By Don Francis
Top Startup Lessons I Learned from Two Doctors Making Games

Today many working in the video game industry were taken aback by the news Ray Muzyka & Greg Zeschuck are planning to retire from video games. For those that may not have been in the video game industry, Ray and Greg founded BioWare, a development studio that made some of the greatest games of the last 20 years. Currently it is a division of EA, but it had a much scrappier startup origin.

After decades of designing games, it seemed natural that they would choose to move on to something else. But they are planning something more in line with their startup roots. Ray described it this way:

“I now desire to take on a brand new entrepreneurial challenge. I believe strongly in the power of free enterprise to enable sustainable change, so my next ‘chapter’ will likely focus on an entirely new industry, something exciting, different and frankly downright scary – investing in and mentoring new entrepreneurs, and more specifically, the field of social/impact investing.”

In honor of their industry achievements, I thought I would catalogue the Top 10 startup lessons I learned from BioWare & their games. Some might seem a bit irreverent, but that never stopped Dave McClure and others from calling them as they saw them.

Quests are always better with colorful companions. Most of BioWare’s titles were role-playing games. Whether you were a jedi in Knights of the Old Republic out to find your destiny among the stars or a more medieval knight in Dragon Age setting off on epic quests, Bioware surrounded your in-game avatar with amazing characters that were not only good at what they did but a joy to interact with. It’s just like Steve Blank said, the startup experience is like a mythical quest. You get to choose your companions and pass a series of real (or virtual tests) to complete your quests.

You can be great and terrible at the same time. Whether it was the storytelling, voice acting, or other narrative details, some titles were notorious for being both superb and terrible at the same time. So it has been with some of the startups I’ve experienced. The team is doing the best they can and making real progress, but sometimes it is two steps forward and one step back.

Past success only raises the bar. When BioWare released Shattered Steel in 1996, nobody was expecting an amazing experience, but when Mass Effect 3 was released this year, expectations could not have been higher for BioWare. The first two games in the series were released to increasing critical and commercial success. The community recognized that the promise of wrapping up nearly five years of game experience with the conclusion to this epic series was a burden only Bioware could shoulder. Much like serial entrepreneurs who consistently deliver on their venture’s propositions, BioWare had raised the bar for role playing games…but this was their blessing and their curse.

The end doesn’t always justify the road to get there. At the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, many players that had bought into the series felt their investment of time and money hadn’t panned out as expected…to the point it became a meme unto itself. Much like investors that back you, fund you, encourage you, and sometimes chide you, the BioWare community hadn’t gotten their return from the series investment.

An exit isn’t always a way out. Startups generally see two methods of exit: an IPO and an acquisition. BioWare took an exit from being an independent studio when it was purchased by EA in 2007, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary. Greg and Ray stayed on to lead the studio for another 5 years under the EA umbrella. During my time at Google, I became acquainted with multiple acqui-hires. This trend is nothing new and it isn’t going away.

Party members have competing agendas. Unfortunately, the process of hiring comes with the unfortunate side-effect of sometimes firing teammates. In Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, and other epic BioWare tales, members of your party had their own clear and subtle motivations. Some would see you less favorably if you made a choice they didn’t like. Some would threaten to leave, others did leave, but would-be heroes in BioWare games, have to make tough choices, hope for the best, and frequently deal with the consequences.

Getting better requires the grind. There is no coincidence; both the slog of startup work and the repetitious leveling up of characters are both known as a grind. If you wanted that jedi to be powerful enough to defeat the last boss in Knights of the Old Republic, you needed three things: the right character, the right equipment, and hours of carving your way through drones. Sometimes it was a pain. I learned the hard way that my character (focused on talking to people, building positive relationships, and getting the best prices from vendors) was ill-equipped to face down a fully trained jedi warrior that had gone to the dark side. I needed more blocking & tackling.

Many a lackey learned to fear my skills

Conversation is important. Whether it was henchmen talking to each other or direct interaction with the many characters populating the game worlds, BioWare titles consistently raised the bar for in-game conversation tied to decision making. Anybody embarking on a startup grind should similarly be prepared to plumb the depths of user insights, choose carefully what they say to problematic partners, and clearly articulate a vision for what they want to achieve from this grand business [ad]venture.

Build a product and be ready to expand upon the vision. Whether startups are building a first version to take to investors as a proof-of-concept for funding or a stand-alone app to go to market, invariably the development team will be revisiting this initial experience with updates. BioWare released amazing titles like Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Neverwinter Nights only to build expansion packs to take players farther and deeper into the game narrative. It isn’t enough for an entrepreneur to do something amazing, the team must continue to iterate and expand…just like Scott said.

Give the power to the players. One of the things that got me interested in working startups came when a bunch of my friends used BioWare’s Aurora Toolset to build our own game world. This toolset came with every purchase of Neverwinter Nights in 2002. We crafted a product, gathered a following, and managed our own group of end users. It was an enlightening experience that helped open doors for me to get into the game industry.

I’m confident that there are scores of other amateur developers that have BioWare to thank for years of compelling experiences. As Ray and Greg prepare to embark on the next arc of their life’s journey, I hope to someday encounter them. While I’d love to hear them speak in a Startup Grind venue of their choice, my inner fanboy would honored to one day serve with these men in making a difference in a new industry.