Final Form Games, Year One: WHERE WE’RE AT

Wed, June 30, 2010 -- 17:49 UTC

On July 1st, a mere earth-rotation from now, Final Form Games will celebrate its very first birthday. To commemorate this milestone, we decided to break our customary silence to talk about where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

finalform_officepanorama

Day one.

WHERE WE ARE AT
or
THREE FACTS WE HANG OUR HATS UPON:

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Tim, hacking the encryptions. And yes, he is using three mice at the same time in this photo.

ONE: For prototyping, our goal/dream was to write games in a way that was as rapid, straightforward, and fun as tools like Flash.  Tim told us he had a vision, and that though the path would be a risky one, he knew it would take us where we wanted to go. When Tim finally emerged from his 5-month journey into code, drenched in gore and using a walking-stick that appeared to have been hewn from the claw of some long-forgotten subterranean insect, we looked upon the spoils and knew that we had found what we were looking for.

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Hal, playing our game in the Traditional Manner.

TWO: We realized that we needed two programmers, and had but one. This led to a conversation that basically went like this:

Tim: “Hal, we’re going to need you to become a programmer now.”

Hal: “Okay.”

And so he did.  It’s easy to say, but much harder to imagine actually doing: Hal bootstrapped himself the bulk of the distance between occasional-web-tinkerer and full-blown-gameplay-programmer in less than a year.  Working closely with Tim brought him the rest of the way there, and now almost all of our actual gamecode is the result of Hal’s skilled handiwork.

THREE: People routinely compare our art to the art in Metal Slug. The rest of Mike’s life is more or less guaranteed to be downhill.

ALSO!
or
OTHER TRUE FACTS THAT WARM OUR HEARTS WHEN ALL IS COLD AND DARK:

- We are active members of the small-but-scrappy Philadelphia game developer community, and are thrilled to be a part of its establishment and continued growth.

Our playtests... are getting a little crazy.

Our playtests... are getting a little crazy.

- We’ve given a few talks and round-tables about what we do at some local colleges and universities, along with our BFFs over at Cipher Prime and Merit. We’ve enjoyed dipping our toes into these kinds of education initiatives, and hope to wade in much deeper during the coming year.

Crunch dinner, courtesy Hal's then-fiancée-now-wife Jenn.

Crunch-time dinner, courtesy Hal's then-fiancée-now-wife Jenn. It was delicious. And TIMELY!

- Our friends and family have been hugely supportive of our endeavor, contributing everything from kind words to sage advice to crunch-time donuts. Two particular people (one of whom was Mike/Tim’s mother) went so far as to teach themselves how to pixel, and contributed much-needed art assets during our darkest hour.

- Finally: we are doing what we came here to do. We are spending our days making games of our own devising, learning all we can, and enjoying it ever so much. Year One was a great, tumultuous adventure. Join us on our birthday tomorrow, and we’ll tell you about why we’re so excited about Year Two.


Final Form Games, Year One: WHERE WE’VE BEEN

Tue, June 29, 2010 -- 23:19 UTC

On July 1st, a scant two days from now, Final Form Games will be one year old! To celebrate, we decided to bring our (fiercely!) loyal readership up to speed on where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

But what about right now, you ask? What is Final Form working on right this second? When will I finally see evidence that anything from that timeline up there is actually true?

Well… it is our birthday coming up…


Business Time (Part II)

by Tim
Fri, August 28, 2009 -- 18:16 UTC

This is the second installment of what I suspect will become a weekly series of articles on our adventures in starting our own company. If you haven’t read the last one, you might want to check it out here. Today’s topic is: The Partnership Agreement.

As you most likely know, incorporating is all about creating a collective legal body that represents your business, which can be convenient for a number of reasons. For one, this entity can acquire and own property, and can transfer it to other people. Secondly, it can represent a sort of a firewall against debt and lawsuits; a straw man that will burn in effigy for your mistakes. Lastly, it is immortal, in that it endures even when those that created it have passed on. You may have noticed that some of these qualities are shared by golems, robots, voodoo zombies, and Giant Robo. This is because they, too, are mindless automatons that possess no soul of their own*. They are surrogates that can only be operated by proxy.

You and your corporation!

You and your corporation!

When you incorporate, you are given your very own legal entity that you can use to do business with the world at large. The tricky question is who gets to control it, and under what circumstances. The answer lies in the Partnership Agreement, which is the subject of today’s post. When you found the company, you establish a contractual set of rules that govern the inner-workings of the corporation. These rules must be arrived-upon in advance, to resolve any number of hypothetical future disasters. Some examples of the kinds of questions the partnership agreement should attempt to answer:

  • When making major decisions, how should they be decided? An executive decision-maker? A vote? Consensus?
  • What happens when a new parter joins the company?
  • When the company makes money, who gets it, and how much?
  • Who decides what the company does and doesn’t spend its money on?
  • If someone puts more money in, should they get more money out, or get their money back first?
  • If someone leaves the company, do they get to take their contributions with them?
  • If someone dies or becomes permanently disabled, what happens to their share in the company?
  • What happens if someone stops showing up to work, or gets another job?
  • Involuntary termination: What happens if someone starts stealing from the company, commits a felony, goes insane (like, clinically insane)?
  • If a third party wants to buy someone’s share in the company, is that allowed?
  • If the sale is allowed, does that person become a decision-maker, or just a money-maker?

It took us a while to come to agreement on the answers that best matched our vision of the company. In particular, we opted for decision-by-consensus for all major decisions, such as bringing on a new partner, selling the company, etc… We also decided on an even-split on profits, with equal initial investment. Suffice to say, you will want to find a lawyer with whom you can discuss the best solutions people have found to answering these questions. The implications of these decisions are very serious, and there are some popular answers that do not play nice with consensus-run organizations.

It was interesting, having the three of us and our lawyer in a room, talking about the various common nightmare scenarios that come up when you set out to share decision-making power with other human beings whose vision, needs, and goals can never fully line up with your own. Looking around the room, you must force yourself to imagine how those that you most trust might some day be standing on the other side of a line you drew together in the sand. I imagine that this is similar to what it feels like to draft a pre-nuptial agreement. It was sobering, and it is my hope that I will never come face-to-face with the scenarios we so carefully shielded ourselves against in that document. Still, one cannot help but wonder what a post like this looks like when you return to it years later.

After a few serious meetings, we arrived at answers we were willing to stand by, with our lawyer taking on the task of drafting it into a legal document. It took a while to figure it all out, but there’s clearly a great deal of value in coming to an up-front legal agreement regarding your basic management and ownership assumptions. Going through this process showed us that there are a number of problems that are very hard to resolve if you do not decide on the answers to them in advance. That’s it for this installment, check in next week for Part III!

* = Except for Robo, who posesses a soul and learned long ago how to love.


How We Met

by Mike
Wed, August 26, 2009 -- 19:29 UTC

At some point in their history, companies of any sort seem to depend on a significant amount of time spent sitting down and discussing Matters Of Importance. Final Form is no different: we have meetings every day. However, in the early days of furtive after-work gatherings and secret wikis, they were more than just a way to share information and make decisions.  Meetings were hugely motivational to us, and played a pivotal role in keeping the whole enterprise moving on the steep up-slopes of our first few years. Today’s post is going to ramble a bit about how we got those conversations to happen, make the occasional jest, omit plenty of crucial details, and hint at some lessons learned without actually making them explicit. Now: come away with me!

Final Form took shape the way most collaborative endeavors do: in fits and starts. We all shared a desire to make games together, but the details of how and when that would happen were hand-wavey to say the least. At the beginning, we’d make time for occasional bursts of productivity, and have ad-hoc group discussions whenever the stars aligned, but it wasn’t until somewhere around the summer of ’07 that we committed to meeting on a weekly basis. That decision was an encouraging indicator of how serious we actually were about the whole enterprise, but it was also a logistical challenge that taught us quite a bit about how we’d function as a company.

We did several experiments with our schedules, particularly with our willingness to physically transport ourselves any more than 10 feet from bed on a weekend morning. As it turned out, our ability to lurch into action after a Friday-night bender greatly exceeded our expectations, and meetings on Saturday mornings became the routine. These were held in person at first (at one of our houses) and then, during the one-year rolling transition from California to Pennsylvania, via some combination of in-person (for whoever had that option) and a rotating cast of tools including Skype, GChat, a wiki site, Google Docs, a dev blog, iPhone 3-way calling, and cellphones set to “speakerphone” mode. Under duress, we would chain these techniques into multi-hit combos like “cellphone set to speakerphone mode and then held up to a built-in laptop microphone that’s transmitting via Skype,” and other fun mash-ups with myriad (and hilarious) side-effects*.  Most meetings were between one and two hours long. Ideally, these meetings were followed by a sandwichcraft master-class demo at Gregoire.

The meeting finish line.

The meeting finish line.

We learned some valuable stuff by doing this.

The obvious:

    Spock collaborating hella efficiently.

    Spock collaborating hella efficiently

  • When it comes to a multidisciplinary discussion of the intricacies of videogame development, face-to-face conversation is intuitively easier, higher-bandwidth, and (by virtue of that bandwidth) tends to be higher efficiency than basically any other mode of communication that isn’t a Vulcan mind-meld.
  • When you only touch base once a week, Efficiency = Good. Two hours can become six in the blink of an eye when you have a week of solo time to cover per person.
  • Our commitment to the whole idea was tested by the intrusion of our real jobs and lives into what was essentially a glorified side project. When crunch time for work snatched one of us away like a thief in the night, the other two had to keep meeting and sustain momentum while that person was grappling with the forces of evil. Once that person emerged, often a month or two later, having the other two standing right there to say “we’re still here, here’s what’s been going on” went a long, long way towards convincing each other that we were all in it to win it. Tim often used to say that he hoped for a company where every single person was crazy enough to finish the project alone if wild circumstances robbed them of their compatriots. Overcoming these challenges didn’t just keep the ball rolling: it also showed us we were the right kind of crazy.
  • Google Docs is pretty neato! It provided us with a very good method for collaborating and sharing significant quantities of information, all while remaining more or less in sync over large (3000+ mile) distances.
  • Gregoire makes a rude sandwich. Possibly the rudest.

The not-so-obvious:

  • As neato as it is, Google Docs has some pretty for-real limitations that caused headaches for us when the difference between Almost Real-Time and Actually Real-Time began to matter. As Tim pithily tweeted last week, “GDocs is beautiful tease who offers you the things you’ve been dreaming of, but she will let you down once things get serious.” We suspect/hope that within the next year or two, Google Wave will be perched atop a throne fashioned from the skulls of 1st- and 2nd-gen web 2.0 apps, and that the befouled remains of the entire Google Docs suite will be providing little more than lumbar support to the tool they tried and failed to be.
  • If your roommates use bittorrent on a communal network connection (to share recipes, say), they probably A) generally start it running late at night and B) aren’t awake early enough on Saturday to respond when you wonder aloud why someone is attempting to download the EGI (Entire Goddamn Internet). If this happens to you, kiss your Skype session goodbye.
  • Being forced to communicate through something sub-optimal (from an efficiency standpoint) exerted a lot of pressure on us to increase our efficiency in the areas we could control. We started coming to meetings with more material in a presentable form, often sending the materials out via email hours or even days before the meeting itself. Regimented meeting durations, with each minute of each section budgeted and accounted for, became the norm. We took notes while other people were talking, to make sure we didn’t squander time interrupting a coherent thought out of fear that we’d forget what we wanted to say. We established rotating jobs like Stenographer and Timer, to smooth out transitions between meeting sections and keep people accountable for how long they talked. We started reviewing minutes, to remind ourselves of what we’d already spent time discussing. Finally, we postmortemed every meeting in order to revise and optimize our meeting process (more on that in our inevitable Postmortems Are Civilization post). This was particularly important in a dynamic environment where the location, participants, and available communication tools were changing meeting-to-meeting: one process couldn’t fit all. We got very good at the agile application of traditional meeting techniques, simply as a result of being forced through the crucible of serious inconvenience.

For the results-oriented among you, we’re sadly not quite ready to throw down some definitive takeaways from the story so far. The transition into daily in-person meetings is still underway, you see, and who knows where those new data points will lead us? We’ll probably get into it in some eventual Part 2. In the meantime, we welcome you to vigorously defend Google Docs’ honor (or bemoan the time you’ve wasted in meetings) in the comments.

* The on-board microphone on the Axiotron Modbook is situated flush against the cooling fan for the whole computer, which results in your friends on the other end occasionally interrupting the conversation to politely ask if you’re calling from the interior of a jet engine, or perhaps a combine harvester.


Business Time (Part I)

by Tim
Wed, August 19, 2009 -- 14:59 UTC

Well, here we are, our webpage is finally live. It’s taken longer than expected getting from “let’s start this party!” to “man, this is a sweet party!”, so I thought it might be interesting to share some of the unexpected hurdles we’ve bumped into along the way. Particularly, those pertaining to Starting A Business. When I inquired with friends who had trod this path before me, they shared their Great Lessons – sage words of wisdom earned at a great cost. Unfortunately, because I did not at the time possess a clear outline of the overall shape of what was to come, these bits of widsom were of little immediate value to me. I hoped that some day they would become useful, like in the movies when a bullet is stopped by a seemingly-worthless trinket the main character keeps on a chain around his neck.

Given our lack of clarity on the issue, and because we happen to work in an office teeming with talented lawyers, the first thing we did when we hit the ground was find a lawyer and start talking about exactly what steps must be taken to start a game development business in Philadelphia. It turns out it is at once easier and more difficult than we had imagined. Let’s start with the easy part: First we needed to decide what kind of corporation we wanted. There were several options on the table, but we quickly whittled it down to either an LLC or S-Corp. The differences between the two are subtle, and we talked for a while about the tax and liability implications. Because it is such a complex optimization space, it’s hard to confidently recommend anything to anyone. That being said, we decided on an LLC for now, with the option for an S-Corp election if and when we establish some cash flow. This seemed right for a situation where all partners are supporting themselves out-of-pocket, startup costs are low, and losses are expected for at least the first year.

The next question was where we should incorporate. Apparently, there is something of a mythos surrounding ‘Delaware Corporations‘, a mark of priviledge and prestige in the business world. Companies sometimes even append it like a title, e.g. “Columbian Chemicals Company (a Delaware Corporation)”. According to our friends in the business world, this made a lot of sense a few decades ago because of Delaware’s tax incentives. However, as time went on, other states figured out why everyone was incorporating in Delaware. Hungry for that tax revenue, they adopted competetive incentives, and the free market corrected itself. So, given that there was no obvious advantage to incorporating out-of-state, and the massive headache of dealing with twice as many state tax bureaus, we decided to go with Pennsylvania after all.

delaware

Delaware. Where the corporations come from.

A quick aside – apparently, Philadelphia is working with a group called the Videogame Growth Initiative to establish incentives for incoming game developers and publishers. Given that Philly recently decided to join California for an old-fashioned budget crisis, it seems unlikely that any such investments are likely to pass in the short-term. Still, it suggests that such incentives are starting to crop up in less-well-known locations, and that video game startups may actually do well to look outside of CA when deciding where to set up shop.

But enough about Philly. Once we finished officially incorporating (there is a form and a fee) and received our tax ID (which is like the SSN of a business), we were able to set up our company bank account. Each of us poured an equal part to cover startup costs (office equipment, software, hardware, etc…), and we all got fancy-looking bank cards. In this process, I learned an amusing fact: when bankers hear that you are starting a business, they get Excited. Coming from a world of personal finance limited to free checking that comes with a free casserole dish, it was jarring to see the curtain pulled back, and realize how much more interested banks are in ‘helping you out’ when you are talking about a business account. And by helping you out, of course, I mean selling you services that make no sense for a tiny three-man company. So, we thanked them for their enthusiasm and promised we would talk more if/when we see a positive number on our balance sheet.

Anyways, That just about wraps up this first installment. I’d love to hear any other indie devs’ experience with this – the comment section awaits you! Next time: The Hard Part.