The NZ Game Developers Conference keynote speaker Dave Brevik began the day by cramming 20 years of experience into 20 minutes as he delivered his nine-point plan for creating a successful (game) company.
Currently President and Chief Operating Officer of Gazillion Games, holder of the Marvel Heroes, Brevik is arguably best-known as a co-founder of game studio Blizzard North and for his work on designing and programming the enormously-successful Diablo and Diablo 2 games.
The evening before his keynote, he and LA-based entertainment lawyer David Rosenbaum presented a seminar on Hollywood & Interactive IP.
On Friday morning he was equally succinct.
#1 Build something you believe in
And don’t stop until you get there, he advised, noting that his Massively successful Diablo had been a passion project since he’d been in high school.
#2 Build something different
Don’t build something a bit different. Be Different with a capital D. There are enough rip-offs, clones and homages in the world already and – even if you’re tempted to add to the count – there’ll be someone somewhere already well down the road.
Brevik shared that in the early days of pitching Diablo, he was told by over 20 companies: RPGs are dead.
#3 Invest in the people
Know your own weaknesses and hire to complement. In the early days of one of his companies, everybody being considered for a position was interviewed by every present team member.
It was eventually going to become an unsustainable approach to HR, and Brevik’s wife being one of the applicants did nothing for its longevity.
Don’t hire generalists, or Jacks and Jill’s of many trades, was also part of the point. They’re attractive when you start out, but they’re not ideal long term.
“I can’t make PowerPoint slides,” Brevik noted, and the guy who does them was sick this week. But, generally, great people build great companies. So find great people.
#4 Create a fun place to work
It’s expensive to attract and recruit good people, and the personality of company comes from the leadership. Do what you need to do to retain the good guys.
Brevik cited an example of an early staff retreat at Blizzard where the teams of Blizzard North and South went to Mexico. 15 years on, nobody can remember the 10-hour
planning session we had on the first day, but “People still talk about the golf tournament we had on day two.”
#5 Listen, especially when you disagree
You should always pay attention because, sometimes, other opinions and perspectives are valid and useful.
Diablo started out as a turn-based game, something Brevik wanted because “I like the sweaty palms feeling of knowing my character will be deleted – yes, actually deleted – if I screw up.”
Six months in, there was a proposal from the team at Blizzard that it should be a “new-fangled real-time” game. Brevik resisted, and not only because of the amount of code that would have to be rewritten.
But, after a while, he accepted that it was the best thing to do for the game. And the rest, as they say, is history.
#6 It’s a marathon, not a sprint
World of Wacraft took seven years to make, with100+ people most of the time. Even with a team and project of that size it was important to be flexible.
Six months before the launch of Diablo, “We thought up Battle.net.”
The free gaming service, built into the game, was (not to take anything away from the quality of the original game) a major contributing factor to its early success – and was subsequently incorporated into other Blizzard games, World of Warcraft and Starcraft. In the sincerest form of flattery, it was imitated. Y several other companies.
#7 Plan conservatively
It will always, Brevik claimed, take twice as long and cost twice as much as predicted. (Those things go hand in hand, if one thins about it for a moment.)
So, have realistic expectations and plan sensibly. Despite recommendation #4 (Create a fun place to work), the fireman poles in the office, inhouse masseur and a private chef should probably come later in the plan.
#8 Stay focused
Blizzard made one game at a time.
Reinforcing the advice in #3 (Invest in your people) to hire people who were great at something, not OK at lots of things, Brevik suggested the same applied to the company as a whole. It was better to do one thing well than three things not.
And, finally …
#9 Provide great service
When Brevik’s present company, Gazillion, launched Marvel Heroes it wasn’t very well received.
“Quite frankly, it wasn’t very good,” he admitted. “We could have just moved on and started on the next thing.”
What they chose to do was engage, to open up dialogue with customers and address their concerns.
It proved to be an effective strategy, he claimed, noting that it turned a number of disgruntled customers into supporters and allowed the company to learn where it had gone wrong so it could both improve the game and (hopefully) avoid falling into the same holes again.
In the Q&A, Brevik was asked “What was the most horrific or painful thing you’ve done in trying to grow a company?”
“Shrinking it,” was his immediate response.
He joined Gazillion five years after it began, at which time it had seven projects on the go and none shipping. His task was to lead the company towards profit. Staying truew to his beliefs, he’d cut the number of most of the projects and personnel, and focused what was left in one direction.
“How do you learn new skills?” was one of a couple of questions (from a generation that’s never known life without internet) which were polite versions of “Hey, old man, what was it really like in the dark ages?”
“I keep playing, and reading,” Brevik said, “and try stretch the projects I’m working on. One of the reasons Marvel Heroes is free to play was so I could learn how that model worked.”
How did you get noticed (in the days before Facebook and twitter and IM)?
“I did work for hire,” Brevik explained, “and built a reputation for delivering on time and on budget, which was rare back then.”
But there were no magic bullets on offer. In essence, Brevik did good work, built a reputation and had a bit of luck along the way. One of those bits of luck, another survivor from the days before MTV, was in the audience waiting his turn to present.
Alex St John was Microsoft’s first Game Technology Evangelist in the 1990’s. He’s often described as the man responsible for Microsoft’s DirectX. Before its integration into Windows (and a very long time before it became the OS for Xbox), DirectX did the rounds as a demo disc and – to help show off its capabilities – a pre-release version of Diablo was also on that disc.
“It was great because we got to fix a lot of stuff and ship a better product,” said Brevik. “Thanks.”
St John was just as happy to have had Diablo helping out DirectX as Brevik was to have had that pre-release test.