You've been hovering around the game development forums for some time, and think it's time you got involved in an indie collaboration project either by joining an existing team, or creating your own team based around your game idea. But did you know that the majority of indie collaboration projects end in failure?
To give you the best chance of success, I've written this article based on the experience of developing Folk Tale as a global collaboration project. At the time of writing, Folk Tale is still in development, and has been running as a collaboration project for over a year, with an average team size of 8 members spanning 13 different time zones.
I've drawn on 16-years of professional experience as a qualified project manager, software technical architect and team leader, co-founder of the games studio that developed Beasts and Bumpkins ( Electronic Arts, 1997 ), and a history of company directorships overseeing technical, financial and legal. I've also highlighted some of the mistakes I've made and sometimes even repeat.
Please note that this article is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinions. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this article without first seeking the advice of a legal professional.
Joining A Team
If you don't have any project management, team leadership or game development experience, it is strongly recommended you join an existing team before trying to run one yourself. This section explores the three stages of engagement designed to improve your chance of success. It's also worth reading the rest of the article to familiarise yourself with what a good project recruitment advert looks like, and signs that the project you are on is failing.
Before responding to collaboration adverts, it's worth sitting and jotting down on paper:
• What are your top 3 skills, and what do you enjoy doing most of all?
• Just how good are you compared to professionals?
• How much time can you realistically provide each week to a project?
• Can you predict any significant events in the next six months that might cause disruption?
• What genre of game will you enjoy making the most?
While you might have a long list of skills used in your paid job, not all of them are enjoyable. When you come home from a full day at the office, you'll need the motivation to sit down and put in a few hours. You'll only realistically do that if the task involves something you truly enjoy. Passion will serve you and your team mates well in the coming months so try and avoid signing up for tasks you least enjoy.
Being self-critical is difficult even for the modest. Acknowledging and understanding your strengths and weaknesses is a sign of maturity, so the younger you are, the greater the chance that you are over-estimating your skill level. Benchmark your talent by getting an older trusted friend (who won't lie to protect your feelings) to compare your work to that of a recent AAA game, then rate yourself accordingly. There's no point kidding yourself, otherwise you risk finding yourself out of your depth if your fellow collaborators are far more talented than you, wasting your time and theirs.
I've not once interviewed a candidate who said committing 10 to 20 hours of time each week would be a problem. Whatever spare time you think you'll have to give, half it. Distractions and demands on your spare time always crop up. If you are expecting a baby, moving house, changing jobs, have a family dependent who needs your attention, have big travel plans, starting college, anything that you can anticipate, you need to factor it in and make your recruiter aware of that. Honesty will always be appreciated as it allows the Project Lead to plan ahead.
Finally, what games do you enjoy playing the most, and what will you be happy developing? Many people enjoy playing MMO's, but you should scrub that one off the list immediately. The development cycles are far too long, require far too many resources, and almost 99.9% of MMO collaboration projects fail. Consider the scope of the games on your list. You might want to avoid any projects with endless levels or huge game worlds. Smaller projects, especially mobile games, are ideal for collaboration projects because they require less resources and have much shorter development cycles.
Looking For A Project To Join
Now you've got a clearer idea of what sort of projects you are looking to join, it's time to trawl the forums. Before you do, write on a post-it note "NO RUSH", and stick it on your monitor. As enthused as you are at this point, the right project for you might not be immediately available. Rather than settling for second best, its worth waiting a few weeks.
Reaching the end of the first page of collaboration adverts, "CEO of Mega-Games recruiting for huge super-awesome MMO" should be sounding familiar, usually posted by eager teenagers who downloaded some free game development software on the marketing promise that making games is easy. If you too are a teenager, that's fine, no reason not to wet your feet on such projects. It'll provide valuable learning experiences. If however you are a little more precious about your spare time, and want to use it effectively, use your judgement and familiarise yourself with what a good project advert looks like by reading the rest of this article.
When replying to an advert, provide a brief introduction about yourself, listing your top 3 skills, how much time you can give, links to any relevant experience including artwork, online demos, audio, or examples of your writing, and your preferred means of contact. The more information you can publicly provide, the greater the chance you'll be picked up by a good project, even if it's not the one you replied to. If you have sent a private message to the project owner, be sure to include a "pm sent" post below their forum advert. It's not always easy to spot on forums when someone has sent you a private message.
Another approach you may like to consider is starting your own thread advertising your skills. This is a good way to generate interest. The downside is you'll have to sift through all the noise from those CEO's of Mega-Games looking to sign you up without so much as an interview.
The Courting Period
Skipping forward a few weeks, you should by now have a few bites from projects that look interesting. Serious projects will ask you to sign a non-disclosure document before sharing any commercially sensitive information not available in the public domain. These documents, commonly referred to as NDAs, outline an agreement where both parties wish to exchange confidential information in order to explore an opportunity. NDAs deal with copyright ownership, confidentiality, and clean-up should the parties not wish to proceed. If a Project Lead doesn't ask you to sign one of these, it's a warning bell suggesting a weakness in legal understanding and general business acumen. While this might not prevent the project from being a success, it does mean the project is unprepared for negotiations with publishers and investors, and possible copyright infringements by dishonest team members either stealing work, or plagiarism.
Check the legal entities listed as the parties on the NDA. Parties will be asked to provide postal addresses and emails to establish the legal relationship and for the serving of legal notices in the event of a breach of the NDA. Use Google and verify the address. This is very important, especially if you are asked to provide examples of your work that you haven't released into the public domain. It's a small probability the project is a scam, but you need some recourse if it is. Make sure the country of applicable law respects established intellectual property laws, and supports the digital signing/exchange of contracts. Finally, and NDA should be balanced and treat both parties equally.
During initial discussions, you should raise the subject of the Collaboration Contract. If the Project Lead says they don't have one, the legal alarm bell should start ringing once again, and it's probably best to walk away if they cannot provide one. If the project does have one, in particular you are looking for clauses referring to share of profits, termination, and copyright ownership. The contract should clearly explain your entitlement to any share of profits, and how the figure is derived. Familiarise yourself with the difference between gross and net, and what costs are allowable as deductions. Attention needs to be paid to what happens to your entitlement if the contract is terminated. It's reasonable for contracts to require the copyright in the work you produce to be vested wholly in the company running the project. However, they should also include a clause where copyright ownership reverts back to you if the project is cancelled, and what constitutes project cancellation.
Other points for discussion should include time tracking and communication. Any decent project manager will already have mentioned this during discussions and you shouldn't need to be the one asking the questions.
The final stage of courtship often involves an appraisal of your skills. Typically this will consist of a short assignment lasting no more than a day or two. Don't be offended if you are an experienced professional. It's merely to validate your skills; not everyone is as honest as you!
If you've gotten this far, congratulations, you're on your first collaboration project with a good chance of success. To give you some piece of mind while you are hard at work, it's worth familiarising yourself with what makes a good Project Lead, and reasons why projects fail by reading on.
Recruiting A Team
The Right Stuff
Pause for a moment, and ask yourself:
• Have I developed one or more games on my own?
• Do I have any project management experience?
• Do I have any experience leading a multi-disciplinary team managing people of all ages?
• Do I have good people skills?
• Do I have good written skills?
• Do I have any legal experience, or a friend who is a legal professional?
• Do I have excellent art, programming, audio or writing skills, and not just ideas?
• Do I have a history of completing projects that I begin?
• Am I self-motivated and regularly take the initiative?
• Have I always been the natural leader to emerge in group activities?
• Am I credible as a Project Lead?
These are all questions to which you need to feel comfortable with your answers if you are to stand the greatest chance of success. If you've never developed a game before, possess limited skills, have just downloaded the free edition of some game development software and believe you can deliver the next WOW, then you're really not ready to be leading a team. I strongly advise you join an existing team and gain experience and credibility first.
Have I developed one or more games on my own?
It's not always possible to develop games by yourself, especially if you aren't a programmer. If that's the case, consider other ways to demonstrate your skills. Artists can learn or borrow basic scripts to piece together a small demo, or post a YouTube video. While not impossible, it's rare that projects are run by the "sound guy" or the writer, unless they have secondary skills in art or programming.
Do I have any project management experience?
No-one is saying you have to be a qualified professional project manager to lead a collaboration project. That said, many Producers at large studios are exactly that. Project Management is the technical discipline of planning, organizing, leading and controlling the resources on the project. Project Managers are some of the highest paid team members in IT, and there's a reason for it. It's the slightly boring predictability they bring to a project. If you don't have any experience, at the very least read a book on project management if you are serious about recruiting a team. While it won't give you experience in problem solving and conflict resolution, it will give you the basics.
Do I have any experience leading a multi-disciplinary team managing people of all ages and nationality?
Having no understanding of the other disciplines outside your skill domain is going to make communication, problem solving and project planning rather difficult. The ability to converse with the specialists in your team in their own technical language helps projects run smoothly. In fact, having a deep familiarity with multiple disciplines will give you the natural authority required in a Project Lead, and team mates will more readily follow you. Take some time to step into the roles of others, learn to use the tools they use, and read the same articles they do to learn the lingo.
Do I have good people skills?
Do you really have strong people skills? Be ruthless with yourself; having friends doesn't count. Ask yourself how successful am I at interacting with colleagues and people I don't know very well, both individually and in meetings? Am I confident? Am I able to remain calm under pressure or do I get stressed easily? Am I considered by others to be charismatic? Am I able to empathise with someone even if I don't share their opinion? Unfortunately these are some of the hardest skills to acquire as we spend our lifetime learning them. The more interpersonal skills you possess, the easier it will be to steer your team to success.
Do I have good written skills?
Needless to say as Project Lead you'll need good written skills. It's your responsibility to author, review, update and publish all documentation. That begins with the preparation of the Game Design Document ("GDD") which clearly communicates the project vision, and provides reference for when the project runs the risk of scope drift. Organizational emails, promotional emails, team position adverts, voice over scripts, asset lists, creative briefs; the list of documentation grows quickly. Poor spelling and grammar will only do harm.
Do I have any legal experience, or a friend who is a legal professional?
If you've never had exposure to commercial contracts before, and don't have a friend who is a legal professional, you run the risk of leaving the project exposed to all sorts of risk, and having a team that doesn't know where they stand. Having professionally prepared legal contracts is going to help your project stand out in the sea of projects that lack them, adding credibility at the same time.
Do I have excellent art, programming, audio or writing skills, and not just ideas?
All too often as members of the game development community we read recruitment posts from people who lack specific development skills such as programming, art, audio or writing, professing instead to be the equally important "ideas" guy. Inevitably the flaming begins and the postee sent packing. I'll be controversial and state that ideas are cheap. Even with the best ideas in the world, once the GDD is completed, what value does the ideas person add to the project? Arguably none, unless they have much more useful secondary skills for example in script writing or business administration. You are far more likely to succeed as Project Lead if you have one or more of the main game development skills to support your ideas.
Do I have a history of completing projects that I begin?
Am I self-motivated and regularly take the initiative?
Have I always been the natural leader to emerge in group activities?
Being Project Lead means having the strongest will on the team. When times are at their most challenging, that's when you'll need to dig deep into your reserves to muster the enthusiasm to drive forward a stalled project. Having a history of seeing projects through to their conclusion and not quitting when the going gets tough will give you credibility, and a mandate to lead.
By now you should have a good idea of the qualities and skills required of a Project Lead. If you've answered positively to all these points, chances are you have credibility.
Failing to prepare before recruiting is one of the most common mistakes we see in collaboration forums. If you don't invest any time in preparation, you can't expect talented collaborators to take your project seriously.
Preparation involves some or all of the following:
• A thorough GDD including concept art if you are an artist, or reference art
• Incorporating or setting up a legal business entity to own the project
• Writing an NDA and Collaboration Agreement.
• Preparing an initial demo or video and screenshots
I'd suggest a minimum of 80 hours effort. For Folk Tale, I prepared all of the above over the course of two months working at it full-time.
Identifying The Skills Required
Completing the GDD will help you prepare a project plan identifying the task assignments that your team will need to complete. While some roles are obvious, there are other roles that are sometimes forgotten. The list below isn't exhaustive, for example roles such as Lighting Artists are ommitted. Given the nature of indie collaborations, it is very common for an individual to fill several roles.
The Project Lead coordinates all the other team members, acting as internal producer. On collaborations it is typical for them to fill the project management role, and one specialist development role such as Lead Programmer or Art Director. Tasks include contract negotiations, facilitating and chairing team meetings, planning, organizing and controlling the resources on the project, assisting with quality assurance and beta programmes, and coordinating external outsourcing such as voice overs, localisation, motion capture and cut scene production.
If your game design includes story progression or voice over work, chances are you are going to need a writer. A writer can have a significant impact on the design of your game, often coming up with fresh ideas on directions to take the game. They will provide you with the backstory ( aka lore ), story progression, and vocal scripts. On Folk Tale, as Project Lead I work closely with Pete our writer to keep ideas within an achievable scope, and extend his work with production notes used by the artists and programmers.
The Lead or Senior Programmer is responsible for defining and controlling the code architecture, often pulling together all the assets provided by other members of the team and creating builds. They may also mentor junior members of the team, and audit code quality.
Increasingly visual effects in games require a specialist programmer versed in CG/HLSL code to produce effects such as character, skin, water, environmental effects as well as post-render effects such as SSAO and depth of field.
Controlling the overall look of the game to ensure consistency, the Art Director is either the most experienced artist on the team, or the Project Lead if they have prior artworking experience and are providing the project vision.
It is strongly recommended the Concept Artist be one of the first roles filled. Concept Artists take the creative brief provided in the GDD, combine it with their own ideas, and prepare illustrations from several different angles and magnified detail, which are then passed to the 3D and Texture Artists. Not having a Concept Artist on your team will impact your productivity, as not all Game Artists are filled with creative ideas. If you don't have a Concept Artist, the Project Lead or other Artists should prepare mood boards using reference art and key points.
3D Artist: Modeller
Modellers take creative briefs or concept art, and using applications such as Maya, 3dsMax, ZBrush and MudBox, create the untextured 3D geometry. They may also create the UV mapping ready for a Texture Artist, as well as preparing different levels of details and normal maps. 3D Artists often specialise in characters or environmental art.
A Technical Artist takes 3D models and binds them to bone structures (or skeletons) via a process known as skinning. More accomplished TAs will prepare rigging, attaching various helper systems to the skeleton to make animating easier. Inexperienced artists often confuse the two disciplines and have little or no experience in rigging.
Producing smooth animations is a specialist skill involving an understanding of character personality and attributes. Animators take the skinned/rigged models, the creative brief, and their creativity to bring objects to life. Animation is at the forefront of the player experience, and a good animator can really impact the perceived quality of your game.
Often from fine art backgrounds, Texture Artists use the industry-standard Photoshop application to prepare 2D textures that add colour to otherwise gray and lifeless 3D models. Beyond the standard diffuse maps, they may also prepare normal, specular, relief and emission maps either by hand or using tools such as CrazyBump.
Good UI and user experience are critical to a players enjoyment of your game. Good UI designers have an understanding of how players interact with games, and the most optimal yet natural feeling way of presenting sometimes deep and complex information in a manner that feels simple and intuitive. Game menus, health/power/ammo bars, minimaps, dialog windows, toolbars, and buttons all need to fit within a logical and consistent framework.
Special Effects Artist
A multi-disciplined role involving 3D modelling, texturing and animation, the special effects artist will work with the game's particle system to produce visual effects including magic, explosions, and environmental features such as waterfalls, rivers and lava. The often need to work closely with the Shader Programmer to produce the best results.
Often coupled with Sound Design (although they are different disciplines), the Musician's role is to accentuate the changing emotion a player experiences and support mood. With modern software it is now possible to achieve almost any desired sound, from 80s electronica to full-blown orchestral pieces.
Sound Designers work with existing sound effect libraries, and using devices such as the budget Zoom H4N and external microphones go out into the world (or studio) to capture or recreate unique sounds ranging from footsteps (aka Foley) to explosions to UI bleeps and swooshes.
Both an art and a science, a Content Designer will combine aesthetic layout, a technical understanding of performance bottlenecks, and a dash of ingenuity to ensure that your game not only runs as smoothly as possible, but is varied and entertaining to the player. Working with often limited assets to populate the game world, creativity is essential.
When you think your project is finished, chances are a significant amount of work remains to remove all the glitches and improve the gameplay. A QA Manager will organise the systematic testing of your game, and may liaise with the Project Lead to facilitate focus groups during development to ensure your game is on track to be fun and rewarding product.
On more commercially focused projects, a Business Manager will help you develop a network of potential investors and publishers, and handle external legal and accounting liaison. They may also invest seed capital at the start of the project to cover external costs.
Some may argue that the marketing role is not required at the start of a project. However, failing to research competition and the required features for a minimum viable product will reduce the chances of your game being a success. Marketing should commence at the earliest opportunity, developing a community and interest in your game. Website management, social networking, newsletters, adword campaigns and publicity take huge amounts of time, and make the difference between product success and failure. Effective marketing also makes recruiting talent easier, and you should start to receive enquiries from collaborators asking to join your team.
It's unlikely you're going to retain a legal professional on the team, instead outsourcing the drafting of contracts and seeking council during publisher/investor negotiations. But if you are serious about the need to protect intellectual property, as well as your team's interests, you must consider the legal requirements.
The Recruitment Advert
Having done the preparation, you're ready to advertise. The objectives of your advert should be to:
• Identify the project name and a brief outline
• Identify who you are, what skills and experience you have, and your role on the project
• Identify whether the project is commercial or for learning
• Identify the basis on which collaborators will get paid
• Identify the roles you are trying to fill and the experience you require
• Identify how long the project is expected to take
• Provide screenshots and a video of work in progress
• Provide a hosted demo if you have some programming ability
• Name other successful projects you have been involved with
• Provide a website address and preferred means of contact
Don't limit your options by posting to just one collaboration forum. Some forums are better than others depending on the positions you are looking to fill. Use common sense and Google to find them.
When candidates get in touch, make sure you reply to every one. Be courteous if they don't meet the required standard, identifying areas of strength and weakness and explaining why they aren't a good fit. There is never a reason to be impolite; doing so may lead to negative comments on the forums.
Explain the need for an NDA, and send the candidate a draft copy. Assuming your NDA is fair there shouldn't be an issue and having received signed copies you can start discussing the project and sharing the GDD.
Talk to the candidate over Skype. Voice and video is better than instant messaging, as it allows more of your senses to function in establishing a gut feel for if that person will be a good culture fit. Discuss their portfolios and explain the role you have in mind for them. Outline how the project will be managed, and be sure to give them ample opportunity for questions.
Assuming you are both happy, explain the need to complete a trial assignment to validate their skills. It's always good to explain that under the NDA they retain all rights to the work until they join the project. If they don't complete the assignment, you can't use the work and they retain the copyright. This should put the candidate's mind at ease if they had any fears about your project being a scam. You may also wish to provide a draft of the Collaboration Contract at this time in case it contains any show stoppers.
Agree a reasonable timeframe for the candidate to complete the trial assessment. Remember they may have other commitments meaning they can't start right away. Make it clear that completing the assignment by the agreed date is part of the assessment, as are regular progress updates. Follow up your meeting with a short email containing what you have discussed and agreed.
Assessment provides an opportunity to monitor ease of communication, the candidate's ability to honour commitments, and to validate their skills. Usually time wasters will miss your agreed deadline or suddenly go quiet. Unless a valid reason is given in good time, consider it a fail, and move on. Failing to provide updates means you can't establish that the candidate is actually submitting their own work. If this happens, use Google to search for the image.
This may all seem rather untrusting, but so long as you are transparent as to the reasons, genuine candidates won't have an issue with it.
Having successfully completed the assessment, provide the Collaboration Contract draft if you haven't already done so. While tempting to give the project company all the power, the best contracts are fair and address the needs of both parties. Listen to any feedback, and if you agree revise the contract.
Assuming any amendments are to the benefit of the collaborator and not the company, be sure to amend any outstanding contracts for current team members so everyone is subject to the same agreement.
Things That Can Go Wrong: Project Risks
Boredom and Motivation
On longer projects, boredom can be a real problem, and has a direct correlation with productivity. If your team members are bored, they'll find distraction elsewhere including joining other projects, and their productivity will plunge. On Folk Tale we try to minimize this risk by varying the assignments as much as possible, and providing ample breaks.
The arrival of a newborn, the death of a loved one, a relationship split, basically anything that happens in normal life will at some point impact your project, and of course will take higher priority. In most cases, your team mate just needs some time off, and will return to the project when things calm down. In rare cases it will involve a team member having to leave the project. Empathise with your team mate's situation, and give them space and time. You can't do anything to influence the outcome, so just be supportive. An occasional instant message to ask them how they are doing will be appreciated, but don't use it as an opportunity to discuss the project unless instigated by the team member.
The only real way to mitigate against these sorts of risks are to have several team members able to take over the work of another. Common tools and file formats are helpful.
We've not encountered it on Folk Tale, and thankfully as a recruiter I've become fairly successful at ensuring candidates will be a good culture fit. Earlier in my career though, I made some poor calls that resulted in culture conflict, resulting in one team member being asked to leave. Other cases may we where two equally qualified specialists strongly disagree over the best way forward. In this situation the Project Lead needs to step in and mediate towards an acceptable resolution. We've also reduced the risk of conflict by giving clear responsibilities to each team member that don't overlap to prevent any stepping on toes.
Failure To Perform
It's very possible for a team member to pass assessment and then decline into non-performance or miss quality standards. In this instance, it's best to have a one-to-one chat with the non-performing team member to understand why it is happening and how it can be corrected. If performance doesn't improve, discuss the situation with the team (while respecting any privacy needs of the affected member), and reach a decision on whether that team member should be let go.
Poor Management and Communication / Lack Of Commitment
Your Project Lead is just as accountable as any other member of the project. If they aren't performing, try to encourage them and provide advice on what the needs of the team are to function effectively. Removing a Project Lead can be difficult, which is why it is essential they have secondary skills such as programming or artwork to fall back on so they can continue on the project but hand over the reins to better management. This is why it is critical as a collaborator to establish the credibility of the Project Lead before you join the project.
A Project Lead should be available online on instance messaging as much as possible. The more time zones spanned, the longer the Project Lead needs to be online for. Let your team know if you are going offline for an extended period (e.g. holiday) so they aren't worried where you are. And make sure you reply to emails in a timely manner. There's nothing worse than a team member wanting to work but being held up because the Project Lead isn't available to answer questions.
Lack Of Project Plan / Scope Creep
Constantly changing goal posts and work assignments can wreak havoc on a project. Team members need to know the plan and be able to measure progress against that plan to feel comfortable that are moving towards an achievable goal. Discuss any major scope changes as a team first and secure their involvement in any new plan.
When adding new features, consider if it is really necessary to implement them during the current development iteration. It is often better to refer to the GDD and implement the original plan, and push back on new features until later iterations.
Some expectations often stretch the boundaries of what is realistically possible. Too few resources, too little time, and inadequate skills can mean a project will never be finished. Only by completing a GDD and defining the work tasks required to complete a project are you able to know the level of resourcing and skills required. It's a simple equation that nearly every MMO recruitment thread fails to grasp.
Too Many Cooks
There's an ideal size for a global collaboration project of around 5-10 people. Any larger than that and managing the project will become a real headache, not to mention the risk of conflict. Any fewer, and you might not have all the skills required to deliver a quality product.
If the Project Lead's primary source of income is unstable - for example infrequent freelancing - or they started the job during a period of unemployment, there's a real risk that the need for income will take priority to the point that may cancel the project to focus on job hunting or a new post. Ask the difficult questions before joining a project. A project continuity plan can help a team prepare for the worst.
Completing a project is a huge milestone, but it's by no means the end. Even the best products can fail without the right marketing, and marketing should begin on day one with the preparation of a marketing plan. A marketing plan can impact the way you develop, especially if you need high resolution renders for posters, box art, website and teaser videos. It also provides as a useful notepad of ideas and media contacts you'll gain as development progresses. A little competitor SWOT review will also help you gain a good idea of what players expect from the type of game you plan to make.
Collaborating with like minded professionals is a rewarding experience, and one I wholeheartedly recommend if it is well organised and executed. Hopefully this article will go some way to improving the quality of future collaboration recruitment pitches, while helping game developers find a home in a worthy project. If you have any questions about this article, or Folk Tale, Simon Dean can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.