Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Vapourware? You Decide.

I'm taking a risk on this one. Some time ago, I was contacted by a company and entered into discussion on a project. From the go I thought it was a bit too good to be true, but that's for you to decide. This blog is all about a candid insight into development and my career, and the world's full of fun people like those in this story, so I want to share it.

I'm taking two big risks here. First, I'm going to be publishing the representative (let's call him Jim) of the company in question's correspondance in part. He may not like that. More importantly, it's arguably unprofessional to do so. 

Let me make it clear now that I do not break NDAs. The details shared here are either unrelated to game content or they are very broad descriptions that the developer was happy to provide outside of NDA. I consider my clients' privacy paramount, and though this project didn't get as far as that, I will not be naming any names.

So, first off, Jim's original email. The email contained no restrictions regarding reproduction.

My name is [Jim]; I am the director of [the company]. My team and I have been in production of a demo for a next generation game, unique in style, gameplay and in story. It is not an RPG nor an MMO but something completely different. It has gained great interest inside the industry and has many investors, publishers and other developers very interested. We have sponsorship agreements with [some big companies]. [Some other big companies] are among the many game publishers which have expressed their interest in this project. We have varied talent working on the project, artists from [some very big movie studios].
Immediate alarm bells, right? It's not an RPG nor an MMO? Sounds like it's going to be an MMORPG that never happens. The list of interesated parties is far, far, far too good to be true.
[A guy famous for something really quite dubious] acts as business adviser and takes great interest in the project, helping put together a structured business plan. We have had a $53,000+ sponsorship from [a tools company] this software has greatly increased the productivity of the project.
The demo only has three months left in development. For these last three months we are looking to recruit an extra 20-30 developers for the development team, so we can show off the full potential of this remarkable game.
My suspicion is that the sponsorship may have been in the form of free software, but that's just conjecture.
I'm approaching you, requesting, that you join us for the last three months as a story writer. I have seen your site and believe you are talented. After signing NDA agreements further details on the project can be explained to you. If you do join us, and all goes well, when we move in-house you will be offered a full-time position working with [the company]on the actual game development of 180-220 people (Flights and relocation can be discussed, etc). If you believe it would be too difficult to relocate, but are still willing to help out for these last three months you'll be given a letter of recommendation and compensation for the work you have produced. Also upon joining the demo development team you will be given a share in the company (initially small, but will grow as the company develops).
So, it's free work. It turned out later the share in the company is a legal thing to make the contract more binding.
After this final three months of development I have arranged to visit 13 different game publishers and investors to pitch the demo we have created. Half the games out there started off the same way we have, without you and the other people developing on the demo it would not be possible, I ask only three months (part time) to help out on this revolutionary project. Thank you.

Kind Regards,

A big part of me at this stage wanted (and still wants) to believe him. While it's not true half the commercial games out there start off like this, it is true some brilliant ones have done, and it's people like Jim with a dream and some balls that makes that happen.

I got in touch and we had some lengthy conversations on Skype. He was smooth talker, he really sounded like he knew his stuff: contracts, patents, publishing contacts, a big team... and for a moment he had me going. I will happily work for free on a passionate indie project if it's something really exciting that I can invest in.

Then we got past the NDA and he started describing the game. I wish I could share some of the details, but I'm trying to keep this all legal. Suffice it to say, the first sentence was along the lines of, "Okay, so if you want to call it an MMO or an RPG, you can," and any pushing on my part for solid details rearding mechanics resulted in long winded descriptions of character classes and special abilities.

Then there was the contract. I understand the need for a contract even on amateur stuff because it saves problems when you do go commercial and someone starts claiming they own half your game. This one was different. Jim openly admitted he'd spent most of the budget so far on legal expenses, and it showed. Despite having signed an NDA I was asked to sign the contract before I could take a look an any in-game assets or see detailed design documentation regarding the top secret central mechanic that would prove this game was something new and exciting.

That was the end of the line for me, but not for the story.

The sort of big names he was throwing around as interested publishers, and the sort of people he was approaching to work on the project, it was inevitable someone somwhere would know someone at one of the publishers. That was me. I checked in with someone at what is probably one of the most well known publishers in the industry - a publisher with whom Jim had been discussing financing. They'd never heard of him. Maybe he got lost in the post somewhere.

Last I heard, Jim's three month deadline expired some time ago, and he'd begun approaching universities for volunteer developers.

More than anything, I love Jim's gaul. People with a vision, the ability to bring a team together and to find inventive routes to publishing are what creative industries need. The reason I pursued the project at all was because I'm in love with the idea of this all being genuine and being proved wrong a year from now when Jim's the next big thing and I've soiled my lifetime employment opportunities with a huge new developer.

What these project really need, though, is the ability to develop a realistic and successful project off the back of all that - otherwise you end up here. What do you think?


  1. Too harsh? Too easy?

    More than anything I hope this discussion proves interesting, and does so without killing my career.

    I'm sure anyone who's been in the industry for a while receives these sorts of mails every so often, what are your stories?

  2. As a screenwriter, this feels incredibly, eerily familiar.

    Jim sounds like a guy with a marketing degree who has completely swallowed the American dream that hard work and bullshit will carry you anywhere you want to go. I doubt you'll ever hear from or about Jim again.

  3. Who has never met someone that was full of shit and aims too high? this is a bubble world he lives in.
    You can respectfully listen to what they got to say and then move along, following them is following a Don Quixote and his quest.