The triangle factory story

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The Triangle Factory Story by Kenny Deriemaeker

The Triangle Factory Story by Kenny Deriemaeker

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  • 1. The Triangle Factory StoryHow to start a game studio, bang your head against the wall until great stu ff falls out, and remember why it’s worth all that trouble by Kenny Deriemaeker
  • 2. Hello.My name is Kenny Deriemaeker, and I’m a technical artist at Triangle Factory. I was scheduled to givea presentation at the “The Pixar Story” event on December 2nd at The Studios, but had to cancel atthe very last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. I’d like to apologize to both the organizationand you guys for not showing up.To make it right, I thought I’d write an article with my thoughts – and our thoughts at the company –about some of the topics that came up in the Pixar documentary, and how that wonderful storyrelates to the story of a young Belgian games start-up with its roots in Howest. The way I see it, thishas three advantages for you: 1. I write better than I speak, so this should be a little more coherent. 2. You may spread this document around if you like, so it gets out to more people who might also like it. 3. You can put this article down if you get bored – which isn’t nearly as rude as walking out of a presentation. Thanks!  Kenny Deriemaeker Triangle Factory 2
  • 3. Triangle Factory: Year OneMy origin storyAllow me to tell you a personal story. In the summer of 1996, I got my first real computer – a beigePentium 100Mhz with 8 Megabytes of memory and a 15” monitor. My sister had used the old“schoolwork” excuse on our parents, and god bless her – it worked. Wordpad, MS Paint and QBasic(look it up) were interesting to play around with, but the real fun didn’t start until a friend came overone day with a CD-ROM in an exciting red box. On it was an absurdly muscular action hero, firing hismachineguns on a pile of dead monsters, against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud. Underneath, Iread “Duke Nukem 3D”.Not only was Duke3D an amazing shooter for its time, it actually came with a full set of tools on thedisc for level editing and adding new art to the game. That summer, I didn’t leave the house much.The experience of drawing lines and pushing buttons in a complicated little program, then starting upthe most awesome game you’d ever seen and being able to play your own creations was nothing lessthan Magic to me. When I was your age, we had to carve our GPU’s out of wood!It’s easy to forget, in 2010, that computers really are magical machines. If you get right down to it, acomputer is a machine that manipulates information, visuals and sound at nearly the speed of light.Realizing that that power could be used to create virtual worlds full of stories, puzzles and action wasa defining moment in my young life. Like John Lasseter from Pixar, it didn’t take long for me to figureout that this was what I wanted to do forever.I expect, and surely hope, that you know this feeling very well. 3
  • 4. The DAE yearsDigital Arts and Entertainment was exactly what I needed. As I like to tell anyone who will listen, Iwas the first of 180 students to sign up that first year – and one of it’s 35 or so first graduates twoand a half years later. In DAE I met twoguys who were just as passionate aboutthis stuff as I am: Timothy Vanherberghenand Filip Van Bouwel. Our first majorproject together was taking part in the2008 Imagine Cup, which was themedaround sustainable technology. Togetherwith Jeroen Van Raevels (now at Grin) wecame up with Future Flow, an XNA-basedpuzzle game in which you build andmanage a city through ecological issues.To our own great surprise, the game was selected for the World Finals in Paris, and won 2nd place. Fabulous Prizes!We got a nice cash prize out of that, a good relationship with Microsoft, and most importantly – therealization that maybe we could have a future together making games. After a lot of deliberation, wefinally committed to the idea of starting a company together – something I had never considered tobe a possibility before I met Filip and Timo. If it werent’ for DAE, I might be making e-commercewebsites somewhere right now. Horrifying. 4
  • 5. Getting startedBy late 2009, we had put our heads together and firmly decided togo through with our startup idea. We had a new name (“TriangleFactory” instead of the slightly less professional-sounding “DrunkPuppy Studios”), a 40-page business plan and a small but adequatepile of funds to get started. In case you are interested in thepracticalities, these are the concrete steps we went through inorder to officially start the company: 1. Found a really nice office at The Studios, right across from our old school. 2. Opened up a business account with BNP Paribas Fortis and deposited our startup capital. 3. Found an accountant that gave us some good advice and could do a lot of the startup paperwork for us (cost: around € 1.800). 4. Had a notary write our official statutes and startup agreement, which we all signed. (cost: around € 950). 5. Made initial investments in workstations (€ 4.000) and software licenses (around € 6.000).I’ve included the numbers because it’s important to realize that even to cover the bare minimumformalities and infrastructure needed for a very small company, you need a pretty large sum of cash.The risk you take is not seeing any of that capital come back to you for a while. In our case, after allthat investment there was not much money left to cover our own salaries. We anticipated this, andaccepted the fact that we personally wouldn’t be seeing any profit for a few months. This is one ofthe hard choices you may have to make when choosing to self-fund your startup.The reason we chose to self-fund the company is that we didn’t want to take on the extra pressure ofa large loan with a bank, or giving up part of the company to an outside investor right away. In bothcases, you trade in some of your independence for short term security – we chose the hard route,which means having to do it all by ourselves but getting to keep total control of the company and itsresources. Which doesn’t mean that taking a loan or investment money is a bad idea – but it’s worthconsidering whether you really need it. In business, you rarely get something for free  5
  • 6. Growing pains and new opportunitiesIn early 2010, our plan was to further develop Future Flow for the PC and XBOX Live Arcade, with thehopes of submitting a demo to Microsoft in February/March and being able to release the game bythe summer. In hindsight, that was a much too ambitious plan for a team our size. It quickly becameapparent that finishing the project would take A Lot Of Work; it wasn’t even clear that the XBOX Liveteam would accept our submission; and we had bills to pay. As every young entrepreneur will quicklyrealize at one point, your idealized Big Plan can fall apart fast when the realities of time and moneystart setting in. Sometimes you have to be prepared to set your plans aside and not look back. ByFebruary, we had decided to put Future Flow away for a while and look for other opportunities.Our new project was MyClub, a social game for Facebook with a twist – instead of using Flash like95% of games on Facebook, we would use Unity, which is a crossplatform 3D engine ideally suited forthe web. We had some talks with a well-known social networking company based in Gent (figure itout ), but ultimately decided to go straight to Facebook with its 500 million potential users. Wefound a partner company, Proudfield Social Media Applications, and signed a deal with them topublish MyClub on several social networks.Keeping the customer satisfiedBack when we were drafting our business plan, it was clear to us we couldn’t put all or money on onour own creative projects right away. That should be the first lesson anyone who enters the gameindustry (or any kind of creative commercial endeavour) ought to learn.So we did (and still happily do) projects for customers, mostly other businesses, in everything fromstill 3D renders of products and characters to interactive 3D business applications.You’d think that maybe these “side projects” are just necessary evils to bring in revenue, and whatyou really want to do is work on your own creative projects. That is true to some extent, but workingfor customers has its advantages as well. They force you to go outside your comfort zone a little bitand get to know about subjects and people you normally wouldn’t come into contact with. You getpushed to try new technologies, to understand what a clients’ needs are, and to deliver quality ontime and within a budget. You really do reap the rewards of all of that when you start working onprojects of your own. 6
  • 7. MyClubFrom the end of February onward, we put most of our waking hours into the development ofMyClub, a game in which you manage your own nightclub and interact with your friends onFacebook. We knew we had an ambitiousproject when we started; but the full extentof what we were trying to achieve onlybecame clear during development. None ofus had ever used Unity before. None of ushad real experience using a database serverfor keeping track of thousands of players’data in a secure way. We had no experiencewith the Facebook API, in trying to combinethat with Unity across PC and Mac, and allthe fun browser compatibility issues thatinevitably come in a complex webapplication. It’s no exaggeration to say that Get used to staring at this for 12 hours a day.we had to learn something new every single day.But we had to get there, so we did. Filip, our Lead Developer, took on the back-end of the project(SQL database, secure server-side API, data optimisation) while Timothy and I worked on the Unityclient. We also managed to get three interns from DAE to help out – an advantage of being so closeto Howest  Twelve and fourteen-hour days, pulling all-nighters at the office and banging our headsagainst the table in frustration were common. Yet at the same time we were seeing a large,ambitious project come to life – that whole process from a vague idea and some sketches to theintricate system of code, content and designs that makes up a modern game. Being able to stick witha large project for so long and actually releasing it to a large audience is an exciting experience, andone you probably won’t get at school.On 22nd September we released MyClub on Facebook, and a little while later started activelymarketing it. We are now approaching 70.000 monthly active users, with up to 4.000 people playingthe game every day. These numbers aren’t astounding when compared to, say, Farmville orNightClub City – but considering our tiny team and shoestring budget, we’re doing alright. The gameis getting good reviews and bringing in revenue, and as we continue working on the game, there isplenty of room left for us to grow. If nothing else, we’re proud of finally bringing a good-looking 3Dgame to Facebook  7
  • 8. Lessons learned so farWe’re a very young company, and any experienced game developer would probably shake theirheads at what we still have left to learn, all the mistakes we still need to make in order to not have tomake them again. But I do think we’ve learned a few things over the past year, which we want toshare with you as you take your hard-earned diploma and go out into the world – whether you’rethinking about starting a business or not.Have a backup plan.So, you have a design document for your Magnum Opus, a state-of-the-art voxel-based MMO that isgoing to obliterate World of Warcraft and make you millions. That’s fantastic, but consider thepossibility that you may be wrong, or that your brilliant idea may actually be impossible to generateenough sales to pay back its development. The games industry in particular is a wonderfully dynamic,but very competitive market. Always have something more secure to fall back on when your plansdon’t work out.Be critical.Don’t be afraid to be critical of yourself, your own ideas, and your teammates. Always ask yourself ifyou’re not putting the bar too low (or too high!) for yourself, and be mature enough to bring upissues before they turn into problems.Assume responsibility.Whether you’re running your own business or are part of a development team, certain things will beexpected of you – and those things won’t always be spelled out clearly. Don’t count on being takenby the hand and told what to do all the time. Working in a high-tech industry in 2010 means needingto develop some discipline about planning things, keeping up with commitments, andcommunicating with others. Take it from me, this is not always easy to do – especially when you’reup to your elbows in work and have many things asking for your attention. And don’t forget there’smore to life than work alone; it’s okay to go outside and interact with other people once in a while Don’t sink your time into meetings and e-mail.Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s normal, or even “professional”, to have several hours of teammeetings each week. Meetings were invented by managers who needed to feel in control of peoplewho actually get work done. If you’re smart (and I know you are), you can probably get all theinformation you need from one-on-one conversations with teammates, IM, or short team briefings.Having long regularly scheduled meetings without a clear goal is a great way to waste a gooddeveloper’s time.Also, resist the temptation to constantly check and respond to your email. You do not need to beinformed every 5 minutes of incoming mail, and in 95% of cases it’s fine to not respond to an email 8
  • 9. immediately. If it’s something really really urgent, people will call you. Having Outlook open all thetime and interrupting your work every time someone somewhere decides to push a “Send” buttonwith your email adress next to it can destroy your productivity quickly. So I turn off auto-notificationsand check my mail only two or three times a day, which allows me to focus on my work for a fewhours and actually get stuff done! Focus.I mention the meetings and the email because the more work I do, the more it becomes clear to methat as a developer (whether you’re coding, designing art or doing administration), you need longstretches of time to really get into the headspace you need to be in. Some people can sit down attheir desk and start doing awesome work right away; most of us aren’t so lucky, and need some timeto get into it.That also means that every interruption, whether’s it’s someone talking on the phone, an incominge-mail or someone randomly dropping by to chat, may pull you straight out of that mindspace. Youcan go from 100% concentration to 0% concentration in a second; getting back to that 100% maytake fifteen minutes or more.When you’re really focused on your work, and can make yourself forget everything else, you can getgreat work done. Take your work seriously, go for quality and have the discipline not to give upimmediately when things aren’t going as well as you wanted!Remember why you’re here.Don’t forget why you do what you do, and what your goals are. It’s sometimes easy to only seewhat’s in front of you and feel lousy when you can’t find a bug, or can’t quite nail the design of that3D model, or are struggling to meet that deadline. Remember you’re doing this stuff because youlove doing it – and if you don’t love doing it, you really shouldn’t be here. The games industry is fullof passionate, smart, talented people, which is one of the things that makes it a great field to be in.Game/3D development is fun, but hard work. Our advice to you is to stay motivated. Keepchallenging yourself. Strive to be better at what you do than you were yesterday. And alwaysremember the sense of magic that attracted you to it in the first place. 9