Groveling for dollars

Groveling for dollars: By Greg Costikyan. Bugs, babes and booze -- for game developers rustling up financing, there's a million potholes on the road to success.


Greg Costikyan
May 4, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Thursday, 1847 PST: We're barreling south in a Ford Aspire; we're penny-pinching independent game developers, it's the cheapest car we could rent. Affluent geeks pass us right and left in Lexi and Acurae; billboards promote debugging tools. We're not in Kansas anymore.

We four, we proud, we band of brothers, we're in smoggy California for the Computer Game Developers Conference -- Derek the CEO, Denny the Veep, Damon the Tech and I. We're hot, we're hip, we're going to set the game industry on fire.

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There's only one thing that stands between us and gaming immortality: a million and a half in development funding.

That's why we're here, to play the industry's favorite game: Groveling for Dollars.

I'll take Microsoft Foundation Classes for $400, Alex.

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We check in, get settled. Derek's head swivels at every pair of legs, which has me worried. The bar is already filled with boisterous Brits; Denny is itching to join them, which worries me more. We have a meal that reminds me why I try to avoid hotel restaurants. Damon and I go upstairs to set up the box.

There's some kind of problem with the machine. It was running fine when we left home. Something went haywire in transit. At 2100 hours -- 0000 back home -- I leave Damon to get some sleep. He's still brooding over the software. The demo keeps crashing, coming up bluescreen. This is not good.

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Friday, 0700 PST: I go see what's up with Damon. He has the case open and is poking at things with a voltage probe, eyes drooping with weariness. This is definitely not good. I hop in the car, go down to CompUSA, max out my Visa to buy a new box. We have the demo on CD-ROM. God willing, all will be well for our 11 o'clock.

I have breakfast sent up and pour a couple of quarts of coffee into Damon. He's past his warranty date, but he has to get this thing running. The demo starts up fine, then bam -- the video doesn't play. The game-play part works fine, but so much for our cool intro cut-scene. Damon curses and starts checking out the video drivers. The box has some damn video card he's never seen before. Hey, DirectX makes the hardware level invisible to the software, right? What a boon to developers. Damon curses Microsoft, hardware manufacturers and third-party software vendors indiscriminately.

Friday, 1100 PST: Marty Caparula of Passivision is prompt, more's the pity. Damon is still whacking away at the keyboard, a phone receiver cradled between head and shoulder as he talks to the video card support people at $1.95 a minute, plus whatever the hotel is going to surcharge us. Derek kills some time sweet-talking Caparula; they go way back. They're talking about punch-card days. Denny is getting visibly annoyed at this; we aren't going to position ourselves as hip and hot by talking about ancient history. Pre-Pong might as well be prehistoric.

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Finally, Derek is talked out, and we have to go ahead with the demo, cut scene or no. Damon sighs, starting it up. Caparula notices the flicker when the video starts and immediately cuts out; we have to explain. He's visibly impressed with our technical prowess. No doubt this vastly increases his eagerness to throw seven figures our way; we can't even get Video for Windows to work. We're a bunch of fucking dweebs, that's what we are.

So I show off the game, such as it is -- only two commands do anything. There's a little proof of concept here, but not a hell of a lot else. But hey, it's concept we're flogging, not technology.

"Combat Golf"! Eighteen levels. Eighteen holes. Eighteen ways to die. Get it? Think of the marketing. First-person shooter meets the favorite sport of people rich enough to afford PCs.

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Backstory? The future is hell. Half the population are mutant zombies dying for a chance to feast on human flesh. The other half would like nothing better than to bushwack you on your supposed day off. The world is a sewer.
But there's always golf. If you can survive long enough to sink that putt ... There are scads of stupid monsters you have to whack while trying to tee off or get out of the sand trap. You can use your clubs. Or you can just shoot your ball to drive it down the fairway -- one shot, one stroke. But you don't have much control with the BFG.

Caparula is polite. Hey, why not? He and Derek go way back. He takes the paper, comments positively on the full-color cover (a big hulking cyborg with those stupid golfing pants, a bag of golf clubs over one shoulder and a BFG in the other hand). He'll get back to us.

"I think that went pretty well," says Derek.

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Denny and I tell him he's a moron. Caparula was polite. Polite! It's the kiss of death.

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Damon's figured out the problem. He's going to have to go back into the code. Luckily, we brought the source with us. Denny tells him to get some sleep, he can work on it later, when he's fresh. Well, fresher. Another all-nighter for our boy is in the cards.

We don't have another meeting today, so I actually go out to the conference to catch a few seminars, maybe see some people I know. I catch a speech from Dani Bunten. She begins by asking people to raise their hands: "How many of you are on the programming side?" A forest goes up. "How many on the art side?" Another forest. "How many on the money side?" Whoa. I make a quick scan about the room. Nary a hand. Oh, there are money men in the audience, all right; they just know better than to identify themselves to this audience of vultures. They'd have people six deep around them, begging for cash if they did. I'd be among them.

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Saturday, 0900 PST: Damon is passed out on the bed, surrounded by Twinkie wrappers and empty cans of Jolt, the detritus of a long night's coding. 0 Errors, 0 Warnings says the debugger, so I set the demo going. Mirabile dictu, the fucker runs. Now we're cooking with gas. Doesn't look half bad, either.

I have to roust Damon; we have a meeting in an hour, and the room needs cleaning up. I send him up to my room to crash.

We have high hopes for the 10 o'clock. It's Gerald Flanders, exec VP of Product Development for Selectric Smarts. High enough to green-light development without someone second-guessing him. Derek has spent hours courting Flanders.

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Derek's visibly antsy as the time approaches, pacing up and down the room, rebrushing his hair, straightening his tie. Ten comes, then 10:15, then 10:30. Finally, there's a knock at the door.

I open it. A woman is there, dress suit, Ann Taylor, sensible shoes. I look up and down the hall for Flanders. He's not there. She's Betsy something, assistant whatsis, Flanders apologizes, he couldn't make it.

The bastard has blown us off.

It's a complete waste of time, of course; unless she goes back absolutely raving about what geniuses we are, we won't get a hearing, and maybe not even then. She's too damn junior. But we show her our stuff, she's perky, she's nice, she asks questions that indicate she knows something about marketing and nothing about the technology, but at least she's not a complete bozo. We stuff her with paper and a demo disk, and she promises to pass it on to Flanders.

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When she leaves, Derek collapses into an armchair like a broken toy. "I need a drink," Denny says menacingly. I threaten to have him shipped back to Britain if he touches a drop between now and our 6 o'clock. He's my boss, you understand.

I go and wander forlornly about the convention center. It's clear what's going on here. These cretinous bastards are too philistine to comprehend works of genius, that's what it is. They're going to fund more first-person shooters and "Command and Conquer" clones, more of the same old same old instead of a truly original and striking piece of creative imagination like "Combat Golf." It's pearls before swine, that's what it is.

A friend of mine tells me how happy he is at some goddamn developer in Alabama or some godforsaken place. He hasn't had a game published in five years, he's watched three employers go down with all hands, but he's grinning, the bastard. I paste on a transparent smile, realizing with relief that he's just doing the same.

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Saturday, 1700 PST: I find Denny in the bar, swilling a Cosmo and chatting with a bunch of other Brits, who laugh inanely. I hop up and down, rather red-faced, mouthing things incoherently in Denny's direction. He grins, claps me on the back, tells me to buck up and wanders unsteadily up to his room to freshen up for our 6 o'clock.

I head for the elevators myself, to go check on the room where the computer's set up. As I get to the elevators, I see Derek, our CEO, getting into the elevator ahead of me with something in a Betsey Johnson dress and stiletto heels. I moan and scrabble at the elevator buttons.

Five minutes to 6, Derek calls and tells us he has "another meeting" that "may produce something fruitful." He has complete faith in our ability to handle the meeting with Ascendant International.

Derek is off on his horizontal meeting. Damon is barely awake enough to comprehend what's going on. Denny is stagerringly drunk. That leaves -- me.

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Irascible, unpleasant me. I take deep breaths.

The time comes. Ascendant (formerly Crush U Cwik Marketing) has sent a duo, one in his 40s, the other a 20-something acolyte. Both of them sport brushed-back blond hair, health club-toned bodies, Hawaiian shirts, Dockers. The San Jose notion of hip. We do the handshake thing, the pass-the-cards thing, the pretend you're Japanese and say kamichiwa and bump your forehead painfully on the other guy's thing. Everybody grins apologetically, rubbing their foreheads, and Damon starts the demo.

They like it. They like everything. They say "cool" a lot (they still say "cool" in San Jose, apparently). The cut scene is cool. The concept is cool. They ask me if we play golf.

No, none of us plays golf, not even Denny, who by virtue of national origin should have an advantage. Small creases appear on the brows of the duo. I explain to them that we all have complete contempt for the game of golf, which, when you think about it, is about as stupid a sport as you can get. And indeed, we all have complete contempt for first-person shooters. Therefore, we are the development team perfectly suited to create a golf first-person shooter; after all, the whole thrust of the industry in recent years has been toward games devoid of any intellectual or emotional merit that are designed with complete contempt for the potential audience. I mean, look at Postal.

While I make this speech, Denny turns an interesting mauve; his fingers twitch, his eyes go to the ice bucket, but I have taken all the beer up to my room for safe-keeping, and he doesn't fancy a Jolt.

The Ascendant boys explain how I've entirely assuaged their concerns, and what an interesting idea this is. They take the paper and such and depart.

It's Damon's turn to say, "I thought that went rather well." Denny explains to him that those guys are Hollywood, meaning they never say anything negative ever, because today's petitioner may be tomorrow's boss. We actually have no idea where we stand with them, except that after (according to Denny) my idiotic spiel on how the very idea for the game was contemptible, it was obvious we hadn't the chance of a pint of Guinness in hell. Speaking of which.

I flee to the bathroom to find my Xanax, regretting that I haven't brought my straight razor. What if I want to slash my wrists? Ah, no worries, I think, there's always the box cutter.

I calm gradually down as the Xanax kicks in. After all, if worse comes to worse, I can always go back to technical writing.

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Saturday, 2100 PST: I wander the hotel forlornly, hitting the parties. They suck. Microsoft wants you to sign a non-disclosure to get a beer. Now, people in publishing know how to throw a party. I wish I were back at ABA. We've got one last meeting scheduled, noon tomorrow. Obi-wan, you're our only hope.

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Sunday, 1200 PST: The guy from QT Interactive even looks like Alec Guinness; well, if Alec Guinness had a paunch. Not a Brit, though, thank God. Suit and tie, almost looks like a businessman.

We're all on edge, both Damon and Derek look like they haven't slept, Denny is obviously hungover, I'm twitching. The demo runs, we talk about the concept, everything is going smoothly. Obi-wan asks intelligent, interested questions, although his voice seems a little strangled at times.

After 15 minutes or so, he bursts out laughing. He can't hold it in any more. We stare aghast. He's shaking with mirth. He can't stop. "You guys aren't really serious about this, are you?" he gasps.

There's a bit of chaos. I don't really remember what happened. I accidentally sliced his tie in half with the box cutter, I remember that.

Derek runs down the hall after Obi-wan with the proposal and a demo disk while Denny sits on me and Damon pries the box-cutter from my hand.

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Sunday, 2300 PST: The plane drones through the night. No contract, no company. I contemplate my future career writing manuals for large financial transaction systems.


Greg Costikyan

Greg Costikyan's 27th commercially published game, Fantasy War, recently launched on Sony's Station; he also recently completed a report on the future of online games for Good Reports.

MORE FROM Greg Costikyan

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