Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Inside Job: Why We’re Here


Coming into this closing installment of “Inside Job,” I find myself reflecting on the changes that we’ve seen inside the industry just within this past year in terms of quality of life; interest waxes and wanes, sometimes with the season and sometimes in response to a natural cycle of awareness and entropy. While this column is ending, the process toward better working conditions (and therefore better games) remains ongoing; there are no ends.

But we’ll leave this first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-quality-of-life on a high note, with a side of contemplation. Taking the whole of the development experience, I asked game developers why they’re still here – what it is that makes this business worth fighting for.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most common answers had to do with creativity. It’s a dangerous thing, having a creative job. Most of the problems associated with game development can probably be traced back to politics (including the grand sphere of management) or the unpredictability of the creative process. But that strange, kinetic energy is also what makes it so addictive and rewarding.

I started making games when I was about 8 years old. My friends and I would sit around the computer and come up with the kinds of ideas that “mainstream” games didn’t include – the kinds of things that only a gaggle of 8-year-old boys would think of, like Snail Squishing Marathon and such. We would agree on the game, they’d leave (or go play Lego) and I’d program in the latest crazy ideas. There was no producer/developer relationship back then, mind, it was all very democratic, and since I was the programmer, whatever I said went in. Anyway, I found that my friends’ reactions to my creations were totally rewarding and I loved the creative process of figuring out what would really be cool to include in Snot Racing 2 or Booger Rally.

To me, it’s about entertaining people. Whether it’s Pong or a 3-D racing game, I try to include little “treats” for the die-hards, such as weaknesses in the system that only the truly committed would figure out or concentrating on the core elements that people enjoy in that particular genre. I think games are the best way of applying as many of my passions to entertaining people as I could find – including music, art, programming, storytelling and drama. And when I get too old to do this or I no longer have a creative say or I think I’ve had enough of all the BS that goes with this industry … I guess it’s back to the theater for me.

– Jeff Murray, Director of Game Development, Fuel Industries

Tech Edge
If you could boil down the game-making process to two elements, it would probably be creativity plus technology – an expressive medium taken right up to the bleeding edge of what we can accomplish with media hardware today. And that tech edge, for many, enhances both the challenge and the payoff to making games.

Games are still where a lot of the excitement is both from a content and tech perspective. Despite the uphill battles to do truly original content, it’s clear that the opportunities to radically move people’s perceptions of what games and entertainment can be are probably better in the games industry than in other more linear forms.

I’ve worked outside of games (briefly) after being in the industry for some time. No thanks. Every industry has problems – pick the ones you can live with and be happy.
– Mark Harwood, Producer, Shiny Entertainment

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And then there’s the rockstar element, which many in the industry would tell you is firmly in the negative category. But an offshoot of that effect is the fact that even people who don’t work on games tend to like talking about them and thinking about them. To them, it’s often pretty obvious why someone would want to work here.

I think leading artists are attracted to games due to the nature of their “leading edge” implementation of rich media technologies. … Games represent the ultimate level that today’s rich media technologies can cumulatively be taken; how many websites are even interactive? Or digital signage? Currently, e-signage is nothing but boring broadcast media and 2-D Flash. The future is in two areas: real-time interaction with the user and real-time rendered i3D content. The game industry clearly maxes these two areas an order of magnitude beyond any other current entertainment medium (internet, TV, film, e-signage, mobile, etc.), and thus has the most potential to blow-away the audience, which is, of course, any artist’s dream and purpose, especially commercially, and I assume we are talking about commercial artisans here. The future is brightest for gaming simply because gaming technology is the future of every other type of commercial rich media design undertaking.
– Wallace Jackson, Multimedia Producer, Mind Taffy Design

Balancing the sheer difficulty of persistently adapting to new technologies is the constant newness of the challenges faced in making games.

In the last job I had before I entered the industry, I one day said to my boss, “You know what I do when I get home from work? I write code, to remind myself that I actually like programming.” My brain was rotting. I need the sort of challenges that the game industry presents, because otherwise, I get bored, and lose my motivation.

The biggest challenge I’ve overcome, so far, is losing an employer. I like working for startups, and a lot of them just don’t make it in the long run. It’s particularly perilous working for a developer that is hunting for a publisher while developing its first game. There’s always the risk that you just won’t find one before the money runs out.
– Tess Snider, Senior Games Systems Programmer, Trion World Network

Adding this all together, you get a pretty rosy picture of the types of people attracted to game development: they’re smart, thriving on challenge; they’re creative, not content merely to solve technical problems; they’re ambitious, un-intimidated by the intensity of the market. But with the constant change dictated in games by shifting technologies and hardware comes a steady evolution within the process and discourse of the games themselves.

Evolving Aesthetics
Even as games are becoming more graphically sophisticated and continuing to dive into unexplored territories of interactivity, we’re also truly starting to see an appreciation for narrative. I recently saw Wanted in the theatre, and I apologize in advance for offending those of you who liked it. Within the first five minutes, even my own impulse was, “This is like a videogame!” – and then I immediately realized, no, there was no way in hell a videogame narrative could get away with what Hollywood had thrown into Wanted. Titles like Bioshock continue to advance us into new thresholds of narrative excellence, and that advancement brings new creativity into our artistic and technical environment.

It’s really a combination of passion, stubbornness and never being happier than when I’m doing the narrative equivalent of constructing a jigsaw puzzle in a hurricane. There’s a lot to be done in the games storytelling sphere and people are much more open to addressing the problems of interactive narrative than they used to be.

Reconciling gameplay and story can sometimes be like dealing with a couple of awkward children. Gameplay says that Story smells of wee, and Story says that Gameplay threw her dolly in the wood chipper, etc. We just have to get those two little tykes to be friends and skip off into the sunset together, hand in hand. There’s already a lot of pigtail pulling going on, so I think we’re getting there.

On top of all the challenges, there’s just so much drive and talent in this industry. Get the right combination and you really can work magic.
– Rhianna Pratchett, Scriptwriter & Narrative Designer, Overlord, Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge

We hear about “the love” constantly; at the end of the day, it is what keeps game developers involved long past the point where other purely occupational efforts would cease. Combine love and challenge, and you get a danger zone that in and of itself can be energizing, whether or not it’s healthy.

But games also fuse creativity and technology in a way that keeps them more down-to-earth than other purely creative industries. Haris Orkin broke into screenwriting years ago for Hollywood; a surprising number of game writers actively write for television or feature films. But because the games industry can be just about the games, it swerves around a lot of the ugly sides of Hollywood.

What keeps me in the industry, writing for games, is the simple fact that I love it. I love gaming and I love writing and this field combines two of my passions. I’ve been a professional writer for a long time. I’ve written for the stage, for TV, films, advertising, and it’s never been an easy way to make a living. You constantly have to hustle for work, and I’ve had many ups and downs and disappointments. But I’ve also had my share of victories and a few moments of great satisfaction. I enjoy collaborating and the process of writing. I love the challenge of creating a story within a game and the fact that game narrative is in its infancy. You don’t see the sharks you see in the TV and movie world. At least I haven’t. It’s still a fairly new medium, and there are no hard and fast rules. I love that. The possibilities seem limitless.
– Haris Orkin, Freelance Game Writer, Red Alert 3

The Times, They Are A-Changin’
In addition to the persistent challenges – for good and ill – offered by the industry, our creative evolution has fortunately been bolstered in recent years by an evolution in the methodology and mindsets of game creators.

What keeps me in the industry … diversity, change, opportunity. Doors open all the time; the industry is growing and ever changing. There is always something new around the corner. What I do is similar, but not quite the same day to day. I face new challenges and am constantly growing. I am the type of person who loves to ride the roller coasters, jump out of airplanes or off cliffs into a gorge below. Working in the game industry is like that; the knowledge that your hard work and preparation is about to pay off is a massive adrenaline rush.

What challenges to overcome … unemployment and unprofessional behavior. I have been unemployed three times since coming to the industry due to layoffs. Companies rise and fall, run straight into walls or just grind their people into little bits. Either way, at some point in time you are going to be unemployed. The unprofessional behavior has ranged from sexism, frat-boy antics and the ignorance of standard business/HR practices and why they should be employed. As we grow as an industry, everyone starts realizing that the old standards are old standards for a reason, and maybe we should incorporate those into our processes. It’s definitely getting better.

The people are smart, funny, quirky and creative. It is like hanging out with all my friends from college. We played the same games, watched the same movies and can give the same quotes. Geek is chic, and being athletic is a necessary evil of getting older. All of us get the in-jokes and understand why “All your base are belong to us” was funny … before YouTube.
– Jennifer Bullard, Senior Producer, Aspyr Media

The industry is growing in a variety of ways, some of them frightening. Every now and then, someone pops out of the woodwork with a doomsday prophesy about outsourcing (for the real scoop, you need to talk to this guy – yes, actually losing American game development jobs overseas is largely a myth). But the truth is that the games industry, always multinational, is now truly international.

Something I have come to appreciate immensely is the growing internationalization of the games industry. I’ve always loved travel, and one of my regrets when I became a freelance designer 12 years ago was that I’d just begun to reach the point in my career where my company was willing to send me overseas for meetings and conferences. But happily, that proved to be a false concern, now more than ever. In the last four months, for example, I’ve been on business trips to Germany, New Zealand, Finland and Israel. That’s a very busy slate even by my standards, but the chance to see different countries and cultures while having fun making interesting games (or lecturing about them) is one of my great pleasures from work.
– Noah Falstein, Game Designer, The Inspiracy

So long as we cultivate the best in interactive talent here in the U.S., there will always be work to be had, and probably, for those with experience, more demand than we can ever fulfill – which is why it becomes increasingly important to keep our veteran developers happy.

The industry has also seen a radical shift in perspectives toward quality of life and many of the elements associated with it – particularly parenthood – in the last five years. With the expansion of game genres into casual markets and broader demographics, we find ever-increasing relevance and acceptance of what we do as developers.

And game parents also get the bonus of being “the cool mom”:

Many things keep me in the games industry. I’ve been fortunate to work for companies that value their employees and do whatever they can to make crunch easier, which is a big help. But the real reason I stay in games is the emotional fulfillment I get from helping to create a product I love. When I talk about games, my face lights up. When I walk around my offices, I feel at home; I’m with my people, an incredible, diverse, eccentric, amazingly intelligent group of people dedicated to creating fun. When I play games with my daughter, I tell her that when Mommy goes to work, she helps make games, and I’m a hero in my little girl’s eyes (and in the eyes of every neighborhood kid). When I volunteer for games organizations like the IGDA, I feel like I’m not only making the industry better, I’m encouraging more people to share the passion I have for an amazing career.

I love games, I love playing them, I love making them – anything and everything to do with them. In the immortal words of Wesley, “this is true love, do you think this happens every day?” How can I walk away from something I love so much?
-Jennifer MacLean, VP of Business Development, 38 Studios; IGDA Board of Directors

So those are the warm and fuzzies. They are legion. If they weren’t, quality of life issues couldn’t be so challenging – there would be no reason not to simply walk in favor of another career.

The Long Road
But we do continue to lose creative people. The intensity comes at a price, and sometimes that price is raw talent. Among other things, when developers aren’t left enough time to expand their own knowledge and passion, that love for the creative process can instead become a prison. Amanda Sorter, arguably the newest member of the Lapsed Game Developer Club, had this insightful rundown of where the future of quality of life initiatives lies:

Since this is a positive question, and my last day in the game industry was [last] Friday, I thought I might say what would bring me back to the game industry, since I’ve been struggling with this lately.

Clear promotional structure: When networking and socializing takes place outside the office, and in situations you might not be included in as a woman, it’s important to have a transparent and defined promotional structure. Otherwise it can be difficult to determine how to progress in your field.

Opportunities for improvement: The game industry is, for the most part, a 50-plus hour a week profession. If much of this is spent producing the same sort of assets (in my case, environmental work), it can be difficult to learn new techniques and skills in the time left. It is at least partially the responsibility of the employer to see that their employees remain viable, rather than cycling in new people with the skill set they are looking for.

Better management: The game industry crunches way too much, and, in my experience, some of it is entirely avoidable with careful troubleshooting and time management. The worst crunches have occurred when a project was badly scoped (too ambitious) or just poorly directed. There has to be a balance that doesn’t include micromanaging or a total lack of oversight.

Improved skill assessment system: Almost all jobs require some sort of test. This is to be expected in a competitive industry. Art tests in the game industry can take weeks, are material that is under an NDA, and even if they aren’t, it is generally frowned upon to include failed tests in your portfolio. This system needs to be changed, as it prevents candidates from applying for multiple jobs, and is an enormous drain on time and resources.

I love making games – even left to my own devices most of the media I create is about world creation. But with the limited amount of occasions available to actually express this creativity, it made more sense for me to go back to illustration where I am self directed and have more opportunities for improvement. I won’t return until I can get a position with more creative input. Mostly, I’ll miss the paycheck.
– Amanda Sartor, Illustrator, (formerly) Snowblind Studios, Champions of Norrath

(Those of you with hiring abilities and who could use a kick-ass illustrator in the Seattle area may want to start courting Amanda right … now. Her brand of insight plus talent should not be so easily relinquished. Sorry, Amanda.)

Keep On Keepin’ On
So the road continues. There is no magic bullet for quality of life, just as there is no magic bullet for game production, which will forever be dealing with forces beyond our control as individual developers. But we can be better. We deserve to be better. And we will be better. The brainpower present in this business is mind-boggling. While we keep the discussion alive, we can improve our lot, hopefully enough to draw some of development’s wayward souls back into the fold. Game development is not for everyone. But we should be working hard, and working smart, at making sure it remains a place for vibrant talent.

As a closing note, perhaps one of the most interesting answers came from a non-game-developer.

The game developers are here for people like me, so remember my name, and next time, Erin, you develop a new game, think of me! If suddenly there are no more games, I see no other way to blow off steam after my 60-hour working week than kill the neighbors, and unlike a game, I can do that only once …
– Pieter Dorsman, Business Strategist

According to LinkedIn, Pieter has proven expertise in ethics, career management, and education and schools.

You heard the expert, ladies and gentlemen: Save the children; keep making games.

Thanks for reading.

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