It’s been about a year since we started Wonderspark. I knew, at the beginning of 2014 after leaving the company I’d previously founded, that I wanted to start another game development studio. Not because I had a burning desire to take on a massive amount of risk & pain, but because I knew I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. I’d spent five years working out how to work, and I knew we had something special. But after getting acquired, things weren’t the same. And no one else worked the way we had. So if I wanted to recapture the way I loved working, we’d just have to start over from scratch.
I spent a decade+ working in traditional AAA/console companies. You’d work to a release date, crunch like crazy, and if your game was successful, great — you got to keep your job. Be grateful you sacrificed months, if not years of your life to ship this thing. Oh, by the way, the moment things turn south, you’re fired. The whole industry is ridiculous. It hangs onto this long-since-disproven belief that crunch is a critical part of developing a great game, and that if you’re not making the rest of your life utterly miserable in order to ship, you’re not working hard enough. What a joke.
At my previous company, we shipped one of the top-grossing apps in history. We stayed near the top of the charts for longer than any other game on iOS. And how many days did we crunch? We had one night where we asked some artists to stay late to knock out something critical. That night, I talked to our art director and we agreed that even though this was shipped, this was not a “success,” and it shouldn’t be treated as such.
You can get around crunch. You just have to want it enough to sacrifice the things that it provides. You have to be able to be flexible with releases. You have to invest in technology that mitigates the risk of releases. Maybe you have to release on an entirely different platform because the platform you want to release on won’t let you maintain that flexibility. I’m not suggesting it’s easy. But it can be done, and those who claim it’s inevitable, or worse, that it’s good, simply don’t value their employees’ lives.
But you should value your employees’ lives. Why? Because if all your teammates know is work, the best knowledge they can bring to bear is knowledge they’ve gained from work. But you already know all the stuff there is to know about work. You need new information, and you need your team to grow. How does that happen? Either you keep hiring new people & beating them into submission, or you actually let people live their lives.
New ideas come from new experiences. They come from peaceful, quiet moments where your unconscious mind can synthesize your experience into ideas. They come from walking the dog late at night, or lying in the bathtub, or sitting at the top of a hill admiring the view. They don’t come from the 16th consecutive hour of staring at a compiler or spreadsheet.
So we’re a year+ into Wonderspark. We’re seven months in to having our “full” team of four. And we’re a few weeks away from releasing our first game. It’s taken us longer than we thought to get to this point — not by much, but by a bit — but we’re not late. Because “late” implies we missed something. We didn’t miss it. We took the time we needed to do the things we needed to do. We didn’t pull a bunch of all-nighters. We didn’t work weekends.
And for a startup, I know that sounds crazy. But here’s the thing — we’re not even close to done. The hard work begins at launch, when we start getting data from real players and learning what works or not. If we burned ourselves out sprinting to launch, we’d be wrecked when the real work started. Everything about this is about sustainability. Creative sustainability. Durability in the face of emergencies. Maintaining high-quality team dynamics.
It’s hard to say that we’re going to take time. It creates a knot in your stomach, knowing it’s going to be another week, and another week, before release. It’s easy to say that we’re going to work late, that we’ve got a “drop-dead” date to make. It’s easy to sacrifice people on the altar of business.
It takes discipline to send folks home at the end of the day.
But we do it because we know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We do it because we know that the output is better in the end — that even if it feels wrong in the moment, experience has shown that it’s the right thing to do. And we know that we’ve designed the entire company, from the ground up, to support this workflow. We experiement. We iterate. We move fast. And then we breathe.
One of the weird things I regret about my experience doing this before is that I wasn’t publicly vocal about the benefits of how we worked. That I didn’t hold up our team as an example of what is possible — that massive success isn’t a byproduct of misery, and that you can do things differently. With Wonderspark, one of my hopes is that we can also succeed — not necessarily at that scale, but we can prove that the process is repeatable, and not a fluke, and then broadcast it loudly so that others can follow our lead and shed a bunch of the awful practices that have defined game development for the last few decades.
So we’ll see. Over the course of the 2016, we’re going to either be sustainable, or dead. But I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, and I can’t wait to get our game into players’ hands.