Starting an Entertainment Company

McKibben02

Hey all!  McKibben, here.

All of us here at Killbot are just happy as clams with how things are going right now and I think it behooves me to dump some of the residual thoughts that are bouncing around in my head.

After all, our plan is to treat this blog as our personal journal – documenting our experience building an entertainment company. We promise to be as honest and transparent in all the matters we can.  And for everything else, we will lie to your face.  LIE!

Just joking.  But seriously, we can’t pass on some of the details of our process.  That’s what makes us money.  And we can’t smash down with too many bombs of truth or else we burn bridges.  But we will avoid bold face lies about stuff and simply walk large paths of avoidance around the topics that will burn us.

SO. We’ve now completed the first – or maybe second – length of our journey : we actually have a product in the store … BOOM!  <confetti> .  But it certainly didn’t start here.

Before Travis and I started Killbot, I was working for Leviathan Games. When I started there in 20….11? …my first job was to create Dynamic Themes for the PS3. This wasn’t just my first job at Leviathan, it was my first job in the Video Game industry. And it was perfect for me.

Perfect, mainly, because I knew nothing about the programming that would soon be the majority of what I was doing. I also knew very little about what would actually sell. I had many failures under my belt up to that point, and little experience with seeing my previous projects through to completion … or reaping any benefits for that matter.  But with Dynamic themes, I had short development cycles. This allowed me to see projects through from beginning concept to final submission.  And then watch the results in the store.  Rinse and repeat.  Ri-i-i-inse AND repeat.

At first, it took me about a month to create my first theme. It was “Fireflies at Night“.  It was my boss’s idea and I executed it as well as I could. I was lucky that it turned out to be pretty good and did well in the store. That got me motivated. I started studying up on what did well in the store and what bombed, as well as seeking methods to improve my development process. Though none of that stopped me from creating complete trash from time to time. “Black Hole Slot Machine” was accurately named. What-a-suck. I spent weeks learning how to get that complex model into themes. And the code took SOOO long!  I needed it to run like a real slot machine – down to the loses and earnings – or else I would die inside for some reason. Took me FO-EVAH.

Aaaand people HATED IT.

With that one, I learned that there was a big difference between goals centered around “development” and those centered around “production”. When your entire focus is “development hurdles”, you only care about yourself and assume other people are going to love you for doing it.  But when your focus is “production”, then you’re constantly imagining how people are going to receive what you are creating.

I’ve applied this to all my projects.  It’s stopped me from saying, “Oh OH, but if we create a texture generator, then the background for the menu will always be unique!!”  No.  NO NO NO.  NO-body cares!  Nobody needs that!  Nobody is starved for menus with procedural generated backgrounds!  They are starved for FUN GAMES!  Priorities!

Sorry – tangent… All in all, it was a perfect job for somebody new to the industry.

Though eventually I got burned out on making them.  After a year, the PS3 Themes weren’t selling as well as they had.  By the time I started making themes, the PS3 had already been out for 5 years. It got to the point where I had to create them at an alarming pace just to make it worth while.

Luckily Leviathan recognized they were killing me and we moved on to focusing purely on game development. Which was perfect, because I had already learned just about everything I could from theme development.

Fast forward a couple years and a couple games aaaaand – bumb-bada-BUMMM! – the PS4 came out!  Up to that point, I had been busy making freemium games and was very, very ready to make themes again. The allure of projects focused around pure aesthetics was tantalizing.  Especially in comparison to the grind of polishing methods that will push players into spending 99 cents for the opportunity to press a button 15 times. That’s not on Leviathan, that’s just the nature of the Freemium Beast. Actually as far as developers go, they put a lot of focus on entertaining their audience.  All I’m saying is to just keep in mind that for every castle you upgrade to level 15, a corporate executive somewhere looses a finger from clicking them together too much.  But back to the story: Leviathan had no plans to move forward with Dynamic Themes for the PS4.

Aw … sadness.

Fast forward a bit more and it’s now Fall of 2014. My [now] business partner in crime, Travis, called me up excited and said that he had found a website for becoming a developer for Sony and told me I should do it. Awesome!  Themes shall be made!

But I didn’t want to do it alone. If anything, I had learned what a lonely place game development can be. You can easily find yourself surrounded by people who purely see you as competition or worse, somebody that doesn’t really matter in comparison to what they are.  This field is filled with sociopaths and egoists. I wanted a company run by friends. By people who have given a shit about one another for 10 years+.  And Travis met that perfectly.

Add to that, nobody understood gamers like Travis – and, no, I don’t mean “Games” – I mean “Gamers”. The dude’s first priority was wondering what people wanted.  It was perfect.  Plus, the dude is a constant ball of energy.  I could go a thousand years and never meet another person more motivated for this field than Travis. Even if his job was purely to sell video game t-shirts, I know he wouldn’t rest until he knew the product was exactly what 99% of gamers would love.

So I asked him if he wanted to start the company with me. At first he was hesitant. He didn’t feel he had anything to contribute.  He wasn’t an artist and wasn’t a programmer. But I chuckled an obnoxious chuckle for I knew that wasn’t important. Honestly, artists and programmers are a dime a dozen. More than anything, I needed his passion and true love for people.  For me, those qualities are rarer than the most elite programmer or accomplished artist.  Luckily, his initial, hesitant sentence ended with, ” – fuck yeah!”

Warm fuzzies.

We quickly started day dreaming up what our company would be. For me, it was important to value something other than the dollar.  In my experience watching the game industry, companies quickly become corrupt when they place their highest value on making as much money as possible. I wanted it to be about something that would keep us on track. So I decided to go with the initial focus and make the company a place where friends could work.  A place where there was little focus on enforcing productivity, but rather on choosing paths that allows employees to explore their fullest potential.  A place where the first thought in somebody’s head would naturally be “how can I make this the most awesome thing I’ve ever done.”

I did that by promising percentages instead of flat rates.  Promising ownership.  Choosing initial goals that prioritized aesthetics over all else and preaching that we needed to bring our insides on the outsides. And by valuing everybody’s personal time, limitations, and pace … All of that for the sake of creating the best company possible!… and cuz I had no money to offer initially.   😛

But I’m not changing the way I’m doing this.  Even now that we’re making money, I’m going to continue paying people in percentages, not flat rates.  If the company does well, everyone does well. Hopefully stinking well. At no limit. That’s ownership.

A lot of people said that it was a bad idea to hire friends.  But I disagree. I think that’s an incomplete sentence.  I think it’s a bad idea to hire friends and then squeeze them for every dime you can.  But really, I think that’s a bad idea to do to anybody.  I just think a lot of companies can get away with that because as long as distance is maintained, an employee is fine with seeing an employer as a demon. Rather, hiring friends is a way to truly test whether or not your company’s values are pure. Because they’ll quickly turn on you if you’re being a monster.

This brings up one of the greatest rules I’ve ever learned.  Your first, immediate instincts are always the best – BUT – they always require a great deal of thought and planning to do right.

Those awesome, first ideas aren’t just stepping stones toward another goal, but instead, usually include the end goal as well as the moral compass you need to keep to in order to see it through.  You just have to dive deep and extract those rules from their loose, emotional foundation.

Basically, I’d say, “Your impulses are the most valuable thing you have – just don’t be impulsive with them.”

Ok, too many words without a break. Here’ s a picture of draw-order Z-fighting at it’s best:

CrayCrayBoomer00

So back to the story: we started the long journey of getting licensed to develop for Sony.  We needed to form our company, create business email accounts, create a website, fill out a pile of paper work and read mountains of documents.  I won’t go into details about what those documents and processes are, because we’re tied under contract with Sony.  But I will say that we had to constantly deal with not knowing what would be coming next.

Nobody tells you that nobody will tell you anything.  Nobody tells you that you will spend a week not knowing if your emails would ever be responded to.  Constantly doubting if your being too persistent.  Ripping your hair out when, after weeks of communication, you’re told that you are talking to the wrong department.

When we finally got our Development Kits from Sony, we cheered for joy!  We got drunk!  It was was just too awesome!  … but then we started the process of figuring out how to make themes for the PS4.  The process had completely changed from the PS3.  And being a new system, as well as a secret process for a product that wasn’t even available yet, the only place to get questions answered was from the private dev forums with Sony.  And what we found was that almost every post we made would have to be answered from us.

That is nothing against Sony. That’s just how these things work and we had to figure that out.  Our only hope was to comb through the Gigabytes of pdfs looking for answers and testing theories.

It was a great thing that we didn’t start this company to make money initially.  Because there was nothing to be made for almost half a year.  Despite that, I was able to slowly rope in friends and to teach them how to make themes.

Kyle Thomas and Bill Otto were the first of our friends to join us.  They have fought along side Travis and I the entire stretch of the way, figuring this stuff out. Cthulhu bless them.

Kyle is an excellent programmer and has been building our theme builder…. building our builder … yes.  And Bill is one of my oldest friends and has a bit of penchant for good video editing.  You can see his quality work in Arctic Torrent (check out our Dynamic Themes page 😀 ).

I also had my brother, Jim, the elite guru of networking and machines in general, to assist with setting up our server, our website, and – coming soon – a render farm!  WOOT to that man!

Man, talking about all this is gettin’ me jazzed.

Despite how much work everything’s been, we’ve all remained close friends.  We worked, screamed, and tore out our hair together.  And it has been awesome.  And now we have two themes in the store, more on the way, and couldn’t be prouder!

The guy who promises more pictures next time,

-Michael McKibben | Co-Owner and Art Director

GumpsDoneTalkin

8 thoughts on “Starting an Entertainment Company

  1. Jean Carson

    Creating a company that provides ownership to those working within is brilliant. Employers love to appeal to their employees to “take ownership” of what they do at work. What a novel idea to really allow them to do that fully. Awesome. And it’s not just because I am your mom that I say that – although this does give me the opportunity to say how proud I am of what you are creating.
    No matter what a person does for a living, working with persons you enjoy makes a tremendous difference in the satisfaction you experience.

    Reply
  2. Brent

    Michael, your work never ceases to amaze me. I am happy that killbot has taken off and I can’t wait to see what is next.

    Reply
  3. Mark Nunn

    Mike, I had the great pleasure of watching you grow. There are no words for how proud of you I am. Not only for your success so far with Killbot but for how looking out for your team and the interests of your customers (gamers) takes priority in your business. I look forward to watching your continued growth.

    Reply

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