I stared at the phone sitting on the empty office desk as the voice said again, “We’re letting the whole division go.”
My first reaction was to laugh in disbelief. After all, we were in closed Beta, and only days away from a full Open Beta! This meant we already had over a 100,000 players in the game daily. After the mutter of shock settled in from the people sitting eight hundred miles away in the Disney Interactive conference room in Glendale California, I blurted out: “Who’s going to run the game?”
I was met with silence on the other end. This was obviously not the response that they were expecting.
For over two years, I had poured my heart and soul in to making Star Wars: Attack Squadrons the best game it could be.
When I started this project, it was going to be my biggest mark on the industry yet and the culmination of my lifelong love of video games and Star Wars. I felt strongly that its existence was due to two main factors: 1) my drive to realize a dream and 2) my ability to communicate that dream. I would love to tell you that starting from nothing and pitching a room full of executives to give you 20 million dollars to realize your dream is easy, but it’s not. Before I dive too deep into the game that was Attack Squadrons I think you need to know a couple of important things about me first.
My name is Curtis Cherrington, and I am a 20-year veteran of the gaming industry. In that time I have worked at Electronic Arts, Midway, THQ and Disney. I have also had the opportunity to work on some of the bigger titles, like Madden Football and Mortal Kombat.
All those years in the industry have not only taught me what kind of Producer I am, but even more importantly what kind of person I am. At this time of the industry, the definition of “Producer” varies widely from company to company and person to person, but here’s a general definition from me:
By far the easiest part of the job of Producer is being a project manager. Aside from being reasonably skilled at time management, arranging the productivity of a team does not require all that much. The challenging parts are when you accept the role of leader, vision holder, therapist, teacher, mentor and most importantly Master Communicator.
The best way to lead a team of people who are as varied in skills and personalities is to be able to communicate with them while being simultaneously and genuinely invested in both the individual and the project. I believe it was because of these skills that Iwas able to launch my Star Wars dream project.
It started in the spring of 2011 and I had just survived another round of lay-offs at Disney Interactive. As the organization regrouped, we formed new teams based on our areas of interest.
I took the risk to form a team whose purpose would be developing new IP and bring it into Disney.
My first real opportunity to develop a game from the ground up without any constraints! This was massively exciting. Now I just had to find the right team to make the best game ever.
After months of developer visits and tradeshow discussions, I had found my team…and my game. It was called Sky Legends and it was great.
When creating a game, the single biggest question you have to answer is: “Is it fun?”
The general rule of thinking is that the sooner your game is fun ,the better off you are, and Sky Legends was fun right from the beginning. I was working on a great game with a great team and I could not be more excited.
But the glow was short lived when a shake-up in the team leadership left us without any money to finance our development. I was told I could make all the games I want but they weren’t goingto give me any money to do it.
If I wanted to make this game I would have to find another way.
For many people this would be the end but I knew that if I could communicate my passion and be creative, I could get the money to make the game. It took some out-of-the-box ideas, but with some outside investment and a shared revenue plan we were back on track. I now had that additional benefit of being able to tell Disney that my project had zero risk since they weren’t giving me the money to make it.
It was in the Greenlight meeting where we present our reasons for launching the game that it happened. Sky Legends was fantastic; everyone thought so. We had found the fun factor and everyone who played it knew it. I was incredibly proud. My baby was about to see the light of day. I finished my presentation and after some executive muttering, Disney Interactive’s president said, “How much more money would this make if it was Star Wars?”
Everyone in the room knew the answer. A LOT MORE.
Now, understand that I loved Sky Legends…but if you give me the option to make a Star Wars game I am definitely going to take it.
I was the person who knew the extended universe enough to discuss the deeper philosophies of the Sith. I knew that I could make a great Star Wars game and if they were going to give me a chance I could run with it.
We got the green light for Star Wars.
You would think that an organization would do everything in its power to assist you in this goal but if you’ve ever worked at a larger corporation you may guess that that is not the case. Most of the people at any company do not actually care about making product, but rather to simply hold onto their jobs and work their way up the organization chart.
This is where the role of the Producer becomes even more critical: you have to be able to communicate to everyone why this project MUST HAPPEN.
Your passion for what you are working on must be infectious so the entire organization feels it and whether that’s conveyed in a conversation at the snack bar or a 200-person all hands vote, it is your communication of confidence that will make you successful.
Chaos and Attack Squadrons
The ensuing months were mostly chaos at the management levels above me. Over two years, I saw four bosses come and go. My project and me were shuffled from team to team, and sometimes I worked with no team at all. The politics of keeping the bureaucracy away from my baby was taking up most of my time and there was no shortage of people looking to insert themselves on to my project now that it was so high profile.
Then one day a fatal decision was made from upper management.
Star Wars: Attack Squadrons and myself would be aligned on the team that was responsible for working with Asian developers and publishers. Their biggest issue? They had grown their team dramatically in size but had little success to support it.
In short: they were spending a lot of money and making none.
So my arrival was the best thing that could have happened to them and they eagerly climbed on to what was now their life raft. People attaching themselves to a high profile project is part of the nature of success.
Back to the task of Producer for a minute: mastering communication means you have the tools that give you an ability to unify your team to a common purpose even when they have conflicting individual goals. In order to do this, I had to share, if not completely relinquish, the spotlight. Choices that affect ego are often the most difficult ones for people to face but for me it was about aligning to my greater purpose. Star Wars was going to launch. I may not have had the spotlight, but I was still going to make this great game and love every day doing it.
When We Reached Beta
We arrived at our first closed Beta. It was in this time that although we had this sizable group of people who were attached to the project it was still my baby and I was the absolute center of its world.
To give you an idea of how deep into the nut and bolts I was, if you played in the closed Beta I created and sent you your Beta key. I also was the one who opened and closed the game. Let me apologize for the times I was late turning it on because I had to use the restroom. Sure the accolades were going to others but I reveled in the fact that I controlled every aspect of its creation.
Our numbers were amazing! We were only in our first closed Beta release but our Key Performance Indicators were blowing away every analyst projection. We did zero advertising. Word of mouth was growing our player base faster than we could account for. Our success was finally garnering us the internal Disney support we had lacked for so long.
Closed Beta teemed with excited fans, and meanwhile a dark shadow grew that no one anticipated.
Electronic Arts had just made a massive offer to Disney to acquire the rights to make all Star Wars games.
In this deal there would be two carve outs, or exceptions. The first was that Disney would still get to make mobile Star Wars games. The second? My game, Star Wars Attack Squadrons, would be allowed to exist.
However, EA had a big problem with our game.
Even though we were Web and mobile-only, they felt that we were going to compete with Battlefront. Part of me felt like this was ridiculous since BattleFront was going to be on console. We were space combat only and they were First –Person shooter with vehicles. For God’s sake this was DICE who made Battlefield and had a team of at least 5 times what we had. How are we even slightly competition for BattleFront?!
The answer was that the EA executives had played our game and they knew we were good.
They were dropping a lot of money to get these rights and they were going to make sure that Attack Squadrons was not going to affect the Battlefront revenue stream. When the mega-deal was complete, Attack Squadrons was going to be forced to shut-down in North America before BattleFront launched.
Every company does lay-offs differently…some are truly horrible scenarios that involve security and tears, while others–like Disney–give you a severance and let you pretend to be employed so that you can find work before you have to acknowledge you were canned.
I was given 60 Days to figure it out.
I took this time to do anything I could to save my game and bring it to market even if I wasn’t getting paid for doing so. You see, the lay-off wasn’t about the game. The decision was made to get rid of the team I was on, and not specifically cancel Attack Squadrons. Whereas everyone else disappeared after the new lay-off happened, I came into the office each morning, trying to get another publisher lined up or heck, even self-publish it with my developer.
We eventually did get funding and support to make it happen, but it wasn’t enough to save it. EA wanted it gone. For the executives at Disney, it was simply easier to let it die and keep the relationship with EA in good standing than fight for something they didn’t care about.
Initially for me it was very difficult to face the truth that the project I had started, fought for, and bled every day for was simply gone. It was only through some time and reflection that I came to realize just how much I gained from the experience.
I want you to understand that the reason that I’m okay with this fantastic game never getting the release is not because I stopped loving it or hoping it would find a home.
The whole process taught me about myself. I faced so many obstacles in this process that I don’t view them as obstacles but rather small challenges. I found a strength inside of me that prior to this I didn’t know I had. When things were at their toughest, I felt unstoppable. I got to work with and meet so many great people and fans whom I now consider friends…I would not trade them for anything. Lastly I learned how meaningful it is to be a great communicator. It is truly an ability to connect with people at a deeper level that allowed me to do exactly what I wanted to do and create precisely what I wanted to create.
The last thing that I want to say about this whole experience is to say ‘Thank you’ to every one who was involved. Thanks to Disney for giving me the opportunity. Thanks to Area52 for being the best development team in the world. And yes, even thanks to Electronic Arts for valuing Star Wars as much as I do.
Note: * I will confess that I do find some joy in knowing that I made a better Star Wars game than BattleFront.
Curtis Cherrington is the founder of Augoeides (Augo.co) and created the patent-pending Coruscation™ system in order to preserve a mastery of language. He holds a philosophy degree from UCLA as well as extensive training and certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Prior to founding Augoeides, Curtis worked for several years as an Interactive Producer, developing such properties as Madden Football, Mortal Kombat, Star Wars and numerous Disney properties. Find him on Twitter: @augoco.