I just got off the phone with my friend and intuition collective member, Ted Martens, and we were talking a bit about collaborations. Being that game development is rarely the product of just one person, [some exceptions being: cactus, eskill and mossmouth] collaborations of some kind are often useful. But when I talk to people interested in finding a deal like this with someone else, regardless of expertise, they are often lost on where to begin and what to look for.

To be clear, a collaboration is a type of working relationship where all parties agree to some kind of revenue split on a per-project basis. This has nothing to do with hiring employees, contractors or anything else. Anyway, here’s some of what I learned about finding good collaborators.

When I start to look for a collaborator, I go through a series of steps to get to the actual point of making the game. It’s my vetting process. But before that, I think it’s important to understand the nature of a collaboration. How it will work for you and the other person[s] and why.

Partners v. Collaborators

Usually, when someone thinks of making they start with The Almighty Game Development Company. It’s how I started. But truthfully, that’s a whole other mess. Finding a partner is a serious commitment, like marrying someone. A collaborator is more of a girlfriend/boyfriend situation, and rarely includes living together! ;) Distinguishing the two is important for a number of reasons.

Short-term commitments

By eliminating the idea of a long-term, serious commitment to a partner you can afford to fail. That’s incredibly important because you will fail a lot in your search for the right collaborator. The trick though, is to fail in short bursts, wasting as little time as possible.

You’re allowed to be desperate

If you were to form up a partnership with someone that would presumably last for many years, you wouldn’t want to go in signing that contract with a shred of desperation. Would you? Put your feelers out, lay yourself out for everyone to see. Sure, the search for a partner/collaborator is very similar but the emotional impact of people abusing your investment is much, much less.

Know what you want

By talking to people with the intention of creating something with them you’ll figure out your own turn-ons and turn-offs and what you’re looking for in someone else. There is a lot of complexity within anyone’s personality so it’s up to you to find out what values are most important to you. For instance, perhaps you need someone that aligns with your style of brainstorming, or you can’t work with people who want to make RTSs [or any other certain kind of game].

I’ve been able to isolate a number of these traits that clash/mesh when working with someone closely on a creative project.

Work style

This is a tough one to pin down because you need to work together first to truly understand how the other works, but that shouldn’t stop you from asking. Ask about their hours, when they are most productive, what’s the usual? The thing about these questions is that they all infer that they work regularly. If they come off as sporadic or unorganized, that’s pretty telling that they haven’t developed a style at all. If that’s the case, I’d recommend moving on since it means they probably haven’t been doing this for long enough anyway.

If they do have a style, know what you can tolerate and what you can’t. Usually this isn’t a large problem if you can understand it early enough. That way you’ll know how to work best with that person. If they need false deadlines, set them. If they binge and do 90% of their work in the space of one manic day, don’t hound them the rest of the week.

Creative Process

Not everyone wants to be a game designer, but most do. Finding a common ground on how to come up with a game idea can definitely be a challenge on its own, let alone two strangers fumbling around trying to agree on one. I think, more than anything, this is what trips up most collaborations. Too often, one person has a really strong attachment to an idea [or type of game] they bring to the table and can’t let it go. It’s important to allow for wiggle room, be lenient and let the idea be owned by all people involved. Even if one person came up with a single area or story idea, that’s still an important contribution. Get excited about the idea and riff on it, don’t obsess about owning the seed, you’ll get nowhere fast.

Demeanor/Personality

This is something that’s often a chemistry issue. While it’s ideal that you meet someone in person to truly gauge whether your personalities blend well, I think with a healthy chat via Skype or something else you can get a good idea for how the person generally is. This is a gut thing, so any further explanation is a bit ridiculous. Just make sure you get that “good feeling” from the other person.

Mission/Goal

Make sure you are both doing this for similar reasons. If halfway through you realize that your collaborator is doing this purely for profit, disregarding any possible creative ideas you have about design or awesomeness for the sake of pandering to a canned audience, things will go South very quickly. Again, know who you are and why you’re doing this. If you’re in it for the money, find someone else who’s in it for the money.

I’ve been watching Dexter and there was a really good moment in a recent episode [season 1] where he asks a married couple a very interesting question.
Dexter

Why do you love each other?

Married Couple

Because we share the same dream.

Even though they were killing smuggled Cubans and dumping them in the Pacific, they still shared the same dream. I found that comforting. The dream isn’t important, what’s important is that you share it. There’s someone for everyone.

Conflict Resolution/Breaking Point

This may be one of the hardest things to vet out as nobody [sane] wants to initiate a conflict for the sake of finding out how eachother reacts to it. Though you can definitely understand how someone deals with mini-conflicts by criticizing their ideas/design. If a prospective collaborator were to fly off the handle after you mentioning something about your apprehension to including real-time weather patterns in your game, you might want to step away.

Conflict is a very real and necessary element to any kind of team effort. They will arise and they must be dealt with in one way or another. If they cannot be handled in a reasonable way, that can be a leading cause to a game’s death or some other terrible outcome. Definitely think ahead as much as possible to how someone might respond to adversity.

The Vetting Process

Ok, so that’s some general things to look out for, now for the process itself. In step-by-step form!

STEP ONE: Put the feelers out

What you’re looking for is someone who is everything you’re not. Maybe it’s two people, maybe it’s five. Whatever it is, if you’re an artist, look for games with programmer/amateur art. If you’re a programmer, look for artists with game mockups, paintings and the like. You’re not necessarily looking for amazing games here. Those are games that already have the total package. You need to find half-baked games preferably mocked up or programmed by one person.

Alternatively, it’s important for you to put your best foot forward. If you’re an artist, provide a link to your portfolio that showcases your best and most relevant work. If you’ve made games before, point directly to them. If you’re a programmer, do the same. It’s not enough to simply be interested, you need to prove why you’re going to be awesome to work with. Make your intentions clear. More on that later.

This being the internet, there are loads of places to find people actively looking for collaborators. Though, because of that, things are pretty competitive. Here’s just a few. If you have any suggestions on other places let me know in a comment and I’ll add it to the list.

Now this list is focused around finding someone with experience in making Flash games. That’s where my experience lies, but surely there are other places, if you have one and you’re reading this. Please let me know so I can add it.

There are definitely other places to find collaborators. I met Andy Moore at the 2009 GDC in San Francisco. I found Jiggmin through his game Platform Racing 2. None of those happened based on a post from a forum, I found them by emailing with them directly.

STEP TWO: Set a course

Once you’ve got some prospective collaborators on the line, you’ve got to hook them. I’d encourage you to try and foster an environment that is as creatively open and fair as possible while also maintaining a very small scope for your first collaboration together. There are a few ways to do this.

  1. Do not come in to a collaboration with a preconceived game idea
  2. Split any future profits equally among original collaborators [for the most part]
  3. Define a basic timeline. eg. “Let’s make this game in two weeks.”
  4. Go further and agree on a mini-milestone such as: “Game ideas by tomorrow.”
  5. Chat with them at length

All of these agreements will tell you a lot about the other person and definitely bring up a good many red flags if they exist. If someone misses the “game ideas by tomorrow” deadline, then that’s probably a red flag that they may not be as committed to this as you are. Alternatively, if they have Idea A that they really want to make and you’re just not into it but they keep pushing, well that’s another red flag. The reason you’re setting a course is so that you both have to follow it.

Frankly, a large part of this is about your gut. If you get a good vibe from the other[s] then move forward. I’ve had a fair amount of collaborations never get past this stage due to a whole host of problems. Many of them are completely understandable. Most of the time, it simply doesn’t work out. It’s nobody’s fault, just a bad combo.

STEP THREE: Fast Prototype

Once you’ve decided on an idea it’s important to get something up and running ASAP. Don’t get entrenched in a series of game design documents and planning schedules. Those can be useful, but if you spent a month doing all that only to find out that when it actually comes to making the game it’s not going to work out, then that’s time wasted. The main idea here is to fast forward to the good part so you can find out if it’s really going to work or not.

STEP FOUR: Communicate and Develop

Decide on a chat program/account that you will both use to keep in touch daily. If you are going on vacation, let the other person know. Since most of these happen remotely this kind of feedback is really important for motivating the other member[s]. Sometimes simply not knowing what’s up with the other person will coerce you into slowly losing hope that the project will actual be completed. If you’re wondering, shoot them an email! If they go AWOL, they go AWOL and that sucks, but at least you know, learn and move on.

It’s a bit ludicrous to reduce this stage [certainly the bulk of the time] to a couple paragraphs, but game development is its own animal all together. The best advice I can give is to communicate throughout the development process, even if it’s just saying “Hi” in the morning. It’s enough to let the other person know you care, which is a lot more important than most people think it is.

STEP FIVE: Profit

Once you’ve finished the game, regardless of the platform, there will certainly be a lot more work to do in order to distribute the game. Even if it’s a Flash game, you’ll probably want to find a sponsor, set up ads or even use some kind of microTX system. Whatever the case, the work continues and it’s important to realize that.

I hope my haphazard brain-dump helps a few folks out there, if you have comments or criticisms please post below. I’d be curious to hear other folk’s experiences with this practice.