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.
“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.
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!