Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Why Game Connection Is Wrong

You know about Game Connection? You pay a few thousand bucks and you get a serious meeting with a game publisher at GDC.

It is wrong - bad, evil, corrupt.

How shall I explain?...

You know those classified ads you might see for actors, or book writers or whatever, where the person would go in and the agent would look at them and then say, "You know what? I think you have talent. I think you're special. I don't see people like you come in every day. So I'm gonna represent you. However, I need you to pay a fee to me to rep you? This is to cover photos, expenses [blah blah blah]."

You know what places like the Actors Guild or the Writers Guild would say about those joints. They're a rip off! Why? Because anyone who believes you really have a chance will take a percentage of what you make (traditionally that's 10 percent). If they ask for ANYTHING up front, it's a rip off! Because they are selling you out. They're using you.

Well, here is this Game Connection thing, and it acts just like that... Just like the proverbial crooked agent - taking the money of the naive who flock like the proverbial chickens to the slaughter.

Get real Game Connection. If you want to facilitate the bringing of new properties to publishers BECOME A FUCKING AGENT and have some balls! Stop selling out from Second One.

(Or am I asking too much from people in games in general? That they believe in something other than power, technology and money - selling games with the attitude of a drug pusher. That they be something other than amoral in a headlong race to the bottom?)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tell It Like It Is, Jonathan

More polite than myself, but Jonathan Blow at the Montreal International Game Summit delivers the same basic message.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Facing A Small Little Evil

James P Carse, the theologian and author, once described evil as the need to silence another utterly.

I have argued for individual game designers to be seen and granted direct rights. Their name on the box; the ability to ultimately earn gross revenues (which can only be earned with individual recognition); the creative freedom to move from project to project (instead of being treated as a cog in a game development machine - a process which, by the way, ensures nothing but formula will be made).

In response to vocally fighting for these rights, the folks who gather around the IGDA forums - well, some of them at least - have descended to hurtling their rotten shit at me. And some admins have deleted all my posts (thank God I saved a few to repost here).

It is their shit, but they can't stand smelling it, so they accuse others of being responsible for it. In this case, this shit is the awful implications of having to stand apart as an individual creator and make a name for oneself. A lot of people who believe that work alone can take you to the top - that talent should be removed from the equation - must look at this and be utterly terrified. The idea that the industry might change such that some unknown game designer might appear out of nowhere with a design doc a thousand times better than anything they had done would probably keep them awake at night.

They stand behind excuses like the game industry is too collaborative, it can't work that way, you can't tell from a design document if it will make a good game (a load of shit if I ever heard one), etcetera, etcetera. Well, the film industry has always been that collaborative, and yet film did develop an auteur concept - a development that lead movies out of the swamp of Saturday afternoon pulp culture to the heights of actual, mainstream art. Another excuse: experience is everything. I remember one man telling the anecdote of how he had been working 20 years in a company, but then some new guy with only 5 years of experience was promoted over him. The listener asked the complainer to be honest: you don't have 20 years of experience; what you really have is 2 years multiplied 10 times over.

To Ogre and the rest at the IGDA. You can crush a few postings, but you can't destroy an idea. You can't crush a spirit.

And now, to reinforce your position, as it emerges that design is an art in and of itself, because you have chosen your stance - that it is just like any other labor - you will have to repeatedly crush this idea over and over and over again.

Then one day you will wake up and realize that you were on the wrong side of history. One day that game designer will appear and sell that design document and suddenly the entire industry will come apart. That rotten house you've built will crumble.

How do I know this will happen? It already has. Read up on the history of the studio system in the movie business. The companies originally had the power, but slowly it became apparent the individual creators were far more valuable than the entities that employed them. They simply voted with their feet.

I do not envy you.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Value of a Game Designer...

People, I can see, keep thinking that the issue is to develop independence for a company. That is where I disagree. I think independence is fine, but I want it all the way. I want independence for an actual game designer, not just a company. Independence for the leads.

Honestly, the way I talk is more publisher-friendly than people think. To me, the game company is just a vehicle to make a game.

So far as owning IP, in the current model a development company owns the IP. But what about the value of a name? What exactly is a company? You build this company and you own the IP through the company. What if you want to leave the company? What if you get into an argument with your partner because you want to make Game X and he wants to make Game Y, so your company breaks up? What if the company boxes itself into making only zombie horror games (for example)? Say you leave it, but you own 20% of it, but 5 years later somebody takes control of it and sells its IP to a publisher for a dollar? Then where are you?

See, being part-owner of a company can become a prison if you want to follow your creativity to its farthest ends. You get typecast. You get stuck doing all this company management gobbledygook that is secondary to what you really need to be doing - which is your creative work.

The only entity I know that can really, soundly and stably, own something is a person. That means a name. See, all I want to do is give my own name value. How? Submitting design documents to a game publisher, have us build a temporary company for the duration of production (with other key leads who are just as important as the designer - using the core team/outsourcing model), making the game, letting the publisher get it out there, and then letting myself build a name. And getting that damn name on the box!

And, honestly, the ultimate objective here isn't to own the IP - it's to build a name so valuable that it can command a share of the gross revenues. Or, if the core designer is a newbie, he can command just a basic going-rate up front fee, but, if the game becomes a hit, a piece of the budget for each sequel, a piece of the budget of any movie version, a fee if it gets turned into a novel, and so on. So if Game Designer Bob, Lead Programmer Frank, Art Director Jay, Lead Audio Designer Sam together make a game - a game that is built using their outsourcing companies - at the end of the day Bob, Frank, Jay and Sam get a split of the gross revenue and a piece of the budget for any sequels, and other ancillary spin-offs. And they get their names on the box!

I mean, if you, as a person, are getting a piece of gross revenue, that is stable income (as long as the game sells; as long as its sequels sell; as long as it lives as a franchise).

I know one guy who designed a game for Avalon Hill years back. As you know, Avalon Hill's library was sold to Hasbro at fire sale prices. Hasbro recently released a remake of his game - same game, better components (plastic pieces and so on) - under the "Avalon Hill" name (that's all AH is now: a brand; a *name*). I asked him if he got a piece for that. He glumly said he didn't. But it was his game! He designed it! It was good enough that it was remade - but he got nothing for that. That's wrong.

I'm not saying any noob developer is going to get a piece of gross revenue. But I *will* say that as long as developers are effectively rendered anonymous they will *never* get that. They will be slaves.

So maybe you don't think a name is worth anything. I do. I just want the industry to give the individuals a chance to build their names.

(This post from a flame war I've been in at IGDA...)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Catalog of Excuses

- or -

Why You Cannot Be An Independent Game Designer

Here are the "reasons" the game industry tells you why a game design document cannot be written by an independent, free agent designer and then sold as such...

You Become A Utility, And Your Value Becomes Diminished Significantly
This excuse is exactly what the principle of Silicon Knights, Dennis Dyack, said recently. According to Dyack, if you become a free agent game designer, you become reduced to "a commodity".

This one makes me laugh. It reminds me of the old-school industrial executives who implemented the Workers Compensations Acts we see in various countries, ostensibly to "protect employees" after suffering workplace injuries: these acts were made mainly to prevent workers from suing their employers.

Pray tell, Mr Dyack, are your internal designers not already commodities? Or do they work purely for charity?

The fact is, at some level, we are all commodities. We are all objectified at some point or time. When you get into many professions - indeed many facets of life - the question of when one is objectified and when not is complex. But you can't just paint it black and flush it down the toilet. Any great artist, for example, makes a work that is transparent in its execution and speaks from their non-objectified humanity - and yet executes it as an object-like creator: like a machine (i.e. using skill, knowing tools, code or grammar or math, calculating effects, manipulating light, color or mood, and so on). Martin Buber wrote an entire book on this, I and Thou.

Personally, if I'm going to be a commodity (i.e. a worker getting paid to produce x-number of pages having y-quality in the form of a design document), I would rather prefer to be in control of my own destiny thank you. I appreciate your concern for me Mr Dyack, but you can let me off my leash now. (I think the statement says more about your fear I may discover my own freedom - and, God forbid, not be your peon any more - than your concern I may [gasp] be objectified.)

Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen
There is legitimacy behind this excuse, but more than likely it is a cover for fear or laziness.

Legitimately, many gamedev professionals are confronted by bug-eyed, enthusiastic noobs who like to play a lot of games but have no idea what it takes to make a realistic piece of software. That is when this reason is not an excuse.

However, this said if you are in any entertainment business - like the game one - you know your lifeblood is hit-based. A "hit" is not the middle of the bell-curve - it is an outlier: that little one in a million thingy at the far end of the graph. (See I know what an outlier is because I'm a game designer and know a lot about probability.)

Now, since you need hits to survive, your job is to find them - meaning your job is to find outliers. Therefore, your job is to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and actually sift through those thousands of dime-a-dozen ideas actually looking for the one that is a diamond. This may seem like too much work, and it may hurt your little brain and make you sweat, but really it is done in other industries all the time. Time to get your hands dirty.

A corollary to this excuse is as follows: If a person with a professional and realistic demeanour - a person who speaks clearly, writes well and so forth - tells you they have a great idea for a game, and it is written up in a well-crafted and -organized design document - you are incompetent if you have not made a process to vet that idea/design.

A Design Document Does Not Tell Us You Can Execute

Actually, a design document can anticipate many gameplay and development issues that may arise. So you can't really stand behind this excuse. If it is written well, by and large you may assume its author can indeed execute.

And if the concern is that by looking at a designer who is not attached at the hip to a team, that too is not an issue. Hiring teams, finding middleware is not an issue. Just buy out the designer, take away control (though reward him handsomely, offer him a job, and reward him for any sequels you will make), and you will not need to worry about execution. You can build the company that needs to execute the game. What's important is whether the design works or not.

We Don't Believe In The Genius Game Designer
This one is widespread, but it was recently stated by Alex Seropian. It's hard to criticize Mr Seropian - after all, Wideload Games has done us all great help by introducing into game development the core-team/outsourcing model familiar to film production (which, thankfully, gets us away from the bloated 100-person internal game development studio model... and all its problems [cough - sequels - cough cough]).

However, I just have to ask Mr Seropian where he gets his information from? How does he know that genius does not exist? Has he done an exhaustive survey? Has God reported this to him - presumably in a white light vision: "Alex, rest assured - there are no game design geniuses, so you aren't missing anything..." I would point out that much of the Western world is founded on the premise that genius exists, and the acts of those geniuses spanning back centuries. I'm not claiming I am a genius, but for God's sake... don't you think it's worth it to figure out if that assumption is true before making such a shotgun claim? How, indeed, do you know what you're missing?

This is particularly ironic when we learn that Sid Meier wrote Civilization essentially as a lone genius game designer - which has come out recently: "Meier remained remarkably private about Civilization during the early development process. 'He rarely let anyone else play the games until he thought they were pretty solid,' says [Bruce] Shelley. For months, [assistant designer] Shelley was the only person allowed to see prototypes of Civilization in action. Other MicroProse employees commonly visited Shelley's office to bug him about the duo's current project, pestering him not to be stingy with the latest Sid Meier masterpiece; they were anxious to try it out themselves."

Someone should have informed Sid that he was not allowed to be a game design genius. (Thank God they didn't.)

I suspect that what this excuse really amounts to is the following insecurity one may imagine in the form of soliloquy: "I have laid awake at night and realized that when I took the full stock of myself as a game designer, I saw competence, experience, some talent for making things fairly fun - but I did not really see a truly truly deep vision for what a game could be. So when I hear of others who claim to have such a vision - who claim to possess it and badger me about looking at it - it frightens me. I don't like to be frightened, so instead of facing that fear I will refute their claim and live happily in the bliss of my ignorance. Besides, they're only games after all..."

Man, Don't Talk About It - Just Do It
Well... First, we aren't all programmers (though it's invaluable to know at least the basics of programming). And even if we were, having a programming mentality might actually impinge our ability to come up with something original (like, say, a game that explores a complex facet of human life [something a generalist designer would focus on], rather than a challenging series of puzzles or something technology-driven [what a programmer would be drawn to]...).

Second, this is just a circular argument. A person stands up and says "we can do things better". Your response is "man, just do it the way it's always been done". It's pointless. It would be better for you to simply not say anything, because there are enough dismissive spirits out there that have moss growing on them. Get outta my way, man! I have a vision for a design but no interest in:
  • Programming it all on my own (again, I'm not a programmer);
  • Trying to convince a group of indie developers - typically a cluster of post-adolescents - to work for free for a year or more to build the proverbial "vertical slice" of a game to pitch to publishers. If the design vision survives such a hazing I would be surprised. Not to say a design shouldn't change as it undergoes prototyping, but the indie-team vertical slicing process - with too many chiefs not enough braves - can take an idea for a new bicycle and transmute it into a "canoe with wheels" pretty damn quick.
In the end, you say a game design cannot stem from an individually-developed concept and I say it can. So we disagree. But I have the stronger position. Why? People who say something cannot be done without really investigating it are usually proved wrong. History has shown that.

If you drop off a design document, you've only done 5% of the design work involved in making that idea a good game, and it's the easy 5%
This excuse comes from one of the comments to this very blog entry. What's ironic about it is that the commenter is oblivious to the limitation of their own understanding of brilliance or genius.

Genius is not a brute force quality. You cannot measure it by how much suffering it undergoes to get something done. No. You measure it for what it does. In fact, if it does it effortlessly, then it is all the more brilliant.

Let me put it another way. If you are hunting and going to shoot a dinosaur with a rifle, maybe 1% of the energy involved will be that expended by your body to hold and aim the rifle at the target. The other 99% will be from the shell as it explodes and sends the bullet forward with enough kinetic energy to make the kill. This said, a cynic with limited imagination would conclude that the energy spent to actually aim the rifle is really insignificant since, if you measure it, it's minuscule compared to the energy needed to kill the dinosaur. Well... it may be a small proportion to a bean counter, but it is in how that small proportion is spent that makes the difference between a year's supply of dino steaks and just firing off into space.

Translation: A cynic knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

If you cannot understand why the initial spark of a concept and the first blueprints that will set the direction of a venture true are so incredibly crucial... well... I think nothing I can say will help you see.

The Average Publisher Gets Far Too Many Submissions
A variant on the Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen excuse, above. All you are telling me here is that it would be too hard. That if you actually "let the floodgates open" - if you actually accepted submissions of independent design documents from lone designers (or small teams) - there would be too many to go through.

Because you can't let the proverbial floodgates open, you use the arbitrary excluder of forcing design submissions to be advanced to the form of a vertical slice (which I have written on elsewhere). Again, an arbitrary hurdle thrown up not to find better designs, but merely to "cull the herd" of incoming ideas that come your way.

Well... You make money. In the film industry they have an entire system in place to get a screenplay from a lone writer's desk all the way to a finished piece of celluloid. There are agents, there are the readers of studios, often screenplays are adapted from novels, plays, magazine articles and so forth. All of these things are vetting mechanisms that don't require the screenwriter go out and shoot the first 30 minutes of his science-fiction action movie. I'm sure you can come up with something equal to that.

How Would You Feel If You Made A Game Company And Then Some Outsider Asked You To Look At A Design?
During a long, brawl of an IGDA thread someone asked me this (to paraphrase): How would you feel if you made a game company but then some guy from outside approached and asked if you would take a look at his game idea?

My answer is simple: If that guy has a better design than anyone inside my company I would feel grateful and lucky.

(What is normally said is any game company already has a roster of ideas it wants to make, so won't consider an outsider's. It's a non-reason, but a popular non-reason.)

However, I don't propose game designers pitch designs to game companies anyway. Instead, I propose that design agents appear, these agents package independent designs, sell them to funders, and that a company be built around said greenlit game design; a company that will later be sold lock-stock-and-barrel to a marketing entity (probably a publisher) - less (hefty) fees for the designer and (outsourced) developers, and fees to exercise ancillary rights and so on (should the design be turned into a sequel, movie, T-shirts, etc).

Design Is A Team Process
So what? Film is also a team process; a helluva lot more so than games. (Ever been on a cold location on the 14th hour of production? With a dangerous stunt about to be executed? That makes game development "collaboration" look like kindergarten my friend.) And yet screenwriters are able to independently sell screenplays. Screenplays which are shaped by other creators - the director, actors, art director, cinematographer, etc - to ultimately make the final film. And yet filmmakers are not tied together in the arbitrary collectivist team - stuck together for years making the same games over and over; and the leads get their names on the box.

Certainly there is nothing to say that a design document, once drawn up and sold, could not then be altered as the other important parties - art director, producer, lead programmer and so on - become involved.

Get over yourself. You're just scared.

You Need To Work Up From Within A Company
As in, if you want to be a game designer you need to get work with an existing game company, work there for a few years to get yourself established, and then propose a game.

This excuse diverts attention away from the matter at hand - the actual game design you wish to propose - and focuses it on you, the designer. It assumes, basically, that the purpose of a game design is to be a stepping stone for a person to become a game designer - rather than to be realized for its own sake.

This excuse has a careerist outlook and is ultimately cynical and rigid. Holders of this position cannot comprehend that a game design might need to be executed (and then turned into a game) - let alone that it could, say, actually change people's lives. To do so would require them to open their minds too much. No. Game design is just a means to power, money and fame. Sad.

If you or I are struck by a vision to make a really revolutionary game, trying to fit said vision inside this careerist box is going to be painful. Since this view's proponent automatically assumes designs in and of themselves are worth little (it's the designer that counts), you will have to let your design gather dust on a shelf for years while you build up credentials. And then, when you finally have time to revisit your design, everything may have changed. The timeliness of it may have passed (your design may have contained genuine commentary on current events, for example); your passion for it may have faded; the company you chose to work for now may be "looking for" a certain type of game that your design does not fit... Any number of things.

David Mamet said (to paraphrase) the ruination of many writers is that they think of themselves as writers. Then he draws a comparison to being a chairmaker. When you are a chairmaker, you don't sit around naval-gazing and thinking "Wow, I'm a chairmaker." No. You make chairs. If the chairs get better then you, by inference, are a better chairmaker. But the point is to focus on the chairs, not on yourself.

If you are a game designer you write designs. Designs to get made. What you need to focus on is those designs. This is precisely what book authors do, what filmmakers do, what architects do - they focus on the product. Yes, there are career elements (like you'll need to get work to support yourself while you write your design), but there is never a rule set by God in stone that young upstarts must serve x-number of years before they are allowed to reveal the work they have done. If there is, it needs to be torn down because it's destructive and it throws up barriers to the real prize - which is finding original design concepts, writing them, getting them made and in front of players.

You're Just Bitter
An ad hominem cop-out. Address my points, if you can - don't throw mud at me, personally.

And let's say I am bitter. So what? You know there was a time African Americans felt bitter (or internalized that bitterness to crippling depression) because the population at large simply assumed they were sub-human property. They wanted to be let out of the mental cage those with power had put them into, so as to gain their freedom. Would you dismiss their claims with a flippant "You're just bitter" remark? Look at the issues, not the mood of the speaker.

That is an extreme example - and I'm not saying that I'm a slave - but on the other hand, when you go to the trouble to write a damn good design, but nobody will (seriously) look at it - not because it's bad, but just because, arbitrarily it isn't done that way - you start to feel the air leave your lungs; you start to feel yourself suffocate. Like that character at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who sees the world falling apart around him but, more so, the blindness of others to the threat. Archibald MacLeish said the duty of a poet is speak their poem before it rises as a cry in the throat. He acknowledges a great truth: that the passion and vision of a (potential) creator, if disowned or imprisoned, will turn inward and rip its owner apart. Why would the same not be true of game designers? Is it not a creative occupation? If it is, will its creators not begin to feel their voices rise into a bitter cry when their destinies are effectively controlled by cynical bean-counters who couldn't give a damn about getting something out there that needs to be gotten out, but only in cranking out formula?

This Argument Is The Toilet
Over on IGDA I got into an argument about this and felt the wrath of many being dumped on me. But I stuck it out. Someone asked why the thread hadn't been locked. The admin said it hadn't because every discussion place needs somewhere to dump its shit, then declared that this thread is a toilet.

Okay, it is a toilet. But it's through the absolute shit of life you sometimes need to go.

It's telling to call this debate a toilet. It acknowledges the darkness of feelings some have around this topic. I often wonder why, when I repeatedly call for the liberation of game designers - for a world where a game designer gets to have his name on the box (even if he isn't a Sid Meier); where he gets to sell a design and earn money for it and for its sequels and its spin-offs - that people dump shit on me. However, looking over history and psychology it's really not such a surprise. If you smash the master's house and set the slaves free, the slaves might often hate you more than love you. You offer them freedom, but freedom - as Erich Fromm tells us - is damn terrifying. So terrifying, people may set upon the liberator rather than face the frightening unknown freedom offers.

That's the toilet: that terrifying unknown.

I call for the freedom of game designers. The freedom for them to work and be known as individuals, their name always on the box. To be able to work out a design on their own, get an agent on their own to package and sell said design directly to a publisher (not as part of a game company), and to follow their creativity to its ends (instead of seeing themselves as merely a part of a larger herd known as a "team" or a "game company", always serving the top-down command of some high-up financial executive who knows little if anything about games). And I get shit on for doing so.

The toilet is there. But it's your toilet, not mine. If this world comes into being, you now must face the possibility that maybe you don't have the talent to be the game designer. That the bar may raise so high that games of today become laughably stupid to gamers ten years from now - much the way we chuckle at old films that, in their time, were viewed as high art.

It's your toilet. To stare into that shit - into that monster. To look into its teeth. If this world comes true, you know that simply serving time and building up seniority and "experience" will not disguise your mediocre talent from the world and let you design the game you dream to. Is your design talent mediocre? I have no idea. Is it scary to think it might be? Absolutely. But it's a fear that must be faced.

I think that people sense I believe very strongly in my own talent. Otherwise why would I so vehemently insist over and over again that we get the ability to open up the game and let individuals sell designs. Obviously I have designs I want to sell and I believe they are damn good. Recognizing the basic violence in the impulse of mimetic desire, I know this will draw hatred onto me. That others may perceive in me something they do not have, and will hate me for that. The dynamic of mimetic desire has been that forever. That's why I am adamant that I must remain anonymous. I don't want to become a scapegoat (which, in terms of my professional life, would amount to being blacklisted and effectively forbidden from working in game design - it may be a confining labyrinth, but I have to make a living).

Yes, I seek to free up the playing field for myself. But if one person frees it, it will become free for all of us.

All that has to happen is one person sell a design document independently. Once that happens, the whole structure will crumble and reform itself. You're a game designer (I assume). You must then know something of probability. What do you think the probability is that a designer will sell a design document as a free agent in the next, say, two to five years? Ten percent perhaps? And then in the years after that? You must know that if you keep rolling a ten-sided die over and over again, you will eventually roll a "1". It will happen. It's just a matter of time.

I think maybe you can see where I'm going. It's inevitable. Some day someone will do this. There are already sites like gameinvestors.com that are appearing for this very reason. Someone will sell a design alone, and then designers will become free agents and the crusted framework of game companies will come apart at the seams - the entire way games are made permanently altered. All it takes is one person to sell one design document and that will happen. Sooner or later that will happen. And deep down you know it. Then, no longer having the comfort of melding into a team of buddies and building up experience you will have to face the reality of your own talent as a designer.

Do you have what it takes?

That's the toilet. It's your fear. Face it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why The "Vertical Slice" Is Bad

I have heard that typical comment by publishers, "Hey make a demo if you want us to consider a new game idea."

Unfortunately, it serves the opposite effect. It hinders innovation. Not only that, it is needlessly harmful to young developers who need to be told that their game idea is not going to fly.

What would facilitate innovation is to begin talking at a much earlier stage - say with a written document - rather than waiting until an idea or design gets crystallized into something that just won't work or was never wanted to begin with.

You don't turn an architect away if they only have a blueprint, saying "How come you haven't actually built 20 per cent of your building for me to make a decision". No. You look at the actual blueprint, and any physical mock-ups, and then you say "yes" (to a next round of design) or (more likely) "no" - allowing the architect to go back to the blueprint, abandon the project, or (if yes) get onto the business of doing the remaining blueprints and hiring a construction company, interior designer, landscaper (etc) to get it made in a rational manner.

If you require people to make the infamous "vertical slice" of a game, what kind of an effect is that going to have on their design?

First, it is wasteful. It's one thing to get a "no" after a written document; but to, say, spend five years making (for example) a pirate game demo on your own then having a publisher say "Sorry, we already have a pirate game in the works" - thereby dismissing your product without even considering it - is just stupid. I mean, if you are going to apply for university, do you move to the university before sending in an application?

Second, it forces a demo team to use existing game technology. However, their concept may require new technology.

Third, if they are getting a team together to do a vertical slice the original concept now goes through a hazing process: it has to be sold to a crew of programmers, artists and so on, who want to work on it, who will want to change it, and certainly certainly are NOT going to spend a year or more making a demo for free on something really risky (translation: unless your concept already looks like an existing game out there [maybe with one extra doodad added to it], they probably won't get involved).

Fourth, making a demo is not a test of game design - it's a test of productions skills. Very often investors in games ask, "Can this company produce this game?" That should not be a question anywhere on the radar. Does a producer ask, "Can this screenwriter use a camera?" No. Does a corporate president or a mayor ask "Can this architect operate a crane?" No. The focus needs to be on design.

Fifth, by giving investors/publishers demos, they begin to think that game design somehow starts with the demo - that it magically appears out of nowhere. Translation: we make them stupid and lazy, because they don't have to hurt their brains trying to actually *imagine* something that is in a polymorphic state (such as a written design doc). We also make it seem that the innovation process is more akin to shopping than to what it really is. Innovation is not done with a shopping mentality - being presented with wares and then saying yes or no, picking and choosing among them. It necessarily requires imagination and visualization of its participants, and giving a demo skewers that. It makes the process and the publishers stupid. In the film industry, the producers (and stars and others who can greenlight a project) know that innovation doesn't start only after the cameras begin to roll - it starts at the very beginning: in the brain of the screenwriter. So they work directly with the screenwriter to get the script done right.

Sixth, no project should get ultimate funding to be made without a prototype first being made. That's what the demo is supposed to be - a prototype. However a far more effective way to do this is with what in other fields is a simple iterative R&D process. It simply makes more sense to expose concepts at an earlier stage, with a simpler prototype, like a tabletop or a design document. Eventually, you *will* make a vertical slice - but that should be done in tandem with a producer/publisher, not in some guessing-game process where the indie team has shot off on some direction and blindly hopes that what is made as an actual physical piece of code coincides with what a publisher wants.

In the end, the requirement for a working demo as a "price of entry" is just a cynical hazing ritual. It only occurs, sadly, because most game developers are quixotic and masochistic young men who almost fall over themselves to allow game publishers to utterly exploit them in a bug-eyed quest to become "paid to make games". (I have been paid to make games. Believe me, after you cross that line you usually start to notice that games are not really that much fun anymore - it is now a job.) Sadly, young men have a penchant for destroying themselves just to please their elders - they did it by the millions in World War One and they do it in their headlong quest to make publishers into passive wait-and-see types. The vertical slice does not make for a better game project - all it does is reinforce a culture of mindless action and sado-masochism over open communication (written or otherwise), a spirit of true innovation, and a sense of respect for others. Using a simpler means - like an early design doc or a very very early prototype (even tabletop) - to screen out projects that won't work, and accelerate ones that will, is a way to strengthen the innovation process, and reduce harm to the many whose game ideas will not fly.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Purpose of Doing Game Design

The purpose of doing game design is not to hone your skills as a game designer, or to advance your career as a game designer. That is a byproduct of it, but that is not the purpose of it.

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary.

Repeat after me:

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary

Therefore when we see companies ask game designer candidates on the various job boards "What kind of ideas do you have? How would you improve Game X?", they are doing things precisely backwards!

The job of a game company is not, primarily, to look for new game designers. (They do have to get them, but that is a supplemental job.) Rather the job of a game company is to look for new game designs. If, in finding new game designs, they also find talented game designers, so much the better. (And, yes, they need to hire supporting staff.) But finding the designers is a secondary concern (even if, admittedly, it is a necessary one).

Thus companies should seek new designs - internally or externally. In other words, in seeking a new design the proper question a company should be asking the author of said design that comes through their door is this: "What do you have for me? Surprise me. Tell me something new." In other words, they shouldn't be looking to the person so much as to the design that is to be tabled. If a company doesn't like the tabled design, their next statement should be, "Don't like it. What else do you got?"

If the company does like it, they should buy it, for a fee, and hire the designer to do all the changes and additional work that is going to be necessary to turn the raw design into a piece of workable software - and, unless the design candidate has a name, the company should also control the final outcome of the design, and the design should be affected by the creative input of the other designers who come together to make it.

This company that buys a game design can be a developer or a publisher, but more than likely it will be a publisher who sets up a temporary company whose express purpose is to make the one game (or franchise) being looked at.

This means, then, that if YOU want to be a game designer, your job is to design games. It is not to get a wage and a stable job at one company for the next 10 years. (If you think that way then you are mediocre.) You may work for a developer, but it is your duty to yourself, your passion and your talent, to write and then propose your game designs. You may write them in code form; you may write them in design document form. And, here's the clincher: if your employer refuses to produce your game design, it is your duty to seek a party that will produce them. If that means leaving your current employer or separating from your current team then that is your duty.

A corollary to this is that the purpose of a game company (developer or publisher) is not to make money from games. That is a byproduct of it - and if said games do make money YAY!, we are all better off - but that is not the purpose of a game company. Rather, the purpose of a game company is to produce games. Games are not to be made solely for the purpose of making money. They are to be made merely to be what they are: to contribute to our culture, to entertain, in some cases to teach, and also to make money.

A further corollary is that the purpose of game design is not to make game development companies. Making a development company is a formality that usually needs to be done - should be done as every team should be uniquely built to the needs of the game design (not the other way around) - but if you talk as if your ultimate ambition is to make a game company instead of a game design (or designs), then you are talking backwards.

So, let's be clear:

The purpose of doing game design is to design games. Everything else is secondary.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Zeitgeist & I, Sept 2007

Noticed a couple interesting stories on industry portals where insiders are talking a talk parallel to my own.

Epic's New Solution

In a recent Gamasutra article, Epic China CEO Paul Meegan was talking about Epic's latest practises a few months ago. The reporter conveys the following...

Epic's solution that can be leveraged elsewhere? Use a small, tightly-focused core team focused on creating value - using middleware and investing carefully in differentiating projects. In addition, practice targeted hiring, purpose-built for the project, and with exactly the right skills and passion for that game.

I believe I wrote that was the way things should be done in my first posts in February this year. If nothing else, at least I'm in touch with the way the industry is moving.

Specifically I wrote "Alfred Hitchcock knew that 75% of his work as a director wasn't in the work he did on the set: it was in casting. Same here. It amazes me that game companies actually think that the art director who worked out so well on their horror game will have the same feel for their upcoming military game. Hey! Pay attention to casting! A technology or art person or solution that was good for a horror shooter is not necessarily good for a military RTS or what have you. It might be a tiny little difference, but professionals focus on tiny little differences (as they all add up)."

I also wrote, "Take in the individual designs at the early level with the fewest number of people attached to them. The fewer the better. Stripped down small teams, like special forces units advancing far into hostile and dangerous territory. Let someone or a few people come to you with a design. Like they say in the film biz, focus on the script first. You can make a bad film from a good script, but you can't make a good film from a bad script. Same with design. Then develop the design with that tiny two or three person team, until it works. Let him/her/them make a tiny little prototype for you - even if its just a small flash game, or a pen-and-paper/board game you can play out on a table in your boardroom; just to test out core ideas - and work on the design design design!"

Glad to see that Epic is pursuing a similar solution. Still looking forward to the day the creators get their names on the front title screen (e.g. "Epic presents... A game designed by X..."). (I would say on the box, but that is getting less relevant.)

(Of course, I'm guilty of using colorful description instead of nice bland business talk - but the basic message is the same.)

Naturally I do not claim those were my solutions either - indeed they are the solution of many industries, notably the film industry. I just can't understand why the game industry so resolutely refuses to learn from anything that goes on outside its little bubble.

However, I do claim I've been hammering on these things for years.

Teaching Game Design

Next up is this more recent reply to a letter in GameCareerGuide.com. In it, the expert responder says...

If the only thing you've done is gone to game school, chances are small game developers will see your experience as being too limited for their line of work. Small game development studios need employees who can do a little bit of everything and whose experiences will bring new information and ideas to the table. They fear that game graduates -- especially those who went directly from high school to game school -- have little to no life experience and work experience, and are in essence a bit parochial.

This is a very recent idea in the game industry. Like, very recent. So recent it is probably a buzzword now. In fact, if you look on job postings on Gamasutra, say, you'll rarely see that attitude reflected. I can tell you when I've worked on indie projects, they almost always drill down to what tools do you know how to use, but only later, when they're up to their eyeballs in confusion that has been generated in trying to take apart basic design devices (I'm not talking about technology here) do they realize how important fundamental general intellectual knowledge and skill is.

Anyway, I put forth this idea in my "arch post" (as Gamasutra called it) on what they don't tell you on the design job ad. Specifically:
  • Significant experience in another game development role; preferably art or engineering. [Okay, this is helpful. Helps if you know what the other guys go through. Frank, you were smart on this one. Gotta recommend you for a raise. What's that Frank? You say that for a game designer maybe it would help if he had work experience in a field outside game development? To try to break out of the self-insulated, derivative nature of game development? Jeezus Frank! Stop making this harder than it already is, all right!...]
And of course, again, this is not my idea. It's a classic practice of those with well-rounded knowledge and perspective. Still, it's value is often little appreciated in the efficiency-obsessed, machine-like game industry.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Game Design: Organic vs Machine-Like

Currently in a flame-war on the IGDA boards (as usual).

A latest posting that I thought I'd repeat here - a response to an opponent in a debate...

What I talk about is giving individual creators freedom - not the freedom to create as something like a hand-out, but the freedom to merely approach funders in the centuries-old manner of artist-meets-patron. What you talk about is indoctrinating them. (You say they aren't "taking responsibility" if they fail to respond in the correct manner to their assigned indoctrination.)

This is an entertainment industry at its bottom. It isn't an engineering industry - though there is a lot of engineering in it. As an entertainment industry its job is not to indoctrinate and program its "personnel" into the right way of thinking and being, to toe its corporate line. What it really is about is finding experiences that resonate with human beings. The only way to do that is to speak in human terms; and human terms are messy, organic and alive - not efficient, machine-like and dead.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Game Idea Submission

I just wrote something in one of those typical IGDA forum entries where a passionate newbie asks how to get a game idea made and the veteran gives the typical "go away" response. I think I'll repeat it here...

The reason why the game industry is so devoid of original ideas is that even if you have gone to the trouble of getting a job in the industry and then working to build other peoples' games for awhile there still is no clear system for submitting a game idea. Also, the pace that you are moving at is the system's, not the passion's. In other words, someone on high has said that what is *really* significant isn't the idea or the passion, but your power-status within the system. That's a view that commoditizes creative output, and basically sucks the life out of it.

Say you did have an idea for a truly original game. By going through steps 1 and 2 whatever passion or originality you had will be long gone by the time you get around to submitting it.

The game industry needs a true submission process, with the ability to actually sell design documents outright. It needs a scouting process which says if you have a passionate idea we want to see it now, but we will realistically weed out all the chaff that is going to come through this channel.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quality Assurance 2084

QA was the path to stardom.

That's what they told him.

Well... at least it was the door in if you had airy dreams to be a game designer.

Airy dreams, indeed. Now he was doing his work.

They were in an alpha test. Had some gamers in on the local area net, playtesting. His job was to test the latest suite of assets.

They looked good. There was a multiplayer game on and he checked the play stats. Nice n-scores all around.

But not here... This player was crashed on his n-score.

Which one was that? He looked over at the bank of gaming stations? Station M7. Let's text him.

QA3031: M7 - what's up?

M7: i can't do this

QA3031: you don't find the game fun?

M7: it's not that

QA3031: is this level not up to par?

M7: i can't do this! I WANT OUT!!!!!!!!!

QA3031: want out? where you gonna go to?

M7: i don't know - it's lost its meaning

Oh Christ. He had heard about this, but never actually seen it.

M7: GET ME OUT!!!!!!!!!

He called the lead QA.

QA3031: Lead QA, gotta situation at playtest.

LQA92: What's up?

QA3031: Player "wants out"?

LQA92: Be right there.


"Well, this is your problem right here," Lead QA 92 said. He brought up the alpha, beta and gamma n-scores on the timescale. "They flatlined just moments prior to him 'wanting out'."

"So it's a good test still?"

"Absolutely. The n-scores on those latest assets are all good. In fact, this map rocks. The n-score on that latest boss encounter alone are well into green. We have a best-seller here. Corporate is going to love that. Well, but it's too bad about the poor guy at M7. He must've just suffered a crash on his n-module. We've had problems with that station."

Well, that was good to hear.

He looked over at the gaming stations. Body disposal was washing out the M7 pod. The other pods were good. He could see the gamers floating in the polyfluid vats, the sens-wires hooked into their brain stems. In a couple hours they'd be back on the worknet and none would be needed here for close observation so they'd rotate them out.

He checked out, his shift over. He walked over to his own pod. For a moment he wondered if he would ever become one of the vaunted game designers he heard of. He wondered about the guy in M7, why he talked about meaning just before the pain levels screamed into red - bringing him to such a final end. It was a bad feeling. He didn't like bad feelings. He hurried into the warm fluid, hooking the sens-wire up to his brain stem. The rush came as he felt his n-score go into high green through all the way to white - and the bad thoughts faded into nothing.

Ahhh... what a good feeling...

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Trooper

The trooper was pissing him off. The workhorse of the game. The plasma trooper.

The cubicle was a pool of lamplight in the darkness, amidst a small labyrinth of other "cubes". Don was the last one there. In "design-crunch", cranking in extra hours on the design to deliver to the team, so it could get to work Monday without confusion or delays. He was tired. The others had gone to see the new movie that was the buzz there, but he had opted out. He was sucking it up, as he had done before. That's what it took.

He had defined the unit properties days ago. Starting with the "workhorse" - the plasma infantry. Now he was on the advanced units - anti-grav tanks, heavy walkers, psion floaters. Giving special attacks, special powers. Making them unique to their factions. Now coming back to the plasma troopers he realized he had defined the properties in a way that wouldn't work.

They were trying a new combat feature, one mainly relevant to the advanced units. But he built the unit properties starting from this workhorse unit the plasma infantry, and working out to where he was now - adding the desired features to the advanced units one at a time. He realized this now made plasma infantry untenable. It wasn't just a data balancing issue - the key combat ability depended on how they deployed, but they weren't supposed to deploy this way. Anyway it now looked like he had to rip them apart and rebuild, but in so doing he was going to have to rip apart all the units and start over. Now he was trying to figure out if there was a cheat, some way he could use to utilized the existing unit data structure and just append a new property so he didn't have to go back and rebuild it all. He tried one, but he knew it would have this weird effect that the plasma infantry would be more powerful than some of the advanced units, throwing everything off.

Whose idea was this goddamn new feature anyway? Oh, that's right: it was his. Well, it was, originally... in a different form, based on an idea he got from a story he read. But it somehow got changed when he talked to the producer. Got really changed to something... unrecognizable now, really. But they were there committed to doing it. So here he was... Ah, shit. That's right. Get it done. Suck it up.

He was hashing things in his mind. He pushed the chair back from his workstation. Closed his eyes and rubbed them. Turned his brain off for a moment.

This sort of thing was par for the course in design.

What's the time? God, it's past midnight.

He hadn't slept much the prior night either. Lately, sometimes when he stood the ground would spin. He thought it might go away, it was just fatigue, but maybe he should see a doctor.

"Hey, Don."

He recognized the voice of Chris, the receptionist. He looked up, but didn't see her. What was she doing here? He knew they had given her a task, but the receptionists never crunched like the rest of them. (They were sane.) Maybe she was playing solitaire and lost track of time.

"What's up?" he asking, standing up. She must be in the front room.

Chris was nice. Had a warm smile, and a good sense of humour though stuck admist a crew of mostly male geeks who lived in odd sand castle worlds. Sometimes when he passed by her in the morning and said hello he got this vague feeling she was looking around the place in a kind of disbelief - like it was some kind of a trick being played on her. That she was an ordinary person who went to work in a strange Neverworld Disneyland. Her eyes seemed to betray a feeling that at any moment someone would point out the hidden camera trained on her, but that she was going along with it anyway, staying in on the joke, even though no one would admit to it. After all, it was a good job.

He remembered one time, working on a title similar to this, Chris walked by his cube and saw a grunt unit on the screen like the one Don was working on now. The walking animation attracted her it seemed, and she looked down and started to ask about the little trooper, who he was, what he was doing, what his name was, what his dreams and ambitions were. It seemed an odd thing to ask, Don thought.

"There's someone here for you," Chris said.

What? At this time?

"Who is it?"

"I really think you need to come here."

Don got up, walked toward the reception. As he turned the corner something struck him as odd. From here, across the cube farm, he could always see clear through to reception at the other end of the studio. But it was empty.

"He's waiting."

Chris again. From somewhere else. Maybe she went to get this person a soda.

He shrugged. "Okay." Walked to reception.

He looked at the floor, the carpet sliding by, as he walked. Rubbed his forehead. It was probably someone back from the movie; maybe they left something. But why would they...?

Into reception and-

Dead stop.

He stared, and the breath rushed out of his lungs.

"Reporting in," it said.

What the fuck? "Ummm... What are you?"

"Five Delta, reporting in."

This must be some joke. The guys were back, yah... But that costume! My god, it looked real! They must've had it custom built. It looked just like-

"Wow, that's good, guys," Don said as he looked around to see where the others were hiding. He walked over to get a closeup look, to touch the battle armor.

The trooper stood rock still.

Don touched the costume and stopped dead. He was expecting to feel vacuum-formed plastic or styrofoam or something. That's not what it felt like.

It was metal. He looked closely at the details on the equipment belt. Holy shit that looks real. The trooper's... plasma rifle: it was radiating heat! The visor covering his helmet: pocked and scratched from shrapnel. He looked at the visor, could not see the face, the eyes behind it. But vaguely he sensed it... looking at him.

"No fucking joke, sir," the trooper said.

What the hell was this?, Don wondered. This is impossible.

"Who are you?"

The trooper slung the plasma rifle over his shoulder. "I already told you, sir. Five Delta reporting in."

Don didn't know what to say.

"The situation is this," said the trooper. "Our platoon is holed up in an outpost waiting for reinforcements. They are going to get overrun if they don't get help. The commander sent me because all the guys in my squad are dead anyway..."

Don rubbed his heys. The room started to spin slightly.

"I don't want to lose those men, sir. The commander told me you would know what to do."

Don looked away, then at the trooper. This wasn't happening.

The trooper walked up to him. "You know who I am right?"

Don stared at him.

The trooper took his mask off. A face emerged from behind, looking at Don in the eyes. It scared the game designer.

"You know who I am don't you."

Don was freaking. "Fuck! Yah, I know who you are. I made you!"

The trooper's eyes narrowed. "You telling me you've got nothing for me? No orders? No reinforcements? Nothing to bring my men?"

"Your men! What men? Hell, I spawned your men! If they all die I'll just respawn them again. They're just a class. A type. An entity declaration. A property set, nothing more."

The trooper looked steadily at Don. Don didn't like the feeling the look gave him.

"What the fuck do you want with me?," he yelled at the trooper.

The trooper took a step back and looked up at the ceiling toward nothing in particular. Don saw his whole expression change for a moment. For the barest moment. As if a stone cracking into softness, if that could happen - he saw it in his eyes.

Then the hardness swept back over his face. The trooper dropped the plasma gun. He dropped his helmet. He took off his equipment belt. Next his chest armor. The rest of it. All clattering off, lying in a big heap on the ground. Stripping down to basic fatigues. He stood over it, looking at Don now.

"This is yours," the trooper said. "This pile of junk."

Don said nothing.

"It's useless without me, but it's what you know."

Suddenly the trooper turned, sharply, with honed reflexes. Slid out the door.

"Wait," Don said, running after him. Running out, he caught a glimpse of the trooper, flying silently down the stairwell. Moving fast, as if on some secret mission. Don ran after him. The trooper went past the ground floor. He went down into the basement. Don found himself underground somehow, the plasma trooper ahead moving as a shadow through the chambers and tunnels. But he couldn't keep up. The trooper slipped away, disappeared from view.

* * * * *

Don sat in his cube. The spinning had faded.

What happened? God, he needed rest.

He looked again at the spreadsheet. At the logic sequence for the current cell. He knew he had a long way to go. Needed to soldier on to get it done - brute force, power his way through this design.

The numbers looked back at him. The mechanism and matrix he made. Something about it seemed confused. He thought again about soldiering through. And he felt confused.

He didn't like that feeling.

He thought of the trooper.

He thought of the game. What were they trying to do with it?

He thought long and hard, but it seemed the more he thought the less he could see.

What time was it? My God it's late. He needed to sleep.

Still he couldn't shake this. What happened? What did he see?

Somehow, this didn't bode well.

He looked at the calender on his cube wall. He saw the days til the next milestone. But then he flipped through the months. And in his mind he flipped through the years. The years ahead. They looked grey.

He thought of the trooper, the real one he met for a moment - slipping out, away from his life. Suddenly he longed to speak to the trooper. Questions came, flooding, but knew he couldn't ask them. Because he was gone. Because he missed the chance.

And for a moment, for a second, it scared him. Something about the years ahead of him. It scared him. Just for a second...

It didn't bode well, and he knew it.

It did not bode well.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Dead Game Designers Society

A classroom. The first day of school. Sam, Mike and several other young students, all uniformly dressed uniquely, file in.

Teacher: Hello. Have a seat. Welcome to Game Design 101. No time to waste - open your assigned textbook.

The class sit at the evenly-spaced desks then dutifully retrieve and open their thick textbooks.

Teacher: Sam, is it?

Sam: Yes.

Teacher: Please read. Page one.

Sam flips to the correct page.

Sam: (reading) Central to the issue of game design is the notion of fun. It goes without saying that you, as a prospective game designer, wish to create a game that is fun. What is fun? How do we achieve it in our game designs? (pause) A methodical analysis of the problem of fun points us to techniques we may use to ensure our products deliver this core commodity. Examine, if you will, figure one.

The teacher walks to the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Mike retrieves his laptop, flipping it into tablet mode. Sam continues.

Sam: Assuming for a moment we take the setting or genre of our game as a constant - say, a routine science-fiction or military shooter, it doesn't matter which - we may then isolate its quantity of fun in the form of a chart. Across the bottom is the axis of playing time, which can also signify the progression of levels. The height of our table forms the axis of playing action, which is a measure of the number of significant interactions the player must execute via the interface in order to progress through the game (a value we can easily isolate through keystroke recording).

The teacher draws a corresponding chart on the whiteboard. Mike duplicates the chart framework on his tablet. Sam reads on.

Sam: We can then shape the volume and density of significant interactions in a rising manner over the game's time axis so as to assure our game is easy at the beginning and then difficult at the end.

The teacher plots a line on the chart, moving in a wiggling manner across it in a gradually upward motion. Mike mimicks the line with his stylus.

Sam: This analytical methodology has been proven to yield the optimal output of fun per unit of time. If we then multiply this quantum by the graphic quality factor (which will be addressed in chapter three) we can go on to interpolate a total appeal quantum for the game. We must however define certain-

Teacher: Okay, Sam.

Sam stops reading. The teacher examines the whiteboard for a moment.

Teacher: Excrement.

The teacher turns to the class. The class looks at him in silence. Mike stops drawing.

Teacher: Excrement! Rubbish. Horse-hockey. Can you think of any other words?

Mike deletes the chart he just drew.

Student: (surprised) You mean, garbage?

Teacher: (points) Exactly!

The teacher moves in among the class and crouches.

Teacher: Students, gather in. Huddle up, huddle up.

The students crowd in around the teacher.

Teacher: (low voice, almost a whisper) I'm gonna tell you a secret. Anyone who knows basic math and can use a calculator can analyze a game design to figure this shit out. This will tell you how much activity the design generates - how well your game will distract the player until he is distracted by the next game with loud graphics and marketing. But it can't tell you one key thing...

Mike: Which is...?

Teacher: Why? Why make the game? And therefore, why play it? Why playing it will make you feel alive! Unless you ask why - and ask that not within the confined context of gaming, but out in the open context of human experience; of a living breathing human being who chooses to devote his time to playing your game as opposed to reading a good book, starting a new business, visiting his relatives, travelling to the Himalayas... or any other healthy thing that contributes to the human race! Unless you ask why, and speak on those terms, you won't have a goddamn clue how to make anything fun. How to make it really compelling.


The teacher stands and walks to the front.

Teacher: Now I want you to rip that page out of your book.

Mike: What?

Teacher: You heard me. Rip it out. In fact, rip out the whole first chapter.

The students meekly begin to tear pages out of their textbooks.

Sam: But I paid fifty dollars for this book!?!

Teacher: How ironic, Sam.

The tearing of pages slowly picks up its pace.

Teacher: Come on, I'm not hearing enough ripping!

Sam starts to tear the pages. He looks at Mike. They smile.

(To be continued...)

Monday, March 19, 2007

What They Don't Tell You On The Game Design Job Description...

Lead Game Designer - [City, State]

Job Code:
Job Category: Designer
Job Location: [City, State]

Job Description:

[Company] is seeking an experienced Lead Game Designer to join our team developing games for [console] and other next-generation platforms. The ideal candidate will have developed and released multiple games in the role of Lead Designer. Experience on consoles, handhelds, or casual games is highly valued. We are located in [some bland suburban place with cheap rent; you can't walk, bike or take transit there, ensuring you pile on extra pounds and diabetes] minutes [via car] from [big exciting metropolis, which we are too cheap to have an office downtown in] and we have a highly collaborative, low ego culture headed by game industry veterans [meaning we want you to be passionate... but not THAT passionate...].

  • Lead the overall design vision for the game [Yes, we want you to be a visionary. Visionaries, we acknowledge, are seers, prophets, people who can read the future, or who, through their sheer passion and willingness to suffer for a cause, create the New which society depends on to shed the Old so that we may all experience rebirth. Or at least, this is what visionaries have been through all of human history. Well, that's what they tell me at least... I know there's some guys around here who "reject the notion that the visionary must suffer over their art". 'Course they've been working in the industry for fifteen bloody years and never produced much you could call "visionary" - maybe some nicely done stuff, but visionary? C'mon... Anyway, this is why we are hiring you. To be the visionary...]
  • Drive the game design through every phase, from concept, presentation, implementation, tuning, and release [Yes, all the prosaic and necessary work you have to do. You will have passion to do this game somebody else told you to do.]
  • Develop working and final design documentation, including but not limited to play mechanics, game systems, asset lists, and game fiction [You know: all the nitty-gritty stuff. I mean, all that "vision" stuff, well, that's okay, you know. As long as it fits inside these formatting requirements, that's okay. Did we say you were a visionary? Even visionaries need to learn the tools, right.]
  • Foster consensus and enthusiasm for the game vision within the development, production, and marketing teams [Did we say you had a vision? Well, if you really had a vision, like Moses or Van Gough or Stanley Kubrick or whatever, well, it's only a vision if we say it's a vision. I mean, you didn't really believe it was, you know, a real bonafide vision did you? We don't need any weirdos here, sorry.]
  • Collaborate across departments on level and asset creation to deliver exceptional and compelling play experiences. [Right, again. That "vision" thing. If the lead artist thinks it's too, like "out there" for him. Well, the vision thing just has to be... You know... It has to be a nice little vision. One we can all agree on.]
  • Oversee and assess work created by other game designers on the project. [You know all this shit we're saying to you now? Well, here we need you to say it to them. Easy. Next...]
  • Ensure the vision is realized within the game. [Ah yes... The vision... That one that we all have to agree on... The one that flooded your mind's eye with a white light; but then - in grasping its size, its sheer magnitude, the depth of its beauty - left you in a pool of hopelessness for its fleeting retreat from you; a hopeless struggle with yourself over the possibility you might ever truly attain it. The one that left you in the dark of the soul's night, wrestling with the slings and arrows of your misfortune. That made you wonder how you wasted your life on a dream; a dream that somehow you might have made a game that bettered the human lot... That held a mirror to the world and the human story, and given not only entertainment... not only gratification... but insight. Insight... Yes, that vision... Well, I have the number of a good shrink here...]
  • Assume responsibility for ensuring the critical and commercial success of the product. [Right. It's gotta be critically and commercially successful, plus we all have to agree on it before it goes out the door. And even though we will compromise your vision, and you will not only accept that you will damn well like it - you (not us, you) are on the hook to make sure it makes money. Don't fret about it being a critical success - any game with 90fps, a million polys and "insane physics" is a critical success these days (lame-ass "game journalists"). What we really need is for that beyotch to make us the dough. But don't worry, if it does make millions, and it really was your vision (one you somehow got past the group's consensus; one that, through compromise, did reveal itself as an acceptable version of "your vision"), don't expect you will either get your name on the box or even a slice of the monetary return commensurate with your input. I mean, we like visions and all, but let's not go crazy here...]
  • Full product life cycle experience, with two previously shipped games. [Yes, did you say you had a vision? Well, okay as it happens, you have to have a vision, but we need guarantees here. I mean, we want you to be vocational - to feel you have a calling - but WE don't want to be the ones who take a chance on hiring you first, say if you came from another industry or fresh out of school or something. We need you to be professional, too. And indoctrinat-- erm... experienced. (What's that, Frank? Vocational and professional are opposite things? Sit down and shut up, Frank.) Where was I... I mean, vision or not, hell you could be some psycho off the street for all we know!]
  • Excellent interpersonal and verbal skills. Able to communicate effectively and objectively with programmers, artists, and other designers. [If you actually say "no" to this sentence, you will be the only candidate in our 20-year history who has. In fact, Frank, can you tell me why in hell we have this sentence here again? I think this is the idiot-test question.]
  • Demonstrated ability to motivate and lead other team members. [That means two things: one you describe your vision, but then when the team cuts it down you just shut the hell up and take it. Two: you really get around to doing what we want you to do, to transform your vision into something everybody in the group - from the topmost producer to the lowliest QA guy - can get... can understand... right off the bat. Because believe me, if we don't understand it right away, it ain't gonna fly. I mean, who the hell do you think you are, Stanley Kubrick or somethin'? There ain't guys like that in game dev, boy. Let me tell you.]
  • Passion for games and the ability to articulate that passion clearly and analytically. [Frank, this is another one of them sentences we left in for why?... Because everybody else has it in their job spec? Yah. Okay, candidate. Listen. I'll be honest. Nobody here knows how to articulate a damn thing. We just kind of talk a lot out of our asses. We say "cool" and "like" and "whoah" a lot. And we don't know how to write worth a damn. Just go with it, it'll work... But now tell us you can articulate. It's a hoop. Jump for me baby, jump.]
  • Clear and concise writing ability demonstrable through writing samples. [Not that anybody will read that shit anyway. I mean, you know, you'll write it down then we'll glance at it, MSN your ass over to our cube and just ask you to explain it all anyway, like with talk, right. Though I will agree, we mainly do that because all the game designers we had before, well, frankly, maybe ten percent of these game designers can write worth a damn, if that. Most are wannabe screenwriters or novelists who write these gawdawful specifications that go on and on and on, but are preciously dry on actual specification. The rest are essentially gamers-at-heart (I don't care how many years under their belt) who produce cluster-fucking messes of exposition on what the game "can" or "might" or "could" be, full of useless info like how many stun bullets are in the main character's sidekick's familiar's ankle-holster pistol (which is an owl by the way, the familiar that is), interspersed with masses of inconsistent numbers and acronyms that are so confusing the programmers just send the poor bastards out for Starbacks and then sort it out on their own time... Ah, we know you'll say yes to this question anyway, so just say yes and get it over with. We don't pay much attention to it anyhow...]
  • Willing and able to travel internationally at least once per quarter. [Yep. Of course, we're going to drag your ass across the continent already to take this job, maybe even from another country (and that is after a different company dragged your ass to an entirely different continent for a different job) - and unbeknownst to you we really expect this job to evaporate after this game is done (in which case you will have to move thousands of miles again), unless somehow it turns into a hit franchise (in which case your ass will be stuck remaking this "vision" over and over and over in umpteen sequels until we've milked it for all it's worth. Bitter irony for a visionary, huh?). Anyway, we heard about this thing called the Internet, that would let you maintain a stable life in one place so you could work remotely and move around as a free agent from project to project and develop your creative breadth, and which, come to think of it, we could use to hire the best designers out there as well... But as I said above, we don't like free agents, and we don't really read any of the design shit you guys write anyway, and we want you to stand over us at the desk and tell us how the game works while we code it (I think they call that Xtreme Programming or something); or at least how you say it works [we'll have a say about that - vision or no]. So I hope you're ready to rack up some air miles, buddy...]
  • College degree or equivalent game industry experience. [Again, you could be some weirdo off the street for all we know. (Of course, I won't bother to mention the supreme irony that our "creative" director has a software engineering degree. The guy you're replacing made the mistake of trying explain to him what compositional aesthetics were, or some damn like that.) Anyway, we heard that in other creative professions - like writers, musicians, web designers and whatnot - they make decisions based exclusively on portfolios and stuff, but in game design we know your work on your last project is so totally enmeshed with the work of everyone else on your team - and again, the design or "vision" you had that last one is so totally different from the actual piece of software they churned out - that we need to make all these little bullshit hoops for you to jump through to figure we are doing our job in really screening you. Because to tell the truth, I have been so indoctrinated in making software code that I have forgotten any really deep understanding of people I might have picked up from English classes way back in high school...]
  • Developed and shipped multiple titles as a Lead Designer or other lead role. [Again... you ain't some weirdo, are you? We need proof, right. Hoops, baby...]
  • Proven track record with AAA console products and/or online game development. [Again... vision or no... we want proof. Not that it really means anything, or really does prove that this new game you or anyone else will be worth a damn, but it's comforting to us... Think of all those shitty games out there made by people with "proven track records"...]
  • Significant experience in another game development role; preferably art or engineering. [Okay, this is helpful. Helps if you know what the other guys go through. Frank, you were smart on this one. Gotta recommend you for a raise. What's that Frank? You say that for a game designer maybe it would help if he had work experience in a field outside game development? To try to break out of the self-insulated, derivative nature of game development? Jeezus Frank! Stop making this harder than it already is, all right!...]
  • Demonstrated ability to work under tight schedules and reliably hit milestones. [Okay, yah yah. You got us! All this vision stuff... Yah, okay, we admit it. It's all just bullshit. What we really want is for you to crank something out as fast as possible so we can hit the milestone deadlines. Yah, I heard that visionaries might take years, sometimes go over budget or over schedule. I also heard some visionaries weren't so self-indulgent, but that with a little support - a little actual belief in what they were doing - they could crank out some good stuff in a damn short time. But damnit! We don't move at the pace of the creators here! I don't care how many countless successful films, pieces of software, music albums, books, volumes of scientific work or what have you that took so long to make yet weren't released until they were ready. See, that stuff was for real. For real, man. This is just game development! I mean, look at me. Look at me! We both know this ain't really significant shit, right? It's just, you know... games man! Nothing major. Just some poor dope wasting his life away in his basement. Right? You do agree, right? Right? Might as well take some of his minimum-wage burger-job money while we can, right? Well, maybe we could create something of value for him and the rest of the human race, but I don't think we should look into that. Much better to just churn out entertaining garbage that doesn't challenge or demand much. I mean don't you agree? That we feed him white bread? That we don't really take this stuff seriously?... Don't you agree?... Don't you?...]
[Whoah! Got carried away there. Tryin' to prove somethin' to myself. Tryin' to avoid somethin', maybe. All this talk about visions... Anyway...] Please submit your resume (in MS Word format) with cover letter with “Lead Game Designer” in the subject line.

Please note that only qualified applicants will be contacted.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Gamecock and Other Schemes

Maybe you've heard about Gamecock - the new publisher that is going to focus on an unmet need - getting indie games out there. Their entry into the world of game publishing is sorely needed. Well...

I appreciate Gamecock's entry into this business but, you know what, in a way they are still playing yesterday's game. They say we all need to lighten up. I say we need to grow up. I laud their courage to jump into the fray, but I don't need to be talked to like a teenage kid who needs sugar pops to convince him to eat his vegetables. I am a game designer who just wants a square deal. Talk to me straight. All this jumping around says to me you aren't entirely convinced of what you're doing. If you're self-confident you don't need a chicken suit.

The main question I want to ask is this: How is this Gamecock business model coming to terms with the reality of outsourcing and the complexity of game development and production today? You honestly think an indie game developer can do all and be all like it could in the 8-bit days? You need to come to terms with the reality on the ground now; and that is outsourcing.

People don't understand outsourcing. They think it's primarily about sending work to China to get it done cheaper. Wrong! It's about growing up. It's about being professional. It's about deepening your view of design, and that means going off and pursuing a thing to its farthest ends, even if that means we must leave others behind. When we were kids we built tree forts and played the Three Musketeers and swore we would never leave each other and that we would live in the same neighbourhood and go to the same school forever. And we made games like that - as if we were really playing in a playground. (That's understandable. They're games after all...)

Well, reality check. Games are too complex now, the game audience too sophisticated, the possibilities of the medium fracturing into too many complex offshoots. Design needs to follow suit. (Why do you think they complain about how dreary games have become?) People who make games need to specialize because the challenge of making the individual parts simply requires too much expertise. And the challenge of doing something new needs the fire, dedication and evangelizing that only individuals can bring. That's what outsourcing is about. I mean do you honestly think you can support both game developer stability and innovation. Come on? Innovation has always been financially risky. If you want to be part of a company that is stable and lives forever make a service company and hire yourself out to others. If you want to design innovative new games, design them - but don't expect a smooth ride of it. Any team will always want stability. If you want to explore, you have to strike out for the wilderness - in very small, agile groups, or even on your own. That is what the next generation of designers must be prepared to do.

Maybe you watched the TV show "America's Got Talent". If so you would remember a telling moment when one of the judges told one musician that he was brilliant, but his musical partner (who was his brother) was medium-good at best and if he wanted to be serious about his career he needed to strike out on his own. Naturally, the musician didn't want to hear that - he loved his brother. But do you understand the need to sacrifice? This is what people need to do if they want to bring something to its fullest, strongest potential. They need to sacrifice, including the collective mentality. Frank Capra said he knew of no great work of art created by committee. Michael Caine expressed the idea that the more decision-makers there are on a team, the higher the chance of something getting messed up. Any coder or engineer can tell you - the more working parts that need to interact, the higher the chance the design will be flawed. It's the same thing with game design. If a talented designer drafts a breathtakingly original design, the more people he has to sell (including teammembers in today's finance-prototyping-out-of-your-own-pocket indie dev model), the more likely it will go wrong, or not get off the ground to begin with.

I specialized. I am a game designer now. That's all I do. I write design docs and I work on improving design for other companies. I contribute to games what they need. I see that the teams I often work with are all very insular, very "group-think" and collectivist - but I am not constrained to this. This means when everyone in the team says "yes yes yes" to a stupid idea just to follow suit - just to not get in the bad books of the others - I will be the lone guy who says "no, this sucks". Because I can be the bad guy. But that's okay. I'm not paid to be liked, I'm paid to do quality work. I specialize in certain types of games. I work for different companies. I move from game to game. Because I am professional. I follow the games, not the companies. Some companies do different kinds of games with the same team. I do different companies and teams but focussing on certain types of games. People talk about hiring me and the first thing I ask is "what is the game we are talking about". They find it an alien question, but to me it's the 600-pound gorilla in the room they never manage to talk about. When you want to hire designers, that should be the first thing to ask: Does this game fit this designer? People talk about design as if it is a factory position; as if it's one-size-fits-all. It has become that way in the big studios. And you wonder why so much dreck is produced. When I talk to recruiting game companies today they say they want to hire you to work for a company permanently. I reply that if anyone claims they are a really good game designer, why would they sign up to work for one company permanently? Such a designer will not cares what game title comes down the pipe, they will always see it as churning out pulp by formula.

I say if you are looking for a hot game designer why do you think this person would tolerate sitting still and sacrificing their vision to stay as part of a team? Static with whatever the team could consensually agree on. I means its nice to have friends but why wouldn't that person follow their vision wherever it took them?

I say that you have two issues here: production company quality and game design quality. A good production company IS a team. But a good designer is fundamentally an individual voice. Has to be. The two are mutually exclusive. The needs of the production company versus the needs of the design. Why? Because its plain conflict of interest. Because there will be a moment of disagreement between these elements, as there is between the needs of a building's architect and the needs of the construction company. At that moment, the team player will sacrifice their vision (which means it never was a vision in the true sense of the word) to go with the flow; the dedicated professional will uphold the fidelity of their vision (this also includes facing financiers who are rigidly married to deadlines, even at the expense of good work and burning out the production team). Mature professionals understand this, and can work around it. They negotiate. Immature people act like high school students and gossip destructively when someone isolates themselves.

To be honest, I don't give a good gawdamn about making a game company with a static roster of members and a static roster of games in the pipeline (say, 10 titles, all basically the same...). On the other hand, I care totally about making good games. A good game can live forever. Game companies, on the other hand, come and go. Again: growing up and facing the coffee. You either focus on making games or a game company. Today, if you want to be in a solid stable company, make one that provides services. Or become a marketing hub for various games external to you (which is what a publisher is; and, hate it as you may, they are a lot more stable than the developers). If you want to make games, though, welcome to the frontlines. Here's a helmet, keep your head down. There's no stability in it. At the indie level each game is effectively its own company. That's the reality. Even if the team bullheadedly says, "No. *This time* we'll make the awesome new game AND achieve financial stability." I don't think so. You're in a dream world.

Here's another idol to slay. Don't tell me that your game development company is full of people who have good ideas for games. So what? You can walk onto any film set, walk up to the microphone operator or the lighting person and ask them if they have a good idea for a movie. Odds are they'll say yes. So what are you doing being a factory worker? Why are you working on other people's product if you have such a shit hot idea? They'll say to pay the bills, but if you push them I sure you'll agree that hot idea has languished on their hard drive for years, collecting cobwebs. I could ask this of anybody in a game development company with a proverbial "great idea for a game". Why aren't you pursuing your great game idea? Either you really, deep deep deep down, don't believe in your idea, or you're just in it for the money and the steady gig. Or both. There's nothing wrong with wanting a steady gig, but realize that's what you want. If you have vision and passion, you will do what passionate visionaries do: lay it on the line. Risk failure. As GK Chesterton said, if you don't want to risk failure - if you absolutely have to succeed - you have to come late for the battle, once its half over, so you can be on the winning side. If you want to be a visionary, you have to be prepared to fight for seemingly unwinnable causes. Such as that new design everyone says won't work.

Gamecock this is what I think you should do. Package game projects. Focus on incubating game designs, not fledgling game companies. Take in the individual designs at the early level with the fewest number of people attached to them. The fewer the better. Stripped down small teams, like special forces units advancing far into hostile and dangerous territory. Let someone or a few people come to you with a design. Like they say in the film biz, focus on the script first. You can make a bad film from a good script, but you can't make a good film from a bad script. Same with design. Then develop the design with that tiny two or three person team, until it works. Let him/her/them make a tiny little prototype for you - even if its just a small flash game, or a pen-and-paper/board game you can play out on a table in your boardroom; just to test out core ideas - and work on the design design design! You'd be surprised at how much design bang you can get out of this, for absolutely miniscule buck. And if you get a design you like, but can't produce it now, nothing is lost. Put it into storage. Patience, young Jedi.

But if the design flies, package it! Attach a good technology solution: a programming company and a good engine license. Attach a good art production company; and a good QA company. These external players will all contribute to the design of course (in fact, they now hold significant creative power in their decision to endorse or not endorse a given project); but they will also have the stability that comes from being external and focussed on the work they do best, and on their own prosperity (their survival not tied to any particular game concept that may or may not fly). And on the other side, now the design is not constrained to an internal one-size-fits-all technology or art solution the way it must when you are game-company- rather than game-design-focussed. Alfred Hitchcock knew that 75% of his work as a director wasn't in the work he did on the set: it was in casting. Same here. It amazes me that game companies actually think that the art director who worked out so well on their horror game will have the same feel for their upcoming military game. Hey! Pay attention to casting! A technology or art person or solution that was good for a horror shooter is not necessarily good for a military RTS or what have you. It might be a tiny little difference, but professionals focus on tiny little differences (as they all add up). Let the designer focus on what they are good at: developing an original game concept, writing it up as a design document, and then working with the team for the duration of the game as an individual, professional voice.

When production is over, let everyone exit, but in a way that they gain from the benefits of the IP that is created. This means, as before, let the game be its own company. You can negotiate residuals, license fees and so forth from there. But don't tie me to this team or this company. Again, I am design-focussed, not game-company focussed. I have 5 or 10 other game designs I am working on, and though, yes I like the guys in this team, I'm sorry but I also need to advance my designs, and these guys might not be right for this other design ("not right" is NOT to say that they aren't good; it's just that this other design might require a different feel or approach). That's the real nature of creative vision. It can't be - or shouldn't be - caged. Come to terms with that. The revolutionary things in life always broke the mould.

The focus of true game design is not fitting into a genre. That is formula design. Rather it is in creating new genres. That is a mysterious and risky thing. You claim to want to make these original games. Well, let's make them then.