Hello readers! Today I have some exciting content updates for you. Last April, the second annual Chicago Video Game Law Summit was held at the Chicago Bar Association in Chicago, Illinois. CVGLS 2016 featured a new lineup of high quality panels made up of lawyers, game developers, and industry professionals. Additionally, the Summit offered  a Game Showcase to highlight independent games in development in Chicago, and an assembly of Chicago based video game organizations. Attendees had the chance to watch academic panels on a variety of topics, play the latest games out of Chicago, and interact directly with the movers and shakers of the Chicago game scene.

In case you missed it, or would like to relive it, I am very happy to announce that the video footage of CVGLS 2016 is now available online! You can access it on the CVGLS YouTube Channel, or right here at Loading Law!

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Incorporating and running a video game studio is a challenge. Doing so requires advanced legal, fiscal, and practical know-how. Even seasoned industry veterans struggle occasionally with the procedural nuances of starting a business. For newly minted independent developers, the startup process is doubly difficult, and oftentimes very intimidating.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two Chicago-based developers & entrepreneurs, Tony Le and Cameron Cintron. Tony is the Founder and Managing Director of two businesses: tvledesign LLC and Azure Games LLC.  Cameron is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Azure Games LLC, as well as a Game Programmer at Blue Street Studios. They were willing to share some of their experiences with the incorporation process, teambuilding, and the Chicago indie game scene.

Ross: Tony, you’ve started two companies. Why did you want to start your own business, and did you encounter any difficulties?

Tony: I realized after attending the Chicago Video Game Law Summit that I needed to protect my work and invest in a company. The only issue I had was the money. There are plenty of websites that take care of [incorporating a business] for you, but going through the process and making sure that they do it correctly is difficult.

Ross: How do you prioritize what legal protections you secure first?

Tony: Your studio name and trademarks are the top priority. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a foundation to start with. We had a bad experience where we had a logo and a website all set up and a company in Canada had an extremely similar brand. It would have become a trademark issue down the line. It stinks to find out you registered your name, but now you have to change it, along with all your contracts, domains, and registrations. 

Ross: Why incorporate a studio as a limited liability corporation instead of just forming a general partnership?

Tony: Obviously, LLC’s protect you from personal liability, so if anything were to happen, you wouldn’t be losing any of your personal assets. Only company assets. General partnerships don’t do that. One difficulty though, and not necessarily just with LLC’s, is coming up with contracts for different scenarios. Finding contracts that fit specific work, and particular needs, is a challenge.

Ross: What is something you wish you had known before putting a team and company together?

Tony: One of the things I wish I had known was how to actually put the team together and keep it together. We had a lot of turnover initially. Some advice I would give others is: instead of filling the position to fill it, really get to know why you are filling it and who is fit for it.

Ross: Cameron, what is it like being part of the management of the corporation? What are some of your expectations from a partner? 

Cameron: As a manager I’m able to delegate tasks and contribute to the designs of the product. I work with Tony on matters like finances and office management that I wouldn’t be able to as just an employee. I like being able to make big decisions, and I like having someone I can trust to help make those decisions with me. In a partner, I want someone who is like-minded and someone that I can trust. In working with Tony, it’s been a pleasure because our skillsets complement each other and we can play to each of our strengths.

Ross: When putting a team together do you look for technical skills or a personal connection?

Tony. Both. Say we need an artist. We need someone who is enthusiastic about it and who wants to do it. We don’t want someone who is disinterested and uncommitted, even if they are extremely talented.

Cameron: That’s right. If they have other priorities, they aren’t committed to us, and we’re waiting on them. That’s not a good fit. It’s important to be able to trust them, work with them, and count on them.

Ross: Many studios outsource their work. Are your team members local or remote?

Tony: Right now mostly local. We used to have more long distance folks, but communication became an issue, so we try not to rely on remote work.

Cameron: At some point though, you do go through everyone who is local, and then it can be good to get a diverse range of skills from outside the local community. It’s not a bad idea to use people who work remotely, just the wrong people.

Ross: How do you handle your companies’ intellectual property, and more specifically, the work your employees and independent contractors make?

Tony: We own it, but if someone has a great idea that doesn’t fit what we’re doing and we’re unable to use it at the time, we encourage them to take it somewhere it can succeed, even if it’s not with us. We only ask that they come to us with it first and give us the heads up so that there’s no confusion or competition down the line. Our community should be flexible on things like that and encouraging of creation.

Cameron: Definitely. We want to try to promote the community and not choke it. 

Ross: How would you characterize Chicago’s independent game scene?

Tony: It’s great! We have so many local meetups, and so many organizations. When we get together it’s friendly and no one gets talked down to. It’s very diverse and supportive.

Cameron: For sure, and there’s so much here. We have an art community, a film community, and the indie scene is strong. All of those people can transition to games very easily. The great thing about this industry is you can incorporate every other to make something beautiful.

Tony: Beautiful…and a little chaotic. In the best way possible.

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LetsPlay371Recently I was asked by Chris Baker of Gamasutra to weigh in on Sony’s attempt to trademark the mark “Let’s Play.” Sony’s attempt has caused some ripples in both gaming and legal circles. There will certainly be more to discuss on this topic as it develops. For now, you can see my comments, and those from some extremely knowledgeable video game lawyers, here.

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Loading Law Speaks: OGDE 2015

November 2, 2015 | Ross A. Hersemann

Hello readers! This coming weekend, November 6-8, the Ohio Game Developers Expo will be held in Columbus, Ohio at COSI – Center for Science & Industry. I am happy to announce that I will be contributing two panels: Law in the Games Industry: Things to Know and Video Games: The Artistic Medium of the 21st Century. If you are interested in learning more about legal protections for your game, the legality of ESports, or the video game art scene, this event is a must!

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The-Messiahs

Craig Stern is a Chicago-based game designer best known for his game studio Sinister Design, and Telepath Tactics, his turn-based strategy RPG. Craig also organizes a regular meeting of Chicago game design students, appropriately titled, Indie City Games. If that were not impressive enough, he’s also a lawyer. Clearly,  Craig’s real life character class is Renaissance Man. I got the chance to talk to Craig, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his work and his games.

Ross A. Hersemann: Being an attorney and a game designer is a very unique skill set. What made you decide that you wanted to make games, what made you decide that you wanted to be an attorney, and how do you manage to do both at once?

Craig Stern: I have two parts of my brain that were involved in the decision: the part of my brain that has a burning need to create, which all but forced me to pursue game design; and the part of my brain that likes stability and not starving to death, which influenced my decision to enter law. I manage to do both at once through an innovative combination of high stress and inadequate sleep.

Hersemann: Does your expertise in law influence your game making in any way, or vice versa?

Stern: Well, law certainly influences the steps I take when working with contractors and securing my intellectual property! Among other things, it allows me to draft my own contracts, which I’ve found enormously helpful.

In a more abstract sense, I think there’s a neat little area of crossover between statutory interpretation and programming: a statute is a lot like a program, with its sections and subsections analogous to functions, and clauses analogous to lines of code. It takes much the same sort of logical reasoning to divine the functioning of a statute as it does to peer at code and figure out what it does.

Hersemann: What are some unique legal issues in games you feel other game designers need to be aware of?

Stern: I wouldn’t say that this is a problem unique to games, exactly, but I find that designers often have a hard time understanding the importance of writing out contracts to govern their relationships with artists, musicians, and other designers. It never seems like it’ll be a problem to operate without contracts…right up until it is.

As far as unique issues go, I’d say that games occupy a distinctly complex place in the world of IP law, with the ability to incorporate protection from just about every single intellectual property regime in various parts of their structure while somehow receiving no protection at all for the core thing that makes them games: their interactive systems. Designers would do well to invest in making the copyrightable, trademark-able parts of their games super appealing.

Hersemann: What unique challenges did you face in making Telepath Tactics? Technical ones? Business ones?

Stern: The biggest challenge I faced when developing Telepath Tactics, quite frankly, was an extremely common one: dealing with stringent time and money limitations. I was able to stretch the game’s budget well enough after the Kickstarter campaign succeeded, but time limitations were much more difficult to work around.

I had to manage a team of artists and a composer, program the engine, write the game’s story and character dialogue, build the campaign, create and integrate sound effects, and find and fix bugs while holding down an unrelated full-time job. The temptation to rely on my fan base to help me find bugs was great, and I ultimately surrendered to that temptation to a degree that proved detrimental to the game’s state on launch. In hindsight, I should have delayed the game and spent multiple months finding and fixing bugs by myself.

Hersemann: Tell us about your experience with KickStarter. What should aspiring game makers know about the crowdfunding process for indie games?

Stern: Kickstarter was an absolute godsend for me. It dramatically increased my audience reach and provided funds that proved crucial to finishing Telepath Tactics with a reasonable depth of content.

As for my advice to developers who are thinking of using Kickstarter, it just so happens that I’ve already written two whole articles on this very subject! (Those would be How to not fail at Kickstarter in 12 easy steps and How to not fail at Kickstarter in 8 more steps.)

Hersemann: You’re mostly a self-taught game maker. What do you wish you had known starting out?

Stern: How to program properly, for one thing!  Beyond that, I wish I had started out with a less aggressively goal-oriented mentality when it came to developing games; I think it would have saved me a lot of time in the long run had I taken the time to learn proper programming techniques before taking on big, ambitious games. When your engines are comprised of hacked-together amateurish spaghetti code, it really tends to slow the whole development process down.

Hersemann: As you continue to make games, what will you do differently in the future? What lessons did you learn making and marketing Telepath Tactics?

Stern: The most salient lesson I learned is to not rely on your fans to do beta playthroughs and report bugs–not when you have a single-player narrative-driven game, anyway! Just as importantly, I learned not to treat the silence of these presumed early players as evidence that the game is in a bug-free state. Badly wanting a thing to be true does not make it so.

Hersemann: What’s next on the horizon for you and Sinister Design? Is there anything our readers should keep an eye out for from you?

Stern: Absolutely! For my next project, I’m actually trying my hand at a board game! If you enjoy turn-based strategy, have a look at True Messiah, a surreal and disturbing game of post-apocalyptic cult warfare with gorgeous digital art.

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