BAF and the Declaration of Ind(i)ependence

Last week Jennifer and I were honoured to have been invited to speak at the Bradford Animation Festival at the National Media Museum. Or as everyone calls it: BAF. One part of BAF is BAF Game which focuses on game development and this is the part we were presenting at. We had a fantastic time talking about Nyamyam and showing Tengami to an attentive and enthusiastic audience. I always enjoy the chance to meet with young game creators in the making as they exude an energy that can sometimes be lacking in the day to day grind of game development. So I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who came along and especially to Tom Woolley for inviting us in the first place. The full presentation is here:

When we turned up at the venue we realised that our presentation was too long. We had thought we had 45 minutes to speak followed by 15 minutes for questions, whereas in fact we had 45 minutes in total to allow time for the next speaker to prepare. So we had to make some last minute, somewhat scary cuts to our presentation in the few minutes before we were due to speak. The part that got cut was a section where I was to talk about the founding principles behind Nyamyam. It’s something I feel very strongly about and so I had wanted to share this with other creators in the hope that they would consider these things when starting their own companies. Unfortunately it was the easiest part to cut, and the part that gelled the least well with the rest of the talk. Since it’s something I care about a lot I thought I’d do a blog post to cover the material that was cut from the talk.

When we started Nyamyam, we did if for two main reasons. The first should be obvious: we wanted to make games with our own creative vision. The second reason is perhaps not always so obvious and is something that I don’t think enough people think about when starting their own company. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of game development without giving consideration to what you wish to stand for as a group of people. I guess because I had spent a lot of time in mainstream development, I had very strong ideas about creating a work environment that was creatively fulfilling and above all else fair. Some of the practices, behaviours and attitudes in mainstream game development left me with a belief that things can be done better. That they can be done fairer and more equally. I was tired of hearing the expression, “Phil, you have to understand, it’s business”, as a justification for anything and everything.

So on the first day after we’d legally started Nyamyam we sat down to create what I’ve termed our founding principles. After mulling things over for some time I couldn’t get the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson out of my head. The American declaration of independence stands as one of the greatest pieces of text ever written for me. It expresses a noble ideal that I believe we should all strive to achieve, and no matter how many times I read it, it still has a profound effect on me. So with this, we thought that we should have our own declaration of ind(i)ependence which is given below:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Nyamyamers are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Now of course, these are just the original words of Thomas Jefferson with one small change! I couldn’t hope to come up with a better expression than this so we just went with this. But the two key points in this that are important for us, and are our guiding lights, are the ideas of equality and liberty (or freedom).

Freedom is an oft-overused expression these days, so I’ll break down precisely what I mean by it. There are three facets to freedom: creative, financial and personal.

Creative is the easiest to understand. It simply means that we want to make the games that we want, free from external pressures and undesired influence as much as is possible. But it’s important to understand that there’s an unspoken thread that links creative and financial freedom: you can’t have one without the other. It’s naive to expect creative freedom without financial freedom. So that’s why we enshrine financial freedom within Nyamyam. We self-fund, not because it’s easy, risk free or some kind of ideology, but because it allows us to maintain our creative freedom. Along with self-funding we prefer to self-publish where possible so that we can build and maintain the contacts necessary to build a strong and healthy business. I’m not going to say “don’t work with a publisher”, but certainly in the digital domain the only benefit to doing so is to make use of their network of contacts. But if you never do the work to make those contacts yourself then you will always be trapped into working with a publisher, and this is really part of the trap.

Personal freedom covers a number of areas, but certainly doesn’t mean the ability to do whatever you want. If anything with this freedom comes a far greater responsibility and trust than would be required at a conventional company, since often the people you work with are not in the same room. So firstly personal freedom expresses the idea that people should commit to a game not to a company. We want people who are excited about working on Tengami, not those that are excited about working for Nyamyam. Many notions surrounding companies are old-fashioned in my view and designed for working practices of the 19th and 20th century, certainly not the 21st century. What this means in practical terms is that someone can come work with us on Tengami, but then when the game is finished they can go and do something else, free from any negative implications. As well as this there is also the perhaps more common notion of flexible working practices, where people can work where, when and how they want to.

Equality has many different guises, and the first thing to say is that by equality I don’t mean ‘the same’. Jennifer, Ryo and I are all quite different in how we do things and how we approach problems. These differences are a strength and source of creative muscle for us. But in all things that are important, equality is important.

This manifests itself at Nyamyam in a number of ways. Most obvious is the idea of financial equality. We believe fundamentally that everyone should be rewarded equally according to effort. Even though Jennifer and I are the directors of the company we do not consider ourselves special in this regard; we just do a slightly different, but no more, or less important role. To achieve this we employ a simple revenue share approach. And importantly, this revenue share continues even if someone doesn’t continue working with us after a game finishes. If you’ve worked in mainstream, you will know well that, even if you are fortunate enough to enjoy a royalty, that the royalty is rarely equal in any sense. You will also know that you lose any rights to that royalty if you quit the company even after completing the game. This is not acceptable behaviour to me and is intended as entrapment to keep people from leaving. Of course, it’s important to understand that to have financial equality like this that there must be an equality in risk as well. For it would not be fair for one person to take all the upfront risk. This is usually the justification for unequal sharing of rewards. So to mitigate this we require that everyone sharing in the revenue contributes equally to any and all development costs.

The next aspect of equality is that we consider all disciplines to be equally important. In the past, in my experience there’s always been a ‘creative hierarchy’ within companies. This places certain disciplines above others. At some companies design is top, at others programming is top. It often merely reflects the founder’s predilections and beliefs. This is in the long run destructive and creates unseen currents within a company that encourages people to take certain development paths over others that they would be more suited to. The teams I have worked on that have functioned best have been those where everyone’s ideas are considered, where everyone feels included. Along with this we institute a policy of ‘no titles’. Again, titles can be manipulative and disruptive and lead to ‘title escalation’ where people seek to increase their importance and weight by taking on a grander sounding title. At Nyamyam we are all ‘Game Creators’. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t even call myself a director of the company except as required in legal situations. Otherwise I’m a game creator like everyone else and my ideas should stand or fall according to their worth, not according to my title.

By adopting these principles we feel it allows us to make better games, because we don’t have to worry about unspoken rules. These principles also help inform our day-to-day business decisions and form an invisible contract between all of us Nyamyamers. But most of all these principles help us treat each other as human beings, equal and free as we should be.

One thought on “BAF and the Declaration of Ind(i)ependence

  1. Thank you for this inspirational post. I’ve long wanted to work in the game industry but the matter of how mainstream developers work as an institution was a mystery and a concern to me. Whilst making money is important it’s no excuse to ignore equality, freedom and rights of creative designers. Thanks for reminding me why I wanted to pursue this dream in the first place. Good luck on Tengami and to every Nyamnyamer (however you pronounce that).

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