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Default Rampant Games - Guest Post: Lessons from Working at BioWare

April 27th, 2011, 00:55
While Jay Barnson is away, Tales of the Rampant Coyote has a guest post from ex-BioWarian (now indie developer), Dan Fedor. Dan writes Lessons I Learned While Working at BioWare and it's an interesting read:
I also got to see one other game ideation process from a slightly different angle: I pitched a game to BioWare. It was a small game. Less than a man-year of total work. I figured I was still fairly newbish, so smaller would be a safer bet. But, as it turned out…
The thing about studios is, they’re expensive to run. And more to the point, employees are expensive to keep. Employees need salaries, sure. But they also need benefits. And equipment. And space to work in. And support staff. This all adds up, unsurprisingly. A useful “napkin math” figure I learned while in the industry is that your average employee costs twice their salary over a year. Think about that, for a moment. Let’s say your average employee is making $50k per year. That probably means you cost your employer $100k annually. That’s over $8k per month!
So when it came to pitching my small game idea, the question of money inevitably came up. I met with our director of finance, and we started working some numbers. Suffice to say, even a small team over a small time adds up. And that doesn’t include overhead for a product website, marketing, community management, etc. It became pretty evident to me that my barrier to profit was much higher than I realized.
More information.
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April 27th, 2011, 00:55
It goes, “If we could give people a magic hat that would create for them the exact RPG experience they’d always dreamed of, they’d complain about the color of the hat.”
I'm going to have to use that one at work…

Thanks for link, it was interesting to read and now I wonder if Dan will be trying to make his little idea.
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April 27th, 2011, 02:00
Well that answers some of my questions as to why these big companies are not releasing more small projects.
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April 27th, 2011, 03:14
I can’t tell you how many times we, as employees, scoured the internet for reviews, forums, anything to tell us what the world thought of our work.
What? Oh my God! THEY ARE AMONG US!
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April 27th, 2011, 03:18
Fans.. pffft! What about us haters! We never get any credit!!!
Spoiler – Haters
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April 27th, 2011, 08:03
Originally Posted by DoctorNarrative View Post
Well that answers some of my questions as to why these big companies are not releasing more small projects.
Mine as well. I was a little curious as to why they kept upping the anty with games instead of doing more cost effective projects.

I guess they're not cost effective at all.

BTW, 50K or 100K a year? I knew teachers don't make as much as most people, but that is a lot of money in my eyes. Even with the usual layoffs (like the obsidian one that just happened) they are still making a ton more than us "working folk".

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April 27th, 2011, 08:19
$50+k a year is the starting pay for teachers in Oz.

If God said it, then that settles it!!

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April 27th, 2011, 09:22
If you think in those terms, it's certainly no surprise you won't see creative quality from Bio.

It reminds me of most places today, where leaders are directed to think inside the box and focus only on numbers.

It's not a manpower to quality art - and it never will be. You don't want to look at a project exclusively in terms of annual payment and expected return - because if you do, you'll end up always playing it safe - and then you're no longer a creative house - but a business that might as well sell matches.

Though I personally don't care much for Portal - and now Portal 2 - they serve as excellent examples of games that are small in scope and could potentially be created with a small team of 5-10 people and a few voice actors. Yet, I bet Portal 2 is selling like hotcakes and will be another gigantic hit for Valve. I have no idea how they manage to appeal with their repetitive little games/episodes, but obviously there's a market for them.

In the past, for some reason, they managed to pay 20-30 people teams for years and stay profitable. How? I guess because the audience, while much smaller, appreciated innovation and wanted those games. This incessant need to appeal to the widest audience so you can ramp up the budget, so you HAVE to appeal to an even wider audience is a sick obsession for the big boys.

There will always be risks, no matter what scope we're talking about - and taking smaller risks with smaller teams is exactly the kind of thing that makes the most sense when you're a huge enterprise like EA/Bio. Frankly, I'm shocked they can't see that - but such is the way of the greed that blinds.

Just make your dull soulless AAA title with you main team, and have a smaller hungrier team working on the creative stuff - and minimise/optimise production values. It can't be that hard to figure out, really.

The worst thing that can happen will be you don't make a hit with the small game, but you WILL gain respect because of the effort - and if you make another game in that same way, chances are the market is more than ready and THEN it will be a hit. You have to have a little patience. Another advantage is that you could offset the negative backlash of your crappy AAA title, by taking "daring" risks with the innovative title.

Bah, they'll never figure that out - I'm sure. Instead, we'll just see endless Facebook/iPhone apps - until EA/Bio completely destroy what once was.
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April 27th, 2011, 09:37
Originally Posted by azarhal View Post
It goes, “If we could give people a magic hat that would create for them the exact RPG experience they’d always dreamed of, they’d complain about the color of the hat.”
I'm going to have to use that one at work…

Thanks for link, it was interesting to read and now I wonder if Dan will be trying to make his little idea.
I find it full of contempt for the customers, painting them as compulsional whiners.

Companies have been far from delivering a dreamt RPG experiment, casting against such a hypothetical?

If the experience is good, usually, people are absorbed by living it. It goes for everything. If indeed, game developpers come with a magical hat, people wont spend time arguing about its colour, they will put it on.

Game developpers have taken another turn though, pushing more and more for gaming to be considered like a gossip worth activity, turning on the heat with hype and alike.
As they are busy with providing products worth gossiping on, they should not be surprised at collecting what they've pushed for: gossip. Turning a minor inconvenience/quality into a topic worth spending hours 'discussing' it. And the results are so lower than the expectations suggested by the hype, they should also see the wave of bitterness coming from far.

Instead of lambasting the customer, this guy should take a tough look at himself and understand that sometimes, you reap what you sow. The game business model is built on paying to see. Save that, contrary to Poker or not, the customer never wins. The model guarantees substantial revenues for the developpers though.
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April 27th, 2011, 09:48
Originally Posted by Corwin View Post
$50+k a year is the starting pay for teachers in Oz.
Rub it in why don't ya?

All things considered my cost of living and taxes aren't near as much as the states or (I would believe) Oz. Plus my girlfriend is here and I like teaching. It's a lot better than what I did before for a large corporation. More freedom and I don't have some goon of a boss screaming at me every other week.

It's just when people throw around numbers like 100k a year my jaw drops to the floor.

Despite all my rage.
I'm still just a rat in a cage.
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April 27th, 2011, 10:09
Considering the hours and workload for a typical US job in the gaming industry, I don't think that sounds like much at all.

With the millions earned in revenue by Bio/EA - it's no mystery where the money ends up.
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April 27th, 2011, 11:18
I guess the numbers are a few years old, and rounded for effect.

50K a year sounds about right for a junior teacher, but that is with the current weak dollar.

Originally Posted by skavenhorde View Post
Mine as well. I was a little curious as to why they kept upping the anty with games instead of doing more cost effective projects.

I guess they're not cost effective at all.

BTW, 50K or 100K a year? I knew teachers don't make as much as most people, but that is a lot of money in my eyes. Even with the usual layoffs (like the obsidian one that just happened) they are still making a ton more than us "working folk".
I was actually surprised by how low the numbers were

$50K really isnt a high salary for a programmer with a few years of experience in western Europe, and I always thought such jobs paid even better in the US.

That employees cost about twice as much as their salary is a valid rule of thumb for most jobs, but often overlooked. Just think of all the insurances, equipment and infrastructure needed.
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April 27th, 2011, 11:48
I'm pretty sure the pay is significantly higher for a mid/high-profile programmer in Denmark - but we also have our high taxes and our everyday stuff is pretty expensive.
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April 27th, 2011, 12:02
Well, in Belgium programmers are paid about the same as the cleaning lady in the office. If you want to bring in huge cash… don't become a game programmer. Imagine all the guys (mostly) dreaming about game development and willing to work cheap just to do what they love. You don't need to pay well to get passionate skilled programmers for gaming. Now if you want to build a tax declaration software…… well…… people usually won't do that sort of thing unless you pay big cash……
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April 27th, 2011, 12:43
Originally Posted by GothicGothicness View Post
Well, in Belgium programmers are paid about the same as the cleaning lady in the office. If you want to bring in huge cash… don't become a game programmer. Imagine all the guys (mostly) dreaming about game development and willing to work cheap just to do what they love. You don't need to pay well to get passionate skilled programmers for gaming. Now if you want to build a tax declaration software…… well…… people usually won't do that sort of thing unless you pay big cash……
That is the problem. There are always more people who can do what the average (game) programmer does and actually want to do it (programming games, that is). Unless you are really good, have a lot of experience (project lead, management, etc) you won't earn a lot of money. That actually applies to any field were people actually want to work (and not in a "I like to be a teacher" but more in a "I would give up everything to program games" manner).
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April 27th, 2011, 12:53
I think there's a difference between wanting to create games, and wanting to program.

I think that most dedicated programmers want to program, and programming games could just be icing on the cake - if they're so inclined.

Ironically, I think the most important aspect of game development is also the least "provable" one - which is game design, and there's really no way to prove yourself except making games.

AFAIK, the only way to become a designer in a non-indie way, is to do something you don't really want to do for a LONG time. In the old days, the entry-level way was to become a beta-tester. Not sure how I would go about it today, but I'm sure Computer Science is still a nice beginning.

I have a feeling the people most suited for the job, are the ones who're playing games - not making them.

Naturally, all this excludes the pragmatic and business aspects of development. To be successful - it's not enough to have the perfect design. You have to be willing to sacrifice endlessly, to get it out there and generate some return.

Just another reason I hate the monetary system
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April 27th, 2011, 13:11
I work as a programmer, but not in the gaming industry. Why? I not only have to work significantly less, I also get paid twice as much. I may not be as enthusiastic about developing large financial systems as I am about games, but the difference is not big enough to justify such a huge pay cut.

Anyway, it was an interesting read all in all. I wish him good luck in creating his new game.
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April 27th, 2011, 16:53
Originally Posted by DoctorNarrative View Post
Well that answers some of my questions as to why these big companies are not releasing more small projects.
Well … It is very difficult for me to put ddown into words what I'm thinking …

… But this just reminds me of my theory of … structures, entities having a tendency to become bigger and bigger.

The planets. By accumulating mass. Dinosaurs. By some mechanisms we don't know yet. Crystals. Through growth and through dissolving smaller crystals. Companies, by … well I don't know, maybe by trying to develop some kind of moopolism for themselves ? Hives … by becoming bigger and bigger through means i cannot see (yet) …

And here we have just another example of this : Developing studios. Becoming bigger and bigger …

And the biogger they become, the more [money] they need to maintain their high energy level - and thus their size.

But I guess I'm already on my personal Ivory Tower with my thoughts …

“ Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.“ (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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April 27th, 2011, 16:55
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
I think there's a difference between wanting to create games, and wanting to program.
Of course there is !

Someone must be responsible for the graphics !

Someone must be able to tell a story !

"Programming" isn't everything in one hat !

Originally Posted by GothicGothicness View Post
Well, in Belgium programmers are paid about the same as the cleaning lady in the office. If you want to bring in huge cash… don't become a game programmer. Imagine all the guys (mostly) dreaming about game development and willing to work cheap just to do what they love. You don't need to pay well to get passionate skilled programmers for gaming. Now if you want to build a tax declaration software…… well…… people usually won't do that sort of thing unless you pay big cash……
I'm not speaking of smaller companies, but in big, in huge companies it's to me like a set of scales : The less the "working class" (here: the programmers) get, the more the higher level employees get - until up to the suits. Who get most of it.

But that's in EVERY firm the case ! That's capitalism ! Give the working classes the smallest amount of money " Meanwhile give the suits and the top positions the most of the money !

And THAT'S an error IN THE SYSTEM !

And this can - imho - ONLY be changed by changing the whole SYSTEM !

“ Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.“ (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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April 27th, 2011, 18:23
"…I can’t tell you how many times we, as employees, scoured the internet for reviews, forums, anything to tell us what the world thought of our work. Did we do right? What can we improve? You have to have a thick skin to deal with what you find. There’s a saying. I’m not sure who said it first, but I first heard it while at BioWare. It goes, “If we could give people a magic hat that would create for them the exact RPG experience they’d always dreamed of, they’d complain about the color of the hat.”"

While generally true this statement is also misleading IMO: opinions varied about each game in Ultima series but it took Ultima IX to get everybody truly pissed off. There was whining about every game in Gothic series but it was Arcania that had majority of Gothic's fandom up in arms. Not everybody was pleased about ME/ME2 and AD:O but it was DA2 which got BW's fan base truly upset…
So, while fans do indeed have a tendency to whine that a new game isn't exactly what they wanted, it usually takes a major misstep by the developers to get them really pissed off.
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