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Pyrogon Postmortem
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 12:57 am    Post subject: Pyrogon Postmortem Reply with quote

This isn't for "wide viewing" yet, if any forum regulars care to give feedback before I make this a frontpage news item, I would appreciate it.

http://www.bookofhook.com/Article/GameDevelopment/APyrogonPostmortem.html
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Gus_Smedstad



Joined: 17 Dec 2003
Posts: 590
Location: Boston area, MA

PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 8:33 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting stuff. When I was thinking about doing this (I can't say I actually did it, it's more like I goofed off for 9 months), it was pretty clear to me that accepting money from a publisher was the kiss of death, because the terms were as bad as you outlined. So I kept thinking in terms of titles I could do on my own.

I'm going to dispute your hypothesis that the sweet spot is when you're 20-something, single, and have low expenses. When I was in that position, I had no savings at all, and my salary was barely covering my expenses. I didn't start setting aside serious money until I'd climbed the corporate ladder for a while, and had a wife with a professional-level second income.

Yeah, my current personal burn rate is now about 2.5x what is was when I was 28, but our household income is now 5x my single income then. Then, I saved nothing, and had no discretionary income for anything except the occasional game. It all went to rent and food. Now, we pretty much live off my wife's income, and my salary gets saved. All of it.

Thus, in your hypothesized "sweet spot," I would have gone into debt almost immediately if I had gone on my own. Now, I have literally 10 years of expenses in the bank, or 15 if I moved someplace where houses run $150-$200K instead of $550-$600K.

You're absolutely right about consulting contracts not being a way to keep a development company afloat. From '93-'95 I worked for Orca Software (now PowerVista), which was a small database programming tools company in Colorado. In theory, we were working on a commercial library for developing database applications. In practice, we were earning money by consulting, and never had any time left over for actual development.

- Gus
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 8:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Gus_Smedstad wrote:
I'm going to dispute your hypothesis that the sweet spot is when you're 20-something, single, and have low expenses.


That's fine, except historical evidence tends to contradict you =) Every major game development house that I'm aware of today was started by people in their early 20s, working either in college, part-time or out of their parent's garage. I can't think of one today that was formed by 30-something head of households, although I'm sure there are a couple.

Quote:
When I was in that position, I had no savings at all, and my salary was barely covering my expenses.


I guess I was expecting the reader to infer that you'd have to have a part-time job to cover expenses while working on stuff. I didn't mean to imply that you'd go off and be unemployed for a year while starting the game company.
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 3:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
So I kept thinking in terms of titles I could do on my own.


So what's the deal, are you going to try to do some small stuff on the side right now while you can? I don't see why you couldnl't unless you're working mad stupid hours right now.
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Gus_Smedstad



Joined: 17 Dec 2003
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 3:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nah, I'm spending all my free time playing games. For about three months I was playing Magic online, and toward the end I was shelling out $50 or so a week for digital cards. Or maybe $70. I don't know, it's all lost in a haze of game addiction.

Then I quit cold turkey, even though I've got about $100 of unopened "product" online. I realized I really hated playing Constructed because it was dominated by just two decks, and that made me realize that the "collection" of cards I had was of no real value to me personally. I examined how much I could resell my collection for in order to fund my Drafting habit, and I realized the $500 or more I'd spent on packs of cards was worth maybe $100, tops, on the secondary market, and only if I put some work into filling out complete sets. It finally sunk home that I was just flushing money away on something that really wasn't that much more fun than the average computer game.

On instructive thing I got out of it was that Magic, which I've always idealized from afar, isn't as good a game as I thought it was. It's too random. I don't mean the fact it's a card game, I mean that in the abstract, you're playing against someone who can have almost anything in their hand. Thus you can't really make informed decisions, except based on what you have in your own hand.

In practice, this is offset a bit by the fact that in a highly competitive environment like Magic Online, most players end up using some variation on the few really strong decks out there. Thus, when you see Skirk Prospector on turn 1, you know the entire composition of your opponent's deck.

That only comes with lots and lots of experience, though. For players of low to medium experience, it still feels essentially random. The card interactions and distinct flavors of the various colors still interest me, but I'm now a bit less inclined to draw on Magic when thinking about game design.

For a while I was really enjoying Railroad Tycoon 3, and that does move me to want to make a space trading game in the same vein. I haven't done more than think about it, though. When I'm home I'm pretty driven to get my fun quotient up, because work isn't doing that for me right now.

Right now I'm playing Chrono Cross. It's not really holding my attention, but I'm definitely going to finish it.

Besides playing games, my creative energy goes into writing long-winded posts on message boards on things like currency or starship tactical combat.

- Gus
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 3:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

How is RRT3?
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Gus_Smedstad



Joined: 17 Dec 2003
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 4:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

RRT3 is really quite good. As much as I liked the original Railroad Tycoon, the game had some serious design flaws. The most obvious one was that running Passengers and Mail was so much better than anything else that your best strategy was to build one long, unbranching line and ship passengers / mail as far away from their destination as you could manage. A less obvious one was that many goods, such as Livestock, were present only in very low densities, and hence it was never worth shipping them, regardless of how much a single load was worth.

RRT2 didn't fix this. RRT2 was really just a lot of cosmetic changes to RRT, with some important features like Signal Towers removed. Thus I was surprised when Phil really did fix these problems in RRT3. From my impression of him up until this point, I'd rather expected another simple graphics update.

RRT3 does two important things. First, passengers and mail have definite destinations. Thus there's a definite upper limit to the income you can get from them, and shipping them willy-nilly to your farthest station doesn't work. In fact, in most scenarios, freight is the majority of your income, not mail and passengers.

Second, the price model for everything except mail and passengers has changed. Before, it was calculated based on distance and time, which really didn't make a lot of sense for freight. Now it's driven by supply and demand, and every cargo has a "local price" that varies for every square on the map. A large supply of a cargo depresses the price locally, with the effect falling off with distance from the supply. A high demand does the opposite, so price is high where the cargo is in demand, and this demand falls off with distance.

Even though you're not really "trading", the income you receive from shipping works as if you were, because it's the income is the difference between local prices. You can't ship something even if you want to if the destination price is equal to or lower than the source price.

Left on their own, goods move slowly from low-price areas to high-price ones. This means that things like Grain, which would otherwise be totally unused, migrate to your stations where you can pick them up and ship them. You end up shipping almost everything in the game, except for some goods which are relatively hard to manufacture, like Automobiles.

The game does have some flaws. The competition is very weak, so most of the time you're competing against the map and the victory conditions, rather than AI players. That doesn't mean it's easy, it just means other railroads are minor concerns. The original RRT had had pretty good random map code, so even though you had only 4 maps, replaying a map was different every time. RRT3 maps really don't vary from game to game, so when you've played all the maps, you're done. Finally, the signal towers are sorely missed, because running more than 1 or 2 trains in a given stretch of track can result in nasty traffic jams.

Overall, I highly recommend it.

- Gus
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 4:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sounds promising, I've just ordered it.

I haven't played any more Anachronox, it hasn't hit me with the "why should I give a shit?" story point yet, so it's tough for me to get into. I'm still looking for a size 5 helmet...

I've also been side tracked by working on Doris and also with fishing (I really dig fishing and it's spring time here), so I'm spending way more time shopping for tackle than I should be =)

Allergies have also been kicking my ass -- Atlanta is supposedly the worst part of the country right now for tree pollen right now, joy.
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NPStan



Joined: 12 Apr 2004
Posts: 54

PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 6:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow.

I find this article super interesting because I too would love jump out of my corporate salary and into a self-directed project. For me, making games is the far end of the spectrum contained by ?self-directed projects?, it is much more likely to be a specialized niche project based on both industry knowledge and inside contacts.

But even within that context, your experiences ring true. How much time do you want to spend raising money? How do you even develop the killer demo/pitch when you haven?t really got a stable income flow? How much control do you have once you do get funding? Who owns the IP created?

Personal financial burn rate is a factor, but so is personal time. Having a family (and young kids) means you just *don?t* work the kind of hours you could at 20. I spent this last weekend conducting a go-live for a relatively small system conversion. Thank god my mother-in-law came for a visit. My ?4 hours? on Saturday and Sunday turned into 27 hours between Friday and Sunday night. Cool

Your really don?t discuss the partnership, did that work? Would a larger group (say, 4 principals) have been better? Did you get stuck on the puzzle game business because it fit a 2-person shop better then a larger development effort?

Quote:
Our original idea was that erstwhile coworkers would hopefully approach us to start a game company once we received funding, and that we could then leverage our particular successes (I worked on the successful Quake 2 and Quake 3 franchises; Rosie was the art director on Everquest) into a contract with a major publisher to develop a title of some kind.


Why would coworkers approach you after you got funding? Or do you mean you would get funding for a project, then go find the right people to make it happen?

It seems to me you are down playing your connections within the industry. From an outsider?s perspective, you are well known and well connected through your ?particular successes?. Smile

Quite a good read.

NPStan
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 21, 2004 6:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

NPStan wrote:
Personal financial burn rate is a factor, but so is personal time. Having a family (and young kids) means you just *don?t* work the kind of hours you could at 20. I spent this last weekend conducting a go-live for a relatively small system conversion. Thank god my mother-in-law came for a visit. My ?4 hours? on Saturday and Sunday turned into 27 hours between Friday and Sunday night. Cool


Absolutely. I find the same thing with my own mother-in-law -- when she comes to visit for a week, it means I can spend a lot more time working. Strange to look forward to having the mother in law visit =)

Quote:
Your really don?t discuss the partnership, did that work?


Yes. I didn't discuss it mostly because anything to discuss would have been a lot more personal and, in the end, not really relevant to the company's success. We had a very good working relationship.

Quote:
Would a larger group (say, 4 principals) have been better? Did you get stuck on the puzzle game business because it fit a 2-person shop better then a larger development effort?


Larger group probably wouldn't have been better, unless they were financially self-sufficient and provided for gaps that we couldn't fill well -- specifically, a brilliant designer and a good "jack of all trades" person to handle mundane business stuff.

The puzzle games were simply too profitable for us to ignore.

Quote:
Why would coworkers approach you after you got funding?


Because until then, they wouldn't bother -- we were the risk takers and trail blazers and anyone coming afterwards were going to require funding before they committed to coming board.

Quote:
It seems to me you are down playing your connections within the industry. From an outsider?s perspective, you are well known and well connected through your ?particular successes?. Smile


I'm not playing them down, basically they were irrelevant. Just because people have heard of me doesn't mean they care. Maybe it got my foot in the door, but in the end the days of "Give someone a zillion dollars because we've heard of him" ended with the Ion Storm Dallas fiasco.
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Samurai



Joined: 23 Apr 2004
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Location: Canada

PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2004 7:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I've just read the postmortem thanks to Scott Miller's plug. I'm sure that'll drive readership up a bit :)

I'm the head of a game developer-cum-outsourcing studio in Canada in a position that makes this article highly relevant to me and more than a little frightening. This job feels, at times, like running at breakneck speed across a tightrope with no end in sight, and I would very much appreciate any advice I can get that would keep me from the fall. I'll describe where we're at:

We make our living at selling our artistic prowess to larger studios and publishers making a meagre wage while also working on "publishable first playables" in the background. Yes, contract work just absolutely devours your time, though we did manage to work on both without sacrificing any professional responsibility (everything done on time, on spec, and at the finest grade of quality we can produce... despite the low pay).

What allows us to do this is our very low burn rate, the zeal for the product, and the fact that we're all in our early 20s (late teens in a couple of cases) and have no dependants. Apart from one of our guys, we actually don't have any personal bills or debts to pay off either. We love games, we love making them, and we are willing to work cheap to do it (within reason).

The company owns a house that we all live and work in. It's spacious, comfortable, and well maintained. It's situated in the town of Powell River, British Columbia, a town that I would describe as a wilderness paradise. We go fishing, hiking, canoeing, swimming, 4x4ing, hunting, and mountain biking whenever the idea strikes us - so despite our modest income, we still manage to have some good, clean fun.

The company provides room and board to employees, so when we hit a dry spell and can't provide work, they still get a roof over their head and food in their bellies. Since contract work is feast-or-famine, we work on our PFPs during the famines (which are usually short) and divide our time and manpower between paying work and non-paying work during the feasts.

My brother and I are the sole owners of the company and we have nobody else with their fingers in the pie. No investors (though we get plenty coming around looking for something for nothing), no publishers, nothing. We're financially solvent, we own our jobs, and we're having fun making games we believe in.

All of these things together make us lean and efficient with a good economy of employee morale to spend during our less stable times. It's working out really well so far, but we haven't been doing it long enough to have come into contact with publishers and serious negotiations. Everything seems to be running smoothly, but after reading what you had to say, I can't help but feel the shadow of the sword of damocles swinging over my head.

I mean no affront when I say "I don't want to end up like you did". If you have any cautionary messages to give me, or if you know of any pitfalls I should avoid, or if you have the experience to tell us what to make with our gains, then I would dearly love to hear it. You can see our portfolio at www.coronaleonis.com
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2004 9:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Samurai,

I don't understand the problem, it sounds like you're living the perfect life. You've got reasonably stable income, a stable situation, you're not killing yourself with work, etc.

If I had to critically analyze your situation based on the information you've given, here are the concerns that I would have:

  • Contract work will end up consuming most of your time. You may find that it's very hard to work on your internal projects without sacrificing income, which means that you end up as a contracting house. Nothing wrong with that, but a lot of people
  • It sounds like you're working for too cheap. Who are you contracting to? Mainstream publishers, developers, other independent companies?
  • With your team's overall inexperience, it's going to be very hard to get significant publisher interest. Top tier publishers are looking for proven teams, because most of them have shifted to working on a few key, well funded titles.
  • What type of game are you looking to do? You might want to consider working on mods instead of shipping a first playable. Mods can show off design, art and programming skill in a more structured fashion, and far more quickly, than developing everything internally.
  • Do you have console experience? If not, that will work against you as well.


I couldn't find any screenshots on Eon, so I can't comment on that (didn't have the energy to download the demo, sorry Confused )

Anyway, overall it sounds like you're in a somewhat stable position, but getting out of your current situation and migrating to "the next level" is going to be tricky as hell, and that is where most companies stumble.
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Samurai



Joined: 23 Apr 2004
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2004 6:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yeah, we're doing great... for now. My lack of experience is making me uneasy about what lies ahead. Moving from art-house to full on developer sounds like the big hurdle.

Actually, we're going to build a limited first playable and release it like a mod - kind of like a weird throwback to the shareware days. Yes, sorry, apart from the characters, there isn't much done in that demo. Screenshots would be character shots (in fact, the big orange guy in the portfolio is one of Eon's lead characters). It was just up as a bit of a moving gallery and hopefully something of a moving business card for any prospective clients. The next build will actually be worth playing.

Quote:
It sounds like you're working for too cheap. Who are you contracting to? Mainstream publishers, developers, other independent companies?


All of the above. Wherever we can be of service. Our volume capacity limits us to specialist jobs like heros and main characters, which is beautiful anyway since that's where our specialty lies anyway.

Quote:
Do you have console experience? If not, that will work against you as well.


Not as such. It's kind of like that summer job situation: "Need experience? How can I get experience if I can't get the job?"

Quote:
Anyway, overall it sounds like you're in a somewhat stable position, but getting out of your current situation and migrating to "the next level" is going to be tricky as hell, and that is where most companies stumble.


It's good to hear that we're good for now. I don't know when we're planning to make the jump up the ladder, but I hope we're ready for it. Thanks for the checkup... we're still vital enough not to need the post-mortem treatment.
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brianhook
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2004 7:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
My lack of experience is making me uneasy about what lies ahead.


Acknowledging your lack of experience is a good sign. It prevents overconfidence.

Quote:
Actually, we're going to build a limited first playable and release it like a mod


Why not just do a mod? Most of the work is done, and it sounds like you could show off your core competency a lot more easily that way.

Quote:
It's kind of like that summer job situation: "Need experience? How can I get experience if I can't get the job?"


Agreed, but you could maybe do some stuff pro bono for companies that are doing freeware Linux PS2 stuff, etc. Or, more likely, leverage an existing contract for a PC title into work on a console port of that title.

Quote:
It's good to hear that we're good for now.


There's a real tough balance between complacency and stability; just like there is between growth and overexpansion. It's tough to measure whether sticking to what you're doing well is the right thing or if you should expand a bit.

I would suggest the mod as a good next step. Seriously.
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Samurai



Joined: 23 Apr 2004
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Location: Canada

PostPosted: Fri Apr 23, 2004 7:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alright then. Mod it is.
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