Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Inside Job: Lessons from the Street


The train ride to SFO from GDC, which two years ago replaced the cab or fragrant car rental from San Jose, is a singular existential experience. The roar of metal track, the whine and low moan of compressed tunnel air, are apocalyptic if your eyes are closed. The gentle press of momentum is magical; after a week of explosive energy expenditure, you are expending nothing – and yet you are moving, speeding toward your destination, smooth and fast with the cacophony of the tunnel hammering you on.

The transport is not the only thing that’s changed. Previously this trip was a lone endeavor, a hero’s journey; after endless days amongst the tribe, you were alone among aliens, your language foreign, your passions inconceivable. Reality folded its obscure hands around you at last.

Not so anymore. The planes and trains are the last sputtering flames of GDC. Solitude is replaced by the industry without its pulse and glitter; instead of Sid Meier dropping subtle pearls, there’s the guy behind you talking far too loudly about what made The Sims Online fail for someone actually in possession of a clue. These last sallow bursts seek strangely to prolong what cannot be prolonged, and show the current generation of the industry for what it is, good and bad alike.

It’s a time for reflection. So in the spirit of this student-oriented series, these are the things I’ve learned that you won’t hear from an industry press release.

  • If someone’s talking loudly and publicly about business, it’s probably not as important as they’d like you to think it is.
  • You must resist rigorously the impulse to speak with familiarity to people you don’t actually know.
  • Much from other media industries does apply to the game community. But a lot doesn’t. We are different, but you will never be able to adequately explain this to someone who works in film and wants to tell you all about your job, or why our hours aren’t that bad.
  • Everything catches up with you. It’s still a very small industry.
  • This also means that if you are exemplary, you will rise quickly. More than nearly any other industry, games recognize innovation, intelligence, and talent with lightning speed and true appreciation. Make yourself exemplary.
  • Once in a rare while you’ll meet someone who connects with you on the level of the game. Keep them. Protect them.
  • No matter how cool video games seem to get, they’re still “just games” to the vast majority of Earth’s population. This is a blessing but seems a curse and can be easy to forget the closer and longer you stay in the industry.
  • If someone uses a lot of metaphors from outside the business to generalize a life philosophy that they then apply to the games industry, they’re probably full of crap.
  • Your mettle will be tested. You cannot imagine how until it happens. The people whose names circulate quickly are generally the ones who exhibit grace under intense pressure. If you can’t stand the heat, this kitchen is not for you.
  • You don’t talk about Fight Club.
  • As with any other industry, some will rise quickly and fall just as fast without seeming to entirely deserve either. The ones that are still around years later tend to be the ones who kept an even keel and adhered to personal principles in the face of adverse conditions.
  • It is not a human being’s natural instinct to be smart, and, more insidiously, being smart is often dangerously boring. Most people want melodrama, but your chances of survival are greater if you can resist the drama urge and stay smart under pressure. So too, in the long run, are your chances for happiness.
  • However: just because it’s dangerous doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

This is my advice. It’s from my small experience. I may or may not know what the hell I’m talking about. But it’s what I know. The most valuable insights I have gained from working in this business have come from the anecdotal experiences of others, the spikes in the culture that so many of us have a love-hate relationship with.

The thing that we all have to answer at the end of the day, the question that strikes us more poignantly than many occupations, is this: is it worth it?

I still think it is. Sure, at the end of the day, we just make games, and should never deceive ourselves into thinking otherwise. But this doesn’t change the fact that nothing else in the world sweeps aside our differences to bare our shared humanity like the core amazing human cognitive processes that drive us to play. Sometimes the industry will seem entirely exasperating; it gets too big for itself, people get too deep into it, and collectively we are constantly overestimated in all the wrong ways and underestimated in the right ones. But if you’re drawn to it, if it is the instrument for your voice, the game itself remains worth it.

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