Where Shadows Slumber: Working On A Small Team

Editor’s Note: The post was almost titled ‘Working with Frank Suxxxxxx’, but I decided against it (mostly because it’s not true).

So, you want to be a game developer, do you? You want to be the voice behind the games that so molded your childhood? You want to create an experience for generations ahead to enjoy?

Well, the best way to do that is probably to get a job at-

What’s that? Oh, you want to be in charge of the game development. You don’t want to work on a game, you want to create a game. You don’t want to help someone else make their game – you want to make your own game, in your own voice.

In that case, it looks like you want to become an indie game developer. You get to design your own games the way you want to, which is a thrilling concept. However, it’s not all fun and games and I-don’t-have-a-real-boss, and you should probably know exactly what you’re getting into.

MNCvsStartup

Choices, choices…

Now, I’ve never worked at a professional game development studio, so I can’t give you an entirely clear picture of what you’re missing out on there. I do have some experience with different-sized companies though – my last job was at one of the biggest banks in the world, my current company employs no more than seven people, and I, of course, am on the two-person Where Shadows Slumber team. So, hopefully I can give you a good overview of the differences between these types of jobs and companies, so that you know what you’re signing up for.

There are a lot of differences between small teams and large teams, and there are a lot of similarities. I’m going to go over some of the things that are better about each. These lists won’t be absolutely complete, but I hope I can sketch out a rough image of what life looks like at these different jobs.

Also, real quick, I just want to mention that if I say something bad about working on a small team, I am not necessarily referring to Frank, or anyone at my current job. I’ve been on a lot of small teams over the years, and these are just my general observations, not passive-aggressive pain points meant to make my colleagues feel bitter.

 

The Bigger, the Better

BigFactory

Cubicles, as far as the eye can see!

For the most part, when I tell someone working in technology that I worked for a large bank, I get a negative response, or maybe some sympathy. It seems that it’s not viewed as the ideal technological job. While bureaucracy isn’t exactly my thing, I will say that I did enjoy my time there, for a number of reasons:

  • Responsibility – The thing I liked most about working at a big company was a lack of responsibility. Maybe that’s my 16 year-old slacker self talking, but there’s something really satisfying about not having to worry about the future of the company. Had a bad quarter? As long as I still have a job, I don’t really care! There’s a tough decision to be made? Glad I don’t have to decide! While this isn’t the best way to be thinking about the company that’s providing your livelihood, it is a somewhat calming thought.
  • Funding – I suppose this one is the most obvious reason why a big company might do well. There’s a lot of cash money floating around in the company, so any project the company decides to pursue will be well-funded. Along with this comes a lower chance of failure. Since you already have funding, and you already have a name people recognize, most of your projects will be much more likely to turn a profit. They say that 90% of startups fail very quickly, making startup jobs very volatile. Getting a job at a large company, however, might end up lasting far longer than you even want it to!
  • Specialization – When I worked at the bank, I was on the identity management and access control team. If someone had a question about SSO, security, trading, or anything else, they wouldn’t come to me. I only had to worry about identity management and access control concerns. You end up specializing in a certain area, and that area is your only concern, so you can really learn a lot about it.
  • No Personality Clashes – This is one you don’t really consider that much, but it can be a biggie. Working in close proximity with the same people day after day will probably happen wherever you end up. However, that situation gets a lot more interesting when you have to continuously make difficult decisions with those people. If you disagree, how will you resolve it? There’s no ‘boss’ you can go and ask – you have to work it out. This doesn’t sound too bad, but that’s only because we don’t really notice other people’s personalities until we’re already in the crucible with them. Maybe your partner is incredibly stubborn, and you can’t convince her to change her mind about something. Maybe he’s really arrogant, and he’ll never even consider that your idea might be better than his. Whatever the situation, you need to be able to resolve it. (again, this doesn’t refer to anyone in particular).
    This situation, however, is less likely to occur at a large company. If you disagree with a colleague, you can ask your boss, or quote company procedure, or ‘escalate’ the issue to their boss. In the majority of cases, you’ll only have to work with that person a handful of days out of the year anyways!

 

Less Is More

booth

Just one booth?

As good a case as I made for big companies, working on a small team has also been really awesome. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Decision Making  The first and most important benefit of working at a small company (or, in particular, your own company), is being involved in the decision-making process. When you’re one of the only five people making decisions about your product, you have a lot more say in the outcome. People take your opinion seriously, and you can actually make a difference in the product. This, I imagine, is the biggest reason that people like to work at smaller companies – if I want to make a game that’s really mine in some sense, then the bigger an impact I have on that game, the better.
  • Creative Freedom – This is another biggie, and it’s very similar to the above. I don’t want my boss to tell me that the Ring of Blood item should be red – I want to make that decision myself – maybe I want it to be green! That might not be a great idea, but at least it’s my decision.
  • Pride – When you make something awesome, you have a lot of pride in it. When you’re one of the main reasons that a project is completed, you feel a lot more pride in it than if you only helped out a little. Saying ‘look at my awesome game’ feels a lot better than ‘look at my company’s awesome game’.
  • Learning – When you’re working on a large team, you might end up being a ‘guy’. You might be the ‘shader guy’, or the ‘pathfinding guy’, or whatever. However, when you’re working on a small team, you have to be all of the ‘guy’s. For Where Shadows Slumber, if there’s anything that counts as a programming task, I’m the one responsible for it. That means I have to be an expert on everything. This can be viewed as a bad thing (and I even listed it as a benefit of working at a big company), but I prefer to think of it as a learning opportunity – I know a lot more about shaders now than I would have if I had a ‘shader guy’ to take care of it for me.
  • Working with Friends – Yes, I listed this as a startup-con before, but there’s still something to be said for working with your friends. While it can lead to some messy situations, it can also lead to some brilliant teamwork and a very fun working environment. You just have to make sure you know how to deal with each other before you start working together.

 

The Dream Team

So, what is the ideal team to work on? In particular, what is the ideal team for you to work on? What’s your dream team? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question. What I can do is tell you about my experience with small teams, and what I’ve learned from it.

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This is it. This is the dream team.

Striking out on your own is an exciting prospect. Thinking forward to a future where you’re publishing a game and making enough money to not die is awesome, and knowing that you get to make any and all decisions about that game, making it truly yours, is inspiring. You’ll sit down at a booth to show off your game, someone will ask you how big your team is, and you’ll get to smugly reply ‘it’s just us’. You don’t answer to anyone, and you’re the only one who gets to change your game.

This is also an exhausting experience. Continuing to work hard on your game, knowing the chances of failure, can be very discouraging. Working on the same project every single day, seeing the glacial progress, and still believing that you’re going to ‘make it’ is sometimes impossible. Arguing endlessly with your team members and looking forward at another year of difficult decisions, knowing you still have to work with them every day, is a near-insurmountable mental and emotional hurdle. Not to mention the pressure to succeed, especially if you’ve decided that this will be your only occupation. It’s a task that not everyone is cut out for.

The option I went for ended up being a blend of both. I worked at a big company as my actual job, and worked on Where Shadows Slumber as a side project. This allowed me the freedom to create my own game in my own voice, without having the stress and pressure of living on an indie game development salary. This is an option I would recommend, although I will say that it can be more difficult than either of the alternatives, since you end up doing more day-to-day work, but your game takes even longer to complete.

 

I can’t tell you exactly what kind of team you should be trying to work on, or if indie game development is the career for you. No matter what I say, if you’re meant to be an indie game developer, you will be. All I ask is that you know what you’re getting into before you take the plunge.

 

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Hopefully this gives you some insight into the world of small teams, and I didn’t scare you off too much. If you have any questions or comments about working on a small team (or anything else), you can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

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