28 December, 2009
The end of the year is a time to turn out the old and bring in the new. So, let me write a bit about game development to dispel some myths about game development.
As a special bonus, I’m including a soundtrack for this post: (Rock) Superstar by Cypress Hill
I’m not a huge Cypress Hill fan, but I like this song because a lot of the same themes in the song apply to game development, especially to MMORPGs. Of course, not everything is exactly applicable; there are few “honeys” that swoon for game developers, I’d be happy with just a modest house and a new car, and I don’t have to look over my shoulder constantly, worring about a confrontation involving firearms from other game developers. At least not ones not in a first-person shooter.
If I were more musically inclined, I might do a “Weird Al” type parody along the lines of “(Game) Superstar”. But, instead you get an article with some of the original song’s lyrics as headers.
We’ve got a lot of sharks out there tryin to take a bite of somethin’
The first reality is that there are a lot of people out there who want to do what you do. On a basic level, there are a lot of people eager to make games and most of them don’t realize that making games isn’t the same as playing games. For every burnout case in the industry, there are a number of fresh-faced kids wanting to get their chance at what they think is their dream job. This is why you have crunch time in the industry; if you don’t be a “team player” and put in the long hours, there’s an endless supply of 20-something year olds willing to do so.
On the professional level it’s not a whole lot better. When I started working professionally a decade ago, there weren’t many MMO developers, let alone experienced ones. I got a job at a large company by virtue of working on text MUDs in college. Now there are a lot more experienced developers having launched MMOs. There are a lot more MMOs, period. Plus there are now lots of people getting into the hot new fields: iPhone development, Facebook games, etc. “They’ll be a flipside to what you did.”
Shit’s funny how impossible dreams manifest/And the games that be comin’ with it
But, I can’t imagine doing anything else, really. I’ve said before that I make games because I have to; I have a burning need to express myself. My abilities, education, and background make it so that games are the best medium for me to work with.
But, it’s not enough to be good. You also have to sell yourself, especially if you want to work as a consultant/contractor. I’m lucky to have some very good friends and colleagues who have helped me find work in the past. But, being an introvert, I suck at cold-calling and self-promoting, so work tends to be hit or miss.
Show the sacrifice it takes to make the Gs
Let’s be honest here, games are like any other creative medium where the people who make the big bucks are rare. For every Stephen King or Danielle Steel or J.K. Rowling there are a thousand or more wannabes who never quite finish their first story. There are hundreds of people who lose hope even after creating something that just won’t sell. There are dozens of people who sell a few stories but make only a modest living, never the superstar status visited on a select few. An old joke goes, “The best way to make a million dollars in [a creative industry like game development] is to start with two million dollars.”
Even if you’re happy working at a large company, there is a lot of sacrifice that goes into a game development career. Most developers expect you to “pay your dues”. You’ll work a crap job on an obscure project (or worse, be expected to maintain an obscure project when the original developers moved on to bigger and better things) until you are proven enough to do the “real work”. Even then, your input will probably be minimal; you’ll likely get to add some bells and whistles to an idea the company owner thinks is the bee’s knees.
Want to be the latest indie darling? As anyone working at a startup will tell you, being a good developer is only one part of the puzzle. You have to know how to raise money and how to sell your vision. Relying on someone else means that they are really at the reins, not you. Not being able to do this at all means that you’re stuck with lots of potential and no resources to reach it. Unless you’re in a position to drop a few hundred thousand dollars on your own project like Jonathan Blow did for Braid, don’t expect to duplicate that success. Then you have to either make a small game you can make entirely yourself, or find trustworthy people to work on the parts you can’t.
And take shit from people who don’t know what it is
Speaking of Mr. Blow, everyone has an opinion about how you do your job. Players think you’re a retarded monkey because you are obviously ignoring the big burning issue everyone knows needs to be addressed. Wannabes think you’re an idiot for being stuck in your ways. Crusty veteran developers think you’re dumb for trying to break the rules they carefully laid out. Big corporation employees think you’re silly for trying to compete with the “big boys” with your cute little game. “Too cool for school” indie types think you’re a flaming moron for not being them. Cheap bastards think you’re brain-damaged for daring to make a profit. Soulless business types will roll their eyes at you for “leaving money on the table” if you don’t suck every last dollar out of the users. Of course, nobody really knows your situation besides you, so most of that advice seems misplaced.
It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job
Again, making games isn’t like playing games. It’s still a job, and if you want to go it alone you need to know how a business operates, how to deal with other people, etc. There’s more than sitting around thinking of cool concepts. There’s a lot of effort that goes into getting your amazing idea to even the point where it’s a scaled-down mockery of a shadow of the original idea.
Long as you sell everything will be OK
As I’ve lamented many times before, there’s too much focus on bigger numbers. EQ2 is probably the most prominent example of this: despite selling fairly well, being massively improved over the years, and undoubtedly turning a good profit for the company, EQ2 is seen as having “lost” to WoW. EQ2 is therefore a dismal failure of a game that nobody should play; it does nothing right while WoW does everything right by sheer force of higher sales and subscriptions.
For whatever reason, people don’t want to see WoW as the aberration. Part of it is probably that they want the big numbers to be true so they can sell their pet vision to someone who will write checks. “Look at the money WoW makes!” they’ll exclaim, hoping the investors will be temporarily blinded by the big numbers.
This can be frustrating for people not at the top, especially those of us that see it doesn’t take much to really have a successful company. Turbine had one middling game, Asheron’s Call which was regularly seen as last place in a race between three or four major games, that gave the company the ability to launch three other sizable games. And one of those games, AC2, had to be shut down. Few other companies could survive having one of their big games closed down. But, even a “modest” 100k subscriber base can be wildly profitable if you haven’t spent like you’re going to beat WoW.
Think everything’s fine in the big time
People often assume that game teams are bigger than they really are, When I worked on Meridian 59 at 3DO, I was one of a development team of 5 people at peak: a director, a lead designer, a programming intern, a events manager, and me as a programmer. The team dwindled down to 3 people near the end, having lost the lead designer and the events manager. Several times players I talked with in the game assumed that since we were at 3DO there was a huge programming team. They’d complain about some bug or new feature, and I’d explain to them that I worked on that. They’d usually sheepisly apologize when they realized it was a tiny team near the end of 3DO’s era.
At game companies there is always more that goes on behind the scenes than anyone on the outside can see. Developers may disagree with managers, but they keep their heads down to keep their job in tough economic times. Managers disagree between themselves and often the direction taken is nobody’s favorite, just the only compromised reached. Business owners may go absent, disappointed with the company but unwilling to let it go for fear of something good happening without them, but leaving everyone else in a lurch by not providing any assistance. And this is before we get to the truly illegal and mean-spirited stuff like outright theft.
Personal lives also get affected. To be honest, this last year has been trying for me, personally. A few projects fell through the year before, including a big one involving a lot of people I respected. A former business associate betrayed my confidence. Some business agreements fell through. Consulting work has been slow with the troubled economy and the payments even slower. I recognize now that I slipped into a bout of deep depression for most of the year, making it hard to dig my way out. The passing of my cat Morpheus struck me particularly hard right as things were changing. Being an entrepreneur who hasn’t been very successful means that, given the current U.S. health care, my insurance isn’t enough to cover the medical attention I should probably get.
Never inflate the cranium
It can be easy to lose your head over things. My introverted nature and Midwestern temperament mean that I don’t get too egotistical about things. It can be heady when you’re on top and things seem to go your way, or so I’ve heard as I’ve never quite been up that high.
Even in the trenches, egos tend to dominate. Everyone as their pet game idea. I personally believe that more can be accomplished together than separately, but it takes a lot of effort for people to pull together on a single project. And, there’s always the problem of people wanting to do a bit more than what is realistic for a small team. Feature creep is always present, because the ego wants to be the biggest and the best.
But, this is the stuff I’m happy to leave behind in the current year. I’m definitely looking forward to the next year and expect it to be much better than this one. Here’s hoping.