End of Line for the V.Next game.

To all our fans and supporters, we thank you for sticking by us and cheering us on as we attempted to change the world of gaming.

Sadly, we have decided to cease operations as a company and halt development on V.Next as a video game. We will update in the future with any new V.Next related content that might be released.

Thanks again for being our fans.

Bad Employees and Bad Managers

As my career hunt progresses (I have interviews lined up with nearly half a dozen tech companies with Seattle offices), I wanted to get out a few more blog posts before my next employer imposes any rules they have about blogging.

This week, I want to talk about the downsides of managing people and being managed.  First, let’s talk about being a manager and dealing with underperforming employees.

I’ve had to do my share of terminations and position eliminations, and I can tell you that it’s not fun. There’s no joy in telling a person that they have to find a new source of livelihood, that their life and potentially the life of their family is being put in turmoil. However, when someone is repeatedly not hitting the bar for productivity, it’s the best thing for the company and the team to exit this individual. Keeping around low performers will demoralize the high performers, and there’s a cost to the company if someone is not returning your investment in them. A company mentor at a previous role phrased terminations as “helping an employee find their true calling somewhere else,” which is not a terrible way to frame the probable reasons for the underperformance in the first place.

The exact process will differ per company, but barring gross misconduct, the usual steps for exiting an underperformer are a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, followed by a PIP, which is a “Performance Improvement Plan.” A PIP is a set of strictly defined, and precisely measurable deliverables, usually over a three-to-six week timeline. Hit the goals, and the employee can stay, miss any one and they’re out. Smart employees who get to the PIP stage will note the trend and resign, or find a new role elsewhere during that time.

After much thought and experience, I’ve realized that, given an underperformer, I can usually predict who will stay and who will go within about a two month window, which is about the right time to try some mentoring and course correction for employees who can be saved, and certainly the upper limit on the amount of time a disaster employee should be kept around.

The key attributes of a salvageable underperformer are Awareness and Responsibility. An employee who knows that they’re falling short and proactively seeks out help from their manager, who owns their performance and looks for ways to improve, is usually one who can be saved (given that they take action based on the guidance given). These are employees who will come to a manager outside of normal One-on-One time, who will say something like “I know I didn’t do as good as we needed to do on this thing, and I want to know how to fix that,” who will fess up to a mistake or alert a manager to a failure before the manager even knows about it, and will look for ways to mitigate or prevent the mistake in the future. These are fine qualities, and this employee is coachable and improvable. At the very worst, these are the types of employees who, if they can’t meet the demands of the role, will look for something new, and as a manager, I could honestly recommend their drive and enthusiasm to a new employer, with the caveat that they were merely in over their head at a challenging role.

As an example (and one I’ve used before), I had a Test Engineer who was smart, enthusiastic, and looking for bigger roles, but who made a tragic mistake one day. She came into my office, teary eyed, and told me that while attempting to do some backup work on our backend services, she accidentally blew away our entire Live Production Database, and didn’t have an up-to-date backup that could be restored. She told me she would understand if I needed to fire her. My five seconds of silence probably did not reassure her, but I was more in shock that she immediately did the right thing by escalating the situation than by her emotional state or the state of our product. After all, we had dozens, not thousands, of users who were affected by this, few of whom had paid us more than a few dollars each, and we were technically still in Beta, so we could communicate this however we wanted. It also pointed out that we didn’t have a strict, checklist-based process for handling the Production Database, and our backup timeline needed to be more frequent.

Still, I told this employee that I was not going to fire her, and that she should go for a walk to calm down, and then come back in 30 minutes or so and we’ll talk about what we need to do next. We had a nice conversation after that about process and procedure, how she now had an opportunity to define that, and that the only tragic mistake she could make would be repeating the same error. This employee had underperformed on a few occasions, but always owned her mistakes, looked for ways to improve, and took the advice emerging better on the other side. Today, she is a successful engineer at a major media company.

The employees who cannot be saved are the ones who do their best to “get away with it”, whatever “it” is. These are the employees who hope a manager won’t notice their screw-ups, who say that some problem is not their fault, who blame other employees, market conditions, the work environment, or Whatever for the problems they’re having. These are the employees who say “I thought it wasn’t a big deal,” or “I don’t know what happened,” and then offer up no effort to figure out what did, indeed, happen. “Am I in trouble?” or “Am I being punished?” is a key giveaway, because they employee already thinks they’re doing something wrong, but hasn’t owned up to that, and is simply trying to avoid personal pain. Any one of these statements is an instant bit-flip for me, and triggers a kickoff of the above three-step process for exiting an employee.

Some memorable examples of these types of employees are the college hire who was consistently late to work in time for mid-morning daily Stand Up meetings, and when I called him on it, claimed that he was “just out too late last night.” Every night. There was the employee who left a secret device out where it was picked up by office movers, instead of locking it away in a safe as he was supposed to, and this device ended up in a public area. There was the employee who failed to deliver her numbers, or a plan for improving them, and when presented with an example plan claimed that “it’s just so hard to do all this.” All of these people had to go, and did, and I no longer have any tolerance for these types of behaviors or excuses. As a manager, neither should you.

Finally, I want to turn around and talk about preemptively feeling out managers when changing teams or looking for a new role. This one is actually a lot simpler, and actually comes down to “go with your gut.”

It may seem counterintuitive to the new role seeker, but you will never have more power or leverage in a role than when you are first applying. The second that you accept, you forfeit all of your negotiating stance. That said, hiring managers and recruiters should be doing their very best to woo you to the role. If your hiring manager is enthusiastic about you, listens well, addresses your concerns, and pays attention, these are all good signs that you will at least be well lead in the new role.

If you are ever talking to a potential new manager and they are checking their email, answering texts, looking elsewhere, striking up conversations with other passing employees, or in a rush just to get the conversation over, while they should be focusing on you and your questions about the company and role, then run far, far away as fast as you can. This is not a manager for which you want to work. If this is how they treat you when they’re trying to impress you, how do you think they’ll treat you when they’re not?

In hindsight, the very worst manager I’ve ever had did all of these things during our first conversation. He told me how important the role was and how much the team needed me, but he kept checking his phone for emails during our conversation. After giving an answer to each question I had, there was a curt “Allright? Anything else?” as if he just wanted to get the conversation over with, and move on to his next task. He even scheduled our initial chat for 10 minutes at the end of the day, instead of carving out time to diligently discuss the role and the future of the team.

At the time, I thought these were all problems I could live with, and potentially improve given time. I weighed the opportunities to work with a very bright team and make a real difference on the project. However, all of these were for naught, because being managed by this leader was insufferable. The same answering email behavior during the initial conversation continued during our One-on-Ones. Coaching was poor. I was miserable, and my performance suffered as a result. In hindsight, while the team I managed would have been adrift, the better move for my career would have been to stick with my existing team at the time, where my manager was excellent. (Why did I move? I didn’t know staying on my current team was realistically an option, as can happen when two Directors say “we really need your help over here.”)

So that’s it. As the saying goes, Fire Fast and Hire Slow, or perhaps “be hired slowly”. The key to knowing when to do each is to pay attention to the motivation and attitudes of your reports and potential managers. If something feels wrong, it probably is, and it’s better to preemptively correct that than to let it linger and get far worse over time.

Stepping Back from Startup Land

The time has come to face the data before me, and make a difficult decision. Based on our velocity, our minimal feature set to launch, and our cash on hand, we will not ship V.Next before we run out of cash. Thus, V.Next development will move to a part-time gig as I seek employment elsewhere. The TL;DR here is that V.Next will still ship, just not by February 1st, 2016 as I had hoped, and not as part of my full-time efforts with SyncBuildRun.

How Did I Get Here?

The original goal for SyncBuildRun was to create two products. First, an Episodic Game with high-frequency releases (ideally, weekly) that captured the imagination of our customers and built a franchise of games and media. Second, a back-end data collection and analysis system that would allow us to examine player interaction and preference, and tune future episodes to be more engaging and satisfying to our customers. The high level goal was to productize the buzz process around Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, so that we could predictably produce hits. You know, like Pixar, or Disney, or AMC (for the most part). Easy.BlogImage3

Except of course that it wasn’t so easy, and we didn’t really expect it to be. Building the game took longer than expected. Building a team took longer than expected. Our Kickstarter failed. There were prototypes and experiments that we built that went nowhere. We spent money on efforts and people who turned out to not be a very good investment. We scaled back our plans for the game, and the backend analytics platform turned into a data collection platform (we’ll analyze it later, we told ourselves).

Thus, here we are, eight months away from having something to ship with only four months of cash left in the bank.

Is This Failure?

No, absolutely not. Clearly we didn’t hit our goals of building a company that could self-sustain through a product launch. However, we still have a solid foundation for V.Next, and we’re months away from having a launchable product. We’re also on Steam, which means we have a place to distribute our product and earn revenue. Actually, it’s THE place to be to launch a PC game, and there’s no sunset date on that. We can launch when we’re ready. That’s great.

BlogImage1Personally, I don’t see this as a failure, but as an incredible, immersive learning experience. I leveled up at People Management, at Software Development, at Hiring, Marketing, Planning, Organizational Skills, Money Management, Forecasting, Data Collection and Analysis, and Pitching to Investors. While an MBA would have been less expensive, I gained a crossover skill-set while building a product that can potentially still return on my investment. I got to see firsthand the ins and outs of starting a business, the legal issues, the accounting issues, and the joys and foibles of marketing. I feel better prepared than ever to drive forward with any new “from-scratch” endeavor.

I also feel orders of magnitude more confident about my software development ability. Honestly, leading teams prior to this effort, I always felt somewhat short of where I should be as a developer. Sure, I had designed and written major components of large, successful products, but I had never done the full end-to-end on any product with the exception of one small web game. Now, I can say that I’ve written the entire app myself. I understand initialization and clean shutdown, the asset management systems, the input loops, event handling, the scene graph, the renderer, the audio systems, the overall system manager, the backend interfaces. I know when to use the Command Pattern, and when the Flyweight makes sense. I correctly implemented Factories and Interfaces, and compartmentalized the the code well. I built the tools that make our conversation system trivial, and data-drove the experience so that a little XML has a huge impact on the gameplay. Most of all, I solved every technical problem I encountered. No issue will ever again seem “too difficult”, because I have a methodology for driving solutions, and the track record of executing against that goal.

So this was a leveling up experience, with a product that will be delayed by a little less than a year, but still much further along than most games ever reach.

Finally, I will never again wonder “what if.” The worst possible outcome of my life would be to hit retirement and question my decisions, or have regrets about life goals not pursued. I will never regret this time because it allowed me to answer that question, have that experience, and build something that I’m proud of. Plus, it will ship, and on that day sometime within the next year, I can say I have a game on Steam that people are playing.

Why Take This Route?

I’ve been asked if I would do another Kickstarter, or go for IndieGoGo, or look around for investors. The first two options are certainly doable, but they have a lot of risk, and they also present an opportunity cost. Kickstarter is essentially a full-time job, as is IndieGoGo, and I would essentially be doing pre-orders. The community management and marketing side of each takes away from time that we can push the game forward. On the investor front, we’ve received a tiny (compared to overall investment) amount of money from family, but there is a lot of risk around this project, and I’m not as confident that there will be a good return for future investors as there could be if we were going against our original goal of game + full predictive service.

Also, when we look at the data, our hopes for 100k+ sales of V.Next were wildly optimistic. Daily website visits to vnext-game.com peaked in the low hundreds, with an average of well under a hundred sessions per day. Our MailChimp list of “interested followers” never peaked above 300 subscribers. We had over 2000 people vote Yes on our Steam Greenlight page, but less than 300 backers on Kickstarter. Facebook Ads had a worst case user acquisition cost of just under $5/User, and a best case of $0.78. Articles solicited by our PR representative had a far worse cost (multiples of our intended sales price), and demonstrated negligible upticks in page visits or mailing list subscribers. Given that we need to sell 10k copies of V.Next just to break even, the data stands against us. A miracle could happen, but good businesses are not based on miracles, unless they’re a 501c3.

Regardless, barring an unlikely life of unemployment, we’ll be able to pay our investors back (eventually). So that’s not a loss for them. Just a very very low interest long term loan.

What Went Well?

As I stated earlier, I wrote a lot of high quality code, and I have the foundation for something we can ship. It downloads and runs off of Steam right now (for our development account) on PC, and is getting there for Mac (there’s a content prepping issue, but we’re researching that). The game launches, plays, performs well on low-end machines, looks good and sounds good, but isn’t content or feature complete.

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We also did really well with hiring for content creators. Our music is top notch, we have an amazing title sequence video, our production art is perfect, our scripts are high quality and engaging, and our concept art incredibly either matched the vision in my head or far exceeded it. We kept our bar high for hiring, and developed a good set of interview questions, portfolio review, and culture fit. Although a large number of our hires were remote and contract, we maintained consistent communication, rapidly fixed problems, and received our deliverables on time and on budget. We met our company Core Value of No Difficult Geniuses.

We also have great advisors. Meeting regularly, as well as frequent email exchanges, our advisors were able to point out blind spots, make recommendations, and point out opportunities that we hadn’t seen before. We had a solid policy of “nothing is off the table” when it came to conversations with advisors. I never took criticism of the company or product personally, but I also didn’t always follow the advice of my advisors. Still, having great, experienced advisors who can offer an outside perspective is one of the most critical recommendations I can make, both for companies and for individuals. Wherever you are in your career, even as an IC, you should have two or three experienced people you can reach out to for advice and mentoring on at least a monthly basis.

Steam Greenlight also went well. Achieving that within a week was amazing, and watching V.Next go from launched on Greenlight to the #9 game out of thousands in the charts was highly encouraging. (More on this below.) Our Episodic System works well. Our tools for building and editing content are solid. Our codebase is relatively bug free and not too fragile. We have a small number of passionate followers.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

The biggest misstep overall was chasing Kickstarter and Investor Funding. As an advisor told me “making games is like panning for gold, and mostly you just get rocks.” Gaming endeavors that don’t already a demonstrate a proven track record of massive revenue or massive, engaged user bases simply do not make attractive investments. The Kickstarter process involved months of planning, content creation that could only partly be reused in game, and a publicity and marketing campaign that ate up tens of thousands of dollars. The opportunity cost there was that we weren’t building the product, and the outlay for PR and ads would have given us six more months of development runway. About 40% of the content we developed for Kickstarter was useful for Greenlight, so this wasn’t a total wash. The Greenlight campaign also gave us a false sense of hope for Kickstarter, which caused an overinvestment in Kickstarter publicity. Amusingly, the week we cancelled our Kickstarter, an article came out on a major gaming website describing the trends for Indie Game Crowdfunding, and how it had become a lost cause for new companies and new IPs. This data was literally two weeks too late for us.

We also pushed the feminist angle hard on our marketing campaign, with assurances from an advisor and several game community members that this would generate press and vastly increase our exposure. As a manager who wanted to create a more equitable environment, my heart was in telling a story about women in tech, presenting a strong and smart female main character, and showing the then fresh #gamergate community that female-friendly games were here to stay and could be successful. In the end, all the efforts around this angle had no material consequences. Online Community leaders who verbally committed to spreading the word didn’t follow through or had no impact. There was no press pickup. Some backers were turned off by the social commentary, and none of the backers who committed funding commented that this was a positive for them.

We did have one internal conflict that we should have solved earlier. Two people involved with the company got into an intense disagreement that I had to resolve, and this distracted from focusing on the game and the Kickstarter. There were multiple lessons learned here about performance management, communication, firing fast and hiring slow, and how we should drill down into ambiguity about what constitutes success and what is a process for getting there. I will never again accept “I have a secret system for achieving results” as an acceptable answer. Any system or process can be described and examined, there is no value in a process in and of itself. Executing the process is where all the value lies, and there should never be a fear that someone else will execute against your secret process once you share what it is, because most other people are too busy with other stuff. Performance against expectation must also be measurable, and steps must be taken to quickly evaluate and correct if these metrics are not being met. All hires from then on out were based on ability to execute, not on pure domain expertise.

From a tech side, we explored and prototyped ambiguous game modes too deeply, and too slowly. Creating our Side-Scroller Game Mode took a month longer than expected, but was also the most visually appealing and attention grabbing part of our game. I should have created that first to build interest sooner. The other game modes could have been explored and patched in later.

Delaying the episodic aspect of our game and getting a shorter “pilot” experience would have been a better approach. We could have evaluated the IP and the user base, then sold the Episodes as DLC once we understood what customers liked about our game. Alternately, we could have re-skinned the game or pivoted earlier to a different game type given our knowledge after release.

Finally, I wish I had gained a co-founder within the first three months of starting the company. Having another person in-house who was personally and financially invested in the game and company vision, who could contribute Marketing, Business, or Creative Expertise to balance out my Technical and Management expertise, and could take on some of the responsibilities that I was handling, would have been a huge boon. It also would have changed the conversation with investors, the press, and the public. Being a solitary CEO and business owner is a lonely experience, and having to stretch and grow into areas outside of my domain expertise was good for me personally, but not optimal for the business. My advice to other startup founders: Get a Co-Founder ASAP, or find one before you take the leap. (Yes, I know co-founders bring their own set of headaches, but having run a partnership before, I would prefer that situation.)

So What Now?

We have about four months of runway left. We’ll continue to work on the game and drive content and functionality forward. In the meantime, I’m on the hunt for a Seattle-area company that can use an experienced Software Development Leader to help them drive their goals and vision forward. Once that transition happens, V.Next will drop to a part-time effort, which will slow velocity, but keep it moving forward. It will take up no more time than soccer games with the kids, PTA meetings, and helping out with homework, which in my case will be a fine trade off since I don’t have children. It’s what I would do in my spare time anyway.

For our customers and fans, V.Next will come out, on Steam, sometime in the next year. It won’t be as soon as we wanted, and there won’t be as many episodes as we wanted. However, you will be able to play this game. It’s come too far, and there’s too much good stuff in there, to cancel it completely. Our contract workers are all paid up. The only people left with anything to lose are myself and our customers. I don’t plan on letting either down.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. Now, onward to what’s next!

Paul J. Furio, CEO & Founder SyncBuildRun, LLC

A Quick Survey about V.Next Episodes!

We’ve hit our internal Alpha Milestone, meaning that we just have a few more features to add, some content to complete, and a lot of bugs and polish to fix. However, we’re looking forward to releasing Episode 1 (and that means Season 1) of V.Next within the first three months of 2016! This is great news for all our V.Next supporters!

We are aware, however, that other episodic games have… fallen short of expectations. Given our current lean-and-mean development team, we don’t think we’ll be able to hit our goals of 18 weekly episodes for V.Next. However, we want to understand what’s most important to our players, since “Focus on the Player” is one of our company Core Values. 

Thus, we’re asking you to fill out a brief survey. It shouldn’t take more than a minute, honestly, unless you want to write us a note at the end. In that case, take as long as you want!

Here’s the link for the survey: Click me!

In the meantime, don’t forget that you can purchase a V.Next T-Shirt on Amazon.com to show your support for Vivienne and Cyberpunk Hackers everywhere!

Thanks again for following our progress on V.Next!

Breaking Radio Silence

It’s been a while since we made a post about V.Next, and going quiet for too long can be discouraging and disconcerting to our players, which we of course want to avoid. We still love you!

Thus, we’re sharing a status update so you know where we stand. The TL;DR is this: We’re still making our game, it’s going to be more slim, but less expensive, than our original plan, but we still have a path to deliver on our original goal of 18 episodes of V.Next.

Now for the details. Obviously missing our Kickstarter goal was sad, but hitting our Steam Greenlight goal was great. We can ship on Steam, which is where all the players are, which is great for both them and us. In terms of funding, we’ve had to scale back a bit on our vision, but that’s fine, we expected this as a possible outcome. The obvious question is, what does V.Next look like for you, the player, when it ships?

Our artist, Sebastien, has been cranking away on character animations and settings, and I (Paul) have been coding like mad to get the game moving forward. Right now we have Vivienne walking around what we’re calling “the Hub”, which is a representative part of Seattle, from the Port, through Pioneer Square, up across the highway, to Capital Hill, including some underground sections of a Light Rail station and the Bertha Tunnel. We can enter and exit various locations, like Jackson’s hardware shop, the Metro Noir, and a bar and nightclub where various meetings with some of the more interesting characters in the game take place. We can also stand in front of a workbench, and move to Circuit Mode (where we modify hardware), or a computer and move to Code Mode (where we go online and enter cyberspace). We have achievements, save-games are saving (but not yet loading), we can start a new episode, set our settings, view the credits… a whole bunch of stuff that’s necessary for a game.

We have cut out motorcycle mode, which, based on feedback was one of the least visually appealing parts of our trailer, and in terms of gameplay, was the most superfluous. We’ve also scaled back how our missions work, but we still think they’re going to be great.

Our goal right now is to hit an Alpha (feature complete, testable) version of the game, with a single extended episode, by the end of October. That’s right around the corner, so we have a lot of work to do. Still, this will let us tweak and tune the game until we have something that’s super fun. What we’re planning on releasing will be a single episode of V.Next at a reduced price. The game will be fully playable, with an exciting single episode story, and we’re still planning on random mission generation for when that episode is over.

Here’s where you, the player, come in. If we can hit our goals for numbers of players, we can produce a bunch more episodes for free, and then complete Season 1 as a reduced cost DLC. This means that you’ll probably get about 30% of our original planned Season 1 at a very low price, and can complete all of Season 1 at a 25% discount from our original plan. What a great value! Anonymous would be delighted!

We’re going to get back on schedule for making weekly updates on our status, with some more screenshots and movies to be sure. We know this upcoming week, everyone is focused on PAX, and we really wanted to demo there or at SIX (the Seattle Indie eXpo), but that wasn’t in the cards. Still, if you see us around (we’ll be at PAX on Monday, and around town the rest of the week), say hi, and we may be able to give an in-progress demo for a few people if we have our laptop with us.

Thanks for being fans and supporters, and we’re looking forward to showing you what’s next!

Why Make a Game for PC & Mac?

As Game Developers, when we talk about Platform we are talking about which devices and systems on which we will release our games. XBox? That’s a Platform? PS4? Platform. iPad and iPhone? That’s the iOS Platform. PC, Mac, Linux? All separate Platforms.

As players, it’s often confusing as to why a developer would choose to release for one platform and not another. We’ve seen passion around game console platforms approach a religious level of fervor, and there will always be a small number of vocal players who want a game on their relatively obscure but favorite platform (“Bring the game to Linux!”). Why does a developer create a game only for iOS, or only for PC/Mac, but not for XBox, PS4, or Android tablets?

From a developer standpoint, we ask ourselves several questions. First, does the platform meet the technical requirements for our game? Is the platform powerful enough to run the game? Is there a lot of variation on the platform (different GPUs on PC) or is it relatively uniform (iOS)? Does the platform primarily use the expected interface methods (game controller vs. multitouch vs. mouse and keyboard)? Is there typically enough memory on this platform for this type of game? Is a fast internet connection required, or even available?

Second, what are the costs for developing for that platform? Does the platform require a lot of low level code optimization (PS3, for example)? Will the developer need to purchase a $10k development kit, or a $100 developer license? What software is required to build for this platform? Is there an existing content pipeline, or must one be built? Is it easy to build cross-platform code, or is a from-scratch port (rebuilding the game for a different platform) necessary?  Game Engines like Unity can make the latter part easy, but incur their own costs.

Finally, what are the player expectations for this platform? Is there an already established predominant form of gameplay on this platform (Racing or Shooters for Consoles vs. Multitouch Games for Tablets & Phones vs. Adventure or Sim Games for PC)? How does this game align with that? Does the platform typically offer long gameplay experiences, or a few minutes of entertainment? What do players typically pay for a game on this platform? (iOS users, for example, are relatively happy to pay for DLC or powerups, while Android users are notoriously cheap.) How do players get games for their platform? How discoverable are new games?

When we started building V.Next, we knew we wanted to build for PC and Mac because it offered us the most straightforward way to build an interesting and differentiated game experience, while delivering what users on that platform expect. PC and Mac are the home to the most innovative, and even experimental, games that are being created today. Only on a PC, could a hacking game like Zachtronics TIS-100, or the upcoming Quadralateral Cowboy, work. We knew each episode of V.Next would incorporate up to an hour of gameplay, and we knew players on these systems want and enjoy the longer term engagement. We also knew that Keyboard and Mouse would be the right interface for what we wanted to deliver.

Will we port our games to iOS and Kindle Fire Tablets? It’s in our plans to do so, but we’ll have to alter our interaction model a bit. However, we’ll deliver on our original vision for the game by first releasing on PC and Mac, and we know players will love the nostalgic, retro experience of this game on those launch platforms.

 

What’s Next for Seattle?

Guest post from our Episodic writer Qais Fulton, an experienced Writer and Narrative Designer with a diverse portfolio of cross-platform content spanning over five years in the game industry.

From the turn of the 20th century, Seattle has, at its heart, been a boom town. Alaskan gold was the source of our city’s initial growth spurts, and since then avionics, music, and technology have been a part of Seattle’s history of cyclical growth. While each boom and bust has left its mark on the city, Seattle has always managed to retain its character, the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make it what it is, bobbing along on the swell and break to wait for the next wave.

The combination of quirks, boom town resilience, and constant overcast skies make for a perfect cyberpunk setting. Odd sights on every corner, neon art flashing out from the windows of abandoned storefronts, grey skies and hissing rain that lasts for months on end. It’s a city that’s been undeniably ours for the length of its history, but lately that’s begun to change.

The transformation that’s come to Seattle on this latest wave of growth has long-time residents rattled. Our city is riding the swell, as it always has, but the marks left behind in this case may not be so easy to shake, and seem set to leave the city unrecognizable to those who’ve always loved it.

As big business sweeps across downtown, throwing up skyscrapers and corporate campuses as fast as construction contracts are signed, Seattle is rapidly becoming a shadow of its former self. The hilltop neighborhoods that served as a refuge for artists and queer communities are becoming home to quick-build condos, areas in which six-figure salaries and mixed-use residential/retail towers are the de-facto standard, while everything that gave the city its draw is paved over.

As we create the Seattle of V.Next, we’re looking at the change that’s come to our city and forecasting its future, and while the rain doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, the heart of our city is changing. It’s not hard to imagine a Seattle in which wealth and irreverence turns vibrant culture into a metropolitan amusement park, with its attendant weirdos pushed out to the fringes and niche neighborhoods by corporate influence and class stratification.

The future we’ve envisioned for Seattle is unquestionably a dystopia, but it’s not without hope, and it hasn’t forgotten its roots as a haven for misfits, artists and eccentric geniuses. To me, Vivienne Denue represents that hope, the desire to fight for a unique identity. Just like Vivienne, we’re fighting corporate titans more focused on the bottom-line than leaving the soul of the city intact. We’re fighting to keep the memory and identity of Seattle alive.

Why Episodic?

Starting a game company means that one faces a lot of questions. Why games? They’re hits driven, and it’s such a risky industry. Why PC/Mac? Everyone knows everyone plays on mobile devices these days. Why not microtransactions? That’s how games make money, and without them, you’ll go broke.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

The most frequent questions I hear are “what do you mean by Episodic?” and “Why Episodic?” Game companies have been doing episodic experiences for a while now, either by including a series of “bite-sized-chunks” within a standard full-length game, or by releasing new bits of story every few months. In the former, with games like Alan Wake, we’re getting a story told like a novel, with different chapters for the player to experience at their own pace. In the latter case, with games like “Life is Strange”, the players progress along only as new content is released, often with weeks between those experiences.

From a game developers standpoint, the “release a new episode weeks or months apart” story is advantageous because developers don’t have to create a whole game up front. They can release 20% of a completed game, see if Episode 1 takes hold, and then continue game development, releasing more episodes as they finalize new content. That’s great for developers, but pretty terrible for players.

When I think of episodic, I think about social rituals. I remember the days as a manager at Amazon where half my team would talk every Monday morning about what happened on HBO’s Game Of Thrones the night before, and the other half of the team would ask them to not spoil anything because they hadn’t watched it yet. This would continue for about four weeks, until the non-watchers would finally relent. “This sounds too awesome, I can’t not watch now!” Or sitting next to my wife on the couch on a Sunday evening, drinking a bottle of wine, and watching the latest episode of Man Men, The Walking Dead, or Halt And Catch Fire on AMC. We would talk afterwards about what happened in the episode, and it was a great way to end a weekend and reset for the coming work week.

It’s this weekly cadence that we want to capture, and we want people talking about our games every week. Yes, this makes it more difficult for us as developers, in that we can’t just release content months apart, but we know that weekly episodes works for television, both from a production and delivery standpoint. We know that customers love this, we can see the social interaction around every new episode of a television show, the passion and anticipation when a movie franchise announces a new sequel, the hunger for the next chapter in a series of novels.

We also know that when stories are told over time, they become part of the collective consciousness. When Spielberg released Jaws in 1975, it was a hit movie that spawned a series of sequels, but it was the frequent television replays that embedded the film in our culture. At least once a year, you can see Jaws on television, and for the past 40 years, it would be difficult to find someone who had not seen this film. The experience wasn’t just a one shot release, as so many games are, but was a viewing that people came back to again and again. The repeat showings lead to discussions, which lead to more viewers, which lead to greater social interactions, and so on.

When we talk about episodic, we’re talking about a weekly event for people to experience and discuss. We want our players to talk about V.Next to their friends and family, and we want them to tell their own stories, or contribute their own interpretation of what happened, or why. We know that episodic games, delivered on a rapid, regular pace, will generate a groundswell of enthusiasm, and that will draw in more players than any singular launch could generate.

We want people talking about our games, over and over again, because we intend to make some interesting statements with our games. V.Next, a cyberpunk game, is not just a “neon shooter.” It’s a game about technology, about feminism, identity, and purpose. It’s about doing things that have an impact that is bigger than ourselves, and embracing not just who we are, but who we strive to become. A story told over six months has a much deeper impact than one told over a weekend, and we know players will love the long term engagement that draws them in and keeps them coming back week over week.

Female Role Models In V.Next, and the search for Indiana Jones

Here’s a post from our newest episodic writer Marcy Holland, she brings her experience writing for television and film to our team.

Whether it’s the legions of young girls who picked up a bow and braided their hair, or the new generation of archeologists that dreamed of finding the Ark of the Covenant (but, never, ever opening it), we’re surrounded by examples of the profound effect stories have on our lives. The characters we love don’t simply entertain us. They help shape our identities.

For most of my childhood, I clumsily tried to find myself through stories. Like most girls who grew up in the 80s, there was a time when I wanted to be like Punky Brewster. And then Jem. And at one point, Michael Jordan (but who didn’t?). With each new hero came a new set of interests. I learned an instrument, became a human punching bag at a karate class, took up painting. I figured out what I liked, and what I didn’t like.

But then when I was twelve years old, I was introduced to Lois Lane. She was smart and funny and brave – everything I wanted to be. She could effect change in the world with her words; her pen was just as mighty as heat vision or super-strength. She’s the reason I bought my first comic book. My gateway into science fiction and fantasy. And, ultimately, why I became a writer.

With women making up only 27% percent of professionals in the STEM fields, there has been much speculation about the why. Why aren’t girls pursuing these careers? Why don’t they connect?

The answer, at least in some small part, is to give them their Indiana Jones.

This is what intrigued me about Vivienne Denue. It’s why I jumped at the chance to help tell her story. I imagined a young girl stumbling on a picture of Vivienne, and seeing a bit of herself. And because she saw herself, she’d sit down and play a video game that she would normally never, ever play. She’d fall in love with the world. With Vivienne’s friends. And along the way she’d discover that she had a knack for the puzzles. And she would wind up finding her calling.

Because that’s how it happens. Before we ever decide what we want to be, we decide who we want to be.

And for that, we look to our heroes.

Keep your dream Game Developers: Don’t sell out to a publisher

You’re a developer, or would-be developer, with a great idea for a game. Now comes the hard part, realizing your dream project. Can you make this yourself, or do you need to find someone else to pay you to do it? For too many developers with a dream and not much else, there’s only one option: get a big publisher to pay you to do the work.

For lots of developers I talk to, selling their intellectual property, their dream project is the only way to get it made. I’m here to say there’s another way. First we’ll look at why devs sell off their dreams; why my company, SyncBuildRun, isn’t; and how you can try this other way, too.

Developers tell me there’s several reasons why they sell off their IP:
1. Don’t have enough money
2. Don’t know how to do marketing
3. Don’t know how to do distribution
4. Don’t have the nerve to go outside what they know

All those are legitimate issues, but they shouldn’t be dream-killers (or –sellers). There’s too much emphasis and advice on ‘how can I get a publisher for my game.’ A decade ago, having a publisher to back your game was pretty much the only option available to someone with a great idea. Studios routinely did deals with a publisher, or even the company behind a particular console. But in 2015, the ability to develop, market, distribute and finance a game doesn’t just belong to big companies:

Development: The tools are cheaper and more powerful than ever to create games on big platforms such as mobile/tablets, PC, even the indie-game initiatives by Sony and Microsoft. For mobile, for instance, the time and expense it takes to create a title can be incredibly modest compared to building a AAA console title that might cost $40 million and three years to produce.

Distribution: Big publishers still dominate the big platforms, but companies such as Zynga, SGN Games and others came out of nowhere to create major presences online and on mobile. Valve, the company behind Half Life and Steam, went from being a game studio that didn’t own its own game to reclaiming the franchise and building the dominant online-distribution platform for PCs and Macs (SyncBuildRun plans release V.Next, our upcoming game, through Steam).

Marketing: Big publishers have battalions of PR reps, veteran marketing executives, eye-popping cinematic video trailers and so much else. But now, a smart startup can make a splash with the right audience just by being smart about how they leverage highly targeted PR, blogs and social media from the very start of their project’s existence. By the time the game debuts, these smart, small developers can have an outsized footprint, and an outsized market for their game.

Funding: Financing is the scariest thing for most small developers, and making sure that cash flow continues long enough to get the product out the door. In an era when Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding platforms have become the place to both raise money and test audience interest, the little guy doesn’t need to depend so much on Big Brother to get through. And the recent S.E.C. approval of rules for selling equity stakes through online sites provides another option for raising money that doesn’t require a company to sell off its entire IP simply to finish a project. Again, you have options. Think bigger.

SyncBuildRun CEO Paul Furio is building V.Next, his first game since leaving Amazon, as indie publisher. We’ll be doing a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the project. And I’ve been building our social-media, blog and social-media presence as we prepare to launch later this year. SyncBuildRun’s game is using all those tools that now dramatically reduce development costs, and we’ll be leveraging Steam for our initial distribution.

Paul tells me he’s taking this route because he has a great story he wants to tell, and because he wants to make that story gets told right. He wants to create something of value, and maintain control over all the possible spinoffs, licensing, merchandise and everything that can come with that. It can work for you too as a developer, if you put together the right team and strategy, and use all the tools available to us now as indie game creators.

Keep up with the latest on what we are doing by connecting with SyncBuildRun thru social media on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/syncbuildrun and Facebook http://www.facebook.com/syncbuildrun and sign-up to get exclusive game updates for V.Next at http://www.vnext-game.com