Destroyer concept

This is a concept for the smallest carrier in my game. It will be about 1 screen in size, about 20 ship lengths.


Intangible business costs

When I first set out to start my company, I basically did the time calculation as follows:

w = Number of hours of work
m = Number of months I want to finish in
h = Number of people I have to hire.

The calculation is then simply
h = w / (m*hoursPerMonth)

Before doing that calculation, I actually doubled w, to account for time in beta. I also increased h a bit, to account for lost time to to communication, since programmers do not scale linearly, but inverse exponentially.

The final total was about 4 months for 3 people. This was about 50% on me, and 25% for each of the other two programmers. I didn’t account at all for things I considered to be trivial / intangible – billing, hosting, finding artists, setting up a server, finding tools for communication and development, time off (just assumed a 4 month crunch), delays due to sickness or hardware failure. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about these things, but that I considered them to be too trivial to schedule. My concept was “How long could it possibly take to find, do, or manage [x]? Just post an ad (or do a web search), interview a few guys (or read a few websites), and go with it.”

In the optimal scenario this is actually true. The problem is that the world is filled with people who have nothing better to do than waste your time. This ranges from hosting services that take your server down without warning, to Linux programmers that don’t even know how to open files in windows, to people that spend weeks discussing a project only to ask for 4X more money than is reasonable.

So each of these steps of running a business become very time consuming, and there isn’t always an easy way to tell the difference between the guys who are wasting your time, and those who are not. For example, if I want a quote on my art assets, I really need to spend a lot of time explaining the contract every time, because no matter how detailed my asset list is, people will not understand or appreciate certain aspects. This is especially true if you are trying to save money (as I am), because at the low end of the totem pole there’s a lot higher noise to signal ratio.

As a result, I’ve learned to appreciate the value of businesses beyond the amount of intellectual property they own. Each programmer represents not just any dude off the street, but a long, careful, and expensive search both to find and retain a worker. Making a new programmer productive costs about that much again, when you account for the months of initial downtime required to train someone to really be productive. Getting a working setup and source control reflects many hours of work, from setting up the server, to finding a reasonable host, to purchasing the license, to training everyone how to use it. Having a team handle your art outsourcing takes many hours to find a qualified team, one that can do the job cheaply, setting up communication channels, explaining the requirements (including documentation), and sweat and worry that you might get ripped off anyway.

My initial schedule of 4 months with 3 programmers is now 6 months with 4 programmers (double the man hours) and even with that I don’t think beta will be long enough, and time is of the essence. Half my time currently goes towards intangibles. Tasks originally assumed to be trivial (a few hours) sometimes end up taking weeks. And other problems come up, such as sick time, people quitting, and bad hires. For example, nearly a month of productivity was lost in the first two months just from dealing with bad hires.

My advice to would-be game companies is to add 3-4 man months on to the total schedule to account for these kinds of things.


Aria Billing Service

Yesterday a friend and I spent some time talking to Aria Systems, a company which specializes in billing systems for games. Basically, they provide the webpage by which users can pay, they handle the payments, and they pass the result of the transactions back to the customer (me). The good thing about this is I then do not have to get a secure webpage and handle these things myself. Although admittedly it is not that hard – I’ve set up this billing system before and it only took me a few days, even with recurring billing. I just like the security of knowing that a 3rd party is handling this, so I am protected from credit card fraud, webpage issues, etc.

The bad thing about this is how much they charge – the setup fee is $1500, even for the most trivial case (such as mine – just a flat monthly fee). They also take 2%, in addition to what the credit card providers themselves take. This will amount to over $1,000 a month and would only get larger as the game gets more successful. This 2% does not go down until you take in a million dollars a month, at which point it goes to 1.8%. That seems pretty outrageous to me. 2% of a million a month is $20K a month, just to have your billing processed by a 3rd party. For 20K a month I could hire a team of 3 guys full-time and host my own servers, and I doubt it will take that once the initial systems are written.

Anyway, I’m willing to go with that, except for one part in the contract I’m seeing if I can negotiate out. They want a 3 year exclusive deal to provide this service. What I said to this was:

I’d like to add “This agreement may be terminated by either party at any time, with or without cause, with 3 months written notice.”

With this change I can agree to the exclusivity agreement. Without this change, if Aria were not able to compete on merits in the marketplace, I would be locked in to providing my customers with less than the best possible service. If you’re confident that Aria is and will remain the best provider of billing services, then there shouldn’t be any problems and I will have no reason to switch.

It seems ridiculous to me that they even ask for this. The way to keep my business for 3 years is to provide the best service at the best price for 3 years, not to force me into the service without my prior knowledge of how good the quality is. I have a feeling the reason for this is what I was saying above – at my initial levels of sales, it’s cheaper to pay them than it is to hire my own guy and do it myself. At higher levels of sales, only someone with no other choice would pay their prices, which is what I think they are counting on.

Their responses to my initial emails only took minutes to get returned and its half a day now with no response to my last one. While I could be wrong, there’s a good chance I’ll never hear from them again. And that’s fine with me. If a company themselves do not feel they can compete on the merits of price and service, then I shouldn’t feel that way either.

*** EDIT ***

They got back to me a day later with an OK.


Going with Slovakia

In a surprise twist, the company in Brazil turns out not to have any people with game art experience. I asked a friend who has his own company how important this is, and he told me “Very” so I dropped them out of the running. Between the company in the US, headed by the former WoW guy, and the one in Slovakia, I just decided to go with the latter. This is because I just am not confident that the game can get done with what is basically 1 1/2 guys working at half salaries for 4 months as a favor to a friend. I’m guessing it’s a 50/50 chance in that scenario the guy would just drop out or not put enough effort in, and the game either wouldn’t get done or wouldn’t get done right.

The more I think about this, the more confident I am it is the right decision.

First, with the 1 1/2 man company working on the cheap, if there’s a problem and something takes longer than expected, there’s only two possible outcomes – it’s late or features are dropped. There’s no profit margin to cut into to hire extra guys, and with so few people they are already working at 110%. With an established company, guys can be moved from other projects and the art can still get done on time.

Second, with the 1 1/2 man company, the people who will be working are unknowns – sure there’s a certain level of reliability when hiring people you know and trust, but at the same time it’s not like they are established in the job. There are growing pains, and they may only be taking the project conditionally, until they get an offer they can’t refuse. People are much more likely to leave on a new, low paid, temp project than from a company they have already been working at and living off of.

Third, 1 1/2 people is so few people that if one guy goes down, so does the whole team. With a company, there are extra workers, computers, backup power generators, etc. – basically factors to deal with one person or computer going down.

Lastly, it’s the choice between two bad alternatives – having the game done at a worse quality, or not at all. The worse art quality will at most cost me some percentage of subscribers, which I doubt will be significant. All I need is the art to be good enough to get people to notice the gameplay. The other alternative, not having the art done at all, is guaranteed to cost me 100% of subscribers. So in that context the choice is obvious.


Art bidding down to 3 companies

My art bidding process has narrowed down to 3 companies. I’m really not sure who to go with.

The first one is in the Slovak Republic. They want $30,000 for 4 artists for 4 months. This sounds like a great deal and I was going to move forward with it. But they sent me some sketches that show they totally ignored what my asset list specified, which is that I’m going for a believable military look. The reason this is such a major problem is that if they are making such fundamental mistakes that even I can see it, what kind of mistakes will they make for things I can’t see, and will just get a bad looking game? For example, maybe a poor choice of a color scheme, or bad contrast between the background and the ships. If I was already an artist it would be OK but I have to really entrust that the company I go with knows what they are doing and I didn’t see that here.

The second is the guy who was on World of Warcraft. This is $30,000 for 1 1/2 artists for 4 months, plus himself directing. From talking to him I can tell he understands the requirements and isn’t going to screw up direction, the way the first company might. Plus he wants to work for me after my game ships, and it would be great to have the same guy doing both pre and post release art direction. My major concern is that I only get 1 1/2 artists to do the work that other art companies have been estimating between 2 to 4 artists. This kind of estimate cuts no slack at all – if it turned out halfway through he thought it was an undoable amount of work, I’d be stuck high and dry, where with a bigger company, where I had slack to begin with, they could assign more people. Even if he refunded my money, which I doubt would happen, I’d be behind schedule and it would kill me in other ways.

The third is a company in Brazil. They’ve quoted $30,000 for 8 man months of work, done over a period of 4 months. That’s actually not a very good deal. Even a top-notch artists in Brazil makes about $2000 US a month, and I’m being charged double that. On the other hand, they are very professional and they’ve clearly done high quality work for major companies. If their estimate is accurate (2 guys for 4 months) then I could just as well go with the company in the US and avoid the time zone and communication problems. I’m also concerned that they are taking a literal interpretation of my asset list. While it covers most of what my game needs, it’s obviously impossible to think in advance of every possible effect my game might have, especially since I don’t plan to do the art direction myself.

I wrote back to the third company clarifying what I need. If they are taking a literal interpretation of my asset list, or they misunderstood the amount of content I wanted, I will go with the second company. If everything was clear I’ll probably just go with them.


Art bidding

I have 5 companies bidding to do the artwork for my game now.

Two are in preliminary stages and didn’t get cost estimates back to me yet. It’s possible they will go nowhere. One in China and one somewhere else (I think Europe).

One, in Brazil, quoted $60,000 which is absurd, because workers in Brazil make 1/4 of what we do. So it’s the equivalent of a US company asking for $240,000. This is 4 months of work on an Indy game. What the guy told me is he charges by meters, so if a spaceship is $100 a star destroyer 100x larger is $10,000. That’s a stupid metric. If this was a first person shooter and you were walking on the surface of the Star Destroyer, and the SD was the entire game, then maybe I’d use that much detail. But it’s a space game zoomed way out. Symmetrical with windows as filler is good enough. Either they are trying to rip me off or the communication is beyond horrible. Either way, I don’t want them, so I told them to forget it.

One, in the US, will be between $20,000 and $40,000, not sure yet. I think they could do a good job but they are very poor at responding when they say they will. So I might not go with them because if it’s this bad now I think it will probably be worse after I pay them.

Another, in the US, will be $30,000 and will get back to me in 2 days. It will be an art director, who formerly did WoW, and a couple of juniors. The communication is really good and I’m moderately confident that it will get done correctly.