Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart gave a one-hour presentation during yesterday's IGDA Leadership Forum, the results of which were live blogged over at Design3. Since it covers quite a bit of ground (and promises that they're going to stick to RPGs and RPGs only), I'm going to quote the entirety of it:
2:45pm-3:45pm: Trials and Tribulations of Leading an Independent Studio [Feargus Urquhart | CEO, Obsidian Entertainment]Thanks, Samuelson.
Q & A: Are you always pitching? Do you fear over promising? A: Yes, we're always concerned with over committing. However, we're always pitching and keep the pipeline clean by making agreements far in advance.
Q & A: How do you stay fresh in the publishers mind for when opportunities come up? A: I'm always inviting publishers to lunch. I'm not always pitching to them, but keep in frequent touch. It's a fine line, you have to be careful and not stalk anyone, but be consistent. It's their job to go to lunch with me :) So I invite them to lunch and don't always talk business.
Lesson #10: We make games for the players, this is the number one thing.
Lesson #9: Sharing and Organization. Bigger teams means worse communication, so it's key to have streamlined communication (he recommends SharePoint, has been using it since 2007). It's critical to have all information in one place, including integrated bug tracking. For full transparency they share access for all internal documents with publishers - "it's worked out really well for us". He is showing a screenshot of the SharePoint doc which will be included in the presentation.
Lesson #8: Alpha is the Wall of Quality. 3 B's = BioWare, Blizzard, Bethesda - all of these companies spend a ton of time in alpha perfecting the game. Two important MUST hit dates, Entering Production and Alpha. Development debt kills the quality.
Lesson #7: Give them What they Want. What will the player expect from the game? What are the publishers expectations? What does the press think of the idea? Make sure you're paying attention to all parties involved in the project. Pay attention to the QA department and truly implement their feedback. The designers watch the play testers to see how they interact with the game. This helps improve the product tremendously. Feargus started out as a QA.
Lesson #6: The Solid Pitch. They develop presentations, tone movies, source books, short pitches, and demos for ease of explanation. These tools are polished and make the project feel solid and real. It's much easier to get funding when you're well equipped with these packaged items. Source book reference - www.docucopies.com. In regards to the presentation, they practice over and over and over again, and refine over and over and over again. Practice the presentation in different time frames - 15, 30, 45, 60 and 90 minute versions. Images are really important for presentations. Know what the publishers want with the proposal. In other words, sell to the particular publishers features, help them understand the marketing potential.
Lesson #5: Original IP is Hard. Creativity is a great opportunity, but costs time. They constantly have to resell the product.
Lesson #4: Tools not Brute Force. Work smarter, not harder - let the tools and tight pipeline do the heavy lifting. Junior level employees know the tools and can make a shippable level. This allows them to make games with less staff and higher standards (which means less bugs!). Standardization also allows creative exploration and awesome, surprising achievements.
Lesson #3: Focus. They make RPGs and only RPGs. "Be great at one thing, not good at many". This laser focus allows business development to flourish because they've staked their space in the RPG arena - everyone knows what they do and that they're great at it.
Lesson #2: Money Management. For Obsidian, 85% of the money goes to people. They tend to overspend on equipment to make sure employees have up-to-date equipment, tools for high productivity and enjoy being at work. He doesn't want people to fret over spending money, it's a waste of time. They allot $1k for people to get stuff to improve their work flow and they don't even manage the spending because employees generally use it with integrity. It's very important to understand one slip up can cost a months worth of profit, so they work proactively with internal team to correct wrongs ASAP.
Lesson #1: Honesty. Personal and organizational honesty is key. It helps maintain trust, keeps the ship running smooth, and helps Feargus sleep at night (clean conscious). Obsidian has about 120 employees.