Six months ago, I left a six-figure job as a Software Development manager at Amazon.com so that I could start my own Video Game Studio, SyncBuildRun. I walked away from an amazingly productive team that I loved working with, a supportive manager, and opportunities for career growth at a top tech firm. I had over $100k in cash and stock saved up, a supportive wife, an ambitious idea, and a plan. Here’s what went right and a little less-than-right over the previous six months.
What went Right?
Mentors – Before I started this adventure, I set up a series of recurring appointments with industry veterans that I respected, who had a history of success. I’ve met with startup founders, technical experts, game designers, public speakers, and more than a few accomplished VP and C-level executives. Keeping these conversations going, getting their opinions, asking the right questions, and keeping abreast of the problems right around the corner has been invaluable in making sure we’re always marching forward. I am deeply in debt to every one of my mentors, and thankful for the time that they spend with me.
Great Hires – Hiring is difficult. It’s easy to hire poor performers, but very difficult to hire solid contributors. I’ve been lucky with the three contractors that I’m working with most closely, in that their contributions have really raised the bar for what this project can be. So far, we have defined the look and posture of the main characters, the overall themes and tone for the soundtrack, the title sequence for each episode, and the setting and story arc for the overall game. I’m happy to work with this great team, and I hope to be able to continue to work with them as the game progresses, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these guys for another project.
On Budget – When I started, I estimated that I had about 18 months to 2 years of financial runway. Given the low figure I’m paying myself (enough to cover the mortgage and pay bills), plus other business expenses (paying the team, legal costs, overhead), I’m currently somewhere between 20% and 30% through my overall budget. In other words, I’m right on track for where I thought I’d be at this point in development.
Solid Concept – When I tell people about the game concept and about the Episodic format, the result is always the same: amazement and enthusiasm. The people with whom I speak about this game are excited to see it and play it, and when they ask the hard questions, they’re impressed by the answers. We’ve thought this through, considered the edge cases, and we’re doing something that’s really unique in gaming. I think people are going to love it.
What could have Gone Better?
Overly Optimistic Development Schedule – Like all software developers, I was highly ambitious with what I thought I would be able to accomplish in time. My initial goals were to have three game modes fully prototyped by the end of December. Not only did that missed milestone make a lovely wooshing sound as it flew by, but I decided to add a fourth game mode. The upside is that I prototyped the most complex, risky, and difficult game modes first, and am currently running pre-alpha tests with a small number of players to get further feedback and refine these risky modes. The remaining modes are known quantities that will be familiar (and fun!) to many players, so I’m less worried about surprises there. Still, I wish I were about one month further along.
Some Hires Taking Too Long – Finding a production artist has been the most difficult challenge, and it’s not for lack of trying. There are lots of talented artists out there, but finding the ones who have art plus 2D animation skills, who are versatile enough, employable in the US, and available has been a challenge. We’ll also need some developers soon, but I’m less worried about that. Still, it would be great if everything regarding team building moved a little faster. I have found that this is true everywhere, so at least I know I’m not alone.
Marketing & Business Surprises – The biggest miss to date was not having a solid Go-To-Market plan, and this includes a strategy around how we announce, whether we do a Kickstarter and how we do it, how we get press coverage, how we determine our customer base, and so on. We’re about to sign a contract with a dedicated PR person, and we’ll have a nice website with plenty of pictures, video, and information on it pretty soon. This area is difficult because there’s no “one right way” of doing PR and becoming a known quantity, but six months of stealth mode seems like an eternity, and it’s time to emerge from the cave and show the world what we can do.
Various Little Problems – Then there are all the little issues. Problems with Code Signing Certs. Problems with various business people who are late, or don’t return phone calls. Problems with contract revisions. Problems with web databases. Problems with code that works in one environment but not another. They’re all solvable, but they become death by a thousand cuts if they’re allowed to pile up. Such is running a business, and honestly, at least here I have control over what to focus on and what problems to swarm on. That beats the seemingly random tossing and turning that can be endemic at larger, more bureaucratic companies.
We’re weeks away from announcing our game, figuring out a Kickstarter strategy and timeline, doing a Steam Greenlight campaign, and ramping up our team to full production capabilities. If we’re smart, diligent, and focused, by this time next year we should be about midway through the first season of our first episodic title. We’re super excited to announce and make players happy, and while there will doubtless be more bumps along the way, I think we’re in for a really great adventure.