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The Exponential Growth of Social Gaming

By: Steven Granieri

In a universe where all things are in continual flux, constantly changing and evolving, it would be silly to expect the Video Game Industry to exist outside of these governing principles and remain static. In fact, if you are looking for variety, there is no better resource for entertainment than video games.

Innovation and creativity are what help companies flourish, this is universally understood, and it’s apparent when you look at the progress of console gaming over the past 20 years. Even if you boil things down to a small scale example such as a timeline of Nintendo’s controllers, the amount of change and innovation is incredibly overt. From a D-pad to help you traverse the two dimensions in Mario Bros, to a Wiimote, helping you traverse the three dimensions of your living room; it is clear that things have changed.

But what happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Why ditch a conservative mindset when it comes to video games? Well, there will always be the old-school, 8-bit enthusiasts, but I’d like to believe that this desire for innovation is inherently human. It’s quite simple: We like to be entertained, but humans grow bored of repetition, so the desire for a variety of stimuli is naturally spawned. We want devices and games to intellectually captivate us. We want something we haven’t experienced before.

With the aforementioned in mind, taking a look at the market today is very telling of society as a whole. In the 90’s, consoles flourished, but now they’re tackled with a daunting competitor: The Social Gaming Industry. Now, you may tease your friend if you walk in on him playing FarmVille, but the numbers for Social Gaming are nothing to joke about.

BI Intelligence, Business Insider’s research division, has predicted the market to grow to $5 Billion by 2015, currently valuing the industry at about $3 Billion.

(“We think social gaming will reach new audiences and new people, and we think it’s disruptive to current models of video games. Because games are provided as a service they can be optimized on the go to improve the product and monetization, and they’re inherently viral because they live on social platforms.” 


                Due to accessibility, Social Gaming is reaching a broader audience via Facebook and mobile apps. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of people playing video games has risen 241% since 2008, and they feel this is due large in part to the craze of Facebook games such as FarmVille and CityVille, along with the multitude of mobile apps being downloaded.

But how is this possible? How are games with low production values making so much money? This, my friends, is also inherently human. The social connectivity that allows you to be a part of a community, and allows you to either play with or best your friends is what fuels this market. The compromise in production values is supplemented with social interaction and accessibility.

However, this must end at some point right? When are gamers going to start demanding more from the games they play? As it stands now, you either spend anywhere between $40-$60 and you get an isolated experience, sans Xbox Live, PSN, etc. Or you take the free-to-play route and you compromise in terms of graphics and cutting edge hoopla. When I try to forecast the future of gaming, I see a bridge being drawn between the two. Microsoft had a hunch in 2002 with Xbox Live and they unearthed a market with limitless potential. The ability to share experiences with people all around the globe is powerful.

I imagine that the consumer is going to get the better deal in the end, with the console market taking a big hit in the long run. People have so many outlets to play video games for free now, so they won’t to be willing to pay $60 for a single-player game without some “Level 99” apprehension. I feel like in the end, mobile gaming will conquer all, it just depends when technology will catch up and be able to provide the gamer with all the power they need in the palm of their hands.      
 

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Catch 22 – (Game Artists): Prior Experience Required

You know the routine: there’s this job you really want but you don’t have the experience. You could pretend you did but then they want to see your portfolio and odds are you probably haven’t finished it (or even gotten around to starting it.) Does this mean that you’re doomed to sitting in front of your monitor dreaming about a career as a Game Artist?

No!

Put down the game controller and pick up that stylus! You’ve got a ready audience for your work—all you need is a website and some determination. (Oh, and maybe a class or two if you’re not up on the latest game art programs, but it’s easy enough to get going on that.)

Instead of wishing for a job, it’s time for you to make it happen. . .

The Art Stuff
If you’re serious about working in the video game industry, you need to get serious about your job hunt, and that includes creating your demo / portfolio. Here are a few pointers whether you’re doing one for the first time or updating the one you have:

If all you have is art completed for coursework, don’t submit your resume (yet). Competition for these jobs is pretty fierce so you have to have an established career or be a complete (if undiscovered) superstar. A degree doesn’t prove your ability and does not entitle you to a job, it just equips you with the core skills you need to perform in the job and to build your demo / portfolio. Apply the knowledge you learn in school and continue to create art assets. Keeping pushing yourself to increase your skill level. That said, if you have an opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed, do it! Practice makes perfect.

It really helps to have a well-maintained blog with interesting articles showing your experiences with game development and game art. What if you can’t post anything from your current game? It’s ok to explain that you can’t show anything from the game-in-progress but you can clearly demonstrate that you know how to use the tools. (If you’re working on an indie game, creating a production blog is a good way to create some buzz.) Just remember that you’re trying to build a career here so don’t use the blog for political rants or questionable art.

Avoid fan art in your portfolio (unless it was commissioned by the show and / or the author, and you have permission to show it or link to it.) If you want to join LucasArts to work on the next Star Wars game, don’t re-create Darth Vader or any of the original characters. The hiring manager is trying to assess not only your skill but also your creativity, so design original assets that could be used in a Star Wars game. (It’s also a chance to show your knowledge of the IP as long as you don’t get too geeky.)

Be sure the art in your portfolio is 100% yours. A candidate who went for an interview at a big company included some gorgeous screenshots in his portfolio from a well-known game. The interviewers were very familiar with the game, and queried him about that art. It turned out that those were shots of levels he’d played in the game, NOT levels he’d created! Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

The Technical Stuff
Today’s game industry artist needs to be specialized and technical. Showcase your strengths. Is it 3D? Create some strong environment pieces: one natural, one man-made, maybe something futuristic or fantasy but always totally original.

Character art is harder to break into but not impossible. Maybe show a progression of how you got from sketch to character with brief explanation (probably in a blog) about your inspiration and your tools.

Thriving platforms include Steam, XBLA, PSN, mobile, and Freemium. (Yes, there is a definite bias towards social games.) With the shift towards social and casual, you should know Flash, especially with recent announcements by Epic and Unity about their in-engine support for Flash11. This requires strong 2D skills and facility with a Wacom tablet.

It (almost) goes without saying that every artist needs to be good at drawing if for no other reason than you can illustrate feedback or suggestions to others–look good doing it. Split your time studying from life and drawing and painting from imagination. You might even try doing master copies of great artworks (that’s how students back then learned), studying human and large animal anatomy, and knowing key artistic foundations like perspective, color and composition.

Study the path of those whose work you really admire. You’ll be amazed at some of the secrets you can pick up from doing a little research.

Pointers for Specific Specialties:

  • Modelers: No Moving Videos. Show still images from different points of view. Show wireframes, unwraps, normal maps, spec maps (all as separate files). Hiring managers wants to see the modeling decisions you have made. Stick to Modeling; we see way too many demos where the modeler is also showing animation or special effects and this gets confusing. Focus on what you do best and show only the best work within that piece, whether it’s Characters, Weapons, Apparel, etc.
  • Concept Art: It’s really hard to break into the games industry as a concept artist. Hiring managers want to see a lot of early and quick exploration of rich strong shape design, good understanding of color and color theory and the ability to render—all of which their current art department already knows how to do. That said, if you can do amazing concept art AND have an equally good specialty, you might be able to show your creative process through a progression.
  • Animators: Focus on a couple of high quality moments of animation in your demo and really pay attention to weight, push / pull tests, and fluidity. You’ll get hired on two seconds of push / pull rather than an entire unfocused demo. Study the basic motion loops needed for the genre of games your target company publishes and prove that you can do that.
  • VFX: Show quality in-game effects that make sense and fit the genre. Understanding the Unreal and Unity Engines and their related particle effects systems is a big help. Innovate, don’t imitate.
  • Technical Artist: Understand Unreal and Unity, specifically their scripting languages (MEL and MaxScript). Learn Python. Show examples of your scripts (code), along with little movies of the scripts in action.
  • About Unreal:
    • If you’re an awesome modeler who can do awesome textures, everything needs to end up in Unreal—and it needs to work.
    • If you’re an animator, make sure you have some Animation Tree going shoe me what your animation. Show me what the animation are doing to textures and your assets in Unreal. Take everything you know about art and apply it in the engine.
    • If you do Visual Effects, designing particle effects and coding Cascade (using Unreal’s Particle engine).
    • About Engines in general: Plain and simple: demonstrate a mastery of your craft and knowledge of the engine your target game company is using.

 The Networking Stuff

Regardless of your area of expertise and / or interest, you need to network. Join one of the Social Game Developers groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. It’s ok to read and “listen” for a while. Find the sweet spot between total n00b and flashy know-it-all.

Online Art Community and User Groups

  • MeetUp
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • PhotoShop
  • Digital Art Groups

Online Resources for Artists

There are a lot of sites out there that provide all kinds of helpful information. Here are a few of the bigger ones:

  • www.CGSociety.org (www.CGTalk.com is the site’s forum)
  • www.3DTotal.com (3DTotal was founded in 1999 as a simple 3D resource website. Over the last decade the site has evolved into one of the premier CG art websites.)
  • www.PolyCount.com (Polycount offers 3D videogame artists news, resources and a forum)
  • www.DominanceWar.com (The website of a massive annual game art competition)
  • www.ConceptArt.org (Offers a forum, news, information about a variety of classes, and contests)
  • www.visualliteracyprogram.com (The Visual Literacy Online Program is for both the serious student of any age and the professional artist.)
  • http://www.unrealengine.com (If you don’t know what this is, don’t apply for a job until you do!)
  • www.design3.com (This site has over 1K amazing demo’s to teach you 2D and 3D art skills.)

Which Company?

If you’re just starting out, even if you have a degree but you haven’t landed your first job, keep applying to the smaller studios. It would be exciting to claim Bungie or Blizzard as your first job but you’re up against a lot of “veterans” who are already making gorgeous, cutting-edge art.

Apply directly! A seasoned recruiter will rock your world once you have at least two professional games sold on the market. Prior to having professionally published titles the best way to succeed is by directly applying for a job yourself. There is no magic bullet or easy way to skirt around the job hunt.

Stay current on big games or AAA tiles, especially the ones that use the Unreal and Unity engines. (This does not mean be obsessed because you need time to work on your portfolio!)

Creating a Killer Demo

Find other people who also trying to break into the game industry. (See Networking above.) There are plenty of Programmers; Game Designers, and Web Developers who also need a demo. Combine your skills and create an online demo that rocks. Create mini games that are a logical extension of your favorite games (or the games of your target hiring company).

Customize your demo for your target audience. If you excel at sci-fi images, approaching EA Sports probably isn’t the best career move. Unless the game involves some kind of futuristic sport, they probably don’t care that you can do a spectacular rendition of Fenway Park or Tom Brady throwing a perfect spiral pass.

  • Keep it simple and easy to navigate.
  • Customize and target your work for the interviewing studio.
  • Create original assets.
  • Never force downloads to view assets.
  • Create a “brand” for yourself and manage it via social networking sites, etc.
  • Pay attention to poly count and use it as a measuring stick. Hiring managers want to see how well you used polygons in the art asset itself.
  • If you are showing your senior project from school, make sure it’s finished. Often senior projects are too ambitious and don’t get completed so scale it back to reality. Managers hire folks who can complete things.
  • Show both low poly and high poly work. Tag each image with brief info; the 2D or 3D software you used and how many pixels is usually enough.
  • Show only your best work. Less is more!

 

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The “Catch-22″ – For Designers: Prior Experience Required

The big Catch-22 in the game industry is that to get a job you need experience and to get that experience, you need to get a job. It can be pretty frustrating for someone who wants to get a foot in the door.

So . . . if you don’t have “official” experience, CREATE YOUR OWN!

Picking up new skills is always a great idea. If you can, enroll in an accredited degree or certificate program where you not only learn the ins and outs of your chosen area (game programming, animation, game design, etc.) but can also create something that can go into your portfolio.

No matter what game job you want, you’ll need to show examples of your work and demonstrate that you have what it takes to do the job. The good news is that you don’t need to be employed or have a shiny new degree to create a portfolio. Create your own art, design a soundtrack or . . .create mods of your favorite games.

“Modding” means modifying software to design an element or perform a function that isn’t currently in the product. Many games, like The Elder Scrolls series, come with a mod editing tool that actually encourages users to create and share original content. Some games even provide source code for player experimentation and publishing.

Still others, like 18 Wheels of Steel, provide the non-programmed data (images, small code pieces and the like) in a simple archive. Modders take the game in directions that the developers may have never anticipated or didn’t have time or funding to create. Some games, like Neverwinter Nights, could never have been as successful as they are without a thriving Mod community, which is why a number of game companies openly support modding. In the case of Half-Life, a mod called “Counter-Strike” drove sales of the original software for years.

GECK

The Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) allows you to edit and create game content for Fallout 3. The data is stored in files that are read directly by the game. The GECK allows you to build your own areas (towns, dungeons, etc.) and populate them with your own characters, creatures, items and storylines. Want a job at Bethesda Software, the developer and publisher of Fallout? Create a killer Mod and watch how quickly you’ll get the company’s attention!

Hammer

The Valve Hammer Editor (known as Hammer) was the official mapping tool for the Goldsource engine, the engine that ran Half-Life and Counter-Strike as well as other pre-Source Valve games. The latest version is included in the Source SDK, for mapping under the Source engine (under which all newer Valve games run).

Aurora

The Aurora Toolset (also known as the Aurora toolkit) is a set of software tools developed by BioWare for use with the Aurora Engine, the game engine first used in BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. The toolset is included in the Windows version of the game, and allows players to create their own adventures. The tools include a visual tile-based terrain editor, a script editor, a conversation editor and an object editor. Use modding to show BioWare that you love the game AND understand the engine.

Unreal Development Kit (UDK)

UDK is Unreal Engine 3, a complete professional development framework. It includes all the tools you need to create great games, advanced visualizations and detailed 3D Simulations on the PC and iOS platforms.

Many game companies actually follow the mod communities and may approach the good modders for jobs. EA, for example, has a strong reputation of mining the Sims Modding communities.The good news is that you’re not helpless here, so roll up your sleeves and GET MODDING!

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Managing For A New Market

Five years ago when I first approached the subject of what it takes to be an outstanding manager, we were enjoying a rise in free-to-play MMORPGs. DDO (Dungeons & Dragons™ Online) had been released. We were playing City of HeroesEve Online and Guild Wars, and waiting for Age of Conan with its highly-publicized “mature” content. There was a lot to play online! Facebook was three years old and had just opened its doors to anyone over 13 with a valid email address.

The online landscape has changed dramatically since then. Facebook has become a household name (as well as a verb and an adjective.) People are immersed in FarmvilleCityville, and dozens of social games—that is, when they’re not posting pictures, “Liking” all kinds of things and filling up virtual Walls with comments on just about everything. Companies are scrambling to add “social content” to their existing games and obsessing over microtransactions, virtual goods and the arcane language of metrics.

It sure seems like anyone with a computer and a little seed money is making a social game. Hey, you have a computer! And maybe a little extra money? Now all you need is a fantastic idea for a social game that could make you rich, and you’ll be ready to jump into the pool.

Just one question: Are you planning to do all this by yourself?

Tackling this solo may sound like an ideal way to control everything but it’s not a great way to get things done, especially in the current crazy competitive environment. (Not to mention, no one can ever control everything. . .)

Something New, Something Old

The products may be new but the challenges from concept to release remain the same: need more time, need more money, could use some help. While some things have changed in the past five years, there are still basic unchanging precepts about jobs, teams and management. Whether you’re working in someone’s basement (yes, people still do that) or in an actual office for an established company, you still need a team and a team (usually) needs a manager who can match the right people to the game jobs, make sure they know what to do and help them do it.

Whether you’re making a big MMO or a small social game, teams always need the same things: consistent reliable leadership, positive motivation, achievable goals and the individual ability to work and play well with each other.

Building a team is like building anything else (including video games)–the best plan in the world won’t survive without a solid foundation. The stronger the plan, the more positive the environment, and the better your talent, the more successful everyone will be.

The Usual Suspects

Savvy managers know that along with stuff like education and experience, they have to take personalities into account when building a team. Although everyone is unique, there are some archetypes, if you will, that seem to persist in the video game industry.

The Intern: You usually have the services of an intern for the summer or for one semester. You put a lot of effort into training the intern, often because you’re short-handed. You need to be able to entrust the intern with certain responsibilities. If you’re lucky, you bring someone on-board who is not only eager to have a career in the industry, but is also a hard worker and understands (or at least learns during the internship) that for all the “glamour,” this is still a business. If you’re really lucky, the intern helps improve your overall process and becomes a qualified candidate for full-time employment, which is a nice way to capitalize on your training investment.

On the other hand, you might also get stuck trying to find work for the son or daughter of an executive (or friend of the executive) who spends more time checking Facebook and taking long lunches than working. There’s not much you can do except find some moderately meaningful work for this person and be cautious about what you say because it might get repeated, with or without interpretation, to your boss or your boss’ boss or. . . you get the idea.

The Eager Volunteer: “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” is the favorite refrain of the eager beaver who is always volunteering to help, regardless of his or her workload. Some people can multi-task very well, while others continue to volunteer eagerly but have time management issues that will eventually come back to bite you.

Your challenge is to find a way to help this team member achieve gradually increasing successes while learning some much-needed time management skills. The darker side of this situation is the volunteer may get others to do the work and then takes credit for it in hopes that you will assign even more work.

The Ladder Climber: This team member comes in several guises. It might be someone who has been able to jump from a “service” department like clerical or HR into Design or Production. While they have the skills to do the work, their goal is to get as high as fast as they can, and sometimes they will use their in-house “connections” to insure that those above you see their efforts, whether or not they have done the work themselves, or whether the work they did was correct. When problems arise, the Climber is frequently the one who pushes a team member—including you–under the bus rather than admit error.

The Anxious Being: More often than not, this person is extremely intelligent and can do remarkable work but has absolutely no self-confidence. What you get is a blow-by-blow report of what they will do, what they are doing, what they just did, and what they will do next. There are probably very good reasons for the anxiety but you haven’t been hired to be a therapist so you need to find a way to get good work without the running dialog. Hopefully, this person will gain confidence through consistent successes.

The Resister: Nope, won’t do it your way or anyone else’s way. Period. Refuses to accept more responsibility, or worse, accepts it and then refuses to ask for help. Resisters have their own priorities and schedules. This is especially dangerous when the Resister is a programmer who is quick to kludge and able to hide the evidence.

The “Assistant”: This self-appointed back-up is happy to speak for you in meetings and give others the impression that you’ve delegated a lot of responsibility. Assistants may even take it upon themselves to advise others on the team about how they’re doing and what they can do to improve. Because this person is usually a smart hard-working employee, the assumption of power may go unnoticed for a while.

The Newbie Know-It-All: This person is often a combination of Eager Beaver and Newly-Hired Graduate/Former Intern. Frequently an avid gamer, he hits the ground running, works super-hard for the first month, and then begins an aggressive campaign to get hired as the Senior Game Designer because, after all, he has played Every Game Ever Made and knows Everything and Everyone.

The Rock Star: This would be the Untouchable Golden Child, the one management just loves, the one who frequently is called in as an expert trouble-shooter. She doesn’t appear to have to follow any rules or answer to you even though she’s on your team. Her work is actually quite good but if you catch her in an error, rather than admit she was wrong, she’ll blame it on people who “don’t know what they’re doing,” tell you she has a fix for it, and then make the fix without discussing how it will affect the rest of the program.

It would be great if you could build a work team like you build your fantasy sports team–just choose the prime players, set the line-up, swap players at will, and do whatever it takes to win, but the reality is that it’s your job to find a way for your team to work together.

You want people with solid game design experience but they also need to be able to work comfortably in this new continuous deployment world of social games but somehow understand that the basics of production never really change.

There’s no limit to the personal and group potential of a great team. Given an “impossible” task, team members can (and should) reinforce each others’ confidence and skills. It’s the synergy thing–the collective ability to achieve innovation and success.

Drafting Your Dream Team

There’s no “magic number” of people that insures you’ll have a successful team. Whether you have fewer than 10 or more than 200 , the team’s shape is far more important than its size. Finding people with basic skills is a given; getting people with the right mix of skills is crucial if you want to succeed.

In addition to technical expertise in specific game-related disciplines (i.e., engineering, marketing, production, creative, testing, etc.), each team member needs:

  • Solid problem-solving skills
  • Accountability as an individual
  • Good interpersonal skills and flexibility
  • Commitment to working as part of a team
  • Respect for colleagues regardless of experience, age, gender, etc.

You need to hire with an eye to how skills and personalities will complement each other and grow the project in exciting ways. This includes how you fit into the mix as the manager.

Your Management “Style”

Even if you’ve been a manager for a while, it’s not a bad idea to do a little research about management principles, if only to refresh your memory. You probably already know that there are some basic foundations for a solid management style:

(1) Honesty: The word “transparency” is thrown around a lot these days instead of honesty which some people regard as old-fashioned. Perhaps a better word would be “opacity”–the degree to which light is not allowed to travel through something. Think of it as how much upper management really wants everyone to know. In some cases, it’s actually better to be honest about the degree of opacity than to claim full “transparency,” especially when everyone is aware that it just doesn’t exist.

(2) Flexibility: In the social game arena, flexibility is one of the most important qualities for success. The requisite almost-daily “throw the pasta on wall and see what sticks” approach means that people can’t get too attached to a concept or idea if the group or the metrics don’t support it. When you’re not coming up with cool stuff for your game, you need to be fixing the stuff in your game that needs tweaking, figuring out what all those metrics really mean, playing other social games to see what Everyone Else is doing and oh yeah, trying to maintain a balance between work and the rest of your life.

(3) Responsibility: As a manager, you set an example for your team (you know, sort of like being the older sibling.) It doesn’t mean you should be autocratic or condescending. It does mean that you need to be fair, consistent, and aware. It also means that you favor delegation over micro-management, and that you know when it’s time to have fun, and when it’s time to knuckle down, dig in, and just get the work done.

(4) Accountability: This means doing what you say you’ll do, sharing the credit, and taking responsibility when it was your fault. Your team needs to be able to trust that you will act in their best interest and management needs to know that you will act in their best interest too. Hopefully, these two elements are not mutually exclusive; if they are, see “Integrity” below.

(5) Commitment: Being a great manager means that you’re always balancing your commitments to the company, your team, the product, and all the personal outside stuff. It’s great that you’re one of the hardest-working people at the company, but how do you display that? By working 24/7, putting work ahead of family, allowing management to make consistent and excessive demands on your team? Or worse, throwing your team under the bus rather than standing up for them and taking responsibility?

(6) Integrity: Being a manager isn’t about power, it’s about helping others achieve a group goal, in this case to build a successful game. It’s about being honest with yourself and admitting when you’re made a mistake. One of the toughest challenges you’ll have as a manager is to navigate between being part of the team AND a management representative.

You may not be comfortable with the way the company is asking you to handle various situations. There may even come a point where you can no longer compromise your integrity and you decide to leave the company. Under no circumstances should you encourage mutiny among the crew, and whatever you do, don’t leave your team to clean up your mess.

Leading the Charge

Different people respond to different types of goals; some prefer ambitious, challenging ones while others do better with smaller bites of the elephant. If possible, set both general and specific goals for your team that aim high but remain realistic. Encourage everyone to participate in setting personal as well as team goals. Part of your job as a manager is to provide some level of career mentoring, whether it’s formal or informal. Hopefully, your company realizes that offering identifiable career paths is a good way to retain employees.

Most people respond best to consistent, constructive and positive leadership. Without being annoyingly rah-rah, show confidence in the team’s ability to reach its targets and make each team member feel appreciated. Believe it or not, this doesn’t have to cost you a dime; “Thank you” has a great deal of positive power when said sincerely and at the right moment. Taking the opportunity to call out various accomplishments at all-hands meetings shows the team that you care and shows management that you’re on the right track.

Whatever you do, don’t promise the world and expect your team to deliver every time you feel pressure from management. It’s great if you can pull it off once but you don’t want management or the client to assume that they’ll get everything they want whenever they want it (especially the night before the deliverable is due!) Protecting your team is as important as helping them. And it should go without saying that you should never use the team as a scapegoat for your failure as a manager.

Managing Change

This isn’t the Middle Ages where serfs were expected to work the land and quietly accept whatever was (or wasn’t) given to them. Today we have unions and we have the internet where abuses are Tweeted, Twittered, Facebooked, LiveJournaled, and posted pretty much everywhere, instantly (and often by employees while they’re at work.)

Change affects everyone and people need a chance to react. Tell your team about changes as soon as you have enough detail to answer questions, and if you can’t provide the information, offer to report to the team as quickly as you can. Listen carefully to your team’s reactions – the more committed they are to the project and the more they feel that they have management support, the better able they will be to handle change, even if it’s negative.

Technological advances, new competitors, or simply new tastes in the market (like social games) may be seen as threats by more “traditional” companies, but even unwelcome changes can be a springboard for improvement and renewed motivation. As manager, it’s your job to analyze proposed changes objectively. How can drawbacks be offset or eliminated? How can positive aspects be exploited? Follow this analysis by brainstorming alternative courses of action with the team. Devise a flexible plan that offers the least disadvantage and the greatest opportunity for progress and financial success.

Although there’s a good chance that some team members who were there at the beginning might not be there at the end, start with the goal that everyone will be able to contribute throughout the project. Things happen. After the game has been green-lit, the guys who built prototypes on the fly for the big marketing pitch may decide to start their own blue sky prototyping company. The publisher may cancel your game and refuse to let you use the assets. Your job is to help your team deal with the changes and still keep working (assuming, of course, the project remains viable.)

Don’t paint a rosy picture if it’s just not true. Be honest and don’t let the team go down a road when you know the bridge has been washed out. Have faith in your team and give them a chance to offer suggestions about how to deal with negative situations. The ability to manage change is a critical skill that can make or break a team.

Does Anyone Know Anything?

With the current flood of social games being released almost daily, and the resounding success of a handful of companies, people are scrambling to figure out just how the competition is forging ahead so rapidly. Tweets and Twitters pop up all the time with catchy titles like, “The 10 Things You Need to Know about Social Games” or “How to Make Metrics Work for You.”

It’s popular to use phrases like, “Nobody really knows anything” or “Throw out all the old stuff” when talking about social games. When you scratch the surface of a hot FB game even slightly, however, you’ll see a stratified foundation (sort of like the cross-section of a geological formation) that shows a more or less logical progression of game development. While the platform and the concept of social games are new, in fact, a lot of what’s happening is really giving old models a facelift.

Be sure that someone on the team (who may or may not be you) monitors external changes that could affect the success of your efforts and your product. Whether that person comes from your company’s Marketing Department or is a consultant with an intimate knowledge of the industry from outside experience, the information has to be fresh and accurate, and delivered in a way that doesn’t create a false impression or worse, an atmosphere of paranoia.

Present the team with the data and give them a chance to discuss the latest trends (makes for a great “working lunch.”) Work together to figure out why something was successful and how those lessons can be applied to your product. Maintain a balance between metrics and game design. Marketing’s research is important but so are your game design and content. Success comes as a result of finding the “sweet spot” in the market, not just from copying whatever the most popular FB game has right now.

A side note here about your own experience: Odds are that you have been working in the video game industry longer than five years, although not necessarily at the managerial level. Hopefully you’ve learned the difference between your favorite games and what’s hot, and you’ve kept up with the latest trends in the industry. It’s particularly difficult for “old school” producers and managers to embrace the new social games model because it seems to go against what we remember from games with longer production cycles and bigger budgets.

It’s also possible that members of your team have more hands-on experience with social games than you do, at least in the beginning. As tempting as it is to dismiss social games as a trend, you may find yourself scrambling to explain to management why the game isn’t successful. Do your research (and harvest a crop or two) so that you understand how these games work.

We aren’t going to spend a lot of time discussing the applicability of agile development and lean management principles here but there is one important element of those philosophies that does factor into your success as a manager: how do you address things that didn’t work? This can be anything from an issue with the code to an item that didn’t work properly in the game space to a concept that failed to catch on and make money.

There is a level of anxiety across the board because competition in this market segment is so ferocious. No one wants to take the blame for a failure and most people are uncomfortable with the concept that if one group failed, the entire team failed. What’s important about a failure is how quickly you can fix what’s wrong and learn from the mistake. Hopefully you’ll stay in business long enough to make more mistakes (and have lots of successes too!)

Points to Remember

  • Be flexible and fair
  • Delegate whenever possible
  • Treat your team with respect
  • Stay current with industry and competitor trends
  • Do what you can to help team members progress in their careers
  • Keep everyone focused on the goal
  • Remember to say “thank you”!
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Hiring Wars

Imagine seeing this press release . . .

Press Release: Thousands are flocking to play Hiring Wars, the hottest new web-based social game. You choose between the Eager Employer, ready to shell out big bucks to new programmers with less than two years’ experience, and the Frustrated Employee with experience and title credits who’s being asked to work perpetual crunch time for a salary well below the “new market” average. Along the way you’ll deal with challenges like Fickle Investors, Giant Competitors, Insatiable Consumers, the twin demons Gamification and Monetization. You’ll seek rare items like the key to the Secret Metrics Scrolls!

You may think that all sounds a little silly but it’s where we are right now in the industry–finding and hiring the best talent as fast as we can to create games as fast as we can in this extremely competitive web-based game market. Isn’t that where we always are, some might ask. The answer is yes . . . and no. Companies should always be looking for the best and the brightest. What’s different now is the speed at which everything is happening.

We’ve gone from “how do we appeal to the mass market?” to “how fast can we get that up on Facebook?”

Oooh Shiny!

Casual, Social, Cloud, Web, Downloadable, and Free-to-Play games are what’s hot right now. You don’t need to know the storyline (such as it is) or spend hours leveling up. You don’t need a fancy controller, and you don’t even need to spend any money (although that’s not what the game makers want you to think!) It’s all about web-based-product with a social media component and microtransactions . . . and did I mention speed?

The rapid move toward casual games took many in our industry by surprise and has sent traditional segments like console and MMO-producing companies scrambling to adjust, often by rapid “restructuring” (read: layoffs). Traditional PC and console games take years and millions to build while the initial release of most casual games can be created within 90 days for an average of $30,000.

Hundreds of new media game companies are popping up everywhere, and even the console and MMO companies are trying to re-focus current product, at least to some degree, on Free to Play and more “casual” MMO’s rather than putting all their eggs in the traditional multi-year development cycle basket.

My Kingdom for a Coder

This relatively sudden change has also caused a shift in desired technical skills and forced our industry to compete for talent with the already highly competitive IT, networking & security, Information Services and industries. Sure, you still need artists (and marketing) but now you’re hunting for programmers instead of writers, and hey, if they can knock out some text too, that’s great. In this new world of “rapid deployment and “empowerment,” if the programmers can police their own workflow and bug tickets, so much the better.

According to the Electronic Software Association (ESA), the game industry generates over $25 billion in annual revenue, and employs more than 120,000 people. Current research indicates that by 2015, 60% of the new jobs created in America will require special skills held by only 20% of the population. On top of that, the number of college students enrolled in computer science and information technology majors has declined even though the demand for the talent has increased. The result is that in 2011, Computer Science graduates are receiving an average starting salary of around $98,000. (Yes, there are higher base salaries but they tend to be at the mega-companies like Google and Facebook.) New programmers without degrees or much, if any, real experience are commanding salaries previously reserved for more senior people.

Sadly, this hasn’t necessarily resulted in a company-wide shift upwards in salaries at all levels. Companies think they can maximize profits by laying off current “specialized” employees to get “multi-taskers.” Even at the higher salary, the company figures it’s saving money because it’s paying less than before the layoff. Given the competitive situation and finite supply of qualified talent, it’s the perfect storm to fuel a hiring crisis.

Outsourcing Woes

In previous hiring wars we were able to supplement a lack of U.S.-based talent by bringing well-qualified talent from other countries like the U.K., back when the U.S. dollar was strong and UK salaries were lower. It also helped that getting approval for H1B work visas was easier.

In today’s world economic and political climate, not only does the weak US dollar work against us, the process of obtaining a U.S. H1B work visa has gone from simple to torture, and many game companies won’t even consider it. So unless you come from a country operating under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), obtaining a U.S. work visa is nearly impossible.

Some, U.S. game companies think they’ll save money by using a small company outside the country. This works more or less until the parent company decides to “restructure” (again) and cuts the smaller foreign company adrift without so much as a Bon Voyage pizza party. Doesn’t do a whole lot for U.S. relations in an already difficult market, and certainly doesn’t do much to bolster investor confidence in the parent company

Pay to Play . . . in the Job Market, That is

With the new business model for generating web-based games, the industry has returned to something of a “garage” mentality. Lured by the desire to create the next Farmville, companies are using variations of Lean Management, AGILE development, and “throw it on the wall ‘n keep what sticks.” Those who can afford it will grudgingly pay the higher salary while those who can’t might offer a range of inducements like stock options and profit-sharing. In some ways, it’s like reminiscent of that crazed time Before the Dot Com Bubble Burst when the perceived potential to generate an endless revenue stream fueled reckless business practices.

Case Study: A client wanted to hire a programmer at a maximum base salary of $120K. After approaching well over 300 candidates via recruiting it became clear that this company wasn’t going to get anyone until it raised the base salary to somewhere around $165K, the current average cost for that particular talent in today’s market. The company wouldn’t upgrade the base salary so the position is still open, months later.

They pushed existing staff to make up for the slack, which created a stressful work environment. Ship dates slipped which wreaked havoc on the revenue stream and meant even MORE crunch time. The already-underpaid employees began job hunting for better pay and freedom from eternal crunch time. The executive staff offered large pre-IPO stock grants but sadly for them, employees and candidates today are much savvier about the business environment and would rather have real cash. They know that they can’t pay their bills with stock options.

In the long run, the company could have done some negotiating on the base salary and saved themselves a lot of money that was wasted on overtime. There was a time when the caché of working for certain “big name” companies outweighed the known downsides but political in-fighting and employee abuse isn’t worth even the big money. Penny wise and pound foolish in this situation, they have earned themselves a reputation that has already come back to haunt them.

As this case proves, not only is it a war to locate and hire talent, it’s a challenge to keep the talent companies have already. The climate is so aggressive that candidates are joining companies only to be lured away a few weeks later by a competitor. Loyalty is nice but in this economy money is what motivates employees.

Lean Mean Overworked Machine

Companies are enamored of the “lean ‘n mean” approach, especially when it comes to engineering departments. Candidates are being asked to do virtual online white-boarding sessions even before the formal interview. At the interview, they are asked to walk through code samples and are subjected to intense questioning to test horsepower, agility, and problem-solving skills. They quickly figure out that the high salary probably comes with a high price tag in be this tough new environment. Shouldn’t a company perform due diligence on new employees? Definitely, but in this case they might as well say, “Hey, we expect you to do everything, do it lightning fast, and oh yeah, sleep under your desk.”

“Empowerment” is a great word, but what does it really mean? It means that you get a chance—sometimes only one chance—to throw your pasta on the wall. If it sticks and people love it, great! You survive to cook up something tomorrow. If it fails (or worse causes other things to fail), you’re outta here!

“We’re paying better than anyone else out there, so what’s their problem?” management asks. It’s hard, if not impossible, to explain that burning through waves of employees (who either quit or work sick until they’re too sick to come to work) can very well mean you’ll end up with a lot less money, no real product, and an incredibly bad reputation touted far and wide on the very social networks you had hoped to conquer.

Less is More, Right?

Since its inception, the game industry has been known to pay lower base salaries with the justification that unlike traditional business, working in the game industry is just too cool, and everyone will make lots of money from all those AAA games. In the early 90s it was common for companies to assign significant royalties which made up, at least in part, for the low salaries and long hours.

Then game companies moved from the garage to multi-story office buildings and spacious campuses, and royalty programs morphed into “bonus programs” with all sorts of caveats and qualifications that didn’t pay out as well. In the end, although the sodas and snacks might be free, base salaries remained lower than in other industries seeking the same skills.

In the last three years, over 10,000 employees have lost their job in our industry. Although the economic crisis is usually the excuse for this, several other factors at work as well:

1) The rapid and steady advancement of technology. One day your skills are in high demand and literally within months you can be perceived as obsolete or unqualified (especially if you make the mistake of getting older.) Nowadays, the older you are and the more experience you have, the harder it is for you to find a good job. Companies don’t seem realize they’re sending a mixed message here: “Sure, New Kid, we’ll pay you $98,000 to start” vs. “Hm, (Older) Person with tons of experience, you’re probably going to be too expensive, and besides you’re not cool.”

2) The rise of new game industry market segments. These new entities (Casual / Social Gaming, Cloud-based Gaming, Browser / Web based gaming, even the industry’s move towards digital distribution and downloadable games) seem to spring up overnight on little or no money. Established companies see this and figure that they don’t have to spend any money to jump into the mix.

3) The normal changes. Hardware platforms, software sales, hot new things, whatever Marketing thinks a game Has to Have, budgets, investors, and of course the constant specter of the Economy.

Summary

1) The game industry is now squarely in the midst of a hiring war.  We’re competing for the same talent many other software segments seek.

2) Game companies can no longer attract quality talent with lower salaries and the vaporware offer of a stock option to cover the difference. Candidates are savvy and don’t care about your stock unless you’ve got a proven track record (i.e., Google, Facebook, Apple.) It’s “show me the money now!”

3) The “glamour” of working for a game company is beginning to wane now that just about anyone can put a company together and say they’re in the industry. While it’s exciting to be part of a start-up, the lure of independence and “unlimited profit” is often replaced very quickly by long hours, exhaustion, and the need to provide your own soda.

4) Candidates would rather leave the game industry than compromise on life / work balance issues.  People want to be paid fairly and work a 40-hour week instead of being underpaid (often dramatically so) and working on average 60 hours.

5) With the average salary for a programmer fresh out of college at around $98K, companies need to look at their entire salary structure and adjust accordingly. Otherwise, they’ll have a tough time attracting new talent or even retaining existing staff, especially if they’ve shifted into Eternal Crunch Time.

6) Hiring limited-experience talent just because they’ve worked on one Facebook game isn’t necessarily good planning (or even planning at all!) Seasoned professionals who have tackled game creation on several platforms with multiple genres and demonstrated the ability to learn new stuff are usually a better investment in the long run. It’s hard not to be attracted by the promise of big profits but you still need to have a solid foundation with experienced talent to survive. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider hiring a young inexperienced person who obviously has a flair for game design but don’t underestimate the ability of your experienced employees to create fresh, engaging content.

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The Most Common Job Hunting Mistake for 2011: Choosing the Proper File Format for Your Digital Resume

While you can show your portfolio to prospective employers in person (at conventions like SIGGRAPH, for example), you’re probably going to be submitting your material online which means that your resume needs to sell you pretty much from the moment it’s downloaded and pops up on the computer screen.

Your challenge is to wrangle a bunch of positive, action-oriented words into a cohesive 1-3 page review of your work history, your professional accomplishments, and even school stuff if it’s relevant. This “CNN review” needs to be clever, unique, factual, engaging, and easily understood by a varied audience (HR, Staff Production, Management, etc.) No pressure or anything…

A Yes or No Interview Decision Is Based On Your Resume Presentation

In the “old days,” an actual person reviewed resumes and portfolios. Today, nearly all game companies use some form of Applicant Tracking System (ATS) or Customer Relationship Management System (CRM) to handle the initial processing of job applications and resume data.

CRM systems force you to be aware of the digital file formats you choose to save and distribute your resume. Yes,  (file) size matters because most CRMs default to a 3MB file size and will reject larger files—not a good way to introduce yourself to a prospective employer!

Many CRM systems collect resume data directly from a game company’s own website while others extract the resume from job boards like Monster and Career Builder who have partnerships with CRM software providers for data migration.

On top of that, many CRM systems use their own customized or proprietary word processing software in conjunction with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to create searchable, viewable, and/or readable files. (And then there are the automated data retriever bots…)

You Need To Create A Digital Resume That Can Be ‘Read’ By Any Computer!

OCR software analyzes a document and compares it with fonts stored in its database and/or tracks features typical to specific characters. Some OCR software also “guesses” at unrecognized words which means 100% accuracy is pretty much impossible. While OCR software has come a long way, the technology isn’t failsafe, so including images in your digital resume can cause the system to cough up something that wasn’t quite what you intended.

You want the data in your resume to be displayed properly via the CRM system and any e-mail or internal world processing software staff at the game company uses to view the material. You also want to ensure the data on your resume is captured and stored accurately for future consideration.

When you create your resume it’s pretty safe to assume that the Word Processing and OCR software used by the game companies CRM system is a basic bundled module which could be using tech from 2005!  Never assume the software is new or advanced.  This is why selecting the correct file format for your resume becomes a very important decision.
FILE FORMATS

Text Based Formats: MSWord or .DOC, RTF, TXT, and TIFF

Most OCR software is designed to handle MSWord files so this is a good format when submitting your resume directly to a company. Even if the online resume submission guidelines don’t specify a file size limitation, keep the document simple and avoid advanced formatting techniques like multiple columns, inserting images or Excel spreadsheets. The more complex the layout, the more complex the data stored in the text file, and the more room for error when the OCR scans the file.

Graphic/Image Formats: JPEG, GIF, PNG, WebP, etc.

Your resume is a text-based document so standard graphic formats like JPG, GIF, TIFF, PNG, etc. save your resume as an image. OCR software can deal with images but it was really designed to read text so documents are easier to scan than pictures. Graphic file formats are hard on search engine indexing. Remember that 3MB file size limitation? Graphic file formats save as a larger size file, which means that your resume may get bounced out of the system before anyone can read it!

One of the most versatile formats is Rich Text Format (RTF). Microsoft Word, Open Office, Google Docs, or pretty much any word processing software can read an RTF file. RTF keeps your original formatting so you can control how your resume is displayed. This format isn’t specific to a particular word processing program, so it’s more versatile and easy on CRM systems.

The other very basic format is TXT. Some online job sites and career services ask that resume information be directly typed or pasted into a ready-made text box on their website so it’s good to keep a TXT version of your resume on hand; most word processing programs offer this as an option for saving the file. If “Plain Text File” or .txt isn’t available, you can always cut and paste your resume into Notepad or Wordpad (Windows) or TextEdit for (Mac).

Microsoft Word and other common word processing programs offer either “Plain Text File,” “ASCII,” or simply “Text” when you save a text file. If these options aren’t available, copy and paste your resume from the document to Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac).

Tagged Image File Format (TIFF or TIF) is a file format for storing images. Popular among Apple Macintosh owners, graphic artists, the publishing industry, TIFF format is widely supported by image-manipulation applications, publishing and page layout applications, as well as scanning, faxing, word processing, OCR and other applications. TIFF is a flexible, adaptable format for handling images and data within a single file. It’s flexibility is both a feature and a curse, however, with no single reader capable of handling all the different varieties of TIFF files since no standard format exists for TIFF files. Although TIFF is still widely accepted as a photograph file standard in the printing industry, unfortunately, TIFF format is not widely supported by web browsers.

Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the commonly-used language for web sites (especially blogs) is a text-and-image formatting language used by web browsers to format and display web pages dynamically. It’s a flexible language that’s easy to learn and update. Just be sure that you take a look at it on a web-browser test screen before you submit it because there are some issues with the way symbols are displayed on Windows machines vs. Macs.

What about PDF?

PDF (Portable Document Format) and other graphic file formats are widely used for uploading resumes to the web. No one can edit them without permission, and Adobe® Acrobat Reader is free so many people have it on their computer to read documents.

To avoid common problems with PDF files, create the file so that it retains as much of the text as possible in a format that OCR and search engines can read and index it. For Mac users in particular, you can easily convert the file into a PDF. You can also download Adobe’s  online PDF converter and convert your PDF into HTML, a format that CRM systems, search engines, and web crawlers love!

However, as a creative person in a creative industry you might be tempted to create a resume with complex formatting or unique visual design. Adding art images, logos, fancy headers or footers to your digital resume is a recipe for creating a file that actually confuses not only OCR software but search engines, and can significantly reduce your ability to land that job. The answer is to augment your resume with an online demo. Guidelines for art and audio demos are discussed in another Article.

To verify you saved the PDF file correctly as text, upload your PDF to: www.gamerecruiter.com/pdftest/ the results will show you exactly how well the CRM will ‘read’ then create an internal database file on you.  Fix and adjust your PDF until you are satisfied with the results.

Check and Double-check

Although TXT is very OCR-friendly using it can remove layout commands and produce strings of raw text instead of legible data. Once you’ve saved your resume to the acceptable format, proofread and adjust any formatting issues like lost italics, bold, underlines, etc. A mess of words and symbols on a screen which can leave a terrible impression about your technical abilities, your thoroughness, your skills…you get the picture. An attractive readable resume that contains the proper information gets you an interview.

Put the document aside for a few minutes and then proof it again. (Don’t laugh—sometimes reading it aloud to yourself can help you find mistakes that reading silently misses.)

Conclusion: Have Your Resume Ready in Several File Formats!

Be ready to submit a great resume in the requested format, be that RTF, DOC, HTML, TXT and PDF versions. Keep the document formatting as simple as possible and avoid “extras” that can trip up the OCR reader. Proof it—then proof it again—before you submit it.

•    Use DOC, RTF, or TXT files to ensure correct parsing and extraction of your data.
•    Use HTML for onscreen use and searching.
•    Use PDF for printing only.
•    Use HTML, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP in your online demo.
•    3DS, MAX, CCP, IFF, MA, MB, MEL, MP, and SKL are special formats used in the game industry but not commonly used in an online demo. Convert these files into JPEG or GIF files.
•    Save the fancy stuff for your online resume and demo.

Marc Mencher

Game Programmer / Technical Producer turned Recruiter, Marc Mencher has been actively involved in the Game Industry for 27 years, including as Technical Advisor and Executive Producer for several released games. He is founder and CEO of GameRecruiter, an acclaimed recruiting firm that representing the game industry’s hottest talent

He is also the author of Get in the Game!, an instructional book on building a career in the video game industry. Marc was a contributing author to the book, “Game Creation and Careers: Insider Secrets from Industry Experts” and is currently working on a series of articles about game industry management. His articles have been featured in publications like Gamasutra, Industry Gamers, Game Daily, and Next Generation News. He also has been interviewed on television and radio as an expert on working in the video game industry. A frequent speaker at industry conferences, Marc volunteers as an advisory board member for several colleges that offer game design programs.

A detailed bio on Marc can be found here.

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