Adrian Crook is living his dream. For the past two years, the 34-year-old North Vancouver resident has been getting paid solely through his work as a game consultant.
Crook was born in Maple Ridge and grew up in Port Moody. He entered Vancouver’s video-game industry at the age of 19 when he joined EA Canada in 1995. After testing games for a year, he moved into production, working on Sled Storm for the PlayStation.
He left Electronic Arts to start Moderngroove in 1999 during the “crazy time” of the tech bubble. Crook and his partners raised a few million dollars from local investors, and engineered the reverse takeover of a shell company to get the game developer listed on the NASDAQ stock market. The studio managed to produce Moderngroove: Ministry of Sound Edition, before going bankrupt. Moderngroove ceased to exist in 2001.
From 2004 to the start of 2008, Crook worked at Relic Entertainment, where he produced The Outfit for the Xbox 360. In between Moderngroove and Relic, he helped create the animated series Urban Vermin, which aired on YTV, with Toronto-based Decode Entertainment.
Now, as a full-time consultant, Crook’s services include game design and business analysis. The games that he’s worked on have ranged from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles to iPhone, Facebook, and free-to-play games. His biggest project in the pipeline is a Wii title based on an animated movie that's due to hit theatres in time for Christmas.
The Georgia Straight reached Crook by phone at his home in North Vancouver.
What are you working on right now?
Well, I have to be vague. I’m working with one of the world’s largest consumer-electronics companies, and I can’t say really what they’re developing. But, obviously, my expertise is games, so they’re developing a games product—let’s put it that way. This is a hardware-development company. So, I’m advising them, just when it comes to sizes of different markets and potential games portfolios and that sort of stuff.
I’m also working with a company that’s developing a film and game IP. I’m obviously working on bringing the game portion of that IP alive and helping them sort of secure funds and that sort of stuff for it.
What else? I’m working with a local company that’s developing a Flash-based collectible card game for a Cartoon Network TV show. I helped them get the money to build the team to do it, and now I’m helping—I’m sort of advising—them on just revenue-model stuff. Before, I sort of did the original design for that game.
And little bits and bobs here and there. Like, I work with a branded-entertainment company—like an advergaming company—and develop concepts for their clients. Their clients are like big hotel chains or soft-drink bottlers. So, I develop Flash games—larger Flash games—or iPhone games, or I pitch them on those sort of things, design those for them.
How did you go from video-game company employee to full-time consultant?
It’s something I wanted to do for a while. But I didn’t really have the guts, or I didn’t think I’d be able to make a go of it. Then I just sort of hit the point where I figured it was now or never. I have three young kids at home, like three kids under three years old, so I kind of wanted to spend more time with my family. I had an opportunity to start consulting for one particular client immediately after I left Relic. So, I sort of had that lined up. That was going to be enough to keep the lights on and food on the table. Once I left, I had a bunch of old colleagues contact me.
I haven’t ever really sort of put the word out officially that I consult. But I just have people that I know who’ve been kind enough to throw me work. That’s worked for the first almost two years—or year and a half—I guess, and we’ll see. Obviously, it’s been a little bit slower in the first half of this year. But it’s picking up. Last year was really, really successful. It was probably the best year of my professional life, in terms of revenue and interesting projects—that kind of stuff.
I pretty much did it because I didn’t want to commute anymore, I wanted to work from home. The thing about salaried jobs is, you know, sometimes you’re busy, sometimes you’re not busy. If you’re busy, you’ve got to work unpaid overtime in the game industry, and, if you’re not busy, you still have to show up. So, to me, it was kind of disheartening that I didn’t have more of a direct correlation between getting paid for the hours I actually worked. As a consultant, if I’m working, I’m getting paid. If I’m not working, it’s my own time. I’m not getting paid, but I don’t have to worry about looking over my shoulder either. That’s what I enjoy.
What advice do you have for other producers looking to make this kind of transition?
1. Try to trim your costs down as much as possible. So, in your personal life, look at every—like we’re constantly evaluating all our expense and trying to drive them down, like even to nickel and dime levels, because you have to be as flexible as possible.
2. Try to maintain a line of credit. You need some access to credit, so that if you’ve got lean times you can tap into that and then rebuild it again when things are going well. It’s always that sort of ebb and flow....
That’s sort of the practical side of it. The other side is cultivate your contacts really, really well. I don’t think I sort of intentionally go out and network for the purposes of business. But I also sort of make sure that I’m not blowing off contacts. I know, when I was younger and sort of more impetuous in my days at EA and stuff, I didn’t have a really good appreciation for how small the industry was. When you’re young and you think you’re all that and a bag of chips, you can be really hotheaded. I think that, if I was still the person I was back then, I wouldn’t have as much success as I’ve had, fortunately, these days, in terms of people that I’ve worked with in the past coming back and wanting to work with me again. Because you have to strike a balance between pursuing your own career and speaking your mind, and still maintaining a healthy contact network and having people like you and want to work with you.
How has the recession affected your business?
It’s definitely affected my business. Like I said, last year was insane. I had awesome—just tons of revenue. Like I said, it was the most successful year ever, just from a T4 perspective and also from a lifestyle perspective. I worked probably half as much, in terms of raw hours, but earned like—if you figure after-tax income, because you can deduct a lot more as an independent consultant—I probably earned at least double what I’ve ever earned before. So, it was excellent.
Then this year, probably around December, it started to slow down. I think intentionally I sort of slowed down a bit too, because I was kind of like, well, a little bit burned out, wanted to take some time for the family. But also I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that several of my clients had a bit of a pullback.
One of them is a console-game development studio, located in the States, and they basically do work-for-hire work for big studios, like big publishers like the EAs and Activisions and that kind of stuff. Those companies have pulled back their slate a bit and took several projects that were going to be developed at that studio off the schedule, basically. So, that studio lost—they had to lay off a huge amount of people. That business contracted significantly as a result.
I have another company that I work with, like I mentioned, that’s sort of in the advergaming field. That’s slowed down because advertising is hit really badly by any recession. So, there is less expenditure in that area. So, that’s definitely slowed down a bit.
But things are picking up again now. I’ve noticed in the last couple months it seems like after the end of the fiscal year people realize that they still need to have products on the slate for this fiscal year and next. Things are sort of coming in the door again. So, those two examples I gave: they haven’t picked up again, necessarily, but there are other areas that are. So, it’s getting better.
How has Twitter proved useful to you?
It’s basically just an extension of an RSS reader. In that sense, there’s no conversation that I’m partaking in. It’s just like I’m finding a link that came from somebody cool, and it’s like right up to date. Again, Twitter for me has mostly usurped Google Reader and not Facebook or anything like that. So, it’s more just like a news-delivery service to me. I’m failing to see, myself, any of the decision-makers that I normally work with on the client side showing up and making any significant decisions on Twitter. Most of my clients find me either via personal referral or even just my Web site. If you type in “video game producer”, I’m probably like in the top-three results or something like that. That’s how a lot of people find me, and not really Twitter as of yet.
I just find it’s kind of borderline for me. It’s something that you don’t want to have to put a lot of time in to, because you can just waste a lot of time reading tiny updates. I really want to like it, because I’m all over usually social networks. But, on the other hand, I’m just finding it can be a soapbox for a lot of other people that burns up a ton of time.
What’s your favourite game to play?
These days, I’m playing a lot of iPhone games. It’s funny. I went to GDC Canada last week or the week before. The whole conference is focused pretty much exclusively on core games, like the AAA console games that are developed in town here for the most part. But everyone I talked to in the hall were talking iPhone games. Everyone in the hall was talking iPhone, to a less extent Facebook, but just sort of the emerging platforms rather than the long-dominant platforms. It was interesting that there weren’t any tracks in the conference on that.
So, as far as what I’m playing these days, on the iPhone I’m playing games like WordFu and Flight Control and Trism and even just old standbys like Bejeweled and stuff like that. Puzzle Quest, which I’ve probably played about 70 hours of on PC, DS, and now iPhone. I prefer the smaller, sort of bite-size games like that. But, when I do play console games, I usually just fall back to racing games and stuff like that. I’m sort of a more pure speed, like visceral, gaming junkie than I am investing a lot of time. I actually don’t mind first-person shooters on the console as well. But I’m doing less and less gaming on the console, and way more on mobile platforms, like the iPhone or on Facebook.
What Facebook games do you like?
For a long time, I played games like Parking Wars. I don’t play that anymore. Tetris Friends has a great implementation of like a challenge system and sort of the real-time leaderboard passing stuff. And Bejeweled Blitz. I played PackRat for a while. I played Ghost Racer.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.