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You don’t see many lawyers trading precedents for programming.
Whether it’s the lucrative allure of legal work or the oftentimes longer hours in development, these two professions usually only intersect when something needs to be signed. Daniel DiCicco, the director of the upcoming tactical space-exploration game StarDrive 2, is one of the rare individuals to make the leap from counsel to consoles. DiCicco went from trial lawyer to independent designer, finding that many of his research and administrative skills fit right into gamemaking.
I spoke with DiCicco via email last month about what inspired such a rare job change and what indie game developers could learn from legal semantics.
GamesBeat: We don’t see many people transition into game development from the legal side of things. What motivated such a career refocusing?
Daniel DiCicco: I changed careers because I saw an opportunity to increase my earnings while leaving behind the parts of the legal profession that never really worked for me. Don’t get me wrong – I really liked lawyering. I was a trial lawyer, through and through, and to this day I can’t say that there is anything you do while wearing a business suit that is more exhilarating than trying a criminal case to a jury.
But even in a thriving practice, trials are few and far between. For each noble battle for justice in my caseload, there were probably 25 plea deals, divorces, or child custody cases. And that family law stuff — that’s soul-sucking work. I didn’t know people could be so awful to one another before I got into doing family law work.
And so at the end of a hard day, I would come home and play some video games. I started making one, too — the one that I wanted to play. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, but I saw some companies out there making the type of game I was making, and they had published their sales data. As far as I could tell, a good independent game in the genre I was operating in could sell between 50-100,000 copies.
From that point, it was simple math. If I can do what these guys are doing, then I could leave behind the divorces and DUIs and child custody cases and have a real career in making games. I could make games for a living.
GamesBeat: Did you come into the industry within any preconceived notions? Did anything about the process of making and releasing a game surprise you?
DiCicco: While there were a lot of things about making and releasing a game that I didn’t know, I didn’t have any preconceived notions that were shattered in the process. I certainly brought some assumptions with me into the process — first among them that Steam was the key to success. But to avoid getting caught in a trap by virtue of not knowing what I don’t know, I felt that it was essential early on to partner with an experienced publisher. The most surprising thing to me, at least early in the process, was just how easy it was to find a quality publishing partner [Iceberg Interactive] and how easy it has been to work with them.
GamesBeat: Has your law experience helped — or hindered — you in any tangible way during game production?
DiCicco: Running a law practice and running a development studio have a great deal of overlap in their skill sets. First, there is the simple stuff — setting up a legal entity and your books and taxes, [and so on] — I know that this can be daunting for someone coming into the profession with a pure engineering background. And then of course there are the many and varied contracts that pop up in the course of development — contracts with publishers and distributors and sub-contractors. Being able to draft these myself or to read and understand something drafted by someone else’s lawyer has been very helpful.
But more than anything, the communications skills I cultivated while lawyering have helped me make fruitful partnerships. I mentioned earlier that getting a publisher on board and securing funding for my first game as an unknown indie was surprisingly easy. I credit that to being able to communicate effectively with the business development staff at these firms. Being able to present myself as a professional person with a plan on how to make a product that will sell, rather than a programmer with a dream about how to make a good game — I think there’s a distinction there.
GamesBeat: Did anything about your work habits change from legal to game development work?
DiCicco: Lawyers, like programmers, spend a great deal of their time on the computer. Researching, drafting documents, corresponding, and so on. But the biggest way my office life has changed is that the goddamn phone has stopped ringing. By the end of my career, I think I would die a little inside every time the phone rang. I mean, it could be new business, which is always great. But more often than not, it’s some fire that you have to put out. I think I have PTSD even writing about that.
GamesBeat: Is legal expertise something more indie developers could use more of? Where would it help a gamemaker to have at least a passing familiarity with legal concepts?
DiCicco: Unquestionably, yes. The biggest issues that indie developers will face are issues regarding contracts and issues regarding taxes. People don’t realize that contracts can be formed even without making an official document called a contract. They don’t realize that promises alone are generally not enforceable unless there are mutual promises made. They don’t necessarily know that they have to withhold payroll taxes for employees, or submit 1099s to their subcontractors. Learning some basics about these issues before you go trying to make deals with people about revenue sharing and payment and so on, this will save you from shock and heartache down the road.
GamesBeat: One of the biggest pitfalls of independent development, according to you, revolves around distribution. What are the pitfalls about releasing a game that so many small teams fall into?
DiCicco: The biggest distribution trap that I have seen new teams fall into is in thinking that getting on Steam is a ticket to success in and of itself. Not a second thought is given to marketing. If you go look on Kickstarter and pick out a few indie projects, you may see their budgets listed there. So much money here for art, for programming, for tech — but nary a mention of marketing in sight. So I have to do a Picard facepalm when I see that because it is such a critical element of success in this field.
I’ve also been a bit surprised about how much anti-publisher sentiment exists among indie teams, and I think that this is generally a mistake. You can go on Steam right now and find two dozen examples of development teams that can prove me wrong right now. But in my opinion, that’s the trap. You can see Rust and DayZ and The Stanley Parable and a bunch of other small teams making a goddamn killing without a publisher and think, well, I can do that, too! And of course, you can. But you probably won’t.
I think you could also get on Steam right now and find a few hundred games where a small indie team invested a great deal of time and money into a game to perhaps not even break even. It’s gut-wrenching to imagine taking a financial blow of that magnitude when development budgets even for modest indie games can be $200,000 and up.
I prefer a cautious approach that spreads risk as well as rewards among willing partners. Working with a publisher can mean that you aren’t emptying your savings account to fund your dream. It can mean that you don’t have to think too hard about where and how to market your game, or how to get journalists or distribution portals to pay attention to you. And also, it’s fun! I love working with Iceberg Interactive because they are good people who love the games I do.
GamesBeat: You’ve previously mentioned that interacting with fans is one of your own weak spots. What changed between StarDrive and its sequel, in terms of you handling community management and engagement?
DiCicco: God, I was such a noob. It was only like two years ago when we launched StarDrive, and it was my baby. So when people got critical of it, I was out there defending it. “How dare you have this opinion that is clearly incorrect!?” I don’t know what I was thinking, but my biggest mistake was to participate in a threadnought [a multi-thread discussion] on Reddit that haunts me to this day.
The truth is, launching a game is emotionally difficult. What I’ve learned about communicating is to slow my roll so that I don’t put any negativity out there. I’ve got members of my community now who have volunteered to step up and help lead discussion, and that has worked out great.
I’m also a lot more cautious when talking about features. Early on in the process, I could get so excited about development. In a forum post, I would say that I’m going to add multiplayer, for instance, because I had a good test day where it looked like it would work out. But then later on, I realized that it’s not going to happen, and so now, in the community’s eyes, I’ve made a promise and I’ve broken it. That type of thing really rankles a certain type of gamer because they view it as a personal betrayal. I have learned it’s super important to communicate better than I have. If I am trying something out, then it’s important for me to remain quiet about it — until I know it’s 100 percent going to be in the game.
GamesBeat: Any last bits of advice for new or existing independent teams?
DiCicco: You can do it. Wake up every morning and get to work. Don’t play too many games. Take at least one nice walk a day. Don’t forget to socialize. Work on the weekends as much as you can. Don’t neglect your wife or husband or partner or kids. Do a comparative analysis between your game and similar games to figure out the size of your market, and then assume that you will only capture a quarter of that market. Set your budget and expectations based on that, and you won’t end up poor. Talk to the press at every opportunity. Don’t argue on the Internet. Now get back to work!
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