Notes from PAX Prime 2013

Notes from PAX Prime 2013

Man, sorry I didn’t get around to this sooner.  Been busy with work and just slipped my mind.  With all the CES announcements, it reminded me of the notes I took at PAX Prime 2013 in Seattle.  Here they are in kind of un-filtered format.

Session: Building a Team for Indie development

A panel of several successful indie development teams answering some common questions/start-up topics.

  • Hiring:
    • One team hired 7 of their 10 employees from forums.  Forum members are often a great place to pick up passionate people.
    • The folks that team hired were valuable contributing forum members that did all kinds of crazy things like robustly testing out the latest beta features and giving really good feedback – for free.  The dev team then approached these passionate forum folks about full-time work.  They knew these high contributing forum folks were passionate since they did the work on their own.
    • Most teams hired contract people in some cases (artists, musicians, and some devs). They gave small tasks to their new folks to see if it worked out and then expanded/continued/discontinued working with them based on how well they performed/quality of their work.
  • Funding:
    • Your team WON’T get funding without a track record.  Another team of vets said that even if you do have a track record, you still likely won’t get funding.  Those days are pretty much gone.
    • You can pretty much assume your first game will be unfunded at this point.
    • One group’s team was all industry vets that bootstrapped their project with their own money.  Likely the only way you can do it anymore.  Most of the panel agreed this is what they did.
    • Meant they had to have saved up a good bit of money, balance family commitments/needs, etc.  Stressful.
  • Pay
    • Base pay for everyone was very low but with high royalties (5%-10% royalty range for key contributors)
    • Temps and those not actively working at ship got capped amounts
    • or, they split pay by hours/days spent on the project out of the total
    • One team capped royalties after one year (i.e. you got % royalties but only for first year of ship)
    • No profit sharing with brand new folks to avoid problems
    • Braid developer wanted ALL royalties so he simply paid his artist $200k flat with no royalties
  • Different time zones required good, veteran people to avoid lost time on back and forth vision differences.  Skype/Google hangouts key for communication.
  • Takeaway: Continuing a trend I saw last year, indie dev teams are more and more industry experienced developers that quit to go follow a vision they’ve been fleshing out during their day jobs and fund these endeavors themselves.  Money is tighter, which makes time tighter.

Session: Gaming’s dirty secrets – why your favorite game never left Japan/got ported/has crappy port/etc.

A panel of developers/producers/game industry vets answered questions about why games get canceled/delayed/never ported/etc.

  • Bugs and bad ports:
    • Big games: almost half of the budget is marketing.  You have to do multiple releases on multiple titles at the SAME TIME.  You can’t delay release date because one platform has a problem.
    • Often you will be forced to release with minor bugs to avoid introducing new big bugs/stop-ship regressions.  Why?  It’s easier to ship with minor bugs and then provide a day 0 patch because you can then pull patches if it breaks, but releasing with a showstopper is the end of the world.
  • Steam Early Access games/route:
    • On almost every steam early access game forum page – people railed absolutely VITRIOLIC HATRED against the problems and bugs they find.  People completely flip out – even despite all the huge warnings that beta/early access games will have problems.  You spend LOTS of time having to deal with those problems and bad PR/unhappy folks despite the fact these issues are exactly what one should expect.  People have crazy expectations.  Steam has tried to help issue by placing more warnings.
    • Plus side of early release is that it does build a community and funds you until ship if dev cycle too long for you.  Also, playtesting is ‘free’.  People trying totally different stategies that break the game/etc are revealed early.
    • My own side note: why don’t early access games only show up in B&W or with red pre-release overlay/border to make it even more clear they’re not playing a full release game.
  • Publishing slots
    • Bigger games must sign up for ‘release slots’ on a publishing houses’ schedule.  There is often a fixed schedule with only X number of Triple-A releases, Y number of Indie, Z number of casual, etc.  You have to sign up for one of these slots well ahead of time – and the slots all come with different conditions.
    • Early exclusives, for example, are often part of the conditions of a publishing houses release slot.  Often you aren’t paid for all the extra work or the fact it’s exclusive to one platform – it’s just flat a condition of xBox/Sony or the publisher’s release slot you signed up for.  So stop thinking that certain exclusives make the dev rich – they usually don’t get anything for it.
  • Patent trolls:
    • 15% of on dev’s emails were patent trolls threatening to sue.  He simply had to just ignore them and see if any bubbled up.  Other heads nodded this happened to them to lesser/greater extent.
  • Shipping:
    • Don’t fret if you hear that/your game is delayed.  Games that are in great shape get shipped (as you’d expect).  Good games that *could* be great (but are not due to flaws) get delayed.  Bad games will always simply ship because they know nothing will fix them and you just get what you can out of them.  Delayed games are a good sign because that means they’re willing to pay to fix things and you’ll really be getting a better game.
  • Managing your community:
    • You spend a LOT of time with annoying personal attacks over and over again.  Tip: the emotional damage is already done, so let it go in that moment.
    • You will get lots of hate comments every day.  Really, really hurtful ones too.  Unbelievable stuff.  Every morning.  Made one guy never want to go look at twitter/facebook.
    • Death threats are common – and becoming even MORE common.  Everyone on the panel seemed to have gotten a few.

Session: Game career management

Panel of Indie developers.  Much of this was similar to things that had been shared in previous years.

  • They re-iterated much of what was said in previous years.  You should be networking and connecting with as many Indie devs in your area/forums.
  • Indie appears to be moving towards more seasoned vets that quit ‘regular’ dev jobs to go into indie development vs fresh-out-of-college types.  Experience is more important now.
  • Do not be the naysayer on the team.  Anyone can do that.  Be a SOLUTION provider.  That’s what makes you stand out.
  • Be bold – remember that the worst anyone can say is ‘no’.  You won’t make an impact if you don’t make a difference.
  • Finish what you start.  Getting to 80% of a finished game is still no game.  You must complete it to be anything.
  • More elaboration about being ‘passionate’.  One guy was having trouble staying motivated after all the long hours, low pay, and balancing his personal relationships.  The panel pretty much said, “Get out – you’re not passionate enough’.  Personal note: This sounded nasty because his concerns were totally normal work-life issues.  Basically, the panel seemed to indicate they only wanted people that were willing to trade anything to be in the industry – family, personal life, etc.  Since when has ‘being passionate’ meant ‘be our slave-robot in our game mine’?  I would have hoped to have seen some helpful suggestions on balancing work-life and tips to staying passionate (which IS a problem for everyone at some point despite what the panelists believe).  Left a bad taste in my mouth about their companies since they clearly were of the mind you toed that line or were gone.





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