Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 September, 2009

Playing the blame game
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:06 AM

It’s the eternal question: When something goes wrong, who (besides yourself, of course) is to blame? In the corporate world, the term “blamestorming” is used to describe a meeting where people try to assign the blame to someone else.

Game development is no different. Sometimes games don’t “live up to their potential”, or some other euphemism meaning “didn’t make the piles of money desired.” Who is at fault? Unfortunately, while the answer might be useful to avoiding the problem again, it’s not always easy to come up with the solution. And, this isn’t just because people prefer to blame others rather than take a long, hard look at themselves.

So, who really is to blame?

Those who have too much fun

In what I can only hope is an attempt at trolling, Tobold complained that game developers have too much fun. He references some comments that Robert Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, made about how “The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks into Activision about 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games.” All work and no play make Jack a highly productive resource, I guess.

Tobold’s argument is that developers have too much fun making the game and thus shun the “unfun” parts like QA and bug fixing. Given that my first advice to people wanting to get into game development is making games is not the same as playing games, I will disagree with this. Anyone expecting game development to be all, er, fun and games is not going to last long. To an outsider the idea of game developers playing MMOs and having nerf gun wars may be a popular conception, it’s not the case. The nerf guns are there because after 12+ hours of being at work you need to blow off some steam or you’ll blow up at everyone.

No serious game developer who has lasted more than a few months making games is going to say the process of making games is “too fun”. Everyone knows there has to be some part of the job that’s going to suck, like chasing down that one last impossible bug. You don’t get into an industry that has long hours, crap entry-level pay, and high burnout without some sort of resolve.

The players

Uh oh, time to make every PR person out the cringe. Am I insulting my current and potential customers? Will I ever get a job in game development ever again?

But, let’s face it, sometimes the players do make the game suck. In the realm of single-player games you have the “pirates” who would rather rip off any game, regardless of if it’s a big, nasty corporation or some indie dev who depends on people paying for his game to keep his family fed. Take a look at the comments when a developer speaks in favor of protecting his games to see how people turn wanting free stuff into an ideological crusade. Pirates take resources away from just focusing on making a fun game. (Note: Screeds about DRM or piracy in the comments will most likely be removed. Go post on Jeff’s blog, he’s the one that opened this can of worms.)

In multiplayer games, particularly MMORPGs, your experience is influenced by others. The guy spouting racist epithets over voice chat harms your experience and eventually the reputation of the service as a whole. The gold farmer monopolizing a spawn that happens to also be a quest target is frustrating. Or perhaps your nemesis is the “10 gld plz its not mcuh 2 u plz” beggars who hound you in the main cities.

Of course, in situations where people can more directly affect you, such as PvP, the problems increase. A good PvP game requires a really good community. Unfortunately, PvP tends to attract the type of people that aren’t good for the community; they aren’t the majority, but they are a significant force. When people have to worry about more directly about intimidation, spying, and some some random schmuck ruining their day, the you start to see other players as obstacles instead of fellow travelers in the game.

Sadly, this is a case where one bad apple really can spoil the whole thing. There are a lot of kind, wonderful, patient, sharing people you meet in a game. But, one asshole harassing you at the wrong time is all it may take to make you leave the game ind disgust. The power of larger numbers doesn’t always work the way you might hope. Once a few of the good people leave, then there are a fewer people around to counter-act the effects of those bad apples.


Of course, we should look at developers as the culprits, right? They do, after all, create the game and are most directly responsible for it being complete and fun. As Tobold pointed out, if the developers shirk their duties, then the game can end up sucking.

Of course, I’m a developer. And, as I’ve said, people rarely want to take the blame themselves. This isn’t a mea culpa blog post. Sorry M59 fanatics who hate me with the burning passion of a thousand white hot suns.

The most obvious response is that there are often extenuating circumstances. I know from first-hand experience that even if the previous developer is a smart guy, there are always going to be ugly parts to the project. And, smart guys have their off days (or periods of learning how to code in a proprietary scripting language….)

You also have the team factor. A team of artists working their fingers to the bone don’t matter if the programmers can’t deliver on what was specified. A project at 3DO hit an unhappy roadblock when the artists were told the programmers couldn’t make enemies “fly” in the game late in the development cycle. This means that all the neat flying enemies wouldn’t go in, and the artists had to rush to put in new enemies to fill the gap. Even if 3DO’s projects weren’t all on unrealistic timelines by that time, it was an impossible situation no matter how bright the people were.

Of course, then there’s the developer’s favorite target…

The management

Or, “the publishers” for developers who have a publishing contract. Really, what can’t be blamed on the pointy-haired bastards?

Sometimes people ask why managers get blamed when things go badly, but developers take the credit when things go well. That’s the harsh reality of entertainment. If you go to a concert and the lighting is poor, you don’t say, “Wow, the band really sucked!” If the lighting is perfect, you are likely to have a better impression of the band and maybe not even spare a thought for the person in charge of lighting. Even if the band’s performance didn’t change, your opinion of the experience changes and you don’t necessarily give credit where credit is due.

It’s the same thing with games. If the game goes well, the manager’s work is likely to be nearly invisible. Making sure the resources are available to complete the project, making sure the different parts are done and working together, and resolving problems that spring up between different people happens beyond the view of the end user. On the other hand, there can be some bone-headed management maneuvers that do hurt a game quite visibly: Setting and sticking with a shipping date that is too early, cutting necessary resources like QA testing, not providing enough marketing funds for the project, or any of a lot of other problems can hurt a game. It relates to the team problem again: even if all the developers are working hard to do everything they can, a few management blunders can make all that hard work moot. Of course, when things go well it is often the management who is most handsomely rewarded financially, so it tends to balance out.

One problem with blaming a faceless group (and this goes for developers, too), is that it’s just so easy. “The managers fucked it up” is a lot easier to spout off than naming a specific name. One time while at 3DO I was talking to an M59 player they complained about how “the programmers” were screwing up the game. I explained to him that I pretty much was “the programmers” so he was saying I did a terrible job. He became much more subdued after that. Developers don’t name names because that waste of oxygen who screwed the project over may still be your boss the next company you work for.

The nature of game development

Perhaps the blame doesn’t always lie with a person. I’ve said before that the problem with game development is that fun is not easily quantifiable. If you program a calculator, you can see if it works pretty easily. If you program a game, determining if it is “fun” is much harder, especially if you’re a small developer with few resources.

Plus, fun is not universal. As I mentioned recently, I enjoy inventory management. I don’t know why, because my desk is a mess of stacked paper and other stuff; I have a roll of duct tape next to my stuffed Mickey Mouse in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice outfit. (I’m not using them together, they’re just there on my desk!) So, organization isn’t exactly a way of life for me. Perhaps that’s why I like organizing things in the game, because it’s more controllable for me. At any rate, putting in lots of inventory management is probably not a good idea, even if some of us crazies do enjoy it.

Who is really to blame?

Every project that “doesn’t live up to expectations” is unique. You can’t always say one thing or the other is to blame. Possible solutions to one problem (like “take all the fun out of making video games”) may bring other problems much later (like “franchise fatigue”).

The real reason we want someone to blame is because nobody wants to stare failure in the face. If your favorite MMO is being closed down, you want somewhere to throw blame. If your favorite game doesn’t live up to the press it got before release, you want someone that is at fault.

But, whomever it was, it certainly wasn’t me at fault.


  1. One of the things I don’t think you mentioned about players is that they are terrible at saying what it is that they actually want. They aren’t bad at telling you whether they are happy or unhappy, but the changes they suggest will often make them unhappier because of unforseen consequences.

    And then there’s the “silent majority” problem. A group of players will be agitating for some change, let’s say they want to turn the sky pink, because blue sky sucks, let’s face it.

    So eventually, you “do what the customers want”, and turn the sky pink. All the people who liked blue sky and don’t read forums are now really unhappy. Pointy hair can be involved in this one, too.

    Comment by Toldain — 19 September, 2009 @ 6:59 AM

  2. To go along with players being poor at really knowing and explaining what they want, is the perception of what is wanted. It’s so many times removed from the player-base to conception, design and implementation, even the best of intentions can go wrong in the telephone game way – too many times removed from the original desire. And there’s no one to blame there, it’s a fact of life. What you want and what I think you want, can be orders of magnitude different. Now multiple that by millions of players and potential players, and it’s easier to see how starting out to make a great game that people will want, can still end up in the pisser.

    Comment by Saylah — 19 September, 2009 @ 7:51 AM

  3. Tobold’s post was a reaction to Lum’s reporting of Kottick’s words and a slew of comments afterwards agreeing with Lum.

    I think he just wanted to make the point that what we are all here for is to make the players have fun, a point which may have been slightly lost chez Lum where most commentators were mostly outraged industry people.

    I think where Kottick was coming from is he was addressing a roomful of money men and he wanted to distance himself from the antics of Richard Garriott (who bought himself a spaceflight while his game went under) and Brad McQuaid.

    Garriott and McQuaid gave the impression to people outside the industry of fiddling while Rome burnt. That may not be a fair perspective but it is I think how many non-industry people perceived it at the time.

    Additionally there are jokes, like a recent Control-Alt-Delete
    about Blizzard and their mountain of gold.

    Now some of those money men will remember 1999 and getting burned on the dot com crash. In some ways today’s gaming boom is very reminiscent of back then (particularly the tendency of some people in the industry to cite number of visitors as proof of success not the actual amount of money being made).

    Finally there are games where it really does seem like the developers put the players second. In SWG I used to love doing missions all day. Now missions are capped at about 10 in an attempt to force you to do the themeparks (quest chains) that later developers have added to the game. It really feels like don’t do the old stuff (which you like) do my stuff (which sucks). A clear example of a live team being selfish.

    I don’t think Kottick’s remarks are acceptable and I suspect he is hastening the departure of his most able staff (and the moneymen are shrewd enough to know it). Seeing him would not encourage me to invest my capital in his company although with 4 new Blizzard releases (SC2, D3, Cataclysm and new MMO) due in the next 24 months or so he can say anything and his company will still make money in the short to medium term.

    It’s also perfectly possible that the impression he gave is not actually reflective of life at Activision, what he says to his financiers may not accurately reflect how he and his management team actually operate.

    Personally I think the only sane goal is to have a product that is a blast both to play and to work with.

    Comment by Stabs — 19 September, 2009 @ 8:28 AM

  4. One of the things people complained a lot about on FFXI is that the developers didn’t seem to play the game. I think this is also an aspect of a problem.

    It’s related to Toldain’s comment. The reason why the developers make the pink sky seems to me to usually be because they don’t play with the general population enough to see that most like the blue sky. They act at the system level of mechanics and data, but they rarely see how it affects the population except through the community team giving them summed up forum reports.

    Of course I’m not a dev, and have little idea if they do go out in fact and play. But I have seen some developer updates in the games I play that make me wonder if they really understand the game from a player standpoint. I think that can contribute to a game’s failure if so.

    With players its tough because people will like your game for many reasons and be at odds with each other. If your game is too successful at catching a wide net it may be hard to successfully update the game. Each faction will have different needs and your time and effort is very limited.

    Comment by Dblade — 19 September, 2009 @ 8:39 PM

  5. Stabs wrote:
    Tobold’s post was a reaction to Lum’s reporting of Kottick’s words and a slew of comments afterwards agreeing with Lum.

    Yeah, I know that. The reaction on Lum’s site was exactly what it should have been. To look at Activision’s recent success story, Guitar Hero: that didn’t come about because the developers at Harmonix were not having fun. Rather, it came about because the developers were passionate about music and gaming and found a way to combine the two. The story about coming up with the mechanism for “star power” shows how important it is for developers to have fun making the game, because it leads to good ideas. Scott/Lum, being a game developer, knows the truth. Tobold, not being a game developer, seemed to be spouting off with an uninformed opinion, to be polite.

    Now, sure, maybe Mr. Kotick was talking to investors or maybe taken out of context, but this strikes me as a way to make the good developers stay away. I make games rather than do business programming or any other career because I need to create. Telling me that a job at your company is intended to be enforced drudgery is a good way to make sure I don’t work at that company. I’m not alone in that assessment.

    Dblade wrote:
    [Developers] act at the system level of mechanics and data, but they rarely see how it affects the population except through the community team giving them summed up forum reports.

    This may be true for some people, but I think the problem is much simpler in many cases. The problem is which players do you listen to? In the “pink sky” example above, there were players asking for the change. Do you treat it like an echo chamber it is? If so, then you’re “not listening to something everyone wants.” The forum warriors aren’t going to believe that they’re the minority when demanding a change.

    But, if you ignore any suggestion that comes from a minority, you really will miss some suggestions the majority would support. Your playerbase isn’t going to get together as a coherent majority and make suggestions. You’re going to get them from bits and pieces. And, yes, sometimes the developers are going to look at it from a purely systems point of view; that is what they do for a living, after all. Especially when talking about something aesthetic (like a literal pink vs. blue sky issue would be), the developer may not see a real difference in how it affects the game. But, of course, this could be a subtle hot-button issue that brings ardent supporters out. It could also be a bandwagon issue that people become part of in order to “get together as a team” with others. The dangers of having a highly social medium….

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 September, 2009 @ 1:53 AM

  6. /AFK – Sept 20

    [...] Psychochild demands “Whose responsible this!” Find out! [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 20 September, 2009 @ 6:05 AM

  7. I’m less interested in laying blame than I am in fixing problems. If that means someone’s ego gets bruised, it’s not my first concern. That said, when I tried to make some changes in my current project’s workflow, I was met with far too many egos to actually effect the change. Funny how that works out, and how it means that I’m less interested in suggesting changes in the future. I think that’s an unhealthy feedback loop, and the blame game gets in the way of real solutions.

    As to Kotick, I will never work for him if he maintains that mindset. Working in games is already an underwhelming proposition, but intentionally looking to make it worse doesn’t sit well with me. I’m still amazed when I see suits who don’t seem to have learned from the ea_spouse kerfluffle.

    That said, I’ve worked in games for a while now, and seeing how some of the best devs are gamers themselves, it isn’t unheard of to find them a wee bit distracted from getting things done. There is such a thing as a corporate culture of too much *distracting* fun… but I’d not say that game devs are unique in that respect. It’s human nature, especially among creative types. I respect a leader who can turn that fun to productive ends in a bit of management aikido, but I pity (and ultimately disrespect and ignore) a leader who thinks that devs having fun is something to min/max out of the system.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 September, 2009 @ 12:39 PM

  8. Tesh wrote:
    I’m less interested in laying blame than I am in fixing problems.

    Agreed. You’ll notice I ran down the list, and while I didn’t go into excruciating depth about why game developers deserved to be wiped out with a plague, I didn’t just focus on one area. If there’s a meta-lesson to learn here, it’s that there isn’t any one particular place to lay the blame. Most of the time the problem is like a death by a thousand paper cuts: no one cut was mostly responsible, but they all affected the outcome in some way.

    [It] isn’t unheard of to find [developers] a wee bit distracted from getting things done.

    True, and as you point out this isn’t limited to game developers. One thing I’ll point out is that most areas of game development are creative in nature. Not everyone can just sit at their desk and *BAM!* creativity emerges. A recent post by author Charlie Stross points this out about writing:

    Writing fiction for a living is an odd occupation. Before you get around to hitting the keyboard, you spend a lot of time staring out of the window, playing Solitaire (well, not me: but it’s the principle that counts), and daydreaming. This is, in actual fact, an essential part of the job — letting your introspection off the leash with the fruit of your imagination. If you don’t get your random daydreaming time in, the product is poor.

    The later part of the post talks about where the drudgery starts, though, just like it does for the rest of us creative types in our own work. But, the point remains: we’re valuable for our imagination and creativity. Despite however much managers would love to have hit-makers who work to a perfectly-timed schedule, that’s not how creativity works. That’s certainly not how the problems we often face work, either.

    Sometimes a difficult design issue doesn’t resolve itself immediately. Sometimes a tricky programming challenge just can’t be solved by thinking harder/smarter. (Not sure if there’s an artist equivalent, you would know better in that regard.) Really bright people, and that includes many game developers, will be working on a problem even if they’re not staring intently at a blank computer screen. I often go for short walks to help work out my problems. Others fire up a game. Yes, sometimes that “15-minute break” turns into “a marathon session (of *gasp* Peggle)”. Someone who does that too often needs to be managed better (or, if independent, find better motivation), not told “No more fun, EVER!”

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 September, 2009 @ 1:26 AM

  9. *chuckle*

    Indeed, there are artist equivalents. I always have a small sketchbook and several pens handy, for instance, for when I need to do something different.

    The trouble comes when one gets too distracted (learn self control!), but knuckling down from on high doesn’t do much to help that. It tends to foster resentment more often than not. Imagination and creativity need constraints to be productive (you can’t think outside the box without a box), but too many constraints kill the process. It’s a balance.

    (Oh, and if you work at some studios, there are further creativity stiflers. EA, for instance, has legal claim on any work you do, even outside of the office, that might even remotely pertain to a game design they could make money off of. That means no indie projects if you’re an employee. That’s bad form, in my mind, but I’m sure it made sense to some idiot in a corner office.)

    Comment by Tesh — 21 September, 2009 @ 8:02 AM

  10. Tesh wrote:
    EA, for instance, has legal claim on any work you do, even outside of the office, that might even remotely pertain to a game design they could make money off of.

    And, actually, that’s not true in California. The state has laws that protect employees from these types of claims, so you own any work you do outside of the office, as long as you do not use company resources to do the work. Some people believe this specific law is why California has a strong entrepreneur base, lots of startups, and why Silicon Valley has thrived.

    But, yeah, sometimes the dollar signs obscure logic and reality.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 September, 2009 @ 1:05 PM

  11. Brian, that misses my point a little. Maybe an example will help.

    Lets say the popular forums say “Ranger is overpowered.” When friday comes around, and the time I set for my developers to play the game on normal servers with normal characters comes (paid of course) I say “hey, looks like we are getting a lot of noise about rangers. While you play take a look, /search to see how many there are, and you people levelling them see how fast you get parties or get asked to do events.”

    The developers go out, and notice that while the rangers get invites fast, very few people play them because ammo costs so much, and other classes get invited relatively quick. They can ignore forum posts safely.

    However if the devs have been playing, and notice that everyone wants rangers only for things across servers, and quite a few of them playing other jobs cant even find parties, then the forum ranters may have a point. If the servers have a ton of bandwagon rangers, its critical.

    Or they may pick up on things that the data wont show. In FFXI black mage is like the third most played job, so you’d think it would be okay right? However if they played the game, they’d realize they cant find a single black mage in experience parties, Why? Most BLM are already at max level in endgame, and because of many reasons (making mobs that resist magic while being pushovers to meelee was a huge one) the few that level it up have to solo to cap.

    We are often contradictory as players, I do agree. But it’s not that simple because those in charge of responding to them have no sense of context since they may not even be involved in the game’s social life. I’d seriously pay my staff, all of them, to pay the game on company time to have that.

    Comment by Dblade — 21 September, 2009 @ 3:16 PM

  12. Going off on a bit of a tangent here, but it’s interesting to talk about. ;)

    Dblade wrote:
    “hey, looks like we are getting a lot of noise about rangers. While you play take a look, /search to see how many there are, and you people levelling them see how fast you get parties or get asked to do events.”

    Understand that you’re describing two different things here: playing the game and using (limited) data to see a trend. Playing the game would entail the developers playing the Ranger class and comparing it with another class. In the case of class balance, however, the real issue is likely to be perception rather than a direct comparative imbalance.

    (That’s the problem with picking an example, the “real reason” may be something completely separate from what you wanted to point out!)

    I think this is the core of the issue, in that sometimes the issue is player perception. If Rangers are perceived as overpowered, but the reality is that players don’t often play the class due to ammo costs, ignoring the problem may not be the best solution. The best (but, as we’ll see, not the most popular) way to test it out is to reduce ammo costs and see if everyone then flocks to the Ranger class as being tremendously overpowered. If not, then there truly is no problem. However, reducing ammo costs when the board warriors are crying about the class being too powerful is a great way to make sure people hate you for “not listening” and “boosting an already too powerful class”. Nerfing the class when it does prove to be too powerful will upset the people who rolled the flavor of the month.

    At this point, it essentially becomes about community management. How can you look like you are listening while not upsetting even more people?

    Having developers play the game isn’t a cure-all, either. I joked that this comic was incorrect, it’s often the developer boosting his or her own character. Most don’t have time for spouses (unless they’re also game developers!) What you gain in understanding you’d lose in objectivity for some people. Where’s the optimal balance there? Hard to say.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 September, 2009 @ 4:52 PM

  13. Making games is hard work. There’s very little glamor in the video game business. Rarely is it ever like the fun you see in all of those misleading ads about game design offered at community colleges. At least in my experience most people in the industry aren’t lucky enough to be working at Blizzard or assigned to a project that that they are truly interested in. They show up each day, do their best and go home.

    Most game critics, bloggers and players have absolutely no idea of how much blood, sweat and tears it takes to make a video game. Clever words are no substitute for credibility. Yet they can cavalierly tear apart a video game that took thousands of hours of combined effort in the blink of an eye. I say to them and pompous jackasses like Bobby Kotick, try actually creating a successful video game and then come back and we’ll talk. Life is very convenient and comfortable in your basement armchairs.

    If you work in the industry you have to make your own fun and find reasons to be passionate about what you do, whatever you do. I’ve spent thousands of hours scripting video games and even though it was hard work and yes even tedious at times I still found it personally rewarding.

    That said, a video game company has to have a culture and an atmosphere that is interesting and nurturing to their employees. Making great video games is an art and a craft. You can not treat artistic people like corporate drones and expect them to produce magic.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 25 September, 2009 @ 10:56 PM

  14. Brian:

    It’s not always perception. Players also use metrics or their own to evaluate things, like parsers, or even sometimes the difference is so glaring people can eyeball it. Bandwagonning has to be built on something real, not just perception. It’s hard to give more examples without going into detail.

    I guess my point is that you can’t always treat it as a community management issue as a developer, you also have to treat and understand it mechanically as a player that plays the game.

    A really hilarious example of this was during a dev suggestion panel for FFXI. Someone had the bright idea of asking “Why don’t you make a cheese sandwich?” The players on forums groaned, but the developers went out and made a cheese sandwich item in the game, despite 90% of food being literally useless and not even sold at auction.

    Comment by Dblade — 27 September, 2009 @ 8:32 PM

  15. “Developers don’t name names because that waste of oxygen who screwed the project over may still be your boss the next company you work for.”

    Yeah, I can get behind that. Dunno what prompted you to post this just a couple days after I gave a brief (and nameless) postmortem of Dungeon Runners, but you put things a lot better than I managed to. Thanks.

    Comment by Matthew Weigel — 27 September, 2009 @ 9:52 PM

  16. The first target I would pick for the failures I know of is simple: Feedback starvation

    Many game developers appear to get stuck in a rut without getting useful feedback loops on their implementations. Then comes the question of who should provide feedback?

    A: That depends on who you are, but everyone needs it to avoid failure.

    Comment by oskar — 28 September, 2009 @ 8:35 AM

  17. “It’s easy”

    [...] make death threats.) Game developers tend to be a scary smart bunch of people for a reason. Second, game development is complex. There are a lot of different people responsible for a project. Especially at larger companies, [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 26 October, 2009 @ 1:43 AM

  18. What say you all to considering a game’s failure to be the result ofa recipe of poor interdepartmental feedback, communication, and timely problem resolution that is then linked to feedback, communication, and satifaction with customers?

    Sometimes when people start placing blame on one person or group of people, its not the accurate source of the problem but a symptom(s) more oft) of something else going on and being the source.

    If gold farmers are being blamed for issues, what gave them the opportunity to discover the ability to farm it?

    What steps were in place to detect it occuring quickly or potential for it?

    What steps were expeditiously implemented once discovered so that it didnt/doesnt become a common place or wide spread occurence?

    Is the gold farmer to be in blame? Yes of course they shoulder some of it, but they didnt get there alone.

    Comment by Storm Revenant — 1 November, 2009 @ 3:02 AM

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