Good news everyone! Last week I took yet another swipe at the big publishers, arguing that their attempts to raise prices via lootbox shenanigans were damaging and self-defeating. Also I said that if they wanted to increase revenue, they were looking at the wrong part of their business. In response, John Videogames, the worldwide President of Videogames, called me up and said he liked my blog. As a reward for posting smart things on the internet, he said I could run my own set of development studios. I even get a bunch of stock or shares or whatever it’s called when you own part of something.
Now, most of you know me as a nice guy who isn’t really interested in money except as a tool to fend off starvation. I don’t push merch. The vast majority of my work is given away for free. I’m very low-pressure when it comes to promoting my Patreon page. So you probably think I’m going to run this company like a bleeding-heart hippie. Maybe you’re expecting me to have some kind of “artists first!” crap. Maybe you’re hoping I’ll run it like a nonprofit and only charge enough money to pay the expenses. Six hour workdays. Free fair-trade coffee and organic vegan energy bars for everyone! Five months of paid vacation! Paid maternity leave if you adopt a puppy from a shelter! On-site grief counseling for players exploring Blighttown for the first time! Footrub Fridays, where I personally massage the feet of our proud workforce!
But screw that.
All I care about now is money. I want to make as much money as possible, for as long as possible. I no longer have any use for artistic integrity and I don’t particularly care if people like me, as long as the dollars keep rolling in.
I figure I’ve got an edge in this game. Andrew Wilson, Bobby Kotick, and the Guillemot Collective are all business types who don’t have a background in programming, game production, game design, or criticism. While none of them are willing to hang out with me yet, I’ve kind of pegged them as the typical golf-playing executive types who only understand technology as translated by terrified underlings. Phil Spencer understands technology, but he’s worked at Microsoft for most of his life and those guys can’t tell the difference between interface design and weapons manufacturing. I don’t think any of them actually understand their customer base, so it should be pretty easy for me to stroll in and eat their lunch.
So here’s my plan to get filthy rich as a gaming executive…
No More “Temp” Hiring
The lynchpin of my get-even-more-rich scheme is to make popular videogames. Diablo, Grand Theft Auto V, Portal 2, Minecraft, The Sims, Skyrim, and almost everything Blizzard has made in the last two decades are all notable because of how they dominated the sales charts for multiple years. You can’t do that if you make bland derivative titles that are visually indistinguishable from the competition. If you want to make great games, you need to hire talented people.
The rumors are that some AAA studios keep a majority of their workforce in “temporary” status. As a contractor you don’t get paid sick leave or vacation. When your temp contract ends they sign you for another “temporary” position with the promise that maybe “next time” they’ll hire you as a full employee.
I’ve worked with other programmers and artists before. If you went to business school then you probably just think of programmers as interchangeable overweight nerds and artists as interchangeable underweight nerds. But I know from experience that the good ones are many times better than the average ones, and the worst ones can even have negative value.
When you create a shitty workspace, an interesting thing happens. The people who are most able to leave, do so. Those are the people with impressive resumes and they get jobs someplace else. The only ones that stick around are the ones that can’t get another job. Nice going, idiot. You’ve created a filter that gets rid of the talent and keeps the losers and inexperienced kids fresh out of game collegeSure, sometimes genuinely talented folks stick around due to a hilariously exploitable sense of loyalty, but you can’t build an entire studio out of those sorts of people.. The more skilled someone gets, the easier it is for them to leave. Which means you’re effectively paying to train the workforce for your competition.
The beautiful thing is that even if an employee is three times more talented and efficient than the average, you don’t have to pay them three times as much. Heck, just pay them 10% or 20% above industry average and they’re all yours! They’ll even thank you for it! The rubes.
So that’s what I’m going to do. EA can pay to break in the youngbloods when they’re green and then I’ll skim the best ones and pay them enough that they’ll want to stick around.
No More Perma-Crunch
There’s been some research that suggests that working longer hours leads to sharply diminishing returns. Those studies line up with my personal experience. Now, I normally wouldn’t care about this. I don’t really care about people anymore, so if I have to hold you hostage in the office for an extra ten hours to get one more hour of productivity out of you, then that works for me. It’s still an hour of work I didn’t have to pay extra for.
The problem is that we’re working in a creative field, and a creative field needs creative people. We’re not making shoes here. You can’t just stick a hundred people in a sweatshop and expect them to remain enthusiastic, creative, loyal, and friendly. Tired people don’t do their best creative work. So even though I’m a soulless, amoral tyrant, I’m still outlawing perma-crunch, simply because it hinders my ability to make popular games, which hinders my ability to acquire lots of money.
Tired people are also more likely to squabble and create office drama, and I don’t need crap like that distracting me when I’m sitting in the corner office supervising my way through a midday nap. Also, office infighting is just another thing that might make some of my talented people leave for the competition.
Also, if we crunch all the time then we can’t modulate our speed. If it looks like we’re going to overshoot our ship date by a few weeks, we can just go into crunch mode at the endTemporary crunch doesn’t seem to have the same extreme drop-off in productivity that long-term crunch does.. If we’re already crunching, then we’re screwed.
The suckers at the other companies think you can just ship a half-baked game. Well, technically you can. But it turns out consumers are not goldfish and they remember shit like that. Bad reviews don’t just hurt the sales of this game, they also hurt the franchise as a whole and even the publisher. Sure, release it prematurely and you’ll get some money now. But it’ll hurt the sales of the next game, even if that one is good. And like I said, I want to keep making money. So we need to ship quality, polished games.
Disney doesn’t just get halfway done with a movie and then dump it in theaters because “The director promised the movie would be done by now”. They pay extra to finish it or they scrap the project, but they don’t release unfinished garbage that will tarnish their reputation. They know that quality matters, which is how they made enough money to buy both Star Wars and Marvel. Once people associate your logo with quality, marketing becomes way easier. And since these days it’s not uncommon to spend almost as much marketing a game as we spent making the dang thing, anything that makes marketing easier should benefit our bottom line.
The Release Schedule Should Fit the Game
By all means, let’s sell those sports games every year. I don’t know why sports fans are willing to give us $60 for a roster update, but if it works for them then it works for me. And yeah, multiplayer shooters seem to need regular installments to keep the playerbase from getting bored and jumping to the competition. But roleplaying games are not sports games. Strategy games are not roleplaying games. Simulation games are (mostly) not strategy games. Strategy games are not multiplayer shooters.
At my studio, we understand genres are different and require different development techniques. My dum-dum rivals think everything needs to be yearly or biennial. So they throw tons of manpower at the problem, trying to pump out games faster.
But you just can’t force out a detailed, story-rich roleplaying game like that. You need to write the story. Create the characters. Do the concept sketches. Settle on a design. Build the models. Animate them. Hire the voice talent. Record the lines. Do the lip sync for the cutscenes. That’s just one pipeline of many, and those things need to be done in that specific order. This prevents you from doing a lot of work in parallel.
Sure, you can get it all done if you push, but that doesn’t leave any room in the schedule of experimentation, deliberation, testing, and polish. Listen to an interview with a developer from Blizzard or the developer commentary in a Valve game and think about all the iterations their designs went through. Just imagine how much worse the game would be if shceduling pressure had forced them to always go with their first idea. It’s like a writer never going back to edit a previous sentence, even if they blatantly misspelled “scheduling”.
The other guys think that if 50 people can make a game in two years, then 100 people can make a game in one year. But throwing bodies at the problem creates a lot of inefficiencies and friction. The larger your team, the more time is spent trying to keep everyone organized and on the same page. Meetings are longer and the logistics of assembling the game become more complex. It’s hard for a large team of artists to all nail a particular stylistic look, which is probably why so many large studios give up and aim for photorealism. We want our game to feel like it was made by a focused team of dedicated professionals, not a warehouse full of transient strangers.
Also, with a larger team it’s harder to stack your ranks with the best talent. The work of the top five best available character artists is probably going to be more impressive than the work of the top 30 best character artists.
Note that I’m not suggesting we spend more on our games. I mean, obviously. I’m thinking of buying a supercar and I don’t want expanding game budgets to eat into my juicy salary. I’m not running a charity operation here and I expect the devs to earn their keep. I’m just saying we should spend it more slowly to get the most out of it.
Some fandoms don’t want a game every year. People weren’t asking for a Skyrim sequel in 2012, because they were still playing Skyrim. Pumping out sequels every one or two years makes them feel less special. Leave some room in the schedule for the audience to get hungry again. If they’re eager for the next installment then their enthusiasm will drive traffic, which will bend the news mills to our will and allow us to harness that curiosity for free marketing. They’ll post every “leaked” screenshot, every trailer, every developer interview, and every promotional image we put out. They’ll speculate, make memes, pester us for more news, and generate social media buzz.
None of that can happen if the public reaction is, “Yeah. I guess it’s about time for the next one of these.”
We Want Money From EVERYONE
As part of our longer development times, we’re going to make sure we get money from a lot more people. My rival idiots just want to sell games for $60. But I know that genre boundaries are porous. I don’t get into military shooters these days, but I’ll pick one up for $40. I’m not into driving games, but I’ll spend a few hours with one if it’s just $30. I’m not into fighting games, but I’d pick one up for $20 and button-mash my way through the single-player content for laughs.
If we spend three years making each entry in the Sword Guy series, then that gives us three years to mess around with prices and pick up some sales with all those people who aren’t really into swords but are willing to give it a try. Or with the people who just don’t have a lot of disposable income. We’re not too good to accept money from poor people. Maybe a few of those people who picked the game up for $30 will discover they like swords and dialog trees after all. Maybe they’ll show up to buy the next Sword Guy for full price.
The model is simple, really. When the game stops selling, drop the price. When it stops selling again, drop the price again. Keep going until you have money from everyone. The other guys worry that if you make a habit of dropping prices then consumers will respond by waiting for the price drop. This is like never putting a movie out on Blu-ray because you’re afraid people will stop going to the theaters. It shows you don’t understand either market.
People who love a game will want to buy it at launch – particularly if they’ve been anticipating the game for a long time. Gaming culture is built around these flash-in-the-pan micro-cultures that arise when a game hits the shelves and then gradually dissipate over the following weeks. The press talks about it. YouTubers review it. People stream it. People make memes of it. The Reddit for the game is busy. Fans want to be a part of the initial release. They have lots of incentives to pay that $60 for games they love.
Case in point: I do it all the time. Yeah, I could save $20 by waiting half a year, but I want the game now while it’s relevant! (And before the spoilers are so common they’re unavoidable.)
Let Studios Specialize
Here at Shamus Studios, we understand that genres exist for a reason. Different people like different stuff, and different studios are equipped to build different kinds of games. I’m not the sort of idiot who’s going to walk into the RPG wing and ask them to make me a shooter because shooters sold well this year. This is doubly true for entering crowded markets. (Like shooters.) I know RPG fans won’t really appreciate the shooter stuff, the RPG developers aren’t likely to make a good shooter on their first try, and shooter fans probably won’t buy it anyway because they already have shooter franchises they’re into.
Just like artists aren’t interchangeable, neither are studios. A particular studio is going to attract like-minded creatives who like their work and want to participate in making it. Having them make something else doesn’t just push them out of their personal comfort zone, but out of their area of expertise. All those years they spent crafting balanced leveling mechanics and interesting character choices will be useless when their job is to make sure the shooting looks and feels fast and fluid. None of their experience will help them with first-person cutscene design, hitboxes, blending reload animations, or weapon feedback. Their knowledge of medieval combat and mythical creatures won’t help them nail all the fine details like military uniforms, jargon, protocol, and culture.
If a particular genre fades in popularity, we just reduce the budget of the studios that serve that genre. That way we’re still serving that market, and we have people in place if trends come around again and demand increases. As long as it makes money and turns out a respectable product, they stay in business. I don’t just want to exploit the big genres, I want the small ones too! I want everyone’s money!
If You Want To Make a Movie, Make a Good One
This is a business, and I’m not here to fund your attempts to turn your garbage fanfiction into a Hollywood movie. If you start asking for access to a performance capture studio, budget for dozens of voice actors, and you want to make a game packed with cinematics, then you’d better show up in my office with a dynamite script. I don’t just mean “The main character is really cool” or “It’s a lot like my favorite movie”. I mean you’d better be able to explain what the central theme is. What’s the message? What are the character arcs? What are the artistic influences? What’s the tone? Do you have a proper story structure, or is this just a bunch of shit that happens?
I’m going to make you read some of your dialog to me out loud, so be ready for that. Also I expect your scenes to always be accomplishing multiple things at any given time: Exposition, characterization, plot advancement, foreshadowing, jokes, setups, and payoffs. If a scene isn’t doing at least two of those at all times then you’re doing something worse than just wasting the player’s time: You’re wasting my money.
I know some studios make these terrible stories just so that have something to make trailers out of. Given that marketing is already stupidly expensive, I see no business reason to make an entire (probably terrible) movie just to help market the game. If we need a trailer then just make a trailer. Better yet, outsource it to a company that knows what they’re doing. That way we can keep our teams small and focused on our core talents.
Maybe you’ve got some Naughty Dog level of story you want to tell, but odds are you’re vastly overestimating your skills as a screenwriter. Bring your A-game. Movies aren’t cheap to make and I’m not going to pay for them if they aren’t going to earn me back my money.
Don’t Pay for More Graphics Than You Need
Have you seen Minecraft? It’s worth a billion dollars and it looks like the graphics cost about ten bucks. World of Warcraft made even more money than Minecraft, and it spent most of its lifespan looking “out of date” in terms of graphical fidelity. And don’t get me started on how much money that little bastard Mario makes for Nintendo every year.
I’m not saying graphics aren’t important. I’m just saying you need to think about how much realism you need in your game. Realistic scenery means we need realistic human figures. Realistic human figures need complex character models, many texture layers, and lots of shader complexity, which means more optimization work for our programmers. Realistic human figures also need complex blended animations. They need clothes that bend, fold, and respond to physics. They need motion capture, facial animations, and lip sync. And all of those systems need to work just right or the whole thing will fall into the uncanny valley and all that expensive art will go to waste.
For an example of what I don’t want to see:
Like Kotaku said, “You might not even have noticed the way Dodger touched that door, but for Visceral, that simple animation was months in the making.”
That. Exactly that. Never do that. Don’t waste “months” fussing with bullshit the player might not even notice. Oh sure, someone out there needs to do that kind of work to push the medium forward. Fine. Let them do it. They can turn it into middleware and we’ll license it. But “months” of work means a fortune in terms of development costs, and this is not the kind of feature players are hungry for. That’s nice as an extra. A bonus. A cool little surprise to add for the player once everything else is working great. But crap like this is why the other publishers think single-player is “dead” because you can’t charge players by the minute. You can’t make money on single-player games if you spend months on stuff like thatAnd it’s useless in multiplayer..
Meanwhile, if you’re willing to step away from photorealism you can cut corners on all that stuff. You can treat stairs like a ramp instead of mo-mapping special animations for ascending and descending steps. Have doors pop open without connecting animations from the character. Pull weapons out of hammerspace! Use the same animations for characters of different sizes! Automated lip-sync instead of hand-crafted! Light and render a character without involving six texture maps and half a dozen shaders! Have multiple weapons share the same animations! It’s amazing what you can get away with when your characters are even a little cartoonish or stylized.
Before you swagger into my office with a design doc to make the next “ultra immersive” game of photorealistic graphics, ask yourself if any other design styles might suit it better. Something whimsical like Nintendo? Pulp-esque like Borderlands? Storybook like WoW? Maybe something in victorian gothic or Burton-esque? You’ve got good artists. See what they can do.
Get Rid of The Assholes
I know how much of a killjoy it is to have bullies, jerks, creeps, and pranksters in your ranks. This problem becomes very easy to solve if you’re not dealing with the chaos of constant turnover and your ranks are filled with good people.
“Oh, we can’t get rid of Alan. I know he’s a massive asshole that made Barbara cry and caused Chuck to quit, but Alan is a really good animator!”
So? All of our animators are really good. We’re not picking people out of the dumpster here. Get rid of him. His good output can’t possibly offset the reduced output of all the people he annoys.
And be sure to give him a stellar recommendation. I want that insufferable jackass working for our competition as soon as possible!
Don’t Waste Our Money on DRM
We have more important things to worry about than playing tag with the game crackers. Once we have a big pile of money I might launch our own digital platform to escape the Steam tax on the PC. And maybe to promote the platform I’ll make sure our gradual game discount policy always happens on our platform before we lower the price on Steam. We’ll win either way. People willing to sign up will join our userbase and get a nice discount, and those that stick to Steam out of habit will pay a little more for our games. (Or wait a little longer.)
All we need is a lightweight client. It should start up fast, keep a small memory footprint, and not mess around with the user’s machine. Make the API map neatly with Steamworks so that developers can easily set up dumb crap like achievements without duplicating work. We don’t need to clog the system up with DRM or any of that nonsense. We just want to escape the 30% Steam tax, and if that means people can “rip” our games by simply copying them from their hard drive… Well, how is that any different than the situation we have on the torrents now?
The problem with really good game designers is that they generally don’t want to make the same game over and over again. We want them to keep making the game because they’re so good at it, but they get bored. Sometimes they get so bored they leave the company to “pursue other opportunities”. And then they turn up a few months later, working for the competition on something new that they will find challenging.
So when I get one of these successful people that’s a little too creative for their own good, I can let them play in the skunkworks. They get a small budget, a small team, and can make something PC-only. (So we don’t have to mess around with porting or licensing deals.) They can ship a small game. If it becomes a hit, great! If it’s an idea worthy of expanding on then we can spin the team into another studio and the game can become a full-blown franchise with marketing and console releases and a larger budget.
This lets them do something different, and allows us to prototype new stuff without risking a fortune. This is where new stuff will come from. Sure, sometimes an idea can only be done on a large scale. (It would be pretty hard to prototype something like Batman: Arkham Asylum with an “indie” sized team.) But lots of ideas can. Even if the games don’t make a lot, as long as the place isn’t a money sink then we can keep it going. Without new ideas, we’ll be doomed to wind up like the other publishers: Desperately copying each other’s overused ideas and trying to create them in ever-increasing levels of fidelity and then trying to figure out how on earth to pay for it all.
This is a technology-driven business. In technology you’re either inventing new stuff or you’re dying. If we assume the most reliably successful designers are a fountain of good ideas, then we should give them the occasional chance to try a few of them out from time to time. Rather than inventing new ways to waste money on graphics, we’ll be inventing new gameplay or genre flavors.
So That’s The Plan
That’s it. Make great games. Sell them. Make shitloads of money. Repeat until rich. Blizzard does it all the time. Valve used to do it before they found an even BETTER way of making money. Nintendo might make some strange moves when it comes to hardware, but they still manage to make games their fans love without destroying themselves in the process.
EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, and the non-Blizzard parts of Activision are making lots of mistakes we can learn from. They think the secret to making money is to abuse your creative team, sabotage your products, waste money on stupid shit that doesn’t enhance the product, and engage in PR so bad it’s indistinguishable from trolling. The field is wide open for fun, hassle-free games and I intend to get rich steamrolling them.
EDIT: John Videogames just called. Says he decided to give the studio to Peter Molyneux instead, because Molyneux made bigger promises. So I’m not going to be rich.
So, uh… please support my Patreon?
 Sure, sometimes genuinely talented folks stick around due to a hilariously exploitable sense of loyalty, but you can’t build an entire studio out of those sorts of people.
 Temporary crunch doesn’t seem to have the same extreme drop-off in productivity that long-term crunch does.
 And it’s useless in multiplayer.
MMO Population Problems
Computers keep getting more powerful. So why do the population caps for massively multiplayer games stay about the same?
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.
A horrible, railroading, stupid, contrived, and painfully ill-conceived roleplaying campaign. All in good fun.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.