Realtime Worlds was an amazing place to work

While my previous posts on what went wrong painted a pretty bleak picture, it wasn’t all bad.  I arrived at RTW with relatively little experience, and had the opportunity to take part in growing the company from 30ish to 300ish.  The fast growth, the ridiculous technical ambition and the transition from programming to managing teams made these some of the most intense years of learning I’ve ever had.  It’s hard to find words to describe just how much I grew in that time.

“Never mind – we blew $100m, but we learned from it!” is scant consolation for our investors, our gamers and indeed ourselves, but for those of us who were on the rollercoaster, we shouldn’t let that take away from the fact that we did learn a lot.

We also shouldn’t let our failure take away pride from the things we did well.


I was first sold on working for RTW when I saw the concept for MyWorld at interview.  They weren’t really sure what the project was yet, but it was clear that it was very, very different from the kinds of games I’d been working on at VIS.  These were games that aimed to change gaming, as opposed to games that aimed to keep the business afloat for another year or two.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about working for Dave Jones was that his past success freed him from any desire to do something ordinary just to tick along.  Everything he did had to be ambitious in some way.  Arguably, we were too ambitious, because we were trying new things from both a technical and product perspective.  If you hold one of those constant, you can deal with the other: you can iterate fast on unknown product concepts when you have a stable technical base, and you can throw engineers at really hard problems if they know exactly what problem they’re solving.  We had no idea what we were making, and we had no idea how to do it.  Crazy, but exhilarating.

I didn’t include this in my “what we did wrong” because I honestly think we kept pace with the challenge pre-investment and had the chance to execute better.  The fact that we came quite close in some ways, that we did some of the hard things really, really well, and failed in some deceptively simple ways, is deeply frustrating.  But there’s no question that we set ourselves lofty goals, and shouldn’t be too surprised that we failed.  It was always going to be a possibility.

For my future, I am determined to demand challenge and ambition in whatever I do, because I found it genuinely thrilling, and would find it hard to go back.  The only caveat is that at RTW, the joy of the technical challenge blinded me to weaknesses in our product and business thinking, and I need to avoid a repeat of that.

Crunch time

“Management” is a generalisation, a big topic.  While my post-mortem has been highly critical of some aspects of the company’s management, it would be wrong to say “management” was bad and “developers” were good.  Our development leads managed a lot of our work extremely well, and we generally hit development milestones confidently and smoothly on all our projects.  We cultivated an ethos of working very hard during the day, but going home on time.

Whatever the end results of our efforts, I have seen enough evidence to suggest you don’t need to force a team to work crazy hours to build a great game.  On the other hand, I’ve also seen that people working long hours truly voluntarily, for the love of what they’re doing, bodes extremely well, and that a complete lack of it is a major warning sign.

I leave with a strong belief that I can realistically combine creating great software with spending time with my children, something that many programmers must come to question at times.

Deja vu

It’s frustrating that the lessons of our failure read like so many other startup failures.  Many people have written to me recently to say just how eerily similar it sounds to a past experience of theirs.  It’s sad that we couldn’t learn from other people’s lessons before we walked into them.  It’s a painful illustration of how much more you learn from personal experience than from reading.

I hope we can all use our experience for good in the future.  Realtimers, I will miss you all, and expect great things from you!

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6 Responses to Realtime Worlds was an amazing place to work

  1. Amen to that! It was a great place to work with a lot of smart and friendly people.

  2. Arttu says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it’s very educational to read about your experiences. Even though we don’t always (hardly ever) learn from others mistakes, there is even a possibility to learn something. Game industry is really interesting field and it’s nice to read about different kinds of projects, so keep on writing.

    I hope you’ll have better luck with future projects!

  3. nick h says:

    Thanks for your recent posts, its the most info that anyone has cared to divulge from within the company – it must have taken a lot of guts to come up front and be the one in the spotlight to put your points across.

    I can relate to your pain, as i was made redundant from a job within a major bank quite recently its not nice.

    My recent dilema was that I was laying around in a state of depression licking my wounds and trying my best to unwind by using the form of escapism that gaming has always given me (in San Paro at this time). Its amazed me that the real world would rear its ugly head yet again in my domain of escapism and make me watch as my hidden place was also butt raped by the corporate machine. – So I hope that it gives you a bit of comfort that you are not the worst off guy on the planet.

    I sincerely hope you bounce back and are snapped up by a better company.

  4. Andy Wren says:

    I’m no developer – just a low-level insurance industry peon – but I’ve found your blogs insightful and humane. I’ve been through the redundancy mill twice myself (not too bad for a 9-year long stint) and have every sympathy for the disruption and uncertainty that our paymasters’ failure breeds. Thanks for the commentary, best of luck in your future endeavours. Rgds, Andy

  5. Ben Stanton says:

    You hit the nail on the head Luke. We really did work with some truly exceptional people. Since I’ve been back in the states, I’ve been asked (almost on a daily bases) ‘Well, do you regret moving over there now that there’s nothing to show for it?’ And I respond with the same answer, ‘I don’t regret it at all. I’ll take with me for the rest of my life, all the things I learned, people I met, and moments experienced living in Dundee and working at RTWs.’ What most people don’t get is that the majority our staff was comprised of ex-pats and in being so we developed a special bond of sorts. A collective of individuals, from all over the world, working together towards a common goal.
    I can honestly say, I’ve never felt more creative working with the people at RTWs. Despite how everything went down, I’ll always be in touch with you guys and always curious as to how your getting on.
    Oh, btw… If you ever get a chance to head up to Seattle, hit me up m8! 🙂
    Keep up the blog man, it’s good stuff.

  6. Fiona Heredia says:

    Really interesting blog Luke, though I would not expect anything less from you! Hope you are loving life in California. What you have written is spot on and would be good reading for anyone in business.

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