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Innovations are just gimmicks you happen to like.

I thought that was an interesting statement to make. I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but that doesn’t stop it from being interesting.

Now…as you were.

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Note: This is a continuation of yesterday’s thoughts.

Also note: not The Dip.

Capitol Records buildingIn the music industry’s case, they’ve spent the last decade attempting to bend consumer behaviour to their will. All the time and effort put into better encryption, DRM etc. only for it all to be futile, forcing people into a dead model. Think about that. Ten years of lawsuits, of bad ideas, of attempts to stall the forward march of consumer technology. Each writ issued was an extra nail in the coffin of a decrepit business model established to confuse value and price point and foist it upon the unwitting consumer. As one of my favourite writers likes to say, the epic, epic lulz. As a complete aside, anyone know how many lawyers the RIAA has? I’m just curious…

In the games industry’s case, budgets and teams are swelling, but this is not where industry growth is coming from. The really booming sectors are taking things back to small teams and games that take hours not days to play. Respecting people’s time and attention spans, you can spend five minutes doing something else entirely and then get back to what you are doing. It is a business model that is fluid, moving with the trends of its audience who are not the pimply teenagers with plenty of time on their hands anymore, they are developers themselves, they are in advertising, they’re lawyers and doctors and parents whose free time has not grown with their disposable income.

Exposing what people want to engage with and burying the stuff they’re not interested in is key, and it is only an issue if your business model rests on the viability of the things people don’t like. Digital Rights Management for starters if a zero-sum strategy where nobody wins. I’m a big believer artists should be compensated for the work they do (indeed one day I hope to do nothing but), but in the interim we need new models that are malleable. In the words of Seth Godin:

Persistence isn’t using the same tactics over and over. That’s just annoying.

Persistence is having the same goal over and over.

If your goal is delivering value, then everything will be fine. If your goal is to keep the game unchanged, then we have a problem on our hands.

Image courtesy of maubrowncow, with thanks to compfight.

I don’t know how much game is here. What I do know is that they have set up a system that allows me to rent my friends on a monthly basis.” – Tycho, Penny Arcade

Great quote, so succinct and apt. Sun rises, sun sets, World of Warcraft continues to do its thing. I continue to avoid it out of a desire to live a productive offline life.

For now anyway.

I try to avoid writing about games here as my involvement in the industry now is very much as an outsider. I still keep an eye on the conversations going on though and one that never fails to amaze me is the “code vs. art” debate and how people struggle to get teams talking to each other. You can liken it to “creatives vs. suits” in advertising or “sales vs. anyone not sales” in many other organisations, the song remains the same; a notion of “otherness” is allowed to develop in a team or company and it poisons the culture of that place, pitting people on the same side against each other.

I lead four different teams as Producer while in the games industry, and they were all marked by a feeling of inclusiveness, a notion that we were all in it together. Often it had little do to with the organisation, I distinctly recall a senior artist from another part of the company walking into the room where my team was housed (numbering around 30+ at the time) and remarking that it felt like a different company. Each team I have looked after had that same feeling, and it never took any effort to maintain.

The key is pretty simple: everyone checks their ego at the door. I affectionately called it “the no assholes rule”, long before a book of the same name was released, and it gets brought about in a couple ways.

The first is quite simple: hire good people. That statement is a little intangible and open to interpretation though, so I’ll clarify: do not hire people you would not be willing to spend 100 hours a week with, because at some point you will. Assuming you have a high enough barrier to entry for your company (be it a programming test, past sales figures, whatever) then all candidates who reach that mark can be judged based on the personality fit for your team. I have passed up programmers who were great on paper because I knew they would either be difficult to work with or not get along with certain team members. It is a very straight forward exercise placing morale above ability; you can learn new skills in a job, but if you’re an asshole, you’re probably going to stay an asshole.  I should add this has nothing to do with race or culture, my last team had eight different nationalities on it, and we all still catch up whenever I am back in town.

The second is in many ways simpler than the first. As the title to this post says, check your ego at the door. Any industry is rife with stories of senior figures who refused to spend time in the trenches; these teams are without fail mired in low morale and bitterness towards management. I would outline weeks in advance the weeknights (and on occasion weekends) when we would need to work back, but when those days arrived I went from being the team lead to the servant. If your people are working extra hours because of you, you owe it to them to make that stay as comfortable as possible. If it means driving half an hour across town to get a certain meal for someone, so be it. Talk, in that environment, is less than cheap, it is worthless.

Leading by example and showing a willingness to do anything in order to get a project across the line and a team to work together is the only way to ensure different units within a team with each other from day dot. Producers, Group Directors, CEOs, whatever, they all set the tone for the people they are responsible for. Titles (and the egos they stoke) come and go; checking both at the door on a daily basis means you can do the things that matter most. And your team stays talking long after you have left the room.

As an epilogue to yesterday’s post, it’s amazing to see the folk that come out of the woods when you surface among a section of society you stepped away from. I haven’t been actively involved in games for a couple years, but as sad as yesterday’s news is, it’s wonderful to be back in touch with a bunch of people I hadn’t spoken to in years, even if most of them were calling to offer condolences for a job I hadn’t lost.

I was also reminded though of the volatility that exists within the online gaming community. It isn’t hard for me to recall posts I made to a forum of comments I made when I was a hardcore gamer. To see some of that venom directed towards Auran and in some cases me, got me thinking about things I had said, comments I had made from the outside looking in, invariably through frosted glass, only able to make out faint shadows inside but still taking it upon myself to pass judgment on what I believed lay before me.

One of the things that I love about the Web 2.0 revolution that is currently sweeping across the web, marketing, communications in general, is the exposure of real people and real lives. Hardcore gamers players are among the earliest of early adopters of technology, but with that comes handles, alter-egos and a whole lot of posturing built upon an identity that gets donned only from behind the safety of a computer screen. Parts of this remained core to my presence online until recently, I only just finally changed my email address to have my actual name in it, and I’d change the address of this blog if I had a simple way to do that (anyone with an easy tip there feel free to drop me a line). Putting yourself online and moving beyond a pseudo-identity leaves you open in a way that my online experience hasn’t been previously.

But it falls inline with the person I am when I’m offline, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I remember hearing a long time ago (couldn’t possibly remember the source) that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You can see it play out with major corporations who don’t alter their strategies with changing markets, flying in the face of all the evidence presented to them, watching their consumer bases shrink in slow motion before them, unable or unwilling to make the turn before the iceberg collides.

I’ve just finished watching it play out at a company I used to work at, Auran, a game developer based in Brisbane, Australia. Those who played strategy games in the mid-90’s probably came across their biggest hit, Dark Reign, which set the company up and garnered worldwide acclaim. Of course then the publisher Activision bank-rolled a start-up and took pretty much the entire development team away; it’s safe to say things never really quite got back on track.

I spent two and a half years working at Auran as a game designer and producer, and I have never spent so many good, good days around a group of nicer, more intelligent people. I was blessed with teams that were passionate and inspired by the work they were doing. Leaving to chase other dreams in other cities was a hard if correct decision, but I have stayed in touch with a number of the people I worked with, and their Operations Director is my best friend.

So it is with a very heavy heart that I say the administrators have just walked into the building and the process of dismantling what was one of the great development houses in Australia begins. Thankfully the scene in Brisbane is booming and the staff will all have jobs to go to. Their publishing arm, N3v3rfa1l is likely to continue which is good news for its staff, with the continued involvement of Graham Edelsten and Tony Hilliam, the latter of who has invested a fortune over the years into a truly capable company that never quite managed to live up to its promise.

Auran never lived in the shadow of previous successes, it was always looking to break new ground and refused to rest on its laurels. Other companies grew past it in terms of size and projects, but to its credit it took on unusual and interesting projects, even when the direct ROI wasn’t as clear as would have been nice. It bet the farm on a unique idea for an MMO, a game that I was involved in as a Producer on the initial pitch that won a significant piece of funding from Korean publisher Hanbitsoft. That relationship soured over time, but the companies parted ways and Auran continued to innovate and push the title down a completely new direction instead of taking the me-too approach of so many MMOs. A variety of suitors would come and go in that time, but the vision was steadfast, and thanks to Tony Hilliam’s generosity, it meant they could forge a path that was all their own, not beholden to anyone else’s ideas.

The game, Fury, was released to mediocre reviews on October 16th, and while many of them acknowledged a good idea and solid game at the core of it, the technical issues proved insurmountable. The game has failed to garner a large enough following to make it viable, and Auran’s directors decided that the water was coming into the boat much faster than they had the capacity to bail it out. They can’t be blamed, though I’m sure in the fallout fingers will be pointed in all directions. It’s like the break down of a good relationship; in the end maybe nobody is to blame, and it simply ran its inevitable course.

I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to games, but if I did, I would seek out the culture that Auran created. Compassionate directors that valued innovation over a safe bet, the best and brightest staff from all over the world, a willingness to go against the odds even if failure means you don’t exist anymore. Auran went down with a corporate philosophy focussed on leaping towards the sun; you may not reach it, but at least, for a little while, you can get off the ground.

It is a really sad day.

N.B. I appear to have been linked back to from all over the web as the “Ex-Fury” Producer. While I worked on the game initially, they were very early days and I cannot claim any sort of stake in the title it became. Many people much smarter and more talented than me devoted themselves to it for a number of years, and despite the end result, they deserve the highest of acclaim. Also thanks to Bloody for the kind words, they have been passed on to the team.