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.

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