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Stocking Your Office with Human Props
by Ryan Creighton on 07/09/12 12:53:00 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.


[This article by Ryan Henson Creighton is re-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome.]

One of the biggest challenges of trying to bootstrap a video game studio like Untold Entertainment (in the midst of a global recession, no less), is that prospective clients are drawn to service providers that appear to be able to handle their project in a no-fuss, turnkey fashion. Untold has been passed over for a number of projects because we try to keep our overhead low, which means hiring on an as-needed basis according to our workload.

These days, when someone at a conference asks "Untold Entertainment? How big are you?", i'm inclined to answer "seven inches, sof.t" i get a little tired of the question. The number of employees you have has no actual bearing on the quality of the work you produce, the speed at which you can turn around a project, or the value you deliver as a service agency. Yet it's become this quick litmus test of worth whenever men excitedly sniff each other's butts at conventions.

Smells like you've had a good year, Pete.

Many clients expect to walk into Untold and see a swarm of expensive employees chewing through money like locusts, waiting to pounce on whatever new project they're thrown. It seems to be only the studios that can do this - or, better yet, the ones that can fake it - that are able to properly grow.

Use Your Illusion

In the early days of Untold, i met with a man who ran his own studio, who said he wanted to contract me to consult on and design a kids' virtual world. He said his American clients were due to arrive any week now, and he wanted me to come in and help him sell his studio to them. After many false starts, when the day finally came that the prospective clients were due to arrive, the owner seated me at one of the desks in his small office, and asked me to work on whatever until he brought the clients in. Meanwhile, he met with the clients down the hall in the shared boardroom.

i sat in this guy's office for three hours before it dawned on me: i wasn't there to meet with his clients or to help design the game. i was an office prop - a warm body filling a desk to pad out the scene, to make it look like he was running a thriving operation. i packed up my laptop in disgust and stormed out of the place. The guy's been on my shit list ever since.


Stacking the Deck

i spoke to a few colleagues last night who confirmed that office stocking was common practice. One friend said that he worked at an agency that developed teevee commercials, and that also developed series. Clients from the commerical side would be brought in to see the dozens of warm bodies toiling away at their desks, leaving them with the impression that their project was in many, many capable hands, when in reality it was one lonely dude and an intern working on the project - the rest of the employees were contracted for something completely different.

Another colleague told me the story of an animation studio in town that invited a number of fourth year animation students in to do a drawing test, "because they were hiring". When the students arrived and asked what they were supposed to draw, the employees were evasive and weird about it. They were assigned to what amounted to busy-work. In the midst of this "test", some company bigwigs brought clients through the area and, indicating the students, said "well, here are our animators..."

i have another colleague who didn't have an office or employees, but on his website he'd list a number of freelance colleagues as if they were his own salaried employees. It was a little white lie that i believe helped him to grow his company to the point where he does currently have an office and employees.

Meh heh heh.

Honesty Undoes You

This "fake it til you make it" approach runs counter to the first of Untold's core principles, "uncompromising honesty". No, we don't have an enormous farm full of employees of all stripes and skillsets ready to take on anything you throw at them. And no, i'm not particularly keen on producing a smoke-and-mirrors effect to make it seem like we do.

Sorry - the giant floating head in the middle of the office will be able to answer all of your game development questions.

The fact is that if you want Untold Entertainment to work on your project, we'll take care of it. We are extremely well connected, and we can assemble the absolute best team for your project needs. Don't buy it? Check out Project Overboard, where i assembled a team of forty people from a multitude of disciplines to build a game in a single weekend.

Have you ever been used as an office prop? Or do you know other tricks of the trade to make it appear as though you're running a Fortune 500 company when you're really running Buck-Ninety-Five Incorporated? Let me know in the comments! Please also indicate your penis size, so that i can properly determine your worth as a human being.

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Jane Castle
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lol! office prop that's nothing how about a factory\manufacturing prop with over 200 employees! Someone I know had to land a Japanese manufacturing contract. The caveat was he needed to have his own machine shop and facility with employees. The Japanese were adamant about this and would tour the facilities extensively before they sealed the deal.

The company trying to land the contract used a large manufacturing shop that worked on a per contract basis. So since the owner also wanted the contract, he changed the company's name plate at the front of the building and got everyone new business cards to match the company that was negotiating the contract. Boom instant manufacturing prop!

Long story short, the Japanese visited and were impressed by the size of the "facilities" and they signed the contract. The next day the business changed its company name back and all was good.

Robert Anderson
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Size: 6 ish... + or - a bit... or a lot...Depending on the weather

I bet I know the animation studio in question.

I know I have been in that situation more times than I care to admit. Alright at least a dozen. I admit it. At least where I was one of the props.

I have also worked at studios where we went out of our way to promote the fact that we didn't have a pile of people in the office. We used freelancers to get the job done. what we had to do in that case was have a ready list of talent for the prospective client to see. This can be both a blessing and a curse depending...
A: it can end up looking like a virtual set of dummies.
B: The prospective client may end up getting the freelancers themselves and completely cutting you out of the loop.

It is all on the approach I guess. And how much you are willing to show.

Ryan Bowen
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Here's a question about using human props: what would happen if the client asked one of the props a question?

Like with those students, what if they client casually asked how long they'd been here and the student said "half hour"?

Grant Stanton
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This story goes back about 15 years. I knew a VP of Development for a large developer/publisher that went to check on two games they had in development at a 3rd party studio.

The morning meeting was to meet with the 1st team dedicated to project 1. The meeting was held in a conference room packed with the development staff on team #1 and went very well.

He went to lunch and returned to meet with team 2 - game 2 and about 5 minutes into the meeting he realized that most of the developers in the room were the same guys from the morning meeting, they had justed changed clothes, baseball caps, glasses etc.

That is a funny example, but staff-as-props happens more often than you would imagine and not just in the USA. Many a publisher has visited large sprawling development houses in asia to leave impressed and only learn later in frustration that only a few of those developers were actually assigned to the project full-time.

In the end you need publishers who are able to judge intellectual horsepower over numbers and make intelligent decisions, but a honesty is a must-have in any business relationship and there is no legitimate excuse to staff-as-props. Make your case on the capabilities of your staff. If the publisher/investor can't recognize it, or you are unable to make that case...then the deal will not end well regardless....and reputation matters more than you think. The games industry is a small world. A "quick-buck" can translate to a mysterious "dry-spell" in future work and clients.