALLY”, it’s not so simple.

For most starutps, who then use that landing page as *the main funnel for all outside contact*, this is a disaster.

For instance, last week I met a startup co-founder who gave me his business card. Only it wasn’t his card – when I followed the web-address, it proved to direct straight to the funnel for gathering email addresses. Ironically, the site didn’t even have contact info. The founders had linked to their twitter profiles.

(and the main founder had then back-linked his Twitter profile to this funnel site! Way to go, idiot: now there’s literally no way of contacting you directly. I have to @reply you on Twitter and “hope” that you will be gracious enough to a) bother to check your @-replies (since Twitter doesn’t inform you automatically) and b) avoid irritating my own followers with meaningless private messages I had to send to you in public)

Startups: how NOT to write your website sales pages

If your startup sells stuff via the internet (you have an online product, service, web-app, etc), this may be the single most important thing to get right (assuming your core idea, team, etc has inherent merit). And yet so many companies spend so much money doing it so wrong.

Why are modern software companies so bad at selling software? Today I was looking at Scrum tools (or Agile if you prefer), and I was struck by how hopeless some of their websites are. With some of these sites, I am sure that I could increase the sales of most of these companies by hundreds or thousands a year, just through basic principles of sales.

(and, obviously, HOWEVER you design your sales page, you should be using A/B testing to increase sales, conversion, etc. But A/B testing is no panacea: you still need the creativity and understanding to make the “big leaps” yourself)

Example: VersionOne

I’m going to pull out one example (by accident, the first I came across). Many others are much the same.
VersionOne.com

Before we go further, let me be clear what “kind” of customer I am. I’m currently looking for solutions for two commercial setups. One is for tiny projects on a case-by-case basis. This would be 5-seat licenses (worth up to $3000 at VersionOne’s current prices). The other is for a company-wide purchase of up to 30 licenses per annum (worth up to $15,000).

But, at the same time, my last full time job was running development for a large development studio. I was the primary reviewer and purchase-maker for software tools that were 50-person per annum immediately, and meant a commitment of up to 150 within 3 years. I’ve done a *lot* of this purchase-review process, on a lot of software.

My negative reactions to VersionOne’s sales are fairly consistent across the 3 profiles (although the reasons behind that are complex)

Landing page, from Google: the “don’t ask questions, you’re too stupid, just buy instead”, and “we love ourselves, we’re awesome” page

Page: http://pm.versionone.com/Trial_ScrumProjects.html?c-aws=trs&gr-tss&v-029abt&gclid=CNGTgsrEoaICFUcA4wod82WOwg

This has a *concealed* URL, so it pretends to be the front page, but actually lies, and redirects you to this page instead:

Ont this page, your website states it’s a commercial product, yet REFUSES to answer the single most important question: how much does this cost?

There aren’t even any LINKS to finding out about the product. It’s just “buy our product, or piss off”.

This page serves one purpose: lock the customer into a product they don’t want. You are “not allowed” to know the cost, you are only “allowed” to “signup now for a 30-day trial” – you have to commit yourself, and they’ll sting you with a price later, when you have no choice.

Word of advice: merely making something “free, for a few minutes, then I charge you” does NOT lower the customer’s barriers to purchase. For an ultra-long-term product like Project Management tools, it often has the *reverse* effect. The MINIMUM trial for a PM tool is “one project”. Most projects – using new tools – will need several months; 2 week to learn the tool, 10 weeks to run + launch + finish the project. The customer knows this; they know that a “30 day trial” is completely dishonest.

So, we use the navbar, and head to the “Product” page:

Product page: the “Want more info? Oh no you don’t! You’re too stupid, you’re just a customer!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

I’ll sum up the stupidity and smug self-satisfied attitude of the person who wrote this page with just one quote, their final bullet point in the top-section:

“Accelerate agile adoption”

[hey! Look at that! I'm so clever - three words all beginning with "a"! They're guaranteed to buy now! I'm so sharp, sometimes I cut myself]

Sigh. Ignoring the “infographic” which has been screen-captured with a font-size of 2pts (i.e. literally physically impossible to read), we try to do something useful with this page: review the product (we’ve given up on pricing, for now – they obviously don’t wany anyone to buy the product, but maybe the product is so good we can force our way past that?)

Product page, part 2: the “we don’t trust you, we’ll spam you with marketing crap”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

(below the infographic)

Just look at that page. It has literally zero information about the product, yet it’s the “product” page.

Instead, it has paragraphs of marketing crap. There’s no other term for it; let’s look at the first example.

Bullet-point: “Product Planning”

What does this mean? Absolutely nothing. BY DEFINITION, this is a whole website devoted to project-management-planning software used on projects that create products. Why do you repeat this, in such a childish gross genealization, as if it’s a “feature”?

Ah, but … actually, that’s not necessarily true. Scrum is often used on projects that are NOT generating a Product.

So, in fact, this lazy marketing title has already told some of the target-customers: “Don’t use our product. Go away”.

Let’s look at the text underneath the bullet:

“Plan and manage your requirements, epics, stories, and goals across multiple projects, products and teams.”

What is this – Dictionary.com? Why are you patronising me by telling me what you think “Product Planning” means, as an abstract concept? What kind of project manager – or engineer – is so stupid as to not know what it is they do on a day to day basis, and to feel happy that you’re telling them?

I WANT TO BUY YOUR SOFTWARE, NOT LISTEN TO YOUR PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE.

I suspect that the weak marketing person who wrote this copy thought it “looked nicer” to put features into a long sentence. Let’s look at that sentence, from a copy-writing perspective. It has eight separate phrases. EIGHT. The average sentence has 2-4. Concise sentences have 1-2. Waffle has 5 or more. This is a sales page; every sentence should be no more than 3 phrases. EIGHT! NO-ONE is going to pull useful information from that sentence.

Onto another problem with this page, for the customer who comes here: No screenshots. Anywhere.

OK. Take a deep breath. This is a company that, so far:
– wants to deceive us into locking-in to their product
– patronises us intensely
– works hard to hide features (check that “unreadable” infographic)

…but let’s put all that to one side, and drill down into the links from the Product page.

Features (1 of 8): “You can look, but don’t touch AND DON’T LOOK CLOSELY!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/Product_Planning.asp

Finally, if you follow one of the links from this page, you get to a page that contains some actual, concrete, info about the product. There’s even some screenshots!

Oh. BUT. You are “not allowed” to actually see the screenshots. They’ve been deliberately blurred-out a low-resolution, so that text is literally unreadable and there is NO WAY to judge the product. (NB: this is *after* you’ve clicked on the almost-full-size thumbnails in the page). They are then further blurred (to no purpose except to fit the Web Designer’s fetish for popup images) and embedded in the page.

Overall impression: this company knows it’s own product is not fit for purpose, and will do anything to stop the customer from finding that out until AFTER they’ve paid their money. Whatever you do DO NOT BUY VersionOne’s project-management software.

Final thoughts: First one is free

A decent usability person – or a really good web designer – would make huge sweeping changes to that site.

A flippant starter, something I’d personally try immediately (today): move the “see it; drive it; try it” buttons that hide in top-right of the site to CENTER STAGE, both on the Product page and the Google Landing page.

AND … I’d add a fourth button: “Buy it”.

What? There’s no “buy” link on this site? Yep. I think that eloquently sums up what a poor job this site does of MAKING MONEY FOR THE COMPANY.

(NB: and I *absolutely* would instigate A/B tests to prove – day by day, hour by hour – that my changes were having a noticeable effect on increasing sales to the site. If you don’t do that, then you’re just pissing into the wind. You have no idea, afterwards, whether your changes “worked”. See Sergio Zyman‘s book for more…)

Where do these terrible sites come from?

I believe that these often-amateurish websites come from one of two sources (possibly both):

1. Expensive “Web Design” agency that only cared about making it “beautiful” without understanding a single thing about the reality of sales. In the example I run through below, dead giveaways include: Popup images that are only 15% larger than the thumbnails that trigger them; grey-on-white text; very small font-sizes. All those are characteristic of visual designers who know nothing about product sales.

2. A marketing team that’s worked for big corporates (multinational, public companies) and thinks that the most important thing in their job is to “clone” the website of “a real company – you know, like Microsoft”, and pretend to “be like the big boys”. They have no idea why those websites look the way they do, and don’t bother to ask themselves; they just blindly clone it. In the example below, dead giveaways include: 12 pages to describe a simple product where 3 would have been more than sufficient; hiding information at all costs; never committing to a list of features; using “freeform text” instead of simple “bullet points” to describe the product.

You just answered your own question…

From one of those strange wending web-browsing sessions that started as innocent “work-related research” and ended up following the history of CDC…

IBM, 1964:

How is it that this tiny company of 34 people —including the janitor — can be beating us when we have thousands of people?

…to which Cray reportedly quipped:

You just answered your own question.

(and, incidentally, FUD – a phrase I associated with the 1990′s and linux – apparently dates back to the early 20th century. It puts in an appearance here, in the 1960′s, and lead to CDC winning a lawsuit for $600 million. Nice. Can you imagine someone pulling that one off against Microsoft in the 1995-2005 era? Or Apple, today? I doubt it…)

So, who’s going to buy Zynga?

(for the three people who haven’t heard yet, EA just bought PlayFish, for circa $400 million)

Three things I have to say on this:

  1. Mainstream games industry people question it’s value
  2. Yes, of course it was worth it
  3. What Would Zynga Do?

Mainstream games industry people question it’s value

I’ve seen a lot of people from the mainstream industry (i.e. consoles, PC games, handheld etc – eerything EXCEPT iPhone and Facebook) incredulous, unconvinced it was worth it. This was the case even with the rumoured $250 million valuation from a month ago (c.f. Nicholas Lovell’s post on that).

There’s also some discussion over at TheChaosEngine (private forum for professionals in the games industry) on the same topic, with similar levels of scepticism about the value.

The main reference points are traditional games companies and their sale prices. That’s where this goes wrong – and it’s symptomatic of something that hampers the games industry: a lack of understanding of the business side of games. For most people in the industry, this doesn’t matter – they’re making games, not selling or funding them. But for the people managing games companies, far too many of them need to get an MBA and learn the essentials of sales, marketing, revenue, and shareholder-value – and how that applies to their own day-jobs.

Yes, of course it was worth it

Reproducing some of what I’ve already written on TCE, since it’s non-public:

There’s three things driving the valuation of PF:

  1. A solid business, in business-terms (c.f. Nicholas Lovell’s “6 reasons why Playfish is a steal at $400m”)
  2. Quality content-producer, in games / media terms
  3. Consistent success, in comparitive terms

Playfish is in the top 3 companies dominating the Social Games sector. They are the ONLY one of those companies that set out to dominate the SG sector – the other two happened purely by accident. PF was architected to take over this sector, and is succeeding at it.

From a game-design perspective, the entire business model for Zynga and SGN has been “keep bailing!”, and they’ve so far bailed faster than they were sinking (where “bailing” means “using marketing and sales ability to make up for severe product deficiency”). That might sound like I’m being derogatory – but compare it to all the “worthy” games companies who bailed *slower* than they were sinking; at the end of the day, who’s the smart one?

But good sales/marketing strategies are easy to dissect and clone, in a way that good content is not.

Part of the demand for PF is that a lot of people look at it and say: this is SGN/Zynga, except they make good games. Yes, they’re not 1st – but any idiot could take PF’s current position, throw $50m of marketing budget at it, and easily surpass Zynga. They will own this market, sooner or later – PF is fundamentally strong where Z is fundamentally fragile. (although Z’s “fragile” is still an order of magnitude stronger than most traditional games companies).

Just to be clear: I have a lot of respect for Zynga and SGN, they’ve achieved a heck of a lot. But they’re sharks. They’ve always been sharks. Comparing to modern standards of game-design, they’ve never had great product. Instead, they’ve been extremely canny, aggressive, vicious, and cash-driven – and they’ve shown how successful and profitable you can be with those things. If someone had asked “how well can you do with a weak content company if you’re exceptional on the business-side?” then these companies boldly step forth and demonstrate that the answer is: “very well indeed”.

But this is a new, novel market. Maybe there’s nothing special about PlayFish?

Well, apart from thriving in a new market against some of the toughest competition in the world, look at the comparitives. Compare PF with – say – Kongregate. That was founded by the ex TD of Pogo after years at Pogo/EA, and was expected to recreate the success of Pogo and expand on it (hundreds of millions of dollars revenue). They’ve fallen a long, long way short. PF was founded years later and is now doing perhaps 20 times the revenue (just guessing based on Kong’s last funding round and how long ago it was).

PF’s success *looks like* it’s “probably” no accident. IIRC (and I haven’t checked, I’m going from memory here, so I might be very wrong) this is the same management team that built and later floated GluMobile. Putting that into perspective:

  1. these guys have ridden the wave of an emerging market to create on of the big successes
  2. these guys started from nothing and ended up with an IPO
  3. these guys then started all over again, from scratch, in a new market … and succeeded AGAIN.
  4. …and they did it very quickly

What Would Zynga Do?

This, then, is the million-dollar question: who’s going to buy Zynga?

Zynga have followed a strategy of buying-or-burying every small competitor who came along. As I noted above, despite being rich, hugely successful, and growing fast, they have some internal fragility that PF has never had. Where PF *could*, in theory, get more aggressive, Zynga is already barrelling along flat-out on that front. Where PF has a good reptuation they can trade on, Zynga has a poor one that’s not worth much now PF is part of EA.

If it had been a smaller company that bought PF, maybe – maybe – Zynga could have afforded to try a reverse-takeover to hoist themselves up, and hold on to their top spot in Social Games.

But EA/PF is too complementary a pairing; together, they’re too effective for Zynga to get away with that. Zynga *might* have hoped, with a different competitor, that acquisition by EA would lead to a breaking-up of the company’s value. EA has done this many a time to other acquisitions: small companies vanish when eaten by big ones. But as I noted above (and as Nicholas referred to when claiming that PF’s team could “turn around the tanker” that is EA), PF’s team have enough experience and personal wealth that it is very unlikely they’d disappear inside EA. They *might* retire (despite the golden handcuffs, many EA acquisitions have lead to de-facto retirement of their founders) – but PF is so young as a company that I doubt they’re tired of it just yet.

Looking back at Zynga, this seems to be a company that sees itself as the Alpha Male. I can’t believe they’d settle for second place. So, Zynga needs to be bought. And, unlike PF, Zynga may actually benefit from being dominated by their acquirer (try and wipe out some of that bad reputation; perhaps fundamentally alter the internals of the business, make it into a good content-generator? Where PF is adding Zynga-esque marketing and sales ability, could Zynga add PF-esque content-creation/content-quality ability?).

Who?

I’ve no idea :).

But, looking around, Zynga has greatly underperformed on iPhone. There are a lot of media and consumer giants around that expect to have no problems making lots of money on iPhone. Maybe that would make a good deal, someone already exploring, or set to explore, iPhone, who doesn’t need Zynga, but who could expand Zynga on to iPhone in a huge way. That could even let Zynga save some face in the deal (“there’s nothing about our business approach we wanted to change, it’s just that this was an opportunity to dominate TWO platforms instead of ONE”).

Will iPhone save the (free) Internet?

Wifi and internet at all is a priviledge – but Free Wifi is something that in our modern society, and the society we’re set to become, needs to be treated as a right. When I started writing this, I was looking at the benefits we have yet to see (ubiquitous free wifi); in the week I’ve been offline with jetlag, the preceding benefits we already have that would make them possible – flat rate internet – are being ripped away from us, and . Both are understandable, but … yikes.

Casual, assumed, free internet access is now ubiquitous (even if the access itself isn’t as operationally ubiquitous as services assume). I can’t even access half my music collection any more unless I’ve got a wireless high-bandwidth connection available (Spotify). The other half lives on my MP3 player (iPhone) – but is static, unmeasured, unconnected, and unshareable.

This is a problem. Right now, sitting in San Francisco, the city of a thousand broken, crashing, low-bandwidth, pay-per-minute (min charge 24 hours) wifi connections, next door to Silicon Valley, a world center of innovation that only exists because the right infrastructure here and the wrong mistakes elsewhere allowed it to form, it’s particularly on my mind. SF is a great example of what will push the next Silicon Valley to happen elsewhere. A lot of people ought to be worried by that – and doing a little more about it.

In Brighton, my current (temporary) home city, the first repeated free wifi hotspots were set up – as I understand it – effectively as an act of charitable benevolence by “a couple of guys” (looseconnection.com/Josh Russell). They weren’t even rich, or old – just some kids doing something cool, and useful. Anyone could do this. Too few actually do. I’ve heard it suggested again and again (where are the mesh networks that were supposed to be ubiquitous 4 years ago?) by people in the UK – especially in and around Cambridge, in tech the UK’s closest replica of Silicon Valley – but always with excuses about why they aren’t doing it yet, aren’t able to until someone else does something else to make it easier for them. That’s crap. Just do it. Do it this weekend; what better are you doing right now?

Will Apple single-handedly save Wifi? Maybe. It could be the biggest gift of iPhone: that it finally turns the rest of the world on to building bigger, better, and above all FREE, wifi networks. Everywhere. Ironic, considering that’s exactly what will kill the fundamental device that drives the iPhone: the “cell” phone. Does anybody else remember that before we had cell phones we had hotspot phones, back when cells weren’t good enough, and were so expensive to use? So we go full circle, but this time with an ecosystem and a tech interconnection system (API’s, protocols, layers) big enough to support the worldwide rollout of such hotspots (well, and that’s what mesh was supposed to be about, right?)

But why would this happen? It doesn’t make sense … does it?

Skype is a great example. Sadly, it’s also overloaded with additional meaning that clouds the issue – because Skype is an internet app (good) that is mostly about phone calls (bad / confusing the issue).

Skype is now available on iPhone, and it’s a great, highly polished, iPhone App. It *works* (as well as anything can on iPhone – with the current version of iPhone Apple does not allow *anyone* to have their app listen for incoming connections and auto-start, so you can only “receive” Skype calls on your iPhone if you are not using any other app and instead are currently inside the Skype App.

But … the voice part only works over Wifi. This is the concession it took for Skype to be “allowed” on iPhone (NB: Apple allegedly forced the network operators to give away free / flat rate data in return for being “allowed” to sell network-locked iPhones; if Apple had also allowed Skype-on-3G/EDGE/cell network, then they would have caused people to stop paying call charges en masse. Although this is the natural future of cell phones, and everyone knows this, the network operators would probably assassinate Steve Jobs if he tried that today).

So, Skype is – effectively – a “wifi-only” application.

20 million devices cannot be ignored

But wait … there’s more. The iPhone platform has an installed userbase of almost 40 million handsets as of first quarter 2009 (yes, that’s only 20% less than the entire global sales PS3 and 360 combined; the iphone is already one of the top games consoles in the world; Sony (Computer Entertainment) is doomed, and Nintendo’s cash days are numbered, even though they’ll make loads of cash for the next 3 years – the DSi was defunct due to iPhone *before it launched*, so after those few years, the cashflow will drop off / vanish).

But … around half of those are not iPhones, but iPod Touch’s. This is very important to understand: the two devices are compile time identical, and *almost* feature identical. They are more similar than almost any pair of cell phones in the world, even ones from the same manufacturer. And by default all iPhone developers are writing code that runs seamlessly on the iPod Touch – it doesn’t (usually) “break” on iPod Touch if it uses an unsupported iPhone-only feature … rather, that part of the app silently is ignored.

So … nearly all those iPhone developers are actually also iPod Touch developers. Many of them deliberately steer clear of using iPhone-only features. Some of them (myself included) write their apps to cleverly detect whether they’re on an iPod Touch, and work around the limitations (it’s not hard – e.g. if I can’t upload scores to the game server because I’m on a Touch that isnt in wifi range, I save it and upload it next time the phone is online. As a bonus, this makes my games work “better” on iPhone when the iPhone has to go offline, e.g. when it goes on an airplane).

NOT “iphone App”, but “Wifi App”

Back to the point… There aren’t many Wifi-only Apps out there on iPhone … yet.

But there will be. More and more of them. And this summer, when Apple brings out the 3.0 update for iPhone, making ad-hoc discovery much easier (i.e. my phone will be able to auto-detect / find your iphone when they’re in the same room), wifi-local Apps will blossom.

A simple example: real-time fast-action games.

e.g. a Racing Game, that works like this:

  1. I persuade you to download the free version
  2. We each click on the icon on our own phones
  3. The phones magically discover each other, without either of us doing anything, within a couple of seconds
  4. We start playing a high-speed racing game – e.g. Need for Speed, or Midnight Club – over the local wifi network
  5. The net code works beautifully, there’s no lag, everything updates very fast and smoothly
  6. When we finish, the free version you downloaded pops up to say “you played with your friend because he/she had the paid version. If you want to play with different friends, one of you will need to buy the paid version. Click here to buy (one click, instant download)”.

All that is possible, and relatively easy, come summer 2009. You *can* attempt to do it over a 3G network, but it’s hard. But as a wifi-only app it becomes easy. Guess what’s going to happen?

The future of local free wifi

I predicted around 30-40 million iPhone* devices sold by now, and Apple’s 37 million official figure made me look clever (although admittedly it was only a 6 months extrapolation and a 33% error margin I quoted there ;)). I predicted around 75-100 million sold by the same time 2010, and I’ve noticed a lot of other people have come up with the 100 million estimate for 2009 since the official 37 million figure came out.

So, although I think it’s optimistic to expect 100m by the end of the year, I’m confident it’s going to be close. 100m wifi enabled game consoles sitting in cafes, restaurants, bookshops, trains, buses, hotel lobbies, city squares, pubs, etc.

Oh, and don’t forget – that iPod Touch, with no “network contract” to pay for, is a perfect gift for kids. Plenty of people have lined up to tell me that kids can’t afford them; the market research that consistently shows under 18′s as the second largest demographic for iphone* ownership suggest that’s an ill-informed opinion. So there’ll be a lot of those devices sitting in the hands of bored children / used to keep them occupied while parents are doing other things. And we all know how strong a child’s “pestering power” can be.

Monetize local wifi? Screw that; who can be bothered to monetize it when it becomes as essential a driver of custom to your store as having coke/pepsi/coffee on the menu (even though you’re actually, e.g. a bookstore…). Re-think how that affects the “monetization potential” of local wifi (hint: look to the already vast field of *indirectly monetized* Freemium / F2P for inspiration)

So, I’m optimistic. And rather than focus on how “iPhone is going to destroy the cell phone / network operator hegemony, and bring around fair pricing for consumers”, I’m focussing on how it’s going to usher in the long-envisaged era of high-bandwidth, low-latency, high quality console games and apps that focus on the local area. I’m happy with that: I’ve spent almost a decade learning how to make online games for millions of players where the core experience takes place in the local group, so I feel extremely qualified to do well out of this. What about you? What will you be doing with it?

What I believe in, for Quality of Life

The furore[link] over the IGDA’s failure[link] to live up to it’s own precepts continues to snowball[link] [link] (as I suggested it would, if the IGDA Board didn’t ‘fess up and take a stand[link] against the unethical practices they were being implicated in).

(I’ll do a summary later this week; personally I’m aware of 6 different unique forum threads and several separate bloggers speaking out on the topic, each with their own comment threads – we’re gradually seeing the message spread, which is good. But it also means it’s getting hard to keep up)

One commenter, perhaps playing Devil’s Advocate for those at fault, has repeatedly posed the question: “What would you *like* the IGDA’s stance to be on this topic?”

There are all sorts of reasons that’s a dumb thing to ask, and it essentially misses all the points being made here by the unhappy IGDA members, but I thought it was a good question to answer anyway, philosophically.

Quality of Life for the Games Industry: Adam’s stance on “Crunch”

NB: this is only covering the crunch/working hours/overtime issues; there’s more to QoL than that, but it’s definitely the headline aspect.

(and hopefully you’ll also have a look at Darius’s stance on this and other related topics, since he’ll be standing for election to the IGDA Board next year, and he’s got my vote already ;))

  1. the term “crunch” is a euphemism for “unpaid overtime” used largely to disguise the true nature of what’s being described. No-one should ever use the term “crunch”. Everyone should actively encourage others to call it what it is (unpaid overtime). “unscheduled overtime” is NOT an acceptable alternative; it is simply another, slightly less positive, euphemism.
  2. no employer gets an opt-out from responsibility for Quality of Life issues, neither charities nor startups. Quality of Life is about the relationship between employee and employer, independent of individual industries, organizations, or projects
  3. the company must at all times actively discourage staff from doing unpaid overtime; if the company wishes to support overtime, it should be supporting *paid* overtime only
  4. no programmer, artist, or designer should ever stay late in the office “because it’s quieter then, and I can get more work done when everyone else has gone home”; if the office environment is that poor, the company needs to fix it, fast
  5. the MOST EFFICIENT (for the company) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 30 and 50 hours a week.
  6. the MOST EFFECTIVE/DESIRABLE (for the employees) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 20 and 60 hours a week.

Why does this even matter?

Most workers in this industry live to work, instead of working to live; this makes the industry especially prone, and the employees especially vulnerable, to abusive employment practices.

It also means that – handled correctly – most people ought to be happy and healthy. This topic has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people; that it will almost certainly also improve the quality of the games they produce is a secondary (although highly desirable) side-effect.

Details / explanations

1 – Terminology

Cynically, I’d like to point out that to many young males (the bulk of the workers in the game industry), the term crunch probably initially conjures up images of the painful gym exercises that build the widely desired abdominal muscles.

i.e. the base assumption of an English speaker is that Crunch is something that “hurts now, but is good for you, and in the long run you will appreciate it”.

Actually, I don’t think that’s even all that cynical, looking at the companies that actively use the term: I think they’re extremely happy to have got such a positively-connotated word used as the main term to describe their unethical business practice.

2 – Opt-outs

Several people (such as Erin Hoffman (EA_Spouse) EDIT: my mistake – sorry, Erin! – see comments below) have claimed that startups are “special”; too fragile to be held accountable to the same standards that ordinary companies are held to; that they could never adhere to sane and ethical working practices and remain in business.

As a previous founder, co-founder, or C-level exec in 5+ different startups, and a consultant or external adviser for a further 20+ startups, it is my personal opinion that this is absolutely not true.

Further, I believe it is deeply insulting to most entrepreneurs to imply that they are so incompetent that they need to be allowed to break with ethics or law in order to succeed. The majority of successful entrepreneurs I know are awesomely competent people, and have earnt (*earnt*) their wealth not merely through “having a good idea” but through being better and smarter and wiser than their equivalent salaried employees. They need no leg-up.

Of course, there’s also plenty who simply got lucky. But that’s another story.

3 – Working late in order to work better

There are two issues here.

Firstly, if someone is doing unpaid overtime, the company needs to either reward it or try to persuade them to stop; anything else is unfair. Simply taking the proceeds of the free work and paying nothing in return is perfectly legal (although arguably, since the work falls outside of the contract, if the company’s employment contract isn’t good enough the company could find themselves not entirely owning the output of that work), but unethical.

Secondly, unless the employees have strong legal protection against coercion (both explicit and implicit) then the claim that staff are “voluntarily” working unpaid overtime is often going to be a lie that – in practice – is almost impossible to uncover. A nice, comforting lie, but a lie all the same. I have many times worked with people in the games industry who have openly claimed their unpaid overtime was voluntary – until they buckled from stress a few weeks later, or got drunk, or met up outside the office, and admitted the true reason(s) they were doing it. Generally those were “to keep my job”, “because everyone else on the team says I have to”, or a variant on those. i.e. to satisfy the employer, or to satisfy peer pressure.

This is true even in Europe, where employees have fairly strong legal protection – but in many cases don’t realise the full extent of the protection. Generally speaking, only the inexperienced, younger staff are ignorant of the basic laws here. Within 5 years they normally see at least one friend or colleague go through some situation which uncovers the laws involved, and they gain a basic understanding of what their own rights are, under the law.

4 – Optional isn’t always optional

I’ve worked with many programmers who felt forced to work late hours because of this, and a few artists. I haven’t worked with any designers yet who were *seen* to, but I know plenty who have done it – they simply went home and worked from home instead.

The main reason programmers show up with this problem more than others is that they are entirely dependent upon the tools at their desk to get any work done (software, hardware, office systems, etc). It’s *not* that they are the only ones who work hard and have to concentrate to get good work done!

5 – Efficiency

As far as I know (please correct me!) … no-one currently knows via research what the MOST EFFICIENT weekly office hours are for programmers, artists, and designers in the games industry; the research I’ve read summaries of, and in a few cases read myself, from other industries and anecdotal evidence, plus the experience of skilled game developers, suggest that it lies somewhere between 20 and 40 hours.

Further, the majority of research from other industries and evidence and experience strongly support the claim that values over 60 hours are less efficient than ANY value between 25 and 60 hours.

6 – Quality of output, quality of life

As far as I know (please correct me!) no-one currently knows via research what the IDEAL (for the staff work/life balance) weekly *working* hours are, but assuming 14-16 waking hours a day, i.e. 70-80 waking hours a week, and assuming a work/life split somewhere between 30/70 and 70/30, you get between 21 and 56 working hours per week

Culture, Reputation, and Running a Game Studio

What’s the biggest single challenge to a Studio Director? Or to the VP of Development / Studios who oversees a handful of publisher-owned studios?

Recruitment

In the games industry there are no raw materials of variable quality, there is no variety of base services to build upon; everything that distinguishes one company (and set of products) from another comes solely from the people they hire.

In the games industry there are no raw materials to pay for, there are no service charges. There are only salaries and employee-support costs.

Recruitment is where the studio heads find their hardest problems, and see their biggest successes/failures as the studio grows in size. Eventually, all their own experience and ability at design, marketing, sales, programming, art, etc become subsumed by their ability to attract, recruit, retain, lead, and motivate their people.

Recession

…is the best thing for new game studios to happen in the past 5 years. It’s achieved four things:

  1. Removed lots and lots of people from their comfortable jobs, by force
  2. …simultaneously…
  3. …indiscriminately w.r.t. quality of personnel…
  4. …and made even the supposedly “secure” games companies (EA, Microsoft, Sony) suddenly look as fragile and short-term as the riskiest of startups

The VCs have been blogging about the benefits to startups wrought by this recession, and I’ve put it to a couple of them now that, for the game industry, this one – recruitment – is the biggest by far, and each time met with straight agreement. Our industry is very like Management Consultancy: it’s driven by the people. Nothing else matters.

Culture

I’ve worked with a lot of experienced managers who’ve been adamant that “no-one leaves their job because of (too little) salary”. Also with slightly fewer who were convinced that “no-one accepts a job based on salary” (more often, that was rephrased with a rider to be: “no-one good accepts a job based on salary alone“).

In that case, why do people accept / leave a job?

“Culture” is the catch-all term that describes not just the direct environment which people experience each day in the office, but also the emotional and psychological experiences that they go through while there.

It describes how their colleagues think and act – and how those actions effect the individual. But it also describes how the “teams” within the organization think and act, which can often be very different from the people within them. You often see teams of smart people “acting dumb”, or teams of nice people act like assholes when taken collectively. Group think is powerful, very powerful.

But it’s hard, very hard, to really see the culture of a company until you’ve worked there for a couple of years, and in a couple of different divisions, and perhaps a dozen different departments. Which is not an option for most of us. You can work somewhere for just a few months and pick up the culture if you know what you’re doing and really work at it – but even that requires skill and dedication, and can only be done AFTER accepting a job offer.

(this is one of the reasons I posted my Manifesto for a Game Studio online – you can get a strong taste of the culture of my next startup, and decide if you want to work with us, without having to sacrifice a year of working there first)

Reputation

Game industry staff often worry about reputation. The companies (as represented by the senior management) themselves often don’t.

The former care how their organization is perceived, and assume everyone else does too. They assume that a “better reputation” will lead to “more sales”.

The latter have access to the actual sales figures, and have convinced themselves that this is a nice idea but simply not borne out by fact (in some cases this is true, in some it isn’t – but it’s much easier to look at the figures on paper and believe it’s true than to see the flaws in that logic).

But the truth is that it IS important, very important. It’s the external reflection of the internal culture. As such, it’s what most people use to make a decision about whether they want to work there.

Obviously, it varies. The older and more experienced you are, the more you come to use a company’s reputation as a barometer of its culture – and the more heavily you weight this in your decision about accepting a job. The younger, more ignorant staff generally haven’t been burnt by terrible culture, or haven’t yet learned what to look for / avoid in their next employer.

Back to the issue of Recruitment: the biggest successes/failures are going to be from the more experienced people you hire (and, remember – hiring a “bad” person into a senior position is not just a loss, it can easily cause negative productivity, by screwing up lots of other staff who were doing their jobs better before that person arrived and started interfering / roadblocking them / etc).

So … you probably should care about your reputation, somewhat in proportion to the size of your company.

Blizzard

Pre-WoW, Blizzard had an exceptional reputation, for a handful of common reasons (amongst others):

  1. Never shipped a game that wasn’t really good fun
  2. Frequently invented + defined large sub-genres with their games (Warcraft was one of the first RTS’s, Starcraft created the “truly strategic” RTS genre, Diablo re-invented the hack-and-slash RPG, etc)
  3. Publicly talked about “finishing” their games, and then deliberately deciding to spend another whole year (or similar) working on them before shipping, to make sure they were really polished
  4. All of their games were best-sellers – i.e. they didn’t just make cool stuff, they made cool stuff that the market appreciated and paid for, too

Now, I’m not so sure. If a recruiter called me tomorrow with an “amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to work at Blizzard, my first reaction would be hesitation: would I really want to work at the place that Blizzard has become?

While people have queued up to defend them, the history of their actions against Glider, and now this absurd crackdown on World of Warcraft add-on authors, have left me with a sour taste in the mouth.

In my opinion, using the law to beat over the head people who discover flaws in your basic business model / acumen is the last refuge of those who recognize their own incompetence but would rather not go to the effort of raising their own quality bar. Blizzard seems to be making a habit of it. That’s not encouraging. Ten million paying players for one MMO is great, but … the sales figures of their games were only ONE of those bullets I cited above about Blizzard’s reputation traditionally. Money buys a lot of forgiveness, but not infinitely so.

Free iPhone developer meetups

I just received an “invite” to a pay-for event in London about “smartphone development”: an evening in a bar with a couple of speakers and some networking.

So … you can go and listen to an iPhone developer, an ex EA person, and an ex Motorola person, and pay for the priviledge, organized by non-developers. The cost is 50% more than you pay to go to world-famous VC/angel/investor networking events such as First Tuesday.

Or … you could go to one of the many near-identical networking + speaker events that are free, and run by real developers. Here are four examples which show that Upcoming, meetup.com – even Facebook and LinkedIn – are your friends here, with loads of stuff going on.

The issue of “how” you organize these things and “what” you provide has been on my mind a lot recently, as we’ve just started a fortnightly one in Brighton (for anyone and everyone interested in commissioning, designing, developing, and launching iPhone apps). I’ve been trying out all the above sites for arranging this (I can write up some notes about the pros/cons of the different sites if anyone is interested). If you can’t find something in your local area … why not start one of your own, all it takes is making a page on Upcoming.com, and emailing the local game / mobile / iphone / OS X developer communities … takes about 30 minutes, max?

Personally, I find the grassroots events organized by people actually making this stuff on a daily basis the far more compelling option. I also find that “special name speaker” events tend to focus on the audience being expected to shut up and listen, rather than share and learn collectively – which isn’t much use to me these days. Unconferences for the win!

Of course, sooner or later, if your event gets popular, you’ll have to start charging because the only venues big enough require large payments, and the organization effort becomes too much to do in your free time. But for the small events? My advice: if it ain’t free, don’t go.

Manifesto for a Game Development Studio (or any creative tech company)

Here are the founding principles of my next startup. It’s incomplete and imperfect, but for where I want to go … it’s a start. Incidentally, if you share them, and want to work with me, you should get in touch (adam.m.s.martin at gmail.com). I’m sure we can find a way to work together.

EDIT: if you’re interested in these ideas, have ideas of your own you want to discuss, or are just looking for other like-minded people … I’ve set up a Google Group for this at: http://groups.google.com/group/game-studio-manifesto

30 hour working week

  1. 4 days a week, 7.5 hours a day
  2. Salaries are 20% below the going rates; we aim to employ 20% more staff than usual for a given project size; cost is the same, output is the same (modulo an output-reduction/cost-increase due to increased overheads/inefficiencies for larger team size)
  3. everyone takes the same day off. I’m thinking Friday. Friday sound good? Let’s make it Friday. You know that if you’re in the office, so is everyone else (modulo normal holidays, off-sites, illness, etc).
  4. if we ever have to “crunch” and work unpaid overtime, I’m afraid we’ll all have to start coming in 5 days a week. I know, it’s tough.

Self ownership

  1. you own your work: no-one will chase you; informing people of your status, and of delays, is *your* job
  2. you own your project: everything works on Scrum (where the “team” owns the entire process – no producers, no project managers); NB: if you claim to “know Scrum” or be a Scrum Master, or “have used Scrum” and you don’t understand/believe this team ownership thing, here’s a big fat hint: YOU MISSED THE POINT
  3. you own the company: everyone has vested equity (not options) in the company

Mentors not managers

  1. increased organizational power is based on your ability to bring others up to your level. It’s based on your contributions to the other individuals. It’s not based on your organizational prowess
  2. if you cannot mentor, cannot explain complex/new things simply and clearly … you will not advance in the management chain (you should become a Domain Expert instead!)

Your value is what you are paid

  1. This is an implicit assumption in all salary negotiations and performance reviews.
  2. It will also be required to be *stated* explicitly in all negotations and reviews
  3. If your manager believes you’ve got better, they have to increase your pay
  4. If they do not increase your pay, they’re not allowed to give you a positive performance review
  5. There is no point in your career where “Becoming a Manager” is a requirement to get your salary any higher; the only benchmark is “can you further increase your usefulness to the company?”

You have a duty to become the best you can be

  1. Playing games, during company time, is an expected part of most jobs, since we are a “game development company” and you *need* to know what our competitors are doing
  2. Learning new skills, during company time, is an expected part of most jobs, since we’ll always be looking to make use of any “better” new technologies and tools that become available
  3. Not going on paid training courses, not increasing your understanding of our industry, allowing your personal skill progression to plateau … makes you sink behind what your peers in other companies are doing, people who would like your job. Get too far behind and we’ll give it to them. You owe it to yourself, as well as all the rest of us, to make sure YOU, as an individual, are constantly getting better, and learning new things
  4. The structure of the company is explicitly designed to support as many people as possible to become the best they can be. If in doubt, or in difficult situations where no alternative is “easy”, we will err on the side of helping people to improve themselves.

100% Organization-level transparency

  1. knowing what is happening in the organization is a right, not a priviledge
  2. knowing the reasoning behind organization decisions is a right, not a priviledge … from the reasons behind a marketing campaign being run the way it is, to the reasons for the product strategy, to the reasons that one particular tech is being used rather than another
  3. being informed of the progress of ongoing processes / issues is an expectation, not a priviledge … that means that people working on things are expected to proatively inform the rest of the company what they’re up to
  4. transparency overrides privacy (unless forced otherwise by explicit legal requirements)
  5. e.g. the salary someone earns is a personal and private matter – but the salary the company pays to each of its staff is not, and every member of the company has full free right to see that info. The company knows additional things – e.g. thanks to tax law, companies may know of other income their staff are receiving – but those are not part of the company, hence they are not part of the transparency

The buck stops with the directors

  1. any issue that necessarily has to be handled by an individual, that can’t be handled by the “team ownerships” etc, or e.g. is “sensitive” or a private personnel issue, WILL be handled by a named director instead
  2. no manager can accrete decision-making power, unless they are a company director
  3. e.g. if too much power is taken away from teams by directors, by accident or device, the directors will become overworked and will have obvious incentive to push decision power back to the teams

Google 20% time

  1. Problem: it’s either half a day, 12.5% time, or 1 day, 25% time. I’m not happy with either – one whole day makes things much easier mentally for the person to switch, but I’m afraid that converting it to 25% time and having people available only 3 days in every 7 would be too destructive?
  2. As per Google, this is not a right, it’s a priviledge
  3. all 15% time projects require sign-off by the person’s direct manager (with appeal to a director)
  4. all 15% time projects require monthly status presentations to show what’s been achieved, and the manager has to approve or deny continued work on the project

Team budgets – food; drink

  1. every project team has a weekly budget for food, and one for drink, and is expected to on average have one team lunch a week, and one team evening social (with free alcohol) per week

Healthy food; healthy environments

  1. the office will not have Cola vending machines, or ChocolateBar vending machines. *If* it has any vending machines, they’ll be majority subsidised – free, or practically free
  2. the office will have a surfeit of fresh fruit, renewed every day, starting at or before anyone gets into the office
  3. any meeting called before 11am will have some free small fresh food with substantial sugar content (for anyone who missed breakfast. Until they recharge their blood sugar, they’re probably cranky and irritable – and irrational – or simply silent and unthinking, like a robot, and make everyone else suffer because of it)
  4. choosing to hold meetings physically outside the office, e.g. in local cafes, and having the company pay for coffees and snacks, is a right, not a priviledge, for all employees

Remote working, and Online Working

  1. at any given time, we aim to have a substantial minority of staff working remotely / telecommuting, e.g. around 20%
  2. remote workers can expect slightly lower salaries than their full-time equivalents; the company gets more value out of people who are co-located – but it makes all of us work better to have a mix of co-local and remote colleagues, so we welcome the presence of remote workers
  3. all employees are required to be online and available *and reactive* on IM during all working hours
  4. all development systems and tools will support remote working by default (e.g. remote compilation, remote builds, remote deployment, remote access for all internal systems). This is one of the ways that having remote staff makes our overall operations better: better tested, more robust, more adaptable
  5. all employees will have their own password-protected SSH keys stored on a free USB key; all company systems will work on SSH key-based auth; all workstations will be configured to do single-sign-on using the individual’s SSH key – no passwords required

Guards against the unscrupulous

  1. all ownership is only part-vested, tied to time served AND ALSO personal performance targets. This will take substantial time to invent/negotiate on a per-person basis (I know, I’ve tried. Sometimes, I’ve given up on it, because it was so much effort. But … in the short and long term, its worth it)
  2. managers have more time to look for problematic individuals, as they’re freed of some of their normal duties in other companies
  3. teams, being self-owning, have the power and the incentive to reject any failing members. Over time, failing individuals will either change, find teams that do welcome them, or find themselves conspicuously under-employed, making them an easy target for management attention (this does not imply “firing”, it’s up to the management what action they take, but they clearly now have staff they’re paying for and getting nothing from)
  4. directors have a lot of burdens of responsibility under this system; they also have a lot more visibility into the company’s status than in a standard company, so more chance to fulfil their responsibilities
  5. most of the processes are designed to be self-healing/recovering when encounting unforseen problems: the teams and individuals that do the bulk of the actual *work* are self-owning, the managers whose roles are mostly shepherding are largely disempowered to break anything, any unusual problems fall into the laps of the Directors who already have total legal power to enact whatever is needed anyway, etc.

Next steps

Please help me debug this thing … add your own suggestions, or highlight the flaws in what I’ve written, or point to evidence both for and against the realities of what might work … etc, etc, etc.

Leaving the IGDA(3) – Holding a mirror to the games industry

So. After the recent events (1.Background and 2.What Happened?) where the IGDA Board has triggered a PR “FAIL”, and in passing made a mockery of the IGDA’s own flagship initiatives … does it matter? Does anyone actually care what the IGDA does anymore – especially after how it’s handled this matter?

Yes. Very much so.

Because when you look at these IGDA-specific events you can see a partial microcosm of the games industry at large, played out on a smaller scale, and more explicitly than in many places.

The massive problems that the IGDA has are the same as some of the problems that pervade the industry. The issues that some commentators (and the IGDA Board!) even now fail to appreciate or understand are the same issues that face studios across the world.

Issues? What Issues?

Is Exploitation part of the American Dream?

IGDA Board Member:

“Mike does it by compensating his employees richly.”

TCE Member:

“No, Mike does it by compensating those employee’s willing to work extended hours at the expense of their own lives, richly.”

TCE Member:

“My favorite was the guy saying “You join a company to make a game… it’s like joining a rock band. Do you think rock stars work 40 hour work weeks when they’re on tour?”

No… they don’t. But we’re not the “rockstars”, you are. You make the money, and we’re the f—ing roadies. F— off.”

Funny. It seems that the boss gets the money, the power … and when the recession strikes, or the budgets were “mistaken”, or bad decisions are made, it’s the employees who lose their “not guaranteed” bonuses, and get “made redundant” … but it’s the employees who should be working 80 hour weeks for the priviledge.

But it’s all OK, apparently, because … you don’t have to work for a living if you don’t want to (at least, if you’re a Studio Director you don’t – you’ve got all that money and all those second homes to live in).

Issue Summary

The Free Market – where anyone can choose freely to buy (or not buy) anything – is a theory, not a real-world model. People need to eat. They need homes. They need … jobs.

It is NEVER valid for a manager to excuse exploitative working practices with the declaration “You chose to work here”; they are still exploitative, and the manager is still morally and ethically wrong.

(where does this end? A proposed pricing model for life-saving drugs is “take the future life earnings of the individual, and charge them close to 100% of that, even though that is several thousand times the cost of manufacture. They should be grateful that we’re giving them the chance to prevent their kids being orphaned and dieing of starvation”. Would you be grateful? Is that how you envision a civilized society?)

When you “stand for” something, you have to actually STAND for it

IGDA Chairwoman:

“I don’t think it’s the role of me, the IGDA, or any other organization to tell an individual what kind of workplace they should choose.”

IGDA Board Member:

“I would not use the model that Epic does and I would not work for a company that does.

I’m fine with Epic recruiting only the folks who want to work long hours and make game dev their life. That leaves thousands of great employees for Kaos and other studios committed to 40-hour work weeks to steal away”

Issue Summary

Beliefs are not something you pick up and set down when it’s convenient; you either believe them, or you don’t.

If you are one of the people running the organization that explicitly describes it’s campaign for “Better Quality of Life in the industry” as one of it’s most important activities, you had damn well better believe it – or resign and make way for someone who does.

Why do so many professionals have so little faith in the IGDA?

TCE Member:

“I’ve gone to the trouble of registering on the forums simply to answer this point. I’m not an IGDA member and with comments like Mr Capps’ being essentially defended by the board I have no intention of joining.”

TCE Member:

“Ignoring the QoL issues involved for a moment, it also unbalances the industry for all well-managed companies, be it clothing or games, who do not resort to such exploitative tactics by creating an uneven playing field for competition.”

TCE Member (?):

“If i’m honest, this is a ridiculous model. Can you imagine trying to source funding, outside of the games industry, on the basis that it might make you rich if everything goes to plan?

This is the whole problem with the games industry. I do not understand how anyone can defend this sort of position. It is untenable. Sure occasionally it works but once it has worked it is not a viable method to continue your business around. Its all about risk. Unfortunately you are putting that risk on to your employees and that is wrong.”

TCE Member (?):

“As a slight aside I will also say that the reason I never did and will never join an organisation such as the IGDA is because they cannot change that which the board has a vested interest in.”

Response, from IGDA Board Member:

“I will defend Mike and the others on this board unfailingly because the bottom line is that they are good people who are trying to do good things for the industry.”

Issue Summary

If the IGDA is supposed to make the industry better – a better place to work, a creator of better products, a better contributor to the lives of people who consume the products – then it needs to *improve* the industry.

It is not enough to simply say “it’s a world of free speech, I’ll defend every opinion to the death” – you have to actually have an opinion of your own, and you have to push it, everywhere.

Who does all the work around here?

IGDA Board Member:

“To be frank, the complete lack of support and involvement from the membership has been totally disheartening. Production level developers dropped off of the Taskforce and Roundtable discussions about this initiative at GDC a few years ago were universally empty with a total of 5 individual developers attending all 3 sessions. There were actually more Taskforce members and HR people from studios in attendance that there where individual developers. ”

IGDA SIG Chair:

“people can identify that there’s a problem, but the workers suffering most by definition do not have time to volunteer at anything – let alone something that might get them fired.

depending on meetings at GDC… yikes. The people who feel most strongly about this issue are not the ones who can afford to go to that conference (and again, by definition their companies are not paying them to go).

I believe we’ve made a real difference in the industry. Maybe not a difference everyone likes or agrees with, but when this SIG started in 2002 nobody would even think to put up a list of “Top 20 Game Writers” on Gamasutra. ”

IGDA Chapter Co-ordinator:

“I do my damn best to make the Boston chapter a useful and good thing for our local community.

Here are the basics of the Boston chapter:

Here’s what we provide:

So, IGDA broken? Sure, in places. IGDA useless? Not in Boston, that much I can say.”

IGDA Chapter Co-ordinator:

“But Jason, we can’t just sit back and say, “Hey, we formed some committees and we’ve scheduled some meetings: come one, come all, time to GET INVOLVED.” That doesn’t work. It never does.

When I was helping grow the Boston Chapter, it wasn’t enough to just hold the meetings and expect people to show. We had to provide incentives. We had to inspire people to show up. For the chapter, that was beer, food, and an informative speaker every month. And even then I had to personally reach out to hundreds of devs and harass them every month just to get them out to their first meeting. The incentives really only helped *retain* attendees.”

Issue Summary

Ah … here’s where I get a little controversial. Here’s the thought I’ve had but never voiced, even to myself, for a long time – it was too close to the bone. But hey, if I’m leaving, I might as well come clean with myself and everyone else.

The SIG Chairs actually do stuff. They make things happen (with very little overt guidance from the central IGDA – instead they have to make it up as they go along). They don’t tend to hold a lot of meetings (although a lot do, it usually very quickly goes nowhere – I know, I’ve made those mistakes myself).

The Chapter Co-ordinators actually do stuff. They run real-world events. They (with very little help from the central IGDA) get people to do things that others talk about, only … they actually get them to *do* it.

The Board?

I’d like to apologise to Tom Buscaglia here, in the interests of fairness, because in this exchange I used him as an example of people saying, not doing – whereas in reality I think the QoL program *is* doing things. So … I’m sorry.

HOWEVER … I suspect that if it were being done by a SIG or a Chapter, it would have been “done” a lot sooner – even if a lot “less well”. Chapters and SIGs live or die by their rapid, substantial results. The wider IGDA doesn’t seem to.

Again, an apology – I don’t know the details of why the QoL stuff is taking so much time, despite Board-level direct involvement, and IGDA’s not inconsiderable resources, and there may well be (probably are!) reasons outside of Tom’s (and the other members) control. But the problem here is that if you take *so* much time over things, maybe you lose more from the delay than you gained by doing it properly. Maybe not. It’s not an easy problem.

The End

I haven’t even broached all the key topics here. For instance, there’s the issue of people in other industries claiming that because *they* routinely work 50 or more hours a week, it’s pathetic of people in the Games Industry to complain about it.

(so what? your work is different, the effect on people’s lives is different, the careers you lead are different. Even if it were all exactly the same … does the existence of your poorly-run industry somehow “invalidate” the suffering in our industry? Of course not)

But I suspect most people have already stopped reading by now :).

Leaving the IGDA(2) – What Happened?

(if you’re not sure what the IGDA and TCE are, read the Background post first)

This post lays out the IGDA event where (IMHO!) the IGDA’s own Board undermined the IGDA’s most famous public initiative, and what the Board said about the matter when challenged over it.

2008 IGDA Leadership Forum

At a public IGDA event a few months ago, the “2008 IGDA Leadership Forum”, there was a session where two of the 12 IGDA board members (plus one about-to-be-board-member) spoke on the topic of working practices within the industry. The event was specifically about “Studio Heads” – i.e. people who run studios, and their particular insights into running the businesses (the board members in this case were also studio heads).

One of the speakers/board members, Mike Capps, the CEO of one of the most famous game developers (Epic), made some very clear comments about his own thoughts on QoL. You can see the video here (Mike’s comments are at about 21:00).

The video for this event went up a few weeks ago, and a TCE forum member posted a link for comment.

I suggest you watch the video, otherwise you’ll be in no position to make up your own mind and appreciate the issues at play here.

Grossly over-simplifying (read on, there’s a proper summary linked below), Mike’s comments sparked outrage and fury among the professional developers (remember: there are (practically) no fanbois on this forum; you have to be a professional game developer to get in; the vast majority of people there are extremely well informed about the issues within the industry, because they’re actually inside it)

Fixing the IGDA

Discussion on TCE raged on and on about this. The core issues at stake were not new – dismay at studios justifying treating their employees like crap, hope at various ways we can change this/it’s not so bad as it was, the role of the IGDA and other orgs in pushing for change, etc.

But this time was slightly different. Because:

  1. The comments were aired at an official IGDA event
  2. The IGDA event was the first conference that is wholly owned by IGDA (instead of being attached to a commercial partner’s larger conference, e.g. GDC)
  3. Half of the speakers on the panel were IGDA Board Members
  4. The IGDA made no attempt to refute/rebut/distance itself from the comments
  5. Simultaneously with this forum debate, the IGDA Board Elections were underway, and votes were being taken for the next 4 Board Members to take up 3 year terms starting this year

A lot of (fair, if sometimes extreme) condemnation was levelled at IGDA, both over this series of events, and it’s symptomatic relevance to the bigger, wider problems of the IGDA. These events did a pretty good job of exposing one of the biggest rifts within the IGDA:

What is the IGDA for, really? And does it succeed at that, or fail?

One of TCE’s members felt that there were a lot of good points, and a lot of great examples of just how offensive developers found the IGDA’s actions here. So, he went and asked for permission from each of the members to include their comments in a letter to the IGDA Board; you can see the results here:

http://www.igda.org/Forums/showthread.php?threadid=34741

IGDA Board response

“So long as Epic is honest with their employees about their expectations, I don’t think it’s the role of me, the IGDA, or any other organization to tell an individual what kind of workplace they should choose.” – Chair of the IGDA Board

One of the TCE members, who was not an IGDA member (allegedly because of his lack of faith in the organization), was moved to register on the IGDA site merely to respond, publically:

“IT IS NOT OK, EVER, TO EXPECT PEOPLE TO WORK MORE THAN 40 HOURS A WEEK.

If IGDA is so utterly incapable of seeing this while twittering on about its QoL efforts, it’s a totally lost cause and should disband, or own up to its utter impotence as a vehicle for real improvement of working conditions in an industry that needs that change desperately.” – Brian Beuken

(TCE members generally cheered Brian on, although maybe with slightly differences in the details)

What response did that (and other similar comments) get from the IGDA board?

“We support the initiative of the IGDA, which is to make the industry a better place for game developers, and we all do it in our own way.

Mike does it by compensating his employees richly. I do it by teaching and preaching a 40-hour work week. That said, I will defend Mike and the others on this board unfailingly because the bottom line is that they are good people who are trying to do good things for the industry.” – Another IGDA Board Member

…and there’s a bunch of other commentary from key people in the IGDA or in TCE. Go ahead, read the IGDA forums thread (http://www.igda.org/Forums/showthread.php?threadid=34741). Notable contributions include:

  1. The Chair of the IGDA Board
  2. Several other Board members
  3. The President of the IGDA
  4. The Chair of one of the IGDA SIG’s
  5. The Chapter Co-ordinator of one of the larger IGDA Chapters

My involvement

The IGDA has three branches: the general (15,000+) members, the Special Interest Groups (Online, Casual, Writers, Accessibility, etc), and the Chapters (city-specific social/meeting groups). Having run one of the SIGs since 2005, I’m now quitting the IGDA over this issue.

I stood for election to the Board this month, and those 15,000 members didn’t vote me in. This means two things.

Firstly, I don’t have the opportunity I’d hoped for to change things for the better as a Board member. I stood for election specifically to make the org more pro-active in not just talking about the things it stands for, but actually making them happen.

Secondly, the membership at large have proven – diplomatically – that they don’t agree. There’s no point fighting for an organization that’s made it so specifically clear that it doesn’t believe in the things that you believe in.

With this issue in particular, if it can’t deal with these issues even internally, it’s got a snowball’s chance in Hell of fixing them in the wider industry.

So … I quit. I’ve got some IGDA commitments at GDC next month, which I’ll obviously see through, but after that, I’m standing down as a SIG Chair, and having nothing futher to do with the organization.

Next…

…why this has wider significance than the internal politics of a single non-profit organization.

Leaving the IGDA(1) – Background

This is a series of posts about one of the big problems facing the games industry: honesty, exploitation, standing up for better quality of life, and actually “doing, not talking”.

IMHO it has added poignancy given the vast layoffs that have taken place across the board in the past 12 months. I’m splitting it into sub-posts so that the people who already know e.g. all the background to where we are now don’t need to trawl through it to get to the commentary.

I bear no personal ill-will to any of the people involved, and I don’t hold their opinions against them; in some cases I strongly object to the things they’ve said as spokepeople of their organizations, and I disagree strenuously with some of the opinions, but none of that makes them bad people. Although it might well make the organizations they represent into “bad organizations”…

IGDA: International Game Developers Association

(http://igda.org)

Formed some 8 (?) years ago, but in reality only really an independent organization for the past 4 (?) years, the IGDA’s vaguely-worded mission is to represent “game developers” in all forms, and make things better for them. It is non-specific whether it stands for “developers” as in “individuals who develop” or “developers” as in “development companies”, although there tends to be an implicit slant towards the former.

Alternate Reality Games (ARG) SIG: A “Special Interest Group” of the IGDA

(http://igda.org/arg)

Formed in 2005 by myself and 10 other people, our mission is even more vaguely worded :). But something along the lines: provide fora and support for ARG developers to meet each other, learn from each other, share ideas and advice, discuss developments in the industry, and generally just meet and talk to like-minded people.

IGDA Board Elections: 2nd Feb 2009 to 24th Feb 2009

(http://www.igda.org/board/elections.php)
The Board consists of 12 elected volunteers, who each serve 3 years, with 4 of them re-elected each year (so there are always 3 tranches of directors at any one time).

This year, I put myself up for election. I felt that despite all the good things IGDA was doing, it was failing in a couple of key areas to do with its role in the wider world of game development. It needed to get a lot more pro-active. It needed to stop just talking about what people should do, and do more to make them, and help them, to get there. Too many people have no idea what the IGDA is, even in a vague sense, and I wanted to fix that too.

TCE: The Chaos Engine

(http://www.thechaosengine.com/)

An internet forum that – unusually – is private, and enforces reasonably strict membership criteria. You must be:

  • A professional employed in the games industry
  • Not a manager
  • Work in the “making games / shipping games” part (i.e.: not PR, not HR, not Finance, etc)
  • Not a journalist

In essence: it’s a place for people who actually make games, with all the attendant joy and suffering, to talk freely with other knowledgeable people, without the presence of rabid fanbois who know nothing about what they’re talking about, and without the constant fear that an unscrupulous manager or HR drone is reading your every word and looking for excuses to fire you.

The stage has been set … read on to What Happened?

How can we make a Europe-wide MMO Publisher?

(4 posts in one day? Yeah! Too busy to be regular right now. GDC is on the way)

At the end of my commentary on the formation of NC West, I added almost as an afterthought a little comment about Europe and the MMO industry:

there’s a gaping hole in the MMO sphere. For someone bold enough to step into that hole, you could “own” Europe’s online gaming industry for the next decade.

Since I wrote that, surprisingly many people have commented on it both by email and in person, either along the lines of “look who else missed the opportunity” (Jagex, Ankama, Bigpoint, Gameforge), or along the lines of “yeah!” (count me in) … or both.

So, I wonder: what *would* it take, right now? If you have ideas, post them here. I’ll be at GDC in 3 weeks time, and I’d be more than happy to pitch this as a credible plan, if you come up with a comprhensive-enough plan. It’s a lot more expensive than any of my own humble plans, but in many ways I find it a lot easier to justify, financially. And I’m not even trying (it’s just a game for me right now, idly imagining what I’d do, if I were Jagex, or Ankama, or Gameforge, etc).

Wishlist time. Over to you, Dear Readers…