Opinion: Rocket from the ashes
I can't believe it's been nine months already. Everybody knows that time seems to accelerate as you get older, probably due to some kind of mad physics that we haven't discovered yet. However, what isn't common knowledge is that time goes into warp speed when you start your own business. Every day flits past like it's an hour, and in what seems like no time at all your find yourself nine months down the line, having released your very first game to the world.
Our company, Hogrocket, is still brand new in relative terms. The three founders (Peter Collier, Stephen Cakebread and myself – that's us above, from left to right) previously worked together as members of Bizarre Creations, a 200-person strong AAA console developer. If you've played Project Gotham Racing, The Club, Blur, James Bond: Blood Stone or Geometry Wars then you've played a title in which at least one of us has had a hand. Bizarre was a fantastic company, full of brilliant and experienced developers alongside truckloads of aspiring young talent.
Unfortunately the story was cut short in Feb 2011, as parent company Activision took the decision to close Bizarre completely, resulting in redundancies for almost all of the staff. Bad times. The last few months of Bizarre were very strange. European law dictated that we were all to be given three months notice of this redundancy, which Activision served to us in the form of a giant studio meeting. Of course this notice period wasn't exactly business as usual considering all of our projects had just been cancelled. For many this time turned into "come into work and sit at your desk doing nothing for three months". This wasn't met with a great deal of enthusiasm by many, understandably so. Looking back, it was better to be given this buffer rather than just getting thrown out on our butts. Many colleagues were furiously interviewing at lots of awesome devs all over the world, and it seemed like everybody was making big plans for the future. Of course, I was no exception.
Several months before Steve and I had jokingly thrown around the idea of starting our own business whilst drunk, and it's an idea I fell in love with – possibly due to the booze. At the time we weren't serious – it was just a romantic idea that all game devs throw around at least once in their careers. I guess I was the idiot though, because after sobering up I still saw promise in it. The timing was good – the rise of the iOS, Facebook and browser games has lowered costs for a newcomer, and with social networking making a serious impact in how games are marketed I thought there was a really good opportunity to get into that space and start making some noise. Then the news of redundancy hit like a sledgehammer, and it pretty much sealed the deal for me. Most of my friends were heading elsewhere, like Canada and the US, or simply away from Liverpool, which is where Bizarre was based. I decided that I would stay where I was and continue to make games, so spent the majority of those three months in training.
The plan that I had formulated in my head was ambitious – we would not only make the games, but we'd also publish them. We'd use the App Store as a launch pad to launch a brand new developer/publisher hybrid, selling digital goods in a completely digital world. Executing this plan would mean having to do everything; to be a master of all disciplines. That meant getting a good knowledge of not only programming, art, design and other developer-facing things, but also PR, marketing, community management, finance and business planning.
I was an OK programmer, but certainly not good enough to cut the mustard at this level. My art and design skills were passable at best, and I also had a lot to implement on the publishing side of things. Those three months turned into a self-inflicted crash course of detailed research, demo creation, and practice. I booked myself onto a couple of conferences, and asked lots of questions to the right people. I read several books to further my marketing and business knowhow. My programming came on leaps and bounds, as did virtually every other area I worked in. It's amazing how much a single motivated person can do given a hard deadline and a series of impossible tasks…
While still employed by Bizarre I was still under contract, and that prevented me from approaching anybody about this plan. Of course, the opposite was also true: nobody could approach me, either. When the day of reckoning finally came and the studio was closed we were also released from our contracts. I was in a strange mix of emotions that night, having lost my employer of the last six years and facing an uncertain future. Then, as if by magic, my mobile buzzed. It was Pete calling with an idea he'd been throwing around over the last couple of months…
Before long the two of us met up in a pub in Liverpool town centre, sharing ideas and excitement over a pint and a few games of pool. I'd already picked up the conversation with Steve, well, actually I'd been bugging him about it for the last few days. Once the three of us got together it was obvious that we should give it a go – our shared experience covered most of the disciplines we'd need. We had several long discussions about the plan and how it might pan out, eventually culminating in a theatrical handshake between the three of us in Steve's apartment. Looking back on that conversation I don't think any of us really knew what we were letting ourselves in for, but it didn't matter. We had shaken hands. This shit was about to get real.