“Simple Guidelines to being a sub-contractor to an Indie Developer” – or, ways to really really tick me off. Writen up as a simple guide to some things sub-contractors should think about when it comes to communications and demands.

So, you asked “How did your Monday start off?” Ok, maybe you didn’t ask – and really, you shouldn’t 😉 I spend the weekend sleep deprived and working on game development (X Code is… interesting) and contracting stuff (along with handling business stuff I’ve got to keep up on – lots of hats to wear. No surprise there for for most Indies.
Anyway, so I stumble to my computer, and pop open my email – and it set the tone for the day. My blood boiled over this one. It managed to break so many of the things I fell are unwritten rules to the contractor / sub-contractor relationship.
Before you think this is a public dressing down of a fellow memeber of the GG community – it’s not. I’m paraphrasing part of that email (except one line), and shall not reveal names or even which project the person is working on with me (since there is more than one in various stages). Dispite this particular email, I think the person is a great guy and look forward to possibly working with ’em in the future again – and would REALLY rather not talk ’em down in a public forum and cause any grief for ’em.
Don’t tell me when the game is going to ship. One of the problems with being an Indie – eventually, you gotta finish the job. One part of the email informs me how it has to go in front of a publisher RFN, or dissove the project.
This is a great idea. But I say when. One of my primary functions as the lead (and the company owner) is deciding when I feel it’s ready to show off. Telling me when just provides aggrivation – don’t stress me over it, don’t push me, etc. Asking “Hey, where we at?” is fine.
(Converse of this rule – *I* should be trying to get the job done as soon as reasonably possible. This DOES go both ways 🙂
Don’t say things when you are overly emotional about the subject. And demands are a bad thing. Read what you say once or twice, then edit it after that. For instance, telling me that I better finish right now, or you’ll take your toys and go home is not the best thing to say. If it weren’t for the fact I liked the person in question a lot, I would have told ’em “Ok, no problem – here’s your stuff. Have fun trying to re-use it elsewhere.” Most game content is developed for a specific game. Sure, some of it can be reused… but if the game is past the 90% mark, why in the world would it be a wise idea to yank it.
The second part of this is that it was a DEMAND. One of the reason many people move towards contracting or Indie development is the “Fuck You” option. That’s right, at any time I can say “Fuck you” and dissolve the relationship as long as there are no contractual obligations that prevent it (and guess how I like contracts to be written? I also believe fair is fair – up till the point a project ships, either party should be able to walk away from it unless money has been exchanged.) Asking? Great. Having a converastion on the topic? Great. Telling me what to do? Nope – that triggers that little reflex. I have less at stake than you do – demands can only be made when negotiating from a high ground. And I prefer to always keep the high ground. 
And be absolutely certain that you are ready to feel the effects of the “Or else” portion of your demand or ultimatum. ‘Specially when dealing with me – normally, if a relationship has come to the point of stuff like this, I’m more than happy to let you suffer with the “Or else.”
Don’t ask me to avoid profit. While I don’t always agree with Jeff Tunnell’s opinions every time, he makes a couple of good points. A lot of those points can be summed up VERY nicely – this is a business. This is the one line I quote from the email:
“Either be a game developer, or be an independent contractor, but make a decision and just do it. It’s not right to keep going this way.”
Let’s take a really close look at that – it’s a demand also. But rather than just a demand to ship, provide service or product, it’s a demand for me to take an economic cut.
If I followed this advice, what would the effects be? I had to think about it a while – I never just ignore what people say – and see what validity there was to that commment. 
Jeff T. at IGC ’03 suggested cutting your cost of living down to the bone. He also discussed multiple streams of revenue (so did I for that matter – but since I’m questioning my tactics and judgement, I’ll ignore that.) At the moment, I’ve built myself up to have a fairly resonable amount of survival time if things go wrong. Now I’m in the process of paying off EVERYTHING. Seriously – trying to eliminate any and all debt. I’m pulling down around $2500 / mo, and my wife is working too. We’re trying to set it up so that well… I could make $0 / month for extended periods of time. Like, a year. Without giving up the developers tools budget (which I’ve needed badly) and minor niceties like going to IGC ’04. This way, I can present as little strain on the company as possible while it’s growing. It also means (*GASP*) I’m more able to pay for content development in a cash fashion rather than a percent of profit. (And lets face it – people get a lot more excited about working on a project when they get some money up front for it 🙂
Because of timing (bad timing) I’ve been pounding on the keyboard as a contractor for more hours than I’ve been doing it as a game developer. Guess what? If I’ve got to drop one, do I drop the profitable one? I think not.
This also applies to things like taking the time nessisary to pound out a deal with a new publisher / channel. I was thinking about retiring the old puzzle games, and chatted with Eric Forhan about it – and he did some artwork that really breathed new life into the oldest of the titles (Boulder Panic! 2 DX). That was fortuitous, since a publisher convinced me to revive them for a new channel they were doin’. Of course, emails, phone calls, reading contracts, signing, etc. all take up precious development time. But they have a reward too – because of it, Eric and I get our names on a retail sales item. And of course, then there’s a small income stream that starts up. But what if I had let the whole deal pass by? Well, I don’t get the money, and most importantly, I don’t get the contacts for future project channels that I could use (and since small trickles slowly add up to big money, it’s always worth the time.)
We’re Independant Game Developers – that means, we don’t always get to work on what we want to. We go where the money is, to a certain degree. While I’ve been turning down some projects lately (*WHIMPER* – there’s just not enought time to do those projects AND game development. I hate to pass up the money.), I still flow with the money. When someone offers me a project that can fit into my schedule, I take it – these things pay the bills now, and add more cushion. Of course, it also means I’m not in front of the computer doing game development 12 hours a day. Live with it – that’s the nature of the game. Unless a ship date or milestones are in a contract, money now wins out over money later (unless, of course, I see better money in the future by avoiding the money now situation.)
And of course, if you’re putting in 8 hours during the day on a day job, contract work, what have you – you still have life to deal with. Good example: My wife works 3rd shift, goes to school 1st shift, and sleeps 2nd shift. That doesn’t leave her much time to do niceties like clean, cook, etc – so that falls on me, since my schedule is more flexible. That means, I trade hours of game development for making sure our lives are still liveable, and my wife can continue to juggle her schedule. Sometimes I get 8 hours of game development a night. Sometimes I get 1. And if my wife has the night off? The heck with game development – I’m going to spend some time with my wife. 
All of these things build up to a situation where things go slow sometimes. Don’t expect miracles, don’t expect schedules (thought they do help), and don’t get ticked off when it slips because something came up. It’s a business, but when better paying projects are in front and life occurs, it’s foolish to turn any of it away. (Lord knows I’ve already sacrificed enough for the sake of game development already.)
Never ask me to sacrifice the future of my company for your benefit. Publishers love partially completed games. Why? Because they can bend you over the table when you ask for an advance. It’s pretty common place. So why would you want me to hand it over to someone before I feel it’s ready to show off? My job is to maximize profit – this is especially true if you are getting a percent of project. In fact, why would you ask me to provide you LESS than the maximum possible income from a project? Why would I cut my own throat in a business sense, just to make someone else happy? 
Now, this is not a complete list, and this is also not a set of true rules – I’m sure that there’s pleanty of moments where this doesn’t apply. I’m also not saying that every email passed back and forth needs to be professional. And I present this here as a forum for debate about it – am I wrong in my thinking? And if so – point out how / why I’m wrong in my thinking. And this doesn’t even get into things like “deliver it on time” – but with the people I’ve been working with, that’s never been a problem. They always exceed my expectations 🙂
No two ways about it though – it’s a business, and there are some of those rules that just don’t make sense to break.
There’s also a flip side to this – sub-contractors also have certain expectations that they feel should be met. One of these days when I have A LOT more time (HA!) I may set down and write a full bore “Indie Game Development Relationships For…” (Um – can’t use Dummies 😉 that covers both sides of the story, and submit it as a resource. Just as soon as I get TZ done. And the next project after that. Yeah, look for that Real Soon Now 😉
Ben Garney   (Jan 14, 2004 at 00:58)   Resource Rating: 4
Interesting thoughts. I give it a rating of 25% rant, 75% insight. Good job keeping it “clean”. 😉
Eric Forhan   (Jan 14, 2004 at 03:10)
Hello “Context”, I’m “Taken out of”. :-/
The TZ team isn’t that big, so here I am, taking the risk that this thread will spiral down into never-ending insanity. The letter was short, and to the point–and “matter-of-fact” rather than angry. What the common reader won’t understand are the many, many other emails I’ve sent to try to nudge you and our project in the right direction–only to usually get excuses in return. I’m not so sure it was fair to put this to public scrutiny.
Davis Ray Sickmon, Jr   (Jan 14, 2004 at 09:20)  
9 People involved in the project at one stage or another – no, I think if you wouldn’t have said a word, you wouldn’t have been pointed at. ‘Specially since like every plan I write talks about the awsome work you do Eric. And I really don’t think what I posted on here is out of context – but then again, my reading of what you wrote can vary wildly from what you intended. ‘Tis the nature of communication systems of course.
Not trying to turn this into an online flamefest over the slow moving project – but since you put the original email up here, and some more commentary:
Whether you realize it or not, this game turned from “yours” to “ours” a long time ago. And I’m still the primary point of responsibility for the product. My company logo is the one that goes on there. I’m the one who’s gotta cut the checks. I’m the one who’s gotta deal with the business side. I’m also the one who says when it goes out. I’m also the guy who later has to say “Ooops – looks like there’s still bugs in it” and “Gee sorry – looks like we’re not gonna get as much outta the game money wise as I expected.” So yeah – the game is ours, but at the same time it’s still me as the project lead who has to answer for everything, good and bad.
As for the content – why not just say “Hey, I’ve got a perfect use for this over here…” and re-use it? Seems the obvious solution, rather than saying “You have GOT to get this thing in front of a publisher. Either that, or give it up so the others and myself can try to reuse the content and get something out of it.” I’m an Indie too – in fact, we’ve talked about heavy content reuse before. Why would I have objected to it elsewhere? (This is the line I take as “Do this, or I’m taking my toys and going home” – that’s really how it came across to me.)
[i]I don
Vashner   (Jan 14, 2004 at 11:42)
Good stuff man.
Michael Cozzolino   (Jan 14, 2004 at 15:26)
Hope you guys don’t break off relations. You guys may have to have a discussion to sort out some things.
Good Luck
Eric Forhan   (Jan 15, 2004 at 04:31)
Obviously my patience has worn thin–and this thread hasn’t helped any.
All I see are more excuses. Great rewards oft call for great sacrifices. If, as you’ve shown here, you aren’t ready to make those sacrifices then spend a weekend and tidy up TZ to show publishers. Anything else would not be fair to the team or to TZ.
Mike Morrison   (Jan 15, 2004 at 11:44)
Hi guys,
I’m one of the other subcontractors on this project. 
Although my work on Trajectory Zone doesn’t hold a candle to Davis’ or Eric’s efforts, my studio has supplied three fully animated models (each with 500-1200 frames of animation), nine model textures, in-game voice-overs, art for the loading screens, logo renders, and all sorts of other intangibles like copy editing, single and multiplayer game testing, placeholder art, and audio consulting on some of the music mixes. I’ve even written a post-mortem of my experience on TZ to share with MRT upon completion of the project, in the hopes that we can improve our workflow, and to help speed production on future projects. 
The TZ contract is such that I receive no compensation for any of this work until the game is published. 3D, audio production, and Web site design are my full time job, and I’ve been running my own company since 1997.
Okay. For those of you playing at home, that’s where I’m coming from on this.
Line-by-line deconstruction of e-mails and posted messages won’t solve anything, and you guys need to move past those kinds of responses. It’s not productive and it’s not going to help you find a solution, because there’s no cut and dry wrong or right here. Davis is trying to get his work and financial self together, and Eric feels that the delay is killing TZ’s development and chances in the marketplace. 
You two — Davis and Eric — need to stop this e-mail/online forum nonsense and get on the telephone. You need to hear each other say, “Hi,” and then you need to laugh for a couple of minutes together because you realize that “Hi” is a pretty funny way to start a conversation after more than 16 months and hundreds of hours of development time, and because neither of you wants to throw all that away. 
No amount of forum posts, e-mails, or IM chats will ever replace the experience of a phone conversation, just as no amount of phone calls will ever replace the experience of a face-to-face meeting.
You guys need to talk about this and brainstorm to find a balance. You need to be flexible and you need to work the ideas if you want this game to succeed. Hopefully, you’ll be able to get off that phone call feeling like, “Okay, we’ve got a battle plan, I know my part, and we’re gonna try to get this game done.”
If there’s anything else I can offer, feel free to contact me. You both have my phone and e-mail info. I’ll be glad to help.
Dave Myers   (Jan 15, 2004 at 14:07)   Resource Rating: 4
For anyone reading this thread, this is a classic example of why the telephone can be your best tool when working with a remote team. We really push this at 21-6, though with only 1 fulltime member nowadays there isn’t as much need to use it as there was when the three owners were fulltime. However, we aren’t perfect, and in the beginning we went through similar text-only snafus, and occasionally do so even now (though it’s pretty rare). 
At any rate, I agree with Mike – get on the phone, talk this stuff through, drive on. Who said indie game dev was all fun and games? 😉
Stephen Clark   (Jan 16, 2004 at 12:40)
So here I am all excited to see news on trajectory zone but instead its public arguing?? I tend to hide my skid marks from the public…

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