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The Almighty Buck Entertainment Games

When Game Development Goes Bad 30

Posted by simoniker
from the new-fox-special dept.
Thanks to Boomtown for its article discussing an insight into the failure of a game developer, in this case developer Escape Factory. The post-mortem styled interview touches on problems with engine licensing ("We had no PS2 experience whatsoever, which is why we chose to use the Unreal engine, lured by its promise of PS2 compatibility. Unfortunately, that compatibility ended later in the process"), as well as how developers present themselves to publishers ("We thought it was all about making the best game in the world, but in reality it's all about making your publisher think you're making the best game in the world") - there's more information in a post-mortem Powerpoint presentation at Escape Factory's official site.
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When Game Development Goes Bad

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  • by JMandingo (325160) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @07:19PM (#8758483)
    The tone of the article is kinda "we had bad circumstances and bad luck" but you read it and it's like "who the hell gave these bufoons 3M to write a game?!?!". Yeesh, give me 600K and I'll hire some Russian artists and one or two top notch U.S. coder buddies and give you something that you can sell like hotcakes in half the time. It makes me cry how shoddy the common U.S. developer is, especially in the gaming industry.
    • by dickiedoodles (728410) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @07:24PM (#8758505)
      I haven't RTFA but the story speaks for itself when it says "there's more information in a post-mortem PowerPoint presentation at Escape Factory's official site.".

      Everyone knows the amount of PowerPoint presentations someone uses is inversely proportional to their skill/knowledge
    • by Herkum01 (592704) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @10:38PM (#8759372)
      I hate to point this out, but they could not manage the staff that they used to create the game. The question was not about money, but about execution. The result was that they spent 3 million dollars. You have not proven that you can manage a staff of american programmers, yet you are assuming that you will be able to manage a staff of russian programmers and russian artists, just because you are offereing to do it for less does not mean you are any more capable. Less risky, but not more capable.
    • by cgenman (325138) on Sunday April 04, 2004 @07:41AM (#8760863) Homepage
      "These buffoons" made decisions that seem perfectly rational at the time but in retrospect are a bad idea. Cutting their unique feature is always a bad idea, but when you're coming up significantly short on the funding end, that unique feature probably represented 1/4th of the budget. They chose to focus on developing the character that needed the most work, rather than working on the character that was OK. The publisher made the switch to the PS2, which supports with the cutting of co-op play. Using a licensed engine is a very reasonable thing to do usually, especially if you have no experience on that platform. Not continuing with the prototype is completely understandable if you are making your "first and greatest" game. You don't want the baggage of your prototype and hey, you licensed an engine for a reason, right? Nobody likes firing people, even if they are bringing the team down. And many people underestimate the publisher's role in development.

      In other words, they did not make any uncomprehensible mistakes, and they didn't make any mistakes that haven't been made many times before in.

      BTW, 600k will get you two coders and a office. How will you pay the artists? Designers? Testers? Mo-cap? Voice actors? Texturers? Administrators? Musicians? It makes me cry how much people with no connection to the industry underestimate the development process. "Just make it great." "What, really, makes a game great?" "You know, not bad stuff." And then they go on to quote some price and team size that might get them Prince of Persia 1, not the 275 people [mobygames.com] who worked on Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, or the 230 people [mobygames.com] who worked on Halo.

      600k is so low as to be downright insulting. What do you think we do all day? Play tetris? Why do you think we accept salaries of half of what we could earn elsewhere, doing twice the work?

      • This thread is stale, but since you ask questions I will answer:

        There are plenty of indie game developers with teams of three (or less) who are making great games for less than 1/3 of the figure I threw out there. Look at MoonPod [moonpod.com]. Read their forum - all of your "How" questions are answered there. Who needs an office? Outsource the art and sound, etc.

        Download the demo and play it. Starscape is a great game, and those guys are likely set for life, or at least wont have to work for "the man" ever again.
        • Starscape is a fun game... I played it last year when the demo was first released. It is, basically, a very pretty 2D overhead space trader / space shemup, with a bit more asteroid collecting than I would enjoy. But is it "selling like hotcakes" by industry standards? Not at all. They're probably sitting quit pretty, but would a publisher look at those figures and think that they should bankroll these types of projects?

          That's not to say that indy studios have no place in gaming... Pretty much every gen
      • And then they go on to quote some price and team size that might get them Prince of Persia 1, not the 275 people who worked on Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, or the 230 people who worked on Halo

        I think counting this way is a little misleading, because you're combining both the platform teams and the people who ported to the PC. PoP also came out on all three consoles. The original team that created Halo is over 100 people, still quite large, but it also had an enormous development cycle, starting out

    • You clearly have no understanding of the game development process. At all.

      Hiring some "U.S. coder buddies" and some "Russian artists" is not the way to make a game that you can "sell like hotcakes." It is the way to make a game like Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, which has the distinction of being the *only* game in the history of Gamespot to recieve a 1.0. [gamespot.com] For your reference, the developer's website is at Stellarstone.com [stellarstone.com].

      There are several problems with this, but it boils down to a couple of key points:
    • The game developers frankly made a lot of a retarded mistakes. Trying to force a first person engine to make a 3rd person co-op platformer?

      Axing your ONE unique selling point...ugh.

      I'm sorry, but I can't feel bad for someone who burned through that much cash with fancy office space and all. Everyone knows you get the fancy digs after your first game sells.
  • no shit, sherlock? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gl4ss (559668) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @07:33PM (#8758539) Homepage Journal
    that must have been real shocking, realising that publishers rank their possible publishing deals by profitability/risk. a somewhat mediocre game with good marketing and sexy setting can sell quite well, and be both fast and cheap to make. look at wrestling games, they sell pretty well yet they're quite bad as games - but I bet my ass that they're always ready on schedule(why wouldn't they be? they're just incrementally improved versions of the last holiday seasons game). I'd guess that being on schedule and reliable to make good sales is something that the publishers really like. I'd imagine them to not be taking lightly to expensive projects that drag on which might, or might not, make 'a great game' and be sexy enough to sell at the same time(just the game being good isn't enough if you've spent millions after millions making the game). hl2 has to sell like hotcakes just to break even!(I shudder to think about dnf, though I wonder if they've really put any money into it all these years anyways)

    maybe though one should not consider what is the 'best game' by merits of entertainment value, but by merits of possible sales vs. cost of making.

    also, don't fall into vaporware in game engines, it's bad enough to fall to vaporware promises when you're the end user.
  • Here's the Google cache [google.ca]
  • In other words... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MMaestro (585010) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @08:45PM (#8758858)
    "We thought it was all about making the best game in the world, but in reality it's all about making your publisher think you're making the best game in the world"

    In other words :

    "We forgot to make enough eye candy to fool our publisher."

    • Re:In other words... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by tc (93768) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @09:53PM (#8759189)
      I've worked on both sides of the house - as a developer as a publisher. Currently, I'm working for a publisher, doing technical management for third party developers. The bottom line is that it's all about balancing risks versus rewards. So, yes, it's not just about making a great game, you have to convince your publisher that you're not going to introduce so much risk that the business case doesn't make sense any more.

      Now, that doesn't mean you can't do innovative and interesting projects. Those are marketing risks, to be sure, but the potential upside is huge (and senior management loves big potential upside). What gets developers killed far more often is not market risk, but production risk. In other words, the risk that they have a great idea but they're going to fuck up the execution in some way. And there are plenty of ways developers, especially inexperienced ones, can do that:

      Technical: They have crappy processes and unproven technology which will lead them to slip dates and run over-budget. They might have difficulty shipping on the target platform (on a console this is completely fatal, and on a PC you lose big chunks of your target market if you have to make the minimum acceptable spec too high).

      Design: They have a great 'big idea', but can't quite execute on the thousand little decisions along the way that make things work.

      Management: They fail to schedule properly for key areas. It's amazing how many schedules I've seen from developers that just completely omit whole features that are in the design doc, oops. They have poor communication, both internally and externally.

      Proving to the publisher that you don't represent too large of a risk in all of those areas is vital, no matter how good your game idea. Above all, be as transparent as possible with your publisher, especially if you're a relatively new developer, because if you won't let me see your processes, source-code or design docs, and won't let me talk to your people, then I'm just going make the default assumption that those things are fucked up. (You'd be amazed how many developers don't fully grok this point.)
  • n/t (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Makes you think twice about Duke Nukem Forever.

    It's still out there.
  • by Psychochild (64124) <(psychochild) (at) (gmail.com)> on Saturday April 03, 2004 @10:40PM (#8759380) Homepage
    Running a game company isn't as easy as it sounds. Given the huge creative effort that goes into these games, there are multiple failure points. I speak from a position of experience as the co-founder of Near Death Studios, Inc., current developers and administrators of the online game, Meridian 59 [meridian59.com].

    The biggest sin mentioned in the article isn't the trips (which can really help to build team spirit and loyalty), but rather talking about they should have fired the "least qualified people" and kept paying the founders. In a small gaming studio, there's no room for "least qualified" people. All your developers need to be top-notch and should ideally have multiple skill sets. If there's an obvious person to fire when the budget cuts come, that person probably should have been fired before the budget got tight.

    The article also highlights the problem with the current developer and publisher relationships in modern game development. In reality, the publisher cares very little about you or your company, and cares even less about the creative aspects of game development. They look at the developer simply in terms of income potential.

    Now, before any publisher types get their panties in a twist about this, let me give an example. I was watching the Mallrats DVD last night and watched the retrospective with Kevin Smith. He talked about creating the movie, and how people insisted that the movie's budget be at least $6 million. Mr. Smith was perplexed by this, since his previous film, Clerks cost $27,000 (if memory serves); the people in charge of the budget knew what a movie like Mallrats would cost to develop and wanted to make sure they didn't fall short on the budget before finishing the movie.

    Yet, if Kevin Smith were a game developer, he would have asked for less money than it really required to make the game and probably wouldn't have even gotten that. Then when the costs ran over budget, he would have had to go back to the publisher and renegotiate a less favorable deal in order to get the money he should have gotten in the first place to finish the game. I've personally been in the industry for over 6 years now, and I've never heard of a developer getting more money than they thought they needed as Kevin Smith did with Mallrats.

    Unfortunately, the publishers are only too happy to eat their young in order to profit. The publishers care very little about the business health of game developers and only care about the bottom line of how much the game makes. Sure, it's their perogative as a business, but it hinders the long-term growth of the industry if it does not cultivate talent to expand the market in the future. One "failure" like Escape Factory shows and they're done for. In the movie business, the "failure" of Mallrats was followed up by a series of wonderful movies including Chasing Amy and Dogma. We'll never know if Escape Factory could have done bigger and better things.

    Sadly, the problems don't just stop there. As the article points out, you have to make the publisher think you're making the greatest game ever. That often means you have to lie to them. A friend of mine was working for an online RPG ("MMOG") for a large publisher. He had worked on previous online RPGs, so he knew the pitfalls. So, when the publisher came around to ask the status of the project, he was honest about the shortcomings. Other online RPG projects run by the same publisher didn't have the experience; they weren't able to accurately gauge their progress and told the publisher everything was fine even though they were many, many months behind where they should have been. In the end, my friend's project got cancelled while the other projects were still funded. In the end, the other projects ran late, had terrible launches, and one has already been cancelled after launch.

    In the end, running a game development studio is not an easy task. Publisher callousness towards the developers makes it even worse, causing problems for the long-term health of the game development industry. This is my view of things as a self-pubished, self-funded independent online RPG developer.
    • Is it better to just lie to the publisher?

      Is it better to make a "B" title with last year's tech dressed up to look like this year's tech and sell it to the publisher as an "A" title. Then to try to make a completely new kick butt game?

      If the publisher doesn't understand honest schedules, then it stands to reason the publisher isn't going to understand tech, but "buzzwords".

      (And ironically, isn't that what we're mostly seeing from the media companies today?)

      The schools teach that in an offhand sort of
      • by Psychochild (64124) <(psychochild) (at) (gmail.com)> on Sunday April 04, 2004 @06:25AM (#8760688) Homepage
        Is it better to just lie to the publisher?

        Well, publishers aren't stupid. They're just more interested in getting the maximum return for investment regardless of other considerations. Ruthless? Yes. Stupid? Not in the slightest.

        The biggest source of the publisher/developer rift, in my opinion, is the simple fact that the developer just wants to make a cool game and doesn't really want to be bothered by the business side of things. If I wanted to sweat the dollars and cents of a business, I would not have gone into game development. Business software consistently makes better and more constant returns on investment. I run a game company because I want to make cool games. (I've managed to bring my company to profitablility in only 2 years, so I'm not too shabby on the business side of things myself, but I would still rather focus more on making cool games!)

        The publisher, on the other hand, expects you to be highly business savvy and will do whatever they can to take advantage of the developer. Ideally, the publishers should look at the relationship as a way to help the developer accomplish this goal. The publisher should look to fund developers with the right blend of innovation, experience, ability, and passion. Instead, they look for the developers they can get the best deal from, which doesn't always produce the best games.

        Last week I attended the Game Developer's Conference in San Jose, CA. I attended a "Business Summit" at the GDC, where we talked about various problems with game development, and the developer/publisher relationship was, not surprisingly, a common topic for discussion. Many developers complained how antagonistic the relationship can be. A representative from a publisher responded to some of these concerns by stating, "I will not give any developer anything they do not ask for," meaning: the publisher will take any advantage over the developer they possibly can.

        And, really, that sort of attitude is disgusting. While it is profitable in the short term, it encourages an attitude of "eating your young" which harms the long-term health of the industry. Publishers should really be looking to establish partnerships with developers in order to create quality games. The most notable game development studios are ones that have accumulated enough power to bargain with publishers as equals. Companies like Blizzard, id, or Valve are known for their quality games and work independent from the publishers for the most part (until they get acquired, then the founders leave ;). But, if you look at the history of these types of game companies, they worked independent from publishers initially. id is a great example: They got their start through shareware. It wasn't until DOOM that they hit the big time, and publishers were falling over themselves to put the game on the shelves. Now id could have any publisher they wanted publish their games because they've retained enough autonomy that they were never indebted to the publishers.

        So, really, the opposite needs to happen. More truth needs to be exposed between the publisher and the developer. The publishers need to stop viewing developers as expendable resources, they need to start fostering long-term relationships with developers, and they need to encourage truthfulness. Unfortunately, the current model is so profitable in the short term that it's unlikely to change until something forces the balance of power to shift.

        The closest thing we have to any change in the status quo is smaller developers creating niche games and selling the directly to the market, like my own company. But, really, it's not that glamorous. I have thick skin because I have to continuously hear how my game is "too old" or "too ugly" to play even though Meridian 59, all humility aside, is the best PvP experience you can get in any online RPG. Yet, a lot of people simply cannot get past production values and really appreciate the gameplay. And, hey, I'd love to have the prettyest grap
        • The following quote struck a chord. And when I changed a word or two in it, I found out why:

          And, really, that sort of attitude is disgusting. While it is profitable in the short term, it encourages an attitude of "eating your young" which harms the long-term health of the industry. Publishers should really be looking to establish partnerships with artists in order to create quality music .

          The notion of an industry grinding its creative force down to a soggy little nub isn't exactly a new idea. The

          • The closest thing we have to any change in the status quo is smaller developers creating niche games and selling the directly to the market, like my own company. But, really, it's not that glamorous. I have thick skin because I have to continuously hear how my game is "too old" or "too ugly" to play even though Meridian 59, all humility aside, is the best PvP experience you can get in any online RPG. Yet, a lot of people simply cannot get past production values and really appreciate the gameplay. And, hey,
  • by Luigi30 (656867) on Saturday April 03, 2004 @11:18PM (#8759485)
    Here's a bad concept gone even worse. Bob Gale (Back to the Future) came up with an idea and gave it to Data East's pinball division for turning into a game.

    The story was that a bunch of people had magic tattoos that came alive and smashed people. A sub-par MK ripoff. But the story of how it came together was even more spectacular.

    The designers were promised $20,000 each for finishing the game in 6 months. They ended up slapping something together fast, burning out within a few months. The team knew the game was utter shit, but only worked on it for the bonus. During playtesting, the playtesters also decided it was shit and played the pinball tables also being playtested... by that time the programmers knew it was shit, and were hoping the art would be really good, and the artists knew that it was shit and were hoping the programmers would come up with something really good.

    They finished the game, half-assed, got their $20,000 checks, and quit the next day. The game was never released for obvious reasons. The existing prototypes were destroyed, except for two, one American version and one Japanese version.

    That was the only video game designed by Data East. In the middle of it, they were bought out by SEGA.

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