A lot of people send me emails that go something like this: “Dear Mr. Vávra, I have a great idea for a brilliant game that no one has created yet. Could you please give me some advice as to how I could get it made?” I’m never really sure how to answer them as I was asking myself the same question for years. And these were not the years before I started making games; this was when I was actually making them. How the hell can I create the game I want to create?
The author giving a lecture about game development; a topic he is sometimes not so sure about himself. Photo: Jaroslav Wagner
Two years ago, I decided I have “found” the answer. I have to do it myself. After ten years in the games industry and a couple of million games sold, I should know how to do it. So I packed my stuff, left a well-paid job at one of the top five publishers, with a view to starting my own company and doing things my way. Yes, I am that naive idiot!
As I’m not only naive, but dumb as well, I’m going to blog about our progress along the route from nothing towards triple A game for next next-gen systems. By “blog” I mean a real development diary, not the usual PR propaganda telling you how everything went great. I do hope this diary (and my awesome writing skills) will capture your hearts with the moving story of poor developers in a European backwater who made it to the top and entice you to buy our game in the end (that’s the optimistic version of the story, there is also one about a bunch of idiots who screwed up, but let’s hope it isn’t part of the program!). So let me begin…
GIVE ME YOUR MONEY
To make a great game you need three things: a great idea, an experienced team and lots of money. Everyone thinks he’s got a really great idea, but few really have and even fewer have the money, experience and team to follow that idea through. There are also a lot of people who have lots of money, a very experienced team, but next to no idea about what to do. But those who have it all are very few. And as you may guess, I was from the first group of people, those with no money. This can be a problem, of course. If you have a great idea and an experienced team there is an off chance somebody is going to give you money. But in order to put the team together you need a lot of money that nobody is willing to put up when you don’t have the team. It’s a Catch-22 situation.
I had several very experienced people committed to the project, but no office, no company, no money and nothing to show, except for a pitch and some nice pictures. The likelihood of impressing a publisher in these circumstances is, for all practical purposes, zero, but I had to try. So I tried. I knew that I was no West and Zampella and publishers were not going to be throwing money at me, but after all, I created a successful franchise that sold millions and this had to count for something.
It did. They listened. Some of them were even willing to sign the project, but they were not willing to spend money before we could show them something (well, it’s just as likely this was their polite refusal, but, having spent years in the industry, I dare say I can spot the difference between fake interest and real interest). Maybe a couple of years ago they would commit the money, but not in this time of global financial crisis.
About that time I met Martin Klíma, who had just returned from the UK where he was a producer at Codemasters. Martin is one of the founders of the game industry in our country. He started the first professional game development company, he developed one of the first games to be published internationally and after years in the business he also said he didn’t want to work in the games industry anymore. I showed him my pitch and he changed his mind (The pitch must have been pretty cool to do that I guess :) ) We started looking for a private investor together.
THE RICH GUYS
If you take a look at www.gameindustrymap.com you will notice an interesting thing. There are tens of developers in every European country, but there are only three bigger studios in the Czech Republic. Very quickly we learned why: there are no funding options for game development and no government support.
At first, investors seemed to be keen on our proposal, after all, the three big Czech studios are successful and profitable – Illusion Softworks created several famous franchises (Mafia, Vietcong, Hidden & Dangerous) and was successfully sold to 2K Games, Bohemia Interactive developed the revolutionary Operation Flashpoint and ArmA, and Vatra is working on the next Silent Hill. Our team members worked on most of those games and while this helped, it was not enough. The investors were interested, but none of them had any experience with the games industry whatsoever. They had nobody to turn to in order to check we are not trying to screw them over and that was a deal-stopper.
Every single investor also asked us why we were not interested in Facebook, online social something or iPhone games. Our answer was simple: we don’t know the first thing about Facebook and social games, we don’t think that it’s a good idea to do something that everybody is doing and only a few are succeeding at, and if we wanted to make an iPhone game, we didn’t need an investor.
We decided that we should not be kidding anyone, including ourselves, so we were totally honest with anyone we talked to. We estimated the total cost of the project to be several million dollars at least, and even the initial phase, when we intended to develop the Vertical Slice of the game, came to a not insignificant sum. This means that an investor has to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and after about a year, if publishers are not interested in the project, he either ends up with a DVD full of cute 3D models he can frame and hang above his personal urinal, or he has to risk even more and pump additional millions into the project without any guarantees that it would sell.
A lot of those we talked to would have liked to invest the amount we planned for the vertical slice, but the total amount for the project was too much for them. We wanted someone with enough money to finance the whole development, allowing us to stave off publishers’ blackmail – their favorite way of dealing with a cash-strapped studio when forcing it to change the game from a realistic strategy simulation to a science fiction guitar hero rip-off two months before the release date.
ALL HOPE LOST
In the end we found an investor who was interested, but who was looking for a commitment from some experienced game development investor. The problem was that discounting lunatics, mafia guys and loan sharks, there are about three people who ever invested in games in our country, and all of them are tied to other projects. We knew we were screwed. We talked to most of the people we thought of and we knew about nobody else save for loan sharks and some strange underworld types. I wrote a game about the Mafia and I don’t want to deal with those types of “businessmen”. The game industry is a risky business and nobody wants to end up under the boardwalk. I personally know people who got their bones broken or were kidnapped during game development. No kidding.
Our biggest problem was time. Every single negotiation took weeks or months, but we needed to act quickly. People, who were willing to join us, had to plan their lives and could not wait forever. After a year and a half, we realized that it’s time to give it one last try or move on… …and our last try failed. I started to look for a job, which meant that I would have to work abroad, or to do something “normal”. In a country with only three bigger studios, there are not many opportunities for notoriously garrulous designers.
EPISODE IV: NEW HOPE
But all of a sudden, just when we have given up all hope, a friend called me, to tell me that his friend heard that we are looking for an investor and that he may know one who might be interested. The funny thing was that all the while we have been joking that we could approach the Czech equivalent of Warren Buffet or Andrew Carnegie – billionaires with huge financial empires – but it seemed absurdly out of place. Until one of them called us…
Well, it wasn’t exactly him personally, but his people. We talked to them, they liked the idea, we were brutally honest with them about the riskiness of the whole thing and the amount of money we would need, we showed them our plans and after a few months we have Warhorse. In the end it was faster and easier than we expected.
Was it a “lucky break”? Not entirely. We had a well prepared business plan, we were able to answer incisive questions, and we knew what we want to do, how we want to do it and why we want to do it. During the whole process I was worried our business plan is not good enough. I saw “perfect” 100+ page plans printed on glossy paper but then again I heard such things are overkill and a one page plan can be just as successful. As I never did this before and I’m not sure I’m good at pitching, I was really scared of it.
It turned out that the substance of our business plan was more important than its form. We were able to draw upon it in the series of meetings with our backers, provide information about our project and demonstrate that we have a sound idea about our business. I can only guess, but I think that we may have won the trust of our “angel” (investor) by a combination of a sensible plan and the ability to communicate it well… and also by virtue of being in the gaming industry for more than 10 years, having sold a couple of million units and assembling a team of experienced and talented developers. That always counts.
So we won our first battle. But this is only the beginning of the long and hard war of successfully developing and selling a game. There are a ton of pitfalls where we can screw up. We really hope we will not. In any case, we plan to inform you truly about our progress and map the game’s development from the beginning to the end without the usual PR BS. Let’s hope, that one day we reach the happy ending. :)
Dan Vavra, Creative Director