Hello, and welcome to the second edition of my new Developer Journal series!
I'm excited to share these new developer blogs with you. Unlike our product updates, which focus solely on the development progress of CoE & KoE, these journals allow me to explore a wider range of topics.
In this series, I'll delve into the challenges I've faced, lessons I've learned, and experiences I've encountered while running an indie game studio. In particular, a game studio that ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, raised approximately $6.5 million more in crowdfunding over the next three years, and developed the foundation of a working MMO, all while making virtually every mistake possible. I'm not saying it's an admirable perspective, but it is a unique one. Hopefully, others can learn from my mistakes.
The rest of this blog post is organized chronologically. While I recommend reading it from start to finish, you can skip to the specific lesson or year that captures your interest.
Over the past few years, I have dedicated considerable time to learning. This education came from reading books and reflecting on my choices and experiences from 2016 to the present. The latter was particularly impactful, as I could apply the knowledge gained from my reading to my personal experiences.
"Knowledge is understanding how to do a thing. Experience is understanding how not to do it."
For the remainder of this blog post, I want to walk you through the last three years of my life, highlighting the most influential aspects of each year. I'll also discuss some of the books I read during this period and explain why they were so impactful to me. Consider this as an overview of potential future blog posts offering deeper insights.
If there's one thing you should take away from this post, the references I provide below can serve as a reading list for anyone interested in starting a new company or struggling with one.
Undoubtedly, 2020 was a challenging year for everyone, including myself. After a month of voluntary work-from-home due to the Coronavirus, Washington State mandated work-from-home for everyone for the foreseeable future. Our Settlers of Elyria event appeared as though it would be an abject failure, and my colleagues in the industry began losing their jobs due to downsizing. These challenges forced me to make a difficult decision: I had to stop crowdfunding and pursue alternative means of funding for Soulbound Studios if I was going to ensure its long-term success. Unfortunately, this choice also meant letting go of some or all of my employees until I could identify a better path forward.
Naturally, I expected the news would come as a disappointment and shock to most of our community. But in all honesty, I never could have imagined what would happen next.
In short order, community members who had only a day prior supported us started making wild accusations that I was closing the studio to run away with four years worth of crowdfunding. They claimed that all the development work, including photos, renders, concept art, multiple trips to PAX, demos, gameplay videos, dozens of hired employees, and thousands of interactions across our forums, in-person and via Discord, were all part of an elaborate hoax. Furthermore, they accused me of purchasing a new house, brand new cars, planning to travel the world on a yacht, and (worst of all) being a scam artist.
Naturally, all of these accusations were unsubstantiated bullshit. But for some reason, it seemed easier for people to believe than the simpler truth: I'd decided to pause sales and stop hemorrhaging cash until we were on sturdier ground and had a less risky path forward. But as the old saying goes, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."
Within 48 hours, numerous articles, Reddit posts, YouTube videos, and more began accusing me of being a scammer instead of recognizing the hard work of the 20+ people who had tirelessly worked alongside me for over three years. Instead of asking what was next, what we needed, or even just giving us the time to work on our path forward, people were quite literally calling for my head. People began doxxing my family and I, and a Google Street View of my house circulated the internet with messages about getting revenge if they couldn't get their money. Then I started getting emails telling me to "take the money and run and never stop running," insinuating something bad if they found me.
My family and I were terrified. I didn't sleep for months, waking regularly with night terrors and cold sweats. I'd have to circle the house every hour of the night, checking the windows and locks, peeking in on my pre-teens to ensure they were safe in their beds.
Now, I should pause briefly to state that I've struggled with depression for over twenty years. I have a chemical imbalance, likely due to genetics on my mother's side, which generally requires medication. But I'd managed to stave off the depression for most of my life with diet and regular exercise, save for one other time in 2017. But by June of 2020, I'd reached a new low. I was in a deep, dark place, sitting in my bathtub late at night, searching for the least painful way to kill myself, when I came upon a website with a quote from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.
"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."
I don't know why that hit me the way it did, but for some reason, I started researching the quote's origin instead of continuing what I was doing. This led me to a book by Ryan Holiday called "The Obstacle is The Way." While I won't provide an in-depth book report, "The Obstacle is the Way" was a very approachable read that provided examples of other people with far worse struggles than I who managed to make it through, as well as a simple introduction to Modern Stoicism.
Again, while I won't attempt to teach the principles of Modern Stoicism here, it was like a warm blanket for me. Suddenly, I didn't feel so alone. This was the first time I'd felt that way in years, despite the hate and rage directed at me. Having grown up with caretakers who were far more familiar with AA than I normally discuss, the principles of Modern Stoicism seemed oddly familiar to the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
I resolved to be stoic. I got help for my depression and began accepting that life is like a stream flowing downhill. It generally continues along its current path until it encounters some obstacle. In some cases, it simply goes over or through it, but sometimes the barriers deflect the stream and, in doing so, put it on a new path. I was now on a new path. And that was ok.
After reading both the "Obstacle is the Way" and picking up "The Daily Stoic," I was looking up additional quotes on stoicism when, arbitrarily, I encountered another quote that's often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain:
"The person who does not read has no advantage over the person who cannot read."
Now, up to that point, I'd been a regular reader of fantasy literature. The first design journal I ever made about CoE was back in 2000. It was a design treatment titled "Ta'veren," as the concept for CoE began as an idea for a Wheel of Time MMO.
That said, I'd never been one to read "self-help" or other non-fiction books. Sure, I had a B.Sc. in Psychology, but after school, I'd never sought to read books on leadership, corporate culture, fundraising, networking, negotiating, etc. There was a whole skill set I didn't have and, strangely, didn't even know I didn't have. Sure, I knew I wasn't an expert on how to do those things, but I didn't realize how much research and energy had already gone into studying those topics and how much I didn't know.
I began reading as voraciously as I could. Generally speaking, a couple of books a month. Some of my favorites in 2020 were Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, and The Four Disciplines of Execution, by Sean Covey et al.
The first one is because Simon Sinek is a contagious optimist. In reading Start With Why I was inspired to understand what about CoE made people love it. But just as importantly, why I needed to make it. What hole did it fill in society? What was its purpose?
As I've communicated before, CoE's why is concisely described in our Mission Statement:
"Enrich peoples' lives with experiences that fuel imagination and provide accessible, engaging, and meaningful interaction through entertainment and technology."
That's not just lip service. People walk around daily, making unconscious decisions based on other people's age, weight, perceived gender, height, skin color, etc. It's programmed in. It's our lizard brains trying to help us survive. It doesn't know that we don't need it anymore. And time and time again, it's been shown that when you remove those implicit biases and get to know someone, there's almost always the possibility of a deeper connection. Online games, particularly online worlds, provide the unique opportunity to let people be whoever they want to be, eliminating the sources of bias that often interfere with relationship-building in the modern world.
Being reminded of the "why" of Soulbound Studios, I became more determined than ever to see it succeed. I just needed a way forward. I had spent the better part of the year dealing with legal threats and trying to find a path that involved getting new, external funding sources. I'd even shopped around to try and sell Soulbound Studios to a good home that would guarantee CoE's continued development. But with all the hostility and negative press around Soulbound, nobody wanted to acquire what had become a poison pill.
Around this time, I revisited what I'd initiated around November 2019 - Kingdoms of Elyria. KoE had originally been started in late 2019 as a way to address community needs. Unfortunately, the original work done on KoE wouldn't survive the layoffs. But, in light of our mission statement and our need for funding to resume development on the larger CoE, developing KoE looked to be the best path forward.
It would enrich people's lives, fuel imagination, allow them to engage, and create opportunities for meaningful interaction. And it also addressed our financial needs. The revenue from KoE would be used to finish funding the development of CoE, now with more engineering work under our belt. It was a solid plan.
The second book, "The Hard Thing About Hard Things," is perhaps my favorite business book. It's a no-nonsense book from a successful entrepreneur and one of the co-founders of Andreessen-Horowitz, the well-known venture captial firm. But, like many successful entrepreneurs, Ben was only super successful once he was. He made a ton of mistakes along the way because, well, hard things are hard.
I know that sounds flippant, but it isn't. And as with the difference between knowledge and experience, you can only understand what it's like to be a CEO and how hard it is once you've experienced it. Sure, there are plenty of books on how to hire the right people, how to raise venture capital, how to negotiate, etc. But those aren't the hard things.
A hard thing is when you've hired your best friend to do your company's UI/UX and web design, only to outgrow their skills two years later and need to fire them. That's hard. There are few books written about how to fire your best friend.
Another hard thing is when, regardless of your efforts, you're unable to find a good engineer willing to join the company, and now must make the decision to either pivot and push forward as best you can or fire your content creators - skilled creators you'll ultimately need in the long term - to reduce costs in the short-term.
A hard thing is hiring someone from within your game's community, someone well-known and respected, only to discover they lack the full set of skills you need and are prone to making critical errors. But if you fire them, there's the possibility they could become toxic and do harm to the company's reputation within the community.
They don't write books about those things because they're hard. They're nuanced. And generally speaking, there's no right or wrong answer.
One of my favorite passages in Ben's book is the idea that if you've done your job well and hired smart people, then your leadership team is capable of handling the day-to-day problems of the organization. Whether that's people problems, production problems, influencer problems, customer service problems, etc., they're smart. They can deal with it. The smarter and more capable your leadership team, the fewer problems land on your desk. Because, well, they've been handled.
But the caveat is that the smarter your leadership team, the more challenging the problems are that do land on your desk. When a problem lands on your desk, it's no longer a question of the "good vs. bad" option. It's a choice between the "bad vs. cataclysmic."
So what's the takeaway from 2020? Well, there are a few.
By the end of 2020, I'd resolved to push forward with KoE as a means to an end. It was always intended to be a playable Unity or web experience, focused on the Holdings mechanics with a top-down UX. But now, it needed to be a stand-alone product if we were going to get back on track.
The problem was, I was still terrified of everything. I was afraid of checking my mail and email, answering my phone, going online, and reading comments about me and the studio. I still feared going to bed every night, being sued, running out of funds, and having to fire more of my staff. I spent virtually every waking minute of every day thinking about something terrifying.
And then, in early 2021, my biggest fear came true. Even though our finances were dwindling rapidly and we had only enough money to finish the development of the current scope of KoE, someone had filed a class-action lawsuit against Soulbound Studios.
I won't go into the details of the lawsuit, but I'll confess it never made sense to me. We received a pre-litigation demand letter in 2020 that we refund everyone's money or else. But with what money? It's not like we made $8 million in the previous 30 days and were sitting on it. Even a rough napkin calculation of "$2M earnings per year for four years, with an average of 20 employees per year making an average of $100k a year in costs," meant there was no money to refund. It's $8 million in and $8 million out.
We responded accordingly. I let the sender know that we were continuing with development, there was no fraud or misrepresentation, we had no money to refund everyone, I was working without income, and that an independent firm had conducted a forensic accounting of Soulbound's Expenditures and found everything to be in order. I was happy to negotiate with the plaintiff, but our response letter letting them know refunds were not an option was met with silence until the lawsuit.
But I digress. The point is that in early 2021 I had resolved to push forward with KoE, while still living in fear over everything that had happened in 2020 and everything that may still occur in 2021. And then the worst thing imaginable to me, aside from something health-related, finally happened.
I once again found it hard to move forward, so I returned to my reading. In 2021, three of the better books I read were:
Being as brief as possible, the first one was a continuation of my attempt and finding my "Why." This time it was more about my personal "Why." It was an effort to remove distractions and narrow my focus on the things that were most important to me - and only the things most important to me: My health, my family, my friends, and my delivering CoE to my customers. Everything else became secondary.
The second, "Losing My Virginity," was a book I started reading as part of a book club I'd joined with other executives. It's an autobiography by Virgin founder Richard Branson. Contrary to the suggested title, it's about being a passionate person and an entrepreneur for the first time, having no idea how to do business. Relatable.
There were fewer nuggets of useful insight from that one and more just a glimpse at the challenges and struggles other CEOs face - including legal struggles and disagreements. Oddly, this helped make my situation seem more palatable. Not that I recommend anyone get sued, but after reading Branson's book, it almost felt like a right of passage. If you're going to take risks, people are going to sue you. Be prepared.
The final one, Meditations, was also from my book club. It's the source book for much of Modern Stoicism. I read two different translations of it. As before, it reminded me how small I am in the grand scheme of things. As an individual, my life is trivial. It's a blip in history, and I will likely achieve nothing, be nothing, and do nothing worth remembering. So if I'm not doing these things to benefit the people closest to me and who I care about, there's no point in doing them.
Reminding myself of that, I resolved to push forward again anyways. Not because I cared about reputation, or respect, or anything of that sort. But because delivering on my commitments was important to me. It was my way of staying true to myself and setting a good example for my kids.
So there I was, now, at the end of 2021. Kingdoms of Elyria was moving along rapidly for it just being a handful of us, and Soulbound Studios was being sued, but I was resolved. I knew what I needed to do and why. And strangely, with the narrowing of focus, the reminder of how small I am in the grand scheme of things, and how life sometimes sucks and you have to move forward, I was suddenly no longer afraid.
So what were my key takeaways from 2021?
The following year went by in a bit of a blur. I started the year with no more funding but no more fear. I started putting more and more money into the company to keep development going, but otherwise spent the first six months with my head down in development.
During that time, I also read two more good books, including:
Those both came from my desire, like "The Four Disciplines of Execution" from 2020, to build the best product and company I could. The first book is from Tony Fadell, another CEO who had his share of failures until he eventually developed the iPod, iPhone, and the Nest. Three groundbreaking, innovative products that came only after years of trial and error and multiple failures.
The second book, "The Infinite Game," I started because it was by Simon Sinek, and I'm always down for a good motivational book. I had gained so much focus and grounding from "Start With Why" that I hoped I'd get as much from another of his books. I did. The high-level concept behind his book is that business is not a finite game; it's an infinite game.
Unlike a finite game, infinite games have no steadfast rules; the players can come and go from the game as they like, there are unknown unknowns, and there are no real win conditions. In the battle between Borders and Barnes & Noble, BNN didn't "win" when Borders shut down. The company still had to keep operating. The employees got up daily and functioned just as they had the day before, with less competition.
I won't lie; the concept reminded me much of a MEOW - a Multiplayer Evolving Online World, like Chronicles of Elyria. But parallels between MMOs like CoE and an infinite game aside, with no win condition, the focus of any company planning to survive past its owner needs to focus instead on its Why, on its culture, and on its ability to adapt to the market. In other words, it must be willing to iterate, try, and fail. Preferably as quickly as possible.
The last book I wanted to mention is "What You Do Is Who You Are" by Ben Horowitz. This is again a case of me reading another book by a trusted author. Again, I was satisfied. This book is almost entirely anecdotal, attempting to teach the core principles of building a culture within an organization using examples from history, such as Ghengis Khan.
Reading this book inspired me to re-open the Discord server this year. Because while I'm running an organization of one right now, the community itself can be seen as a type of organization with its own culture. In reading "What You Do is Who You Are," I recognized some pretty serious mistakes I made in how we engaged with and cultivated the culture of our community prior. Put plainly, our goal was to create a culture where people could separate the game from reality, using the game to build relationships that could survive outside the game. There are entire game mechanics built around the separation of players and characters. Instead, we cultivated a divisive culture in which people treated other people no differently than their characters. Yes, they were organized - another goal of ours, but the organizations were more often used to exclude others than to include them.
I wanted to create an environment where people could have fun, chill, be friendly when out of character, and then ruthlessly play the "Dance of Dynasties" while in character. When we finally re-open the Discord Server, I will be more intentional about the culture I allow to develop within our community. I care about the community's health, well-being, and ability to interact safely. And if you aren't defining your culture on purpose, you're defining your culture on accident.
"Culture—no matter how defined—is singularly persistent." - Peter Drucker
So, at this point, you may be asking yourself why this section's title is "No More Failures." So here it is, by the time I reached this point in 2022, I'd read dozens of books since 2020 - some by CEOs, some by consultants, some by historians, etc. No matter the source, one thing consistently stood out, failure. It was pervasive. This makes sense because business, and life in general, is an infinite game. It's a continuous process of failing, learning, and improving.
It occurred to me that we're encouraged to take chances and fail when we're young. We weren't born with balance. We fall; we stand up, and we fall again. But the process builds strength, and eventually, we have what's necessary to stay upright. There's a similar analogy for riding a bike and every other skill we develop before entering grade school.
Unfortunately, around the time we enter schooling and begin receiving letter grades, a pretty nasty thing happens. We stop viewing failures as strength, character, and skill-building opportunities and start viewing them as true failures. Suddenly it's like we expect people to be born knowing how to be effective communicators, inspiring leaders, or shrewd negotiators. We start grading people on how quickly they develop, whether their path is shorter or longer than someone else. We forget that life is a journey, everyone's road is their own, and that there is no such thing as a failure on continued attempts at success. This continues into adulthood, with something or someone being labeled a failure if it isn't successful the first time. Even knowing the chance of success the first time we try is often immeasurably small.
Throughout the rest of 2022, I made a point to remove the words fail, failed, or failure from my vocabulary and instead set out to obtain anecdotes, adages, or other quotes that I could give to people whenever they used the word to help them understand why it's bad. Here are some of my favorites:
All that said, the main takeaway for 2022 was, and this is likely dangerously close to another quote, any situation has precisely two outcomes: success and learning. Failure isn't an outcome. Failure is the condition in which you're unable (or unwilling) to accept one of the previous two outcomes.
I don't use the word failed or failure anymore. Instead, I try to understand why the outcome is what it is, learn from it, and continue. And I encourage others around me to do the same.
At long last, we get to 2023. This year was the most liberating of all. In January, I took my family to a local used bookstore where they had one of those deals where if you buy a specific number of books, you get a stupid number of used books for free. It was like, "Buy 10, get 20 free!" After collecting as many books as possible, we still had a few more books left over, so I picked up a physical copy of "The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F-ck" by Mark Manson.
Contrary to the title, the book isn't about not caring. It is but in a very nuanced way. It's about everything from accepting yourself as you are to prioritizing what's important in your life to picking your battles and pursuing worthwhile things, despite the obstacles you may face.
It's about giving fewer fucks to the things that aren't important, more fucks to the things that are, and not letting scary things hold you down. Because... who gives a fuck!? The book strongly argues that life is filled with negative experiences, and fulfillment comes from surmounting those negative experiences. Put differently, if you stop giving a fuck about the trials and tribulations required to achieve your goals, you become unstoppable.
Naturally, this resonated with my learnings from previous years and acted as a capstone to it all. I resolved to make 2023 the year I wouldn't give a fuck. I would be my authentic self, use my voice, and focus on what's most important to me. Now, and this isn't an exaggeration, I've gotten in the habit of taking in every perceived negative experience and asking myself, "Is this worth my fucks?" Because, let's be honest, we have a limited amount of fucks to give.
I'm amazed at how much better my life has been, how much more focused I am at work, and how much better my relationships with others have become since I started asking myself, "Is this worth giving a fuck about?" More often than you might imagine, the answer is no.
After that, I proceeded to read two more outstanding books. The first was "Creativity Inc, Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in The Way of True Inspiration" by Ed Catmull and "The Ride of a Lifetime" by Bob Igor. Those were both phenomenal books. Ed Catmull and Bob Igor are some of the most inspired leaders I've ever read about. And as with the previous books, they were filled with sample mistakes, lessons, and personal growth by the authors.
The most recent book I've read is "Scaling Up" by Verne Harnish. This one deserves special mention because, much like some of the earlier quotes I read, it had a specific block of text that really spoke to me. It was one of those "Aha!" moments you never forget. It describes, in as few words as possible, the root cause of some of the biggest challenges we faced at Soulbound Studios before 2020:
"WARNING: Whatever the strength of a leader often becomes the weakness of the organization (e.g., if the founder is strong in marketing, the business may eventually find it's weak in this functional area.) Why? Because leaders have a tendency to hold on too tight, strangling the efforts of those around them. Or the leaders figure they can "watch over the details," bringing in someone too junior to oversee the function vs. bringing on the powerhouse they really need. Instead, leaders must make a counterintuitive decision and find people who exceed their own capabilities in their area of strength to prevent the company from stalling."
I feel called out.
In the earliest days of Soulbound Studios, I hired a second programmer, aside from myself, thinking we could do the initial work ourselves. But, as I quickly discovered, being a CEO is a full-time job between HR, accounting, PR, etc. I spent much of my time preparing for development rather than developing, leaving my junior programmer with far too much responsibility. Don't get me wrong. He was smart, talented, and even a former student of mine. But he was still a junior, and I didn't give him the support and oversight that he deserved to grow as an engineer.
After that, I attempted to hire five more engineers, but I knew I needed strong programmers to support my junior and advance the engineering. My goal was to hire people better than myself, but it took six months to find even one other person who could pass our programming test.
And while we quickly hired three more programmers after that, including a very talented Lead, I made several new leadership mistakes. Because I'd never been a Director before, only a Lead, I still needed to learn how to manage a Lead properly. I overstepped on some occasions and under stepped on others. Ultimately, I allowed the development of the Soulborn Engine to be moved to Node.js/TypeScript against my better judgment. Put briefly, to give my Lead breathing room to do their job and show I trusted them, I abdicated to them instead of delegated to them.
After that, when I was ultimately forced to let my very experienced Lead go, I kept my distance from the remaining senior engineer(s), as any attempts to step in and be the new Lead (in the absence of an established one) was met with a strangely hostile response. But in keeping my distance, I neglected my engineers and proved the above warning to be a truism.
If necessary, I should have fired the remaining engineers, re-hired a whole new team of engineers, and then properly delegated rather than abdicating. But I needed to be more experienced to be comfortable or even to know how to do that.
Given all of that, when in late 2022/early 2023, I found myself the only developer at Soulbound Studios, I decided to lean into my strengths. Stepping back into the Principal Engineering role, I'm in a really good place, and development is finally moving ahead at the speed and in the way I needed it to all along. This is only for a while, mind you. I'll eventually have to regrow the team, this time with the learnings I've gained over the last few years, but for now, I feel good about where we are and what our prospects look like going forward.
If you read the latest CoE Development Update, you may have noticed in my conclusion I commented that I "... occasionally receive messages from individuals advising me to give up and abandon the project."
That shouldn't surprise anyone. Even if I didn't have the unique perspective that I do, it's virtually impossible to attempt something in today's world without someone on the internet telling you to give up. Regardless, after reading this blog post, I hope people begin to understand why I won't. Not only is it the focus of my efforts, my reason "Why," and something I genuinely enjoy doing, but I've learned and grown so much over the last few years that I feel I'm finally equipped to make it happen.
I've also shed most of the things that were holding me back. I've lost my funding, but with it, the obligation to pay content creators without the necessary engineering staff. I've lost my fears, feelings of failure, and any fucks I had that were being misspent.
Simultaneously, I've also gained a lot the last three years. I've gained the support of my friends and family, a renewed focus, faith in my ability to complete the work, and the foresight to see where things are headed.
So if you've suggested I "give up," whether via YouTube comment, Kickstarter comments, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video, "Nah, Imma do my own thing."
For anyone considering doing something they are passionate about, especially if they're doing it when nobody else believes they can, I leave you with this final thought, "Never let someone who can't understand your value tell you what you're worth."
Pledged to the Continued Development of the Soulborn Engine and the Chronicles of Elyria,