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July 31, 2008

Get Your Pigs in a Row!

Filed under: Game Law Articles — Tom B @ 3:09 pm

Isn’t That Supposed to be Ducks?

Well actually no. Allow me to explain. I often counsel developers on the importance of focusing on building a great game studio to make great games, instead of focusing on making a great game to build a great game studio. The reason for this is that if you build a solid studio your chances of getting to make that opus you yearn to create is much greater. It also allows you to eat, have a home and live in a similar fashion to other folks in society instead of emulating the starving artists of our romantic fantasies. Quite simply, being consumed by passion is wonderful, but it does not pay the rent…and often leads to madness.

I Know, You Still Don’t See Any Animals.

Let’s take a look at the issues that need to be considered in building a sustainable business model for your studio. One thing you need is the ability to have a coherent projection of revenues and operating expenses, commonly referred to as a budget. I personally hate spreadsheets. But spreadsheets are the language of budgets much like musical notes are the language of music. I suspect that many studio heads dislike spreadsheets as much as I do. But the successful ones know how to read and write in that obscure language of the budget.

The simple fact is that without a projected revenue and expense model it is very hard to determine if you are succeeding or even whether your studio is in survival or extinction mode. I am not advocating letting the budget “tail” wag the company business strategy “dog.” But you do need to know when you are succeeding and when you are not. And budgets are a better way to check than that the old reliable, “Can I make payroll?” model. And even a bad budget should deliver the news well in advance of a catastrophe - hopefully in time to adjust.

Still No Animals, But We are Getting Closer.

In everything but the most basic games, a team is required to build the game. And in the more sophisticated games, that team is not of a consistent size throughout the project. I am going to avoid the funding issue for purposes of this example and just look at the development process in isolation. The dev cycle goes through several more or less recognizable stages that we are all pretty familiar with…concept development, prototyping, full design documentation, vertical slice, asset generation, feature lock, testing, GM candidate and final rounds of tuning and debugging, acceptance and release. However, there are significant differences in terms of the studio’s month to month budget associated with this process. Moreover, understanding and planning for these budget fluctuations can be critical to the success or failure of the studio, especially if it is operating as a single project studio.

OK, Bring in the Animals.

First the snake. The snake represents the project leads. Those core team members involved in the initial design and prototyping stages of the project. You probably know who I mean on your team. This is a tight group of highly talented individuals who bring home the meat. (The rest is mostly sizzle.) For purposes of this example, let’s say this is a 5-man team. They will be involved in the project from conception through delivery. And whenever the going gets tough, these will be the “go to” guys. They will probably also be the last members of your team to touch the game before the final GM candidate is accepted. The snake…

Now we introduce the pig. The pig is the vast number of people involved in generating the multitude of assets that comprise the full game. The artists, level designers, animators, scripters, tool programmers and all the others who build the assets that fill out the game and add that all important sizzle. In effect, the pig delivers sustenance to the snake. How? By being eaten of course. And the development process is then revealed to be like that old National Geographic image that haunted so many children’s dreams. That small head and long thin body with the huge lump in the middle. The pig in the snake.

What About Putting Snakes in a Row?

Putting your snakes in a row sure seems a lot simpler. And isn’t simpler often better? Well yes. But unfortunately, putting your snakes in a row will not work. At least not if you intend to have your entire team in house. Sure, outsourcing the pig might do. But aside from the whole team approach and control issues, even the most efficient outsourcing creates a it of internal pigish overhead. And if you don’t outsource, feeding the pig while only the snake is working will drag your budget into hell and your studio with it. I have seen this occur over and over with even the most talented of developers. In fact, aside from issues that arise when trying to grow a studio into a larger organization, this issue may be the most difficult for any studio executive to successfully manage.

The problem is that the same key people needed to finish the game in the final stages are in crunch and in no position to be working on the prototype for the next project. Moreover, they will likely be unfit to do much of anything for a few weeks after crunch is over. The solution is having the foresight to put your pigs in a row, not your snakes. This demands that the snake’s head be redirected at some point in the development process of project A to start thinking about and actually working on project B.

When Pigs are in a Row.

If we assume that it takes between 6-9 months to land a fully contract a deal, then working backwards from there should give you an idea of what point in the current project work needs to be started on the next project so that you will have enough of the next project completed to get it picked up without there being a serious cash crunch in the space between the pigs…err…I mean projects. If it takes 6 months of designing, prototyping and documenting to get to the point to pitch the next game, then you need to get started on it about 12-15 months before the project GM delivery of your current project. Sure, that seems like a lot of time…but think it through and it is really not. Especially if you consider the alternative.

When snakes are in a row.

When your snakes are in a row your studio is only looking at one project at a time. This is great for THAT game. But can spell disaster for the studio. Remember what I said about building a great studio to make great games instead of making a great game to build a great studio? Here’s where that comes to life. And this is not mere conjecture on my part. I have seen this happen time after time. You finish your current game and it is great. So, the team takes a month off to celebrate a job well done and to recover. Then you the start the design and prototyping process and are lucky enough to get a deal a year later…if you are still in business (most are not). Unless that game you delivered has the legs to recoup and deliver revenue within 6 months, you’re DOA. And realistically, that is not going to happen. Even with a hit it takes longer than that to get to first royalty report, and 2 - 3 quarters to recoup. So, unless you have about 18 months of overhead in the bank when you deliver, your dream of having your own studio just died.

The Benefits of Good Pig Management.

Getting those pigs in a row will lead to a long and economically sound life for your studio. The pressures of living on the edge of economic disaster will lessen and, who knows, you may even be able to have some fun, have a life and enjoy making games. After all, that is what this is supposed to be about. Being fortunate enough to make a decent living doing what we love to do. As an added bonus, if you get your pigs in a row, you are on your way to a smooth transition from a single project studio to a multi-project studio in the bargain.

[No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.]

Til next time, GL & HF!

Tom Buscaglia
The Game Attorney © 2008

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