Cart, Horse

I sometimes wonder if it’s odd that my company, PJ’s Attic, has spent the first several years of its existence focusing more on the business of developing games rather than actually developing games. I wonder, are we putting the cart before the horse?

Until recently, PJ’s Attic had only two employees. I’m the Chief Creative Officer, which means I’m … creative. Our Chief Operating Officer is the other; he focuses primarily on the business side of things. Running a business is not, however, so cut-and-dried. Holistic would be a good term to describe our business partnership. We each have an occasional finger in the other’s pie, so to speak, and are fine-tuning our strategies as we go. At the beginning of this year we added a third employee, filling a marketing and business development position from a talented pool of applicants. It was with no small amount of trepidation, therefore, that I prepared to attend GDC this year and, when asked, tell people our studio of nearly three years was only just entering into the development of our first title. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

When I met my peers at GDC and listened to the issues their independent studios were having – communication problems, ego and conflict issues, marketing confusion, budgetary concerns, and their need for trustworthy business people to help them navigate the treacherous waters of intellectual property law and contract negotiation – what surprised me was while we certainly don’t have all the answers to these issues, we do have answers for a number of them. Most exciting to us is we’ve taken the time to address these concerns while we don’t have the added stress of simultaneously managing the development of a game. Suddenly, the time we’ve spent growing our company seems like time well spent.

We’re a virtual company. Our three employees live in two different cities, and we’ve had a number of communication issues over the years. While many of these issues have been related to technology, the truly daunting challenges have been psychological ones. I have spoken with developers who feel isolated within their teams, team leaders that feel isolated within their company and company directors who feel isolated within the industry. Physical distance only heightens these emotional states. Text-based meetings lack sufficient nuance, and it’s easy to interpret comments incorrectly, finding offense where none was intended. Audio meetings are considerably better, but as a visual person, I find I miss watching other attendees’ body language. Long silences on the phone are harder to interpret, as I can’t see if someone’s arms are folded or if they appear contemplative or confounded. Video over the web has its own challenges, but when all the technology between our offices aligns, which is rarely, we find it’s the best way to go.

We’ve learned to compensate for the psychological factors of the virtual office with a few simple rules. The first is simply: Ask. We ask many questions of each other. If we don’t understand, we ask questions. Once we think we understand, we ask more questions. The second rule is: Repeat. Once we’re sure we understand the others, we repeat what it is we think we heard. Not only does this allow us to take advantage of the next rule, it has the added benefit of instructing us on our communication styles and how we come across in conversation. The third rule is: Clarify. We constantly reframe our decisions, using new metaphors, new data and new ideas. Rather than become impatient with constant questioning, we use it as an opportunity to improve our communication and fully express ourselves. To aid us in implementing our rules, we’ve established what you might call aggressive communication habits. Using shared calendars, SMS, Google Docs, instant messaging, e-mail and phone calls, and any new technologies that present themselves, we follow the overarching rule that more is better.

One irony of being a small company with few employees is we’re often overburdened with energy and manpower. Some people call this Superman syndrome. We all work full time jobs in addition to PJ’s Attic; being realistic about the amount of work we can do and setting appropriate deadlines continues to be a struggle. We are all very passionate about the studio and very confident in our abilities, so we frequently find ourselves taking on more than we can realistically handle. We plan on remaining an independent studio because we firmly believe maintaining an appropriate life/work balance is key to our success, both as individuals and as a company. Funnily enough, the biggest threat we face in this area comes from our desire to achieve it. When it comes time to add more people, we hope our established culture of interdependent self reliance will attract likeminded, creatively driven employees. We’re busy examining successful hiring practices across a variety of industries in hopes of recreating their successes and avoiding their failures.

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Hiring more people is going to be contingent upon gaining the capital to pay them. As we’re intent on avoiding publishers and investors who will want pieces of our intellectual property, expanding the team has been the subject of a lot of discussion. Our plan is to find clients who would benefit from our design approach and help them express their company’s story via our games. This bootstrapping method has many inherent risks, but the potential benefits far outweigh them. This requires us to be extremely flexible in our short term plans, but we’re still able to remain firm in our long term goals.

Of course, more clients will mean more contracts to deal with, which will mean more legal issues and more elaborate accounting requirements. We’re working to find attorneys and CPAs that share our values. We’re examining the types of clients they take and the work they’ve done. In this way, we hope to build lasting relationships built on trust. We’re also doing our own research into intellectual property issues. We have decided to open all of our code as free open source software, so the wilderness of patent law has been replaced by the equally bewildering labyrinth of FOSS licensing.

The most important thing we’re doing to prepare for these upcoming challenges, however, is listening. There’s a vast wealth of experience in the halls and conference rooms of GDC, on the web and in your local community. Much of this information is available; you just have to ask for it. Many people are willing to share their horror stories – even their successes. We talk to contractors who work with other industries as well; graphic and web designers, writers and programmers, all have tales that shed light on the most stubborn of issues.

To help encourage this atmosphere of shared experience, we have a policy of transparency at PJ’s Attic. We’re publishing whitepapers about our design philosophies and business experiences. We do everything we can to respond quickly and comprehensively to questions about our studio. We regularly blog about our journey and experiences. We typically get rapid feedback from our peers, we learn to better tell our stories and we establish ourselves as active, even when we don’t quite have that first game out the door yet.

We’ve learned it’s all, well, a learning process. No two studios are exactly alike, but each stands to learn a lot from the other. Our focus on communication, company culture and our business model has hopefully prepared us to quickly resolve issues when they arise. No doubt that means the next road bumps, the ones we didn’t foresee, will be that much closer. So perhaps we’re not putting the cart before the horse. Rather, we’ve taken the time to hook up the cart before the horse is running at full gallop.

Corvus Elrod is a storyteller and game designer who is working on bringing his
16 years experience into the digital realm. He has a habit of taking serious things lightly and frivolous things seriously, a personal quirk which can be witnessed on his blog, Man Bytes Blog.

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