My name is Talin, and I've been in the computer games industry since about 1983. I've had a lot of fun, as well as a few "hits". I'm best known for the 1986 Amiga game "The Faery Tale Adventure", for which I still get occasional fan mail. I've worked on about a dozen projects all told, the most recent being a massively multiplayer game for SegaSoft's HEAT network.
I'm always amused be people's reactions when I tell them that I work in the computer games industry. "Computer games!" they say, "Gee, that must be fun!" At such times I usually pause, thinking "How do I break it to them?"
I've been in the industry a long time (since around 1983), and I've watched carefully the changing nature of the business. I remember the busts and booms, the changing platforms, the rise and fall of many companies. And I've come to the conclusion that the industry has gradually, imperceptibly, transformed from a cozy industry full of creative freedom and fun into a rather unpleasant place to work.
Computer game developers work in an industry where 90% of the profit is made from 10% of the products. Or to put it another way, 90% of the products simply die in the marketplace. Sometimes this is because the products themselves are dreck; There certainly is a lot of poorly designed, poorly debugged, formulaic, or simply content free products out there. In other cases, good products wither on the vine because they are inadequately marketed, or because they can't get through all of the noise and fluff that's clogging up the distribution chain.
When the games industry started, distributors were begging for product, but now you have to bribe Fry's or CompUSA a couple of hundred thousand to get your product placed somewhere where customers will actually see it.
And this doesn't even include the large number of products that never make it to market. In some cases, a publisher or development company runs out of money before it can finish a game, or is eaten by a larger company which immediately develops a case of indigestion and dies. (This has happened to my own projects twice.)
Having been involved in a number of large, multi-million dollar projects that never got released, or were pathetically marketed, I sometimes wonder whether the computer games industry isn't perhaps a net loss to the Gross National Product. I'm not even talking about the amount of lost productivity from people playing games (which I don't consider "lost"). Rather, what I mean is that it sometimes seems like more investment money is actually wasted developing and marketing failed games than is made in profits from successful ones.
Most of my industry colleagues that I've talked to about this have expressed similar feelings. One person said that the games industry is "a transfer of funds from the rich to the lucky". In my opinion, one would be foolish to invest in a game company.
Perhaps it's different in the big game publishers, where they crank out the same formulaic sports action game or first-person shooter over and over again. But in the smaller companies where I've spent my career, the vast majority of projects either never make it to market, or completely tank once they get there.
The economic realities of developing games induces what I call "The Lottery Mentality". Lotteries are based on the idea that we tend not to be able to think very rationally about small differences in probability. The California State Lottery has been called, for example, "a tax on people who can't do math". In the games industry, this takes the form of lying to ourselves about the potential chances of creating a "hit" game. We all know that our game has only a small chance of becoming a "hit" and thereby making a profit, yet we fool ourselves into thinking: "Yes, but MY game is going to be the ONE". As one producer put it: "You don't think anyone _intentionally_ tries to make a mediocre game?" (Well, there are some in fact who do, but that's beside the point.) But the fact is that your game is almost certainly going to be mediocre, in sales if not in quality, whether you like it or not.
The lottery mentality is what keeps investors pumping large amounts of money into the sinkhole of games development. After all, it's a very exciting, fast-paced, high-tech and "cool" sinkhole. It's "the wave of the future". I've watched how games get funded, and it's usually less a matter of the technical feasibility and artistic merits of the game, than it is the personal charm of the CEO of the development company. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville: "What a fragile thing is human reason."
I should point out that my argument only applies to games written for computers, not game consoles. The economics of the console market are very different, primarily because the console manufacturers maintain a strict editorial control over what games can be published. As a result, the distribution chain for console-based software is far more consistent in quality. On the other hand, there's far less opportunity for innovation in the console market, and this is only partly explained by the strong 'parental' influence of the console manufacturers. Because consoles don't have keyboards, console games are extremely limited in the kinds of social interaction that they can support, which means that console-based games tend to be focused around kicking, jumping, hitting, running, and other brute force physical activities. This in turn limits the console market to a fairly narrow demographic, one that isn't interested in complex social interaction. Similarly, because consoles don't have hard drives, they are limited to games which are mostly "stateless", meaning that the player can only affect a small number of selected variables in the game environment.
Failed products and harsh economics aren't the only reason why the games industry has become a miserable place.
Part of the reason why I fled from Hollywood in the early 80's was because I realized that Hollywood, with it's creativity-stifling unions, bureaucratized studios, and disreputable agents, was not the way to a happy life. Not everyone gets to be a Spielberg or a Lucas, and in fact the vast majority of workers toil away at one narrowly-defined job with no creative freedom whatsoever. The few truly inspired creators, the ones with the really unique ideas, are targets for exploitation and fraud. When I realized, a few years ago, that the whole "Siliwood" thing was a bust, and that Hollywood was not going to take over, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Now I find the games industry is becoming more and more like Hollywood itself, where each person has his or her little job compartment or specialty, and must never stray outside of it for fear of stepping on someone's territory. "I don't understand," says the manager, "I thought you said you wanted a position as a programmer. Now you're telling me you want a position as an artist?" Even when they know and accept you as a multi-talented, multi-skilled person, they still have trouble figuring out ways to apply your skills in anything but a single narrowly-defined capacity.
I should also mention that the games industry has little respect for experience. What the games industry runs on is youthful energy. It loves to exploit 19 year old programmers who work 10-12 hours a day, get paid less than the standard wage for programmers in other industries, and don't know squat about software engineering principles. There are very few 40-year-old game programmers; I'm one of few who hasn't been "burnt out" by the murderous pace. But more and more I feel like I don't "fit in". I find myself less and less interested in doing the same games over and over again, targeted at an audience of 14-year old males who have been programmed by evolution to enjoy the thrill of combat and the hunt. Quake and Unreal are _great_ games from a design and technical standpoint, but frankly they bore me. (In case you are wondering, my two favorite games are Might and Magic II, and Civilization II).
Despite the fact that the games industry has aged tremendously in both it's bureaucratic structure and the sophistication of the technology, the software engineering practices it uses are still juvenile. It amazes me to find managers who have copies of classic works like Rapid Development_, _Writing Solid Code_, and _Peopleware_ on their bookshelves, yet somehow fail to actually apply the principles in those books. The culture of the industry is simply too strong, and trying to take the time to do things right (so that it saves time later) is like slogging through mud. The whole process by which games are budgeted and scheduled, for example, is something that I find amazing that anyone could take seriously.
Anybody who's studied software engineering knows that a schedule which underestimates the time needed to develop a project actually makes the project take _longer_. Countless case studies have shown this to be true. Yet we insist on shipping projects "by Christmas season" so that programmers are forced to waste their time, trying to "hurry up" to meet an arbitrary deadline. We continue to throw budgets and schedules together quickly, so that we can have them ready for a meeting with the publisher, without ever consulting the people who will actually work on the project (most of whom haven't been hired yet.)
The result is completely predictable: programmers that are under extreme stress who in turn create code full of bugs and defects. Project that end up a year later than they were scheduled. Isn't it interesting that some of the most successful game companies have adopted a "it will be done when it's done" policy?
Part of the problem is that our industry labors under the illusion that it is "like Hollywood". Film producers are usually able to turn out a film on time and within budgetary limits. But there's a difference -- film producers don't have to re-invent the camera each time they do a production. There are no "stable" technologies in the computer games industry, and the average useful life of a game "engine" is about two years.
The games industry is primarily an engineering industry, which means that what we do is solve problems. But solving problems, especially highly complex ones, knows no timetable. No one can predict how long it will take to invent a particular thing, because every invention is an accident, albeit a fortuitous one. The best you can do is increase the probability of such an accident occuring, a process which I have dubbed "accident husbandry."
Despite the fact that constant invention is critical to the industry, game companies still refuse, as far as I can tell, to fund any kind of research. Instead, each new game is itself a "research prototype", full of risks and unknowns. You might as well write "and here a miracle occurs" right on the PERT chart and be done with it.
Job stability is another thing that is lacking in the computer games field. It seems to be a common practice in small development companies to lay off the entire development team upon completion of a project. Usually this is because a small development company can only afford to pay salaries while a project is actually being funded by an outside source. It takes a long time to negotiate such a contract, and often the previous product finishes before the negotiations are complete. As a result, the development company has no choice but to unburden itself of workers who aren't producing any revenue. As a result of this high turnover rate, development companies are unable to maintain a solid body of institutional knowledge. Worse, it inclucates a sense of futility in the engineering staff. As one worker put it: "If you ship, you'll be fired." Don't get me wrong. I still like games. But the games industry isn't games.
I'm not advocating that the sources of funding should simply dry up. But I wish that investors and project planners would be more careful. Firstly, because I'm ethically offended by the idea of wasting other people's money. And secondly, because I'm sick of spending a year of my life working on a beautiful project, only to watch it go down in flames (And yes, I admit that there were times when the fault was my own...but not most of the time.)
I think that we'd all be happier if fewer games were actually produced. In my opinion, the primary result of this would be a higher percentage of good games on the market. Of course, there wouldn't be quite as many jobs, but I can tell you that there are a lot of fun, exciting jobs out there that have nothing to do with the games industry. For example, I recently I took a job at an e-commerce company. Now, I have absolutely no interest in e-commerce per se. But I found to my surprise that there are a lot of things about this job that are really fun:
- I get to do real research, to tinker around with new concepts
- I'm living on "internet time": Product cycles are in weeks, not years
- My experience and knowledge are highly respected.
- People look to me for help and answers, not to grind away code in silence
- Schedules are reasonable and flexible
- I'm learning a lot of new technologies
- I'm getting a chance to do something different for a change.
- The gender balance is a lot closer to 50%
- They appreciate and exploit my multiple skills and game-designer sensibilities.
- I get to think about social issues as well as technical ones
- The people are excited and enthusiastic rather than feeling burnt out.
- The pay is better
But these days I'm far less interested in broadcasting my own ideas and stories (the "Death From Above" content distribution model), than I am in empowering the end-users to be able to realize their own ideas and fantasies. If I chose to do another game, it would have to be on very specific terms: An R&D project up front to eliminate the major risks, solid commitment to sound engineering principles, a rational schedule (or better yet, no schedule at all), and a project premise that involved a high level of social consciousness. "Community is King" is my motto now.
Alternatively, I think I'd enjoy just develop games as a hobby, completely open-sourced, and make money some other way. I've found that being an amateur game creator is more emotionally rewarding than being a After all, I'm in this for the fun, and for the chance to express myself creatively. If I wasn't, I'd be selling insurance or something.