In the Beginning...
Even before our layoffs happened, we totally saw it coming. Layoffs had been happening all around us, it was really just a matter of time. We had been intrigued by the rapidly changing market conditions and evolving business models.
Our game is called Harvest Circuit and we have a really kick ass website now!
Two of us started prototyping a tower defense game that we intended to take to the next level, even though we didn't exactly know what that meant yet. Tower defense games are extremely easy to make from a technical standpoint, and with our extensive RTS backgrounds, it was an easy direction for us. We played tons of tower defense games and really wanted to get some dynamic multiplayer happening with quests and a persistent world with persistent characters. Let's make it an MMO, that would be awesome!!! Let's get it running in a browser, and lets do it with 3D tech! Sure!
We were able to quickly get something running, then we started looking for an art director, well because quite frankly... which one of these assets looks better?
In our case, we lucked out because after exhausting the 4 art directors we personally wanted to work with, we turned to the internet and posted a few ISO ads for art directors. We ran into some occasional flak about "unpaid vs paid, don't waste my time", but ultimately we found someone that believed in our startup and had already been looking for years to team up with technical people. We had the tech, he had the art and thus we joined forces and are a lot stronger for it. He is now one of the key three founders.
So now, six months later we had intended on launching by now. But we got too ambitious. We have most of the key parts in place, especially on the MMO side. We've got a travel system, locations, procedural systems all over the place, but our content is sorely lacking: we don't yet have enough stuff to keep people occupied for long other than grinding. We cannot pull the release trigger until the game feels ready. So we can keep going at this for a longer period of time, try to bring on more people on a revenue share basis, or find funding and hire people directly.
Virtual Studio Life
It took a little while to figure it out and get used to the idea. For us, it was a necessity as the three of us live in completely different parts of the world. From day 1, we had servers setup to handle the standard stuff such as source control, bug & task tracking, project management, wiki collaboration, community website with forums, and game servers.
The process of getting someone to join us and have them working in our project is very quick. The longest part is synching up the the assets, but the whole process takes less than 2 hours.
We use Skype extensively to communicate with each other. With video and voice chat, screen and file sharing, Skype is a great tool for working together.
At the current time of writing, we have 4 additional people spread throughout the world working with us on Harvest Circuit. We have learned how to effectively identify the type of people that can thrive in a virtual studio environment. What helps a great deal is fostering a culture of daily show and tells. Not everybody writes a daily every day, but people will write something to the entire group 2 or 3 times a week. It's very open, and makes sense to only talk about something when you've made some progress.
Let's talk about Money
When you are an unfunded startup like us, how do you actually get people to want to work with you? Well, part 1 is having a really good game. Part 2 is the promise of eventual pay.
We've developed a technique for tracking relative contribution. Unlike a typical physical studio job, where people are paid a salary regardless of how hard or little they work, in a virtual studio, that simply doesn't work. Instead, it's important to take more of a mercenary approach. You make something, that something is worth something.
And that something gets converted into a number that adds up to your total points. Your relative contribution is your points divided by the team's total points and results in a percentage revenue number. This is awesome, because people get visceral feedback on what they do. Monthly, people get to watch their relative contributions climb. And if someone in the group doesn't do much, they don't gain many points (and doesn't last long). It allows people to freely join or leave our startup at will. Let me give you a couple examples to demonstrate how this works:
Say we have 95 accumulated points and a prominent sound designer comes in and spends a couple weeks composing a one time drop of music and sound effects. That work is worth 5 points. So at that present time, his effort is worth 5% (5/100) of zero revenue, so far. Six months later, the project has 250 points, so his value falls to 2% (5/250).
Meanwhile, someone else joins us and starts earning 5 points per month. And lets say, on month 1 he has 5/200 points, month 2 he has 10/225 points, and month 3 he has 5/250 points. Thats 2.5%, 4.4%, and 6%. People that stick it out will increase their share over time.
This is legal, because in the contract agreements, we define this and as you all know, commission is a valid method of payment in several industries. It is just very fitting and fair for a non-funded startup of this type. In addition, this information is transparent to the entire team. Everybody knows what everybody's percentage is. And this transparency is critical to keeping it real and fair, giving people an opportunity to question point assignments. In a way, it is like your own little RPG. This also effectively avoids tax withholding issues and the legalities of unpaid internships. Deferred salary is NOT legal, percentage of revenue is legal even when revenue is zero. And above all, it feels right and morale. We founders will not be able to secretly pocket money for ourselves.
And we have a clause in place, so that when we hit it big, we can convert people into salaried positions with a heavier emphasis on bonus, but only after we are successful enough to do this with everyone, not just selective people. This part is a little more nebulous. Imagine the success case where a junior member on the team with 4 months of contributions and a 5% stake in revenue is suddenly earning $50,000/month! Now it's time to migrate into a real business and start focusing on growth and sustainability. This is a problem I would love to face. A business can't really grow when it's distributing all it's revenue every month.
More about Business Models
Currently, most startups are predominantly focused on social gaming on Facebook, making mobile games, or creating digital distribution titles for places like Steam. We don't believe in any of those models.
Social Games on Facebook: Zynga has established an enormous cash cow and a lot of other developers are trying to get in on that. The saturation is ridiculous and it's getting worse. Players are getting fatigued, and the games lack substance. This bubble is going to pop big time.
Digital Distribution (Steam, etc): I actually buy a lot of games on Steam, but I am definitely seeing a race to $0.99 happening now. I've been able to pick up package deals of 4-6 indie titles for $2.50 or $5. And it's happening more frequently. I'm seeing this as trouble.
What we're doing is different:
|Free To Play Online /w Microtransactions: What I'm about to explain is subtely different from Facebook games. We strongly believe that this is the wave of the future for many reasons. One, having your game available on a website to play for free knocks down most barriers to entry. When a player doesn't have to pay to play your game, you remove risk and you have way more opportunities to convert far more players into returning players. Thus, F2P games generally build much larger communities. Farmville has ~50 million people playing, which is far more than any console game could do.
You also eliminate most types of piracy, because if it's free, and you have persistent servers, piracy is no longer relevant. Finally, F2P games generate revenue through microtransactions, so that means your game is going to generate regular revenue throughout the life of the product. It becomes your responsibility to keep your players engaged, grow your player base, and find ways to monetize them. It is part art, part science. I have thought much about why more people aren't doing this and it's become somewhat clear: they are difficult to make, especially doing so without Facebook. The problem with Facebook is the limits on technology, basically limited to 2D flash games. We have our own stand alone website, process payments through PayPal and do everything our selves. That said, we still plan to hook into social networking and referrals indirectly. The irony is Zynga is trying to figure out how to lose the Facebook depedency. Why would they do that? It's all about bottom line and being free to do what they want.
Our mission is to build a high quality experience, with real game-play, as a real MMO. Seriously a lot of stuff has gone into this.
Okay, so now what?
Well let's get to the goal of this blog article. We are in need of more people to join us! We need help with quests, assets, items, environments, vehicles, business development, you name it.... we need it. Now given the state of the industry, there has got to be a number of people out there itching to get involved with a startup. Imagine, no bureacracy, being able to work from home, anywhere in the world, and working to cash in on something that could be potentially huge. The kinds of money these games can generate is sick. We could very well be making more money in a year than we could for the rest of our conventional lives. That's why people do startups. For independence and success. And we have done most of the heavy lifting and have taken things very far.
So here's some of the roles we are looking to fill:
Environmental Artist: Overall responsibility for terrain assets, foliage, debris, city ruins, lighting tuning. Could also work into the creation of additional component assets like powercells, weapons, vehicles. We have a rather large list of parts we need to still make. May also be responsible for authoring maps in the game once our terrain editor comes online.
Avatar Artist: Responsible for creating both 2D and 3D avatar assets which including mix-and-match faces, features, and hairstyles, but also clothing. Initially our first release implementation will be purely 2D, but we’ll later make the migration over to full 3D. We are following an art style most similar to Valkyria Chronicles for character style. Players will be able to define their own avatars and customize them throughout the game. Cosmetic enhancements are going to be a key driver for monetization, therefore a skilled avatar artist is an important responsibility.
Creature Artist / Animator: Our creature artist will need the fundamental strengths of being able to skin and animate monster assets. We’re making crystalline, robotic, insects as our creatures, and they need the ability to walk, turn, get hit, die, steal energy, and convey some attitude. We’re looking at approximately a dozen different creatures for launch ranging from ground creatures to flying creatures. Ideally this person could model, texture, and animate all the creatures.
Quest Designer: While we have written a really detailed and high level overarching story for the game and have also defined a series of “quest lines”, we need someone to take this aspect over and own anything quest related. Players are going to be working to rebuild society, improve their living conditions, upgrade their equipment so they can go out into the field and travel further and reach more exotic areas. Writing quests is half creative, half technical. Hooking up quests involves the ability to write branching logical dialog using XML scripts we have created, and this the most technically demanding part of the game outside of coding actual game systems. We have a lot of conditions, variables, and branching if/then statements.
Progression Designer: The MMO side of the game involves the creation of a lot of interesting items and components. While we’ve done much of the work on the weapons side of the fence and have someone focused on that already, we still need a lot of work with other aspects, especially regarding the travel and salvage system. The travel system is similar to Star Control 2 where range becomes a limiting factor, and modular customization of your vehicle is necessary for preparing for the player’s immediate goals, whether it is harvesting difficult crystals, going on salvaging operations, or traveling extensive distances. This person will be responsible for skill tree definitions, work closely with attribute modifiers (like +5 strength), defining functional items for inventory equipment, and shop keeper inventories such as what is accessible where. This person will determine what makes the game difficult or easy outside of tower defense. All the hookup will take place in XML, but there will also be a considerable amount of written design as well.
Special Effects Artist: We have our own particle editor, but someone focused on making the coolest weapon effects ranging from explosions, lasers, burning, shockwaves, freezing, etc. Lots of energy packets moving around. It's all about making the game visceral looking. And yes, we would like meaty chunks of nanite monsters blowing up.
CEO: Someone that knows games and is preferably based in California or at least has close contacts and frequent visits there. There is simply an insane amount of work that has to happen behind the scenes. For example, seeking funding is basically a full time job and strategic business growth is also crucial. Someone that could take charge of this, so the rest of us can focus on making the best game possible. Equity ownership will play a larger component for this role. Grow us a money tree!
Generally speaking, people need a Windows 3D capable PC with your own licensed authoring software and the ability to work from home. Artists are using 3DSMax 2010 and Photoshop for the most part. Designers make extensive use of XML, but there are so many free ones out there that we use that are really nice.
And... finally a few screenshots of the game itself.
NOTE: Really look at that... we need help! Proxy art and programmer art needs to be replaced!!!
NOTE: Believe it or not, the maps are procedurally generated with GPS coordinates, in Excel...
Let's face it, this industry is being turned upside down. Good developers no longer need publishers to be successful. Internet has advanced to the point where a small group of skilled developers can put together their own game at their own expense and reap 100% of the rewards by distributing it themselves.
You hear stories about guys like "Notch" that has made an absolute killing with Minecraft. No publisher, no advertising. He did everything by himself. And at one point he was bringing in $450,000 of revenue PER DAY! I think it's averaged around $250k per day once it found traction. Think about it, he has made more money in a single month than some of us can make in our entire lives. Awesome, isn't it?
He's going to be the poster child of success for years to come, but obviously he found a perfect sweet spot that so many love. He basically just invented the first person paint program.
Personally, I'm willing to take my chances building something on my own for the chance to avoid the next 20 years of conventional paychecks. If this works, you may all be reading stories about how we all bought houses and sportcars in a couple years. Maybe you can be one of us?
Well, that's it! Hope what I said makes a lot of sense. I bet there are a lot of other groups out there figuring things out. Love to hear what other people's experiences are. If you are interested in joining us, please look me up -- I'm easy to find via LinkedIn or from our Harvest Circuit website.
PS: In my 14+ years in the game industry, I had always wanted to do my own startup, but never felt the time was right. And now as we do this, I've never felt more sure about it as I do now. These are perfect storm conditions.