Friday, July 30, 2010

Wearing Multiple Hats Is Tough, And PR Is Important

This has been a productive week for me, in terms of me getting a lot of things done, but it wasn't the work I'd intended to get done, or the type of work I am normally accustomed to -- so I've been feeling guilty and stressed.  Ever have that happen to you?  It's been something I've faced my entire life, but I never figured out what was going on until now.

Background Tangent: This can happen with any job
Back when I was in high school, I was a cashier for a local hardware store.  I really liked doing the sales and troubleshooting type work (helping people find the right solution for their problem, or at least finding a product in the store), but most of the time I was just on register.  I worked there for a year, and by the end it was clear I was good at the troubleshooting stuff, so I was let out onto the sales floor more and more.  And I was frequently nervous, guilty, or stressed.  I did the job fine, and customers seemed happy, and management seemed happy, and I was certainly happier with that work, but I felt guilty for not being on register.

Right after high school I got my first job in the software industry.  It started out as data entry for a few weeks, then I quickly became a system admin, then after two years I officially joined the programming team and shortly after became the head of the programming team during a big layoff (long story there).  And you know what?  Every time I changed positions, I had guilt and discomfort.  Sitting at my desk doing data entry, I felt idle.  Doing the system admin work I felt guilty because the work was something I enjoyed and was not that mentally taxing.  Switching over to programming more, I felt guilty because I wasn't working with my hands or using specialized knowledge that nobody else in the office had.

And so on.  I think that a lot of stay-at-home parents have the same sort of trouble, honestly.  They're used to doing whatever job, and now that they're doing the massively important job of taking care of their children, they feel "idle" despite the fact that they're doing something immensely of value.  It's often the case, so I've heard, that new moms feel guilty for not cooking as much, or doing outside work, or keeping a clean house, while they're busy taking care of the baby.  Obviously, that guilt is incredibly misplaced (without even getting into gender roles: it's clear they've got a demanding job with the baby alone).

So what's the problem specific to indie developers?
This week, my guilt and anxiety is because I haven't been programming as much.  Keith has been, and certainly I've spent maybe 10 hours programming myself, but the rest has been more "soft" skills:
  • Talking to the press.
  • Talking to and negotiating with potential vendors.
  • Catching up on some financials, including doing more projections and assessments so that I can make decisions about potential hires during the autumn
  • Talking with a potential PR firm.
  • Dealing with a partner that went into insolvency without paying us.
  • Getting everything ready for the next full project, Alden Ridge, so that the staff not working on Tidalis or AI War can get started.
  • Getting a head start on the design of Alden Ridge itself, so that folks on the team have a better idea of where we are already heading
  • Redoing the entire blog and coding that into the main page of the arcen site, then transferring close to two hundred older posts and articles by hand so that they'd be categorized.
  • Coordinating with both Valve and Unity 3D on some various internal things.
  • Oh yeah, and I did a fair bit of technical support and had a number of discussions with players.
This happens to most new business owners (which many indies are)
Gosh, it's been a freaking busy week.  I was working 10 hour days, which is admittedly low for me if you look at the past few months, but still.  I would never demand of staff what I have gotten into the habit of demanding of myself.  It would, frankly, be inhumane.

This is a common trap that new business owners fall into, and that "one man shops" often fall into when the team grows.  The owner feels guilty for taking any time off, feels like he/she should be working every waking moment, and so on.  That's a trap to avoid, as it's not healthy and leads to spectacular flame-outs and ultimately failure of the business.  It's something I'm working on, most of all because I'm going to be a new father sometime in the next 1-6 weeks, and I sure as heck don't want any of this interfering with family life.

But that's not the real crux of what I realized, even.  The point of this post is to discuss that guilt-thing that I've noticed in my own life going all the way back to the hardware store.  What is that thing?

Here's the problem: what exactly is it I do?  What's my job?
Personally, I think it's just an inherent difficulty with wearing multiple hats.  People ask me what I do for a living, and I rarely know what to say.  I stumble through something along the lines of "I make games" or "I have a video game company" or similar (because the followup to my first response is inevitably "where do you work?" with a hoped response of Blizzard or Nintendo or something).

What am I supposed to say?  I founded a games company, but now I act as producer there, as well as the lead designer on most projects but assistant designer on Tidalis, and yeah I do all the finances except taxes, and most of the contract negotiation except when we really need our lawyer to do it, and most of the marketing and PR stuff, and I do all the HR stuff like managing health benefits and such, and I do a huge chunk of the programming though not all of it anymore thanks to having Keith now (thank God), and I keep up the website and deal with lost license keys and the occasional customer who wants a refund and and and...

It's freaking crazy that anyone could work fulltime doing all that, and then still feel guilty for not spending 40 hours programming in any given week, but that's how I feel.  With all the rest of the stuff I do, there is a good 20-30 hours of work per week just in that.  So to do 40 hours of programming means I'm working a 60-70 hour week.  If it's crunch time and I'm trying to spend 60 hours programming, and if it's tax time or time to do payroll or time to bring a new staff member up to speed or something, then the problem is only compounded even more.  I also like to answer questions for other indies (I get a few emails a month, usually), and I try to keep up with this blog when I can.

I went to school for computer science, and then changed to a business degree with a focus on management, so I do like doing most of this stuff, especially the finances and the HR stuff.  Call me weird.  But what I like doing best is game design, followed extremely closely by programming.  When I think of "what is my job," the simple, incredibly misleading answer I like to think is "I design and program games."  All the rest of that stuff isn't something I think of as my core job, it's just something I do so that I can do my real job.  It's like chores: you have to mow the lawn and take out the garbage, but when someone asks you what your job is, you probably don't think of those things.

Why this is such a problem
Okay, so we've established that the above is a problem.  For obvious reasons, mainly: it leads to unhappiness and burnout, it's probably not healthy, it destroys any semblance of a balanced life if you let it (social life? what?), and it can lead to the ruin of your company if you're not careful.

But there is an even more insidious problem, which I have seen with so incredibly many indies that it's practically an epidemic: it can lead to a skewed sense of valuation of activities.  In other words, many indies often focus on the wrong things.  They (hopefully) focus on making the absolute best game they can, pouring all their time and energy into the current project.  That's great, to a point, but the problem is that having an obsession with the game itself can lead to tunnel vision.

And then the project is -- hooray -- done!  So what does the prototypical indie developer do?  They send out a couple of emails, make a few forum posts, and wait for success to find them.  And then it usually doesn't.

I've been around long enough to know that you need a lot of marketing and PR work done after a game is finished.  So I spent practically all last week on that, and sent out several hundred emails.  Since Arcen is already something of a known quantity, we had a lot more success with that this time around compared to when AI War came out; I think the tally of press members who have opted to review the game is up to about 48 now, and that includes something like three or four print magazines.

That's a big improvement over AI War!  AI War was really well reviewed, but only in about 20 places, and that over the span of a six month period after the game came out.  With Tidalis, everything was indeed easier this second time around, and I had 20+ reviewers asking for the game within the first 24 hours of contacting any of them.

So where in this process did I severely drop the ball?  If you were reading carefully, you've already seen it: I waited until we'd completely finished the game, and were two days away from the game coming out, before I did any serious PR or marketing work.  Sure, I did a number of videos during development of the game, and I sent out several impersonal press releases to all my press contacts, but that resulted only in a brief writeup on Co-Optimus, an early review by a small blog, a preview on Gamezebo, and a mild bit of exposure on ModDB.

That is so much less than it could have been if I'd been on the ball with the press.  If I'd put in half the effort with the press during production that I did after production, the release of Tidalis could have been so much larger of an event.

The press response to the game has been overall exceedingly crazy positive thus far, so we definitely did our duty in making the game, but I dropped the ball with publicizing it.  Those people who have heard of the game seem to really adore it in the main, but most gamers have never even heard of it.  Consequently, our sales volume so far has been about 10x lower than I had expected the minimum sales volume to be.  That is excruciatingly sobering, no?  Tidalis is well into the quadruple digits of sales after being out only two weeks (a feat it took AI War four months to reach, despite the fact that game has now sold around 30k units if you count the expansion), so from that angle it's still already vastly more successful than all but a handful of indie games.

But here's the thing: if you look at the reviews and player comments that the game is getting, it's clear that it's being undersold at the moment.  Thank goodness with digital distribution this is a problem I can correct over time.  I suspect that by the end of September things will be back on track with where I'd expected the game to be, but we're not there yet and that's where the game should have been at launch if I'd done things correctly.  I'm not worried about the fate of Tidalis specifically, Arcen is in a position where thankfully we're able to compensate for my earlier mistake and the game is good enough that it should get back on track.

What concerns me, in a larger sense, is this: I don't feel much remorse for having screwed that up.  My gut feeling is instead that, while the release was not the way we wanted, that was largely outside my control -- I sent out press releases and such, after all, but nobody responded.  The basic belief being that I could have done more, but we had limited time and I put my efforts in where it was more needed, on coding and producing and such.  And in a lot of senses that is true, it's not like I had a lot of spare time to be able to spend a full week on PR stuff in the middle of that project.  In retrospect, I should have pushed the project's deadline back a week in order to make time, but it was an honest mistake on my part due to the fact that I am not, at core, a marketer or PR rep.  So as much as I do wish I'd handled that better, I it's hard to feel particularly remorseful.

Okay... yet when I take a week largely off from programming so that I can take care of the other critical business needs that I've been putting off in order to get Tidalis out the door, I do feel guilty.  I feel stressed and guilty like crazy.  This is so incredibly backwards!  And talking to other indies and reading posts by other indies, I know I'm not the only one with this sort of screwed up sense of valuation of my activities.

This is toxic.  And it can happen to you without your even realizing it's happening at all.

So what's the lesson here?
The lesson is that if you're going to be a successful indie, you have to either get lucky or you have to sometimes act against your instincts.  My instincts are to cling to designing and programming games, not because that's the part I enjoy most (though that is true), but because that's the part that seems most core to our business.  The people that love our games love them because they are designed and programmed well (and for reasons of the art and music as the case may be, obviously, but I'm not involved as directly in those).

So if all potential players were omniscient, and knew exactly what every game on the market was, where to find it, and which ones they would like, I'd have no problem.  I'd be absolutely correct in just focusing on the design and programming, since that would be the only thing that would directly affect both sales and player enjoyment.

Since we live in a world without omniscient players, unfortunately, there is the sticky business that you can make a game that someone would love, and they'll never ever hear about it.  Or they hear just the wrong sort of information, or not enough information, for them to realize how much they'll love it.  That sort of thing happens all the time, and not just with smaller games.  How many people have you heard gush about Portal or Silent Hill 2 years after the fact, after having finally trying the game to see "what all the hype was about?"  It's just that the problem is more severe with smaller games, indie or not.

For a multitude of reasons, when it comes to publicity and PR and marketing, with Arcen it's my responsibility.  If you've founded an indie company, or are thinking of founding one, odds are that the same responsibility belongs to you.  The lesson is that most of us need to do a better job of remembering this, from the start of the development process on forward

Speaking personally, I need to get over my guilt when I'm tending to the business side of things, and I need to remember to allocate time in each project for that sort of work, because it's just that important.  As the project manager, if I'm scheduling projects in such a way that the project has no time for publicity and marketing type work, then I'm not doing my job correctly there, either.

Every successful indie talks about how important publicity and marketing is.  And they all have their own method of going about that sort of thing.  A lot of them talk about how important their self-posted previews were, or their development diaries, or early previews by the press.  Even just having reviews in-hand at launch can make a big difference.  Not doing all those things is a recoverable situation, AI War is proof enough of that, but not doing those things makes the road oh-so-much-harder, and occasionally impossible.  I remember reading all those sorts of articles, but I should have actually taken that advice.  If you're a new or an aspiring indie developer, so should you.


Anonymous said...

Great advice there. Hopefully I'll be able to follow it without succumbing to the dreaded I-should-be-designing anxiety. Hopefully.


Mrs Hume said...

Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful post. I'm not a developer myself, but I came across your post while doing research for my husband, who is working on his first game in his spare time. He will really benefit from your words because he reacts the same way when he's not coding. Thank you thank you!