Developers Open Up About Failure

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“In general I find there’s three major things that will kill a project: unrealistic expectations, bad communication, and poor planning,” begins one developer’s email. “Allow me to tell you some stories…”

Tell stories he does.

It’s no secret that someone with coding experience can earn a livable wage with contract work for larger companies. Though this kind of work is not as edifying as work in a creative field, there are still a myriad reasons to take on this kind of job, such as financial stability and experience. But no one entity is immune to failure; while nothing like the dot-com bubble (and subsequent burst) of the late nineties, there is still a substantial degree of flux in any kind of software and development market.

Game developer and Golden Gear studio Co-Founder Alex Bethke has found great success in this line of ad-hoc work, having worked on over 90 projects in his career. A significant portion of those have seen release in one capacity or another, but others have not.  It was his email that identified the three “project killers,” and he was gracious enough to talk to me about these failures.

“In 2010/2011, I was hired as a contractor for a studio to be the lead programmer on a Facebook game which was going to be something like Farmville meets a tower defense game,” Bethke begins. “It was a great project with a ton of personality, but it also inevitably ended up in the ‘failed’ column on my personal score card due to the fact that it only made it to public beta before one of the main partners pulled the marketing budget, dooming the project to obscurity.”

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A beta version of the project was supposed to launch two months into development, but unfortunately, personnel issues became an insurmountable challenge. According to Bethke, the game’s primary designer left roughly two weeks into development, long before the design of the game had been completed. Without a project manager or any real oversight, Bethke himself took to organizing the efforts, including lead work and design, putting in overtime for many months to complete any work at all on the project.

Nine months later the beta was finally released, but at that time it became clear to Bethke and his team that the marketing budget they’d been promised wasn’t going to materialize. Without the funding or the organizational support necessary for a launch of a game like this, finding a user base to support it was out of the question.

Corporate funding falling through for a social game might not be news, but it’s interesting to hear Bethke’s description of the multitude of failures that coincided with the monetary issue. Even more cringe-worthy, though, was Bethke’s story about working with a multi-million dollar budget writing software for a casino.

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“The idea was to create a new suite of games while rewriting the entire casino client, along with a brand new server that could handle the growing demands of the company’s clients,” he says. “One of the big problems that I saw–in hindsight–was that the company tried to do all three things are once, meaning at some point the cross-dependencies between all the teams began to cripple the development progress.

“The client-side developers needed changes made to the server-side based on requirements from the business team,” Bethke continues, “but the server had already been ‘QA’d’ and so they didn’t want to change the code, otherwise it would require retesting everything. But if that wasn’t done, the client developers couldn’t fulfill the business requirements.”

It was a whirlwind comprised of the three precise issues Bethke mentioned earlier. But just like the previous example, there were several other problems that culminated in the failure of the larger project–primary among these was the passage of a legislation determining the legality of online gambling. The multitude of challenges forced Bethke’s employer to cancel the project in order to “refocus on their core business.”

Unsurprising on one level, but shocking on another. This was a casino, and the work they were doing was ostensibly to revitalize and modernize their business. That work came to a screeching halt.

All experiences can have value, though, and there was good that came from Bethke’s five years with the casino. His team lead on several projects there was Andrew Traviss, and the two would later go on to found their own company, the aforementioned Golden Gear. Together, they’ve learned from that experience, and are quickly building an impressive roster of their own, helming the newly-released Long Story and an upcoming iOS port of Analogue: A Hate Story.

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But what happens when a corporation isn’t part of the mix? What if it’s just a few people making a game? Failure still happens, all the time. Jeremy Springfield contacted me to share his experience, and a few of the details about his project’s dissolution could help other developers understand the process–as well as communication–better.

Working on an undisclosed game for Dormouse Games, Springfield emailed with the following initial statement: “Co-founded a game company! Woot! We made a game. Published a game. We suck at marketing bad games. No one plays. No one cares.”

That phrase, “we suck at marketing bad games.” I had to know more.

Springfield remains unquestionably forthright about the specific shortcomings of the game. “The game is extremely narrow in focus,” he begins. “It’s fun for a play through, but once you move through it, you don’t really want to pick it back up. We assumed that people would enjoy a mental challenge more than somewhat mindless levels, and boy were we wrong. The levels are all manually crafted, and actually making the levels was a ton of fun. But, that creates an issue where it takes tons of time to make a level, but not much time (for the player) to figure it out. “

“Great games get found and shared. Bad games get marketing budgets.”

He goes on to say that, in hindsight, they should have been releasing “polished prototypes” on third party sites, getting feedback, then finishing the games people liked. It’s a model that seems to have worked for Vlambeer, and given promising games, could work for anyone.

But that still doesn’t replace marketing, which he also identifies as problematic.

Springfield says, “Really, the marketing sucked because we didn’t have any experience doing it. We could have either had a better game, or better marketing skills and better results.” He tacitly acknowledges that the quality of the game is partly to blame, but admits that marketing is still “a skill all its own,” before going on to say “you don’t have to market great games.”

“Great games get found and shared. Bad games get marketing budgets,” Springfield concludes.

If the quality of the game was weighing so heavy on his mind, I started with the obvious questions. Would more development time have helped? Or was enough time even allowed to complete the game? Did he ever reach out to anyone in the indie community for help?

“We set down a six month development cycle for a twenty-level puzzle game that had a sub tens of ten thousand dollar budget,” Springfield answers. “We thought, ‘This is small! This is fast!’ It was not nearly small nor fast enough; we should have spent one month each on six games with a zero-dollar budget.”

Springfield notes that this was his first commercial project that he worked on to completion, but he still never felt like he was in over his head. It was an uneventful release with relatively few hurdles. However, the feedback they did get had only proven what he already knew.

“Whether you like metrics or not, everything gets measured,” he says, “and at the end of the day, when the money doesn’t come in the door, that’s a pretty big indication that something (probably multiple things) are not working. When people don’t engage with the game they are sending a message by lack of communication.”

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I asked about feedback from other developers, and I was surprised by the answer. Springfield did get some help, specifically from Dave Bisceglia at The Tap Lab and Dejobaan’s Ichiro Lambe. “But other then those two specific people,” he says,  “getting ‘advice’ from other indies generally was not as helpful as the community often makes it seem.”

“We reached out to a lot of folks,” Springfield clarifies later, “but not really in the right way. Not in a way that forced them to be blunt with us; to be honest and direct.

“It’s hard to meet for an hour and get people to really be brutal with you. We felt like we were interrupting people. We let meetings get pushed off, and didn’t follow through. So again, this was our issue, not others.”

Owning up to this is significant, especially since not everyone would, but there has to be an element of truth here. Unfortunately, feedback can be a tricky thing. Could Springfield and his partner–as new, relatively unproven developers–have simply mistaken encouragement for lack of criticism? Or were the developers providing the feedback just treating Springfield and their game with kid gloves?

Game development is difficult. There are a lot of moving parts, and in order to talk about any modicum of success, projects need to move out into a public forum. It’s there that things like finance and relationships will start to have an impact, and how successfully individuals navigate those waters will determine whether a project thrives or not.

Is Jeremy Springfield done with games? He admits his take feels “tonally negative,” and “the fast pace of games is a real turn-off,” but he also says that he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

“Well, I would not say that I’m soured on the idea of game design,” he says. “I design game-like things because I have no choice; it just happens when I’m bored. I find it really entertaining and just can’t stop.”

To see developers on Twitter gallivanting about from convention to convention, jetsetting across the globe to promote a single game, or bragging about Greenlight statuses, it would be easy to think that the world of game development is a life of excess and luxury. It’s not. It’s increasingly competitive (by exponential margins), and expectations have to be realistic. And those public faces? It’s important to remember that most of them are in the limelight not only because of their success, but also because of their failures.