Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 March, 2009

Professionals: How do we fix game business?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:15 AM

Adam Martin has an interesting article talking about how he would like to treat employees in his theoretical future company. In a comment I left, I took him to task for jumping in too deep; instead of listing a bunch of perks, we should take the time to identify problems and come up with solutions to them.

So, let’s take a look at the problems, shall we?

Quality of Life

Adam starts off with a radical proposal: only working 30 hours per week spread over 4 days.

This speaks directly to a big problem we’ve had to deal with in the industry: Quality of life. One of my first posts on this blog dealt with the issue because it was becoming more important. As I point out, though, some people willingly put in long hours. I think the issue of paying people less and making work less misses the point.

The core issue is that an employee should make a decision about whether he or she wants to put in long hours or not. It shouldn’t be a decision made by the managers because they want to ship a game faster to make money sooner.

Unfortunately, this type of issue brings a lot of baggage. If you have a family and I don’t, there may be assumptions that I shouldn’t have a problem working longer hours. Conversely, you may feel upset if I get a larger bonus or a promotion for my efforts because you had a family to take care of while I had the ability to stay late.

Ownership

Ownership is a tricky issue on all levels. You have ownership of the company, ownership for a project, ownership of a specific task, and so on. Adam takes a much broader view of ownership since he advocates the Scrum development process.

In many cases, ownership means “responsibility”. But, it’s much cooler to have ownership because it creates a sense of obligation and care. If you rent a car, you don’t really care much what happens to it as long as you don’t have to pay for it. But, if you own your own car you usually want to take better care of it. Owning a project means that it is important to you. If something is important to you, then you usually want to take better care of it.

Ownership is also important for a studio when it comes to technology and IP. If your publisher owns your tech and IP, then what do you have? Nothing.

So, enough manager-speak, what does this mean for the developer in the trenches? Ownership also translates to rewards. If you own something and it does well, you get rewards. Adam covers this in wanting to give equity to his employees. That could cause some legal and accounting complications, but I think a system of giving bonuses based on how well a project and/or the company does will give a sense of ownership in that an employee benefits as the company benefits.

Mentoring

I think this is an important topic. Your career can be made or broken based on how well you network with others. Game development is also always changing, so it’s good to work with someone from whom you can learn vital new skills.

But, there’s also a flipside to this: as an industry, we tend not to value our experienced people as much as we probably should. The people who could teach us a thing or two are are often pushed to their limits and become burnout cases. I think that having a company culture that promotes mentors and values them is important to get mentoring happening in the first place.

Honesty

American corporate culture is a funny thing. Capitalism is based on the idea of a person who has perfect information making rational economic decisions. Yet, there’s a culture that discourages the direct discussion of salaries, thus preventing an individual from gathering perfect information. Game companies are no different.

Part of this is because some people really are worth twice as much as another person, and it’s an ego blow to realize that you’re the x, not the 2x, in the equation. There’s also a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ issues that go on. In one job I had previously, I learned that one of my peers (not a manager) was making over twice as much as I was. It really stung because the guy didn’t have the same commitment to his work; the only reason he was making that much was because the company wanted to retain some of the specialized experience he had. After a while, though, the company got tired of him showing up late and leaving early, so they fired him. I then understood that they were training me to do his job, at about half the pay. Ouch. I thought that salary negotiation went a bit too well….

Part of the problem here, in my opinion, is that companies aren’t honest. They get into situations that aren’t easy to explain, or that might cause some embarrassment. But, I think honest is what we need more of, and having more transparent salary information and organization helps. People who are important for your financial well-being should be treated like adults; anyone who can’t be trusted with that type of information may not be the best fit for your position.

Working Environment and Health

This is related to the quality of life issue above, but it deserves its own header. People are unique, and they work in different ways. Your extroverted types will thrive in being part of the group and want to bounce ideas off of each other. On the other hand, your introverts will want to shut themselves off in order to concentrate. Ever notice how many sets of heavy earphones there are at your typical game company? Programmers aren’t necessarily die-hard fans of music, but they often want to tune out distractions to get work done.

To that end, some of your people might work best remotely, away from the soul-killing florescent lights, especially during the busier times when tasks are assigned and work just needs to be done. Adam points out that a lot of systems should already be set up for remote work, and given that MMOs require a connection, there are few reasons why remote workers can’t be just as productive. Of course, it takes a different skill set to hold a team meeting on IRC vs. a board room, but that’s a skill someone working in online games should work on mastering. I will quibble with his assertion that remote people provide less value and therefore should be paid less; I’ve found with much of my remote work that I have to do extra work to maintain work relationships, and will often provide much more value because of the additional effort invested.

Health is also an important issue. Most companies provide realy terrible food. Candy machines are all too common. One good thing I will say about 3DO was that they provided fresh fruit for everyone. Having a banana instead of a chocolate bar as an afternoon stack was much better for me. Eating an orange instead of a Twinkee for dessert after the supper provided helped me not crash later.

Let’s face it, most game developers aren’t really all that fit. We sit at a desk for several hours and we don’t have a whole lot of time to go do healthy things like visit the gym. A culture that encourages people to think healthy and take walks to avoid health problems is important.

Initiative

Adam has quite a few topics where initiative is important. It’s important for people to take the initiative to improve themselves. They should also spend time working on personal concepts (the “Google 20%”) to improve themselves and the company. Adam also advocates a very flat management structure, meaning it is up to individuals to motivate themselves instead of waiting for a manager to prod them.

I think it is important to encourage, but I think it’s also a sign of the individual’s enthusiasm for the company. Just as with “good crunch” above, a game developer will often want to go out and find something cool to sink his or her teeth into. Programmers should relish the opportunity to dive into new technology, or do something that pushes their capabilities. Designers should be looking at games and discussing them with each other. Artists should be excited about investigating new ways to be more productive and produce mind-blowing results. Game developers tend to be some of the most intelligent and creative people out there, and you don’t stay smart and creative by stagnating.

If your employees aren’t doing this, then there’s something wrong. Perhaps the individual is having personal problems. Or, maybe they don’t feel that the company culture rewards that. If someone thinks that the best option is to keep their head down to keep drawing a paycheck, then something is wrong somewhere.

This is just the beginning

These are some of the issues I’ve thought up, mostly based on Adam’s post. I think that there are a lot more issues we need to address as well. Perhaps, in the end, there are some problems we just won’t be able to tackle. But, identifing the problems is the first step.

If you work in the industry, what do you think? What problems should we address in order to build the next, awesome game startup company?







19 Comments »

  1. Th biggest problem I’ve seen is in senior direction. One of two things tends to happen, either good and knowledgeable guys come up from the ranks who know all about games and the industry but nothing about strategic planning or management or the company realises the lack of effective management talent and hires a good manager from an different industry who is fundamentally illiterate in the gaming field.

    If you’re in the situation where you have both types, you need to be able to empower them both to make the right decisions based on their skillsets without letting them make bad decisions due to their incomplete knowledge.

    Comment by IainC — 6 March, 2009 @ 6:27 AM

  2. I’ve written this post fully 3 4 times, and each I come across as a pompous a-hole, so I’ll try once more.

    There seems to be a lot of conflicting issues at work here. I’ll be blunt so please excuse me, but most of America’s talent (programming and business) does not even consider the game industry as a viable, or reasonable option. The pay, benefits and security just is not there.

    What’s worse though is that game companies are perfectly fine not fighting for talented individuals, and instead bring in programmers with little to no experience who will work for peanuts (metaphorically), using the mantra “you must have passion to work in the game industry”.

    It’s not possible to have it both ways. The industry can’t ask for change when they continue to hire those with no understanding of their personal worth, nor the business sense to demand it. The day a developer or publisher can look at a potential employee as a long term investment and not short term labor, is the day the industry will start to see it’s preception change. Until then, employees will have little to no leverage, and those with true talent will continue to burn out to quickly.

    (I’m sorry if I come across as slightly resentful but being told I didn’t have the passion to take a 30% pay cut with no benefits from my current job, by a game company still stings slightly. Also thinking about a friend who is a graphics artist and hasn’t been payed in 4 months because he does have passion, gets under my skin as well. I don’t like to see kids my age get taken advantage of because they didn’t know better, and from the outside looking in it seems the entire industry excels at it.)

    Comment by D^t — 6 March, 2009 @ 9:01 AM

  3. I’ve worked both on games and for system providers in Silicon Valley. I think everything depends on people, actually, and any rules or policies that are put forward are secondary to that.

    For example, I have a family, and I have no problem for a limited crunch time. I’ve done it many times. I have huge resentment of “permanent crunch time”, and I have a huge resentment for having to go on a death march because management didn’t plan things properly, somebody else got started way late, and then a flaming shitpile gets dumped on my desk with the expectation that I will work nonstop for 50 days to save the schedule.

    I’m too old old for that, about 2999 years too old.

    I have thought for several years now that more software, and especially games, should be financed more like movies. For the employee, that means that the money is contract scale (e.g., a lot more than salaried, you pay for benefits yourself), and there is no security. On the other hand, you participate in upside OF THE PARTICULAR PROJECT. In the salaried company, the success of the first project can turn into the disaster of release 2.0, and the upside disappears.

    As to working conditions, I think everything flows from having a business model that is actually functional. If you can’t pay people’s salary, then the project deserves to die. I don’t care if it’s your baby that everyone would love if we could only fix problems A, B, and C.

    I don’t want to work only 4 days a week. I believe in farming, not firefighting. Come in every day, make progress every day. Have short term goals, make something, evaluate it, figure out what to do next.

    In the end, I think I agree with Psychochild, I say don’t make policies to solve people problems.

    As an example, bad managers are a bane, but I’ve had some good ones, and the good ones have made me lots more productive. I mean, something like 2x. The managers job, beyond administrivia, is to set a tone in the workplace that allows people to relax and focus on what needs to be done. When they can do that for me, I zoom.

    Comment by Toldain — 6 March, 2009 @ 11:00 AM

  4. My first job had crunch. I made my displeasure clear, but as I have unique skills as a technical artist, I was allowed a bit more leeway to be grumpy. Beside that, my direct superior happened to agree, he just couldn’t be too vocal about it.

    The next job I took, I made it clear in the interview that I’m not afraid to work hard, but I will not crunch. So far, they have respected that, and I have worked hard for them because of the mutual respect.

    Another thing that’s great about my current job is that extracurricular activities are encouraged. Or at least, they aren’t “owned by the company” like they were at my last job. That place could literally claim ownership of any employee-generated IP that was even remotely related to game development, even if it was done at home.

    That’s abusive, pure and simple.

    The place I’m at now doesn’t care what I do at home, so long as I don’t break any NDAs I have with the company. They rightfully claim anything I do for the company to be company property, but what I do at home is my own business. I can literally get a second job (or freelance) doing whatever I want, so long as I maintain my promises to my employer. The last job discouraged freelancing and second jobs, on top of demanding rights to anything that we might have the temerity to produce if we disobeyed.

    That’s actually a big component to why I left the company. I do a lot of game theorizing in my spare time, and am working on at least two different products on my own that could go commercial. That’s my business, since it’s extracurricular, and my employer does not have claim on my every moment. (Which shares a root sentiment with my take on crunch, actually.)

    Comment by Tesh — 6 March, 2009 @ 5:57 PM

  5. Reading Adam’s post along with your earlier post Brian, do believe poor time and project management practice is he cause of most issues in the game industry (crunch, long hours, low pay ect…)?

    I honestly can’t imagine the game industry is too different than any other project based industry, and really the only difference I can assume would be in the lack of project budgeting experience (time, money, expectations…ect) since those with true knowledge or practice seem to be spread thin?

    Could better practice or training industry wide foster less crunch, less stress, better work environments, more milestones met, investor confidence and eventually a better product to the consumer? My follow up question then would be if I’m pursuing that direction at my current software job, would that be a marketable skill (prized skill) when interviewing at a game developer in the future?

    -D^t

    Comment by D^t — 6 March, 2009 @ 6:42 PM

  6. D^t wrote:
    I honestly can’t imagine the game industry is too different than any other project based industry….

    Oh, but it is. While I think the industry does need much better practices when it comes to project management, game development has one important difference compared to traditional software. As I usually put it, “there’s no unit test for ‘fun’.”

    That element makes all the difference in the world. If your spreadsheet doesn’t add columns correctly, it’s easy to see and obvious what you need to fix (how to fix it is usually the hard part). If your game just doesn’t appeal to the audience’s sense of fun, it’s not easy to find out (while avoiding false positives) and there’s no set answers to make it right.

    The closest comparison I can think of is Apple products compared to others. The iPod has a certain design sense that makes it “cool” and desirable even compared to more powerful and affordable alternatives. There’s some science in understanding what makes people adore Apple products (as well as some good marketing), but at the core you still have to have a “visionary” designer able to come up with the designs that meet with approval. But, if Apple didn’t have the project management and other supporting disciplines in hand, it wouldn’t matter how cool the thing is.

    So, to answer your question: it should be a prized skill, but just because you understand project management doesn’t mean you are going to single-handedly save the industry. You also need to have a grasp what makes a game “fun”. Honestly, if you come in with the attitude of, “I’m going to show you screwups how a REAL project manager works!” then you’re not likely to get a lot of acceptance. If you are outside the industry, I’d recommend that you spend time learning how project management works within the industry if that’s the direction you want to go.

    To tie this back into the topic at hand, we need to build businesses that support the need for “fun”. It’s hard to focus on fun if you’re burnt out from working 80 hour weeks, or because you’re worried about being made redundant when the milestone checks arrive too late, or any of the other host of problems the industry has on a regular basis. We need to get the things we can do something about done first; setting up the business and getting good project managers is the first step.

    Comment by Psychochild — 6 March, 2009 @ 9:51 PM

  7. Thanks for the great comments. You make a great point about how the overall document could be cleaned up into an easier to digest/evaluate format, splitting out the “why” from the “what” and the “how”. I like that idea.

    A couple of quick questions:

    1. “an employee should make the decision about whether or not he or she wants to put in long hours or not” – but how do you square that with the fact that ours is a team-based industry? In a team, there are various choices that no individual gets. You *have* to synch with your team-members, not as an island alone.

    This matters because I believe that avoiding destructive crunch is not just a simple matter of saying “educate the managers better”, that’s not enough. Many individuals (not the majority, by a long way, but enough) self-crunch, and drag their teams along with them. Few people have the mental strength to simply walk out and ignore their own team because their team is crunching. Peer pressure works.

    2. Why *not* give real ownership?

    I think you might be underestimating the value of “actual” ownership as opposed to the various pseudo-equivalents that I tend to think of as “fake” ownership.

    IMHO giving people bonuses is NEVER ownership: it’s the Feudal lord in his castle being kind – at whim – to his serfs. It’s cool, it has some great benefits, but … it’s almost the complete opposite of ownership, as bonuses have very little legal protection and very little direct link to actual company value (they’re rated on abstracted notions that may go up when actual value goes down … and vice versa).

    (obviously, there’s plenty of good things about bonuses. But they are not the same good/bad things as with ownership)

    3. What legal and accounting complications can you see from giving away equity? From my own experience, I can’t see anything here that’s going to make it any more complicated than all the things we already have to do (voting shares vs. non-voting; preferred stock for investors; vesting and re-vesting terms for founders; etc)

    The last few centuries have seen massive steps forwards in making equity ownership easy and workable for everyone, rather than for a few professional investors. Let’s make use of it! :)

    Comment by adam — 7 March, 2009 @ 7:23 AM

  8. Potential boondoggles with giving true “shares” of IP and “ownership” proceeds is bookkeeping, and what happens when someone leaves the company, whether of their own volition or executive fiat (and how each affects the proceeds). At present, it’s easy enough to jettison people just before “bonuses” come up, not only “saving” the company the salaries of the shunned, but the bonuses as well. (Yay for being an executive!)

    Giving ownership shares would mean more honest evaluation of work, sure, but it would mean not only keeping track of those who actually worked on a project and how much they did, but also assigning a numerical (monetary) value to that work, and convincing the beancounters that it’s the right thing to do… while it obviously draws from the company bottom line.

    That’s not always an easy sell, especially in a publicly traded company.

    We see devs shipping titles and omitting the *names* of the people who worked on it. If we can’t get over that crediting hurdle, giving them money too (or some other form of IP/ownership reward) would be even more of a leap.

    I’ll reiterate, I think it’s the right thing to do, I just see it as something that would take some doing, first to overcome the mental/societal/beancounter hurdles, then to overcome the legal persnickitiness, especially in a transient industry, and especially if a game keeps paying royalties for a long time.

    Comment by Tesh — 8 March, 2009 @ 12:36 AM

  9. Adam wrote:
    [H]ow do you square that with the fact that ours is a team-based industry?

    You make it a stated policy that crunch is not required. But, understand that people have a passion for their work and want to work hard. I think that managers need to take some cues from the community managers and learn to deal with these issues. If there’s an undercurrent of peer pressure, then work to make sure that doesn’t become part of the company culture. If someone’s crunching and grumbling about other people not doing the same, take them aside and tell them that while you appreciate their efforts, they are doing this voluntarily and it’s not expected or compensated. If someone’s long hours is becoming unhealthy, then a manager absolutely should step in and resolve that problem.

    Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem if I chose to work 60 hours but someone else chose to work 40 hours, as long as I didn’t feel like that person was not doing his or her job or taking advantage of my dedication. Most people shouldn’t, because they probably work along someone who gets paid 33% more than they do. Different people have different neeeds, and if we truly are a team then everyone is pulling toward the same goal.

    What legal and accounting complications can you see from giving away equity?

    As Tesh points out, you have the issue of termination. There’s a reason why business advisers tell you that it’s easier to be a sole proprietorship compared to a partnership. The less people that have equity in the company, the less issues you have with people having to leave. Yes, you can have people sign founder’s agreements, but since the manager ultimately decides whom to hire and whom to fire, you still have the “feudal lord of the manor” issue if the agreement takes back their stock without compensation. Plus, as someone commented in your original article, you have to worry about issues like minority shareholder lawsuits.

    There’s also the developing business reality that the laws might change. In the U.S., a lot of executives are worried about the business changes being forced by the U.S. government due to the bailouts and economic stimulus. The laws making equity ownership favorable may not be the same in a few years. The last thing you want to happen is for your company to fall apart because all your employees are suddenly looking at impossible tax liabilities because they own a share of the company under new tax laws. (I realize that some people reading this, like Adam, aren’t in the U.S., but those are the laws I’m most familiar with.) Structuring rewards as income is simpler for your employees since those laws are only likely to change in predictable ways.

    Finally, equity ownership only works under a very specific business setup: the type of business that plans to either go public or get acquired. In recent history, neither of these events has helped companies make better games. Given all the other radical suggestions for changing how things work, I’m not sure the company is going to be an attractive acquisition target. And, going public is a risky thing, especially in this economic climate. Unless there’s an exit strategy, owning a share of the company is worthless unless it comes with other perks like profit sharing or dividends. So, why go through the legal and financial hassle of splitting up shares of the company if you can just offer the perks directly?

    In the end, I think ownership in a company may be a dishonest carrot to dangle in front of employees if it’s not going to pay off. Game developers are not known for their business savvy, so they may not really grasp what ownership really means.

    Some more thoughts.

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 March, 2009 @ 1:39 AM

  10. Brian wrote:
    You also need to have a grasp what makes a game “fun”. Honestly, if you come in with the attitude of, “I’m going to show you screw ups how a REAL project manager works!” then you’re not likely to get a lot of acceptance.

    I completely understand how my second post could of been misread as I have no disillusion that the above would ever work. I can understand your frustration though as I bet it happens more often then not. No, I am way to early in my career to even began to believe I can single handedly change an industry lol, I just wanted your insight in which direction you thought would be most beneficial, programming or project management, as I’m currently at that crossroad. Thank you for the answer as it did clear up a a few other question I had. ^^

    Back on topic though, since your response (and subsequent great posts by others) I began looking at other industries and how they solved these very same issues. My first thought was of a developer union, though quickly crossed it off the list as managing a “powerful” union industry wide would be more headache than worth. This lead me to look more in the private sector for answers.

    What if we abstracted away the technical side of game development (programming, art, music ect..) from the design side, and created a contract company? Lets just call this business Foobar Game Developer, and would contract out programming (done remotely), art, music, analysts (to communicate the designers goals and create a detailed design doc if necessary) and website design. I think this may solve a couple of issues.

    - Foobar would provide, pay, benefits and incentives for it’s employees, taking the business aspect out of the design developers hands allowing them to focus on designing the game.
    - Subsystems could be reused on a multitude of platforms, increasing production speed, and making it easier to accurately budget time.
    - Responsibility would be shifted to Foobar instead of the individual employees. This would shelter the employees from unsuccessful projects while ensuring Foobar would provide ample training for best practice programming / art ect…
    - The designers could approach the investors with the name marketing of Foobar backing them.
    - The designers could use Foobar to what ever extent they need (do they need 1 or 2 programmers or an entire development team?)or even act as a semi middle ware distributor of their assets.
    - Foobar could give back to the community by releasing internally developed legacy subsystems as open source. ^^
    - Provide a place for young developers to build a resume.

    Of course this business model is not with out problems as it would further detach the technical guys from the game design process (which may in many eyes would negate their reason for originally joining the industry). It would also get further away from the sense of ownership you and Adam wish to see introduced to the industry. Again I don’t think this is an ideal model for everyone but could it be the start in the right direction?

    -D^t
    -

    Comment by D^t — 9 March, 2009 @ 2:49 PM

  11. The real problem is that a sufficiently detailed design document is the source code.

    Ie, if you can get the design document to the point where it can be reliably translated into a game by a third party, I strongly suspect you could write a compiler for said document to turn it directly into the game.

    This is why you want your developers and artists on staff so you can get a tight feedback loop with the designers. The artists and developers are designing as well, they have to use their “AI” to patch over all the myriad holes in the design doc, which means they have to understand the vision of the system they are working on.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 10 March, 2009 @ 9:59 AM

  12. To continue on that point…

    This is why animators are actually “actors” of a sort. They have to translate stage directions into explicit movements. This is also why we have good and bad actors, it is not merely an ability to follow the director’s directions, it is an ability to follow the director’s vision.

    Pretending we can off-load all coding to a black box is like pretending we could send the script to the actors to film independently in front of a camera and just comp it all together.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 10 March, 2009 @ 10:01 AM

  13. Great points Brask and I can see how you’d worry about how a vision breaks down when bringing in a third party, but there are 3 points I’d like to add.

    - The programmers / artist / animators ect.. wouldn’t just be “black box” of random mindless individuals, they would also be those who love developing video games, who ideally have experience (if the customer asks) in certain areas. There would have to be a very tight feedback loop to ensure the ultimate vision is achieved and the game gets out the door on time and on budget.

    The clients would be able to choose from a pool of resumes which Foobar would provide – and ideally the client could say – “Oh John’s available, I’ve worked with him before. I’ll take him. Didn’t this Peter guy do the sound track to —–? That’s close to what I’m looking for…”. No matter the industry, the experience would have to be personalized for the client to make them trust Foobar with even a small portion of development and the black box approach just would not work.

    - Foobar wouldn’t probably make up the entire staff on a video game project. Again if the developer felt more comfortable with his own in house guys working on certain critical subsystems, then by all means they could just bring in a couple of third party individuals to fill in the gaps.

    - If a game was running behind which had Foobar employees on it, I could see possibility where Foobar calls forth it’s resources and sends out X number of extra people. They would make sure the design specs agreed upon finish on time according to the contract. This couldn’t be done (or at least done cheaply) with out a third party.

    Now I am completely fine (and have no rebuttal) to the argument “this idea wouldn’t work because you have no earthly idea what the game industry really is like”, that is a valid point and I could (and probably am) way off base. ^^

    But purely as a gamer, I have seen almost every major game of the past year go gold late, over budget and under preform. The last couple of AAA mmo’s have felt like the gamers are paying for beta. Sure this is a free market and technically the gamers are paying for it… but history suggests they don’t pay for it long. This wouldn’t fix all problems but it would provide an alternative route for developers to set their careers on, which could immediatly provide most of the solutions brought up in Brian’s post.

    -D^t

    (just trying to think outside the box =D )

    Comment by D^t — 10 March, 2009 @ 11:12 AM

  14. I appreciate trying to come up with new ideas instead of rehashing old ones. The major problem with your proposal, D^t, is that if someone is able to get that sort of talent assembled, there isn’t going to be any shortage of game concepts to work with. People go into games because they like making games. As Brask points out, people in non-design positions often contribute to a game because they have to use their disciplines to enhance or replace problems in the design. A programmer gets to use his ability and creativity to figure out how to accomplish a task in the design. So, the idea of assembling a mercenary group to take on development doesn’t seem like a long-term winner to me.

    Now, some studios already do this, usually doing ports of games to other platforms. The independent studios that do ports of games usually do this with an eye on a larger goal; after proving themselves with a few low-risk projects like ports, they usually try to propose their own game concept to work on. A company that only does ports or other contract work isn’t as attractive to work at for game developers.

    So, a company doing work to implement designs isn’t necessarily going to get this same symbiosis with design that scratches the creative itch. I suspect competent game developers are going to want higher wages if they aren’t going to get to influence game design so much. And, without as much invested into the game, they may not be as passionate as a developer making their own game concept into a reality.

    Thinking about this brings up another core issue: passion. One of the things that makes the game industry so awesome is that it’s a job people can be really passionate about. How can we keep that passion as a healthy benefit and not something that is just exploited, used, and discarded? I think that’s one of the core issues at hand here that we need to keep in mind when devising solutions.

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 March, 2009 @ 6:41 PM

  15. I think it’s funny that even in an industry that’s supposed to be “fun,” the gaming industry still falls prey to business practices that make it hell to work in some places.

    I have a friend who worked for Square on FFXI, then moved to working for Blizzard on WoW. I heard from him once a year: just before the launch of an expansion or content patch when he got a break. That’s horrible to be under that much workload that you basically work at the bottom of an ocean and have to resurface just to communicate with the outside world.

    I ran a management test once while I worked at BYU in Hawaii. I was given a project and had a team of 6 students with me. Instead of setting down a bunch of rules and regulations, time management ideas and whatnot, I told them “Look, you’ve all been chosen because I believe you want to learn and do whatever it is you’re studying. This project will give you the opportunity to do both … a lot.”

    I didn’t tell them they had to work after hours or any longer than what they wanted to. The only rule I made was “If you break it, fix it. I don’t care if you have to research it or ask for help from me or others, but fix it yourself so you know how to fix it next time.”

    Long story short, they would come in at all hours of the day / night / weekends and even SUNDAYS (apparently that’s a big issue for mormons) to do work. Not because I asked them to, but because they wanted to.

    It really makes me think of the movie “Grandma’s Boy.” If gaming studios worked like THAT, I think it’d be a fun place to work and people would WANT to be there. Problem is, everyone in charge always sees their company as a business FIRST. I know you need to make money and to think of it otherwise seems counterproductive, but seriously … If your employees WANT to come to work and WANT to do extra work for overtime or whatever, you’re doing something right.

    Comment by Wiqd — 11 March, 2009 @ 9:58 AM

  16. D^t wrote:
    “What if we abstracted away the technical side of game development (programming, art, music ect..) from the design side, and created a contract company?”

    Tim Carter had a very provocative opinion piece exploring that very subject published over at Gamasutra in early Feburary of 2009.

    His thesis was that making games should be managed like making movies: a new company would be formed to make any new game, and the skilled workers who have the specific talents required would be brought into that company to make that game. When the game ships, the workers are freed to sign up with another game/project/company.

    It’s an interesting idea, with some fascinating implications for the kinds of quality-of-life issues that Adam and Brian bring up. Naturally, of course, there are some practical questions if game developers float from project to project:

    • Who does bugfix patches after a game ships?
    • Who creates extended content after a game ships (such as Bethesda’s expansions to Fallout 3)?
    • How does this model work for online games (games-as-services) with neverending development cycles?
    • Who should be invited back to work on a sequel if a game is successful?
    • How would this model work for games intended to be smaller and more episodic?

    There are also some hard questions related to pay and benefits that would need to be explored. For example, would a “project”-style system lead to unionization (and its attendant headaches)? Or is there some way to have a more flexible business model for game development in which the money people and the talent could have visibly equal power, allowing fairness to emerge in compensation negotiations without collective bargaining?

    My point is that it’s good to be open to alternatives to business/operational structures, but it’s important not to see any particular model as a potential panacea — not where human beings are involved. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 12 March, 2009 @ 8:44 AM

  17. Hmm interesting suggestion Bart, and I can imagine if game developers followed the movie model, unionization would be a necessary side affect (like it or not).

    I do believe in the next 20 years we will see the game industry go through rapid change in development philosophy, if for not other reason than to accommodate bigger and more expensive games as expectations increase. This point in time reminds me of the early 1920s where there were many (200ish) ma/pa auto manufacturers, but 10 years later that number had been cut to 43 due to the small shops not being able to compete economically with larger outfits. By 1940 that number had dropped to 17.

    Right now gamers will forgive low production values, buggy code, and bad graphics for a really great design (look at Darkfall). I see the industrialization of game dev coming at us more rapidly than most care to wish. Indie dev companies will always have a place, but it is getting harder and harder to meet expectations and I think discussions like this are healthy to stay ahead of the curve, so great job Brian, Adam and Bart for introducing new ideas. ^^

    Another idea (I’m an ideas guy myself so please excuse me)I had to solve many issues was to create a stronger media presence highlighting good/bad practices inside the game industry. If we could get good, reliable information out to the industry (maybe break some reputations along the way sorry to say) I think managers would think twice about putting their futures on the line with bad practice to fulfill a deadline. Better media coverage cold also reward good managers, or studios who offer creative work environments, better benefits and flexibility.

    I’ve always thought coding/art/design was much like writing a novel, anyone can put words on a page – talent is when people actually want to read it. If we can get the talent in the industry (and future talent) to recognize where the good and bad jobs are, I think then we may have positive change.

    -D^t

    Comment by D^t — 12 March, 2009 @ 3:28 PM

  18. I’m going to propose a completely take on this – I think there are some things that are fundamentally broken with the console environment that forces companies to do unnatural things. Many game companies skirt by, doing well in some years but flirting with bankruptcy the next. This drives game companies to be extremely cost sensitive and create less than ideal working conditions – even though our industry overall is doing well (even right now!)

    Gamers spend $300 – 400+ at launch for console hardware (much more for a high-end gaming rig). Every five years or so, those machines are replaced with new ones, and everyone in the industry has to learn a new architecture, purchase new dev kits, and ramp up on the latest box. Then every game software company is taxed to continue subsidizing the costs of the consumer hardware, through royalties to first party, in order to make up the cost of the console hardware, which is more than the $300 the consumer paid.

    This is a HUGE amount of money taken out of the industry going to first party. If we had an open gaming system with a fixed reference platform, we could get the best of PC development with the market and revenue of console, without sending oodles of cash to the first parties. There are trends pointing to a new way. The rise of web-games, cloud computing, digital distribution, and device independent services point to a day when the display device won’t suck so much money out of the industry, leaving more for game creators.

    Call me a dreamer – but I think its coming sooner than you think.

    Comment by Tom DuBois — 14 March, 2009 @ 11:55 AM

  19. I find the opposite of the mercenary model more appealing. A relatively small, lean and mean, tight-knit company of talented and passionate developers headed by one or several competent managers, all working to nurture a common idea – the game. I suppose it would be similar to, say, Pixar.

    When people are driven, passionate, and excited about the idea in development, they will be more than happy to give their best. When the managers think of their employees as human beings and not commodities, and given that the developers are exceptional, there is no reason to let people go.

    Comment by Roman Zimine — 14 March, 2009 @ 5:59 PM

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