Developers Corner
New Columnist: Doug Mealy & the Gaming Industry

Suzie Ford | 6 Jan 2009 13:23
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Doug Mealy has worked with the CEOs of 110 game developer studios in the past fifteen years and managed over 300 game launches. He shares with WarCry his entertaining and informative perspective on some of the more common mistakes made by new CEOs, and how those mistakes can be easily avoided.

Want to be a Successful Indie Studio CEO Someday? Then don't screw up!

One of the joys of being one of the "white hairs" of the games industry is sharing horror stories about some really dumb mistakes that new CEOs have made in the past which contributed to their studios closing. While you might find some of these real world stories entertaining, be aware that your challenge is to learn from history so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

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When game studios close, it's often due to one of three reasons: 1) they run of out money; 2) the game sucks (which publishers reject as "performs below market expectations"); or 3) the CEO screws up the launch of the game. I'm focusing on #3 because I've gone through the process over 300 times, and have some "road rash" to share. Here are four common mistakes I see a lot of new CEOs make that jeopardize the viability of their studios - mistakes that can be easily avoided. The real world stories you are about to read come from my years in the games business and are not examples from any of my current clients.

Mistake #1. CEOs hire outside marketing/PR consultants without properly vetting them. If you don't check these guys out, by the time you find out they're incompetent (or lied about their credentials) it will be too late - your window of opportunity will be closed. There are an increasing number self-described experts floating around whom, upon closer investigation, either have done only one or two game launches, or, in some cases, haven't ever done a game launch before. One CEO wanted to expand media coverage in certain foreign country, and decided to hire a local PR expert. They found a guy who said he was the PR agent for a huge search engine company in that particular country and...wow...everybody got excited thinking they found a real powerhouse. The studio declined my offer to check him out, saying "No thanks, we've got it under control." What would you have done? I checked him out anyway, and it turns out that not only did he not work for that search engine company, but he had never launched a game before - it turns out he was an unemployed local business editor looking for a neat gig. So, the studio CEO put the local launch of a multimillion dollar project in the hands of total fake - a fatal mistake that was easily avoidable. You can guess what happened. The exact same scenario can happen in the U.S., too, so check people out very carefully.

Mistake #2. CEOs pay for professional advice, and then ignore it. Put your ego in your pocket and acknowledge that maybe - just maybe - somebody who has done a lot of game launches might know a little more than you do. If your PR team says "Don't do this" and games editors say "Don't do this," then why do some CEOs do it anyway? It's astounding to me how normally smart people can make such idiotic decisions sometimes. For example, a CEO decided it was a great idea to distribute free pre-launch game teaser discs to retailers nationwide three weeks before the launch. I said, "Don't do this" because it was too risky - if gamers hate the teaser, they won't buy the game. I brought in three top games editors who also told the CEO it wasn't worth the risk. What would you have done? Well, the CEO decided to go ahead anyway, sent out thousands of discs, and - duh - they forgot to test the disc first and none of them worked. Sales at launch were predictably dismal; the studio closed six weeks later.

Mistake #3. CEOs pick the wrong dates to launch their trailers. There are about 35-38 game shows worldwide, and you need to pick a date that doesn't conflict with the handful of major shows. You need to avoid the two days before (journalists will be traveling to the show) and the four days after (they will be busy writing about what they saw at the show). Another CEO decided to launch his studio's first trailer on a specific day, not realizing that date was also opening day of a huge show in Europe with 2,500 journalists in attendance. When I suggested that those 2,500 games journalists would be otherwise occupied that day and wouldn't see the trailer, and maybe it would be a better idea to wait one week, the CEO said "it didn't really matter that much" and released it anyway. It turns out that 79 game trailers were released that day and I counted all the views - they ranged from 450,000 at the top of the list, down to 1,750 at the bottom of the list. Guess where that CEO's trailer placed on the list? You got it - dead last.

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Mistake #4. CEOs and dev teams reveal too much, and too soon. Keep quiet and follow the PR launch plan! Imagine this...we're ready to launch a game and we've organized exclusive interviews in various countries to post on launch day, carefully keeping some facts off the website and out of dev chats so the editors will, indeed, have breaking news. I always review and approve all website content and dev chat text before posting to keep the lid on. Then - BOOM! - one of the studio devs posted a blog (without clearance) spilling all the beans about the new game two days before the launch. I wanted to dismember the guy, oh so slowly. Editors were justifiably pissed they were scooped by the studio, and they weren't too keen on working with that studio again. My suggested rule to my clients: No one posts anything "in the public domain" (meaning anything the public will see or read) without my okay. It's the only way to effectively control the launch process.

Summary

My goal with this column is to share bits of history with the next generation of game studio CEOs so they can be better prepared for success. If you are an aspiring studio CEO, or are one now, and have any questions, please email them to me at dmealy@om-pr.com. If this column is well received and I do a second one, it will focus on some key steps to do (and avoid) when launching a new game. I'll try to answer some of your questions, too. Thanks!

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