Welcome back, followers of the fearsome!
Over the years, and a few times recently, I’ve had people ask me what made me decide to quit my job in the AAA games industry, and start my own game-studio. Many people expect there to be one definite short term reason, but in reality there are multiple long term reasons. It all ties into what your life-experiences are, and what you want to do in your life. I guess a little history is in order.
Before I started working in the games industry I was creating PC demos. Mostly parts of demos actually, I didn’t ship that many actual products. I sure started a lot of them though! By building these little (parts of) demos, I taught myself how to program in Basic, Pascal, X86 Assembler, C and later C++. I learned about programming graphics, audio, input, file management, data compression (‘this has to fit in 64Kb!’), encryption, and many more topics. The thing I loved the most about it was the freedom to create whatever I felt like creating. Sharing what you created with like-minded people at demo-parties, exchanging ideas, it was awesome.
Then the whole 3D movement started with Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Descent, etc. This made me start work on my own 3D engine, and soon after I teamed up with a friend who had a company and was also working on his own engine. We combined the two, and in 1997 Digital Infinity was formed. A few years later Digital Infinity merged with Orange Games and Formula Games (a division of Lost Boys Interactive), to form a company called Lost Boys Games. Suddenly we were working with around 60 people, and everything changed. We still worked in three teams roughly made up out of the original companies, but we were all working in the same building. This was awesome as well as not so awesome. Awesome because I was working with a lot of talented people whom I learned a lot from. Not so awesome because suddenly there were managers and bosses that were to be kept happy.
In early 2002 the decision was made to cancel two of the three games in development, and focus on one game instead. Unfortunately the game Knights was one of the cancelled games, and most of the team working on it was laid off. I was allowed to stay and work on the remaining project, but I decided it was time for a change. In that day there weren’t many alternatives to Lost Boys Games in the Netherlands, so searching outside the Netherlands was pretty much required, and I sent out application letters all over the world.
One of the companies I sent my application to was Relic Entertainment Inc. I was a huge Homeworld fan, so I was really excited when I got a phone interview with them. They invited me over to Vancouver, BC, Canada. They showed me around the studio, and showed me Impossible Creatures, their new endeavour in the RTS space. Then they took me to a different room in the building and showed another game they were working on: Homeworld 2. (OMGWFTBBQ!!) They were looking for a physics programmer, which happened to be my thing, and they made me an offer at the end of the interview. I walked back to the Hotel deciding what to do. Should I accept the offer? Do I take the plunge?
Well, what’s the worst that can happen? I move, somehow it doesn’t work out, what then? I had enough money for a ticket home, so I’d fly back, and find a job somewhere. Didn’t seem like that big of a problem. I got my work visa in April 2002, and I hopped on the plane and flew to Vancouver, BC, hoping for the best.
And the best it was. Relic was a fantastic company to work for. I met so many super talented people at Relic, many of which I am glad to still call good friends. I learned a lot about adopting a different code-base, different coding techniques, saw amazing producers at work, and shipped a bunch of projects. While working on Homeworld I met another coder called Jamie Cheng. We talked a bit about side projects, and he told me he was working on a game in his spare time, just for fun. A few months later Jamie quit and started his own company Klei Entertainment. I told him that I really admired his choice, and that I’d want to do something like that at some point.
About 2 years after I started at Relic, THQ bought the company. The company quickly grew from about 70 people to about 200 people, while a lot of the old-timers left. This drastically changed the culture, and I felt the mandate was no longer ‘make the best games’, but ‘make the best game within this budget and timeline, preferably with this license’. We still worked on cool games, but something did definitely change. I was the Lead Programmer on Dawn of War – Dark Crusade, and Dawn of War 2 had just staretd. Being alead meant exchanging actually creating code to leading a team of programmers to finish a game. Though in reality it always was, lately it had really started to feel like ‘work’. I missed the days where I was actually excited to go to work and get cracking on some cool piece of code. Then the phone rang. “Hey it’s Jamie. I’ve got this proposal to do N for XBox Live Arcade on my desk that I don’t have the manpower for right now. Want to start your own company?”.
Well, what’s the worst that can happen? If eveything fails, I’d just find another job in games somewhere. It was early 2007, and at that time the games industry in Vancouver was pretty much booming.I had saved up some money, and I made some money off some Lost Boys Games shares when Sony Entertainment bought them and renamed them to Guerrilla Games. I had about $30,000 in my savings account, so I could live for a bit if it all went south. Also, I should note that I didn’t have a mortgage, nor kids, so there wasn’t really a big constant cost in my life other than food and rent.
I decided to take the plunge. I had seen how to create games, how to finish them, and I was pretty confident I could manage finishing a relatively small game. Also, this might be the chance to create my own thing, work on my own projects after the starter project was done, and get back to that demo-scene feel! So in 2007 Slick Entertainment Inc was created, and I’ve been running Slick ever since, and hopefully for many more years to come.
A few of the things where my expectations of running my own company are different from reality:
- The buck stops with you. At bigger companies, there’s always somebody else who can take on a task. Not in your own small company. All those tasks that need to be done? Guess who’s doing them. This requires a certain type of discipline that I didn’t need as much at the AAA studios I worked for. I think my early days in PC Demos helped, since I was quite self-motivated to learn programming, something that comes with a lot of mundane tasks.
- Working at a AAA company is frowned upon by some indies. I think it was an amazing experience, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. I learned so many valuable lessons on how to ship games, both technically as well as organizationally, I don’t think Slick would still be around without this experience.
- Stability is a myth. When I announced that I was starting my own thing, many people said ‘Oh that is awesome! I wish I could do that. It’s too risky for me though.’. I honestly think it wasn’t that risky. I felt like everybody was saying ‘but the water is so deep!’, and I felt like ‘I can swim, so the water depth doesn’t matter!’. Strangely enough only a year later (2008) the shit hit the fan, and a lot of ‘stable’ game companies went under. A lot of people were laid off at bigger companies. Meanwhile, I was plugging away in my own company, making decent coin.
- The freedom to create anything you want is paralyzing! It is really hard to decide what to commit to if there are no limitations. Sometimes it’s really nice to have somebody tell you what to do, and you just do it. Instead, you end up making decisions all day, every day, which can be very exhausting. It’s actually a real thing in game design as well. Giving the player too many choices makes the player not want to make any decisions.
- I do miss working with many super talented people in my field. I work with really talented people right now, but none of them are hardcore programmers. I miss being able to bounce ideas off fellow programmers. Luckily I’ve built up a fairly big Skype contact list, with many technical people I can bounce ideas off. Still, there’s something cool about absorbing new ideas from coworkers simply by walking by their desk and seeing what they are working on.
Alright, I think I’ve rambled on for too long. I think I might be procrastinating this network programming I need to do.
The buck stops right here!