Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ever had a Game Killed? Wow. It sucks. Here's how to deal with it.


As an Executive Career Specialist in the video game and technical industries, sometimes my background as a developer may have some bearing on how you should manage your career. I've told these stories to others over the years and it occurred to me that they may be able to illustrate a point Mary-Margaret has made in her blog post: "You are a Free Agent and That's Not Bad News."


Let's Get Started

After working yourself to the bone on a game, pouring your heart into it, sometimes it is necessary for the game to die. Whether it's financial constraints, a change in market demands, the right personnel leaving the company, a lack of development progress, a lack of cohesion with the development team or some other reason, it is still painful. 

After an event like that, it is hard to decide to put your heart into your next game. It's a really difficult task and can seriously affect your emotional state. 

I am going to try to be vulnerable in this article, and since these stories are real, I hope that I don't offend anyone by being too honest.

I have been on a lot of projects and the ones that stand out as the most painful are the biggies that got killed. I'll start with the first and go to the most recent. There are others I skipped and many left out. And there are plenty after 1999, too. Maybe I'll write those up one day. Let's get on with it!


RIP: WING COMMANDER II SNES 1994-1994

CAUSE OF DEATH: MARKET CHANGES

We survived. The game didn't.
The first project I was on that was "killed" was pretty weird. It was an adaptation of Wing Commander II on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I had been working on it until just before it was to ship, and then I had to go to England to work on Rugby World Cup 1995. The game was in the final stages of testing when I left and I was able to provide some design / data editing support while I was away. 

The game was approved by Nintendo, but the publisher, Pony Canyon, decided to not move forward with publication because it was the end of the SNES's life cycle. So the game does not even exist now. No copies. Nothing. Not even a backup. That is horrible. That thing was FINISHED! Very frustrating, but not as bad as it could have been. We could have been at 95% and have had it put to sleep. 

At least for me, it wasn't too bad; I had already moved onto a high profile project and was embroiled in making it get out the door. That helped my sanity greatly but I am certain it wasn't good for the others that had finished it.

Lesson learned: Get on another project that is moving quickly. It'll help you cope. At least it did for me.


RIP: CYCLONE ALLEY 1994-1995

CAUSE OF DEATH: LACK OF COHESION

CA was spaceage
bike riding in tunnels
I remember working on this for a year. This one had a few big issues, and the death knell was that the product owner didn't know the platforms we were trying to launch on. 

When he was asked during a product approval meeting what we thought about doing the game on Saturn (the game system), the answer he gave was that we'd do the game on every planet! Umm.... The final nail in the coffin. Bam. 

Lesson learned: Have the right people with the right answers in front of the right budget committee

RIP: PROWLER 1995-1996

CAUSE OF DEATH: FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS

This one really hurt. I was brought on after it had been in production for a while. For well over a year I worked a lot of overtime with a lot of people. Then it was killed.
No. It was a MECH game.

Prowler suffered from a lot of problems. It started as a 3DO game and since that market was changing, we moved it to PlayStation. That cost time and money. Always a bad sign. There were issues on the development team with project direction, we were using tools that were constantly evolving that required rebuilding the game models too frequently and the game's scope exceeded its budget. 

Without going into too much detail, it was ultimately killed in favor of other projects that needed funding in order to meet financial goals of Electronic Arts. 

Lesson learned: Pay attention to the power of the most important projects at the company. They may eat resources when they need them most. Most importantly... yours.


RIP: WING COMMANDER PROPHECY: PLAYSTATION - 1996

CAUSE OF DEATH: FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS

It was GOING to be awesome.
The PC version was the biggie. We knew it. But our group had console experience. Eventually the decision was made within Electronic Arts that the whole company had to make 25% cutbacks in salaries. Our executive producer was new at EA and made the decision to follow through on this mandate. I know it was immensely hard for him. He summoned me along with a cadre of other managers to an offsite to help determine the fate of our group. 

It was not long before it was apparent that the adaptation of Prophecy to PlayStation was not what was going to make the most money for the group, as we had to consolidate everything toward the main SKU. This was a harsh lesson to learn and it was unbelievably hard to deliver this news to my friends that I'd worked with for years. It still haunts me.

Lesson learned: If you are not working on the company's lead title, you are constantly on the chopping block, even when you don't think so.


RIP: CRIMSON ORDER - 1999

CAUSE OF DEATH: FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS

This one was pretty much out of the development team's hands. The company was funded by winning a lawsuit against a larger company and the owner wanted to get the remainder of the funds owed. Allegedly so it would find the remainder of development. 

The owner went through the studio, filming how the projects were being made, and created a really cool video showing our progress. We were really excited to see that happen because we saw it as great marketing so we could get more press

Turns out that the right person saw it and realized we really needed the cash and that we were doing the right things, because the owner won the lawsuit and got the extra money. 

Then the owner took the money and the football and went home. Had the total right to go home. The trouble was that we didn't want to. 

Lesson learned: Everything can blow up at any time. 

There is a Silver Lining

Games get killed. Quarters come and go. Companies die. If you are going to work in an industry where your projects are pulled out from under you after almost killing yourself, you need to be aware of the dangers you face. And you should be aware of how much it hurts. 

There IS a silver lining here. The people you worked with on these projects also suffered this pain. Do your best to remember the good times: the first time you could play it, adding a new feature and experiencing it, the long nights in design sessions, a great meal shared with your team, or whatever stands out to you. These people may be the bridge to another job or you may be their bridge to another job. They'll also be there to validate your pain.

Lesson learned: In the end, the only thing that matters is relationships.

Being Ready for the Kill

Too much paranoia here, but be
aware that it MAY be up there.
No one knows when the end is near, really. You want to think you do, but you do not. 

The best thing to do is keep your resume up to date. Always. Manage your online reputation. Pay attention to what's going on in the industry. Who is hiring? Go to local networking events. Stay in contact with your co-workers / friends / family that may be able to help you find new work. Start an IGDA group for your area. [Insert your own idea here.]

Lesson Mastery: You are your own recruiter. You are the only person that can really make these things happen. GO UPDATE YOUR RESUME NOW! 

Final Thoughts

Help is totally okay to ask for. Really.
If you have real problems after a project death, talk to someone. These are serious life events. When you are out of control of a stressful situation it can have real repercussions on your mind and body. Talk to a professional. I am not kidding. There are people I have worked with that suffer from PTSD from the overtime on and death of a project we worked on together. They have had to get help, but I fear it was not fast enough and they didn't realize just how bad it was for them. Learn from their mistakes. 

And most of all, get yourself back into something creative that YOU are in control of start to finish. Take a class, find a hobby... just do something. Something that matters to you. 

I'll end this with an invite for you to talk about your projects that were killed. How did that affect you? We're all in this together. Maybe you just need to talk about it. Like me!


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Billy Joe Cain is an Executive Recruiter with Mary-Margaret Network (www.mary-margaret.com) and focuses on the video game industry. He has worked for Electronic Arts and started three game studios in Austin, TX. Since 1992, he has created games such as Wing Commander: Prophecy and SpongeBob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman.

Please connect with him on LinkedIn! www.linkedin.com/in/billyjoecain

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