Showing posts with label game development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label game development. Show all posts

Friday, February 22, 2013

This is Important

From: Get Stuffed!
RE: The recent EA Montreal and LA Layoffs and some of the community reaction
"The people who got laid off were your friends. They spoke your language. They played your games. They fought for you. They argued with their supervisors over decisions you eventually echoed after the game’s release. Nobody goes into games because they have no options left. They don’t sacrifice health and family for brutal overtime because they don’t believe in what they’re trying to do. They have children. They have partners. They have mortgages and car payments and meals to put on the table. And they live for the moment when a fan sends in a letter saying ‘thank you.’"
There's a way to be a person and when you behave in ways that are contrary to that social contract, you forego any right to be listened to or taken seriously. If you want to be part of the discussion and you want your opinions considered, show up and have some respect. Otherwise, expect for no one to consider your positions or even your existence.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


So my buddy Mark sent me this link earlier and I couldn't help but laugh, mainly because of the link to a portfolio web site I haven't been able to access in over 6 years, but also because I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that anyone would consider my first game project to be anywhere approaching relevant so many years later.

It was roughly 12 years ago this month that I started working at Turbine, my first paying gig in game development. For a couple years prior I had been working with a small group of developers under the moniker of Crytek in my spare time. At the time we were organized over the internet much in the same way mod developers were, but the founders (Cevat Yerli and his brothers) had big ambitions.

I started working with Crytek when Cevat contacted me after noticing my Half-Life mod work online. Crytek was working on an FPS and was looking for level designers. As a fledgling operation they didn't have any way to pay us at the time, but I was in college and a contract for royalties should our work ever bear fruit was good enough for me. The project and the game engine went through many iterations over the course  of the two years I worked on it. Somehow I ended up being the "Lead Designer" and (dumb kid that I was) began developing a rather lofty design for a game would have borne a striking resemblance to Deus Ex in both tone and game play, except exceedingly more sci-fi in its presentation.

In the summer of 2000 we had succeeded in created a tech demo for "Engalus", our would-be FPS. Even then, Cryek was on the cutting edge of graphics with an engine that rivaled the reigning king Quake 3. Cevat shopped the demo around at the conventions that summer and even got it showcased on NVIDIA's website, but by the time the end of the year was rolling around I had graduated and a paying gig was becoming more and more necessary. At the time my buddy Scott (who I had nabbed to help out on Engalus) had snagged a job doing GUI and other art work for local dev Turbine. I was well aware of Turbine as a player of the then recently released Asheron's Call and when Scott told me they were looking for designers I jumped at the chance. It wasn't so much that I had lost faith in Crytek and what we were working on as it was that I knew if they found backing I'd have to move to Germany, which I was not prepared to consider at the time and besides that, I would have been in WAY over my head at that time as the lead on a professional project. In an effort to get my professional career started with something closer to entry level, I left Crytek and Engalus, and started working at Turbine.

To make a long story short, I got laid off from Turbine several months after starting there, Crytek got backed by Ubisoft to make what would become FarCry, and I spent the next few years working odd jobs while making mods and trying to break back into professional development. Eventually I got my second chance as a content developer at Mythic Entertainment and six-and-a-half years later I'm a Content Lead for Bioware Austin on Star Wars: The Old Republic. I've come a long way since Crytek and so have they, but I've always been grateful to Cevat for seeking me out and giving me the chance to figure out that making games was what I wanted to do with my life. Engalus may have never seen the light of day, but to me it will always be my first real attempt at game development and though there's not much to show for it, I'm proud of the work we did and where we all ended up because of it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gamers and Developers: A Love Story

Communication between gamers and developers is a tough issue. Most people outside the industry (and plenty inside) have no idea how tumultuous live development can be. I can tell you that in previous jobs I've had experiences where one day I'm working on a feature and the next day it's been cut or de-prioritized. This along with other concerns often makes it difficult to communicate with the end user in a way that a) doesn't get their hopes up about a feature they want, but may not see the light of day and b) still engages those users in a way that makes them feel accommodated. It drives both sides crazy. Gamers end up feeling like their investment isn't being rewarded and that they're just being used, while developers end up resenting what they see as "entitled" users who think they know better how to make the game, but are never happy with what they get. Better communication can often help everyone to reach a happy middle ground, but the signal to noise ratio on the internet is lousy and it always has been. Add to this the logistical issues of time, money, manpower, and the need to please the largest audience possible in order to get the biggest return on investment and you're always going to end up pissing someone off and making others feel as if they're being ignored.

I know a lot gets said within the industry about games being art and how dare anyone not think of games as art, and as a designer I agree: games are art. There are degrees however and not all art is created equally. Speaking musically (because I can always analogize things in regards to music) I've come to realize that what we normally refer to as "triple A" games have way more in common with pop music than they do with punk rock while audiences seem to expect a more punk mentality regardless. Mainstream pop music wants to reach the widest audience possible and (to me at least) ends up sounding watered down and bland. There's something for "everyone", but if you're looking for an 8 minute drum solo then you're probably out of luck. Punk rock (real Punk rock ... but that's a whole other discussion) doesn't care about the broadest audience. The philosophy there is "the right people will get this". Is there great pop music? Hell yeah! Is there lousy punk rock? You bet! The same goes for games and when you're dealing with live development on games that are essentially pop music (every game I've ever worked on) you're never going to please everyone.

There's no right way to foster better communication between gamers and developers. I've often been heard to rant that developers should give gamers much more information about the process of development. I'd love for people to really see how the sausage is made, but that's not my call. I like to think that maybe if people saw that just because you can come up with the "perfect" answer to a problem doesn't mean it can be done, they'd be more forgiving. Game development involves a lot of compromise and often frustration. Gamers always feel like their prefered feature is the most important and "why doesn't someone just put this in the game?" To be honest, I know plenty of designers who feel the same way. I personally have designed at least as much content that has seen the light of day as hasn't but that's how pop music gets made. For every 10 tracks on a top 40 album, there's maybe twice as many that didn't make the cut, but that there is probably some (albeit smaller or more dedicated) audience for.

If developers tell you everything they're doing as they make or support a game, there's going to be things that you're really into that just dissipate and when you get people excited about something and then pull it away, it never ends well. I can remember this exact thing happening with Ultima Online back when I was in college when they had proposed a radical and (to me at least) interesting sounding bounty/good/evil system to help curb (or gamify) their player killing issues. The system as it was discussed never went live and they ended up going for a simpler option of splitting the world into PvP and non-PvP mirrors. On the one hand I appreciated the openness and on the other hand I felt cheated out of a system I was looking forward to. In hindsight, I have to assume that the system wasn't all it was cracked up to be and didn't solve their issues in the manner they desired.

You can only ever say too much or say too little and when opinion is already turned against you (warranted or not) the outcry is almost always going to be negative. The more negative the gamers are, the less the developers want to talk to them and the less both sides talk to each other, the further apart they get. If you want real discussion and insight into development, say nice things. Sometimes developers don't have all the information they need. Sometimes developers don't engage enough with their audience. Sometimes developers think they know better than their customers, but developers aren't out to get you and most of them are pretty good at what they do. If those things weren't true then they wouldn't have jobs and you wouldn't be playing their games to begin with. Publishers (in my experience) don't manipulate studios (at all) or as much as the public thinks they do and being that this is pop music, developers are here to make money as much as they're here to make art.  They don't want to be taken advantage of or undermined just as much as gamers. Show them respect and they'll show it right back. Sensationalism and misplaced outrage will only fan the flames and I personally would much rather we find a way to make better games together.

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Live Game Development

Update: Seriously ... ranting aside, I love the people who play my games. Infuriating as they can be. I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Meta Madness

I saw this linked off of the Penny Arcade Report today and given my already public feelings on Metacritic and how we use it in game development, I couldn't simply remain silent.

Every game developer should be appalled at the notion of using Metacritic scores as the basis of a hiring decision. Maybe Irrational is just looking within that select (and lucky) caste for this position, a Design Manager is kind of a big deal gig after all, but regardless we need to take notice lest such requirements become common practice. I've worked on games that should have gotten higher Metacritic scores, but didn't and I've worked on ones that I knew were going to under perform. In both cases, there were maybe 5 people at the studio who could have done anything to change that fate and even then, it was a crap shoot.

Glorifying Metacritic scores within the game industry is only going to end up burning us in the end. We need to understand that Metacritic scores represent correlation and not causation. The scores don't drive sales, it's the factors that should exist to garner those scores that do it. What we need to understand however is that those factors don't always directly translate to the scores. I realize that an argument can be made that judging the relative quality of a game by it's Metacritic score is at least somewhat fair, it is not at all a fair however to use that same criteria to judge a developer; there are too many other factors that go into what makes a good developer and most of those are not and cannot be reflected by how the product performs on Metacritic. Let's look at this another way. Let's say you're applying for a public relations position somewhere and on the job listing it says "must have at least 500 Facebook friends" ... because someone who is in PR has to deal with people and therefore should have a lot of friends. Sure there's some correlation, but by and large the one thing has little to do with the other.

I've been in game development long enough to know that job listings usually represent a company's most pie-in-the-sky ambitions for the position and that when push comes to shove a guy with excellent qualifications and shipped titles with only an 80 on Metacritic could totally land that job. The point is that this is a stupid road to begin going down. We're already judged by our number of shipped titles (a value, that changes drastically depending on the types of games you work on) so why add even more arbitrary nonsense values into the hiring process? If you ask me, anyone using Metacritic as an exacting measure of a developer's quality simply isn't doing their homework. This industry is stressful and tough enough without having to worry that you're going to be judged for employment based on a Metacritic score that is largely beyond your ability to influence.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Whenever a new subscription-based MMO comes out there's this invisible countdown that begins in the collective unconsciousness of the game community: time till "Free-to-Play". Sometimes the countdown isn't so invisible, sometimes it's the topic on everyone's lips whether it's being whispered or shouted. As a perfect example, in the first few weeks after Star Wars: The Old Republic's release, web comic giants Penny Arcade released a strip about SWTOR, the punchline having to do with when they thought the game would go Free-to-Play.

We seem to have this image in the MMO community that if a game is developed as Free-to-Play, then it's because the developer is small, doesn't have enough money, or doesn't have confidence in their product to compete in the subscription world. When an existing subscription game goes Free-to-Play many of the same things are assumed. In either case any deviance from the classic subscription model towards Free-to-Play is viewed as failure. I can understand the reasoning, the subscription model has been king since the days of Ultima Online and the general thinking is that if people liked your game enough then they'd be willing to pay for it month after month. When a plurality of MMO's are being developed for or quickly turn to a Free-to-Play model and when even successful subscription games like WoW and SWTOR introduce Free-to-Play at least up to a certain level, one has to ask: is it Free-to-Play that is a sign of failure or is the subscription model itself what's failing?

The late 90's PC gaming landscape that brought us the first modern MMO's in the form of Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call was much different than that of today. The subscription model made a lot of sense in a world where half as many households had computers and nearly one quarter as many had internet access as do today. It was a world that had yet to turn to digital downloads as a primary source of content and where the a-la-carte mentality that pervades the acquisition of entertainment media today had yet to take hold. MMO's games were being made for less money for a smaller, more hardcore audience, one that wouldn't think twice about paying a subscription fee for their gaming. Even at this early stage however the question was asked: "will gamers be willing to pay for more than one subscription game at a time?"

Take a moment and think back to the internet of the late 90's. Frames and midi were all the rage on web sites, AOL was still a pay-by-the-hour service, and dial-up was the connection method of choice for most households. In those days internet monetization was still just a vague blur in the distance. Nowadays MMO subscriptions (and games in general) are but one of many services and products we purchase over the internet nearly every day. While we've certainly gotten used to paying for things online, subscriptions aren't generally the monetization model of choice outside of the MMO space. People have become much more accustomed to paying only for what they want and what they use. Culturally we've shifted to a mode of thinking where micro-transactions and a-la-carte are viewed as a better deal. Subscriptions on the other hand fly in the face of this cultural shift and though people will settle for subscriptions where they're required (and where they still see the value in premium services such as Hulu and Netflix), in general they seem to like the idea of paying only for what they use instead.

When you take all this into account it's hard not to see subscriptions as the dinosaurs they are. When you go back to the dawn of the early MMO's when it was a three horse race people were unconvinced that many gamers would ever subscribe to more than one service at a time. Nearly 15 years later there are even more choices and it's not just the MMO's asking for money any longer. We know that there is a limit to the number of game subscriptions people are willing to pay for at any one time and we know that the majority of them are already paying for World of Warcraft. Why then are we all competing against each other for that one top slot? Imagine if the same were true for first person shooters back in the late 90's, if you had to subscribe to them like you do MMO's. If everyone had a subscription to Quake, how many fewer people would ever have picked up Unreal and Half-Life? Would we ever have seen the types of advances in technology, game play, and story-telling in FPS that we've enjoyed over the last decade or would there have been nothing but a bunch of Quake clones desperately trying to win away that market share?

Subscriptions are simply an unsustainable business model for a genre as a whole. Instead of creating a competitive environment where market share can be more easily spread out, subscriptions create a king of the hill competition with every new game trying to get that coveted top spot. It's bad for consumers, it's bad for developers, and it's bad for MMO's a whole. Historically speaking, limiting choice rarely succeeds as a means of controlling a market. The music industry was essentially attempting to do this by fighting peer-to-peer downloads while failing to adopt their own a-la-carte digital distribution systems. As a result, a lot of music was stolen and the big record labels missed the opportunity to control the digital space and drive their business, instead they now find themselves following in the wake of more savvy entrepreneurs.

I've been saying for a couple years now that we've come to the end of the line for subscriptions in the MMO world. Recent releases have shown that the amount of money and the amount of risk involved in trying to get that top spot and be the game that the majority of players subscribe to without question ends up as a losing proposition. MMO developers need to let go of the macho pride they have that surrounds the idea of the subscription model. Anyone developing an MMO right now seriously needs to be looking at alternative payment methods. We need to be looking at free-to-play, micro-transactions, pay-as-you-go, and whatever else we can come up with. Monetization of digital media is changing every day and we've done a piss poor job of keeping up.

When we finally stop trying to take on WoW (or whatever the next king of the hill ends up being) we're going to find ourselves in a much better position and while the fans may be against us at first, they're going to end up with better and more diverse products as a result. If we can turn MMO's into a true competitive landscape where it's no longer about being #1 across all MMO's, but about being number #1 in the myriad sub-genre MMO's that will inevitably crop up then we all win. Back when it was 3 games competing for the top spot it made sense, but now that there's 10 times as many of us and an internet full of digital media for sale, we can no longer afford to look at the subscription model as the only avenue of success. We owe it to ourselves, to the fans, and the genre as a whole to change. We were the pioneers of this digital landscape and there's no reason we shouldn't continue to be well into the foreseeable future.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

For the Fallen

It seems like lay-offs are an inevitability in game development these days. I personally have never worked for a company that hasn’t had to deal with them as part of the reality of this business. In my experience there are two simple reasons why this is a fact: 1) Every year it seems to take more and more money to make the kind of triple-A entertainment the public demands and 2) It takes more people to finish a project than it does to maintain one after launch or to pre-produce the next, meaning that at some point you're going to have more people than you have actual work. While the cold, hard facts may add up to logic in the end it doesn't change how much it sucks for everyone involved. 

In the grand scope of things It wasn't so long ago that I found myself on the losing end of the lay-off equation. It was late April, 2001 and I had been working for Turbine Entertainment in Norwood, MA for almost 3 months. I had spent the previous 2 years both finishing my film degree at the Massachusetts College of Art and working via the internet for then fledgling Crytek Studios on a project that would ultimately never see the light of day. With my “If we ever make any money you get significant royalties” contract for Crytek running out that February and the future still uncertain for them, I decided to go the route of my buddy Scott (who is currently a big deal art guy at Bungie) and try to find a real game development job. Scott had landed a gig at Turbine a few months after graduation and he let me know that they were looking for designers. To make a long story short, I applied for an entry-level design position on Asheron’s Call 2 and somehow (thanks a lot to Scott, a lot to my future lead, and a little bit to luck) landed it.

There was no formal training program at Turbine at that time, my lead was INCREDIBLY busy and maybe just a little bit in over her head and I didn’t know who/how to ask for help, so I spent quite a bit of time familiarizing myself with docs and teaching myself the AC1 tools. You see, we were so early in development on AC2 that our tools were virtually non-existent. Heck, I can still remember the day we got a flat, featureless world running in a server-based version of the engine for the first time. During my brief time at Turbine I did what I was told and I did it well (or so they told me) and I even took the new Lugian player race under my wing and developed a sprawling pre-Asheron’s Call 1 backstory for them. And even though they only kept about 0.1% of the material I wrote in the final game, I’m still rather proud of it.

The sad fact of the matter is that the Turbine I had joined at that point in 2001 was in a bit of a pickle. At the time AC1 (and AC2) were still under the watchful eye of Microsoft and while I wasn’t there long enough to grasp the nuance of the situation, I understood that it was no fun. About 1.5 months into my employment, Turbine ousted its current CEO and installed a new one; someone who I will not name, but I think most people who had to deal with him would agree was an ass and while I suppose at the time it seemed like the right move, time makes fools of us all. To round out this cul-de-sac of kismet, Tubine had been working on a project that would have been a PS2 MMO, but due to a number of circumstances had to cancel the development.

This all brings us to the aforementioned late April in 2001. I was almost 3 months into my first paying game development job and I was finally feel like I was getting the hang of it and really starting to contribute. That morning, my lead grabbed me shortly after I arrived and told me she needed me in a meeting. This wasn’t entirely unexpected because, even though I had only been there a short time, I knew that impromptu meetings often sprung up and as one of only 4 designers dedicated to AC2 at the time I might be needed. I entered our largest meeting room and took a seat around the rectangular arrangement of tables with a bunch of other people. Once everyone was seated and the doors were closed we were told that everyone in the room was being laid off. I can remember feeling like the blood had completely drained from my head. The last thing I expected that morning was to come into work, only to leave with a box of my belongings and a severance package. In fact it had been only a week or two before that my carpool buddy had remarked (on the cancellation of the PS2 project) that “at any other company those people would be out of jobs right now.”

As the lay-off meeting proceeded there was a short explanation of Turbine’s financial situation and why the lay-offs were necessary. I don’t remember the details, but it all amounted to something along the lines of: if they didn’t get rid of people by that June, they’d be out of money. We all waited in that conference room watched over by our leads and senior staff while they called a couple people at a time to speak with HR and to sign the severance paperwork. I can remember one of the senior people - a producer maybe - asking me what was going through my head. I can only assume that the question was raised due to my looking as shocked as I felt at the time. I remember saying something about trying to recall my personal philosophy, which is the kind of dumb thing a 22 year old, idealistic kid says in a situation like that. Incidentally the philosophy I was trying to recall was “What is, is”, which any decent X-Men fan will recognize as the prime tenet of the Clan Askani. Anyway, eventually my time came and I went through the HR process, cleaned out my desk, went to lunch with a bunch of people from work and then went home. I had spent half my life to that point dreaming of making games and had even spent 2 years doing it with no recognition or pay and then less than 3 months after landing my first paying, professional gig … I was let go.

They told me they would try to get me back, but as an older, smarter, and much more in the loop person now at the age of 33, I realize that this had been a pipe dream at best. My former lead did try to set me up with another local company, but the interview went badly (my own damn fault really) and nothing came of it. I spent the rest of the summer trying to get my portfolio together. MMO’s were fine, but at the time it was a 3 dog race and I had just gotten cut from the guys bringing up the rear. I figured I needed to re-dedicate myself to getting into FPS development, which is what I had been doing for Crytek. I ended up wasting about 2 years in that direction before turning back to RPG’s, but this time for writing, yet another wrong move.

During the next few years I moved back to Connecticut to live with my parents and then back to Boston, all the while spending too much time trying to get a so-called portfolio together than applying for development jobs. Eventually by the time 2006 rolled around I knew it was time to get serious. The previous summer I had been disavowed of any notion that I had the chops at the time to write dialogue for games and eventually refocused my efforts to what I was actually good at: quests and game design. I worked up a slick Neverwinter Nights Mod to use as a portfolio piece, spent some money to have my resume professionally done, and that summer I sent out a shotgun blast of applications. It worked and 6 years later I’m in Austin working for a developer I idolize and alongside the best people in this industry.

To make a long story short: I got myself a job in game development right out of college, got laid off, and took the long way to break back in. The point is that even though I only had 3 months of actual professional experience on my resume and even though I had never shipped a title, I was able to prove myself as someone worth hiring and within a year of my return to game development I was leading a team and I’ve never looked back since.

It’s easy to blame your publisher, your studio, your fellow devs, the fans, yourself or anyone else for getting laid-off. I’ve seen my fair share of people let go both in person at studios I’ve worked at and peripherally via friends at other locations and you can spend a lot of time looking for someone to blame. In the end it’s just how things work at this point in time. Even at a studio and on a project that is doing well, it is often the price of doing business. The thing to remember is that getting laid off is not the end. It sucks, but it’s not the end and for those of you who find yourselves divorced from their former jobs right now, you owe it to yourselves not to give up hope. If there's one thing I know it's that game developers are a community and when we get hit by hard times we tend to band together. If I can give any advice it would be this: don't hesitate to get your resume out there. If someone is hiring you should be applying. My other advice would be to not be afraid or hesitant about relying on your friends and former teammates. It's at times like this that I like to recall the following:
This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.’ The friend says, “Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out”1
I know the instinct a lot of people have in these situations is to just quit games altogether and for some, maybe that’s the right call. For me, it was never an option and for those of your who lost your jobs today, for my friends here and elsewhere, know that I will do whatever is in my power in order to help you find a new job in game development. I will be your reference, your advocate, and your friend; not out of some kind of survivor’s guilt, and not out of some holier-than-thou altruism, but simply because you deserve it and I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.
1The West Wing “Noel”, dir. Thomas Schlamme, writ. Aaron Sorkin, perf. John Spencer, DVD, Warner Bros., 2000.
The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Game Development: Tranparency

I was thinking this morning that I really need to post more about game development here. For one thing, game development is my job; it's what I've I done for 8+ hours a day 5+ days a week for the last 6 years straight and then on and off here and there in both professional and amateur capacities for 6+ years preceding. For another thing, I have pretty strong opinions regarding game design and the development process. Lately however, one aspect of game development has revealed itself to me as perhaps being more in need of being discussed and that is transparency or more specifically the lack of transparency between development and the audience and how this creates false expectations from said audience.

As a developer I understand the need for this lack of transparency: gamers are a ravenous horde who not only seek to devour any information about projects they're interested in, but also to speculate on that information in ways that often affect the public perception - and by association the retail performance - of a product. Simply put: you scare the shit out of us. I don't think there is a correlation with any other form of media where audience reaction can have such a massive and immediate effect on the product, certainly not in any form of media this big. Gaming sites often go after any information released by a developer or or those close to a developer with the same voracity that political pundits do gaffes from the opposite party's leaders. This is a large part of the reason why I have a disclaimer on this blog. I don't want my thoughts on games and game development (or anything else for that matter) to be misconstrued as official statements from a BioWare or EA employee. This overwhelming desire for information from fans and the lack of transparency from developers forges a relationship that can quickly (and quite often) become adversarial. Because of this however the lack of transparency persists and because of that lack of transparency I believe expectations often become outrageous. It's a vicious circle.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten away from my initial point which is that I would like to post more about game development, to be more transparent, but to do so I need to create a certain distance from anything I am currently working on. That being the case, I think I'm going to try to post some things about the process of game development in a general sense. The goal being to shed some light on aspects that people rarely ever see, without incriminating myself in the process.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Opinion: Metacritic

Business sucks, alright? It's cold and rigid and occasionally unfair. Such is the case with Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas contract with Bethesda, wherein the developer only received royalties if the game matched or exceeded an 85 rating on Metacritic. Leaving aside the fact that Metacritic is a woefully unbalanced aggregation of review scores from both vetted and unvetted publications, agreements like this can leave indie studios -- like Obsidian -- in the lurch should that Metacritic score just barely miss the mark.
As a game developer I find the practice of using Metacritic scores as an exact measurement of a game's success appalling and ultimately self-defeating. Not only does this practice hurt developers who fall short of the arbitrary goals set by their studios or publishers, but it hurts the fans as well.

As a general indicator of success, Metacritic is  a decent tool and I know that I've personally used it to help me determine whether to consider further investigation of certain purchases. Using Metacritic as some kind of industry standard barometer however is just nuts! Consider for a moment that Fallout: New Vegas reportedly shipped 5 million units worldwide in it's first month for a total of over $300 million in sales1. In addition, the game apparently outsold it's predecessor Fallout 3 over it's first weekend2. Consider again that the last two games I've personally shipped both achieved Metacritic scores in the mid 80's. While the former sold just over 1 million copies3, but had a drop in subscribers early on4, the later sold a reported 2 million plus copies and according to the latest officially released numbers, continues to maintain a strong subscriber base5. Clearly Metacritic is a useful, but imperfect means for determining the quality of a given product, yet the devotion to Metacritic's aggregate scores in the game industry is nearly absolute and it's costing people both money and jobs.

Using Metacritic as the sole indicator of a title's success is just wrong and it is unfortunately a practice that I have seen too many organizations both close to and further removed from development place far too much stock in. To see the developer of a universally well-received and successful title hobbled by a Metacritic score only 1 point away from the arbitrary goal set by their publisher is incredibly disheartening. I don't personally know anyone who works (or worked) at Obsidian, but my heart goes out to those who have lost revenue and jobs due to this situation and a practice that fails to take into account the full measure of a title's success/worth in the marketplace.


The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I'd Like to Thank the Academy ...

My feelings about awards shows in the video game industry are no secret. Couple that with the fact that every magazine and web site has their own "best of" list and it's no wonder you see 10 games with a "Game of the Year" edition on the shelves every year. As far as I'm concerned there is only one award that matters, the Interactive Achievement Award present at the DICE summit each year for the past 15 years.

I've worked as a professional game developer over the last 12 years (roughly 7 studio years and 5 years "between jobs") and while I've worked on games that had previously won DICE awards (my very brief stint on Asheron's Call) and I've worked for studios that have won DICE awards (Mythic, for Dark Age of Camelot), I've never worked on a game and then had it win a DICE award. That changed last night when Star Wars: The Old Republic took the Interactive Achievement Award for Outstanding Achievement in Online Gameplay.

As the one award given out by my peers in the game development community it means a great deal to be recognized in this fashion, especially given competition like Battlefield 3, Call of Duty, Gears of War 3, and Little Big Planet 2. Even without this award, I've been proud to be a part of this project from the start and continue to be as we support the live game. Winning this award is just a bit of extra recognition for an amazing team of developers making an amazing game.

The views expressed on Plenty For All are not affiliated with BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries and are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Would you be willing to date someone who...

 I was recently looking at someone's profile on and comparing my answers to certain questions to hers, when I came across this one:

"Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours?"

The question had 4 possible answers:

"Yes, I'd be playing with them"
"Yes, but I would not play that much"
"Yes, but I don't like video games"

I hadn't yet answered this question and therefore could not see her response, so I did answer it, going with "Yes, I'd be playing with them" as my response and listing that this and the other two "Yes" answers were responses I considered acceptable for a match to have. Having done this I was able to see this woman's response, it was "No." This ruffled my feathers a bit and I decided that this was not someone who I wanted to get back in touch with. Actually it wasn't just this answer, but the fact that she had some very conservative responses to questions for which I have very liberal responses and her answers to several relationship related questions made it somewhat clear that this was the kind of person who would end up breaking my heart, most likely by cheating on me with someone she found more interesting in the moment.

Still, the question "Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours?"  was the real last straw, especially since I know what the stereotypes are of people who openly admit to being gamers and as a game developer this perturbs me even more so as gaming is not only my hobby but my livelihood. I know too that my being a game developer (a profession that immediately confirms that "yes, I do play games" and that many infer means "it's all I do all day") has narrowed the dating pool for me. This is not something I view as a positive. I've already narrowed the dating pool for myself by choice, in that I'm a picky son of a bitch who's looking for women who are attractive but not in the mainstream media/fashion model/magazine cover sense of the word, are smarter than him, and love music, film, or (gasp) games. That being the case, any further narrowing of the field, especially due to the closed-mindedness of people who flat out assume that those who admit to playing games are not worth the trouble, quite justifiably pisses me off. And since I'm a self-righteous bastard I felt the need to comment on the question on, the full text of which, is reprinted below:

"Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours?"

As a professional video game developer I take offense to this question, not so much because it exists, but because of the spirit in which it is asked and often answered. First let me dismiss the #1 myth about my career. Video game developers do not spend all day at work playing games. Depending on the specific area of game development one is in, an average day is spent programming, making art, writing, or designing and implementing game play ideas that others will find fun. Video game development is a field very similar to film making or being a professional musician. All require technical and artistic knowledge and a high level of dedication to one's craft. And yet I've never seen the question posed "Would you be willing to date someone who watches movies almost every day, for at least 2 hours?" or "Would you be willing to date someone who listens to music almost every day, for at least 2 hours?" You wouldn't see that question asked very often and if you did, most people really wouldn't ascribe much meaning or importance to it in relation to their dating life.

Film makers don't spend all day watching other people's movies, although it is important for them to take time to do so, often in their free time. Musicians don't spend all day listening to other people's music, although it is important for them to take time to do so, often in their free time. Video game developers routinely work 8-12 hour days 6-7 days a week at certain points during a project which often takes multiple years of development from start to finish. A single video games is made by dozens and often hundreds of people, not the lone, maverick developer often portrayed by popular media. Video game developers come from all walks of life, all races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientations. Some game developers are comfortable wearing t-shirts and jeans to work, others dress up. In general we're a laid back group. The image of the slovenly, slacker game developer is exaggerated, although (as in every walk of life) such individuals do exist and they are often as ill-received among game developers as they are among society in general. There are game developers who are nerds, game developers who are jocks, game developers who are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, political activists, and charity organizers. Video game developers rarely play their own game while at work except to test, a process that is less like playing games and more like a director watching dailies or a musician repeating one section of a piece over and over to analyze it's strengths and weaknesses.We're normal people just like you and yes, video game developers do often play games in their free time. One cannot hope to hone their art or craft without experiencing what else is out there. Stagnation is the only other alternative. And yet often we and those who are merely enthusiasts and not developers, are looked down upon as if we suffer from some kind of disease. The idea of video games as something unhealthy and the image of the few who (as with any medium whether music, film, television, etc.) partake too much, seems to permeate our hobby, infecting all perception of who we are. This question "Would you be willing to date someone who..." is not attempting to ascertain relevant facts about an individual in order to be weighed against other concerns. Rather it is an attempt to pigeon-hole and stereotype those who answer positively. And I realize that this is just an internet dating site however, as an example it is indicative of a larger perception in the general public. I wouldn't date someone who dedicated all they're free time to playing games either, but I feel the same way about anyone who partakes of any one activity so over-indulgently. Once again, the question is not the problem, but the idea behind it. The blind stereo-typing of those who enjoy this activity and the fact that this stereotype stands in stark contrast to other similar forms of media entertainment that are viewed almost universally more favorably in the public eye.

I like video games, I play video games, I make video games. Often I will spend a couple hours a night playing games. Sometimes I'll spend more. Sometimes I go days without playing a game at all. I spend more time in a given week listening to music than I do playing games, but no one would ever think to choose that as a negative trait. I know people who watch movies every day of the week and no one would think the less of them either. I know people who read more daily than this question purports is beyond the acceptable level allowed for a person to be playing video games. I know people who play sports for a larger accumulated amount of time, go dancing, go drinking, watch TV and all of those things are treated acceptably. You wouldn't even think to ask the question "Would you be willing to date someone..." for any of those activities and in many cases you would be more willing to date that person. So under what category does this question, in relation to video games, fit in this context?

Let's take a look at it in a different light. "Would you be willing to date someone who smokes crack almost every day?" or "Would you be willing to date someone who looks at pornography almost every day, for at least 2 hours a day?" That's the spirit in which this question is being asked about video games. This question treats not only one of my hobbies, but my livelihood as a deplorable addiction, as something unseemly to be ashamed of and in doing so is promoting hypocrisy in the same way that someone who trumpets equal rights might also frown upon gay marriage. I don't have a disease, I don't make and sell drugs. I make and play video games, a form of entertainment that is no more harmful than rock and roll, television, blockbuster movies, rap music, George Carlin, the lambada, the poetry of Jim Carrol and Allen Ginsberg, or the works of William Shakespeare.

But it's not the question that is the problem. The question has a right to exist and people have a right to answer truthfully. I would ask however that before answering, one take a moment to consider what I've said here. Answering "No" to this question does nothing but illustrate your own shallow perception of what is acceptable. Answering "No" proves your own sheep-like adherence to the stereotypes being rammed down your throat by the mass media. Would you be willing to date someone who plays video games almost every day, for at least 2 hours a day? There's more of us than you think, those who make games and those who don't and our numbers are growing every day. You can continue to blindly assume that anyone who spends that amount of time on this specific hobby, is a perfect poster person for every gamer stereotype ever conceived, or you can open your eyes and accept that maybe not everything is so black and white. The world is a much more interesting place than that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Process Story

I've been formulating this essay about the "survival of the Unfit Few" for the last few days, but I still haven't gotten it to a point where I want to post it yet. The basic thrust of it is an examination of the inadaquacies of upper management at many game studios and how it is often these unfit, out of touch individuals that are the ones who make the decisions that drive projects into the ground, while the generally more in touch frontline developers are left unheard. It is also these frontline developers who tend to get laid off while their bosses keep their jobs or leverage moves to other lofty positions elsewhere based on their "experience." I often talk about the need for more education in the game industry and the maintenance of a scholarly attitude by studios and individual developers. Today at lunch an associate of mine made a good point in saying that what was probably most important at this stage in the development of the game industry was education for managers, producers, and studio heads, current or prospective. That statement added at least another day of thinking onto the writing of my Unfit Few essay.

Since I've gotten some traffic from the comment I made in regards to the Rock Star San Diego incident, I wanted to post something else before the week was out. This blog isn't always about the game industry, but as someone who has been a developer on and off for the last decade, it's a subject I often find myself talking about. Those who came to view the Quality of Life post may also be interested in several other posts here, including: An Honor Just to be Nominated and Credit Where Credit is Due. There's some other decent, not necessarily game related content on the site as well and while sometimes it's just me talking out of my ass, if you like my game posts, there may be something there for you. Like my tag line says though: take it or leave it ... do both if you choose.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Quality of Life

The average amount of time one spends as part of the game industry is 5 years. After 5 years most developers quit and never come back. When one considers that the game developing population tends to skew younger, you find yourself with an industry with few people over 30 and few people with any meaningful long-term experience. To say that this is self-defeating is an understatement. Quite frankly, it's suicide.

One of the main reasons for the 5 year falloff is without a doubt the quality of life or lack thereof at many game studios. I count myself lucky in having worked at companies that have been not only sympathetic, but accomodating in so far as efforts made to promote a workable, quality of life for their employees. Sadly this is not always the case. There are studios that find themselves in a constant state of crunch (whether acknowledged or not) wherein employees are required to work upwards of 60 even 80 plus hours a week, sometimes for months at a time. These are places where sick days and vacations are frowned upon, where working the extra hours (often without overtime pay) is seen as some sort of price one has to pay to be a game developer. The conception that a job in game development is some kind of gift is all too often conjured image that all but enforces this type of labor that is ultimately detrimental to one's physical and mental health and relationships.

The real danger is that such practices are seen as acceptable when they ought not to be. Such practices are seen as necessary when better planning and management would almost certainly pave the way to a better, smoother, less rigorous development cycle. But we accept it, partly because we do see our jobs as a gift. We're doing something we love in a field that (while less so every year) is still very exclusive. We work jobs that many think they want (although few of those have either the skill or the dedication) and because of that there is a lot of competion. And this competition and exclusivity is used against us to remind us of how lucky we are to have these jobs and in an economic climate such as this one even more so. Such draconian work ethics will not only harm the individual however, they will harm the industry as a whole.

An experienced industry is often a smarter, more efficient industry, but if we're breaking the wills of the best gaming minds of a generation before they even begin to make the decisions and offer up the ideas that could change the way we work, then we're only defeating our selves. If the industry continues not only allowing, but secretly lauding such death marches, then we have only ourselves to blame for our lack of advancement. We need to work smarter not harder and the smart people are going to be the first to get fed up and leave.

Possibly the most unfortunate aspect of this whole issue is the unspoken code of silence surrounding this issue. The stigma surrounding those who speak out against one companies practices will invariably follow them to others, because such practices are widespread. No one wants to be a whistleblower, especially when all they're trying to do is make their jobs better. That's why it seems the most vocal responses we've seen in regards to the subject of quality of life in game industry workplaces comes from the spouses of game developers. Several years ago the infamous "EA Spouse" opened the door publically to debate on the issue of unending crunch time and reduced quality of life on a number of fronts. I can't speak to specifics, but as I understand it, the statement served it's purpose and the publicity was enough such that changes were made. Now, a group of wives of Rock Star Games San Diego employees have banded together and drafted a letter "To Whom it May Concern", decrying the dwindling quality of life of their spouses.

I applaud these women and any others who speak out. I would like to see actual developers speak out as well, to come out from behind the unspoken code of silence and publically acknowledge such situations across the industry. Until we become unafraid to stand up to our oppressors we will continue to labor beneath their boots. I sincerely hope that the efforts of the Rock Star San Diego wives result in better working conditions for those developers, but I also hope that the rest of the industry takes this display as a warning. And not just a warning of what could happen should their workers unite agains them, but of the damage that they themselves are doing to their companies and the industry as a whole. The people who benefit most from such oppressive work place practices are often those who stand to lose the most should the masses of game developers become older, smarter, more efficient, more productive, and more engaged. I've worked with these people before and they have little talent beyond trying to keep their jobs and they will destroy this industry which we love.

This isn't a call to arms and neither is the letter drafted by the Rock Star San Diego wives, but it can be a wake up call and a portent of things to come should change not be on the horizon. As the industry slowly grows older and bigger, and more diverse, fewer people will be willing to take such punishment and as it is only in our best interest to change now, then we cannot let the coniving few keep us from that goal. Part of the reason I love this job is because I'm living in a time of pioneers. We are the new artistic medium of the 21st century and we live in interesting times indeed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Credit Where Credit is Due

This is an excellent article at Kotaku about crediting practices at game developers. I've been lucky enough to have been credited on the shipped titles I've worked on in some capacity or another, but I've worked with people who haven't been so lucky. Case in point, the "Warhammer Online" crediting controversy. I personally know dozens of people who left that project before the game shipped and who had spent years working on the project who were not credited. Yes, some people left under less than satisfactory circumstances, but there were just as many if not more who left with no ill will on either side of the aisle. I'm lucky enough now to be working for a developer who even though they're most recent release was seven years in the making, did a rather good job of crediting even those who only spent a short amount of time on the project before moving on to other things internally.

The callousness of those who try and defend this practice by stating that they don't want their employees to be the targets of recruiters and poachers is unbelievable. If you provide your employees with a satisfying work environment, decent benefits, and competitive pay then they're not going to want to leave. Refusing to credit certain individuals is simply childish. The very least a company can do is throw former employees in a "special thanks" section. I spent very little time working on Turbine Entertainment's "Asheron's Call 2" but they had the decency to list me as an additional contributor in the credits.

What's most disturbing in all this however is the anonymity of those speaking out against it. The fact that such a stigma exists in this industry against those who publicly voice the slightest concerns is staggering. Game developers are expected to work long hours often without overtime pay and be completely satisfied with the experience. The general consensus is that the trade off comes in having such a job in the first place. I love what I do, I've spent years chasing this career path, but at the end of the day it's a job. I and others like me have made these jobs our lives, much in the way that the industry stigma assumes we should and sacrificed relationships and our physical, mental, and social well-being in the process. But it's just a job, it's not the privilege that it's often built up to be by the craven few who are so isolated in their thinking as to not be able to see beyond the tips of their own noses.

I'm grateful for my job because at the end of the day it's a paycheck for doing something that I enjoy, but game developers aren't the only people who are allowed to enjoy their jobs. Plumbers, police officers, shop owners, office managers, salesmen; for any job you can imagine there's more people than not who enjoy doing that job. And yes, those people complain from time to time, but they enjoy what they do and they expect to be recognized for it. Game developers are no different and unfair crediting practices do nothing but reinforce a "thank you sir may I have another" subservient attitude in the industry. It not only belittles those already in the industry, but doesn't give much reason for new or outside talent to seek us out or stick around once they get here.

The people making these decisions not to credit the people who worked hard and then left for one reason or another need to grow up. It's not just about who's there when you cross the finish line, it's about the people who helped along the way as well. If someone leaves your company for "greener pastures" then that's a cue to look at how you could have served them better, not to be vindictive and withhold due credit. I've said it before that game development is the new media of the 21st century, but in order for that to really take shape we need to grow the hell up.