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The Story of NExT Studios (Pt.1) —— Creativity, the Driving Force behind Game Industry

2019-01-09

NEXT Story (1) - Inception

 

NExT Studios is a new interactive game development team where people come from different places to work on different projects. The studio is still in its infancy and is not widely known to the public. It is only mentioned among a small circle of people and is sometimes overpraised or misunderstood. The studio also has a complicated story and no one, including an insider like me, could fully grasp the past and present of it.

I hope that this article will eliminate any uncertainty by providing more inside stories of NExT Studios.

In this article, I will try to focus on facts rather than individuals. After all, lots of things happened in a short time and it might take us years to form an objective overview of everything.

Let's begin with the inception of NExT Studios.

 

Collect

 

Back in 2016, I was in another division in Tencent Interactive Entertainments together with Li working on VR and new technology. It was a fun and not very stressful job. The boss was nice, too. It was a largely autonomous division, and we had plenty of opportunities to broaden our horizon. The only drawback was that the division was designed to support other studios. We were asked to output technology rather than games.

We were perfectly fine with that. We invested a significant amount of energy in developing the engine of Moonlight Blade at its early to middle development stages. We also participated in the engine development for multiple projects within Interactive Entertainment. There were successes and failures. Overall, I would consider our work to have been recognized by other teams.

We could find as many excuses as we wanted. However, in the end, providing simple technical support could no longer satisfy us. We needed a good product to show off our technical ability.

We needed an opportunity to make a game.

In the second half of the year, Li said that he would take over the Monster Hunter team. At that time, I was shocked. It’s very difficult to make a product that was already going downhill shine again. The bigger the product, the harder it is to turn it around.

Soon after, Li said that he would take over the AI toy team. Well, I was unfamiliar with the team, but the market for AI toys was clearly declining.

After a while, he brought more shocking news. He told me that the Robot Car Project is also going to be merged.

What were you trying to do? Are you a collector of failed teams?

 

The Team

 

Scenes from Death Coming - Twisted ways to die

 

Yep, that's right. The original NExT Studios was formed from members all coming failed teams

It took us 7 years and much frustration to finally release Monster Hunter OL, but the game was not as successful as we anticipated. However, if we assess the failure, we could see some very capable team members working in a team that lacked overall ability. The Monster Hunter franchise attracted a lot of brilliant game developers. Sadly, the capability of a team was not the sum of its individuals. The development team of Monster Hunter had many shortcomings and we were in a mess due to our recent failure and low morale.

The Al toy business turned out to be a mare's nest when the dust settled. The market for drones and robot cars was not as big as expected either. To make matters worse, we were also met with a lot of difficulties in our game development. We were tired and at a loss. We didn't know what to do NExT.

Even a successful company can have an unsuccessful team in it. In a market with fierce competition, failure is a common sight. Luckily, we are at Tencent, a place where everyone has a second chance. Some say that no one can succeed when in a failed project, but failure provided us with the nutrition for growth. Success is only possible if we are willing to look back on our failures.

 

Naming

 

Scene from Death Coming – Life without a choice

 

Li was going to integrate these teams to form a new division.

We needed a name for the division. It had to be easy to pronounce and understand. It should also be straightforward and profound.

Naming is never my strong suit. I am good at making things complicated. I will use 100 words to describe something that normally takes 10 and employ different figures of speech. A simple name was too short to hold my creativity.

Li is good at giving names and concepts. He likes to make complicated things simple by revealing the essence with a simple summarization. He should be good at giving a short succinct name without unnecessary figures of speech and imagination.

This time, surprisingly, I beat him to it and came up with the name of NExT. The name originates from a Microsoft document. It was the acronym of "New Experience and Technology". It means that we are experimenting with new experiences and technology.

This name was the beginning of my relationship with NExT Studios.

In the NExT few months, I was transferred to another division. I witnessed the change and transformation of NExT in its first six months from the perspective of a bystander.

 

NExT Story (2) – Survival Game

 

Note: Starting from this chapter, many details might be in the wrong order. Being a bystander, I didn't have much first-hand experience or notes for reference. Plus, I don't have a reliable memory.

The new team's objective had always been an issue.

 

Better or Different

 

In a competition, the most effective strategy for someone in first place is to copy the strategy of the competitor in second place, winning the competition by holding on to the current superiority. Those who fall behind, however, need to rely on a unique strategy and takeover others where they least expect it.

This was the status quo for NExT. Being a team in a big company, we were more capable and had more resource compared to other teams outside the company. But we were still a small, weak team when compared to other studios from within. We wanted to be better, but we just couldn't. We thought ourselves as talents that can make contributions to the company. Others thought of us as food. They wanted to take the resources that we had. Therefore, to survive, we decided to be different rather than better.

To be different, that was the answer Li gave.

He set some games as the benchmark for our objectives. He wanted to know what kind of mechanism were needed to facilitate the birth of such products.

Undoubtedly, we were going to give up on conventional objectives such as commercialization because, if we tried to achieve everything, we would end up with nothing. We were seeking something completely different. To be more specific, we began to focus on innovation.

 

Concubine Theory

 

Scene from Iris.Fall – A Dark Fantasy

 

With this in mind, members of the team began to think up a theory. Our man in Shenzhen presented a brilliant one called the "Concubine Theory."

Tencent Interactive Entertainment already had multiple studios at the time. They were much like the wives who can make money and products.

NExT is the concubine. A concubine is not strong enough to fight for power against the wives. Instead of making profitable commercial games, we decided to make some innovative games that could receive recognition from others.

The Concubine Theory is the basis of our direction. We would avoid what other studios excel at since the boss would not like it when he discovers that we are just another less capable studio.

Every transformation came at a cost. The division began turning its direction to the unknown future as fear of the darkness engulfed us.

We were prepared for impact. But we didn't expect it to be endless.

 

Flag Pole

 

Scene from Iris.Fall - The contrast between light and shadow

 

Our first doubt was: could we actually make innovative games?

It was a tough question because most of us started out making commercial games. We made more imitations rather than innovations and were used to executing orders rather than thinking. We abandoned our original aspiration a long time ago. We weren't sure that innovative games were what we wanted to make. We weren't sure that we could. We weren't sure what type of innovative games we should make.

We desperately needed a clear guideline. We were trying to answer the question: what kind of game does NExT hope to make. Of course, we could launch Steam and find the top 5 games of every genre and set those as our target. Grand targets were not practical for a team with limited capability. On top of that, we didn't want to imitate other games.

Li added more detail to the rules. He created five aspects, including narrative, art style, etc. We weren't looking for a game that balanced all five aspects, but our game needed to excel in at least one. A conventional commercial game is designed with the bucket theory in mind. Instead, we aim to create a game with the flag pole theory, trying to reach a certain level in one aspect.

Over the following two years, NExT has been selecting products using this principle. We tolerate flaws but not mediocrity.

 

The Capable Programmer

 

Iris.Fall – The self-expression of lead art designer

 

We always trusted that our boss could make the best decisions for our team. But it was another story when it came to implementing these strategies.

Li had to control the overall direction, but it was impossible for him to directly manage a lot of teams. The key to management was detaching himself from the details, paying close attention from outside, and taking responsibility for the results.

People say that programmers love to reinvent the wheel, I guess that was what happened to the management of NExT. Being the former CTO of Yingpei, Li was itching to code. The current management system and development process were quite complete. However, many flaws can hinder the incubation of innovative games. With that in mind, he began revamping the development culture, process, and system.

It was a scary decision. When I look back upon my decision to make an engine for Moonlight Blade and those all-nighters that decision brought, I realized that I wouldn’t have dared to make such a decision had I known it was that complicated. Similarly, revamping the management system of an organization can also cause a lot of bugs. We were in endless debugging for over half a year as we encountered tons of issues. Just recently, as the whole system began to stabilize, we began to think of another wave of adjustments.

Being an IT company, we believed in Google's 20% rule, Supercell's bottom-up structure, and Spotify's agile culture. Since we have some room for trial and error, we decided to implement a combination of various kinds of management cultures.

Li called the influential management experiment NEXTopia.

 

NExT Story (3) – Source of ideas

 

NExT has yet to release a lot of products.

But those released by NExT have shown great diversity. During game expos, NExT is often mistaken as a publisher by foreigners from the game industry. They found it very hard to believe that a studio could have the freedom to make games with hugely diverse mechanics and art styles.

However, that is exactly how NExT Studios operates. We don't have to reuse assets; we don't have to make sequels; we don't have to have a unified art style. Our only target is to express ourselves to our heart’s content.

In the following chapters, we will talk about the development theory, as well as some managerial processes and practices. These processes were not created overnight, instead gradually established over these two years. However, we didn't carve these processes in stone and are always willing to break away from convention and embrace a brighter future.

 

The Beginning

 

Scene from Iris.Fall – A world of black and white

 

Li defined what kind of games we were going to make. Our NExT obstacle was how.

Early game development, during the era of FC for example, enjoyed much freedom of creation. The lines between different genres were blurry. The development cost was low and developers had enough time for trial and error. A new genre could be created anytime by accident. In that era, we saw the inception of many different game mechanics.

The rise of NExT-gen games, as I remember it, was led by Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. During that time, the development cost of a game was on the rise and game genres had roughly begun to take shape. Most titles were reduced to making sequels, except those made by a handful of brilliant producers. A love for defining the game world was reduced to optimizing game mechanics.

It was a whole different story in China. The game industry in China gave up on making AAA titles because they just couldn't. However, Chinese developers reached a new height in commercialization as online games and mobile games revealed another possibility with their proven business model. Core gameplay fell slave to commercialization and retention statistics.

"These are good things, but I just don't like them." 
Jin Yong, White Horse Neighs in the Western Wind

We wanted to go back to the beginning and make some games that we would truly love.

Li had a definition of what a good game was. A good game is something that a player would consider worth their time when looking back on their gaming experience after several years. To be more specific, a good game should have both commercialization tricks and Memorable Moments.

Dick & Cowboy defined the Memorable Moment in one of his songs: A memory that is worth reliving over an over again.

"Memory is like a machine that never stops
It plays the past for me when I'm not looking"
Dick & Cowboy, 30K Feet

The process of developing a game that could make ourselves proud should be unique. More specifically, we needed to solve three issues: the source of ideas, selecting better ideas, and how to implement these ideas in the actual game.

Game studios working on different genres have different methodologies regarding these three issues. For example, a team of commercial mobile game developers copies the ideas of released games, uses the test data to determine which idea is better, then relies on a huge team and many all-nighters to implement these ideas. A team of AAA game developers add something minor to an idea and calls it a sequel. They also use surveys to determine the best ideas, then invest a huge amount of resources to implement the it.

We discovered that our goal required some different approaches.

Let's talk about the source of ideas first.

 

Tricks

 

A good proposal is obviously the first step of game development.

At NExT Studios, we have many practical ways for inspiring everyone to come up with awesome ideas.

When we created this studio, we discovered that commercial game developers are used to top-down management. They followed orders and lacked independent thinking. They would ask their bosses to decide the fate of their ideas. These were perfectly normal for a conventional commercial game. The employees only need to execute their bosses' decisions.

However, the games we were trying to make were so special that even our boss didn't know what the game should look like. Top-down management could kill most of the potential.

Therefore, we broke up the team and began working on ideas from the bottom up. Members created ideas and then formed a team to make these ideas a reality.

We did a lot of things to facilitate the creation of ideas. We asked the employees to spend 20% of their time on idea incubation; the director led the team in theme studies to broaden their horizons; we also invited independent game developers to exchange ideas and thoughts. The first Idea++ competition held soon after was an attempt to encourage idea creation.

The blueprint to utopia had been drawn and the traditional boundaries of organizations were removed. We did everything in our power in search of better ideas.

 

Idea++

 

Scene from Iris.Fall – Weird atmosphere

 

To create a workable project as soon as possible, we hosted a competition called Idea++. Just as its name suggests, it was a competition of ideas. Everyone brought their ideas and demos to be reviewed.

We were not confident in it. We weren't sure if we could come up with good ideas, or effectively tell if an idea was good enough.

A bunch of people used to make commercial games began teaming up randomly to incubate innovative games.

Our imaginations ran wild and there were no boundaries. People gathered for a good idea and scattered when they failed. Then, they threw themselves onto the NExT one. People carefully evaluated each other. Those who had the ability to persuade others could become the new team leader and have their ideas put into action. In this case, social skills also contributed to productivity.

The answer to everything was revealed on the day of Idea++ Competition.

After several weeks of idea incubation, dozens of proposals were submitted, which was spectacular. We received concise PPT proposals as well as demos made with time and energy. We organized a review, selected the best proposal, then asked the team to present an improved version in the semi-finals. A month later, we successfully selected the most popular proposal.

Prior to this event, I had never known how to judge whether a game idea was good or not. This was a big problem. Because many times, the overall value of an idea or a demo is difficult to measure at a glance. Its value is often connected with graphics, technology, and completion. Without investing certain resources, it is impossible to tell how valuable it is. But by the time we could tell, we had often invested too much in it.

After all, we can think up millions of interesting ideas, but rarely practical ones.

After two Idea++ competitions, we found people may have different opinions regarding most common ideas. But some ideas were born brilliant and meant to be praised by everyone.

"A brilliant man like you can always shine wherever you are. Just like a firefly in the dark."
Stephen Chow, From Beijing with Love

People working in the game industry were perhaps numbed by homogenized products, but the really good ideas can still stimulate a surge of emotion.

The first champion was Death Coming. The second champion is still being developed and will be released in mid-2019.

Creativity is perhaps the true driving force behind the game industry.

 

NExT Story (4) - Selection

 

Incubating ideas using the bottom up methodology made creativity thrive. Everyone wanted to express themselves.

We had unlimited ideas, but limited resources. A studio with a low budget could only afford some of them. We needed to have clear criteria when selecting the best ideas to be made into games.

Let's talk about our selection method in this chapter.

 

Cost

 

The nature of selection is an attempt to control the cost of trial and error.

NExT is very tolerant of failures. NExT Studios tried dozens of ideas but only focused on ten of them. NEXT tolerates failure, but we also want to show generosity to successful ideas. We only had limited opportunity cost, which meant that if we invest more resource on a less optimal idea, we would not have enough for brilliant ones. In other words, tolerating mediocrity is cruelty to brilliance.

The role of the management team is like an angel investor. They want to ensure that every idea is verified before asking for more resources. We needed to strike a balance between limited resources and infinite imagination. We should give more resources to good products, keep or rethink the less optimal ones. It’s a burden to give more resources to the less optimal ideas because it can do harm to the initial design of core mechanics.

There is an excellent concept in Warcraft 3 called upkeep. The concept basically means that a large army requires a high cost to maintain. In RTS games, it was only natural to think that more units are better, so traditional RTS games encouraged players to build more units.
However, in Warcraft 3, when Food exceeds a certain number, Upkeep rises, and the subsequent Gold income is reduced.
This forces players to accurately estimate their own expenses, and control their economy and the size of their armies. They should be careful when expanding their army to avoid economic losses.

In game development, there is actually a similar phenomenon. In the early stage of development, sufficient resources are more like a curse. We once had a project with more than 10 people working on it even before its core mechanics were verified. Every day, the lead designer had to think of how to make these 10 people busy instead of perfecting the core mechanics. Everyone was miserable, the leader had no energy to think about where the game was going, and the developers spent their energy on a wild goose chase.

Eventually, we abandoned the project, downsized the team, and asked them to rethink the idea. The result was good. The lead design revamped the product and gave everyone a big surprise in the following demo. It successfully become NExT004 and made NExT Studios proud.

 

One Hundred Man-Hours

 

We needed to quantify the amount of time we invested in each idea to control the cost.

We used the concept of man-hours. The team created a webpage that tracks the amount of work performed. Every week, we invited people to report how much time they had put into ideas and products, then we total the man-hours spent on each project. Once it reaches a hundred, we arrange for a review to check the progress.

One hundred man-hours is just a rough number, it equals the amount of a month’s work done by a team of five people. We believed that at this point, it should be possible to verify whether or not an idea was optimal. If someone wanted to do it slowly, a two-person team could work for more than two months before a review. If someone wanted to invest more resources and form a team of ten people, then the review would be sooner.

Every review is an important moment for everyone to think about the project and its logic. Most of the time, sorting out the logic can bring huge inspiration. We didn't want the project to move forward silently. Instead, we hoped that everyone would share their own thoughts from time to time. Additionally, a lot of different opinions actually come from outsiders.

 

Battlefield

 

Scene from Bladed Fury – Battle against Wu Zixu

 

How to tell if an idea is optimal? How to tell if a product is going smoothly?

First-class ideas that come with halos are rare. Sometimes, we just couldn't tell how good an idea was. It might not be first-class, but it could still be a good bet. It was really subjective when we judged those ideas.

Within NExT Studios, we made final decisions according to professional advice and subjective judgment during the review.

All the lead designers, experts of various fields, and administrative staff could participate in the review and put forward professional opinions. Every review was bound to be a tough battle. Experts would make various suggestions to help the project team, but in most cases, they presented various challenges instead. Some project teams took those challenges head-on, and some feigned ignorance and tried to slip through.

Reviews were often stopped by the PM due to a lack of time. The collection of opinions after the review was where the truth was spoken.

Experts would receive anonymous feedbacks after the review, which contained opinions on the project. The word anonymous has appeared many times in the management process of NExT Studios and will be discussed in subsequent chapters regarding team culture. The reason for anonymity is not that Chinese are treacherous by nature, but because we have a reserved personality and we don’t like to voice criticism out loud. If we were to use our real names, we would hide our true opinions behind something mild and mediocre. As a result, the receiver would find it very difficult to decode those hidden messages and get the underlying opinions. Collecting opinions would just become another formalism. Anonymity is a good solution before a better one is found. Experts could fully express their criticism on the project and denounce unreliable ideas.

Project team members also had the opportunity to make anonymous feedback and express their love or hate for their own projects. Considering not every member of a project would approve of their project’s direction, we also needed to proactively listen to their opinions. Truth is not necessarily in the hands of the majority. Internal members working for the project can make a more accurate judgment on its direction. I have seen a member venting anger over his own project, saying that the project was a mess and was the most painful experience in his career. This kind of thing can also help the management make decisions.

After consulting with external experts and internal members, we can then make decisions. If both sides present positive opinions, then the project will undoubtedly continue. If any or both sides presented negative opinions, Li would have to make the final, albeit subjective decision to suspend or to continue development.

Li's view was that a commercial game team makes its judgement base on market research, test data, and group decision-making, therefore being relatively objective. On the other hand, the production of innovative games emphasizes self-expression. We must follow the example set by professional content creators, such as traditional magazines. Their editorial mechanism is indeed more effective in controlling content quality

Li assumed the responsibility of the decisions he made because they were made based on his personal subjective judgment. He did not shift his responsibilities to group decision-making, and objective data, but instead used data and group opinions as a reference for making the final decision.

"Data can be used as an accountability shield, deflecting responsibility for a judgment call. People are more comfortable making decisions based on hard data in part because they can fall back on that data if the decision turns out to be wrong."
Patty McCord, Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility

The projects that overcame numerous challenges are worthy of further investments from us.

To be continued~

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