Monday, July 30, 2007

Cat hair nose job.

I was at Comic Con all week, and this weekend. I would like to start by saying that sleeping in my own bed was a blissful experience that only long absence can allow me to truly appreciate.

I think I also inhaled a helping a cat hair / dander that did a number on my sinuses while I slept on Iason's sofa. I have those good old summer time allergies to cats who aren't mine, and they seem to get worse every year as I get older and more battle weary.

I'll probably write a lot on this years Comic Con as the days pass, because I saw and did a lot there. Most of it was from the eye of a business man wondering to himself: "How can I get these people to give me their money?" and "What is that smell?"

First I would like to speak to all 20 of you (yeah, google says that there are more than 8 people reading this now) about seminars, and the dangerous misinformation they can give you.

I attended one called "FTW: How to break in to the video game industry" hosted by speakers from Foundation 9, Madcats, Sony, Capcom, and a guy who as far as I can remember was just an indie game blogger or somebody in the press/reporting circle of the video game stuff. I do recall though somebody saying he was there to give the indie side of the story.

After an hour of enduring questions that seriously were made up of deep insight such as "Do you like, read resumes that people send you, cause like, I sent mine and like, never got a reply?" the seminar didn't end. I was waiting patiently, and it just went on and on. I wanted to approach the bench and speak to the guys one on one, developer to developer, but I never had the chance because my phone kept paging me that Skill City servers were crashing and with no end in sight I had to leave.

I was there for 2 hours though, and what I did learn is that the big corporate game producers, and even the British fellow who was supposed to be reprezentin' us indie shops have a very biased view of their industry. I don't actually know why it surprised and dismayed me so much. I should have expected it, had I sat and thought it through.

I mean obviously a rep from a giant video game corporation is going to tell you that the way to "break in" to the industry is to start as a tester or QA person, then work up the long corporate ladder. It's what most of them did, and it's the method that is approved and effective for giant game factories such as theirs. Clearly they are now in positions of power and prestige, so who can argue?

Well... I would. I'm just a little scamp like that.

They never mentioned at all that to "break in" to the game industry all you need to do is wake up in the morning and say "Today, I am a member of the video game industry."

I'm serious, I speak from experience, and if you don't believe me just click here and let my work argue for me.

A lot of people will attempt this method of "breaking in" to the game industry, and they will fail, because once you declare yourself part of the industry you also have to act like it. That is the true sticking point. It's not that you failed to get a job for Soul Eating Corporation Number 91a. It's that you can't get anything done unless somebody is standing over you telling you to do it, and or paying you for it.

I'm not being negative, I'm just saying that there are a lot of people who go the indie game developer route and never finish even one game or product. It's very common. That same person, were they to work for a small shop like mine, or a huge shop like Sony, might flourish and become the next star of our time.

I think, as I write this, that the indie gamer method of "breaking in" (I hate that term so much I refuse to stop putting quotes around it) to the game industry is actually so hard that maybe it just wasn't worth mentioning. Maybe it wasn't lack of interest in that obvious route that caused a panel of prestigious gentlemen to simply ignore it for two hours.

There was a point at which somebody in the audience yelled out, in answer to a "Will you fund my game?" question "Portals will." and the panel shot him down. It was at that point I looked at him, as he was sitting near me, and said "I think everybody up there on the panel has never made their own game before, and probably has no idea how portals work, because I have many friends whose games were funded by portals/publishers."

A few minutes later the idea of finding a publisher to fund a game for you, so that you could use this proto game in your resume when applying for Capcom was actually broached by the panel.

Wow... so go indie, but only because that will allow you to make a game that you can use to impress game companies in to hiring you.

Yes my friends. That is the moral of the story of that entire seminar. I came away from it with the taste of sadness for all the kids in there who genuinely wanted to get in to the game world, and probably wont because they will spend all their time trying to get a job at a huge company someplace rather than just following their dreams and setting out on their own journey to greatness.

I am by no means saying the seminar was a waste of the men of the panel are not wise, and worthy of praise for giving their time. I was just sad that such a great way to break in to the game business (see? I'm over it now) was totally glossed over.

I sleep at night by telling myself that after I left to fix the servers they had a very long discussion of going indie, how it can be more fulfilling than working for somebody else, or being a tiny spoke in a larger gear. They probably didn't, but I'm a dreamer.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The efficacy of making friends in higher places

Find somebody who knows more than you about what it is you have chosen to do.

In this case it's making video games, specifically making video games in a Skill Games Tournament setting. You might be deciding to grow lima beans in Ohio, or to finally take the plunge and start that antique book binding business.

Regardless of your chosen path through the tangled and web strewn hallways of small business adventuring, you should find a mentor, or an adviser, who will help you with your many issues.

By blogging my odyssey in to this strange realm for you I hope to at least provide a road sign here and there to direct you. I cannot ever hope to provide you with the level of advice that somebody who is a seasoned veteran can provide.

"But I cannot, because they are expensive these sages of business knowledge." you say to me. I will smile and let you know that for every horde of marauding bandits seeking to swell their wallets you will find one who is willing to help you, but only for the price of your friendship and gratitude. I mean that in a very Oscar Schindler sort of sense (go watch the movie), your gratitude needs to show that you aren't just happy to have found somebody you can mentally leech. Your gratitude needs to show that you are a person who takes care of those who took care of you.

I suppose a track record of success helps, but if you are genuine and sincere in all that you say and do those with true business acumen can sense this. We know who we can trust after about 10 minutes of conversation.

Take a shower too. Brush your teeth. Nobody trusts a person with an unpleasant personal odor.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Belle of the Ball

As a tiny indie game company, or love developer yourself, you might have thought many times about how you should get your name out there and let the whole world know that you have the next idea right in the palm of your hand.

Many people post that on forums when they ask for advice, and my answer to them is always the same. You need to actually have a game done.

I'm putting my arm around you in that confidential way that says I'm about to give you some important info (or that I have been drinking) and I shall impart the wisdom of the ages: Don't show up pushing vaporware. Please don't. The industry at this point is so used to people showing up with hand waving and a grand show of nothing that they are just kind of tuning many people out.

Instead, before you are going to call yourself a game developer, or announce that your basement is a game studio, please actually make a game. I don't mean start making a game, I mean FINISH a game.

You might be wondering how Skill City went over at the Casual Connect conference that the Casual Game Association et al put on.

Thats what I'm getting to. See, we made a huge splash there. I had no intention of accomplishing anything by showing up other than saying hello to some friends, and making some new ones as I strolled the aisles introducing myself. Instead I ended up going to meetings with people I had never met.

I started by simply sending out meeting requests along the lines of "I would like a quick meeting just to introduce myself and Skill City, maybe talk about how we can do business and get some advice from you; my more experienced peers."

Flattery. That's key, and always will be. They are more likely to talk to you if you admit at the start that they are better than you. In fact admitting right now that a big company with a million bucks and a ton of employees is better than you isn't strategic, it's obvious.

So during these meetings what was it that, at the root of it all, made Skill City one of the companies everybody was buzzing about? I honestly think that it's the fact that we showed up with a real product. We didn't arrive saying "Look at us. We make games. We haven't made any yet, but give us money and we'll make some. We promise."

How refreshing is that for an industry that is thick with hucksters?

So we had a real foothold, we had actually made something, and then all the publishers walked by and said "How is publishing you though? Surely you aren't successful without the grace of our vast distribution empire?" Ah but we are doing pretty well in fact. Just using a website to chuck our installer at anybody who wants it seems to be what everybody else is doing anyway... This way Im not giving up my much needed pennies to somebody who isn't really doing much.

And this brings us to the other little factor in why people were talking about us. We were doing it all, all of it, alone. We had no partners, we had no big rock star game developer names or huge studio making our games. All we had done is work really hard, and really well, for one year and produce something that is amazing and nothing less than anybody here would expect for one year of such passion and attentions. You see, a lot of business are actually created these days with one goal: to do as little as possible and just use other people to make money.

They are often called Middle Men. Somebody who kind of just facilitates a few things you could have done yourself if you were inclined, or had the time, or were an unmarried network engineer with a gift for disarming conversation who designed a game service one day. I'm also incredibly handsome and I smell like roses. Where was I? Oh yes Middle Men.

The industry appears to be FULL of them. So when somebody comes along who is doing well without them I think people take notice.

Course this is all just speculation on my part, hell this entire blog is one big anecdote about me runnin' a game company. The best part about anecdotes though is that you can affix the word evidence to it and suddenly you get facts.

So here is some anecdotal evidence:
1. Everybody I talked to at the convention was amazed at what we got done in one year.
2. Most people were amazed at the quality of the games and our product, given the above.
3. Everybody was taken aback when they saw the demo included me actually showing them 5 games (and half of a sixth) working in our system with other people online using it too.
4. I wasn't selling them anything, I wasn't asking them for anything, I was just a friendly guy who was genuinely interested in meeting them, and hearing their opinions and feedback.

It boils down to this: Skill City is a deviation from the norm, and I think in general people were glad to breathe in the fresh air we brought with that.

So the iron is heated, it has seen the fire of attention and generated the warm radiance of industry buzz. Now is the time for me as the smithee of this little business to strike while it's hot.

Can I do it? I dunno... I'll try my best and so far that's worked.

I will of course share it all here, so do tune in for all the gory details.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Meetings with the 8th graders

Remember when you were in 6th grade, or 4th grade, and the school seemed like it was simply ruled by those emperors of age: the 8th graders.

I feel like that now. I am stumbling around in the dark pretending I know jack about running a corporation. I stand in the long lunch line of video game companies all waiting for the lady with the hair net to slop some cash on our little plastic trays. The 8th graders are already seated, they rule the school and have formed cliques. I see the online web-based flash game casinos like King and World Winner sitting over there. Oh look, its Pogo and PopCap at the other end of the room, I look up to them admiration and like all those I admire I copy their moves hoping to obtain some of their success. I even cut my hair the same and listen to the same music.

I'm too nervous to talk to them. What if they push me down or beat me up in the bathroom and take my milk money?

That time has ended. With the nearness of being totally out of operating capital I have decided to grow a spine and do the thing I severely dislike, but that is also required of all CEOs: Shake hands with strangers, talk to them about what we can do to mutually benefit us all, raise money.

It's just that I never considered myself a people person, but I also think I'm a good actor. I had an epifane, why not just act like a people person? I'm good at acting like I know what I'm doing, I'm good at being sincere too. Lets combine the two.

Is that the ideal salesman? One who can become whatever the situation requires to close a deal? It kinda sounds like its the ideal hitman to me. A hitman who gets development contracts for family friendly games!

Ok now I like that image way too much... where is my skinny black tie and white shirt?

See you at the Seattle Casual Connect Conference. I have little bags of candy. Come get some.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A view from space.

As I sat in the movie theater and let depression creep in on me, whisky bottle in hand and head filled with angry feelings of blackest sadness I found desperation to be extremely distracting.

Then the movie ended and my entire evening improved.

What you thought I was depressed about Skill City? Well I am but I mostly experiencing soul crushing sadness at how stupid Live Free or Die Hard was. Anybody who knows anything about computers should join me in being automatically offended at how Hollywood continues to portray hackers as some kind of techno-music swilling 20 something super-culture of buzzword dropping Gap models.

It makes me hate life, and people who are also alive. Mostly people who make movies like this where hackers live in a dream world and are capable of things that simply aren't possible. I think calling the writers of a movie like this "alive" is giving them too much credit.

Ok anyway you probably want to know what going on with the business. I know I sure do. If you find out tell me.

So far we have obtained from my brother a large chunk of money to simply toss at "the people" as an emperor might toss bread to the peasants. We are doing this by running some huge tournaments with gigantic pots. No more progressive, no more rake. These are flat prize, top 5 take a cut, tournaments of skill.

Its a good plan right? When your business is out of money what do you do? We give money away.

The hope is obviously that people start paying attention to us. Somebody out there will say "Hey I played a tetris-esque game and won $50 bucks today. I need to tell people about this." and then they will...

Maybe they will say "Hey I'm the only one entering these tournaments, I can sit here and take all 10 thousand dollars Skill City is giving away this month by winning all these things easily."

I hope they don't cause that would suck. So to prevent that we are advertising the big event.

Previously we advertised on Project Wonderful whose cheap silky smoothness led millions of users to our website, at least their stats said that. The web server disagrees, so I don't endorse them as much as I did before. Click-Fraud is an ugly word and I shan't throw it around.

Now we are going to just take off the gloves and admit what we are. We are a video game tournament site with cash prizes based on performance. Is that a legal casino where you play arcade games instead of poker?

It sure as hell is.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The longer I circle the drain, the more dizzy I get

Building a game system and interface that has been praised by just about everybody is one thing, but telling people it exists is another.

Once you have told them, will they pay for it? I have found that the answer is no. I would like to say that I just don't have a large enough audience. I think I can say that safely. We get about 1 subscribers or cash player for every 100 people who sign up. If I had 100,000 users that would be enough to pay for the servers every month but nobody here would be getting a salary still.

The ones who do pay should balance out the freeloaders, thats the hope anyway. It works for a lot of places. Why isn't it working for us?

Those other places are casual. You can load a web browser that remembers your login info and just play some brainless mouse clicker games. Then wander off... Skill City requires more input, it's a dedicated "Im going to sit down and play" activity. It's breaking the casual game mold.

As my friend just put it: Asking people to play a progressive tournament on your site for money requires them to enter their billing info and deposit money first. Its a long process. I might as well be saying to them "Just go to DOS and configure IPX/SPX and then we can play some DOOM!"

He is right. Our conversion from download to account creation went up when we stripped every field off the registration screen and just had it ask for username and password. If only we could do the same with cash games. Sadly the mark of the beast hasn't been implanted on every human yet, and you cant just wave your hand in front of the computer screen and have it debit your bank account. We still require typing, and the entry of a 16 digit number off the back of a plastic card.

What Skill City needs is revenue so that we can continue to build more games, to eventually offer the huge citadel of puzzle games that one can get from sites like Pogo and MiniClip. That should get people more motivated to either subscribe to that service, or to put in cash to play tournaments when they easily have an opponent waiting for them.

We built a space in to Skill City for advertising, because I knew someday we would use it. Now I need to figure out where the people who buy ads for that space are located, so that I can call them up and ask them to buy it. I wanted to run Skill City pure and clean, unsoiled by garish advertisements, but that's not gonna happen.

People actually turn off ads on sites, or complain about them, and then use that site anyway. They don't get that without that ad the site they like wouldn't exist.

My hopeful optimism is fading of late, and its getting hard to write perky blog entries where my eyes glitter with visions of a grand future. I feel like the architect who has built a utopia, and now sits alone in it. I am not giving up hope, and I am not saying that we are done. There is no towel to be thrown in, I sold it for grocery money.

Thursday, July 5, 2007


I don't like the modern over-use of the suffix "esque" on to a noun to simply mutate it in to an adjective, but then again sometimes the easy way out beats writing a 6 sentence explainer on how you think your idea idea is similar to something else.

I heard a song on the radio Friday on the indie music station here in Southern California and I thought it was great. Then it went to the reviewers who all ripped in to it calling it unoriginal and derivative. I liked it, I'm the consumer, not these pompous radio DJs and their has-been movie star guests.

I sat for a moment in my car, probably at a red light or trapped behind the mummified remains of some ancient monarch driving 20 miles an hour, and thought to myself how often I get that same reaction.

A player plays one of my games once, and then shrieks that its derivative and hates. Librum Confundo haters baffle the hell out of me. They keep calling it Bookworm. Please name something other than the general "word find" that it has in common with Bookworm. If we are gonna get really stupid like that then please call it call Boggle, because that game was first. While we are at it, why don't we complain that it ripped off soccer or poker? They are both games. Boggle totally ripped off soccer, its just a derivation of soccer for people who cant run and are more verbose than others.

Damn you soccer!

Anyway several people said I should do achievements in the games. I agree. We have a system in there now of experience, and you can't buy certain avatar items unless you get a set amount of experience. Other achievements we haven't put in yet will include special trophies on the wall that you will only be able to purchase (and they will be cheap, since you earned them) by getting a certain high score. Much like bronze, silver, and gold medals only these will be district and game themed.

I love the districts, they help me keep things themed and easy to classify. Provides a nice foundation for just about everything and an iron guideline should I ever wonder what style or imagery I need to call upon.

Somebody also requested more story in there. More fluffy info about Skill City and its bizarre founders... etc. I wrote that all already, its just that I had no idea where to put it.

I think I'll throw it in the forums for now... maybe later I'll make a spot on the website for it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Insert Voodoo

We finished the Progressive Tournament system today. For info on what that is, please see this link, cause I'm getting tired of retyping it all the time. Seriously like 80 people have said "Whats that?" and then I type this huge explanation in.

That's why I won't do two shows a night anymore. I won't do it.

Anyway to announce the new addition I emailed out an update to all our existing users. It took a while too, but they got it.

Its nice to see the Players Online screen packed with people again. Now if I can just get them to play a few progressives, or subscribe, that would be nice too.

Thats where Voodoo comes in. Having tried all conventional means of marketing, advertising, incentivizing, and downright bullying users to pay us, I have now forsaken these traditional means and decided to opt for a new approach.

Using state of the art Haitian Voodoo we will systematically perform some sort of ritual for each user in the database. It will involves bones and probably a chicken, because everybody knows that's what it takes for Voodoo. Without the chicken its just a bunch of people looking silly and drinking rum, like a frat party but with more people speaking French. You add a chicken running around and you go from boozed up 20 year old hazing party directly to supernatural recipe for success!

Early tests in to the Voodoo tactic was promising, with only moderate zombie attack.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Just as I am celebrating the triumph of our programmer's avoidance of Jury Duty, or as the kids call it "Judy" because they like to mash up names, I get notified that Jacob was in a terrible car accident.

I am of course overcome with worry for his well being, and just as I am about to explode he walks in the door. He seems fine. Then about 10 minutes later as I am helping him stand up after he collapsed I realize the intricacies of head trauma can outfox even an astute observer such as myself.

One head X-ray later, and with medications in tow, we head back to the office. He has a CT Scan tomorrow to make sure his brainy meats are intact and not all mooshed up against his eyes.

Tonight we patch in Progressive Tournaments, or at least, we are going to make a go of it. We might find that its going to take too long and we do make more mistakes when sleep deprived so experience has taught us its better to get some rest and patch when the sun has come back up.

This, for us, is the big moment. I think its bigger than when we even went live and announced our presence to the whole wide world, because this is the part where we find out: Can we make money with this?

Clearly if the answer is no, then Skill City isn't long for this earth. Even though a few Korean MMOs I know have been running for years as the hemhorage cash, that's a testament to the skill of their investor relations staff as they wheedle money from the rich and foolish.

I'm currently accepting applications for anybody who has listed wheedling as their primary talent, and if you have used the word wheedle in the last 5 days on purpose then I'm already impressed.

That was a joke. I'm not actually hiring.

Civic Duty Disaster Averted

It always happens like this. As soon as you are reaching some kind of critical point with your business, which happens to be only 4 guys, somebody gets the much dreaded envelope in the mail.

Its the one that talks about how you have to call a phone number at this date and time, and if you don't then men well come to your home and place a sack over your head and take you someplace awful, like Arizona.

Its the Jury Duty envelope.

Drew got one, and he diligently called the number every Sunday for two weeks as instructed. Thankfully for us the friendly recorded message always said "You don't need to serve at this time, please call again in one week. " He did so, until last night the recording informed him that his services were needed and his obligation had been fulfilled. He is now free of the recorded message's robotic clutches for another 2 years.

Thats the good part about living in Southern California. There are so many people here that Jury Duty is actually pretty rare. If you do get summoned, odds are good that the defendants attorney will just end up doing some smack with the plaintiff up in Hollywood and they'll work out their differences. No jury required.

The odds are also good that you will end up on a murder trial and your company will be screwed because the only guy who can program a specific feature is currently working on deciding if the bloody gloves fit.

I'm also sick today. I got some kind of weird ear infection and it feels like its getting better, but as I already naturally have vertigo an ear infection means that I'm so dizzy I have a hard time standing up. Ever played a video game with vertigo? Its really annoying.