“We’ll take it.”
My editor had no idea the irony he just dropped on me. He was referring to an article I’d pitched months earlier for this issue, “Everyday Developer,” in which I promised to give a behind-the-scenes look at the regular grind of the average game developer. That was back when I still had something that passed for an “every day.”
Reading the email, I’m sitting at my desk at the Savannah College of Art and Design, knowing that within a couple months I will no longer be a professor or a chair of the department. Instead, I’ll be sitting at another desk at a game studio in California, having returned to commercial development full time. I have fewer than two months to announce my departure, pack up most of my life and move across the country. I received the email an hour before I planned to break the news to the Dean of my school that I’d be leaving the job I loved, one I’d held for only three years.
I know I’m one of many in this transitional space. Throughout the industry, we are going from one company to another. I had the luxury of making the decision to change roles myself. Others are doing so at someone else’s bidding, having no idea that in executive offices, headcount reductions were planned days, hours or weeks before. During the time in which I prepared for my move, Pandemic closed, Maxis took a shot to the head, EA announced massive layoffs and a friend’s project and team suffered a direct hit from a surprising and uncharacteristic torpedo fired from a studio working for the same publisher. That’s merely a sampling. I have seen estimates that over 8000 game industry employees lost their jobs in the last year, and every month, completed, canceled and retooled projects bring still more.
In front of me right now, I see a tweet from someone who doesn’t know that tomorrow, he’s going to lose one of his best and brightest co-workers. I only know this because his co-worker called me this afternoon to see what I thought of the pay the other company was offering. It’s a small world, game development.
“So, this article,” I reply. “I’ll do it, but I don’t have an ‘every day’ anymore.”
I do not know of another industry where people hug one another upon meeting. At conferences, the hug is the customary greeting between friends. I have puzzled over this for some time. Perhaps in Hollywood and the fashion industries they hug. But game developers? We are not what many would consider “the hugging kind.” I think other department chairs or administrators would be at best epically surprised and at worst horrified if I greeted them with open arms. I ask friends who work outside the industry, and except for those in 12-step programs, the “hug upon greeting” is an oddity.
I have a theory, though: I think we hug because we are uncharacteristically aware of and familiar with one another on a personal level.
When we get together at conferences, the conversation quickly turns toward our lives: “What are you working on?” “Can’t say. You?” “Yeah, same here.” And so, conversation becomes more personal – the games we’re playing (me, WoW), the games we want to play (me, an unannounced product I’ve seen) and word of particular industry deals. Other times, it’s purely personal. In my case, it’s my new car, my recent weight loss (62 pounds and counting) and my move across the country. It is because of this closeness, this discussion of things other than “here’s what I’m making,” that I know about so many transitions in the first place. For instance, game developer Jon Jones tweeted his engagement to Nancy Morales while in town for the Montreal International Game Summit. Twitter fairly well scrolled for hours while devs from all over the world wished Jon and Nancy well.
And so, after I inform the Dean, my fellow faculty members and the students I can find, I post my decision on Twitter on October 26, 2009, with an echo on Facebook for good measure:
@ bbrathwaite I am returning to the game industry full-time in December. I can’t say with whom or doing what yet, but I’m coming back.
The retweets and congratulations begin at once. There are dozens of “welcome back” messages both on the live feed and via direct message. Some want to know where I am going, what I’ll be doing and what caused me to make the reverse jump. I received phone calls and emails, too. In a sense, it feels not unlike returning to NYC after living in Barbados for several years. (When the U.S. Customs officer asked me “‘Ow you doin’?” I wanted to hug him.) Similarly, returning to game development feels like coming home to my family. It is a tremendous bond we have. The immediacy of Facebook, Twitter and invite-only forums brings 10-times the community I had when I started making games in 1981.
On the second floor of Montgomery Hall where the majority of the game classes are held at SCAD, a figurative bomb detonates as word gets around. The next day, a group of my game design students arrives for class dressed in black. Some students cry. I nearly do, too. I can’t explain to you how it’s possible to care about 317 people so much. To be surrounded by people so passionate about this medium that they want to spend four years of their college life perfecting and challenging the hell out of that knowledge is near bliss.
And teaching brings with it its own transitions. In the industry, after working with junior designers for a while, you help them rise to the role of lead. In education, they actually leave you to work for someone else – and that’s the point. My students are now all over the industry. It’s ironic that I’m actually competing with some of them now.
“Why are you leaving?” they ask.
How do I even explain it? It helps that it is the opportunity of a lifetime in a company that excites me in a space that’s phenomenally dynamic. It was an offer I couldn’t and didn’t want to refuse. In a sense, teaching and game development are very much related. As a lead designer, you both make games and teach. As a professor, I did the same. It’s where you place the pin on the meter (from teaching to designing) that tells you what I’m presently getting paid to do.
To be the designer that I am today, the designer who made Train, I needed to teach. I needed time to consider the power of games with other academic game developers like John Sharp, Ian Bogost, Tracy Fullerton, Drew Davidson, Colleen Macklin, Frank Lantz, Jesper Juul and Geoff Long. I needed the space to focus on games broadly instead of my immediate genre narrowly. I needed to say what I felt was beautiful and compelling and important in design again and again for three years until I really understood what the hell we as game makers had been up to since the 1980s. When you’re in the seat and traveling at light speed, it’s impossible to see all the ground you’ve covered with any kind of perspective at all.
It was academia that taught me how to look at what I loved, dissect it, see all it had affected and inspire people to believe in it even when the games were non-traditional, non-commercial and one of a kind. I even wrote a deconstructivist and formal analysis of Doom because I could, and separately, made sure that all my students knew the greatness that was Bill Budge and Dani Berry.
We Hug: The Sequel
Class finishes, and I see students sitting out in the corridor. Another 10 or so aren’t leaving class. It’s 7:30 on the last day of the quarter. In my days in college, this was a time for abject debauchery at best or a drive home for more of the same at worst. It meant a break from the grind, a release. Instead, these students just stood there, unsure of what to do. I can’t think of what to say to disperse them, so I offer, “You want to help me get some stuff to my car?”
We path to my office, the students following me like so many Pikmin, and we collect boxes, dice, games, prototype parts, history books, the shrapnel of the everyday game developer. At my car, the goods loaded, the same group of students continues to stand there. One of them starts to tear up. “You changed my life,” she says. “You made me love game design.”
It’s a critical hit, and it takes me out even now, rounds later.
Somehow, I hold back the tears – sort of – but as they each approach me to say thanks and to give me a hug goodbye, I’m falling apart. The goodbyes done, I get into my car and drive away. Then the tears come. It kills me to see them in the rear view, even though I’ve left them in awesome hands. It is humbling, a great gift, to change a life in a positive way. I start to full-on sob, and it doesn’t stop until I am nearly home. I call my best friend, also a game designer, and I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude, sadness and a love of game design itself that I actually make him cry, too.
In the morning, I put on ripped jeans and a T-shirt to herald my return to game development, then put the car in drive.
The industry itself is transitioning, as it always has. Years ago, I was concerned that my long history in roleplaying games was dooming me to extinction as a designer. I watched Ultima, Wizardry, Might & Magic and the SSI Gold Box series go down for the count before Blizzard saved the day. Another gaming shift is now occurring, one in which I, as a woman in my 40s, am front and center.
“I need you to be my neighbor. Check Facebook.” The text is from my 36-year-old niece, Pam Charron, who has never played videogames. I call her immediately. “Are you serious? You’re farming?” Indeed she is, and if I’d only accept her neighbor request, I’d help her to get the Blue Ribbon.
Ironically, it was the Blue Ribbon that made me love videogames, the one you found in 1981 on the fourth floor of Wizardry 1: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. It was the first digital puzzle I encountered in my whole life. It let me into the secret elevator that took me to the ninth level. There, behind the door on the left in the corner of the room, there was a teleporter that took me to the tenth level and, ultimately, Werdna’s lair. So there we are, Pam and I, coming to games – she with one Blue Ribbon and I with another. I consider the many conversations that have been missed with my relatives who lost me to this medium they knew nothing about, and I wonder if it will be this amazing movement, these social games, that will at last let them hear the drumbeat that I hear.
The miles across the country roll on forever. I stop in Austin and have dinner with Jon Jones, Harvey Smith, Tom Hall, Brian Cash, Sheri Graner Ray, Tim Ray, Kain Shin and a host of other game developers I meet for the first time that night. We eat deep-fried everything and laugh hard at jokes that would only be funny to people who do what we do. The dinner, the mid-way point across the country, feels like a portal, and the dessert stretches on even longer than Texas.
I drive all day every day, my beloved car with the “GAMEDEV” license plate, packed to the absolute gills. It is 2 a.m. when I roll across the Arizona border into California. It is a surreal moment. I have never come to California to stay. I come for conferences and for client visits, but not for … ever.
@ bbrathwaite Hello, California.
I arrive at my apartment, rented sight unseen, and roll my air mattress out on the floor. I am so excited, I can’t sleep, and I’m ready for work at eight the next morning. The early hours are filled with HR, IT and introductions, but when I return from lunch, games fill my dual screens.
There. They. Are. These are the games I am working on, and it is bliss.
The Blue Ribbon
Today, like every day since the first day, feels like 1981 again. The energy is astounding – the small teams, the rapid iteration, watching a game rise and get shipped right before my eyes. I believe in the people I’m working for, and I can actually see them and talk to them and listen to them articulate their vision. I feel like I am drowning in new names and faces and details, so I jump in even deeper hoping to grok it faster, as fast as I can. The days go by in blinks, and Monday mornings excite me.
I am making games every day, all day, and I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be.
Brenda Brathwaite makes games for a living and plays games for fun. She is presently working with an undisclosed company in California, and believes she is the luckiest woman in the world. She also drives an awesome car, one fit for a game developer.