Dear [Recruitment Agent / Hiring Manager / HR staffer]

I mean this in the nicest possible way:

I suggest you save us both some time: have a look at my LinkedIn profile, and see what I’ve done – http://www.linkedin.com/in/adammartin – it’s shorter and clearer than a CV/Resume, too.

If you find that you have something that would interest me, personally, then feel free to email me and explain why.

If not, I suggest you don’t contact me again.

I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a specific position, with salary range, or you cannot send info in advance, or can’t answer some question I’ve already emailed you … then I’m not interested in talking further. I don’t want to speak to you on the phone. I don’t want to meet you. I don’t want to email you info about my previous work history. This may seem extreme to you, but I’m guessing you have no idea how many blind job offers I receive every single week? Enough that I don’t have time to reply to every single one of them with the same info over and over again, I’m sorry.

(Note to readers: Sorry if this turns up in your RSS; I’m now actively forwarding this link to recruitment agencies, as I’ve received several enquiries in the past week where they didn’t visit my blog, and I had to copy/paste sections from my rather less forgiving / tongue-in-cheek Open Letter to Recruitment Agencies)

(Note to recruiters: Feel free to follow the above link. Try not to take too much offense if you do, and please try to recognize that many of your fellow recruiters are an awesome waste of time for those of us who actually work in the industry)

Shaming the recruitment agencies – Lorien

(today Lorien joins previous awardee Aardvark Swift)

There’s an insidious new form of spam on LinkedIn: people posting job ads on the linkedin forums. This is particularly stupid because you lose all the benefits of LI’s built-in job search system.

I saw a great one today from Lorien plc (clearly, not an agency you want to work with).

Forum: Video Game Industry Executives
Description: “for Gaming Industry Sales, Marketing, PR & Digital professionals”

Post:

We are seeking experienced C++ Games Developers just like you for a permanent oppurtunity in Scotland. Send your CV now to Ahmid.Nawaz@Lorien.co.uk or call on 0131 718 6396

OK, so a few tips for Ahmid:

  1. Tip: Use a spell checker when spamming job adverts to unrelated groups.
  2. Tip: Don’t spam unrelated groups
  3. Tip: Don’t spam job adverts on a site that has a dedicated Jobs section
  4. Tip: Fix your webserver so that when people go to http://lorien.co.uk they don’t get a “site does not exist or is not working” error message

Open Letter to Recruitment Agencies (video games industry)

Hi!

My name is “Adam” (first name) “Martin” (surname); you might need to check the spelling. You might want to check which is the first name, which the surname – funny how many recruiters get it wrong!

You’ve probably cold-emailed me because you got my email address somewhere – maybe as much as 10 years ago – and yet, bizarrely, I haven’t been coming to you looking for jobs. You’re probably really hoping I’ll write back with a CV/Resume that you can send out.

Instead, I suggest you save us both some time: have a look at my LinkedIn profile, and see what I’ve done – http://www.linkedin.com/in/adammartin – it’s shorter and clearer than a CV/Resume, too.

Hey, if you’ve got a few minutes, why not have a look right now? Take your time – I’ll wait! You can learn a bit about me, find out what I might be interested in (hint: it’s there, in several paragraphs of text, right at the top of the page).

Now, maybe you think you’ve got a perfect job for me. But hold on, my friend! Don’t hit that “Send” button yet! There’s some things you should know before you email me a second time…

You see, each time you email me, blind, cold-calling, un-solicited … it’s not just you. All your competitors are doing it. Even some of your colleagues (it’s funny how many agencies accidentally compete with themselves). And a whole bunch of your clients, the companies you recruit for, are doing it too. And each one of those emails takes me time to read.

My time is precious, I’ve got a lot to give, and I usually go well beyond what’s asked; if it weren’t, there’d be fewer companies that wanted to hire me, and willing to pay the salaries I’ve been paid. And hence willing to give YOU that big, fat, commission you’re hoping for…

“What’s there to lose?”, you may be thinking to yourself, “if you don’t like it, we’re cool, I’m friendly, we’ve got a bit of a relationship going here – I emailed you, you emailed me, it could be the start of a great partnership, propelling your future career gradually up the corporate ladder!”

Well, here’s the thing: I’m a technology guy. I have a degree in Computer Science from one of the world’s top Universities. I’ve been trained and employed as a SysAdmin. I’ve been an entrepreneur, and built my company’s computers myself, to save money. Although I don’t program for money any more, I’m still fluent in many programming languages. And, you know what, I’m a bit of an expert at all that “mailserver stuff”.

So … if you piss me off; if you waste my time with meaningless, unsolicited drivel; if you nag me with “this is an amazing opportunity you will love” when we both know it isn’t vaguely true … I’m going to nuke your ass (figuratively speaking): I will never see an email from you again, they’ll die before they reach me.

And when I say “you”, I don’t just mean “you, at the company you currently work for”. Nope. You really piss me off, and I won’t be seeing an email from you no matter which agency you move on to. I hope you grok the seriousness of that? (this may suprise you, but those of us in the industry DO actually notice when you guys change roles, change agencies, etc)

I simply do not have time for time-wasting muppets who are too damn lazy to bother even doing a simple LinkedIn/Google/Gamasutra/etc search on their “targets” to find out who and what these people are.

Oh, and by the way – I’ve done recruitment, many times, myself. I’ve had to get creative with reaching people, trying to tempt them out of their jobs and into working for my own employers. So I know how hard the hard stuff can be. But I also know how little – how VERY little – time it takes to do the easy stuff. And when you DON’T do even that, it tells me a lot about you. It tells me a lot about the crap you’re sending to your clients. It tells me a lot about how (un)impressed they’re going to be with the drivel you send them. Above all, it tells me that if I *do*, somehow, find the role interesting, then it’s worth my time using my own contacts to get a direct invitation from the company, and bilking you out of your commission.

Actually, I could bilk you anyway, whoever it is. The industry is *that* incestuous that everyone above Junior level “knows someone” (who knows someone, who knows someone else … until you hit the Hiring Manager). So, your whole business is based on the assumption that you make it so much easier for me to work with you that I don’t bother to test my extended network. You’re living on borrowed time from the moment your email hits my inbox. Humour me.

But on the other hand, if you take a genuine interest, and make the effort to find stuff that would actually interest me, you could save me a lot of time and hassle. And then I’d love to work with you on finding and evaluating roles. And (modulo all the above) I’m a pretty forgiving guy, if you give me just a little bit of mutual respect. So you CAN send me random crap that you think might tickle my interest, and I won’t hate you for screwing up. You can even get it wrong every time – so long as it’s clear you are, in fact, *trying*.

So, you know … take the time. It’s for your own good. Really.

HAVE A NICE DAY!

Gamasutra: Pay employees as little as possible

Gamasutra’s just posted an Opinion piece (so it’s not GS’s position, they’re just giving air-time to the author) about the interview process for getting a job in the video game industry.

Right up-front the author states that one of the three aims of the employer is:

“To pay as little as possible”

What?

No.

Don’t work for companies who have that on their agenda, unless there really aren’t any better opportunities available (hey, it’s a recession – maybe you just have to accept a second-rate job right now).

A company that wants to pay as little as possible cares less about you than they do about sucking value out of you for their profit and spitting you out once you’ve been used up. Note: this is not “making best use of their assets”, this is “carpet-bagging value-extraction”. It’s an attitude that leads to miserable work environments and unstable teams.

So, to anyone getting a job in the industry: Please stop propping-up the bad business models of the companies that do this, and work for the most decent company you can find instead.

EDIT: clarification, after several people responded to say that the statement really meant the company was just aiming to “pay no more than is necessary to secure your services”:

  • I will pay a contractor “no more than is necessary”.
  • I want more from an employee. I will pay them how much I value their contribution to the company.
  • Then when I ask or hope for more from them than 37.5 hours a week and a “I only do what it says in my job description” attitude, I can feel that the balance of payment is fair.
  • And when a contractor says “that’s not in my contract”, I’ll feel guilty for trying to sneak a freebie past them – and blame *myself*, not them, for saying no.

(NB: I like the overall idea of the article, but I object to quite a few other details, especially from the employer perspective; for instance, telling candidates to pretend to be something they’re not just in order to get the job is not appreciated, dude. Both company and candidate need to be honest in the interview, because otherwise one or both of you will get rather unhappy starting about 2 hours into your first day on the job, and it’s not a relationship that’s going to last)

Google cutting 20% time

Oh, wait, actually they’re not. But people love to misinterpret statements with the word Google and the number 20 in them.

As I put in the comments:

Frankly, I’ve generally not bothered to correct anyone who didn’t bother to research it themselves – except in the cases where they were in my own organization, and attempting to make decisions about related matters based on misconceptions of the supposed Google rule.

Of course, my dear lovely friends may have been lieing to me. I very much doubt it (and even if I didn’t, what they’ve said over the years has made a lot more sense than most of the hearsay you hear on the web) – but the point here is that I’ve bothered to ask.

Google has so many employees that if you preach on subjects like 20% time – which, by the way, I think is one of the most fundamentally important (and least well-understood) issues in corporations, job choice, and why you get up in the morning, but that’s another post – then you have no excuse at all for not going and asking an employee how it works. Last time I looked, they had bajillions of offices around Europe, not to mention the sprawl all over the US.

Shaming the recruitment agencies – Aardvark Swift

Given how much money these agencies charge – and how that SPECIFICALLY reduces the chances of “good but not great” candidates of getting job offers (anyone who says otherwise is a liar or naive) – I’m fed up of their mediocrity and the lack of criticism it gets. So, I’ve decided I’m going to stop complaining in private to the agencies themselves (that seems to have had no effect for the past 5 years) and instead start naming and shaming them. Sorry, Aardvark Swift, but thanks to your current email campaign, you just volunteered to be first. It’s nothing personal, I promise.

(I will probably never ever get a job again via any of the agencies I go on to talk about :). Oh well.)

Aardvark Swift is one of the better-known UK specialist recruitment agencies for the games industry. They used to have a good reputation (although it’s been up and down over the years, depending upon who you talk to). They just spammed me to ask me to apply for the job of “Lead AI Programmer in Australia”.

Now, if you were to just take a brief look at my work history (linkedin.com), you’d probably notice that:

  1. I live on the opposite side of the planet, literally
  2. I have never in my life been an AI programmer
  3. It’s been many years since I did a programming job

That’s bad enough. Except … I already told them much the same over a year ago, the last time they were cold-contacting me. I have a vague memory that they even had a fairly recent copy of my CV/resume at that point (no more than a year old).

I know people in the industry make big, sudden career changes, but is this – blind spamming of inappropriate jobs – really an effective way to catch those? Because – as a candidate – it feels like lazy bottom-feeding tactics; how come they can’t even be bothered to check current information on public LinkedIn profiles? As an employer it makes me wonder: of the candidates this agency would send me, how many would the agency even know the first thing about the people they’re sending through?

Companies are desperate for good candidates these days, so it should be easier than ever to get a good job in the industry. But somewhere between the Hiring Manager and the Candidate the process often breaks down completely. Just to be clear, it’s not just Agencies that are to blame – far from it, often it’s the companies’ own insane internal bureaucracy, or misdirected HR depts, that screw things up – but as an industry we *really* need to put a stop to this.

Or at least stop whining and bitching about how “universities and schools aren’t providing enough programmers, artists, producers, and designers” (whether or not its true) – many companies wouldn’t spot a good candidate if they walked in the front door and handed in a printed copy of their CV/resume.

MMO Blogger Round-up

On this site I have a rather subtly-hidden Blog Roll. When I started blogging, the site had less on it, and the roll was easy to find – and short. Now it’s not. And it’s long. And each link on there has been carefully considered. There’s some gems in there (although a lot of them are updated so infrequently few people track them).

So it’s time to call-out some of the interesting things to be found in the blogging world of MMO people.

By the way … you can tell who’s working on uber-secret or personally exciting projects these days because they’ve suspiciously stopped blogging for months at a time. Lazy slackers, the lot of them. The more you do, the more you should blog! :P

There are some that should be on the blogroll but aren’t (yet), and some other bloggers I should mention (but I’m sticking to the blogroll only for this post – I’ll go through others next time). Feel free to add your own recommended reading in the comments.

Blogs to read:
Brinking (Nabeel Hyatt)
* Who? serial entrepreneur, raised funding and sold companies
* What? currently running a funk-tastic social / music / games company with a bunch of Harmonix guys
* Why? big commentator on the games/apps/making money/predictions parts of All Things Facebook

Broken Toys (Scott Jennings / LTM)
* Who? became infamous in the early days of MMOs as a player of Ultima Online who ranted publically, amusingly, and sometimes even insightfully
* What? ex-NCsoft, now doing intriguing web games at John Galt Games
* Why? In his heart Scott’s still a player, and more than anyone else I’ve seen he interprets the world of MMO design, development, and playing through the players’ eyes. Interesting point: he’s mostly concerned with life-after-launch. Funny that. Players kind of find that bit the most interesting. Also keeps a close eye on community-management screw-ups, and WoW generally

Bruce Everiss
* Who? ex-head of marketing for Codemasters
* What? um, I’m not sure what he’s doing these days, apart from becoming a “professional blogger”
* Why? he aims to comment on every single interesting piece of news in the mainstream games industry. That’s a lot of commentary. Always something to read! IMHO he is often completely wrong about anything online-games, and a lot of business and “future of industry” stuff – Bruce is from an older age of the industry. But … he says a lot of interesting things and sparks a lot of interesting debates in the process. Worth reading. Just remember he is extremely (deliberately, I’m sure) provocative, and don’t take it too seriously.

Coke and Code (Kevin Glass)
* Who? A programmer working in mainstream IT
* What? An insanely prolific author of casual games “in his free time, as a hobby”
* Why? Because he’s better at making games than many professionals I’ve met, and he is very very prolific, making new libraries, toolsets, editors, games, game engines – and commenting on it all as he goes, and throwing up new games for you to play all the time

Erik Bethke
* Who? ex-Producer for Interplay
* What? CEO of GoPets, an online casual virtual world that’s especially big in Asia (and based in South Korea)
* Why? A hardcore WoW player who analyses the game-design as he goes, and relates very honestly a stream of both emotional experiences and seminal events in the game that should give you lots of things to be thinking about, especially if you’re a designer, business person, or product manager.

Extenuating Circumstances (Dan Hon)
* Who? ex-MindCandy, current CEO of SixToStart
* What? one of the first Bloggers (on the whole of the internet!) in the UK, and an awe-inspiring assimilator of “everything happening on the internet, with technology, with media, with entertainment and the future of the world” for all of the ten years I’ve known him.
* Why? He’s still an excellent tracker of all those things, and finds memes very quickly. Nowadays he just auto-posts links (lots of them, every day) with a few words of commentary scattered here and there (del.icio.us descriptions) – making his blog a ready-made news filter for you :)

Fishpool (Osma Ahvenlampi)
* Who? CTO of Sulake (makers of Habbo Hotel)
* What? a very technical commentator, often in great detail, on the issues of running a 100-million user virtual world, with observations about Habbo’s community, business, and culture thrown in
* Why? He posts very rarely, but when he does, they’re usually full of yummy detail

Futuristic Play (Andrew Chen)
* Who? ex-VC (Mohr-Davidow Ventures)
* What? entrepreneur with a web-background who’s come into the games industry and bringing lots of useful stuff with him
* Why? blogs a LOT on advertising (and how to make money out of it in games and web and casual), and on metrics, and how you can use them to run you games or web business better. Also has a long fascination with what are the best parts of the games industry, and the best of the web industry, and how we can each put those best bits together to be even better

Off the Record – Scott Hartsman
* Who? ex-Everquest, ex-Simutronics
* What? Senior Producer for MMOs – but previously an MMO lead developer, and once (apparently) a Game Designer.
* Why? he’s funny, he knows his stuff, and he’s worked on some of the most important MMO projects outside Asia, so he’s got an interesting perspective going there.

Orbus Gameworks (Darius Kazemi)
* Who? ex-Turbine, now CEO of Orbus (a games-metrics middleware company)
* What? Likes the colour orange *a lot*, infamous for networking his ass off at games conferences (*everyone* knows Darius), very friendly, generous – and mildly obssessed with the use of metrics and stats to improve the creativity and success of game design (in a good way)
* Why? If you liked the Halo heatmaps when they came out, you’ll love some of the stuff they post on the Orbus company blog. A year ago they were posting heatmaps-on-steroids. If you thought “metrics” equalled “spreadsheets of data” then prepare to have your view changed pretty thoroughly.

Prospect Magazine/First Drafts (Tom Chatfield)
* Who? section-editor of the highly respected socio-political print magaine Prospect
* What? a highly-accomplished English Literature post-grad (bear with me here) … who also happens to have been a lifelong hardcore game player, I think the only person I know who got a hardcore character to level 99 on Diablo2, and now plays WoW a lot.
* Why? although Prospect only very rarely (like, only a few times ever) covers games, it’s very interesting to see what the rest of the world – especially the highly educated and highly intelligent but non-technical, older generations – thinks of us. And a bit of culture in your blog reading is probably good for you, too.

Psychochild (Brian Green)
* Who? ex-3DO/M-59, now the owner and designer of the revamped, relaunched, more modern Meridian-59
* What? an MMO game designer who disingenuously describes himself as an indie MMO designer but like most of the others has probably spent too long doing this and knows too much (compared to many of the modern “mainstream” MMO designers) for that to be true any more
* Why? lots and lots of great design ideas and commentary here for anyone wanting to do MMO design

Scott Bilas
* Who? programmer on Duneon Siege
* What? …in particular, responsible for the Entity System (one of my main areas of interest)
* Why? Scott’s phased in and out of blogging, but when he does blog he tends to do good meaty programming posts that contain lots of source code and some useful lesson or algorithm.

Sulka’s Game (Sulka Haro)
* Who? lead designer for Sulake (Habbo Hotel)
* What? more of a Creative Director than game designer, more of a web background than games, but above all a community/product/creative person who knows his stuff. Also a big player of MMORPGs
* Why? are you cloning Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel and want some pointers about revenue models, community management, and how to be successful with virtual-item sales? You might want to read his posts ;)

The Creation Engine No.2 (Jim Purbrick)
* Who? ex-Codemasters, ex-Climax (both times working on MMO projects)
* What? originally a network / MMO academic researcher, then a network coder, and now the person who runs Linden Lab (Second Life) in the UK. Very big proponent of all things open-source, always doing interesting and innovative things with technology
* Why? Keep an eye on the more innovative technology things that are done with Second Life (stuff you don’t tend to read about in the news but – to a tech or games person – is a heck of a lot more interesting by a long long way), and get some insight into the life of serious open-source programmers who succeed in living and breathing this stuff inside commercial environments

The Forge (Matt Mihaly)
* Who? developer of one of the earliest commercially successful text MUDs, now CEO of Sparkplay Media
* What? spent many years running Achaea, a text-only MUD that made a healthy profit from pioneering the use of itemsales (virtual goods) – and the things weren’t even graphical – and has now finally (finally!) moved into graphical games with the MMO he’s developing
* Why? one of the few MMO professionals who talks a lot about his experiences playing on consoles (especially Xbox), which makes for a refreshing alternate view – especially from the perspective of an MMO person talking about social and community issues in those games. Just like Brian Green, claims to be an indie MMO designer, but probably knows far far too much for that to be even vaguely justifiable

Vex Appeal (Guy Parsons)
* Who? ex-MindCandy
* What? Guy is an extremely creative … guy … who had a small job title but a big part in inventing and rolling out a lot of the viral marketing stuff we did for Perplex City (online game / ARG from a couple of years ago)
* Why? Awesome place to go for ideas and info on the cutting edge of doing games stuff with social networks. Usually. Also … just makes for a fun blog to read

We Can Fix That with Data (Sara Jensen Schubert)
* Who? ex-Spacetime, currently SOE
* What? MMO designer, but like Lum / Scott Jennings, comes from a long background as player and commentator, and shorter background as actually in the industry. Like Darius Kazemi, spent a lot of time in doing metrics / data-mining for MMOs
* Why? Take Darius’s insight into metrics for MMOs, and Scott’s knowledge of what players like, don’t like, and ARE like, and you get a whole bunch of interesting posts wandering around the world of metrics-supported-game-design-and-community-management. Good stuff.

Zen of Design (Damion Schubert)
* Who? ex-EA (Ultima Online), currently at Bioware (MMO)
* What? MMO designer who’s been around for a long time (c.f. UO)
* Why? Damion writes long detailed posts about MMO design, what works, what doesn’t, practicalities of geting MMO development teams to work together, how the playerbase will react to things, etc. He also rather likes raiding in MMORPGs – which is fascinating to see (given his heavy background as a pro MMO *designer*)

[NC] Anson (Matthew Wiegel)
* Who? ex-NCsoft
* What? Dungeon Runners team
* Why? was doing lots of interesting and exciting things with data-mining/metrics in the free-to-play low-budget NCsoft casual MMO. Watch this space…

People with nothing to do with games, but you might want to watch just because they’re interesting:
Bard’s World (Joshua Slack)
* ex-NCsoft
* Josh is one of the key people behind Java’s free, hardware-accelearted, game engine (JME)
Janus Anderson
* Who? ex-NCsoft
* What? um, he’s been taking a lot of photos recently
* Why? watch this space
Mark Grant
* Who? non-Games industry
* What? an entrepreneur, web-developer, and Cambridge Engineer
* Why? very smart guy, and interesting posts on web development (no games tie-in)

What’s the future for Game Development Studios?

(this is part 2 of Publishers are from Mars, Developers are from Venus)

Last time I said that “good Developers are very similar to Valley Technology Startups”, which suggests one obvious way things could develop:

Publishers to become Venture Capitalists; Developers to become commodities

In this model, the Publishers spend their time “speculating” in Dev studios: instead of buying a studio in order to own the output of that studio, you buy it with the intent of later selling the studio itself at a profit.

This is a good model; as I first heard from Jack Lang, at one of the Cambridge Enterprise Conferences many years ago:

“The best way to get rich is by buying and selling things. Preferably companies”

IIRC it’s a quote that’s been around for a long time, but I can’t remember where the original quote came from, unfortunately.

(of course, this observation is why Publishers are box-shifters in the first place: simply buying and selling things is an easy, fast, stable, sustainable way of making a very large amount of money. It’s not particularly creative, perhaps, but it’s a very efficient way of generating profit, and lets you leverage your resources/cashflow way above the profit you would generate simply from manufacturing your own goods and selling them)

The real beauty of this is that – as Jack’s quote illustrates – a Publisher and a VC have very similar fundamental business models: they buy stuff that they have no intention of using themselves primarily to sell those things at a profit to other people. In both cases, the less time the company can hold onto the products, while getting the same price differential between purchase and sale, the better. What is a VC? A VC is just a higher-value version of a box-shifter. So, for a Publisher to diversify into being a VC may not be so difficult…

As someone who’s been through the mill of raising finance for startups before, I’d also like to add that “funding game development” is commonly thought of as having no equal in risk and unpredictability – save “providing venture capital for a new startup”. The hardest part of being a VC – the insanely high risks involved – is bread and butter for Publishers, who routinely spend tens of millions of dollars on stuff they don’t understand, cannot effectively control, and cannot reliably predict!

Studios would find that:

  1. Publishers would look after them more – you don’t want to harm something you’re planning to sell
  2. Funding and marketing decisions would be driven more by what was in the interests of the studio rather than the Publisher’s marketing dept or cashflow
  3. Publishers would stop being stupid about trying to “reduce costs” of development purely for the sake of it
  4. Publishers would be a LOT more interested in supporting and creating external partnerships for the studio, especially where those partnerships involved competing publishers or their subsidiaries (because that would make it easier in the future to sell the studio to that competing publisher), which would help reduce development costs (a little) and increase productivity / quality of working environment (probably a lot more – publishers usually consider this too little justification for allowing such things)
  5. If the publisher got cold feet about publishing a certain game and it was far advanced, they would push for POSTPONING it rather than RUSHING it – they’d rather sell the studio BEFORE it publishes the game, and “price-in” the potential of the game than sell AFTER the game had launched and flopped
  6. The publisher would push harder for maintaining quality standards of the games output by the studio – they have literally invested in the brand of the studio, a brand they are planning to build up in value as much as possible, before selling

Publishers would find that:

  1. Development costs would no longer mar their balance sheets and make their financial performance look bad; the offset of being able to mark the studio as a sellable asset with a quantifiable value in excess of the money being poured into it would make it all smell sweeter to shareholders
  2. There would be less friction with studios, leading to better communication, less frustration, and probably better overall quality of product – and hence, more profits
  3. Studios could safely be given more leeway to make strategic business decisions that were “right for them”, offering the possibility of mega-wins for the publisher whenever those paid-off (e.g. the decision by early FPS developers to not only allow but encourage modding was enough to terrify publishers even today, and yet a massive win in sales and profits), but also to not have to take responsibility – and blame – when they failed; this would all be priced into the “value” of the studio as a separate, tradeable, entity
  4. If a studio made some bad strategic decisions that led to commercial failures, that might actually INCREASE its tradeable value, if the market perceived that the studio had “learnt” significantly from the mistakes; potentially, such increased value could completely offset the actual financial losses incurred from the mistake

A practical example

I’m just pulling this out of thin air, trying to think of a studio that many years ago was worth something, got acquired, went internal, and now is probably worthless. When EA bought Westwood Studios, one of the things they paid for was the brand; how much value did they really extract from that brand? How much value does it have *today*? Today, it’s probably next to none – customers don’t care, and other games industry companies all know that the real meat of Westwood Studios (the staff, the equipment, the processes) was disbanded shortly after being bought by EA. Could they have made more money by promoting and protecting the WS as an owned-but-independent studio? If they’d taken that route, and even if they had made less money than they have with the route they chose, would it be more than made up for by the fact that they might be able to sell WS right now for, say, a couple of hundred million dollars – if only it still existed as more than a name?

And why not?

But this isn’t the way Publishers work right now, so … where does this plan all go wrong? Why hasn’t it happened already? What might prevent people from trying this?

1. Cojones

At the moment, the funding decisions that Publishers make are so distantly removed from the actual point of capitalizing on them that it’s quite easy for the people making the funding decisions to blame many other departments and personnel within their organization should the investment go poorly. Indeed, this plausibly deniability, this easy abrogation of responsibility by the decision makers – and the great distance between them and the people actually implementing the game – are root causes of a lot of the practical problems in the Publisher/Developer relationship whenever they do “external” publishing (i.e. publish a game made by an independent / external studio, as opposed to a wholly-owned internal studio).

A lot of the benefits for the New Way cited above stem from removing that indirection; that means a bunch of people making hundred-million-dollar decisions would be exposed to rather more scrutiny and responsibility than they hold right now. I’ve heard people (usually the ones who don’t really understand VC’s, have acted naively or foolishly with them, and come away poor and bitter) describe VC’s as “arrogant”, “bullies”, and “too demanding”; while I don’t agree with that, just think how you’d act if you were the named individual responsible for a handful of $10million investment decisions, and how that might come across sometimes. Could the individual people working for Publishers accomodate such a change? If they were content with that level of personal exposure to risk, would they be working in the games industry, or would they already be working in the higher-paid VC industry?

2. The Art of the Sale

Another issue is that the success of selling a studio depends on, well … your ability to sell!

Publishers do not, generally, have any experience of selling companies. A publisher might spin-out or sell off one division every decade, at most – and many of those are instigated by the division itself (management buy-outs), or are fire-sales (find a buyer at any cost, no matter how low). They don’t have staff who are experience in doing this, they don’t have any contacts suitable for doing it, and they don’t (generally) maintain the level of immersion in the marketplace of studio buyers to be able to setup great deals when selling on a studio. Look at how much time the individual staff at VC’s spend purely “networking”, both looking for things to invest in (new purchases), but also looking for, befriending, understanding, and keeping up to date with the needs and desires of potential buyers (people who might acquire some of their portfolio).

3. Organizational Change

Lastly, have a look at the typical VC organization – a handful of Partners (maybe half a dozen people who make investment decisions), a handful of Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR – maybe one or two domain-experts who make recommendations and help in due diligence). This is enough to manage billions of dollars of investments.

Now look at the typical Publisher organization – 50 people in each of marketing, customer service, and sales, perhaps 15 handling external develoment (finding and making development/publishing deals), and another 10-50 people in internal support roles. This is enough to own 1-3 development studios.

This isn’t to say that Publishers would need to downsize. Rather, it’s to point out that if the external development side started doing sales of studios for as much as $100million a time, their revenues and profits would suddenly massively eclipse (20 to 1, perhaps even 200 to 1) the whole of the rest of the organization, despite being outnumbered more than ten to one. Sooner or later, the “rest of the organization” would become politically weak and subservient to the massively profitable “trading in ownership of development studios part”.

The VPs of the current departments may well find that the total pie they’re sharing in becomes much bigger, and much more than makes-up-for the fact that their slice has got smaller, but will they accept their slice going from being a “Vice President” sized slice to a “Operations Manager” sized slice?

A few little Notes…

1. When I wrote Publishers are from Mars, Developers are from Venus, I had *no idea* that NCsoft had just decided to shutdown its European development studio, and make a swathe of redundancies in European publishing. Sheer coincidence, and sad for a lot of people involved, but very interesting nonetheless.

NB: if you work for a publisher or developer and are interested in picking up any of the good NCsoft Europe staff, especially development, QA, localization, and customer support – and you have jobs in or within commuting distance of Brighton – let me know. Lots of people are suddenly looking for stuff to do next…

2. I said that “Developers exist to make a loss, every day”, and some people questioned that.

Yes, I really mean this: the more they spend, the greater the potential profit, and they should be maximizing their potential profit. Obviously, there is a point of diminishing returns, but generally speaking whenever you have an R&D lab, you want to pump as much money into it as you can possibly spare. Generally, R&D labs are rather good at soaking up almost infinite amounts of money.

Compare the revenues and the expenditures of, say, GTA IV with those of Bookworm Adventures. The latter may have been much much more profitable in percentage terms, but the former made a bigger amount of money overall. Often, the sheer amount of money you make is more important than your profit percentage.

3. I decided to write these blog posts after a comment I made to Steven Davis about the problems of publishers owning development studios, which he replied to with “Actually, the publishers should fund these things like a movie studio or VC. Let them be independent, get them off the books, and use your money to control distribution or via publishing rights.”

I’d been thinking along similar lines, but I also realised I saw some big problems with the approach, so I thought it would be interesting to explore in more detail. But if he hadn’t made the comment, I probably wouldn’t have got around to it :).

Publishers are from Mars, Developers are from Venus

Over the last few years, there has been a big shift in power and success away from independent studios, and towards in-house, publisher-owned studios. This has been driven by several things, sound economic reasons, competitive reasons, and because the strong independent studios had done a good job at creating a slew of new IPs (which publishers were eager to snap up, as always).

In my experience relatively few people in the games industry realise this, but all these things are cyclical (it’s a lot more obvious in non-niche industries, like the IT industry, where you have many more companies, and the billion-dollar companies can’t be counted on one hand). So, what’s next? What’s going to happen over the next 3-5 years?

Some (recent) history

My last job was working for a large publisher (NCsoft – http://ncsoft.com) where we were setting up a new internal development studio from scratch. When I arrived I there was only one other person (plus my manager). We were doing a lot of other things at the same time – external development, pitching new internal projects, etc – but over the course of the first year I spent a lot of time looking at what we had to do to get a studio up and running, starting from scratch.

Interesting and fun. But also … surprisingly difficult. I’ve been one of the first employees at a couple of startups, and founded some, so I’m accustomed to starting up teams and departments, and a lot of the problems we encountered with this studio were just variations on familiar themes. But then there were also some new ones, side-effects of being inside a huge, well-established, publisher – one whose head-office was on the other side of the world, where the vast majority of the staff didn’t share any languages with the vast majority of the publishing office in our country, and our staff.

To summarize: the things that should have been completed fast were incredibly slow, and the things that should have been easy often turned out to be extremely hard. My definition of “should have” here is based on “whatever plays to the strengths of large corporates”.

As that became clear, one option would have been to throw up our hands and say: “this company is crap! No other similar company works this way!”. Instead, I dug deeper, and tried to understand how it was that we seemed to be seeing a lot of the opposite of what I expected. Sure, a lot of it could be explained by some over the top internal politics, and some by issues with individuals, but … this is a billion-dollar public company, and it’s foolish to think that management could be so weak and disorganized that a few internal battles and a few individuals could cause major aims of the organization to fail. No, there were underlying problems that were natural side-effects of the way the company worked. IMHO, these same issues are almost certainly causing problems for other internal development studios already, and will probably be major contributory causes of the move away from internal studios (when that day comes).

Publishers exist to make profit, every day; Developers exist to make a loss, every day

I could stop there. In that one sentence is encapsulated a problem so powerful and subtle that it’s more than capable of causing all the secondary problems – the ones people actually notice – that lead to publisher/developer acrimony when the two are together in the same company.

A traditional publisher is a box-shifter that pays a hefty license fee for exclusive rights to import a popular, trendy product from a foreign country. The things they need to be good at are:

  • Identifying the Next Big Thing, and signing an exclusive deal before anyone else gets it
  • Efficiently importing that thing and distributing it out to mass-market consumers (this is where most of the opportunity for profit exists)
  • Persuade as many people as possible to buy the product, as quickly as possible, for as high a price as possible (this is where ALL their revenue comes from)

Why did I mark the SECOND point as the point for profit? Because profit is extracted through the differential between the costs generated in that bullet point, and the price point that the publisher – arbitrarily – places on the product as sold to retailers (who then, typically in retail (forget the games industry – this is normal for all industries!) double the price again before selling to consumers).

The price point can be … anything you want. The volume you sell comes from the third bullet – but you have NO control over how much you sell. You *try* to sell as much as you can, but you cannot wake up tomorrow and *decide* to double sales. However … in contrast, you can wake up tomorrow and *decide* to halve costs. Or double them. So you focus on that middle bullet point: Efficiency (while making sure you assign a healthy slab of money to a sales + marketing department, and set them “targets” to try and meet).

A traditional developer is an R&D (research and development) laboratory. They try to be as scientific as possible, whilst spending every day working with masses of unknowns (and several unknowables – what is “fun” anyway?). After working for an indefinite period of time (no way of telling how long it will take) they’re trying to create (or discover) something that has never been created before, and which satisfies various criteria – many of which cannot be measured until after the project is complete.

They absorb money like a dry sponge in a puddle, with very little to show for it. The things they need to be good at are:

  • Securing as large a pile of resources as they can, and spending it to the fullest
  • Trying crazy stuff that they can’t explain, and waiting to see what will happen
  • Sticking as close to the cutting edge as possible, and always investing in long-term improvements

Why do they have to secure a large pile of resources?

Because their success is limited only by two things: their resource, and their skill. That translates into three concrete things:

  • How good is their equipment? (”equipment” means EVERY TOOL they use to do their work – including lots of indirect things that you may not think of as “tools”)
  • How much reagants and raw materials do they have? (everything consumable … including “time” … that could contribute towards doing MORE experiments)
  • How good are their staff?

Those three things are, in turn, only limited by “money” and “the quality of the people they hire”.

Publishers hate this. No, that’s not strong enough; Publishers REVILE, DESPISE, RESENT and LOATHE Developers for always, ever, and only going after those two things. And … they don’t understand it.

Frankly, as a box-shifter, with “efficiency” your only concern, WHO GIVES A F*** HOW “GOOD” YOUR PEOPLE ARE?

But that’s not the worst. No, the worst is this: as a box-shifter, the only thing you can directly control is your costs. Everything in your business, from the structure, to the choice of staff, to the processes, is designed to reduce costs. And what does every R&D laboratory obsessively try to do? Yep – raise costs!

If you ask a Publisher to create, fund, nurture, and partner with a Developer, you are asking the staff to encourage, to aid and abet, the one thing that you are already telling them every day to hunt down and destroy. Capiche? Does anyone see a problem here?

Developers in the Wild: R&D for profit

Well, this is clearly insane – how could a Developer ever make a profit? The answer can be found most easily by looking to the one place in the world where R&D laboratories make more money than anywhere else: Silicon Valley.

In the Valley, the Technology guys have become Entrepreneurs (or found an Entrepreneur to work with), and they’ve gone out there and applied their intelligence to a new problem: “Given this thing I’ve created, which is novel and cool and awesome, how could I use it to drive a product that people would pay for, and which (because of my NEW tech) I can sell cheaper than what is available, or (because of my NEW tech) does something people have been trying to pay for but been unable to find a working solution for?”

Despite appearances otherwise, good Developers are very similar to Valley Technology Startups: it’s all about the monetization, the capitalization – what bridge are you going to build between “what you’ve created” and “someone who has money and a problem”, and HOW are you going to build that bridge?

“Sell the exclusive publishing rights” is one bridge. It can be built many ways.

“Create an infrastructure that lets us deliver this product to the public, and take money from them” is another bridge, with just as many potential schematics.

But then there are others too, many others. Just because those two are the ones that the game-playing public tends to talk about (and are the two that Publishers are most familiar with) doesn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – mean those are the only ones that exist. Ask Blitz (an independent developer) about their Advergames for Burger King (definitely not-a-game-publisher). But, in general, just like in the Valley, the “other” bridges are tricky to invent, and tend to make someone rich just once or twice once invented and done for the first time. There are always new bridges to invent, and if the Technology person’s main role is to invent new tech, the Entrepreneur’s main role is to invent new bridges. So don’t be surprised if you find it hard to think of some.

What happens when a Publisher catches a Developer, puts it in a cage, and ships it back home? Or, more specifically, what do they do to the people that are thinking up innovative new bridges for monetizing the Developer’s assets, and trying to implement them? I’ll give you a clue: if everyone you know believes the world is flat, and has never walked more than a few hundred miles, and one day you meet a person who claims to have walked around the circumference of the planet, would do you do?

Yep. These people tend to be first in the firing line when nerves start to fray and the tensions between Developer and Publisher flare up. They’re an easy target – they make no sense to the Publisher, and their very existence is an affront to their core business model, to their box-shifter mentality (it suggests that the box-shifter is doing a simpler business, something run by simpler, less imaginative, more stupid, people).

UPDATE: I’ve just written a followup looking at one of the possible future directions coming out of this

GDC08: Hottest Jobs at the Hottest Companies

Summary

Speakers: Karen Chelini, SCEA; Jason Pankow, Microsoft; Matthew Jeffrey, EA

I didn’t stay more than about half the session – my laptop battery ran out, so I couldn’t take any more notes. I’m writing this up really only because there was one key point that came up which illustrates something that CMP and their GameCareerGuide.com do often which hugely angers me, and I want to see changed. They not only spread a rumour that is blatantly not true, but I keep meeting undergraduates and students wanting to break in to the games industry who are in danger of having years of their lives wasted because of this misinformation.

Which is a real pity, because other than that I think GameCareerGuide.com is fantastic. I wouldn’t have written an article for them if I didn’t believe in them and in what they do (generally).
Continue reading “GDC08: Hottest Jobs at the Hottest Companies”

Creating a New Game-Development Studio

How do you create a new game studio from scratch?

The topic came up recently when someone asked me what I’d do if I had the responsibility to create a new dev studio – what would I do, how would I go about it, etc? I’ve founded a couple of small startups before (both as CTO and CEO), and worked as everything from a secretary to a CTO (Chief Technical Officer) at other people’s companies, so I have some idea of how to do this on a practical level.

I also used to co-run a very successful business-plan competition, where we gave away hundreds of thousands of pounds of startup capital every year. Many of the finalists became good friends of mine, and we continued to work with and help some of the companies for a good few years after they won or were finalists as part of our ongoing support programme.

So, here’s some initial thoughts. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, good or bad, but it’s something I’d like to work out better because I may well find myself trying to do it someday.

Continue reading “Creating a New Game-Development Studio”

Recruitment party photos

We didn’t quite get the sunny afternoon we were hoping for, but we did get some nice light

develop conference 2007

…so we had to move inside, but we still had a great turnout of peoplencsoft recruitment party 031

And it’s nice to have a games-industry recruitment event right on the beach, by the sea, for a change (instead of in the centre of a big city)

ncsoft recruitment party 035

NCsoft recruitment party – Thursday 26th July

NCsoft Europe, publisher of award winning online games such as City of Heroes and Guild Wars is searching for skilled individuals to join a growing internal development team. We offer competitive salaries, excellent benefits, a casual work environment and the seaside just 10 minutes walk from the office!

To coincide with the Develop Conference next week, NCsoft will be holding a joined recruitment party with Linden Lab. If you’d like to join us for an evening of food, drinks and the chance to chat to us about our current vacancies, then head over to this page for more details.

Please note: this is an industry only event, and numbers are strictly limited.

Now hiring … MMO developers in the UK

Senior Network Developer

“NCsoft is one of the world’s biggest online gaming companies, a major developer and publisher in Asia, America, and Europe. We need an expert in online games development – from low-level network programming to multithreaded server code.

This role is in our UK studio, in Brighton. The office is in the centre of this vibrant city, just a couple of minutes from the station and a five minute walk from the seafront.”

http://eu.plaync.com/eu/jobs/detail/senior_network_developer/

Junior Network Developer

NCsoft Europe – Brighton, UK

http://eu.plaync.com/eu/jobs/detail/junior_network_developer/

Gameplay Developer

NCsoft Europe – Brighton, UK

http://eu.plaync.com/eu/jobs/detail/gameplay_developer/