LA Games Conference – A Bird’s Eye View

This past week, I attend the 2015 LA Games Conference as a volunteer for Digital Media Wire. It took place at the W. Hotel in Hollywood and I was able to listen in on some of the biggest trends affecting the game business today.

Here’s some of the highlights from my three favorite panels that caught my ear.

View from the Top: State of the Game Industry moderated by Eric Goldberg, Managing Director at Crossover Technologies, and this panel had it all.

“Over the long run consoles are going away” says Michael Pachter, one of the most influential analysts following the game biz as Managing Director of Equity Research at Wedbush Securities.

The topics ranged from mobile studios wanting to only focus on “hardcore games” and the importance for brands to have “scale” in order to market themselves well. The popularity of Episodic gaming content was a big focus which made me think of our episodic game in development ‘V.Next.’ Our CEO Paul Furio makes the same point in that “People can become emotionally attached to a great narrative.” – Koh Kim, Business Development at Google Play Games at Google.

Keynote Conversation Ted Schilowitz interviewed by David S. Cohen of Variety

By far the liveliest person I met was ‘Futurist’ Ted Schilowitz, the VR Creator at 20th Century Fox and at the forefront of the digital revolution says “Everything is free is a horrible pipeline.” Ted’s a believer in the power of virtual reality to create new and engaging entertainment experiences and during the discussion he said “We are very close to releasing our first commercial product” he also said “I come from the future” which I later tweeted to Ted that he is in fact my VR spirit animal.

Playing for Real: How eSports is changing the Game the last panel and most fascinating!

eSports which coincidentally, was added to the dictionary last week, http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/05/07/esports-officially-added-to-the-dictionary is the ‘sport’ of competitive Gaming.

“These Kids Have made their names out of their basements” says Jason Xu, CEO, Battlefly, and is adamant that professional gamers are in fact ‘athletes.’

This segment of the gaming community agrees that it’s about the players and the fans building up a community. It’s no wonder that competitive gaming draws over 70 million spectators and presents a unique, new avenue in the entertainment market.

Special thanks to Ned Sherman and everyone at DMW for a truly compelling event.

For more news follow us on Twitter @syncbuildrun and sign-up for updates at www.vnext-game.com and we’ll send you some cool exclusives.

Conforming to Expectations

One of my favorite psychological experiments is the famous and ethically-questionable Stanford Prison Experiment. If you’re not familiar with the experiment, the brief summary is this:

In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Phillip Zombardo selected 24 college males who were psychologically stable and healthy, and randomly assigned the roles of prisoner or prison guard to each, in a 50/50 split. With a semi-realistic prison environment, and isolation from the rest of the world, the students very quickly embraced their roles, to the point of several guards becoming sadistic and cruel and several prisoners suffering mental breakdowns within days of the start of the experiment. Even Zombardo shifted his view from researcher to “prison warden” until a colleague of his asked the pertinent question for any experiment, “what’s your Control?” At this point, the experiment ended early, although participation affected the students deeply for years to come.

The key takeaway from me for the Experiment has always been the speed at which individuals will fully embrace and conform to the role in which they are placed. When a role is reinforced, even slightly, a feedback loop begins where people act in a manner more and more in line with the expectation for that role, which reinforces the perception, and so on. A telling point in the experiment is that within only three days, the “prisoners” were willing for forfeit payment for “early release”, or were negotiating other terms to avoid further abuse at the hands of the guards, when in fact they were free at any moment, as voluntary participants in a psychological experiment, to walk out of the facility and return home. People, inevitably and quickly, conform to expectations for the role in which they are placed.

I mention this because of two points I would like to make. First, with regards to managing and leading teams, I’m aware that team members will conform to the role expectations in which they’re placed. Thus, whenever someone reports to me, I treat them like they’re one level above whatever their actual job level is. If they’re a Software Development Intern, I treat them like I would treat a full time Jr. Engineer so that they understand what the expectation is of their next role. Mid-Level Managers are treated like Sr. Managers, and are pointed to examples of great Sr. Managers, so that they understand the role to emulate, the expectations, and they begin to grow the actual skills and abilities of the next level. Nothing stunts a career more quickly than to place someone in a box at or below their current level, and keep them in that box forever. If you show someone an opportunity for growth, and give them an example of what that role looks like, they will conform to that role. At AMZN, this led to several of my reports being promoted, including my very first promotion recommendation, which apparently was a rarity for a new manager at AMZN. This was a process that worked.

Second, as we look at a series of troubling National incidents, we see a pattern of role expectations. When citizens are under constant surveillance by their government, they begin to act in an untrustworthy manner, because the role of being watched constantly sends the message that they require surveillance. When racial or ethnic groups are policed more harshly than other groups, or are treated like criminals, they lash out in a manner related to criminals, because they conform to the expectation. Some media will state that this just proves the surveillance or policing was justified, but this is just a post hoc fallacy: the role assignment caused the behavior, not the other way around. If we treat our citizens and all ethnic and social groups like informed and intelligent actors worthy of respect, they will rise to fill that role.

Part of what we’re doing with SyncBuildRun is to build games that features characters who give our players good examples of those roles. Building good role models is important, and building role models for overlooked groups is critically important, because too many people have difficultly emulating success without a solid role model to follow.

Unfortunately, modern media, especially reality television, is saturated with terrible role models. 40-something housewives should not aspire to be petty, bickering older versions of teenagers. Business people should not emulate the cold, harsh, cruel capitalists we see on TV. Student athletes should not become spousal abusers, or perpetrators of animal or domestic violence.

Certainly, our heroine of V.Next, Vivienne Denue, is an outsider, but her values and accomplishments over Season 1 set her as a role model for a purpose-driven technology enthusiast. We’re demonstrating a character with high moral standards, an ability to overcome challenges, and drive to understand and utilize technology to achieve her goals. For the additional IPs we have in development, we have similar goals for and qualities of our central characters. When players inhabit these roles, they begin to conform to the expectations, so of course we want to present roles that elevate and encourage our players.

Our goal is not to create more prisoners or guards. Our goal is to build more leaders. That’s our experiment, and I believe it’s a highly ethical one.

Become a Stranger in a Strange Land

Last night I attended a “Shark Tank” type event sponsored by the Zino Society, a Seattle-area Entrepreneurial and Angel Investment group. By attended, I mean I dropped in uninvited, handed over a business card and paid out of my corporate account (because it’s a write-off, right?), and no one asked me to leave. I got to stick around for a few hours, do a Scotch tasting, network, and listen to some pitches.

As a technical leader and former full-time software developer, most of the first 15 years of my career was spent getting better at writing code. I learned about design patterns, architecture, dove into the nitty-gritty of TCP/UDP networking, UI implementation, efficient data structures, multithreading, and so on. All of that is important in order to deliver solid software that performs well, doesn’t crash, and delivers a compelling experience to customers.  After 15 years, I never considered myself an expert, but mostly because I was always comparing myself to much more senior developers. Looking back at the Jr. and Mid-Level developers, I was a super-efficient coding machine.

However, I didn’t really think much about leadership, management, business functions, or the other questions that get asked when deciding in what direction to take a project. Over the last five years, I’ve found that these have been far more important in driving my career, teams, and projects forward than constantly trying to find new ways to level up as a developer. In fact, I would argue that the difference between a midlevel-to-senior developer and a high-level architect or Director of Engineering is not that the high-level person is an order of magnitude better developer, but that they have broader experience and are able to forsee the business impacts of their decisions far better than an IC developer.

The key experiential differentiator between the solidly employed and the highly successful is that the latter have mastered two different skillsets. Business and Software. Engineering and Design. Art and Commerce.

This is why, now, when I have the chance, I don’t attend engineering conferences. I don’t hang around with too many other game developers. I’m actually more interested in how other CEOs think about their business and their problems. How do investors think, and what questions do they ask? How do leaders hire great people? How does marketing work?

The Zino Society event was uncomfortable. Despite my love of blogging, I’m still an introvert at heart. A great night for me is sitting with my wife on the couch, drinking wine and watching a movie together. But I got out, and met a few great and talented CEOs. I spoke briefly with the keynote speaker, who was seated beside me for the Scotch tasting. I listened to the business pitches and grilled them on their mitigation strategies. Yes, my initial questions were technical in nature, but I’ve learned to ask about their business, their pivot points, how they grow, their market share, runway, revenue stream, and so on.

I have become used to being a stranger in a strange land. It’s something I recommend for everyone who is looking to grow personally and professionally. Get out of your comfort zone. Get off the couch. Meet people in a different industry, but one that interests you. Stretch. Grow. Be uncomfortable in the short term, so that you can be very comfortable in the long term.

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.

A few random notes

There are just a few things we want to share this week:

1) If you haven’t signed up for our mailing list on the V.Next website, please do. We’re releasing music samples, art samples, screenshots, and more info about the game every Monday, but only to the subscribers on our mailing list. If you want to be in-the-know early, please sign up.

2) There’s a great article on PocketGamer.biz about the “Netflixificaation” of games, that is, ad-free and microtransaction-free high quality gaming delivered on a subscription basis. Our first game won’t be a subscription per-se, but once we have several games available, we’re considering this path if it’s something customers might like.

3) We have some more interviews and podcasts coming up, and there’s a gameplay video in the works, but we’ll get firm announcements about those as they get closer to release.

4) We’re looking for a software developer, preferably in the Seattle Area, but remote is fine. We’ll have an updated job posting on our website shortly, but if you’re interested in games development and have shipped at least one title or customer-facing software product, please send your resume to careers@syncbuildrun.com.

Doing the Impossible

I spent the last week doing a lot of reading, as well as getting our game site updated. If you haven’t seen it, check it out at http://www.vnext-game.com/ I’m really proud of the work our team did putting that together and publicizing it. We had some stalls, namely that we promised an update by Mid-March, but didn’t hit it until almost the last week of the month. I take the blame for that, as I didn’t communicate the expectations to the team, nor drive the proper results. We got something great out, but it was behind schedule. As an organization that will deliver content on a set schedule, this is something we need to fix, and we’re going to fix it before launch. That’s our promise to the customer.

As for the reading part, I started with Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One“, and am currently finishing up Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” One thing that strikes me about both of these books is the idea that to be successful, a company must do something ten times better than the current best implementation on the market. It’s something that resonates with me highly, because of the two things we’re trying to do with our first game.

I’ve gotten a lot of pushback about the idea that we’re going to release episodes weekly. Some have said that the only way to do this is to burn out the team. Others have recommended that we scale back to twice a month, or every other week for an episode. Still others have simply said “it can’t be done.”  Don’t ever tell me it can’t be done.

Television shows put out content every week, some, like talk shows, every day. Radio, podcasts, comics, newspapers, and plenty of other media have solved the weekly cadence problem. Why should it be impossible for games? Right now, DLC for large AAA games is released about three months after game launch. The best episodic content out right now is about 10-12 weeks between every episode. Every other week is only a 5x improvement. We have to be weekly to hit the 10x goal. If television can do it, so can games.

We also know that there’s that emotional and psychological benefit to a weekly cadence. When every morning, the same day of the week, kids in the cafeteria or coworkers in the break room are talking about what they saw on the latest episode the night before, they build a routine, and that builds an interest in those around them. It’s an organic audience builder. The in-group is having a shared experience and people want to be part of the in-group, so they start watching or playing too. If the content is great, and regularly released, the audience grows. If we can back that same experience with some technology that can help us figure out what people like and dislike, we can improve every episode, until the actual released final episode is far better than we could have created if we did so without audience input. Then we have a loyal fan-base that is incredibly eager for the next season. It’s what every creative team craves.

Going from Zero to One means making something that no one else is making. It’s not just some tiny efficiency. It’s building something that no one else has built. And it’s not just one game, it’s an entire series of interactive experiences that are delivered on a predicable cadence. If we do this right, we can be the AMC of interactive gaming. That’s the goal. Maybe that makes us a media company instead of a technology company. That’s fine.

Is it impossible? No, we’re not trying to turn Lead into Gold. Attitudes can change. Stories can be told. Player and customer bases can grow over time. Now we need to build it, and get our players talking. Never tell me something is impossible, unless you want to see it accomplished beyond your wildest expectations.

The Devil in the Details

When I was at AMZN, an App Analytics company called me requesting a phone screen. I wasn’t really looking to leave my team at the time, but I usually take any opportunity to learn what another company might have to offer, and to understand a bit about their culture.  They were based out of the Bay Area, with a local Seattle office, and I guessed (correctly) that the regional Director was looking for someone to take over the day-to-day management of the local dev team so that he could focus on more strategic issues. That Director and I had a nice conversation, and I stated that I wanted to do a little more research before getting back to him about possible next steps.

I opted not to leave AMZN at that time, but in my research, I discovered that the CEO of this company took pride in the fact that he still wrote code on a regular basis. I found it curious that someone with high level responsibility for an entire company, the P&L, and the broad vision, could actually still contribute to product. Perhaps he was only writing prototype code, or working on side projects, but still, he was coding, and that was impressive.

One of the earliest job postings for a role at AMZN, back when it was called Cadabra, stated that the company was looking for developers who “should be able to do in about one-third the time [what] most people think possible.” Jeff Bezos himself stated even while I was there that he wished the company could just move faster. It’s something I struggle with every day. On the surface, most features seem simple and straightforward. “We just need to be able to make a person run around the screen,” or “we just need to load a level and display it.” To someone who hadn’t done this, but had seen it done a hundred times before, it seems incredibly easy. It’s been done in countless games, why shouldn’t it take less than a day to get working?

But the devil is in the details, in covering all the edge cases. How do we ensure that the player doesn’t fall through the floor when they move? How do we keep them from running off the screen? Are they playing the right animation when they move? Are they sized correctly? What if they fall off a ledge? How do we load the levels? What if the level data is corrupt? What do we do then? Then, actually coding this up, testing the code to ensure that it works in every possible case and combination of cases, the complexity and amount of code quickly spirals and expands, and what seems like a 3 day task actually takes 9 days. No wonder Jeff wants people to do things in one-third the time.

This isn’t a problem unique to software. I have several friends who are actors, and if I use the Way-Back Machine, I can see a time when I acted in several High School theater productions. To an outsider, acting seems easy. Speak a few lines, look pretty, and then make tons of money and bask in fame. However, that’s not the reality at all. Actors have to focus on the meaning and purpose of every line, for there are at least a dozen ways to read “Hand me the keys, you -!” (That’s one of my favorite scenes from The Usual Suspects.) Which word gets the emphasis? Me? Keys? Hand? What’s the tone? Who is being spoken to? What’s their reaction? Actors also need to present a continuity of emotional state across a scene, which may take several days to film. Alternately, they may need to present a range of emotions across a 90-minute live theater production. They have to be realistic, believable, react appropriately without giving away anticipation (they know what the response to their line is, after-all), and usually with a potentially distracting live audience or film crew watching. As I learned filming and directing a music video for the Seattle band SMP, 3 minutes of on-screen footage might take two days of filming work. And the devil is in the details, in every frame, every motion, every mood, every line.

As the CEO, one of my advisors told me I only had two jobs: Keep the money flowing, and set a broad vision. Personally, I think I have a third job: Unblock my team, and enable them to create the best work possible. Understanding the complexity of their roles and tasks, finding ways to remove bottlenecks in ways that are not hand-wavy management speak, means diving into the details and keeping one hand in the code. Right now, I’m both Leader and Developer, but I can see my role shifting more towards the former and less towards the latter. Still, I don’t think I can ever step entirely away from the code, even as I hire up a development staff. Keeping an eye on the details means ensuring the right experience for our customers, and that’s the path to building great products and a great company, no matter how many devils have to be stepped on.

(This post has been edited to correct the quote from The Usual Suspects.)