Sponsored By

Adapt or Die: The Biological Imperative for Aging Creatives

In today's Gamasutra feature, Blue Fang Games art director J.D. Alley steps up to the Soapbox with his story of avoiding self-extinction in the game biz, by finding a way for veteran developers to "change the nature of the outcome."

November 24, 2006

9 Min Read

Author: by J.D. Alley

For more than 3 billion years, biological evolution has guided the colonization of our planet by living organisms. Evolution’s rules are simple: creatures that adapt to threats and master the evolutionary game thrive; those that don’t become extinct.

Just how much “mastery” has been involved in my ability to dodge an evolutionary bullet is certainly an open question but none the less, I am still in the game well beyond my projected “use by date” and at 62 years old, show no signs of “going bad” anytime soon.

My point being this: to avoid self-extinction, we must develop some level of awareness that we are at risk in the first place, some way to "change the nature of the outcome." The bargain is just that simple: if we do, we survive, if we don't, we disappear. So we elder statesmen must find a way stay relevant, and if it does not exist yet, create it.

Adapt or die becomes much more meaningful when you realize that the work you have taken on has lost its momentum and that the necessary internal support continues evaporating at an alarming rate. This, then, is my humble recitation of fact concerning my own evolutionary trajectory. A trajectory that has been, and I am being generous here, erratic, convoluted and not without some level of discomfort and distress.

Believing that the inappropriate sports metaphor is always the perfect foil for the lack of a well turned phrase, it was late in the second half of my career and the “big momentum” had taken a turn for the worse. Funding for the Xbox Entertainment Network was eroding, a fact that certainly took the shine off my position as the creative director for the project. My boss and I were struggling with communication issues and the remaining champion for my work had run out of places to hide our budget from the business guys. My prospects began to mirror those of a mastodon, trunk and tusks to the rapidly chilling wind. It was time, it seemed to adapt or die.

Fast forward to June, 2005, Fort Bragg, Georgia. My wife and I are struggling with the heat and the stresses of watching our 24 year old son, a freshly minted Second Lieutenant in the Army, make his qualifying jumps to complete his Airborne training. My cell phone rings. It is Hank Howie, the President of Blue Fang Games in Boston, MA. The conversation sounds something like this.

“ J.D., it's Hank Howie, what are you up to?” I tell him where I am and what I am doing.
“ Interesting”, says Hank. “Say, what do you think about coming out to Boston for a chat?” And that, my friends, is what it sounds like when the adapt or die doorway opens unexpectedly.

Flashback to the summer of 2000, I am the Art Director for the LIFE Studio at Microsoft and a small independent studio from Boston has come to pitch a little game called Zoo Tycoon. There are three guys in the room, Adam Lévesque, the creative director and one of the founders of Blue Fang Games, John Wheeler, the chief engineer and the other founder of the studio and, wait for it… Hank Howie, the president of Blue Fang Games.

Six years later with over five million units sold and more than 120 million dollars in revenue generated I think it is safe to say that we made the right choice when we signed them to produce the game for us.

I flew in to Boston, we talked, and I flew back to Seattle and resigned from Microsoft. It was obvious to me that the reason the work was not going well in Redmond was because it had moved to Boston. The stakeholders at Blue Fang had sensed that same rapidly chilling wind of impending change and they had already begun the migration to warmer climes. It was easy to join up with the herd and head south, adapt or die.
It has been a little over a year since I made the decision to leave Microsoft and it feels appropriate to take some time to reflect on that decision.

The move from a major publishing house to a small independent studio has provided me with a unique perspective on our business in general and, more importantly, helped to crystallize my thinking about what it will take for any studio to thrive in a rapidly evolving market place, and how guys like me can reinvent themselves to become a catalyst for change. The thoughts that follow may well fall into the “for what its worth” category. I would like to believe that there is some nugget of hard won wisdom to be had, but you never know until you count the box office take. So, with that in mind, read on cautiously - one mans adaptation may be another’s swan song.

Let me begin by saying that I believe the single most critical adaptation we must make in our business is to raise the level of the discourse with product and process. Let me explain.

Much like the leading edge of a tsunami, real change in the interactive entertainment (read: PC and console games) business often goes unnoticed until all that energy hits the shore line and you are staring at a wall of water that threatens to overwhelm you very quickly. Studios like Blue Fang have been surfing that rapidly growing wave of change for some time now, and they are well positioned to accelerate themselves into a commanding leadership position in the world wide development community.

The old saw that “ideas are a dime a dozen” has never been more relevant. Rapid changes in technology, platform and rising production costs, coupled with a genre driven market and limited retail channel, have created the perfect storm of an exceptionally demanding and acutely constrained environment for developers of interactive entertainment. Your hot idea is meaningless if you can’t deliver it to the market place on time and on budget.

The continuing contraction of the traditional Big Box market place, a shrinking demographic of 19 to 34 year old males, and the consolidation of control for both publishing and platform have conspired to create a real “adapt or die” situation for independent studios. If you are just now noticing that approaching wave of change, it may be too late to do much to alter the inevitable outcome. That bus left yesterday and studios like Harmonix and Blue Fang were driving.

It is critical to rethink everything; the good old days of shipping product with poor process and unreasonable expectations, hoping that it will earn out so we can make a buck, are gone forever. We operate in a tough, demanding and competitive business that rewards success modestly and almost inevitably punishes failure with extinction. There are not many second chances in our business and those studios that have survived a gross miscalculation more than once can be counted on one hand.

Survival begins with a sense of enlightened self-awareness. Unlike the dodo bird, we can recognize that being flightless may be a serious threat to our continued well being as a species. More importantly, we can take the appropriate action to reinvent ourselves in meaningful and productive ways. Again, let me say that the single most critical adaptation we must make in our business is to raise the level of the discourse with product and process.

We must look inward and question everything about who we are, what we are about and how we do business. We must begin with a passionate recommitment to our mission, whatever that may be, and develop an unshakable faith in our ability to deliver on those expectations. That means that we must bring on board the appropriate talent to assist in driving the creative process and open up the process of innovation.

We must commit the appropriate capital resource to develop new IP and compelling new forms of interactive entertainment. We must adopt a new, more responsive process to drive our internal development process. We must inform our thinking about the larger market opportunity that exists outside of “men in tights with swords and shields” or “space marines killing aliens”. Yes, there is gold in them thar’ hills, but not all the time and certainly not for all of us.

Helping drive that change at Blue Fang has been an interesting and challenging transition for me. Dramatically different business cultures, totally different strategic portfolio decisions, a wildly diverse level of experience, talent and expectations have certainly kept it exciting. My experience in the publishing end of the business provides a critically important point of reference for us in our interaction and communication with our publishers. We have become more direct, more focused and more effective because we have a deeper understanding of what’s on their mind.

We are less focused on our own cultural agenda and much more effective in collaborating with our publishers in driving the business forward. We have developed a deeper understanding of what it really means to be a “for profit” enterprise without losing our passion for creative aspects of the business. It is, after all, about creating entertainment that has real value in the market place. We are better than we were at this point in time but we certainly have a lot more to learn about how to sustain the success over time.

Creating something of worth that generates millions of dollars of profit once is satisfying; it is particularly satisfying when it is your first effort. To do that repeatedly, on demand, is to have become seasoned professional studio that publishers are anxious to partner with.

I believe that my decision to adapt by moving into the independent studio arena has certainly “changed the nature of the outcome” for me personally and for the studio as well. My experience and longevity in the business has been translated into a meaningful expression myself that not only enables me to stay relevant but to participate in a complete reinvention of our business. The first act wasn’t too bad, it will interesting to catch the rest of the show.

Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like