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Pitchblack Games
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Dominus Column: Developer Perspectives: Start Ups - Do It Youself

By Sanya Weathers on October 14, 2011

Why would anyone work for an MMO startup? An established studio has an enormous technical staff capable of producing everything from tools to websites to the game engine itself. There are in house experts for every possible situation. The funding is guaranteed, and the game is destined to be marketed, distributed, and released. As an employee you’ll be surrounded by experienced people and professional support. You barely need to do a single thing outside your job description unless you want to do it. Need a laptop, a plane ticket, a smartphone, or just a new whiteboard? Speak, and it is yours.

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Okay, by “speak” I mean fill out a requisition form and have it signed by your manager and countersigned by someone in purchasing who has first checked the employee database to see what level of technology/legroom you are entitled at your rank.

That is not how a startup operates.

Mind you, I have worked at startups that were very well funded. At those, I said, “I need a laptop.” One of two things happened. One, a laptop appeared the next day and I was told to set it up myself. Two, the day I made the request, someone flipped me the company credit card and said “Go to the store yourself, and get something really good. You’ll need to play the latest games.”

Usually, the funding isn’t that good. At the underfunded wonders, I use my own laptop, and never mind the fact that it’s a relic from 2007 that I scored off Craigslist. Don’t look at me like that. The nice man taking my money in the Target parking lot handed over actual Office CDs, so those programs aren’t cracks.

The bright side to using my own laptop is that I can handle my own technical support and I don’t have to mail it back when the company runs out of money from doing things like, well, sending the community weenie or the writer (!) to the local store (!) for a laptop capable of playing “the latest games.” (!!!)

Doing one’s own technical support is the hallmark of a startup. So is building your own office furniture, managing your own time, and wearing multiple hats.

You can’t be a specialist and work at a startup. You need to be able to do a little of everything, or at least be willing to take a swing at everything. Can you write stories? Can you boil documents down into interesting blurbs? Can you think methodically enough to simulate the QA person your company can’t afford? Are you willing to run cable, take out the trash, host a podcast, and troubleshoot a patcher, all in one afternoon? Are you willing to be paid in goodwill and have faith?

I’m not going to lie. It can be nerve-wracking in startup land. But if you want in, here are a few tips:

- Have a primary skill. If you can code, you’ll never be out of work. (Server programmers are especially valued in the MMO world. If you know C/C++, and you have enough experience where the words SQL, Unix/Linux, Lua, and Ruby all mean something to you, start job hunting.) If you are an artist and can use 3ds Max/Photoshop, send in your portfolio.

If you are neither an artist nor a coder, you need to be really, really good at whatever you do. Or lucky.

NB: Do not apply to a startup to be a designer unless you have a lot of experience. Many startups exist because someone with a lot of experience decided he wanted his shot at design, and the only way to do it was to start a company. The rest exist because someone had a cool idea for a design and convinced someone else to fund it. Either way, you’re not the one doing the design.

But here’s the thing - you WILL end up doing some design at a startup. You won’t be able to help it. There’s just too much work to go around, and when you least expect it, it’s “we need an encounter/system/tool, do it.” It’s just that you’re not going to break in to the industry with your latent design talent. My point: Learn to do something useful (CS, QA, community, DBA), and offer that experience along with your ability to do anything else that needs doing.

- Be flexible. Most startups fail. For that matter, most game companies do, too. The ones that survive tend to get more conservative as they age. If you love the startup feel and tone, you need to be prepared to change jobs or even move.

- Do your research. An MMO startup with potential to succeed is creative, agile, responsive to feedback, in possession of the right technology, and funded well enough to test the complete game for at least three months. Ask all the hard questions before you take the job. After you take the job, you won’t have time…but you may well be having the time of your life.

Author’s note: Yeah, I know, vague vague platitude vague. What do YOU want to know about startups? Leave a note in the comments, and if I can get permission to speak about it, I will.

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