Backed Over by the Money Truck

Money Truck

Yesterday was a deadline day here in Ontario for the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Interactive Digital Media Fund. That’s a lot of words, so let’s just shorten it to “OMDC IDM”. Of course, that’s a lot of acronyms, so let’s just shorten it to “OD” … as in, “i just OD-ed on application writing, and now i need some detox.” The IDM Fund adds a “D” to the end of the word “FUN”, rendering it completely UNFUN in the process. Every time i finish one of these applications (this was our third), i feel like i’ve been sapped of my vital life force like the podlings from The Dark Crystal:



i’ve said it before, and i’ll say it again: there are problems with this Fund. To put it succinctly:

  1. It requires you to request too much money.
  2. It does not move nearly quickly enough.
  3. It requires too much needless documentation.

To put it far less succinctly, let me expand on those points individually. Please keep in mind that i’m approaching this from the perspective of a small causal games studio. If your company name starts with a “U” and rhymes with “Boobysoft”, you may not agree with everything i posit.

1. The ask is too large.

When we submitted Spellirium in the Spring OMDC IDM round, we were told that the $19.99 price point was too high. At least one juror suggested that we were incapable of producing a game of sufficient quality for that price point, which galled me. Nonetheless, this time we reduced the price point to $9.99.

On the other hand, the OMDC suggested that we were one of the smaller applicants, and that our $40k ask was pretty insignificant. It put us in competition with a number of other small companies, and our app simply wasn’t the best of those competitors. The notion here is that a three dollar hamburger will receive harsher criticism than a nine dollar hamburger … if you pay nine dollars for a hamburger, you already know it’s good. The price tends to say a lot about the quality, even if it doesn’t play out in reality. So we needed to lower the price point on the game, while increasing the budget, so that we could ask the OMDC for more money to look better on paper.

Big Kahuna Burger - Pulp Fiction

Now THAT is a tasty burger.

We also took a hit because we were only creating roles for four people. The first time we submitted Spellirium, they asked why we didn’t support the iPhone. The second time we submitted Spellirium, we added iPhone support, and the OMDC asked why we didn’t support Facebook. So this time out, we said FEKKIT. We moved Spellirium from Flash to Unity 3D, which gives us PC and Mac downloadable, web, and WiiWare/iPhone/Xbox 360 with the purchase of engine add-ons. Take THAT. Since a 3D game is often more costly than a 2D game, our production schedule was packed with more people: 3D modelers and animators, texture artists, UI designers, and a gaggle of others. This is what the OMDC wants to see for its investment. Our project will create jobs in Ontario.

Microsoft Surface

Hey – i just read in the Globe and Mail about Microsoft Surface. Why don’t you develop the game for Microsoft Surface? It’s clearly an oversight. i’m gonna have to reject your app.

But what do we end up with? A bigger budget at a lower price point. That means we’re even LESS likely to break even, so we have to re-visit our sales targets. The only way to make it work is to crank up our projected unit sales. We discovered that we’d need to sell ten thousand units to make a go of it, which is a challenging number, especially for our first outing. But i feel this situation was kind of forced on us by the suggestion to lower the price point and increase the budget. We need to ask for enough money so that the OMDC won’t just dismiss us out of hand, but it has to be an amount of money that we can realistically recuperate through sales. Rock, meet hard place.

i would much rather work with a modest budget and a realistic sales target. But as James Weyman from the OMDC said during an info session (and i paraphrase), “Why would we spend $40k reviewing an application when the ask is only $30k?”

i agree, James, and i counter with this: Why are you spending $40k reviewing my application?? Give me a fund where i can ask for a small amount of money to take baby steps on my way to becoming one of the Big Guys, instead of requiring me to put on one of daddy’s suits and pretend that i’m one of the Big Guys already.

Godzilla

As much as i like to imagine myself as Godzeera, in reality i’m just a doughy guy in a rubber suit.

2. The Fund does not move quickly enough.

The IDM Fund has two deadlines each year. It takes many weeks after the submission date to find out whether or not you’ve been funded. It’s a number of weeks after THAT before you start the project. This latest deadline was yesterday, November 16th 2009. The project has to begin within a number of weeks of funding approval, which puts us at March 2010. That’s three and a half months from submission to project. Any small, lean developer like us could complete one or more high-quality games in that time.

And i don’t quite understand how scheduling is supposed to work. Are we supposed to book that project time off? If a client comes to me and offers me a contract that starts in March, am i supposed to say “no thanks … i think we might get OMDC funding in March”? A much larger company might be able to work like that, but little guys may only be able to run one or two concurrent projects, max.

You need to cook up at least 50% of a project’s funding on your own. The bare minimums are 20% deferral (working for free), 20% in-kind contributions, and 10% cash. We have to scare up as much cash as possible, because 1) ain’t nobody gonna do nothin’ for us for free (except my wife and me), and 2) we have no partners. So if the IDM application happens to fall on a dry spell when we can’t show a lot of green in the account, we essentially can’t apply. It’s another six months until the next application. Who knows where we’ll be by then? Selling our toenail clippings for enough money to buy the leftover cookies from the blood clinic, perhaps.

i would like to see a fund where, instead of two hard deadlines a year, there is a perpetual submission window. We could submit whenever we had the cash, time, and project to submit. If any OMDC folks are reading this, they’re probably angrily tallying up a massive list of why this can’t work. So let’s play the “Ryan is the New Ontario Minister of Culture” game, everyone: i come to the OMDC because i won the position of Minister of Culture by defeating the former Minister in a bare-chested steel cage match or whatever, and i say “Here’s how it’s going to work: structure a Fund with a perpetual submission process, or i disband the OMDC and sink all the money into a new prime-time variety special starring the cast of the 1972 smash hit The Beachcombers.”

Now, throw out all your reasons why something like that can’t work, and let’s brainstorm how we can build a fund to solve this problem.

Beachcombers

For the love of all that is holy, keep these hideous bastards off my teevee.

3. The app takes too long to prepare.

The kind of company that can reasonably apply to a fund like this on a regular basis is large enough to employ a dedicated app writer. The application requires sixteen different sections. Some of these are copy/paste – throw your Articles of Incorporation in there, your shareholder info – no problem. But the majority of the required material poses an onerous task to a small studio like ours. Required elements include a business and marketing plan, a development schedule, and a detailed budget. Those are all nice to have, but the OMDC grossly underestimates the difficulty a small company faces in producing those documents.

And funder, please. Don’t get me started on the budget. The Excel files provided by the Corporation are ripped from other funds (Bell and Telefilm). They are extremely teevee- and film-focussed, including line items for things like location scouting and talent. They have very few formulae built into them, so you end up having to hand-calculate many of the cells. There is a labelling error on the Minimum Schdule of Ontario Expenditures that the corporation knows about, but they haven’t bothered to fix it yet (it’s only been six months since the last application round, after all …) i have no idea why the OMDC would spend $40k reviewing one of these apps without spending two hundred bucks paying a CA student to add formulae to their spreadsheets and fix the errors. No – instead, we all have to waste our time struggling with these files.

The cost of physically producing the app is higher than it needs to be. The app must be printed as four separate copies. This year, we purchased four red binders and four sets of binder tabs to bind the app. That put us out seventy bucks. We don’t get the binders or the tabs back (i think the OMDC and the jurors secretly eat them … monstrous bureaucrats who are fueled by delicious life-giving stationary supplies). We spent another thirty bucks on printer ink, and maybe another ten on paper. i can’t imagine what the cost would have been to have the thing professionally printed and bound. i believe some applicants do this, but again, those are the applicants who can afford to have an app writer working on this thing.

Those companies are also large enough to pay for pre-production artwork to make the app look really good. i do what i can to add screens from movies and games that convey the feeling i want to invoke in the final game, but i have no artists on staff. i can’t afford to hire a contractor to create spec art for an app. We’re just too small to do that.

The apps i write come in somewhere between 60-80 pages. The OMDC has suggested that other successful applicants have had much smaller apps (30 pages?) but i don’t see how that’s possible with sixteen required sections. The time it takes for me to write an 80 page document could be much better spent scavenging for food from the floors of fast food restaurants to feed my family.

Beg

You may actually think i’m joking.

If i could make any suggestion about how to solve this problem, it would be that the expectation should be proportionate to the ask. Small game, small budget, small application. Lowered expectations. An app submitted by a company with two employees should not be compared with an app submitted by a much larger company. But since the ask is necessarily high (see above), the app needs to be thick. Jurors will say “why aren’t there any images of gameplay?” and “why doesn’t the budget list a production assistant for four days in July to help oversee this aspect of the design?” Simple: because you’re looking at a PROPOSAL, not a post-mortem of a finished game. The game isn’t built yet. i need money to build it. And here i am asking you for money. If i HAD the money to pay an artist to create images, i wouldn’t be grovelling at the feet of the Ontario government for funding. If i KNEW that i needed a production assistant for four days in July, i’d be visiting you FROM THE FUTURE.

Cry Me a River

i know this griping has probably moved many of you to tears. Thank you for your empathy. For my more jaded readers, i suggest only that this IDM fund money is my money. It’s your money. It was taken from our pockets specifically to be paid back in this initiative. The OMDC is not being kind or benevolent by handing it out. They exist due to a mandate from the Ontario government, by our elected officials. If we elect officials who decide that this funding is not important, the OMDC ceases to exist. i can kiss ass with the best of them, but i draw the line here. Neither do i beg Canada Post to deliver my mail. It’s a service paid for by tax dollars – my mailman is not doing me any favours by giving me mail. The OMDC does not deserve a philanthropy award by making a calculated decision to fund my project.

One piece of good news is that we WERE approved for one OMDC initiative, the Export Fund. They’ll throw a few bucks our way to lower the cost of attending GDC and Casual Connect. ROI is measured by the number of sales leads we generate, among other things. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to have that assistance. But it would be more useful to us if we actually had a project to show at those conferences. i don’t see how i’ll ever be able to get project funding money if i’m competing against console companies with armies of partners and multi-million dollar budgets.

It’s a big-company, small-company dichotomy in this province, increasingly so. Big companies present no-brainer, lower-risk proposals than small companies often do. They can simply hire more people and spend more money. When it was recently announced that the OIDMTC (an interactive tax credit) would be claimable every year, rather than only on the year that a project was completed, it was GREAT news. Then came the stipulation that only companies who paid out one million dollars in payroll were elligible for this increased claim frequency – in other words, only UbiSoft.

The Ministry of Culture and the OMDC need to realize that UbiSoft and other big successful companies were not birthed from their mamas’ wombs as big successful companies. We begin life as whiny, squealing infants, both in our personal lives and our corporate lives. We all start somewhere. Untold Entertainment remains in the whining and squealing stage: this is me, whining and squealing, asking the government to supply child welfare, in addition to what they regularly pay out to old and fat companies.

That’s right, other companies: i’m calling you fat. Whatcha gonna do about it? Chase after me? i got those nimble little baby legs. Hiiii-YAH!

Baby

Catch me if you can, bitches! ZOOM!

I Can Haz Beer?

i don’t drink, but i have it on good authority that some among you do. Everybody i knew put in an application for this last IDM round, including my mom, who doesn’t even make games. It’s always an enormous burden off my already-burdened shoulders when i hand the thing in, and i know i’m not alone in that. i hereby decree that the next time there’s an IDM submission deadline (20 months from now, or something like that), we should all meet somewhere and have a post-app evening to unwind. OMDC, you’re invited.

Word.

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11 thoughts on “Backed Over by the Money Truck

    1. Ryan

      Brennon – Kim from the OMDC kept raving about how one company had this great marketing plan. i’ve never really written a marketing plan, or even seen one … i asked if i could see this exemplary marketing plan that the other company wrote, but of course the answer was “NO”. Competition and what-have-you.

      This describes my entire journey through the funding process, btw … the funders ask for all of these documents that i’ve never written or even seen, and they won’t show me exactly what they’re looking for. So i either have to guess, hire someone to write it or consult on it, or travel back in time and spend 2000-2007 somewhere other than at a Canadian broadcaster, where i was shielded from financial decisions and business development.

      In the end, i guessed. i listed all the great ways that we’re going to market the game – specific press outlets, video trailers, in-house promotion, etc etc. Is THAT a great marketing plan? i have no idea. i guess i’ll find out after they reject my app and i schedule a post-mortem phone call.

      Reply
  1. Jean-Guy Niquet

    At some point we all need to come to terms with the reality that some of us are just not getting funded for one reason or another. As the industry heads in the direction of small agile game development the OMDC heads in the opposite direction of funding large scale projects. This is not necessarily bad it just doesn’t reflect the industry as a whole.

    There needs to be a small fund that allows for tiny games. Fieldrunners was a small game made by two people. As successful as that game was it would never have received OMDC funding, nor BEll or Telefilm for that matter. Ryan and I have talked offline about this problem. The OMDC needs to have a small fund that would essentially have developers pitch their ideas in front of a small group of people. This is not expensive to administer and requires little work on the part of the agency. The amount of money doesn’t need to be much but also doesn’t require us to spend a month writing an application for a fund we will never get. That time needs to be spent making the game.

    We need to go en masse to the OMDC with this request. Together we need to convince them as well as our government that funding many smaller projects is more beneficial to our local industry than importing outside companies.

    jg

    Reply
  2. Jarrett

    Interesting article, I thought I would just throw in some of my thoughts here..

    Would that do the trick? Going en masse to the OMDC that is..Are there any other avenues/forums where ppl can submit problems? Who actually started the OMDC? Who has power to influence OMDC decisions (obviously, other than the OMDC themselves)?

    If they are committed to larger companies, it could be hard to change their minds I would think, simply because of the massive amount of jobs/money that larger companies can generate. I heard Ubisoft was creating a new office in Toronto and it was hiring something like 500 new employees. From the OMDC perspective, you would be stupid to not support that. But the question is, how do you compete with that?

    That OMDC Mission Statement is: “The Ontario Media Development Corporation is the central catalyst for Ontario’s cultural media cluster. It promotes, enhances and leverages investment, jobs, and original content creation. ” Ok, so how does a smaller company compete with a larger company on the investment, jobs, and original content creation..well, 1 on 1, it’s silly to think you can (although, you could argue that a smaller company can create original content as well as the bigger guys). But what about en-masse? What about the contribution of the small game development studios as a whole? They argue that $40k isn’t enough for a game? But maybe they are missing the bigger picture…as a whole, the entire smaller game development sector requests $750,000 or the like, with many returns on the other side. I dunno, maybe it would be better to argue the issue from the perspective of the small game development sector AS A WHOLE, instead of from the perspective of you as a small indie developer on your own. Because you’re right, it’s silly to ask you to increase your budget and reduce your price point..what’s the motive there? They’re not used to small budget games? You can’t make anything good for that amount (total BS)? Maybe we need to arm ourselves with some ammunition first…show them real world examples where original content WAS created with LOW budgets. Maybe throw some job creation examples in there. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should target their mission statement with concrete examples and information, and try to show that, in fact, small indie game development is a very promising sector..

    Hope that maybe some of that helped! Just my many cents. Good luck Ryan!

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Jarrett – you’re bang-on here. i agree that OMDC support of large companies is a no-brainer. i have heard the UbiSoft job count closer to 800 than 500, which is a huge plus for the Province.

      The OMDC is an agency of the Ministry of Culture. Ultimately, it’s the Ministry that calls the shots for them.

      What i’m concerned about is that the way the OMDC has structured application requirements is mismatched with the way they’ve promoted the Fund. Writing an app is a gruelling process – ask anyone – and yet, the OMDC sponsors and attends event like the Vortex Competition, where the room is filled with mostly students and recent graduates. If it is truly, honestly a priority for the OMDC to fund projects by large and small alike, the application requirements should reflect that. Big application for big money, and (as Jean-Guy suggests), a smaller time commitment (and smaller-budget approval process) for small money.

      In fact, i would love to see a small fund structured by the OMDC and operated like the Vortex Competition (with a few tweaks to that contest’s ABYSMAL judging structure and rules). Like Jean-Guy says, you do a ten minute pitch, followed by twenty minutes of questions, with a $50k cap on the ask. That would be far less expensive for the OMDC to administer, and little guys would not have to compete with big guys.

      Nearly ALL of the small Ontario teams i talk to are upset about the OMDC IDM Fund and the way it’s designed, but too many of them are afraid to speak up about it for fear that they’ll never get funded. i’ve resigned myself to the fact that i may not receive funding for my entire blessed life, so i WILL make noise and i WILL criticize and i WILL suggest ways to make things better. i don’t believe for a second that the OMDC is as thin-skinned or as vindictive as people make them out to be. If there’s a better way for them to serve their clientele, and they’re truly committed to their mandate, they’ll find a way to make this work without burying Ontario’s small companies in the process.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  3. Bwakathaboom

    I know it’s just the cranky libertarian in me but I don’t think companies like Ubisoft have any business getting government funding. There is no logical reason for a publicly traded company to be receiving tax dollars to fund marketing and development. That’s why they became publicly traded companies – to raise funds for development, expansion and acquisition. That’s why the stock market exists in the first place!!

    Besides, they already reap sickening rewards in the form of bribes and tax breaks to locate their studios in any particular province or city.

    The “they create jobs” argument bugs me the most because that is already covered by other provincial programs like targeted wage subsidy, etc. It doesn’t belong on the table when talking about the direction of the industry as a whole. Besides, speaking from experience, they create mostly low-salary, unpaid overtime, cubicle farm sh*t jobs where the ENTIRE STAFF tuns over every 18 months. The AUTO industry offers more job security!

    If the purpose of the OMDC is to foster growth of the industry as a whole the the only way to do that is to support NEW companies and development. Lining the pockets of the big two or three studios won’t make any difference for the Canadian development arena as a whole.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan

    I don’t understand how forcefully redistributing wealth from the people to gaming companies makes the economy more productive? Perhaps you should be opposing the existence of the trough rather than how difficult it is in edging out the bigger pigs for a position at it. Call me cynical but I think the tendency of such government interventions is to strengthen the few political elite and their allies in society at the expense of the many.

    Reply
  5. Jim Jones

    Ryan, obviously you don’t have a background in business management or business development. why don’t you hire someone to do that part of the business for you so you can focus on whatever it is that you do (write on the blogs). now you might say I don’t have the money. I’m just a little tiny company with no money. answer is simple. equity share. you find a person with background in business and give them 20 percent preferred shares of your company and make them a partner. that way they can pitch in without you having to pay them a salary and then just build up on that. 80 percent of something is much better than 100 percent of nothing.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Jim – guilty as charged. And as someone who doesn’t have a business background, i’m going to fly my ignorance flag here and ask: What good is equity? i cut someone in for 20%, and that person doesn’t get paid (initially). When does that 20% ever pay off? When you sell the company? And what if you never intend to sell the company? When does payday arrive for that bizdev guy?

      i like the way that Penny Arcade did it. They were approached by a business school grad who offered to work for free for two months. After that i believe they started paying him a salary. And, incidentally, i think those guys have done alright.

      In other news, i promise that i do more here than write on the blog. ;)

      Reply
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