Understanding the Insanity

When I was at MSFT, working on Forza Motorsport and 1v100, there was a time around mid-March of every year that I grew to hate. I called it “the E3 Lie”, and it was a kickoff time of six-to-eight weeks of working on code, effects, images, videos, and sounds that in all likelyhood would never make it into the final game because they were meant entirely for the press and advertising at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the largest (at the time) conference and trade show for showing off upcoming video games.

As a developer, I hated it because it felt like we were throwing away valuable time making things for a very short term gain (Press! Publicity!) when that time could be spent improving the actual game that we would sell six months down the road. Every game development process includes hundreds of bugs, countless “nice-to-have” features, and weird audio-visual glitches (AKA low-priority bugs) that we want to polish off to deliver an amazing, consistent experience. I wondered, why were we spending this time and money making things that were throwaway, instead of making our shipping product as close to perfect as possible? I never really got an answer past “this is important.”

Now that I’m a CEO and a business owner, the tables, of course, are turned. What I realize now is that business is not the smoothly running ship that we idealize it to be as mid-level IC developers. Many leaders do a very good job at hiding the turmoil, and certainly I’ve been as guilty of (and praised for) this as the next manager. Perhaps my exposure to startup-land has prepared me for this more than my time in the seemingly safe ship of corporate America, but the metaphor of changing the tires on a car that is rushing down the highway at 100MPH is often all too appropriate.

Right now we’re looking for software developers, who we would love to hire full time, but we can probably only afford to pay for half a year, unless we raise money from Angel Investors or do a successful crowdfunding campaign, which we’re also pursuing, while simultaneously writing code and designing our product. Failures and setbacks at any one of these disrupt the others, and will cause us to pivot on some strategy. The safe move, the big company move, would be to smile and say “we’re killing it!” or “everything is great!” which is of course never true. Moving in the right general trajectory, yes. Great? I just read Ben Horowitz’ “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, and I wouldn’t describe any of his Loudcloud or Opsware days as “great” until he exited.

Are we in trouble? No, not really. But in the efforts of Being Relentlessly Transparent (one of our Company Values at SyncBuildRun), we understand that running a company is a risky endeavor, and that there will be a hundred things going on at once, for which we have to march forward with the right seventy, knowing that if 30 of those go wrong, the rest are in jeopardy. But that’s how it goes.

Why did we live the E3 Lie and build throwaway work? Because we needed to understand the customer interest in the final product, which would feed back in to how we focused our efforts to the rest of the game. We had to sell a vision of what we thought we should build, without actually building it, and see what resonated most with potential players. We also needed to know there was actual interest, and that we shouldn’t just assume all to-date effort was a sunk cost, and cut our losses by shutting down the project. As an IC developer with total trust in The System, having a big budget project like Forza cut nine months from release doesn’t even enter one’s mind. But I now assume it was on the minds of the MGS leadership every day.

What’s the takeaway here? It’s that as a business owner and leader, your worldview will be very different than as a team member at any other company. Crazy decisions from past roles will suddenly make sense, as you shift to a survival point of view. Your decisions affect not only your life and your family’s life, but the life of everyone on your team. There are crazy, seemingly counterproductive things that you have to do, but the insight that they will give you into the health of your business, and the preparation for launch and success, are absolutely necessary. Assuming the channel is deep and sailing blindly ahead is a great way to run aground. Better to send some sailors ahead in a dinghy with a weighted measuring line and barely enough drinking water than to doom the whole ship. These are the hard decisions you will have to make, and when you do, the insanity is clearly understandable.


 

If you’re not already on the V.Next mailing list, we encourage you to sign up at the V.Next Website. Every Monday, we send out a behind-the-scenes look at our progress on the game. A few weeks ago, we sent out clips from the soundtrack of V.Next. These were composed and recorded by our friend Tom Shear of electronic bands Assemblage 23, Surveillance, and Nerve Filter.

V.Next Theme Track : The music from the Teaser Trailer, and the theme that will play at the beginning of every episode of V.Next!

“The Factor” Theme 2 : One of the versions of the theme for the character “The Factor”, a former soldier-turned-hacker who assists Vivienne on her quest to right wrongs and punish the corrupt via cyberspace manipulation.

Vivienne Theme 2 : One of the versions of the theme for our main character, Vivienne Denue, hacker extraordinaire and all-around bad-ass grrl.

We sent out a new update today with more recent information, but only to subscribers of our mailing list. If you want to be kept up to date, subscribe now for the inside scoop ahead of the rest of the crowd. Thanks.

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