Before You Work for a Start-up Game Company, Part I

It's the opportunity of a lifetime, your chance to be the next big thing, to seize the brass ring. 

You have a chance to work for a cool, new start-up game company. A year later, the company has missed four paychecks, you're working 80 hour weeks and the CEO has caught the redeye to Aruba.

Taking a new job at a new company is always a bit transition. Despite everything, there's inevitably a few surprises along the way. But when the new company you are working for is a start-up game company, the surprises can come fast and furious.

How do you keep your start-up game company dreams from becoming a nightmare? You have to approach this the same way a savvy investor would. Investors (that don't lose their shirts) require due diligence before putting up the money.

First, we'll define a start up as a company that doesn't have a revenue stream (or one steady enough to have any shot of keeping the company afloat). That means, whatever war chest the company has is steadily being drained until somebody figures out how to bring in some cash. Fundamentally, this means that you are on a countdown with a start-up - the only question is whether its a countdown to blast off or detonation.

If you are going to have any shot of being a part of one and not the other, there's some big questions to ask:

Who are the executives?
You know all those names on the website? The one's that have impressive C-level titles? You want to find out who these people are. Game developers often have an allergy to business and "suits" - but you need to understand who the suits in the corner office are. If you don't want to worry your pretty little head about the business, you better make sure damn sure the execs know the ins and outs.

Google their name and the name of their last company. Find out what happened to that company. Was it sold successfully? Did it go bankrupt? Was there an investor lawsuit? An SEC investigation? These are shockingly more plausible than you might realize.

Also, look at the business that they used to manage. If you're a World Wildlife Fund member, you might have some moral qualms of working for the former CEO of Seal Pelts, Inc. There are a lot of businesses that exist in a moral gray area for some people so you need to ask yourself if you can work with these people. How do you feel about tying your fate to an Enron or Goldman Saches executive? On a more basic level, how much game industry experience do they have? Much of business is universal - but a C-level exec who has never worked in a creative industry is almost certain to butt heads with those creative types during the production process.

Who is the team?
These are the line managers and co-workers, the people who are going to be your immediate boss and make the ship go. You want to know who they are. Ideally, you've already worked with them - and that's why you're even considering working for the company. Going blind into a start-up without any history with its peeps is a risky roll of the dice.

But even if you do know the team, you need to ask yourself the hard question - are these the people you want to be at a start-up with? We all know game developers who, frankly, fit in better in a big company than a lean and aggressive start-up. Picking a start-up team is a little like getting a roommate - that buddy from school who's great to hang out with on a Friday might not be the guy you want to share cleaning chores with on a Sunday.

And if you don't know the team first hand, find out. Figure out who you know in common - and ask them tough questions. You've got to find a source who will give you the straight scoop. And if you want my opinion, Linkedin recommendations are next to worthless. Yes, I have recommendations and I've recommended people. And the folks I've recommended are the people I genuinely believe in. But Linkedin is a game - people use social obligation to get softball recommendations. I've seen too many people who literally had dozens and dozens of recommendations who turned out to be incompetent. For me, too many recommendations is a warning sign as well as ones which have a certain bland, generic quality. If someone isn't motivated enough to write a stirring recommendation, it's probably not a real recommendation.

Also, you want to know what products they've shipped. The quality of those games is not the most important thing - there are far too many variables there - but you want to know that these people have been through the wars. Moby Games is a nice start - but its always incomplete. Credits are a dicey issue in this industry and someone's published credits doesn't always reflect their actual work experience. Again, the best source is someone you trust who worked on the project.

Check out Part II for more on Start-ups.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, obscenely long hours, sudden cessation of pay... wait, how does this distinguish start-ups from established game companies (Rockstar San Diego, 3D Realms, etc, etc, etc.)? I mean, besides the bit where employees are expected to continue working even *after* they're no longer being paid, which does seem a tad unreasonable. Horrendous working conditions and sudden shut-downs of well known, and (once) cash-flush studios are long-honored game industry traditions- and who are we to interfere with tradition?