Learning from Mistakes

Josh Resnick on Pandemic's early mistakes, adopting new business models and becoming part of the EA family.

It may now be a studio within the mighty Electronic Arts empire, but Pandemic was once a start-up studio like any other. Day-to-day struggles, basic business mistakes and confused direction were happening behind the scenes while the company strived to establish itself as a creative and unique development studio.

Here, co-founder and president Josh Resnick shares some of the problems the studio has encountered on the road to success, his advice for start-ups, his thoughts on new business models and changes to the company since it was acquired last year. Your session at GDC last month focused on the pitfalls and mistakes that developers make when first starting out. It was a packed session and at the end you were swamped by attendees — what sort of feedback have you had from that?

Josh Resnick: What I realised was that there are a lot of people who are just at the beginning stages of starting out their businesses and are really searching for some of those answers on how to do it right, because there are so many different ways to start a games business. People are smart enough to be aware that there are some pitfalls on the way, so it was nice to connect with them and share some of Pandemic's early lessons — some of the stuff we had to go through to get Pandemic to where it is. I hope people went away with ideas about how they might need to emphasise something a bit more, or reinvest in a certain part of their business.

Q: And you feel now that there's a renaissance for developers...

It genuinely is, I really believe it. There are so many different ways you can get into the games industry as a developer. The barriers to entry are actually lower than they've ever been. Not for the traditional games like Pandemic makes, those are hard — you can't just open up a shop and go 'alright, where's the 20 million dollars. Let's go make a game' — no publisher is going to trust you to do that. But Flash games, handheld games, Xbox Live Arcade games, with things like that you can get your foot in the door and build your way up.

Q: Some of the points you where making, they seemed quite obvious, such as making sure your accounts are in order. Is that one of the biggest mistakes that start-ups do — they don't take care of the basics of the business before they go off and make creative games?

Absolutely. You get the artist/designer team that has this great idea they want to get out there and put that idea in place, but they forget about paying the bills, budgeting, and all this stuff they consider boring and evil and corporate. A lot of these start-ups are escaping corporate climates and they don't want to deal with that stuff. But that stuff is important and it has to be taken care of. I know we're all here to push the gaming art form forward but people forget about the basics. I can't tell you how many developers I've seen go out of business because they are so focused on the art that they forget about running the business.

Q: So what have been some of the biggest mistakes that Pandemic has made that you've learnt from — a mistake that turned out to be really valuable learning process?

Getting so hard up for cash that we signed the wrong projects to the wrong publishers. We wriggled our way out of those mistakes but in the end it carried over and affected a project that then got cancelled, but then that opened up another problem... We survived to live another day to get another project out. That ego thing, that was a big one. We tried to hire superstars at the beginning but those guys are just destructive, they're not about teams they're just about 'me, me, me'. If you get a couple of those in a group of people, they can split a team up. Another would be me and my partners not clearly defining our roles and bumping into each other, that was almost catastrophic until we worked that out. I made a lot of those mistakes that everyone else is probably making right now, so if we can share any one of those with others and have them avoid it, then great.

Q: Pandemic's previous titles have been made using what might now be considered old-fashioned production methods — the triple A blockbuster with multimillion dollar costs that take over three year's to make. How do you intend to change the Pandemic business model to incorporate new ways of working that start-up developers are nimble enough to take advantage of and experiment with?

Well the good news is that I am going to change our business model. In fact we've been changing it for a little while. I'm very worried about how much money our games cost to make, I'm worried they take so long to make, I'm worried they have to have so many people working on them to make them and I'm worried the only place we can sell them is in bricks and mortar retail stores. A lot of that has to change and we have to find ways to make game development smaller, more flexible, faster out to retail and with more dynamic teams. We're thinking a lot about that right now.

Q: You obviously can't discuss these changes in great detail, and that's understandable, but are there any business models or technology that stand out to you and excite the team?

The free-to-play model. I love what Battlefield Heroes is going after. I really like that, and Acclaim is going after that model too. Having a more direct connection with your community of gamers before, during and after the launch of the product, and then continuing to have a relationship with the consumer after the product has come out — I think we need to address more of that. Those are a couple of areas that I'm thinking about.

Q: Chris Taylor from Gas Powered Games has said that he wants to create games that appeal to people who are playing Peggle. This is a guy known for his hardcore strategy and RPG roots talking about going after the casual consumer. Could you see Pandemic making a shift in the genres of games it creates?

I don't want to change the types of games that we make, necessarily. We're not going to start making kids' games or sports games. It's about changing what products we give the consumer and how they interact with them, how they interact with me and how we interact with the player. How I get that product to them in the first place, those kind of things.

The Pandemic brand stands for great, innovative action games. We're not about to change, that's a mistake that some developers make where they go, 'wow, this market looks cool, let's go over there'. Some make that leap successfully, and Chris Taylor is a great executive so if anybody's going to figure that out he will, but all those people you've hired up to that point, they joined the company thinking they were going to make a certain type of game. They might not want to make kids' games or try a different genre. You've got to question if your instincts are fine tuned enough to make that switch and successfully make those games. We came close to making that mistake as a studio. We dabbled in sports a little bit and we tried to do more casual games but we didn't know what the hell we were doing. It was dumb. That's when its important to focus, focus, focus.

Q: Now of course you're part of the Electronic Arts business, not a struggling start-up. How has that changed the company?

It hasn't. I have a boss but I had one of those at VG Holdings. We have different headed paper now. The good changes are that we can really focus on our products more. I was at GDC for one day rather than three days where I'm trying to sell and make deals. We're focusing on our games. There are some tech benefits. It was only closed two month's ago so I can't even speak of all the potential benefits yet, but the point I'm making is that Pandemic as a studio, from a consumers perspective, there's no major changes. They can still expect the great games.

Q: And you're confident that EA will be happy to let that continue, that they won't interfere...

Yes, and John (Riccitiello, Electronic Arts' CEO) has said that in the past interfering with the internal studios hasn't worked for them. That's not the model that EA is now following. The model now is to trust your talent, support your talent, give them what they need to do and let them tap into what EA has to offer, which is the fact that they are the best publishing organisation in the world. It just doesn't make logical or business sense for them to change a development studio like that. John and all of the executives at EA have very loudly said that in public. They want to empower their creative talent.

Q: Do you still feel like an independent developer and studio?

Yes. It says Pandemic on the box, we've got Pandemic email addresses and we're making Pandemic games.

Josh Resnick is president of Pandemic Studios. Interview by Matt Martin.

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