The Escapist on The Games Industry

The Escapist has two great articles on the state of games in 2005.

The first, Death to the Games Industry, Part I covers game development and publishing for the big guys, the AAA titles. It covers topics like the problems of dealing with publishers, the technology arms race, and cautions us about games looking and playing the same since everyone started licensing the same engines and technology (I wrote something similar in my Common Component Syndrome post).

The second covers the Indie game developer: Casual Fortunes, Getting Rich Slowly witch Casual Games. The article covers many interesting points, drops plenty of indie developer names, and mentions some game developer web sites. But, the most interesting item to me were the market numbers.

The 125-page IGDA 2005 Casual Games White Paper pegs the American casual market at $600 million in 2004 and projects growth to $2 billion by 2008. (Source: “US Online PC Gaming Forecast & Analysis, 2004-2008: Growth Continues,” December 2004, by business think-tank IDC.)

The piece goes on to quote some developers and estimates that some of these guys are making a very comfortable living — some even millions.

These are encouraging numbers; they certainly help support my previous post on the Mac Gaming Market.

Common Component Syndrome

If I never see another sortable database bound grid again, it will be too soon. This “GUI control” seems to be the favorite item of every corporate coder. It is the catch-all to creating reports, data entry screens, and general data viewers.

I’m currently finishing up a project for a financial firm that involves a huge amount of processing and data moving from logical business tier to logical business tier. There’s a ton of work going on. The problem is that all this work needs to be monitored on a periodic basis. How does the user watch all this “stuff” in a useful and pleasant user friendly way?

I don’t know what the “right” answer is, but I can imagine plenty of approaches that would not use a sortable grid. Part of the problem is that on Windows, Microsoft has for years provided a simple generic Excel-like grid that is easy and cheap to use. It just needs to be dropped on a Windows form in the design tools (Visual Basic, Visusal Studio.NET, Delphi, PowerBuilder, etc) and set a couple of properties to attach it to a database table and allow the data to be viewed, edited, sorted, and printed.

It’s so cheap and easy to implement that it has become the defacto-standard corporate application GUI. The problem is that the ease of use and the built in power encourages lazy interface design (read that as no design). The nature of corporate projects and their tight budgets and schedules certainly doesn’t encourage creative interface design and reinforces the use of this easily pluggable generic tool.

So, what does this have to do with game design? Indirectly, it makes me me think about the dangers of using the same generic tools and frameworks that all your competitors use.

There’s been a ton of press and buzz going around about the recent release of the Unity Game Engine and the use of Torque from GarageGames. In one sense, this is great stuff. It helps small developers build their games with out the cost of building their own tools and engines. It can turn a two year project into a few months. It can transform a game from an outdated 3D “also-ran” to a modern high-tech market competitor, all for a few bucks. It can actually enable projects that would never even had the chance of getting started.

Have you ever compared all the games released by the same small developer? Usually, to save money and time the team will reuse their existing code base and tools. This is good, no reason to reinvent to wheel — It’s too expensive. But, it’s likely that those games have a similar feel or style to them. You get the feeling that if you cut out the graphics, sound and story, you have the same game. Again, not inherintly bad — to a point.

What happens if this occurs throughout the indie games industry? If all small developers are using the same game engine?

If a team is working on a new title and they have just dropped $1000 to $2000 on a game engine are they more likely to spend their time coming up with new ways to present information on the screen or are they going to use the already paid for super duper easy to use genericly-designed game tools?

Addmittedly, these tools save thousands of dollars in the budget that can be used elsewhere. They can spend their time developing better stories, better graphics and sound. They can spend their budget on improving other aspects of the game. But, will they?

Will we enjoy a wave of inspired game design encouraged by all the money saved using a “standardized” widget game engine? Or will we all be temped in to lazy game design because we don’t have to worry about the technical aspects of putting ideas on the screen?

Granted, I’ve yet to produce a game or even anything of consequence, but I’m just getting started. What I’ve experienced so far though is that when I’m thinking about my game designs, I don’t worry about the technical aspects. I try and think about the game play. Once, the game play has been decided upon, then I decide on how to implement it. Then while working on the implementation, more game play ideas emmerge and the cycle continues.

This back and forth leads to good things. It takes me in interesting directions that I did not anticipate. As long as I don’t get carried away or lost in feature creep, I see this as fluid design and development. If everyone does this, wouldn’t we have a greater variety of games? Wouldn’t we avoid the “common component syndrome”?

Doesn’t it make sense to make the technology fit the game, not the game fit the technology?

Company Name Update

Today, I decided on a company name, acquired the domain, and filed a “Doing Business As” or DBA.

I filed for the DBA through the internet firm Legal Zoom. It only cost $124 and they file everything, publish the announcement in a local paper and do a name search. Much cheaper than when I filed through a local attorney for my original corporation. Hopefully, the paperwork will go through okay.

Once everything is compeleted and I receive the paperwork in the mail, I’ll announce the new company name and URL. At that point I also intend to hunt down a graphic designer to put together a logo and possibly some other graphics for the website.

Company Name Decisions

I’ve been struggling with a seemingly important decision recently: the name of my company. The problem isn’t quite as simple as just what to name a new company.

Currently, I operate my software consulting and web hosting business through a Schedule-S corporation. This works much like an LLC type of company. My company has been in business for over five years and I’ve been reasonably successful. But, the target audience of the company up to this point has been primarily larger companies.

The issue becomes, do I use my current company and mix business focus or do I create a new one? If I keep the current one, do I keep the name? It’s not a bad name, its just not a strong memorable and image evoking type of name. It was chosen as a safe name with an available domain. Since choosing the name, I’ve realized how important the name is in establishing an image and brand.

Mixing the market focus for a company seems dangerous as well. Having a corporate looking website offering .NET development services and Linux web hosting probably won’t sell very many Mac games. Additionally, a Mac game focussed site isn’t going to instill my seriousness in providing .NET services to large financial companies. Now, I’d prefer to give up the consulting and other parts of my business, but realistically, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The thought about creating a brand new company to concentrate on shareware games and software development is very attractive. The thought of managing the paperwork, the taxes, the fees, and the headaches of two companies does not sound appealing.

Unfortunately, I feel as though this is one of those decisions that is important enough that I need to make it very soon. I don’t want to announce product or start marketing campaigns and then need to change names and consequently domains.

Thankfully, the majority of the consulting work I do comes by word of mouth or through third party agents. Most of the time the actual client will not visit my website. So if it was selling games and not consulting, it probably would not be the end of the world. But, on the other hand I do get the occasional new client by way of the web site.

Another approach I’ve been thinking about is filing a “Doing Business As” for my corporation. From what I understand, this would allow me to operate the company under two or more names. The actual company name and a fictitious name that could be more game oriented. I need to do more research on the legal and accounting aspects of this approach.

Now, I realize that I should talk to my accountant about this, but unfortunately I’m looking for a new one.

Update: Since posting this I’ve done a bit more research. Once again, Google is my friend. I found the following articles that describe and define the whole “Doing Business As” concept.

Doing Business As (DBA) a Fictitious Business Name

Google Answers: Legal Alias?

City of Boston: City Clerk Business Certificate

They Come in Threes

It’s been a crazy couple of days.

Two days ago, my wife and I were cooking dinner: Baked Dill Salmon. We placed the carefully prepared fish in the oven to bake for about ten minutes. Ten minutes later, raw fish. Our twenty year old oven died. A trip to Sears and $700 later, we have a new one on order.

Yesterday, I get to my client’s office and try to unlock my PC running Windows XP. Boom! “winlock.exe error, rebooting…” Yikes, I have never seen that before. When the poor machine finally comes back up, well let’s just say that it needs a new hard disk. Now I have to spend a week getting the thing setup for work, but the issue is I only have 1-2 weeks left on the project. Good timing.

That’s two, I wonder what the third disaster will be? They always come in threes don’t they?