A little light reading

From Rampant Coyote’s “Why the AAA Games Industry is Screwed” – an always-interesting blog with a link to a fascinating article.RC’s post itself is short and to the point, but if you don’t have this blog on your radar, you probably should.

The article linked is long but well worth the read if you have even an armchair interest in the industry, as I do.

Death March: The long, tortured journey of Homefront

“There is an expectation,” explained one producer, “that if you spend eight months developing a demo for E3 that does really well in the press, then that’s eight months well spent. Because you just sold another 500,000 copies of the game. It comes down to this very, very bizarre math. … No other industry would actually let you work like this. … So a lot of people are abused in the gaming world. Especially for marketing and things like E3. And I think that’s a business problem.”

I won’t comment – partly because it’s way too early in the morning, I’m under-caffeinated and I only just read it, and partly because it’s one in a long stream of “OMG how can an industry with so much potential get like this?”.

Well okay, maybe one little tiny comment. As a player and not a developer, I don’t necessarily care who makes my games (actually I’d rather it were smaller studios, since I have a cynical dislike of any megabusiness, even in gaming), but if the giants are screwed, will the indie studios be good enough to pick up the slack? There’s some amazing stuff coming out of indie studios and I’m not implying they’re not capable, but there’s a certain level of… glitz and glamour, I guess, associated with the humungous productions which – as it does with Hollywood blockbusters (whether they’re good or not) – does contribute to the buzz, anticipation and pleasure that flies around AAA game releases.

For me, gaming these days is almost as much about the anticipation for a game as it is about the game itself (which might be worth pondering further). While I decry the hype-wave fairly regularly, I also don’t shut it off completely because sometimes it’s fun to jump on.

Hype doesn’t make the game, of course, as we well know – I won’t even name names. But still… I’d miss the glitz if it were to vanish. On the other hand, I’d gladly ditch the glitz if developers and studios were able to feel a little more stable and not work psyche-breaking crunch hours. I’m not the first one to float the ridiculous idea that a little job security and a little less insanity in the workplace might make for a better industry in the long run.

Maybe part of the problem is that game studios seem to be run like Hollywood studios?

9 thoughts on “A little light reading

  1. Actually, I think part of the problem is that studios are NOT run like Hollywood studios. Hear me out.

    The problem is that any creative work is that the industries tend to be hit-driven. For every huge success, you get a few mediocre works and a fair amount of failures. But, the huge successes tend to make up for a lot of failure. The trick is that there’s not guarantee what will succeed and what will fail. That’s just how creative work operates under a capitalist structure.

    So, a business will mange what it can. That mostly means controlling costs. Unfortunately, game development works on a cycle, and part of the cycle requires more people than other times; that means either you have to have more work to go around, or you lay people off. The problem is that there’s no support network for people who get laid off quite like the guilds in Hollywood.

    In addition to the guilds, you have the whole movie-making process. Each movie is its own project, and usually has a specific production company that exists just to make the one movie. (Some really successful ones can spawn multiple movies, but these are the rare mega-successes.) The whole process is down to a science, where it’s known exactly what roles you’ll need at a specific time in the production schedule.

    Of course, game development is a little different. First, we’re a lot younger as an industry. And, the shifting nature of technology means that processes shift pretty rapidly. There are roles in game projects today that didn’t exist back when I started making games professionally back in ye olde 1998.

    If you read in that article, the one part where everything went off the rails is when the developer did whatever they could to land a new project. They say that the managers decided to promise whatever they could in order to get that project, because no project = no work = dead studio.= a bunch of your friends being out of work. So, they promised the moon and simply could not deliver; as the article said, during the audit it was found that the studio had no hope of ever shipping what they promised even if they had multiples of team and budget available.

    I think we’d be better off if there were a more formal system like the guild systems for actors, writers, and so on like in Hollywood. That way if time comes to cut someone, they aren’t left looking at the unemployment line.

    Of course, I’ve worked as a contractor and consultant for a while, so I might have a different perspective on this. 🙂

  2. I like your take on it, actually – I was thinking more about Hollywood’s hype and remake machine than about the guild structure. Of course, guilds are very close to *gasp* unions, and I guess you probably won’t be seeing many more of those in the States these days.

    Now, I’m a freelance translator – I have enough work to pay my own bills but I’m not big enough to pay anyone else’s yet, nor do I particularly want to be just yet (because taking on subcontractors would significantly change the nature of my work and I’m not ready for it). Couldn’t the game industry use a similar system, or is that simply not practical?

    I knew about the development cycle, of course, but didn’t really stop to think about the consequences of it if you’re not constantly on the move for new projects. Wouldn’t it be possible, for instance, for freelancers to be hired for a particular project and then move on to another project elsewhere? Or is that not secure enough for them and not secure enough (confidentiality-wise) for the developing studios?

    Just some thoughts. I need more coffee.

  3. Yeah, despite the industry really being perfect for a guild/union type setup, it’s just not something most people think of. I think it’s influence from the tech side, where tech geeks like to believe they’re a meritocracy; developers like to think they could be the next John Carmack or Will Wright, and feel a union might hold them back. I think the reality of the situation, where a few strikers could just be replaced by college students, also hinders the situation. It would take a vast majority of people at a studio to join a union for it to work.

    Freelancing is problematic for a few reasons. Basically, it comes down to team chemistry. A game is a creative endeavor, and you really need compatible personalities to make it work right. Too much creative tension and you get people bickering instead of making great games. At the very least, you need a solid core of people to set the tone for the project. As that article said, things were doing better when the original founder was there; he had the ability to keep the studio running even though it perhaps wasn’t the most healthy atmosphere.

    Confidentiality is another problem, obviously. For all the supposed secrecy in the industry, it’s not exactly hard to find out what’s going on if you know the right people. And, GDC is infamously a blab-fest at the bars. So, having people moving around more fluidly would mean more information spread out, leading to more leaked info.

    The last problem is with the individuals. Being a freelancer in an industry with a lot of people willing to do the work means you have to always be looking for the next gig. I’ve had a situation where a contract got VERY angry when they found out I was doing other work besides what they had assigned me; funny enough it was low-paid work for an indie, but it shows that the contract providers want to pretend that you’re 100% dedicated to them. But this also requires sales ability, and I fully admit this is something i suck at. I’m mostly a freelancer for the relative freedom it provides me, but I think in some ways my career would have gone better if I had been with a larger company. I’m still living a fairly meager existence even thought I’m a B or C-list game industry celebrity (depending on how generous you feel). (Well, and I could probably have done better if I had chased trends like social games more.) Anyway, a lot of people just want to create cool games rather than worrying about where the next contract is coming from.

    My thoughts.

  4. Interesting stuff. Freelance-wise, I of course have several different projects on the go at once – most of them are short, one-off documents. There’s one company I’ve been doing FB game localization and testing for over the last 18 months or so and that’s weekly because the content pushes to the games are weekly. That stability, knowing I’ve got a certain amount of work locked in every week (though the $ value of said work can fluctuate quite a lot depending on the volume of content to translate), is very reassuring to me.

    In fact, I haven’t chased for work in over a year. I’ve got a handful of companies I work with predominantly and *they* get in touch with me for projects they want me to work on. To me, that’s a sign that I’ve “arrived” in freelance-translation terms. (Ironically, also, the busier I am and the more people I turn away, the more I seem to be in demand.)

    Given the development cycle, I can see how a setup like that might not work in that context. But that raises the next question: does the development cycle have to be a) so hush-hush (when apparently it’s not nearly as secret as it seems), b) so incredibly hectic in parts and c) so concentrated?

    I get the impression part of what you’re saying is that development is fuelled by passion, and that most studios feel said passion can only come from 120% commitment, which also implies acceptance of being paid for crap and worked like a dog. I think that’s naive at best – and cynical exploitation of genuinely passionate developers at worst. I have passion and commitment for my work too, despite working for several different clients…

    Hrm. I’m suddenly reminded of the ghetto-phase SF went through a few decades ago, where it was a perverse honor to be famous among the fans but unknown anywhere else (and not nearly as well-remunerated as other authors). Maybe the game industry is still in its ghetto phase, 😉

  5. Yeah, not much else to contribute other than to say you’re right.

    I think the overall secrecy in the game industry is pretty silly. The joke goes “NDAs are how the game industry says ‘hello!'” In 90% of the cases, it’s overkill. But, there are a few times when it makes absolute sense. I’m working on a hush-hush project right now that really does deserve the secrecy; it’ll be pretty jaw-dropping when it’s released, but it still needs work to get to that point. But, in most cases the best game companies have enough of their own ideas without having to “steal” ideas.

    And, yeah, I think the current atmosphere in the game industry is to exploit the passion people have for their work. You don’t get people to sleep under their desks with promises of crap pay, stupid long hours, and never seeing their family. I think crunch is a cynical attempt to turn this passion into profits rather than investing in proper project management and expectations.

    I’d like to think it’s a phase. But, it’s been going on for as long as I can remember.

    Anyway, thanks for the good post and great discussion. You should do it more often. 🙂

  6. I don’t believe that indies can replace AAA studios, at least not in terms of quality of output for PC / console titles. A lot of indies benefit in contrast to their larger brethren, but gamers have become very happy with better graphics and voiceovers and all the things that larger budgets bring.

    If AAA titles stop coming out, then I suspect that the gaming industry would contract to hobbyists rather than expand / evolve outwards.

    1. That’s probably quite true, but I think there’s room to spread out the money a little, between the gajillion-spending big-budget studios and the shoestring indies. I’d be very interested to see what smaller / indie studios could turn out with a little more funding…

      1. True, provided they could keep the discipline up to deliver the core experience and not see that extra money lead to feature creep.

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