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Breaking Point: When Money Matters
by Benjamin Quintero on 01/27/14 04:15:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[reprint from my blog]

I'm a backer for a Kickstarter game but have been a little slow to follow up on the updates.  Recently I had an opportunity to finally catch up and there was something that really touched me with the latest documentary video.  I'm going to do my best to describe something without breaking any backer-only secrets because I do feel that it is something worth discussing.

In the video, there was a disagreement between the designer and an animator.  The animator created what he felt was a somewhat comical moment while the designer thought that it was too soon in the overall arc of the game, that the mood should still feel more somber.  Ultimately, the disagreement ended in the only way most disagreements like this can end, the designer pulled rank to make it clear that the scene needed to be changed.  The animator was clearly hurt by the change but he swallowed his pride and, with a stiff upper lip, wiped the animation slate to try again.

In the workplace, these kinds of disagreements happen often, and even more so as the team size shrinks and more hats start to fall onto less people.  Though video games are developed by teams they are still teams of individuals with their own passions and their own desires.  No one really wants to simply be a tool with which to create another person's vision; most of use would like to infuse at least a little bit of ourselves into the work we are paid to do.  It is a difficult line to tow when you are feeling inspired but that inspiration seems almost misguided for the objects held by those above you.

I've had plenty of projects that involved a ragtag team of talent.  Some projects I pre-paid and others were built on "contract agreements" based on the release and success of a game or product.  When you are paying for a wage the dynamic doesn't change much from your typical 9-5 job.  Things get very different when you are trying to keep teams motivated on the promise of just having a completed project, and the promise of future payments.  A little money now almost always sounds better than the potential for a lot of money later.

I've had my share of moments like the one I described above, moments where I had to put my foot down for the sake of the project continuing to move forward.  And when the other half has no monetary investment in the game; no steady wage - when they are simply riding on the high of making something new and inventive - that bank account was just emptied out.

Like clockwork is seems that these "contractual agreements" seem to fall through in 2 situations.  The first situation is when the "wouldn't it be cool if" brainstorming is over and it's time to get to work.  This may be as early as pre-production or as late as early production phase.  The second is when the hard choices need to be made and one voice has to be the one that everyone follows.  The one voice doesn't always have to be the team leader or the designer, but all it takes is for any person's own wishes to be misaligned with those of the winning voice.  This mismatch is sure to spark departures from the team, and when you are looking at team sizes of 3-10 people you are talking about the potential of losing nearly half of your workforce because someone's feelings were hurt.

At a developer that I once worked for; a place where I had the pleasure of cutting my teeth in the commercial games space, we had something of an inside joke about the bonus checks that conveniently arrived around the height of the crunch cycle.  We called them attitude adjustments.

We'd all like to believe that we are better than money, that it doesn't control us, but money certainly helps to smooth the bumps we receive on the path to building a finished product.  Sadly, I've been a part of too many projects involving contractual agreements; some of them my own.  I have yet to ever see one of them reach the end.  The only projects that have ever seen the end have been those where money is the motivator, not the vision or the design.  I'm not sure what that says just yet.  In all my years of being in the middle of these grass roots games, I don't know that I've processed it long enough to know how to feel about it.  I always seem to be the person who holds onto the dream longer than most on these teams, and I try to keep the passion alive, but there are only so many pep talks and motivation speeches before people start to value their down time more than their need to push forward.  It's easy to see the missing number in the formula when every other box is checked; the talent, the design, the game plan, but not the money.

When I look at videos like the documentary I saw, I realize that game would have never been made without money...

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Javier Degirolmo
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The only game I've worked with in a team that was finished was a game where everybody was paid and there was a contract in the way that legally forced us to finish it (due to the payment). Make what you want out of that.

Mark Nelson
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If a very small group (single person?) has already taken the project past the point where the "fun" has been found and what remains is content development (art/audio/levels) and polishing - then you have a decent chance of holding onto a team.

Your chance is greatly multiplied if you are the (good) programmer or (good) visual artist/scripter on the team.

Your chance is further multiplied if the project only requires a short timeframe.

I'd also venture that your chances are greater still if you are supplying a physical space for face-to-face meetings and work.

Benjamin Quintero
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All true, though that's a lot of IF's =). And if you've gotten that far then you are probably far enough to go launch a Kickstarter to pay for professional finish work, making the need for a team moot. So it is kind of a catch-22 I suppose. And that "build it and they will come" approach really limits the types of games you can create since the engineering and the creative often have to climb hand-in-hand for certain types of experiences to happen. It would work fine for games low on budget but high on quirk, which often makes the dated visuals and clunky interface more forgiving if the game is presenting some new edgy idea. Hard to say, but I certainly don't disagree with any of your points.

Adriaan Jansen
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Interesting article, thanks!

While my experience is very narrow, we did finish our only game on contractual agreement, which turned out pretty lucrative for everyone involved. But to be fair, I have no particular lead on to why it worked. To give a sketch of the situation:

- We were all students or just graduated.
- We had time based splits.
- No one except for me was working full time on the project. It ranged from 1 day in a week to 3 days in a week. During the last months, everything was upped a notch.
- We were in the Dutch Game Garden, an incubator. It's a very professional and inspiring environment, and I think it surely helped people trust the project.
- We got very encouraging feedback from Valve about midway the project. It would take another month or 3 before the game actually started to be fun, so I also think the professional approval was important.
- The vision was controlled by one person, namely me, mostly because I was there all the time. Also, ironically, the total vision was NOT communicated so well. It might have contributed into people accepting tasks or no-go's more easily, or keep them from challenging the vision. North-Korea method ftw.
- People could come with suggestions, and I have the feeling everyone felt respected and taken seriously. The final word was pretty undisputed though.
- The people we worked with were very skilled, but not that passionate about what we were doing. It was also pretty hard to motivate them to do that little extra, except for a month before the launch.
- We were proud that we were doing something we couldn't do alone or with others in the area.
- They all had some side job or student income to live from.
- We had great fun.
- Mostly, we were not friends initially.
- We had virtually no art for 40% of the project.
- We kicked 2 teammembers out of the group because they were simply not good/productive enough.

If I had to guess, I think that the big difference in (natural) authority between the 2 project founders and the others was certainly key. It also helped that we were all young and unsure of a fun job, let alone in the game industry. That's certainly a money-motivator.

Kristopher Horton
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It's too bad the designer didn't say, "Hey, I love this moment. Let's find the place in the game where it's best leveraged."

There are two kinds of capital after all, the kind that trickles down from investors, and the kind that springs up from collaborators.

Benjamin Quintero
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yes and no.. I mean, could you imagine a government that was truly run by it's people, or a company with no CEO, no management, no one to check the books and write the checks? not to get all political; but as amazing and beautiful and free as it sounds it would probably burn to the ground like lord of the flies. at some point collaboration can only be seen as guidance, but someone ultimately has to make the choice and live with that decision.

Brian Tsukerman
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This doesn't bode well for my group. Not only are we operating on a contract agreement, but we're all recent graduates and can only meet via telecommuting (we live too far away from each other to meet IRL). We've already experienced several of the things mentioned here, especially "misalignment of wishes." Being the only person that stayed on besides the two creators, I strongly empathize with "always seem(ing) to be the person who holds onto the dream longer than most on these teams." I too have a really tough time giving up.

Still, considering the reportedly low completion rate of games developed under this system, would it be a better bet to make a game on one's own using existing frameworks rather than work with a group under a contract agreement? At least that way, there's almost no possibility of misalignment, although it can be overwhelming for new developers to be responsible for everything at once.

Benjamin Quintero
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This is a tough call. If you have the talent then go for it; not many do. I'd always recommend that people work together because you simply have more raw man hours at your disposal to get things done. As a lone developer you'll find yourself cursing the entire time while you paint a texture and tell yourself you should be tracking down that show stopping bug, or the opposite.

It does seem like your team is falling apart, but if you and whoever else remains are the real talent of the former team then you might still have a chance. Not to call these positions non-talented, but if you are just a designer or producer or writer type then you might as well throw in the towel. small teams generally only have room for mostly core technical people like artists and programmers.

When people leave the team you have to reevaluate your game design and ask yourself the hard question; can this game still get done with the people we have now? The answer is often, "no". So re-hire or re-scope your game.

Going at it alone might get you there, but it will take 10x longer and almost always be only 1/2 as good as it could have been. And that is only because you can't be great at everything...

Eric Harris
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@ Brian
Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I would like to recommend some things from my experience in leadership.

There are about three really important things that make a team work: guidance, vision, loyalty.

The most important of the three is loyalty. You should be testing whether a team member is loyal before they start on a project. The best way to do that is by having a one on one conversation with the person. Ask them what their ultimate career goal is. I can not stress to you enough how important this question is. The response you get will tell you a lot about the person. If they say "I don't know", then you should not give that person a single second more of your time. You wont be able to motivate this person because they don't know what they want. Half way through the project they will discover what they want and start pursuing that. They will lag, infect other people with laziness, or worse, try to recruit your guys to work on their project. Any other response will tell you what their aim is, and you know whether your studio is a good fit for them. This is part of loyalty, because they wont be loyal to you or to the project, but you will be helping them stay loyal to themselves by backing your project.

Just my 2 cents.