Sixteen Ton - Whaddya Get?

Why We Haven’t Lapsed


Like any cultural phenom, the game industry waxes and wanes. Its attitude shifts, it grows older, gets pimples, passes some classes and fails others, grows, moves on. The past year, for whatever primal reason lurking in the dark waters of the collective ludological unconsciousness, has been one of intense cynicism, maybe even despair. And I have to say I’m getting damned tired of it.

Some of this is personal. I feel a bit of specific onus because my existential wail into the ether exposed one of the industry’s most long-festering and serious ills, and it seemed that right after developers woke up from the deathmarch mindset and started to turn in a new direction – a really positive and terrific thing that’s been a joy to observe – all of this gnashing of teeth kicked up again.

There was a gloom at this year’s GDC that hadn’t shown its face in years. Rather than being a rallying cry for growth and change, the “Game Developers’ Rant” had too much genuine bitterness, too much fear, to spark drive or any real discussion. I heard veteran developers mutter that the industry really was on its way out. And don’t even get me started on Chris Crawford. His reiteration of an old schtick about the death of videogames made me wonder where he was for Katamari Damacy, Trauma Center – or, hell, the entire Nintendo DS as a system – or Shadow of the Colossus. Was Patton Versus Rommel really embodying creative innovation in a way these games weren’t? I get a little misty reminiscing on the Zork days of yore once in a while, too, but come on. I respect Crawford as an original gamemaker, a fine mind and a skillful game technician from ages past, but he’s wrong. He’s dead wrong.

The game industry is alive and well, and it ain’t going anywhere. Neither, for that matter, are many of the developers. Some of the best and brightest people I have ever met work – present tense – in the game industry. The golden lure that yanked me away from graduate school and into games had nothing to do with the “glamour” or any idiotic pipe dream about fame and fortune – it had to do with the people.

But we are bleeding talent at a horrendous rate. This is the real bogeyman for the actual development of games, and it is a big problem that brilliant, creative students are taking one look at industry working conditions and making a bee line for Microsoft. One of the caps on all of the recent doomsaying was another blog that hit the shared internet mind: Danc’s “Joyful Life of a Lapsed Game Developer.” Man, talk about a downer.

But it pissed me off, too. I’m more than familiar with all of this stuff. Cancelled projects, corporate espionage, vicious and psychotic publishers, unrealistic deadlines, nervous breakdowns, milestones squeaked by thanks entirely to chemical substances of questionable toxicity and legality – been there, done that. I have seen shit. And it isn’t acceptable. But despite these crazy conditions, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not alone. Like cinema, democracy and rock ‘n’ roll, we’re here to stay, because the current age is one of the most exciting times for game development in all its brief history.

Acres and Acres
There is a saying in fiction writing that every would-be author has several hundred pages of crap prose that has to be processed out of the mind before the “real” writing can begin. I think that this holds true for any creative practice and for every new medium. While it’s certainly true that games of old have had more than a brush with greatness, they also provide a foundation for expansion into a true renaissance and awakening of the potential of games as a medium – a pixelated enlightenment, if you will.

A few major recent events have laid the groundwork: expanded game audiences, fertile environments for indie development and alternative vectors for game delivery.

Over the past three years, games have made amazing forays into new audiences. (Dude, you mean women can like games?) And the primary audience base is only expanding; games are predicted to reach 61 percent of American households by 2007. And they can only keep growing as the “gamer” generation advances into adulthood. Asia has already advanced ahead into the stratosphere of game demographic penetration, and cross-pollination of international development continues to increase.

As our audience expands and stabilizes, so too does our innovation. We are approaching the threshold where a game can have meaning, exhibit social context and be compelling. The fact is that innovation is not as simple as just doing something that’s never been done before. That’s where innovation starts. It blooms when the result is art, immersion and a firing of synapses rarely used. Our version of “compelling” is something no other media specializes in: We make things fun. Without relying on the sawing of heartstrings, games can convey ideas critical to the human condition. This is a unique and powerful thing! And it is a perfect breeding ground for innovation – real innovation.

Of the shockingly large American audience, over 40 percent play games online. This surge in online play is scaring Wall Street and invigorating developers. The growth of the mainstream lamented by Greg Costikyan in 2005 has opened the door for independents. Steam is shaking up the distribution world, and we live in a time where a Flash game can make a really big splash and a game development university senior thesis can become a cult phenomenon and Game of the Year. Life is good.

Add to all of this research that shows videogames can suppress pain, inspire hard work and heal the mind, even promote world peace, and, ladies and gentlemen, we are in good shape.

The “Lapse” Effect
Yet, the industry loses talent at a completely disgraceful rate. Most of these “lapsed” developers leave within their first year. While that’s a testament to our need to provide greater preparation and more competitive working conditions, a quick reality check is also helpful.

Games are creative. The creative process isn’t for everyone. If developers are leaving within their first year, how many of those are doing so just because the work isn’t right for them? Everybody’s different, but I’d be willing to bet that many of those heading for the hills after only a single project cycle aren’t doing so because of burnout; statistically, burnout tends to take somewhere around two to three years to kick in.

The game industry also isn’t alone in workforce fluidity (or burnout, actually). The U.S. government boasts an average service length of 17 years, but acknowledges that even this number is decreasing in recent times. The private sector averages three years spent with a single company. Part of the point of trying out a new career is seeing if it fits. Sometimes it doesn’t. The U.S. economy, at least, has adapted to a new standard where employees don’t stick around for the long haul. This certainly has its ups and downs, and, again, games do need to do a much better job of retaining talent, but some of this is just normal.

Speaking to Danc’s article, his 50,000-strong army of development ex-pats is indeed a scary number. But how many “lapsed” Hollywood actors are there in the U.S.? Could we even count them? “Lapsed” rock stars? The problem with taking a full headcount on the number of people that have left the industry is that many wind up in the game industry with stars in their eyes and have to go through a difficult period when their illusions are shattered. No one dreams of being an insurance salesman, so the disillusionment (though, by the numbers, not the workforce loss) is less.

Make no mistake, I’ll be the last one to excuse the industry for its sins, but I’m also not going to stand for all-out mutiny founded on flimsy reasoning. If the industry is hurting, it’s up to us to heal it, not shrug and start writing bank software for better pay. Sure, I’d love to be making the big bucks, and it’s a choice I could have made. Some years back, I was offered the chance to apprentice under a stockbroker at a major investment firm. I turned it down, and as my uncle said, you can make money or you can be happy. And if you’re in it for the money, what the hell are you doing attempting something creative, anyway?

Show me the Money
But we are a commercial enterprise. A big part of what’s purchased the industry its expanded audience and great uplift of mass market – leaving those delicious innovation niches beneath to be filled by independent companies and hobbyists – is the industry’s transition to a state that attracts the attention of the bulls and bears.

But all is not well on those gray pages. In recent months, economists have flooded the collective Wall Street mind with gloom and doom for the game industry.

I assert that we shouldn’t care.

The astute might notice that I am not what you would call partial to the welfare of the game industry’s respective Wal-Marts and Targets. However, I am fond of that undergrowth region they shade. Part of the curse and blessing of those big companies is that it is highly unlikely that they could actually topple anytime soon. Some suits might lose money, but those monoliths aren’t going anywhere. Trust me: They’re big enough to take care of themselves. That stability leaves investors with secondary concerns: the console gap, the rise of downloadable and online games (those alternative vectors), and a slowdown in industry growth.

Let’s replay that in slow motion: Investors are running scared because of opportunity. They’re getting nervy because the big engine of repetitive content is slowing down, because even the big guys are starting to realize that gaming audiences want something new. They want better practices and better games. This might be a bad thing for Wall Street, but it sure as hell isn’t for developers or gamers. And that brings us to …

New Horizons
Fear not, I’m not going to go all Buddhist on you, but everything exists in a dualistic balance. Just when you think that it can’t get any darker, the sun starts to rise.

And it’s rising. We’re slowly but surely starting to discover – you might want to sit down for this one – management science. We’re starting to get a glimmer that we might want to put the same energy into learning people management that we put into developing cel shaders. This concept isn’t new. But we’re starting to listen at last. Personal Software Process, Team Software Process, Agile Development, advanced tools and automation; the new choir of angels to sing us on our way. Game development as a whole is now bringing in techniques from other industries, bending and realizing that we might be special, but we’re not that special.

We also already have a lot to be thankful for. A good game industry job is one of the most flexible, rewarding, creative, efficient and energizing working opportunities on the planet. A lot of us work for the big guys, but just as many work for sleek and agile little companies that, when well-piloted, have the flexibility to switch on a dime, employ a new dev process, try a new idea, actually listen to employees (in fact, we kind of bridle at being called “employees” – we’re “talent,” thank you very much). Our maverick environment, one that rewards new ideas and gives quantitative and qualitative feedback for individual hard work, attracts some of the most brilliant, coppery-idealistic, good-hearted, strong-willed people in the world. I can look around my office and see radical tattoos, Voltron action figures, Duct Tape and Starbucks coffee cups – try finding that at IBM.

In fact, most of our quality of life problems actually come from the fact that working is generally so much damned fun. This, too, is a double-edged sword.

We can’t leave the issue of life in the game industry without a treatment on quality of life. And it is critical that our energy continue to focus there, not for any flimsy rationale involving, you know, physical longevity and mental stability for developers – nothing so minor – but because games need to keep getting better. Our lifeblood is creativity, and creativity can’t exist in a vacuum.

This means that we need to restrain our creative id and actually go outside once in awhile. We need to think, learn, absorb, grow. If you can’t do it for your arteries, do it for the games.

In order to maintain innovation, we also need to stop treating our veterans so poorly. Remember that bit about hundreds of pages of crap? It’s critical. The guys and gals who have gotten that out of their system are inexpressibly more efficient at solving problems and substantially more prone to come up with game designs that haven’t been tried before. (OK, maybe it can be expressed: The IGDA Quality of Life White Paper estimates that a team with two years’ average experience and 10 percent turnover costs the publisher 50 percent more and is 75 percent less likely to deliver on time than a team with 10 years’ average experience and 2 percent turnover.) Ageism is a plague in this industry, and we need to stop driving out the bearers of hard-won wisdom. This, too, is a problem not limited to the game industry, but it is one we should be smart enough to solve.

Bright Futures
I understand the cynicism; believe me, I do. The world is becoming an increasingly frightening place. But I would argue that it is time for despair to end and for action to begin. We all need a boot to the head every once in awhile, a jolt to wake us up and remind us that the pendulum is ready to swing the other way. And baby, it is swinging.

So, buck up, my dears. Fix the problems, but remember why you’re here. I’ll see you next year at GDC; I’ll be the one with the red palm jewel.

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

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