Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Tale of 54 Game Jams: Presentation & Panel

Presentation Night
Recently the team and I visited our project’s “alma matar”, the DC Chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and gave a presentation on what it was like to develop Tumbleweed Express over the course of 54 Game Jams. The presentation, available on SlideShare, was high-level and designed to provide the audience with an overview of the many events that occurred during the project’s 4.5 year history; I dare to say that the presentation went fairly well.

Matthew Mauriello presents an overview of
the team's development process and history
After the presentation, several members of the team were on hand for an open panel discussion and the audience did not disappoint. Questions ranged from how we handled team members various creative ideas, how we worked together with so many team members, and what each of us thought was the most challenging part of the process. We also discussed how we hired other developers (e.g., artists, programmers) and how we unfortunately did not really consider recruiting people with other valuable skills (e.g., marketing), which was a huge mistake. We promoted the idea that the game jam model was very good for development, communication, and balancing our commitments; however, we also had to mention that at various points maturing the project required members of the team to put in more time than one weekend a month which included committing to daily updates when external deadlines were looming. Probably the most important thing we discussed was the importance of having these external deadlines and how production suffered when we failed to schedule these milestones into our development timeline.

Team members (L-R) Jacob Clayman, Matthew Mauriello, David To, and David Weiss
participate in a panel discussion about the challenges faced and successes achieved during the project
Avoiding Derailment and Splitting the Loot
The panel continued through “Last Call” and even outside the venue after the event was officially over. Walking back to my car, another indie developer asked me an important question: now that we have released our game on Steam, how does our team handle the money? Obviously, this is a tough question and the developer explained to me that he had been unable to find a satisfying answer. After a brief discussion this developer encouraged me to write a blogpost on the subject, but unfortunately, there isn’t all that much tell from our team’s perspective.

We believed that it was important to establish with the team some kind of agreement that detailed the expected commitments from each member and the expected rewards for that commitment. Our agreement included how we handled disputes, what happened when a team member did not meet their commitments, and provided team members with points where they could opt-out of the project and still receive credit for their work. This might seem unnecessary in the beginning of a project and indeed it was a full year before we established a formal agreement, but at many points in our project having this agreement was (and remains) valuable with respect to the continued health of the team.

Every year team members were offered a one year contract. If they completed the contract then they earned a single immutable share in the game’s future profits and expenses (assuming there would be any). Every active member (i.e., those with an active contract) received a vote in any decisions being made by the team during the course of that year. If there was an important issue that couldn’t be resolved by discussion then a vote could be called by any active team member. Finally, any vote on important decision needed a 2/3rds majority vote to go through. While this process wasn’t perfect, it did allow our team to handle relatively minor issues that came up during the years that we have been working on the project. Additionally, having this sort of agreement worked out and going through the process for establishing an LLC did allow us to have concrete discussions with other developers about joining the team which may have contributed to our success when it came to hiring new people when others had left the team. Finally, when we released the game shares became locked.

What’s Next.
The other big question we get asked is: what’s next? And, this is an extremely difficult question to answer at the moment as were still answering this for ourselves. I can say for certain that development on and support for Tumbleweed Express will continue for a time. Over the next year a few new features are likely to come out along with bug and user experience fixes. I can also say that we are beginning to reinvestigate some of the experimental content that we dropped after our Kickstarter campaign (e.g., VR Support); however, it is really too early to tell if any of these experiments will yield content that reaches the current quality standard set by the product that is now available on Steam. I can tell you that some of the things we were working on at our last game jam (#54) were exciting and I am really hoping to be able to share details with you all in the near future. Finally, another option we are considering is starting a brand new project (or projects) though at this time all I can say on that is: stay tuned!