Who’s Your Daddy?

Parenting and politics are two things you don’t talk about in polite company because they reach down into the core of human issues that provide driving forces in our lives. These two topics have only begun to germinate in the gaming world, and it’s a sure bet that they start fires wherever they go.

In a recent Slashdot discussion responding to a student who asks whether he should get a Master’s degree in game development or computer science, one commenter notes that “[t]he fact of life in the videogame industry is that once you been in the industry for 10 years and/or over 30 years old [sic], you’re no good to the cheap bean counters who run a lot of these game companies.”

This sentiment runs deep through game development, and with over half of developers expecting to leave the industry within the next 10 years, a frightening mass exodus has already begun. While many studios are working to deliberately create a family-friendly environment for the benefit of their family-minded game-makers, no one really talks about why studios ought to be stepping up to the plate for families for the benefit of their games.

And they should. Parents tend to be more in tune with target game demographic trends, enforce saner development practices that provably improve reliable product delivery and keep a project focused to achieve goals faster – so that they can go home. We ought to be talking about this, and we also ought to be talking about how game developers make some of the best parents around.

Trend Setter, Bellwether
Gamers and kids have an intuition for what’s “in” that borders on being a sixth sense. Developers are frequently working way too hard to keep up with all of the latest games, much as we try. Ask around – the number of years a person has spent in the industry will be inversely proportional to the number of new titles on their shelves, unless that developer has kids. We “free agents” try, and we’re always aware of the big ones, but no one knows trends like a tween, and parents absorb that knowledge through sheer (often unwilling!) osmosis.

Kids typically figure out games faster and play games more thoroughly than adults. Simply by virtue of having been raised on the technology, children are adapting with startling quickness to new forms of gameplay and game control; we are witnessing another phase in intellectual evolution in the rapidness with which they take up new technologies. Defender was a challenge back in the day, but now? I stand in awe to think of the future capacities of a kid raised on Gradius V.

Tobi Saulnier, CEO of 1st Playable Productions, notes that kids have an edge on creativity. “Young children have a way of keeping you creative since they see things without as many layers of rules: as my daughter once speculated: ‘A long time ago people didn’t have cars and roads, so … they had to fly everywhere!’ Hearing the way your kids look at things helps stimulate your imagination and be willing to disregard convention.” Kenneth Yeast, Director of Engineering at Los Angeles-based 7 Studios, agrees; having kids, he says, gives developers “a place to see play in a way that they don’t see it in the adult environment.”

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Developers with kids also provide access to enthusiastic instant test groups. There’s a lot to be said for growing technology, but for sheer fun value, you need a “testing unit” that can smile, laugh and roll its eyes at you – pssh, Mom, that’s so yesterday. (Yep, we get family to do testing. And we get their friends, too.) Much as we’d like to think a gamer stays young forever, the inescapable truth is that the target demographic mojo starts rolling off of you somewhere around 14 and has faded away entirely by 25.

But being an unthinking barometer for what’s hip is only the tip of the parenting iceberg.

Setting the Bar
Families make us saner. Families are a “safe” obligation no one can challenge. This mystical priority allows developers an “honorable retreat” from crunch mode, putting the brakes on a process that can all too easily get utterly out of control.

It’s been said before, and it’s true: Crunch mode itself has value. In an ideal world, we would all have exactly the amount of time we need to make fantastic games, and no more. But the real world involves human beings, and human beings make mistakes, so even with the best team on the best project, some crunch is inevitable. Our bodies crunch; when the going gets tough, your suprarenal glands fire a shot of epinephrine into your blood, and away you go. And that’s what crunch is: It’s a shot of adrenaline. The problem is adrenaline also addles your brain. It impairs judgment. And if you keep going, keep burning on adrenaline and nothing else, your heart explodes and you die.

Saying “I’ve got to pick up my daughter” is untouchable. It’s a magic phrase. No one on Earth is going to say, “No, Bob, I’m sorry, but you can’t pick up your child.” No one. Developers at hard-edged workplaces get guff for everything from deaths in the family to long planned honeymoons, but not for taking care of their children. This is a double-edged sword in that some workplaces will have the audacity to discriminate against interviewees by asking about their marital or family status (and developers should be well aware of their rights – such questions are illegal). But parents in the studio bring so many benefits that they ought to be actively pursued, not shied away from.

Some are actually bothered by the parenting “silver bullet.” There really isn’t anything inherent that makes a parent’s time more valuable than a single person’s. But socially, it is acceptable – even expected – to stick up for one’s children where it isn’t as acceptable to stick up for a planned ski trip, no matter how long it’s been in the works or how long you’ve gone without a vacation.

Parenting, more than perhaps any other profession, also requires flexibility. Saulnier says, “As a parent your kids are always throwing you curve balls that you just need to adapt to. ‘Hey mom, I missed the bus and I need a ride’ or ‘Your child is sick, come get him from school.’ You get pretty good at re-planning and adapting to what happens, even if in games it might be ‘the movie has been moved up three months’ or ‘the lead artist’s hard disk crashed and we need to rebuild the machine’ or ‘we need 10 screenshots by end of day for Marketing!'” So the unpredictability that pulls parents out of the office is often a not-so-disguised asset; when bad things happen, the parents are the least surprised.

In the case of crunch, on an immediate level, some silver bullet is better than no silver bullet, because the fact is, going home is good for the game.

Don’t Make Me Turn This Game Around
We know going home is good for our ultimate productivity. It’s been established in software engineering for years. But we hate to admit it. It’s counterintuitive in a sense (“What? Leave? Right now? But we’re so close!”) – and especially when you’re riding the adrenaline wave, it seems like the sensible thing to keep going until the job is done.

The problem is you’re never “so close” when you think you are. You’re usually about six hours from “so close,” and that curve becomes exponential with exhaustion. Despite knowing this, despite being rationally aware of it, no one wants to be the one to send people home. Yeah, it’s stupid, but it’s the way things go – even though most of us have had the strange and heady experience of suddenly realizing the answer to a problem that’s been plaguing our (fuzzy, sleep-deprived, shut down) minds for the last several tens of hours once we get a shower or a little rest.

Setting baselines for working practices is slowly percolating through the industry. It starts simple; in adverse conditions, Yeast says. “Very quickly, productivity begins to decrease, and there’s a point at which it dives. I guarantee you, if you take away the weekend for people, that’ll kill it.” Like everything else, managing productivity becomes part of a large strategy that must remain flexible, but baselines are key, Yeast says, as a metric to measure your working strategy against.

Making the call to go home is great, but the real problem needs to be solved long in advance. Because parents have a stake in going home, they tend to be more likely to enforce reasonable development practices, such as code reviewing, continued learning (including shared technology and techniques) and unit testing. You know, the stuff we really ought to be doing all along. The passionate, fiery, bravado-stuffed code cowboy will scoff at such things: no, we don’t want to use someone else’s code! We’ll build it ourselves! We don’t have time for unit testing! Commenting code takes too long! You should be able to understand it by looking at it!

I’m harsh on programmers, but this attitude is everywhere, and it is plain and simple immaturity. Enter the parents. Not only are they practiced in foresight, they’re also practiced specifically in countering impatient attitudes. Parenting leaves no room for illusions; because they have a very real and unflinching stake in going home, they’ll be on the lookout for better ways to make the development process smoother. Find a game with low ratings and you will have found a game that spiraled into (or started from at the outset) deathmarch and out-of-control management every time. And increasingly, find where the parents are happy – find where they’re staying – and you’ll find studios reliably delivering games.

Yeast and Saulnier both agree that the greatest asset a parent brings to a team is perspective. Knowing when to let go is a major, if sometimes painful, part of the parenting process. Saulnier says, “It’s corny, but as a parent you learn to care for what evolves, even if it is not what you would do. You appreciate your kids for what they are growing into and enjoy the process of seeing how they grow and the people they turn into. This is very similar to a game title for me – with all the input from the team, the licensor, publishing partners, the particular challenges, creative and technical. So, like kids each grow differently, and have different strengths and weaknesses.”

Yeast adds: “When you’re doing work and you’re being productive and trying to make decisions, trying to be wise about your decision-making, you have a broader perspective on things, and you end up making some wiser choices. You can look at [a project] and realize what you need to get done and what you can cut away.”

A game developer parent, by sheer definition, is going to be in an older age bracket, and that usually means they’ve spent more years directly in the game industry. Any software engineer anywhere can tell you that an experienced programmer is worth any five – or more – junior programmers. Both have their place; the most cutting edge development methods balance the strengths of youthful energy and flexibility against experienced gravity and wisdom, but there’s no question that most coding nightmares come from lack of experience. Historically, when hiring new developers, the barrier to entry is not a college degree, discovering new algorithms or even the number of years worked – it’s the number of titles shipped, as many a breaker-in laments. It’s experience, because “Oh, I’ve seen that before, it’s like this” is a musical, magical phrase. And it is a catastrophic hypocrisy that we are systematically driving out those that possess the most of the one thing we’re always looking for.

It is long past time for the last barriers between parents and the game industry to fall, because we need each other, and we make each other stronger. The process toward change will be like rock climbing: arduously inching up the mountain with sherpas like Seven showing the way. Lone studios practicing development methods with baseline quality of life standards, in addition to attracting parents, will allow developers as a whole to be more discerning in their choice of workplace. And with a growing body of studios placing their focus on positive work environments, Yeast says the community will look back and realize, one hit at a time, that inhuman working conditions were peripheral, not integral, to the process of making great games.

The industry is progressing through a critical maturation process, and can come through it in full bloom with careful effort. You hear that, you kids?

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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