Episode 338 — Executive Business Advice — Louis Castle
Episode 338 — Executive Business Advice — Louis Castle
Louis Castle is a prolific American video games designer. He is known for co-founding Westwood Studios and for his work on the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series. In 2017, he became the Head of Amazon Game Studios Seattle.
Most recently, Louis joined GreenPark Sports as Chief Product Officer.
As the co-founder of Westwood Studios, Louis was instrumental in the launch of the C&C series, one of the leaders in the 1990s RTS boom. He co-founded Westwood Studios in 1985. After its purchase by EA in 1998, he held various senior positions at that company. In 2008, he collaborated with Steven Spielberg on the Boom Blox and Boom Blox Bash Party video games for the Nintendo Wii console, based on Spielberg’s design ideas. Since 2010, Louis held a number of roles, including at GarageGames and Zynga.
Louis Castle is a BAFTA and GDC Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
In this Podcast, Louis shares valuable insights on how to start a business, how and when to sell your business; the importance of risk and lessons of failure; how to look for new opportunities, negotiate your salary and raises, give and receive criticism and so much more!
Louis Castle at GreenPark Sports: https://venturebeat.com/2021/04/19/louis-castle-joins-greenpark-sports-as-chief-product-officer/
Louis Castle Joins Amazon Game Studios: https://gamingcypher.com/louis-castle-takes-command-amazon-game-studios-seattle/
Louis Castle on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0145296/
Louis Castle on Twitter: @castle_louis
[04:11] Louis Castle’s Introduction
[04:35] How Much to Know Before Starting a Business
[09:22] The Importance of Risk and Failure
[16:24] Understanding Your WHY
[20:05] Think Like an Investor
[31:04] Before You Sell Your Company…
[36:05] Looking Out for New Opportunities
[51:28] Questions to Ask at an Interview
[54:29] How to Negotiate Your Salary and Raises
[1:00:13] “Dress for the Job You Want – not the Job You Have”
[1:02:19] The Importance of Giving Constructive Criticism
EPISODE 338 — EXECUTIVE BUSINESS ADVICE – LOUIS CASTLE
Welcome to Episode 338!
This is Allan McKay.
I’m sitting down with Louis Castle, the founder of Westwood Studios back in the day. I’m sure you’re familiar with Command & Conquer and other massive video games they created. Most recently, Louis joined GreenPark Sports as Chief Product Officer.
I’m super excited for this interview! Check out my previous talk with Louis: www.allanmckay.com/248. Louis has a complete understanding of being a businessman and artist. There are so many things we talk about in this Episode! They’re gold no matter what industry you’re in.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:19] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:04:29] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS CASTLE
[04:11] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat, Louis! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Louis: Sure! I’m Louis Castle. I’m best known as a Co-Founder of Westwood Studios. I’ve been making games since 1982. I’ve done a bunch of other stuff as well. I’ve been successful at multiple creative, business and technical worlds. I’m really excited to talk to you!
[04:35] Allan: And I appreciate that! I thought it’d be fun to talk about business and artists. Where do you think people fall short when understanding how business works. A lot of people neglect to learn how to negotiate, for example.
Louis: I suppose advice is hard to give because everyone’s experience is different. But my learning was when me and my business partner Brett [Sperry] were working for a company and doing most of the work ourselves: all the programming, the design, the negotiating the terms of contracts. But we weren’t doing the financial terms. We had an opportunity with Westwood to negotiate our contract and we discovered that all this other stuff has to be in place. I’ve embarrassed Brett when I tell this story: When we got our first check, we were super excited and didn’t know how to cash it. We were really naive! [06:31] I think the biggest strength people can have when starting a business is actually not knowing. Once you know all the things you have to do, it shies you away from it. But I would encourage you to do it because you learn a lot from it! Even if you decide not to do it all yourself, you make an informed decision. Being a creative in business benefited me because it gave me flexibility. You find yourself making small interesting trade-offs.
[07:26] Allan: Even from a leadership perspective, the more you understand how things function, the more you can navigate. The more you know 10%, it helps you do things better.
Louis: There is an old saying, “The best employees are former bosses.” You just understand the other person’s point of view. It also gives you insight into what the other parts of the organization are contributing. I’m at GreenPark now. What’s amazing to me is how many tools are now available that take the heavy lifting away. It makes it easier to be your own boss and your own employee. Games are hard to do by yourself. You’ll eventually want to contract out somebody. There are only a few people in the world capable of doing everything: art, coding, design, music. But that’s getting rarer but you have to be at least competent at these things. At some point, most people will have to get involved with someone else.
[09:22] Allan: Do you think it’s an organic process? In hindsight, people say that if they knew how much work it would take, they wouldn’t do it.
Louis: If you’ve done any difficult tasks in your life, oftentimes the effort — the journey — is what you look back at and say, “Wow! I wish I enjoyed that a bit more!” One of the observations I’ve made has to do with success. If you’re successful at an endeavor, it’s weird because you’re less likely to go try it again. There is something crazy about entrepreneurs: They want to be successful but if they fail, they’ll keep going after it and they’ll eventually succeed. They’ll keep going. The old story I used to tell people was anyone who had a slightly successful studio wasn’t even slightly interested in starting another one. But everyone who had one that didn’t make it wanted to try it again. It’s a lot harder to take it on again. I haven’t met a lot of one-hit wonders or overnight successes. I usually meet people who’ve spent years trying.
[11:11] Allan: It’s that iceberg metaphor. You don’t realize how much work is involved. A lot of people see failure as a show stopper.
Louis: I think I’ve had near misses that weren’t really painful. The first company we put effort into was Westwood Studios. Ultimately we were very successful. You don’t have the same lessons you have from other failures. Since that time, I’ve done some things that weren’t successful and I’ve learned a bit more from the beginning. But I do think that [although] on a global level we were successful, we had many projects that failed financially. Because we had no money, we were about time and opportunity. But it was pretty scary at times. We learned from that. There was a recession at that time, so we built a company where frugality was really required. Because of that, it stays with me to this day. I always hear, “We need to spend money — to make money”; and I’m, like, “Well…” If you make money, you can forward that money to make more money. It was always hard for me to take other people’s money. It’s a huge moral imperative to have it turn out well.
[13:35] Allan: I think the beauty with making something smaller is that you get the concept out and bootstrap the whole thing. There is always a risk if you say, “Give me all the money!” and hope there is a return on it.
Louis: I can’t speak for all entrepreneurs. There are some people who are brilliant at raising tons of money and sometimes it’s successful, other times it’s not. But they’re able to do it again and again because they have a hit record. I understand the mechanics of that. But from my point of view, I always try to find a solution and try to bootstrap it [until you’re making some money]. That goes back to the business side of it. But I started out as a creative. I wanted to make sure if we were going to do this business, we’d have to make enough money to pay ourselves. That’s another problem. [14:49] I would tell anyone starting out and who has time and very little to lose — that’s a wonderful time to take a risk in your life! And not feel badly if it doesn’t work out. If you’re 22 and fresh out of college and expect to succeed right away, when you start putting those kinds of goals on yourself, it’s not the right way to think about it. The right way to think about it is, “I’m young, I have nothing but time.” If you lose, you can move back with your parents. That is the best time to take risks. We were in that space and we could’ve taken more risk and been more aggressive. We sold our company really early in its life cycle. If you’re young and you have time — take risks. Expect to fail, it’s going to happen. But that’s your superpower when you’re young!
[16:24] Allan: You’re right! A lot of the time, if you’re setting these heavy expectations on yourself, it’s never enough no matter how well you’re doing. If you’re comparing yourself to the Richard Bransons, you’re never going to feel like you’re successful.
Louis: It’s the imposter syndrome. It’s the idea that you’re successful but don’t feel it because you didn’t do enough to deserve it. It’s really hard to get out of that space, especially if you’re had a couple of knocks. You can write an honest CV and realize that in terms of balance, so many things you’ve done have been successful. [18:11] There is a point of clarity that even as a young person is required: Understanding what it is you want out of the effort you put in. People always ask me about starting successful companies, don’t I always want to do it again. Sometimes yes, but other times, I’m just happy working for a company that is financially stable. I love the people I work with and the work that I do. It’s a mix of things. With each endeavor, it’s important to understand what you want out of that particular engagement. When I started with Westwood, I had a poignant meeting with Brett who said he wanted to create a successful company that’s successful. I said, “I just want to have fun!” And I mean: We were working 80-hour weeks. That was my idea of fun! I loved what we were doing. It wasn’t for the expectation of wealth but for the love of doing it. I feel so fortunate that I found something so engaging. If you haven’t found that passion, don’t be shy to find new opportunities. I also had to be good at finance and other things. But I wasn’t passionate about those. But it was a really great fit.
[20:06] Allan: I love that! I think it’s also something you can grow into overtime. I remember having a conversation with my friend who didn’t want to work for anyone else and be the boss from day one.
Louis: Going back, I think what motivated us to start Westwood is that we didn’t appreciate the value that the business side of things was bringing to the table: cultivating relationships, negotiating deals, etc. And we found out the amount of money was really small. So we were indignant: “We can’t be that bad!” Being the boss wasn’t necessarily the goal. We just wanted to go to work and love what we were doing. And work at a place where we wanted to work. Each of us wanted to go to work everyday, for very long hours. Westwood was also close enough where we didn’t have a revolving door in terms of talent. There were all sorts of little pieces that came into place. Love what you do — and make sure about what you want on the other side. If there is a big payout on the other side, start with the big idea. [22:26] Think like an investor.
- What’s the opportunity space? It has to be huge. It is being addressed?
- What does the competitive market look like?
- Once you have those big ideas, do you have the team to deliver that?
- When you have all those questions right, the rest of it starts falling in place pretty quickly.
But it is difficult to find that unique space.
[23:05] Allan: You mean so many people who have the million dollar idea. But it’s about your willingness to stick to it and see it through.
Louis: It happens all the time! “I have this idea for a game!” I’m sure you do. But the ability to execute, that’s critical. Another thing I had to learn is that it’s difficult to assemble a team that’s a success. It’s usually the second, third time before you get your groove. It’s pretty rare to assemble a group of experts from the get-go. Hollywood has gotten really good at it which is shocking, when it comes to production companies. It seems so challenging! But that’s the model. You look at great directors. Almost all of them have a group of actors and creatives they work with all the time. They do want to have that muscle memory.
[24:54] Allan: And it’s also about communication. When it comes to management, the more you can build that vocabulary, the better they understand what you mean when you say, “I want 10% more”. You lose weeks / months learning.
Louis: Another thing is: I love the fact that people have learned to work remotely. But there is a missing piece I call “social capital”. We’re building companies and yet you haven’t met the people you’re working with. It’s wonderful that technology allows for that. But there is a missing component of being in the same space and having that social time together that isn’t strictly business. What was magical about Westwood is that all the founding members were friends at the time, or became friends. That was a fantastic benefit! But it was also painful because if someone wasn’t working out, it was hard to have that conversation. They aren’t just your employee but your friend. There are pluses and minuses.
[27:09] Allan: Just touching on social capital, some people get the value and others don’t. When you’re starting out, and you don’t know anyone — you’re competing with everyone. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to learn practical tools like finding mentors, or building an outreach system?
Louis: If you’re looking for a mentor, it doesn’t hurt to shoot for the moon. I would encourage finding a person you respect and deep dive into why you respect them. And be more targeted: If you’re looking for a mentor to teach you creativity, you don’t want someone who teaches work sufficiency. Align what you admire about them with what you need.
When it comes to working with other people, the way I’ve managed to get along with other people — is to be a genuine fan of who they are. It helps to be ADHD: I never know what I’m going to find that’s interesting to me. It’s that idea that when you understand some part of that person’s motivation, you get a better understanding of them. If something matters to them, it’s important to understand what drives them. But it must be genuine. People will very quickly sniff out a kiss-up. You don’t want fake praise.
I believe we’re always learning. But now I realize that leaving yourself vulnerable for some hurt or disappointment allows you to grow. You have to be able to give and take a bit.
[31:04] Allan: I love that! One thing you alluded to earlier is about selling your business. Were there any lessons there?
Louis: Quite a few! The first one is when we went to sell Westwood the first time, the reason we didn’t do it was financially motivated. Every product we were making was costing us so much, we weren’t getting enough money. We broke our basic business model: Make enough to keep the lights on. The upside participation has to go down to do that. But the creative work we wanted to do was so expensive, most of our publishing partners weren’t willing to cover the bill. You could see pretty quickly where this was going: It would just take one big failure and it’d be catastrophic. At the time, we had about 28 people working for us. We cared about all of them because they were our friends. We wanted to make sure the financial backing was there to keep us doing the aspirational projects we were doing. We’ve done Battle Tech, Eye of the Beholder. We were at a point of launching into the frontline of premium titles and they were expensive. We needed pockets behind us. We had an option of a giant buyout that would’ve set us up as millionaires. Or we could go with Richard Branson and Virgin Games who cold called us. We went with Virgin because we remained in control of the company.
Looking back, that was crazy risky. We could see that the company could grow with the capitol, but there was a lot of risk. We ended up selling the company. We kind of got it wrong in a lot of ways, as creators. We didn’t get a good deal for ourselves. We indemnified. It was a fraudulent suit and it wiped out what little money we made. But ultimately, we got paid well. That’s my lesson: [34:39] If you are looking at a point where you’re going to sell a company – which is your effort, your entity – it is important to be aligned with your purchaser to make sure you’re successful. YOU are successful! Not just them. That alignment is a great motivation for both parties. That was the genius of the Virgin partnership. Believe in the upside and recognize you’re taking a risk. If you fail, lick your wounds – and go try again.
[35:55] Allan: The quote from Richard from the last Episode we’d done was, “Everything is for sale.”
[36:05] Allan: I had Glenn Stearns on the Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/299). I remember him mentioning that Branson and he would hang out on his island. In terms of where you are now, when you look at new opportunities – what do you typically look for?
Louis: It’s a funny thing! The reality is that [answer] is not static. It changes all the time. I worked for a big company for a while and I enjoyed that I had these resources. At some point, I just want to start a startup for a while. But then you realize why it’s so hard and you don’t want to do that again. I go back to when Westwood was growing. We’d do a family / kids game and then go do something really dark and gritty. We’d bounce back and forth. I think what I look for with every opportunity is what I’m trying to get out of it. Just because you want it and it doesn’t work out that way, once you’ve signed, you have to give it your best effort. I want to try being successful even if it doesn’t suit me. My best advice is: Follow the opportunity. I always hear this a lot: “Wow! I wish someone had given me the chance!” I think opportunity is knocking all the time. I think people don’t really want to listen. “Oh, God! I can’t do that! It’s too risky!” That’s what I look for: At that time of my life, how much risk am I willing to take? Am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to fully put myself into this?
[39:36] Allan: I’ve mentioned Glenn Stearns and it’s the same question I asked him. The more you pay attention, you realize opportunities are around everyday. It frustrates him when people don’t see opportunity.
Louis: I feel the same way! There was a period in my life where I was into operations a lot. It’s a weird thing when you pay attention. You can’t help it! Many years ago, I stood in the parking lot of EA waiting for a taxi that never showed up. I thought, “There has to be a better solution than this!” And if you think about it – that was the opportunity. That’s the idea behind Uber. People have these epiphanies all the time, but they aren’t listening. Whenever you’re really frustrated with the brokenness of the world, maybe that’s your next opportunity. Might be that at the end of the day, there are some games that haven’t been made.
[41:39] Allan: That’s the rule of business, right? If you can’t put your business plan on a napkin, it’s too complex. In terms of looking back at some of your mistakes, what are the ones that stood out?
Louis: There are always reasons, right? Douglas Adams had this story of reasons. For reasons, you go to do something. I wish I had that advisor on my shoulder. When you go do something for reasons, very quickly you realize those reasons are no longer valid. I wish I knew when to cut bait. But I’m not that person. I’m so stubborn! I just won’t give up. When I’m given something, I try harder if it’s not working. Looking back, when things weren’t working out, I didn’t give up because I was too stubborn to realize it wasn’t working. But it’s not healthy. I don’t know how that’s advice. Most of the time, things didn’t work out for me, I knew it wasn’t working. Way before that point, I could’ve walked away. It is not a good quality when you’re in a downward spiral.
[42:53] Allan: Are there any practices you would implement in a new version of yourself? Like, checking in with yourself every three months.
Louis: I’ve thought a lot about this recently. These are the first 100 days. I didn’t go to management school. [44:19] When you start your new opportunity, go into your calendar and put things in the future. “This is why I’m doing it.” Sometime in the future, you’re going to trip upon that thing sitting in your calendar and check in on yourself. Are you still happy doing what you’re doing?
[44:59] Allan: I was reading a website where you can email yourself a year from now. You can project on where you’ll be.
Louis: I think writing a letter to yourself [is a great idea]. I think I should do this! Things change and the problems are insidious. You don’t realize when the change happened. Writing that not to your future self is a really great idea!
[45:59] Allan: I helped my wife with her business and other colleagues. But I’m not good at giving myself advice. I thought I’d email myself and then respond with advice. That may sound silly.
Louis: It’s like death by a thousand cuts. You give up your passion one shake at a time. It’s not that you become the thing you loathe. But it comes down to finding that inspiration again.
[47:09] Allan: You mentioned some books before. Some of the best artists I know, we end up nerding out about books. What books would you recommend?
Louis: Whenever I find a topic I’m interested in, I go for the Dummy books. Or the One-Minute Manager. I always go for the Beginner’s Guide type of books. They tend to give me the right questions. Nowadays, I don’t think I’ve read help books cover to cover. I find most concepts online and then I dig into an article. I find it to be more efficient. When someone tells me, “Contracts are ruled by the Howey Test.” I’m looking up “Howey Test”. Then I’m reading up on how that applies. That kind of diving deep is what I do most of the time.
[49:35] Allan: I’ve heard that from other people as well.
Louis: I read pretty quickly but I don’t need to do all that. The internet changed things. At some point, any book that comes out has a summary within minutes. You can go to Wikipedia. Someone has already done the curating work for you. When I do look for pleasure, I don’t want to read the cliff notes.
[51:28] Allan: Looking at opportunity and opportunity cost, what type of questions do you default to? If a younger you was moving to a new company, what questions might you want to ask?
- The question that I would want to ask first and foremost is that I’m making enough to cover my expenses. That way I’m not distracted. That’s too much risk. Figure out what your floor is and make sure you aren’t struggling. That was the lesson of Westwood back in the day. That’s true of any ventures you go into. You want to build a bit of a buffer.
- Understand what you’re looking to gain and articulate that to whoever you’re looking to go work for. You don’t want to have different expectations or opinions. Be clear about that so that there are no misunderstandings down the road.
- The questions I really ask are: What do you expect me to do? And do I think I can do that? If I do, what do I need from them to be successful? I need autonomy. I need a single rapport. I need the ability to hire whomever I want to hire.
[54:28] Allan: When it comes to negotiating, people feel that to negotiate their salary means an argument. Instead, it’s just a conversation and it’s part of the process.
Louis: And if it is salary, it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable conversation. You have to be honest about where you are at. If you don’t get it, you’ll be distracted. Both sides are asking, “What do I have to do to get what I want?” When I hear people say, “The cost of living went up and I need to make more money.” Just because the cost of living went up, I shouldn’t have to pay you more. Instead, when I’m looking to get more compensation, I ask, “What do I have to do to earn that?” Then I flip the table around and say, “I hear you. This is what you want. This is what your role pays, but I’ll do everything I can to give you the opportunities.” That’s a healthy way to think about it. When I used to run a big team of artists, they say, “I don’t have any time in the day to work on my career.” That’s not my responsibility. Artists can work on their career after hours. My thoughts on raises, I ask, “Do you think you’re more efficient now? Do you think your work is better in quality? Can you quantify that?” Fogging a mirror is not an excuse for a raise. It’s not automatic that everyone gets raises. Businesses have to increase their services to raise their rates.
[57:39] Allan: Whenever someone asks me about getting a raise, it’s about making yourself more valuable. It’s about what do you need to do to be more valuable to an employer? Is it that you have to learn to code?
Louis: I think it’s about getting that contract in place. It’s fair to ask your employer, “What kind of work do I need to do to reach this goal?” I think that’s a fair question and it changes the conversation. It becomes a healthy one. If you’re a manager and you’re going to give criticism to someone, the person who is underperforming is often the person who feels underappreciated. It’s a strange correlation. What I always try to do – is try to find the things that they do well. I start with what I value about this person. “And it would be better, if…” and “Here are my suggestions on how you can do that.” And it becomes a constructive conversation. People don’t hear negative criticism very well.
[1:00:13] Allan: That’s really good advice! What advice would you give to someone in a mid-level position and they’re looking to move up? Say, if they’re looking to change their specialty? How do they approach that?
Louis: It’s the old adage of “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Do the job you want to do, not the one you’re paid to do. If you fancy yourself to be a technical artist, go do some technical things. Do them on your own time if the company doesn’t give you an opportunity. But at the first technical opportunity, be humble about it. Be honest about it, “I’m not much of a technical artist.” You can ask a mentor for their time. Ultimately, as long as you’re giving them some value, you’re learning a new skill. And it will be valued. Whining and complaining about not having it [is useless]. You have to articulate that and then fight for it.
[1:02:19] Allan: My biggest pet peeve is when people complain about not getting paid what they’re worth after they’ve accepted their salary. How do you nurture artists to take more ownership of the work they’re doing – rather than doing the minimum.
Louis: You start by complimenting the work they’re doing and be clear about what you like. The way to nurture it is to say, “You’re fantastic at modeling. You create dimensions that are lovely. You could spend more time on texturing.” Then, encourage exploration and growth. The artists are all about the ego, we’re looking to grow. We want to put all of ourselves into our work. Recognize that!
[1:04:19] Allan: Thank you so much for your time! This has been really awesome! I’d love to circle back in a year or so.
Louis: Check in any time! I’m happy to give you some feedback!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Louis for coming back to the Podcast. I would love to have him back again!
I will be doing a few solo Episodes on some subjects that are important to me. Until next week –
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
This guide was designed for Artists – whether you’re a Designer, Illustrator, Matte Painter, Animator, FX, whatever! We all need to get hired for productions, and we all need to get what we’re worth.
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Realistically – a good negotiator never needs to haggle, they never have a moment of tension, they never are in an uncomfortable situation. It’s actually very seamless, easy and kind of fun. But, it does require understanding many of the fundamentals that this guide covers in-depth. Negotiating your worth the wrong way can cost you tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it’s the most critical thing we all shouldn’t ignore.
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