Too Big Idea

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Sep 26, 2006

Filed under: Video Games 3 comments

One thing about the Big Idea expansion and collapse I mentioned Sunday is a pattern I’ve seen repeated many times in the videogame industry: A company will become a great success, and then begin expanding, only to find that the new divisions of the company don’t perform as well as the original. Instead of making money they begin to siphon cash away from the profitable areas of the company. This results not just in lost money, but in a dilution of the company name and a loss of focus. At the start they had one great product that made tons of money, and in the end they have one mediocre product, a dozen terrible and unfinished ones, a lot of debt, and an irate fanbase. This isn’t exactly what happened to Big Idea, but there are some interesting paralells.

id software
id software is one company the resisted the siren call of expansion. When DOOM became a runaway hit in 1993 – 1994, they had the cash and clout to build an empire. Instead, they bought Ferraris. This probably seemed short-sighted to some: Why not put that cash back into the company and build on that success? Everyone just assumes that This Is What You Do. You grow! Get big! Hire an army! I don’t know their reasons, but I think their move – while perhaps personally frivolous – was very wise from a business standpoint. id software is still a small studio that works on just one game at a time. Despite their size, they have a lot of influence on the gaming industry. They are one of the 800 pound gorillas of PC gaming, even though their employee roster is probably smaller than the number of janitors employed by Electronic Arts.

The team at id didn’t give up game development to run a huge corporation. They just made the kinds of games they wanted to play and did so with total freedom. They never had to worry that the publisher would force them to ship before a game was ready. They would never have to beg for an advance to fund the next game, or worry about “selling” their idea to an investor. They could design a game, work on it, and release it when they were good and ready. An outsider would see this as wasted potential, but it let the id team do a job they loved on their own terms. I can’t think of a better way to define success.

The difference here is that creative companies don’t scale up the way other sorts of businesses do. If I design a fabulous new widget, I can build more factories to make more widgets, but if I have a group of people who generate great music / games / movies, I can’t clone those people. If I want to increase our output, I have to hire a bunch of new people. Will those new people have the same passion and talent as the ones that launched the company? Probably not. At least, I don’t have any better chances than anyone else at hiring another dream team. When making widgets, expansion fuels more success, but in a creative company each expansion is a fresh spin of the business roulette wheel. Maybe it will pay off again, but most likely it won’t, and the loss will eat into my past success instead of adding to it.

I think this was a big part of what went wrong at Big Idea. They could have stuck to their pattern of 2 new titles a year. They could have kept that going almost forever, since there was no way they could lose money at it. Like id software, they were small and nimble, and the cash was rolling in. But unlike id, they tried to become an empire, and the result killed them. (The scumball lawsuit from HiT entertainment didn’t do them any favors, either, but if they had been healthy it would have been a mugging and not a coup de grà¢ce.)

Phil Vischer admitted as much in his blog, and I admire him for it. When was the last time you saw the president of a company emerge from the wreckage and say, “Sorry about that. All my fault.” I never heard that sort of thing from leaders of other companies, many of whom crashed more spectacularly than Big Idea.

And let me close with this thought: The guys at Big Idea, like the guys who started id software, are wonderfully creative and talented. If you’re at all curious about Veggie Tales and want to see it for yourself, I highly reccomend A Snoodle’s Tale. I think this is the team at their best. It’s short, it’s cheap (the low price at Amazon right now is under six bucks!) and has a beautiful message with universal appeal. It also focuses more on values and less on God (who is allegorical in this story) so it should work well even for viewers coming from different faiths.

A Snoodle’s Tale is the second time Big Idea has cribbed from the Dr. Suess playbook, and while the last time they did Suess was entertaining, this time around they managed to come up with something really special. In many ways it exceeds Suess in both poetry and charm, and I actually found the message to be quite moving and powerful. Even if you’re an adult, try dropping it into your Netflix queue – it really is worth a look.


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3 thoughts on “Too Big Idea

  1. BeckoningChasm says:

    It’s funny, but as soon as I read the part on his blog about how he had to have a “big ass vision” (or whatever the term) I thought, Big mistake.

    The collapse seemed to come about not because they didn’t have talented people, but because they changed their focus from what they did to what they thought they might be able to do.

  2. Shamus says:

    Yes. And I could see making the same mistake. The show was a huge hit, money was pouring in, the dot-com rush was proving that even dumb ideas were worth millions, and many smart and talented people were telling Vischer to Go For It. He’s about 10 years older than me, which means when this was going on he was about my age.

    Good grief. I would probably have done the same things he did. The same things.

  3. Tommy B. says:

    All I said to my self in the end of that read was: “What I could have done for GOD and his childredn with ALL that money”. “KISS” “Keep it simple stupid”.
    Lastly, you NEED to always surround yourself with a like minded staff that are equally yolked and contract in writing. Period.

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