Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dutch interview.

Click here to see the full text of an interview that Bashers did with me.

They asked some good questions, I think I have given them the best answers I could.

I find it a little bit ironic that after I shut down Skill City and basically throw in the towel that now I am getting more interest in our technology and product than before.

Is the lesson to be learned that people like bad news more than good? It looks like the best marketing Skill City ever got was from its own demise.

Speaking of, I sort of went off on the coders in the last two entries. I tried to balance that ire by at least stressing it wasn't anything they did wrong, it was just bad circumstance and personality issues.

Anyway you probably want to know what the rest of the circumstances leading to our eventual shut down were, and so I will share those.

But right now I have a meeting to go to so I'll have to share that tomorrow, or maybe this afternoon.

Needless to say it will probably have a very clever metaphor like "Man who wears too many hats eventually gets a broken neck."

I'm fond of that one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Continuing Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Maybe I should compare myself to Baron Harkonnen instead?

I think after reading what I said yesterday most of you probably think I should. I got a little carried away there.

It's not my intention to paint a completely negative picture of those I chose to start Skill City with. Not completely anyway. You see while my coders and business partners had talent, they simply were the wrong people to do business with.

You will find countless better blogs than mine which will tell you the right sort of person to form a startup venture with. I personally enjoy Marc Andreesens blog cleverly linked via hyper thermal linkoid technology: click here.

See, the people I chose to start the business with were complete opposites of the "right kind of person" for this task. It doesn't mean they are jerks or bad workers. Quite the opposite, Drew and Chris are the rare shining exception among coders: They actually know what they are doing, they do it well, and they can pass the fizz buzz test.

What they don't have is drive. Marc puts it best on his blog, go read that. They don't share the vision I have for Skill City, and while I know my artist and music guys did, we can't make much without coders.

As soon as things got rough in the office and morale began to sink, they just jumped ship. They don't care about the project in the same way as somebody with a real deep seeded drive to see the project through regardless of hardships. Some of it isn't their fault even. Owning a house puts a large financial burden on you, so starting a company that might require you to go unpaid for a year or even two is probably not a good idea. Doing it anyway and then screwing the company by leaving it is also a poor choice, and one that I regret I have to bring up because I feel strongly thats one of the main reasons why Skill City might not recover from it's current state of "down and out."

It certainly could, if it had the right people behind it. Those who were willing to give more, move it in to a garage business and take day jobs to keep the core business operating and looking good for the public.

The people I chose to work with refuse to do that, further backing up the argument that I chose the wrong kind of people to work with.

This was not their mistake.

It was mine.

See how I put that on separate lines? I think it adds emphasis to two statements that are certainly true. I made a huge mistake in starting a business with them. This is not a black mark on their records, it is a black mark on mine.

Now you are thinking, but aren't you blaming your programmers for your (you and your partners') business's failure?


Remember the too many chefs? They are all to blame for the failure of their soup.

Management is there to take credit when his team does well, and lay blame on somebody else when they fail. Good management gives credit to his team, and accepts the failure as his own when that team fails. I think somebody said that more eloquently once, but it's true.

What else happened at Skill City though? Clearly there were personality conflicts between the founders that we just couldn't hold in any longer. What was the trigger? Why didn't it make any money despite that?

I know you are all wondering these things, and I did make that list of questions to keep me on track. I'll answer it tomorrow though, I have many an email to answer today and a throbbing headache that demands my attentions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The center cannot hold

1. How long did you spend developing Skill City?
2. How long has the service been running publicly?
3. What marketing did you use?
4. Have you thought about advertisers, selling the eyes you have to somebody?
5. Didn't you have a business plan? You have to have had a plan to get money in.
6. Are you going to pull your games out and sell them as stand-alone games?
7. What exactly happened? What events lead up to the decision to shut down?

This is what I am being asked on the Indie Forums. I write it down now so I have some kind of guide to adhere to, otherwise I'll just spew information all over this page and it might get confusing to read for somebody without actual experience of the events I reveal.

It's funny, because most of these questions are answered already, many times in fact, on this very blog. I am a gracious host, and have no problem repeating myself in these long days of unemployment. It gives me something to do other than send my resume out to everybody I can think of.

To do a post-mortem of a business that has officially failed at it's original business plan is hard, because one must say why it failed. That means that laying blame is inescapable, and therefore I feel like I should lay that out near the beginning. Nobody likes to be told they are the ones responsible for something bad, people only want praise. I was always more fond of saying: Spare the rod, spoil the child. Nobody likes a prima donna.

The first major problem with Skill City: It had no captain. Have you ever heard the old saying that too many chefs will spoil the soup? Did you wonder that means? These little idioms we use every day aren't just parables, they are tiny ways to convey absolute truths in a general sense using words every common person can grasp.

Skill City was the product of two things: My desire to create an online game community for puzzle games to chat and play, and my experience working for a game shop called K2 Network. I worked there for about 2 months, and it was a bitter experience indeed. I watched a company blunder from one huge mistake to another and just spend amazing amounts of money to fix those mistakes only to make another. Yet to them, it didn't seem to matter. They had money coming out their arses. How were they making it? Hideous games like Mu and Knight Online. Games that were "free to play" MMO treadmills in ever sense of the word. They looked terrible, they had all the exciting game play and user interface of a torture device. Yet they made money, lots of it. They still do. I don't know if its just amazing amounts of hand waving and crafty salesmanship to investors, or if people really are forking out tons of money to play bottom of the barrel cat-barf looking MMO games.

I watched this and thought about my dream to start a game company and then decided
if they could do it, so could I. I did some more research in the evenings and found indie game sites and read all the forums and news. I downloaded a bunch of games and tried them out. Most of the time I was still shocked at the low production quality, or the lack of polish they got. Then I was always attracted to the social aspects of gaming. I don't care if I win or lose, I care that I got to spend time with another person. Playing a lot of these games is the pinnacle of total isolation. Ever chat with another playing while playing Cake Mania? You can't.

All the while the technology / internet industry is spouting on about communities, building social networks, and interaction. They are making sites like MySpace and FaceBook. The games community continues to fawn over MMOs for their massive social spaces, and slowly a few sites start to catch on.

I saw this is an emerging space, and wanted to take my little dream of games in to it. I thought about how to make money with it too of course. An idea isn't a good one if you can't monetize it, at least according to our standard of success these days. One such revenue stream would be wagering. Yes, gambling on the outcome of the game. As long as you are playing in the game and not betting on third parties, and the game is based entirely on skill and has no chance or randomness involved (poker) then you get in under many state's ignorant anti-gambling laws.

A little research on that lead me to Skilljam, World Winner, and King.com. Of course I signed up for an account and played them inside and out while my technologist mind deconstructed them. What sucked about them? What could be added to make them more sticky? Etc.

Skill City was born in my apartment living room in February of 2006 as I sat down and wrote all this down in what was then about a 20 page business plan. How would we be different with avatars that played in the games with you, avatars that you could dress up with our virtual currency and give a virtual home, avatars you could walk around in a world. Ok that last part ended up getting scrapped despite the creation of the virtual world because there just wasn't enough time to get all the art for a world done.

I went to my two friends here in Orange County who were then working for Compudyne writing bland police department reporting software and said "Wanna write video games?" and they said no. You see I had been one of the founders of their company Copperfire that was acquired by Compudyne and made them some money. The other founder was my brother Scott. About 4 or 5 months in to the creation of Copperfire, Scott and I had a falling out when I asked him if he had a business plan, an exit strategy, or if sloppy day-by-day operation was going to be the business plan and we would just struggle forward without a real blueprint. My brother doesn't take criticism well and when he lashed out at me for raising such concerns I washed my hands of Copperfire. It struggled forward for nearly two years before it was finally bought and made some money in the process. I got nothing of course, and was bitter about that, but I had come to terms with the fact that I was ultimately my decision to react to my brother's obnoxiousness by departing.

Why am I telling you this? Well Drew and Chris were the programmers of that venture and were also friends of mine. Scott never would have known them if I hadn't brought them together at the founding of Copperfire in my role as the technical director hiring programmers to code the product. Drew and Chris saw Scott through rose colored glasses from then on. He had made them some money, and had done with it without me.

If I wanted them to join me in a business venture I would have to get Scott to be part of it as well. Anything he did, they would climb on board.

So one afternoon in March the four of us sat on the floor of Drew's living room and said "Can we work together on this business if we are all equal owners?" and they said in unison "Only if you don't freak out and try to ruin the company like you did at Copperfire." At that moment I should have seen it. They didn't just see Scott through the lenses of children seeing somebody who had brought them success, they saw my departure as something that threatened their companies well being and even years later they still held a grudge. Not just that, but their grudge was twisted and sharp.

I needed them, so like I always do when I need something I sacrificed. This time I sacrificed my own pride. I hadn't tried to ruin their company, but telling them otehrwise would be futile and lead to arguments that would get me nowhere. I was convinced I needed them on my side so I acquiesced and just accepted their derision.

We decided to all be equal founders. That nobody could override anybody else because we were equal. Anybody could decide the business' fate or folly because we held equal percentage of ownership and authority.

That was the second mistake. A ship cannot sail when 4 navigators cant decide where to take it. To put it another way, 4 chefs in a kitchen are making a pot of soup. Each has an idea of its flavor, and each puts in spices. You are left with a pretty shitty pot of soup when each one finally realizes what they have done.

Then each of them points at the other and says "You ruined my soup." Nobody looks in the mirror and says "What a stupid idea it was to try and make soup with 3 other chefs."

I do now of course. I had the realization halfway through the creation of our product that this was doomed. The fighting had begun, and when it came time to take responsibility and be equal partners nobody would. "You do it." I was told. Yes, the one they were scared would "freak out and ruin the company" was the guy they would just look at and say "You take care of it."

It was easier that way because then if a bad decision was made nobody could blame them, it wasn't their fault. Then when a good decision was made it looked like money was on the horizon everybody would come up and want a share, to take credit.

The resentment began.

Communication and group dynamics built on trust and loyalty would have been the medicine for such a hideous affliction. I tried many times to get the employees together and talk all the issues out. Sometimes it worked.

Once I was having a severe bout of stress related depression from doing everything at the office. I had headaches and sleeplessness that wouldn't cease. I was so busy running everything at the office and having those who demanded equality not make any of the crucial decisions that I felt like my head was going to pop. I took the day off and stayed at home so I could self analyze and solve the issue. I'm good at that. I sat on the couch and thought about life, about what it was that was wrong. I realized I needed to simplify, to just relax and instead of fighting the torrent I should swim with it.

I had this epiphany while I was peeling a pear. I don't like the skin on pears so I peel them first. I realized it was so relaxing to just slow down my whole life and pay attention to something little like peeling a pear, and to do something that forces you to go slow. It's one of the reasons I always liked gardening too. You can't rush it. Nature forces you to be slow and still your mind.

I felt so much better. I blogged about it the next day on this blog. That same morning at work I was litereally screamed at in my office by my partners who told me I was posting terrible things on this blog, and that it reflected badly on the company. Verbatim I was told that "posting my suicidal thoughts on this blog was the worst."

I laughed. Suicidal? They brought up the pear peeling, saying that it was a metaphor for how I wanted to slash my wrists.

That was the third sign that our business was doomed.

If the people I worked with would see my blog entry about a personal realization that made my entire outlook on life turn around, and gave me an exit to the soul crushing abyss of hectic business management, then what else were they grossly misinterpreting? Not just grossly, but offensively.

As always, I kept my outrage at such a foolish and stupid accusation to myself. I needed these programmers to stay with me, and see Skill City through.

I highlight some dark times, but know that these were flickers in the 11 month period of development we had. They were only brief flareups. Most of the time was pretty good. I designed games and we had meetings to talk about how the games would fit, how the interface of the client would look, what people could do and how they could do it.

I really liked that stuff. To design something in your head limited only by your imagination and then see it become real is what being alive is for. It's the ultimate fulfillment. It's why people sit around and chat about "Some day I'm going to make a game / build a house / paint a picture / start a band."

I am happy knowing that I didn't just sit around a table with some beers one night and talk about how great it would be to build a dream. I did it. I architected the fantasy in my head and brought it out in to the real world for people to see.

Over three thousand of you liked it. Probably more if I had enough money to advertise and show the rest of the population... Sadly, most didn't like it enough to PAY for it. Other game companies saw it and liked it too. We had several interesting conversations with some very big names out there... I can't name them, because they asked for confidentiality.

I'll type more tomorrow or something. It really makes me sad thinking about all this and how it ended, and how there is still a chance I could be running Skill City from my own home except that the two programmers I need to help me do that aren't speaking to me any more.

Remember: don't hire immature "even my spare time is worth 400 dollars an hour" coders to work for/with you. The world has enough spoiled, passive aggressive, little bastards in it without people like us contributing to it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

They make a cream for that.

I have been procrastinating writing up the post mortem on Skill City because I vainly hold on to the hope there is a way out for the company.

There isn't of course. I'm busy interviewing for any jobs I can line up. Most are like the games industry. They want you to come in and talk to them, a lot, they take several days between the times they talk to you and you wait a lot.

Then eventually they get in touch, if you are lucky, to tell you thank you but they are going to hire somebody else, or contract to somebody else, or build that game themselves, or that they have decided to admit they are evil time burglars and give up their world possessions and move to a Buddhist monastery on a mountain top.

Ok I sort of vented there but I just watched an episode of this show called Chuck and it has to be the worst thing on TV. When will idiots in Hollywood stop making shows for geeks without hiring a single geek to watch the show and say "Dude, this sucks, we don't talk like this. We don't act like this, and your show isn't funny or cool and has all the attraction of a deer carcass."

I hacked your firewalls and stole your webs.

Maybe when I'm not drunk as a hobo to drown the out the buzzing throbbing sorrow of having my game company blow up I'll write a post mortem on why it blew up.

Pointing fingers or saying "This is why things didn't work" isn't exactly going to make me any friends. Then again ... I can't exactly damage my relationships more than they already are.

If you haven't picked it up by now one of the major destructors of Skill City was the fact that the founders (me, my brother, and two programmers) didn't get along, at all, and instead of talking out the problems everybody just held them in until the angst and passive aggression blew up in a steamy fount of liquid hot magma.

I'll type in more words when I am not distracted by this awful teen horror movie I stole on the internet.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Goodnight moon

Goodnight chair.

Goodnight desk.

Goodnight little server with the humming disk drives and the little green blinky lights.

Goodnight bank accounts.

Goodnight equity.

Goodnight 3379 registered users.

Goodnight avatars.

Goodnight games.

And goodnight to all those who stuck with us on this wacky journey.

Today Skill City was forced to re-structure itself and go back to it's roots as a garage company. Literally, everything is now in my garage.

I will take some time to write up a post-mortem and maybe even send it in to Game Developer magazine or something. Although they usually only want PMs on successful titles instead of businesses that made several bad decisions and then slowly crawled their way to the grave.

So welcome the new Skill City in to existence. I'm going to keep the game servers up (although they will be slower now without a robust data center). I am also still taking contracts for development.

After all, I have proof that I can get a game made quickly and cheaply. Most others have a hard time making that claim.

Anybody wanna hire a game producer? I am currently filling out the immigration papers to move to Australia as a "skilled worker." Like many countries, certain job experience is in demand enough that they will let you immigrate if you can prove you have those skills. The process takes months, but I really do want to move someplace with the warm sunny beach like where I live now only without the hideous cost of living. Aside from the great pleasure I would get from not being subject to the dumb little Texan who runs this country.

Aside from that, I'm also offering the Skill City source code and all of it's assets to anybody who wants to buy them. All you need is a C# compiler and you have your own online skill gaming community! (some assembly required, offer not valid to people I don't like)