In yet another case of me needing to watch what I say or people will take me seriously, I mentioned to some people at breakfast after Ultimate Frisbee (after having discovered that they were all Mudd CS majors and planning/interested in going into video games), that we should start a video game company. Having been surprised that they all agreed so readily, I commented to another person, "Geez, what would we even call it? Ultimate Software? ... Crap, I named it, didn't I?"
So I went and looked into such things. And the others looked into such things. It's starting to look more and more probable that we're going to start a video game company this coming June.
What I'm looking for: People interested in joining a video game start-up located in the Seattle area, preferably who are willing to work for not very much until we can get a product up to the point of noticing from a producer. (looking at a year to two years here) Current plan is to develop a RPG for the PS2 that is relatively low in high-end art (being that we're short artists). Payments to make up for the low payroll would be forthcoming as soon as capital arrived. Above, with "Artists" switched for "People". Send resumes to mailto:email@example.com.
More generically, anybody on schmack who are interested in helping write, design, test, or otherwise help out in ways that could be done in your spare time, send me an email. As soon as I get the forms I'll send out the NDAs and descriptions of what we have so far.
I still can't believe I'm doing this, but I'm going to enjoy the ride,
Brian "President, Ultimate Software" Roney
I do realize that there are quite a few hurdles on our way to productivity, and I'm investigating them as we speak. One of these hurdles is actually having people to work at the place, so I figured finding out if there's any interest would be useful. I've scheduled a talk with Bill Fisher (Quicksilver Software, most recently of Moo3? fame), about the legalese involved and other advice. Evans is a little hard to talk to, being on sabbatical, but I have people talking to Prag and trying to get into contact with Evans. If those don't pan out I do have a few ideas of my own. Yes, we're still looking into all this, we're still in the "any huge hurdle could knock this out of reality", but in the meantime I'm having fun and learning a decent amount about the industry.
And if you've got better ideas for a first production, I'm open to suggestions. PS2 games are a primary choice because even the low-end PS2 games sell more copies than most of the high-end PC games (I don't exactly think we're going to produce a Warcraft 3 on our first shot), and RPGs tended to come to mind considering the people we'd likely have working there. As well, we get the added benifit of being able to foist the dialogue writing (one of the more lengthy jobs) and other such tasks onto happy volunteers from schmack. I haven't looked into what genres of games tend to do better then others, so this very well may change rapidly once I do a little more research, and again, if people have ideas I'd love to hear them, but I thought I'd mention what we were thinking about.
I think that writing puzzle games could be a possible starting place. The scope could be much smaller, making it more feasible for an unfunded first project. Also, I've never been satisfied with the quality of existing puzzle games, and I think that a group of Mudders should be able to come up with something much better and more creative.
(By "puzzle games" I guess I mean something in the broad range from Tetris to Myst... maybe exploratory games like Super Metroid too.)
As for the RPG vs. something else model, I do think that there are a lot of RPGs on the market right now, and plus they don't have /that/ broad of an appeal (moreso at Mudd, but not everyone plays them). I think our best bet actually would be to make something along the lines of Super Monkey Ball - a game that mainly consists of lots of smaller games. This limits the complexity of the project, and ensures that we don't get burned out working on the same damned thing over and over again.
I wonder how well we could amalgamize a 2D shooter with a Sokoban-esque puzzle game and maybe a Zelda clone? :) Seriously though, packaging several small, but related products together into one game could be a very workable idea. Just don't make them too disjoint.
You could put together a RPG-like puzzle game...
like matt said, Myst counts as a puzzle game... and you get a story with that. throw in money and equipment purchasing, etc, and you've got even more rpg-esque type game.
as far as just making money... you could even have add-on packs that could expand into the educational market... just think... studying for the SAT by playing video games... mmm... proffity goodness...
Again, the key fact here is that we would be the people behind this game. I think that argues for a focus on what kind of game we would be best at designing, rather than what kind of game we wish we could play. It's possible, albeit unlikely, that we might have some dramatic insight into what kind of game people will buy. But large companies spend lots of money to find precisely this kind of information. Similar arguments apply for heavily graphical games and the like. On the other hand, a group of Mudders has several advantages from a design standpoint. For one thing, we have dramatically better exposure to logic & mathematics than most people in the world, which is not to be sneezed at, especially if the target is a puzzle game like Matt suggested. For another, we have a distinctive, quirky sense of humor about these things. If we could successfully integrate the two, I could see good things happening.
An RPG would take a lot of development time .. which would make it expensive. If you can pull it off, great. It would probably take a lot less time and money to start out with a tetris-like game. (the hard part is coming up with an original idea.. everyone has twenty versions of tetris, columns, dr. mario, bust-a-move, etc. already) .. I'd personally like to see something Zeldaish on the PS2.. (nintendo has ported the SNES Zelda game to the GBA, but I'd like to see something new!)
Following what MarkEPhair? said, I think the easiest, most marketable first game to design would be some sort of educational puzzle game. It doesn't have to be a kids game, but the idea of something like "The Island of Dr. Brain" aimed at an older (college age?) audience sounds very appealing, and a good use of the Mudders you have at your disposal.
Here's a random idea for you (I get these when I'm about to fall asleep). Picture a dark man, wearing a black trenchcoat, and preferably a hat with a large brim (to hide his face). He's walking up on the Big Edifice of the Enemy. Legions of enemies face him. And he is armed with...an umbrella. Basic idea is a 2D (maybe 3D, depending) platformer where the player cannot actively attack. He uses the umbrella to deflect, reflect, collect, and basically mess with incoming shots. So if the umbrella is on "normal" mode (i.e. the opening of the bowl faces the user), then incoming shots can be bounced back at an angle, perhaps given spin or extra speed in the process. If the umbrella is reversed (opening facing away) then the player can collect shots, a la Game and Watch's bucket in SSBM, to release them in a large, directed blast. We could have a lot of fun making powerups (say, an electromagnet on the umbrella to make projectiles magnetic (and thus guided) as long as battery life lasts, or the whole slew of Metroid-style things). Or is it too silly?
I came up with a BadIdea last night: A Weird Al VideoGame! It could be a wacky rhythm game in the spirit of Guitaroo Man, a puzzle game, or even an RPG with Al and his band as members of the party. OK, I actually have a better vision of this now: An RPG starring Wierd Al and his band in which they venture through a fantasy world made up of all Al's crazy ideas. So they'd battle off hoards of crazy Amish, radioactive hamsters, flesh-easting weasels, claymation dinosaurs and so on. Bosses could be such characters as Santa Claus, Eddie Veder(sp?) and the Largest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. The battle system could actually work something like Guitaroo Man, with party members attacking with musical riffs and blocking attacks by dancing.
Also, out of curiousity, where are you planning to get capital to support a zero-revenue company for a period of years? These things are surprisingly expensive, even to not do anything. First, you need to incorporate to protect you from liability (which is very expensive -- requires lawyers and stuff). It may not seem to be a problem, but imagine the endeavor folds and a disgruntled employee decides to sue you personally for lost wages.
Perhaps talk to Evans? He sits on the board of practically every Mudd-borne company, so he ought to know what he's doing. But you'll have to have more than "We wanna write games".
I suggest you put together a more concrete business plan before you dive into this face-first...
On the other hand, PC games can be much lower-overhead, which might be more important than volume for a small startup.
You can develop a PC game with commodity hardware and software, produce it yourself, and distribute/market it primarily online. If you can sell 40,000 copies of a $25 game in one year, that's $1M in revenue and very little in expenses -- fine for a five or six-person company. After that you'd have the cash to start a longer-term project.
I think Matt and Rob hit the nail on the head when they brought up the issues of revenue/capitalization. I'm going to generalize slightly, to place emphasis on what I think is the general idea driving their reasoning.
The key aspect in making a decision like this is not designing a game vs. not designing a game. Instead, it's the fact that *you* are the person designing the game.
Viewed from the perspective that the main source of financing for this company would be the people currently discussing it -- namely, shmackers plus whatever resources shmackers have access to -- it would be wise to look at a distributed development model -- few or no full-time employees, as much development as possible via conduits like email.
The point here is that while there may be a large market hole for a well-capitalized game, that hole is overwhelmingly likely to be filled by well-capitalized people -- i.e. not us.
This might also affect the target platform. I don't know much about the economics of video games, but if developing for one target required a substantial investment, that could be an argument for avoiding that platform.
An example of how to make money with little capital (Counter Strike): 
While [Slashdot] is not noted for the stunning insights found in its comments, every so often you find a pearl. If [this guy] knows what he's talking about, then it betokens some cautions about management, design, and control over the game.
You may try to do this using an open source development model. The resulting game could then be packaged and sold along with (closed source) official manuals and strategy guides in stores. Of course, this would mean you'd pretty much be stuck with a PC game, but you may be able to get some cheap labor out of it.
If you set up a revenue sharing system with the top contributors, suddenly your employees become contractors, and work for free until the game is done enough to hire real employees.
Probably wouldn't work, but it might be worth a shot...
I dunno, Open Source games *really* don't have much of a track record (at least, not a good one). The only exceptions I know of are the id games, which are open-sourced only ex post facto (and the open-sourced versions of those games generally seem to be worse than the commercial ones).
I'm not aware of any attempt to actually do an open source game the "correct" way. All the ones I've seen are just some guy starting to write a game, and then putting it online. Do you know of any projects that started with a design document?
But you're right in that it would be a risky proposition prone to failure. Or course, companies are risky propositions prone to failure in general.
But I do like Matt's puzzle game suggestion. Puzzle games are games that are all design and very little programming (comparitively). The design in games of this type is crucial though. If you could do nothing but put together a solid design document, you may be able to find a producer.
Open engine / closed content has some possibilities. In the FPS world, a lot of successful games are primarily new content for existing engines. I can see small companies benefitting a lot if the gaming engine became an open, shared commodity the same way the PC and the network are, and the operating system is becoming.
Side note: [Andrew Wooldridge's weblog] has a lot of interesting links on indie RPG games, engines, and game-building systems.