41/366 – Stop Mr. Volatile Game Industry’s Wild Ride, Please

rollercoasterIn the latest of what has become a periodic occurrence in an industry to which I contribute work, independent developer Motiga, a plucky, excitable group of folks developing a competitive 5v5 game called Gigantic, had to experience “significant” layoffs that could affect the future of its game.

Even though I don’t know anyone personally at Motiga, for some reason the news of these layoffs, hitting a studio already small and potentially less agile to continue critical game services without key personnel on a sick day or vacation, (much less permanent unemployment), hit me to the core. Some of this is straw-that-broke-the-camel’s back mentality, for certain. The amount of times that I’ve heard about “unfortunate” news of layoffs in the games industry (and having experienced it myself at least once) has become a veritable modern Greek tragedy roller coaster ride in the sense of how things happen. And the ride is volatile, threatening to throw you off at any time.

It’s filled with huge and high expectations, promises, and hype, coupled by equally huge funding, spending, and investment.

It’s fueled by players, designers, and studios thirsty to succeed where others have failed.

It’s marked with bumps and bruises that happen on the road through beta and to release, and perhaps a mistake or two…

and then it’s fraught with the peril of unmet expectations and cost, and the potential for a heart-dropping-into-your-throat drop…a drop that, if it happens, that some games and studios don’t recover.

I, for one, hate this volatile wild ride that the games industry has become. You want to know why? I’ll give you two reasons, and I’ll start with the less important (yet still significant) reason.

rollercoasterReason #2: It doesn’t have to be a wild ride. The ride can be fixed.

In between the TL;DR that I gave above about how some projects and studios in games rise and fall are things that can be dealt with. They’re by no means easy things to fix, but they are areas which the games industry and the players who support it need to work on. Because I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to operate from multiple standpoints in the industry (press, fansite, normal player, and industry employee), I’ve come to the conclusion that the responsibility to fix Mr. Volatile Game Industry’s Wild Ride is a shared one.

Players need to modify and temper their expectations and understanding. Yes, I know there are people who hype themselves up for a release that is the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I know that there are also players that, with no knowledge of the realities of game development or a job, take the time to bash the living hell out of a release and declare it a failure based on as little as hours of experience. Both sets of players need to fix what they’re doing and thinking, allow for some more realistic thinking, and for lack of a better word, chill out. In not doing so, they’re creating a set of expectations and an environment where success is rare and studios become desperate to retain the attention of a demographic that has plenty of choices in front of it. If you’re a regular player and you’re reading this, I’m not telling you how to think or what you can and can’t say – I’m just trying to tell you to not fixate on extremes. I say this because trying to understand context and reasoning rather than jumping to wild conclusions or assumptions on the part of what a studio is doing with its games will ultimate create a more realistic environment for developers to meet high expectations.

Developers and studios need to modify and refine their processes and cycle. Overspending or overpromising and hyping, creating inefficient development habits or patching cycles that don’t set a foundation for being agile or perceived as fixing inevitable bugs quickly, provisioning or funding things on the basis of metrics and expected retention that is more muddy than concrete – all of these point to a problem with the system of development in games. Yes, some of this is dictated by an increasingly competitive industry and yes, some of it is also controlled by pursestring-holders with certain expectations for return, but the right systems and processes need to be put into place to protect studios from the roller coaster of hype to crash with their projects. What are those exactly? That’s a bit unclear, as a lot of studios tend to vary their standards and practices wildly, but generally, I’d say a good candidates include:

-The development-to-beta-to-release process,

-The staffing and hiring (and maintaining said hires) analysis for upcoming releases and beyond

-The way in which patches are developed/internally tested/QA’d/publicly tested/production released

-How teams and departments interact with and work together and fixing inefficient or unnecessary methodology

and most significantly..

-The expectation of work/life balance.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not easy and it’s an ongoing process. My peers who are skeptics may say only studios with vast, near-unlimited resources have the bandwidth for such self-reflection and repairs, but to that I have to say those studios were not merely lucky. If they’re solvent, they’ve built healthy foundations from humble beginnings and done something right to cultivate the right amount of success and support from their players to get those resources. The systemic problems of the games industry’s tendency to overwork, churn and burn, and hurt a project’s chance of success have to, at some point, be addressed, rather than continuing with the way things may be operating – which brings me to the other reason I hate how volatile the games industry has been:

Reason #1: The ultimate cost of this ride is people.

Unlike the paragraphs I wrote before, there’s some very simple points to be made here.

I am tired of watching my friends in the industry “crunch” for upwards of 60-80 hours a week, following processes and schedules that force a “work harder, not smarter” mentality (and then be accused of being “lazy” when bugs out of their control slip past)

I am tired of hearing about people who found their success in following a risky, dream path towards games only to be chewed up and spit out by the harsh reality of players, studios, and publishers who’ve set immensely unrealistic expectations on their shoulders.

I am tired of worrying about the prospect of studios who have people I am friends with or who I’ve supported go down to skeleton crews or close altogether.

I am tired of sharing the same developer job spreadsheets with the latest group of layoff victims, or to have to repeat “my thoughts are with those affected by studio x layoffs, let me know if I can do anything”

I am tired of watching people I have looked up to and respect have to leave the industry because they need to find more stable areas of work, because of the uncertainty of games jobs (and I don’t fault them for doing so) as their loss is a loss for the industry’s continued success.

When things happen in the games industry that are awful, ultimately a person or persons is involved and will have to bear the brunt of its fallout, whether it’s a Community person who has to be calming and fight fires, a Designer who has to re-tool a system or mechanism based on unexpected issues, Engineers and QA people who have to stay up through the night to push a last-minute hotfix that could have been avoided, or more. Players may think the cost of these bad rides in the industry are their time and enjoyment and publishers and studios may think the cost can be measured in lost dollars and time, but the real price that’s paid is someone’s livelihood, personal well-being, and willpower. The good people, frankly, can’t be measured as far as the cost.

Is it all dark tales or tragedy? Absolutely not – many of my peers and some of my closest friends have landed on their feet or have achieved success even as the industry is volatile and unstable around them. But could it be that way for more than it is now, with an effort and eye towards a better work/life balance and an environment that doesn’t hurt or burn out the people that work within it? Absolutely. I am hopeful with the right kind of awareness (Giantbomb recently has a contributor that has vowed to bring more eyes onto labor in the games industry) and the correct and ongoing self-evaluation and adjustments (GDC has been good about tracks towards better development practices and “lessons learned” presentations) we’ll see improvements.

I hope for the games industry’s sake, and moreso for the sake of its hard working and dedicated people, that the ride gets repaired.

 

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