Category for all posts about Massive Awesome in general.

Feels Like ‘Work’

At first the writing came easily, words falling onto the page almost as quickly as I could conceive and then type them. After years without a real creative outlet, I think it was just a case of opening a tap and letting them pour out. Because of the huge size and scope of the universe that we’re creating, I could look in any direction and find fertile ground to go and wander in, creating structures without fear of contradicting canon. Of course at that stage continuity wasn’t an issue as nothing had come before.

As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, I did plenty of background planning, sketching the very broad outlines for the factions and main characters, and prioritizing the best order to tackle them. This still left plenty of room in each individual piece however, enabling me to just write, sometimes for hours without needing to stop and check the details. This was also very convenient for my haphazard way of writing: ten minutes on the tram here and half an hour after the kids have gone to bed there, able to just pick up where I left off the previous time.

Now I’m covering events that interact with previous writing and characters who’s timelines need to match up with each others’. This stifles the free-flow of thoughts that characterised my earlier pieces and that is, well, annoying. I guess this is more like ‘real’ writing. It certainly feels more like work. It also lends itself to more sustained periods of preparation and writing, with each session needing ten minutes of prep time where I look at the history tracker and the short guides to get prepared. When those ten minutes are followed by an hour of writing, that’s no problem, but when they’re followed by only ten minutes of actual writing and I need to repeat the same process the next day, the ratio of time spent working versus the end product produced is getting lower.

So to combat this I guess I have a couple of options: I could just write whatever comes into my head and rework it later, editing the details on future drafts, or I could pre-plan each piece more thoroughly, plotting the points I should hit and details I should include ahead of time. I’ll probably give each one a try and see which feels right. Of course there is the third option: when stuck, save and close the fiction piece and write a blog post instead.

Foundations Laid

So now the proper work starts. Simon and I decided early on to spend much of our initial effort doing groundwork before getting to the more interesting aspects of the creative process. With him, it has been the huge task of setting up the business and sorting out myriad contracts and official bits of paperwork. For me, it has been the more mundane tasks of deciding on a process that fits around my life and schedule; where and when to write (on my iPad while travelling for the most part), how to decide what to work on next, and whether to slowly go for a first pass finished product or knock out quick, rough drafts and constantly iterate.

There are also practical decisions like how and when to best communicate with Simon, when to be proactive versus when to discuss, and whether or not to stump up the cash for professional tools that enable direct uploading to our project server. Which reminds me, Simon also had to set up our server…

I have spent a good few hours preparing faction histories, story timelines, and a master work tracker, as I know from experience that without these tools, I’ll start going in a million different directions at once. My project management background means that I definitely find splitting writing up into discrete, smaller chunks keeps focus and motivation high, and ameliorates the panic that can appear when starting out on a huge new activity.

The five Ps of Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance have always been true, and the size and complication of building a viable business from the ground up only magnifies the importance of getting your house in order and being prepared for every eventuality before getting stuck into the fun creative stuff.

Now that we have a centralised area with the ability to track work and keep a tight hold on canon, all that remains for me to do is to write tens of thousands of words of gripping, original, and exciting fiction. But that’s the easy part, right?

A New Perspective

I have always been into movies in a borderline obsessional way, staying up late watching TV, renting VHS, and eventually amassing a frankly silly DVD collection. About fifteen years ago I wanted to better understand exactly why the films of great directors – like Kurosawa, Kubrick and Hitchcock – were critically revered, and so I started to actively educate myself in cinema. I watched all the extra features, read magazines, joined forums, and bought university ‘Film Studies’ textbooks. I started to understand themes, narrative arcs, mise-en-scene, and the building blocks that went into every movie.

This understanding of the components that contribute to that nebulous ‘magical’ quality has given me an appreciation for some film-makers that I hadn’t previously understood and now I see every film in a new light (although I don’t care what the critics say: I still hate Bresson). I find myself constantly noticing clever editing tricks or lazy directorial choices and exposition. I don’t enjoy films more now that I know more about them, but I do tend to have stronger extreme feelings, so I really hate bad films and really love well made ones.

This has been on my mind recently for the first time in a decade as I am now viewing lots of things through a new ‘educated eye’. Going through the process of starting a business from scratch means that every area of my hobby is torn down to its constituent parts, evaluated and costed.

Every website I look at I am thinking about the quality of the design, every rulebook I read has me counting up the number of original art pieces and calculating in my head the cost, and with every model I handle I am evaluating the sculpt quality and the way the cuts are designed and hidden. Like with films, I find myself being drawn to the extremes: the clunky art direction and bad font choices at one end, and the delicately detailed paint jobs and cleanly and consistently designed pages of the best books at the other.

It would be nice to win the lottery and start a business without compromise; have renowned artists producing dozens of concepts, veteran sculptors sending multiple designs to be mass-produced in injection-moulded plastic, and a rulebook with original art on every expensively-designed page. But that is the end goal, not where we are now.

We have been lucky to work with some truly talented artists and sculptors, and seeing Simon’s and my ideas come to life through them has been inspiring. But now we have to make some difficult decisions about when to compromise and when to go for broke, and that is difficult for two guys who have exceptionally high standards and can’t help looking at everything through a hyper-critical eye.

The hard part isn’t producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures that are really good on a finite budget – I can see how we could do that if we were prepared to constantly compromise. The hard part is producing a game, rulebook, and range of miniatures on a finite budget that look like we had to make no compromises and had millions to spend.

Creative Collaboration

My professional life has never really involved being artistically create up till now. So, although I have been expecting to experience different thoughts and emotions working with Simon and our artists than when working with my colleagues in my day job, it is still a pleasant surprise to realise that we can shape the reality of the universe we are creating simply by thinking it.

Last month Simon and I were having a conversation about whether two of our factions would once have been allied and, after discussing a few pros and cons, we paused and I wondered to myself how decisions like this could be taken in an environment with no hierarchy to ask, no best-practice to implement, and no existing process to follow. Then it hit me: “Yes” I said, “They were allies a few decades earlier. Because I just said so.”

Now this decision was not Tolkien deciding that Saruman was a bad guy or George Lucas announcing that Vader was Luke’s father but, for me, it was a pivotal point in my understanding and appreciation of the creative process. It is still very early days in this project but mine and Simon’s aim is to create a successful game, based around an original IP that could conceivably one day support multiple expansions, secondary games, novels, and spin off films, so it is taking a little time getting used to the idea that I have the power to make sweeping changes to our game universe by simply having a thought and writing it down.

I had a second ‘moment’ last week while discussing the fundamental design of one of our game’s main characters with Simon and one of our artists. The discussion involved an iterative process that I now see will spiral outwards and affect the rules of the game and the fiction of the universe. The backstory I have written moulds the way the artist designs the look of the character, which gives Simon an idea for a weapon or ability that would fit particularly well, necessitating a slight rule change. That in turn gives me an idea for the character’s back-story, which is then discussed again through the prism of art, rules and story, each feeding off and influencing each other.

It is a much rewarding process and one that I am very much looking forward to continuing with for as long as possible.

Massive Ego: Images and Words

Earlier this week the first concept images appeared in our Slack team. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – I’d been anticipating this moment for several weeks and still hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to approach it. Half of me was calm and professional, the other half was screaming like a fanboy. I’ve seen many pieces of artwork for many concepts over the years, but I knew these would be different, more special somehow.

My initial thought was: ‘It’s alive!’, and then my 15 years of gaming industry experience kicked in and I began to thoroughly tear it apart… Okay, so perhaps that’s an exaggeration. The artwork was excellent, and a pleasure to review, made even more enjoyable because it was the first time either myself or John had seen our words transformed into images.

And I think that is the critical lesson I (re-)learned this week: to detach yourself from the concept enough that you can be objective, but not so much that you lose the sheer joy of it. I wrote in an earlier blog post about sometimes falling in love with the process if not necessarily the project, and I suppose I had developed a practised ease over the last few years for reviewing work. But this was different because it meant so much more to me, and I didn’t need to ‘fake’ it.

Since then we’ve had several more concepts drop into our inboxes, and the progression has been astounding. The more the concepts come to life, the more unique this universe we have created becomes. Of course, it’s all well and good me saying that in advance of our official unveiling – if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s very little room for objective criticism.

There’s no harm in us keeping this to ourselves for a little while longer, is there..?

Being a Good Business Means Getting Good at Being a Business

Starting a new business is challenging and exciting in equal measure. Quite apart from the fact that you need a good idea for whatever it is you are selling in the first place, you need to get good at being a business. If you hate admin, spreadsheets, sending and responding to dozens of emails, and keeping track of every penny you spend, then you probably ought to reconsider.

But if not, here are three things you should probably keep repeating to yourself – perhaps recorded onto a Dictaphone and played back at low volume while you sleep – in order to keep things on the right track.

  1. Be smart

If you’ve ever worked in the video games industry you’ll know all about the MVP, or minimum viable product. This is generally the path of least resistance when getting a game to market, creating features that are just about good enough to be released. Being smart doesn’t deliver the minimum viable product, it delivers the maximum viable product.

You should work out as early as you can what you need to spend your money on; and I mean really spend your money on, not the things you think you should spend your money on. It can be all too easy to fall into the ‘production cycle’ trap too early, where you’re paying for a conveyor belt of work when you only really needed the first couple of pieces that came off the line.

John and I are currently debating whether or not to spend a significant amount of money on a centrepiece terrain board for the game. In isolation it would appear to be an irresponsible use of our (limited) funds, but when you factor in the usage we would get out of it – publicity shots, promotional materials, interior art for the rulebook, live gameplay demos, social media shares, word of mouth – it starts to look like a much smarter investment than simply producing more concept art.

  1. Be enthusiastic

Seriously, if you don’t love your product then you’re probably better off calling it quits now. You need to become the world’s foremost expert on whatever it is you are selling, and give people a reason to believe what you’re telling them. And yes, you can blag it! I spent the best part of 15 years creating racing video games, and do you know what? For at least 5 of those years I didn’t really enjoy playing racing games, yet the games I designed in those 5 years where the best of my career.

It doesn’t matter where that passion comes from – be it the project or the process – as long as the passion itself is genuine. Let loose, run wild, live free! At the end of the day, you can’t expect anyone else to take an interest in your product if you don’t have one yourself. And when things get tough – believe me, they will – you’ll need every ounce of that passion to get you through it.

  1. Be realistic

This should really be number one given its importance: everyone running a business needs to be realistic about their aims and ambition. I realise that most people will start a business because they want to follow their dream – that’s why I started Massive Awesome in the first place – but you need to have a realistic approach to getting there. Whatever your ultimate goal may be, the best way to approach it is to break it down into logical and manageable chunks.

In our current business plan, the ‘dream’ doesn’t become a reality until year three; that’s after the first game has launched and we’re well into the second one. Jamey Stegmaier makes the point that you shouldn’t count your Kickstarter money until you’ve fulfilled every backer’s pledge, and it’s the same principle here. Our dream doesn’t become a reality until we have proven that the business is sustainable, and we can both make a living out of it.

I know how tempting it is to rush ahead because you’re excited or you need to start making money, like, NOW, but taking the time to get things right at the start will not only save time later, it will prevent costly mistakes. You need to write a business plan with realistic aims, and create a financial plan that covers at least the next three years, and review them both regularly.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some very smart, very enthusiastic, and very pragmatic people over the years, and I’ve made it my business to learn from them whenever I can. We still don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes along the way, but I feel like we’ve given ourselves at least a fighting chance at success.

Massive Ego: State of the Art

I just wanted to give everyone a quick status update. As you may have already noticed, the weekly Massive Ego column is a little bit late. That was because John was over in the UK and we took the opportunity to spend some time together. We had our first board meeting, revised our business plan, reviewed resin samples, drew up the world map, and played a couple of test games. It was great to talk face-to-face rather than over the internet, and we certainly got a lot more done.

Elsewhere we’ve both been writing briefs to send out to concept artists. We have three factions in active development and are looking to have character art ready for the sculptors in the next few weeks. That also means we’re getting closer to finally being able to reveal the game to you!

With regards the blog, I’m going to move Massive Ego to a bi-weekly column as we ramp up production. After we announce the game we’ll be showcasing some character art and background fiction, and I’ll share some insight into the game design.

Thanks to everyone for your support and patience so far; it feels like we’ve reached the tipping point between idea and reality, and we’ll hopefully be able to reward that patience really soon.

Massive Ego: Small Acorns

Like a lot of new start-ups, I’ve been seeking advice from a variety of sources. And, being both the Managing and the Creative Director, that means looking after the business as much as what it produces. Honestly, it can be easy to focus solely on the creative side, especially if, like me, you started this whole endeavour because you had been carrying a game around in your head for too long.

One of the most valuable sources of inspiration has been Jamey Stegmaier’s blog on the Stonemaier Games website. The Kickstarter Lessons are a must read for anyone in a similar position – or those just curious to see how much work goes into launching a new gaming product. I can’t emphasise enough how much good planning and taking your time pay dividends in the long run.

As it turns out, I’ve spent less than 20% of my time over the past week working on the game. Instead, I’ve been drafting contracts (something I’ve never had to do before), sorting out the company account, fleshing out the product road map, and writing contract briefs. I’m lucky in that I’ve had a lot of experience of the latter from my time in the video games industry, although it’s certainly different when it’s your own company.

Ultimately, the more of the ‘boring’ work you get squared off at the start, the less time you’ll need to spend on it in the future. And that’s a very good thing indeed; after all, there’s a game to make!

Massive Ego: Learning Curve

So, I’m John that Simon mentioned last week. We’ve been best friends for a quarter of a century (note to Si, we’re old) and have been talking about working together one day for almost as long and now I’m excited that we’ve finally got round to it.
We decided to start it at the most convenient time, ie. when we both have young children, other work commitments and I live in another country…

The first challenge for me is fitting in time to work on Massive Awesome around a full-time job, childcare duties and my other interests or learning to do two things at once like lunchtime working on the ipad or blogging with a two-year old sat on your lap…

The second and bigger challenge, at least for me is once I have found an undisturbed hour, deciding what to do with it. Should I skype with Si to discuss ideas, should I do some writing, should I do some strategy work, some blogging, some market research? Should I reread the fiction that is inspiring me, look at competitor’s websites and kickstarter pages or should I read guides to starting a business,or advice on writing and organisation?

What I should definitely do is stop procrasti-blogging and get on with some real work…

I can’t wait to start sharing what Si and I are working on with everyone in future posts.

Massive Ego: Shots Fired

This is the first of a regular, weekly column dedicated to talking about all things, well, us. We’ll share insights into our development process, detail some of the trials and tribulations of setting up (and running) a small, independent hobby gaming company, and generally spout off about whatever passed under our noses this week.

First up, some introductions.

My name is Simon Barlow, and I’ve been a video games industry professional for the past 15 years. My business partner is John Taylor, who’s worked in investment banking for about as long. We both have a passion for speculative fiction and table-top gaming, and decided to combine our talents to create Massive Awesome.

This is the first company either of us have set up on our own, so we’re indebted to a number of other collaborators for working with us, and sharing their insights and advice about this growing industry. I’m hoping to share some of their work with you very soon.

Secondly, what are we making?

Unfortunately it’s still a little too early to reveal the game wholesale; I don’t believe in announcing a product without any product to show. However, I’m nothing if not a tease, so I will share the following tagline with you:

The post-apocalyptic table-top skirmish game of wondrous technology and existential horror.

If you’re excited to know more, then make sure you follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and bookmark our website. And if you’re a talented artist or sculptor – or anyone else that feels you have something to contribute – then fill out the contact form on our website, or email us directly at [email protected].