The Mistake i Make

It was nice to be invited to speak at an interactiveontario iLunch event two weeks ago. io is an industry association that represents and lobbies for the province’s interactive industry. i’ve often criticized the group for being too firmly grounded in linear media (film, teevee, etc), and for failing to adequately advocate for the small studios that comprise the majority of Ontario’s video game industry. The group is making moves to rectify this, and the current iLunch lecture series is one step in that direction.

The Anatomy of Failure

So it was nice to be asked, but humbling to speak on the topic: “I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now” … AKA “here are all the ways in which i’ve botched it as a small business owner.” i joked that it was a difficult task because they’d only given me fifteen minutes. i also felt very junior. i’ve been making games professionally for ten years, but have only been running my own shop for three – the other two panelists (Jason Krogh from Zinc Roe and Deborah Esayian from Emmis Interactive) had each been running the show for a full ten years.


[Thanks to Jackie Brown for the photo. Graphic embellishments mine.]

As expected, i did a lot of listening. Jason and i build games for the same kids market. i have watched his company very closely, and dream of one day running a studio as well-regarded as his. The difference between us is that i’m sure Jason has never used the word “wang” on his blog. Conversely, i have a corporate mandate to fulfill a wang quota by the end of each fiscal quarter. Wang. (sorry – just maintaining my output.)

The one piece of advice Jason gave that stuck in my mind and has loomed there ever since is that you need to value your time, and you need to be wary of people taking your time for free. Deborah was of the opposite mind: she says she meets with everyone and anyone, never knowing when that seed she sowed will turn into a business opportunity years down the road. i’ve been more of a Deborah for three years, but it’s getting to the point where i don’t have nearly enough time and money to be a Deborah for very much longer.

Let’s (Not) Do Lunch

i try to be a very nice guy, and i like to share my knowledge with people. But i’ve come to realize that i’m being nice to the severe detriment of my bottom line. Since the iLunch – not yet two weeks gone – i’ve spent an entire morning answering interview questions by two researchers from the University of Alberta, i’ve given a phone interview and have written two longish emails to a reporter from KidScreen, and i’ve spent hours discussing an unfunded spec project by phone and by email. i’ve been wise enough to turn down 3-4 people for lunch/coffee meeting requests. But just this week, someone said to me “we wanna make a Facebook game – come meet!” and i, because i’m dumb and did not heed Jason’s advice, said “sure!”

This is how that scenario should play out:

THEM: We wanna make a Facebook game – come meet!
ME: Very well. My consultation fee is $x/hour.
THEM: …. …. we’re not so interested in meeting any more!

But i didn’t do that. Instead, i said “sure!” because i wanted to be nice and helpful, and who knows? Perhaps it will turn into some business.

It will not.

Will You Build my Game Idea?

This is how those meetings always, always go – and i’ve sat through enough of them to know:

“We don’t know much about games. We don’t play them, and we’ve never made them, but we’re applying for government funding, and we need to present some kind of interactive component attached to our teevee show, or we won’t get funding.

“So based on the articles we’ve read in the Globe and Mail and the daily commuter paper, we’ve come up with this game concept. It’s a cross-platform game that you can play on Facebook, the Twitter, the iPad, and the Kindle. It’s an ARG. It does that alternate reality camera thing. It uses quick codes. And 3D glasses. It’s like Avatar. And Farmville. And Angry Birds. It’s social. It’s real-time. Here are some mock-ups of gameplay.”

batshit insane game concept

If you don’t know why this is funny, you’re part of the problem.

Shouting Into the Void

If you could see me right now, you’d see me holding back a pressure headache behind my eyeball with my right palm as i type. At the iLunch, i just HAD to get this message out. It was a complete non-sequitir, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand, but i had to say this to anyone who would listen:

The interactive industry is its own separate industry. It has its own experts who play games, make games, and are very well-versed in all things game. These people can help you with your project, but you have to involve them in the creative process early (Jason might have added “and compensate them for their time”, but i was on a roll).

If the last game you played was Pac Man, and the freshest data you’re getting about the industry is from mainstream print media like a newspaper, you need to 1. recognize that you are not an expert, and 2. hand the task over to someone who is. Here are the questions you should ask:

  1. Is a video game or interactive application an effective and appropriate way to extend my brand onto other media?
  2. If so, which platforms and genres should i be considering? This is who i am trying to reach, and this is the kind of return on investment i’d like to see.

That’s it. Find a vendor, pay his consultation fee, and ask those two questions. Any capable vendor – and this country is FULL of capable vendors – will be able to run with that question and give you all kinds of options that you probably haven’t even considered, because you are not the expert.

The Areas of My Expertise

In order to drive that point home, i repeated this familiar refrain … you know, the one i’ll be chanting when this industry finally kills me and i become a ghost haunting the foyers of future transmedia conferences:

If you want to build a teevee show, go to the experts: people who make teevee shows. If you want to build a game, go to the experts: game developers.

At the iLunch, i took it even farther, and said that a game developer can build a teevee show better than a teevee person can build a game. Why? Because linear media is just one component of video games. We have cut-scenes in games that use the exact same visual language and storytelling technique as film and television. Add to that the fact that game people actually watch teevee. But teevee people – the ones i’ve met – do not play games. Their kids play games. Marc Saltzman writes 100-word capsule reviews of games in FutureShop flyers and on pre-show slides that flash before the movie starts at the Cineplex, and teevee people read those and figure they’re pretty much up on all this technology stuff.

i … it’s depressing. It makes me alternately sad and angry. i don’t know how to deal with my emotions over this. Maybe i’ll make a little doll and confess my impotent feelings of rage to it? Maybe Jason Krogh with let me rest my head on his lap and he’ll stroke my hair and say “there, there” as i quietly sob?

Or maybe teevee people will figure out that we can build far cooler projects if we work together? And then maybe all the bad people will throw their guns and bombs in the ocean, and …


19 thoughts on “The Mistake i Make

  1. Fabian Vercuiel

    Man, thanks for sharing this.

    Way too many people share their expertise for free, its super important for people to realize that their own time is their most precious thing that they need to either get paid for or use to act upon their own ideas.

  2. Donald Harris

    Very good post and yet sad at the same time. It’s a fine balance on being a Deborah or Jason. You want to get more business so you have to listen to lame pitches but at the same time you have to respect your time.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      The attitude isn’t that of a pitch, though. In a pitch, you’re trying to get someone to buy into your idea. Teevee people aren’t really after my approval or my input – they just want me to execute their plan, however poorly construed. It’s a power imbalance: it doesn’t always dawn on teevee people that i’d prefer to build projects with integrity – projects i can proudly put my name on – and that i’m not just in it for the money they toss me to complete the build.

      It may also be worth noting that (and i could have this wrong), Deborah was a salaried employee at another company when she started taking all these meetings. She spun her company out of her boss’s company. i got the feeling that she was operating from a place of considerably more safety and security than either Jason or i enjoy.

  3. Lawrie

    Sooooo….if you’re not making the @Spoon@Cork game can I call it?
    Great post though, definitely some points for me to keep in mind for the future. Thanks.

  4. Joe Larson

    I don’t know about saying “a game developer can, in fact, better build teevee show than can a teevee person build a game.” Maybe that’s true. If it is, tho, it’s not because of the game designer experience but because even the most gamery gamer has at least seen some television in their life, possibly even recently.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      That’s what i’m saying. Gamers have a familiarity with teevee and movies, but linear media people often do not have the same level of familiarity with games. Gamers are in a far better position to develop a teevee show or movie by virtue of the fact that they are consumers of those media.

      Let’s try this: let’s give a gamer a video camera and ask him to make a teevee show. Let’s give a teevee producer a computer and ask him to make a game. Who is outrageously more likely to be successful?

  5. Sean Bawden

    It’s the problem with selling knowledge. People expect that, since you know how to do it, you should simply be able to tell them for free. Problem is, all you (and certainly I) sell is knowledge. We need a medium to somehow turn that into a tangible. The lack of a tangible product, at least at the outset, makes pay you for “consulting” difficult to accept.

    If it makes you feel better, your frustration is shared.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      My company’s bread and butter is selling services, not knowledge. We are an interactive vendor, so we can design an build your game or application. i rarely add “consultation” to our list of services, because i’ve been too nice and haven’t been valuing my time appropriately.

      Law is a bit different, though. You’re selling knowledge, sure, but it’s a much more established model. People are used to paying lawyers for their time (partly because their staggering hourly rates are so high that everyone whispers those amounts at parties as if they’re telling each other horrifying secrets). Maybe i’m one of the few, but i recognize the effort involved in passing the bar exam and building a practice and specialized experience. i pay my lawyer’s fees, even though it KILLS me.

      1. Sean Bawden

        You pay your lawyers? No one pays their lawyers, certainly not the amount we try and bill you, anyway. And I’m talking Ottawa rates, not those crazy Toronto rates that even I gasp at. I sell knowledge as a service. As a profession we’ve just done an excellent job in marketing the idea that it’s really hard and important

        being a lawyer, and at the risk of dispelling that myth I’ll shut up.

        In any event, I take your thesis of if you want something cool, let someone with the knowhow be a part of the process and things will turn out better. Wang.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      The teevee producers i’ve met aren’t very knowledgeable about microtransactions, so scratch that idea.

  6. John

    I just bought your book, so I figured I should check out your site. I am a web developer, so I was nodding in agreement the whole time. You could swap out game developer with web developer, and it would be the exact same thing. Great post!

    I think I am going to try charging a consulting fee to the next client who comes knocking. :-)

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Thanks, John! Very early in my career, i heard tell of these mystical agencies you couldn’t talk to for free. If you wanted a meeting with them, you had to pay them a $x000 retainer (much like a lawyer), and they’d open a client file for you. Being new, i couldn’t believe the audacity. Charge me money just to talk to you? Who did they think they were?

      Flash forward ten years later, and i fully appreciate why some agencies handle new client relations that way. i don’t know if i’m ready to run things like that myself, but i do definitely have to guard my time more closely.

      Let me know how you get along with the Unity book.

      – Ryan

  7. eyuzwa

    Wow…what a familiar scenerio. Grats on the presentation (and the book!) Ryan.

    Spoon and Cork sound like the next Fanboy and Chum-Chum. I wrote that because my 6 YO is watching me and loves the show…no really.

    *sigh* Wang.


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