By Mary Kurek
Don’t let the surfer-dude looks of Rob Smith fool you. This young developer, who cut his teeth on games like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and DJ Hero, is serious about business.
Smith obtained his bachelor’s degree in game art and design from The Art Institute of California in San Francisco. Before he graduated, he was picked up for a production internship with Shaba Games (then owned by Activision). Shaba hired Smith as a full-time game designer and scripter after he completed his studies at AICA-SF in 2007. Shaba eventually fell prey to Activision cuts, which prompted Smith and some talented colleagues to talk more seriously about starting their own social games development company. Mad Turtle Media officially launched October 2009 and quickly published PlantMe, a Facebook game with an eco-friendly mission.
“That game, in itself, was a learning experience,” Smith says. ”One that caused us to produce a crowd-sourcing system called GridBeat, which we are marketing, along with developing our next game.”
Smith credits his education at AICA for preparing him well enough for the industry to be able to nab a job immediately after graduation — something he knows is rare for developers these days. However, at this point in his start-up, what he feels is helping him most is a different kind of education — the kind that comes from networking.
Recently, Smith has made four significant connections that have placed his foot firmly in the door of major publishing companies. He’s talked with business developers, networking experts and investor strategists who have provided him with valuable advice. One of those strategists was Seahorn Capital executive Marc Jackson.
Jackson is the founder and CEO of Seahorn Capital, an executive production and management consulting firm that specializes in innovative financing solutions and business models for interactive entertainment. He’s advised Smith and other fund-seeking developers to prepare themselves for a challenging process that can take six to 12 months.
Making the point that business education in the industry is critical to those who build start-ups, Jackson says, “You’ve got to have a proven track record and be able to validate your business, because investor funding is not abundant right now.
“Old-school investors are most attracted to teams of talent that have worked together under a publisher that has put out AAA titles,” Jackson says. “Teams that have already gathered initial funding and have launched an IP with some traction also have a chance at securing investor attention.”
Angel investor groups are another option, Jackson says, but seekers must educate themselves on the process, because you have to submit an honest business proposal, and some groups will charge to even look at those.
“Open Angel Forum, started by Jason Calacanis [Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of Weblogs Inc.], can be a resource for some developers,” Jackson says. “OAF aims at taking a bit of the difficulty out of finding funding by creating a merit-based, less club-like environment.”
Bottom line: There are options for getting your foot in the door — if you know what you are doing and who can help you do it.
As a musical composer with a developer’s heart, George Hufnagl combined his specialties with that of his partners’ to form My Escape Games, and they are working on finding their own angel. Ready to debut its first mobile phone flash game called Critter Cubes in August 2010, My Escape Games is busy fine-tuning its demo and packaging the company for max appeal to a publisher or investor. Hufnagl, who has strong academic roots in his field, admits the business part of launching a game is the most difficult.
“This industry requires that you quickly adopt a business head and a student mindset,” Hufnagl says. “I network and ask a ton of questions around the details involved in writing an attention-getting proposal … because, you don’t get do-overs in this industry.”
Jason Rice of Ninja Logic agrees with Hufnagl. Rice often attracts talent-turned-developer companies in his consultancy, sometimes advising and sometimes becoming their contracted project manager. He tells developers who are trying to get their feet in the door that their proposals should be well-organized for readability, such as arranging sections with bullet points and feature lists. There should be an executive summary, studio profiles, samples of past work, a budget and a production schedule. Most production schedules should include a completed game design document as one of the first milestones and should tie a payment to the delivery.
“It may sound simple, but this type of information is often left out of game developer training,” Rice says. “The industry hasn’t standardized much by way of training and education yet, which I think is why a lot of developers don’t know how to put together a standard proposal. But, not knowing this information could break you.”
It seems easy to assume by watching conversations on Twitter and LinkedIn relative to game developer start-ups that developers mostly come to the industry via experience rather than schooling. So, if the business side of the games industry isn’t learned on the job, then that education must be gained through other outlets that offer educational programs and networking with experts. Fortunately, here at IGDA, you have both of those opportunities.
In the interest of motivating those who think they can guess their way through the business of the industry, I offer this thought: You can’t know what you don’t know until you are enlightened. If you haven’t been trained, that kind of education happens one of two ways: painful and less painful.
Ultimately, it seems the thing that gets your foot in the door is becoming as passionate about learning the business as you are about developing your games. Get ahead of the curve, and make it a priority.