Transforming the Games Industry into a Well-Oiled Machine:
Truth in Advertising, Available Talent, and Work Environment - Part 1
This is part 1 of 6 in my response to the Gamasutra.com opinion piece entitled “Making the Game Industry an Attractive Place to Work,” and written by Electronic Arts' current head of European talent acquisition, Matthew Jeffery. Click HERE to read the original article.
December 10, 2008
By Eric M. Scharf
I originally responded to Matthew Jeffery’s article on June 21st, but after another recent review, I was reacting more to the alarmist tone of many of the respondents who posted before me – than fully to the content displayed within the opinion piece itself. Matthew’s material focuses on an extremely delicate matter – involving the very foundation of the games industry – and it merits much deeper consideration and a more thorough response.
The potential solutions I reveal in this article – through my own professional experience – present a healthy challenge to some common-and-historical games industry lip service: (1) an employee’s “enormous passion for games,” (2) an employer’s “desire to deliver the best games by hiring the best talent,” and, ultimately, (3) how these two themes can be combined towards a long-term commitment of making the games industry a more attractive-and-stable place to work . . . while also derailing star-struck assumptions about the employee / employer dynamic.
Truth in Advertising
Matthew states at
the very beginning that, at various industry speaking engagements,
he is almost always asked: "What's it truly like to work in
gaming?" Other questions follow regarding the good, the bad and
everything else involved in game development as a profession.
Instead of making this fact extremely public and accessible to the interested masses, the games industry – represented by both companies and employees alike – has generally perpetuated the decades-old myth shared by many who are desperate to get involved in game development: “Making video games for a living?! That is so cool! I wish I could do that! I bet I would make lots and lots of money, too! It must be tons of fun, just sitting around, playing games all day long!”
If you are a talented team player (1) who gives 100% effort towards your specific game development tasks, (2) who can dig down deep and give another 10-50% effort towards collaborative and interdisciplinary tasks, (3) who has natural communication and leadership skills, (4) who is magically at the right place at the right time (to avoid project cancelations / company failures just long enough to qualify for performance bonuses / raises), then . . . you may just get what you “have been dreaming of ever since you played your first video game as a child.”
Regarding the public fame and fortune you may also be seeking, you should simply perform all of the above to the best of your ability and hope that someone from the press is paying close attention when the results of your performance hit online and retail "store shelves everywhere." This is all, of course, dependent upon your employer having a solid, long-term business plan in place . . . that supports and calls for quality products and reasonable rewards for the employees who create them.
It is also worth noting that “companies being honest in what they have to offer employment candidates” refers to long-standing publisher-developers and newer, smaller start-ups alike. No one – employer or employee – is immune to being responsible for getting the right message out to the masses about how cool and hard it is to develop video games for a living.
Regarding there being no recruitment “crisis” yet in gaming, the facts speak volumes to the contrary in the United States. The “experienced” talent pool of game developers is not only shrinking, it is on the verge of becoming extinct, like the Dodo and the dinosaurs.
I admit that my definition of “experienced” game developers generally refers to old school developers. Such developers – in the absence of some of the coolest-and-latest production tools – can still deliver the goods through natural skill and hard-fought experience. New school developers, objectively, would struggle without many of the "easy button" commercial tool sets they are so used to having available, anywhere and everywhere they perform their tasks.
must be aware of the
latest, potentially quality-improving, time-saving technology
. . . and be able to implement and utilize
state-of-the-art solutions whenever necessary and financially
feasible. You must also, however, be prepared
incredible and unforeseen emergency –
to succeed in the absence of that technology. If you are going to take the risk of specialization, you need to be
able to roll with the generalization punches, as well . . . and just hope
your development squad does not collectively have a glass jaw.
Many publisher-developers and still-viable independent developers, ironically, may be increasing in size, but this is only due to their willingness to hire specialists. Gone are the days of the jacks-of-all-trades. Many of those well-rounded artisans – from my personal experience – are, in fact, masters-of-all (versus being a master of none, as a more singularly-focused person might have you believe). Being multi-faceted with no perceived drop in quality can also command a bulkier salary, thus, those masters – in most cases – have been branded as too costly to keep on as full-time, in-house employees . . . "especially in today’s economy."
“Why bottle up so much knowledge in the mind of one resource? What happens when that person is out sick, on vacation, or simply having a bad day?” I have posed such questions in the past, but only in the vein of wanting a jack-of-all-trades to train other artists who wished to be just as multi-faceted . . . or to enhance the skills of those who were already well on their way to well-roundedness. The admittedly ideal-but-not-impossible result would be a rock-solid development team capable of successfully circling the wagons on any project when one or two of their colleagues were unavailable, for any reason.
The primary solution is to schedule the work load of a jack-of-all-trades so that such a person is also available to their co-workers to spread the wealth of experience . . . thus, establishing consistency in quality and knowledge across an entire development team. The secondary-and-equally-important solution is to offer your jack-of-all-trades a team leadership position. Such an expanded role could allow that person to simultaneously remain on the bleeding edge of their game development interests . . . and be formally available to grow and maintain a team-wide consistency to match their own.
The caveat here is that a jack-of-all-trades must actually be interested and capable of simultaneously leading and teaching. Such talented resources – more-often-than-not – shy away from leadership roles. They simply enjoy the trench-level, shoulder-to-shoulder production experiences far too much to relinquish them . . . for the greater, long-term good of their teammates and project(s).
This general result speaks more to the current state-and-quality of game project management than a candidate being unprepared to raise their performance to a higher, broader level . . . as a stable company infrastructure encourages employees to willingly shoulder more responsibility.
In a business that – for decades – has viewed multi-talented artists as a dime-a-dozen, the games industry is, unfortunately, paying the ultimate price for replacing the vast majority of these now-rare jacks-of-all-trades with specialists. This skewed approach to well-trained personnel comes with a catch that makes one cringe.
The vast majority of specialists cannot be counted on to willingly and successfully switch gears in an emergency and take on other equally-important tasks . . . and this is with full acknowledgement that there are some very talented-and-accomplished specialists in the industry. Resources – from each of the major disciplines – must be reasonably interchangeable, within their respective disciplines, for this very reason.
While resource quality, resource availability, and aggressive competition for those resources are acknowledged as ever-present problems, you still do not want to short-change your product by knowingly short-changing the quality-and-flexibility of your resources.
The phrase “it costs money to make money” may be no more than a pile of ashes in this age of fly-by-night business practices – but the phrase “it costs a lot of money to hire great talent to create great products” is the fiery phoenix that has risen in its place.
While companies struggle more and more to locate the appropriate resources in such a fiercely competitive market, they must be just as concerned with creating a quality work environment that nurtures enough creativity and fun.
You cannot truly generate conditions that nurture creativity and fun without first generating conditions that give employees a great feeling of confidence in their employer. The foundation for their confidence would stem from the knowledge that their employer has a long-term, forward-thinking business plan . . . from which project managers can generate solid short-term goals and sub-plans, in support of the creativity and fun that employees are expected to have while working on employer / publisher-funded and employee-generated projects.
Creativity and fun are hollow work environment attributes to any employee who is not confident in the long-term existence of their very work environment.
You must also adhere to this way of thinking if you have any desire to retain any or all of the talented resources you have developed in-house. You want to avoid the all-too-common scenario of encouraging your employees to learn and grow on your dime, only to see them join another developer . . . due to operational details for which you must deliver daily.
Building a creative and fun work environment for – of all things – game development . . . is not enough if you never bother to maintain that environment. Maintaining a creative and fun environment is ironically less about the fun and more about protection from external pressures on game developers. If your work environment can help isolate the stress of game development down to "how much farther can I push the fantastic result of this assignment" – through superior planning and project management – you are onto something.
Adversarial, potentially emotional demands for a lower-stress work environment, increased salaries, performance bonuses, and profit sharing will start to regularly resemble professional, respectful discussions . . . about when such rewards can be implemented to the reasonable satisfaction of all. The alternative is no alternative at all. It leaves you searching the forest for a magical unicorn . . . or a quickly-trainable replacement of equal caliber to the ROI (Return On Investment) you watched stroll out of your company.
You may have a system in place which somewhat mitigates that loss, through in-house training provided by your team leaders to your promising new hires. Imagine, however, the cost in product quality being stolen from your project. Your team leaders may potentially find themselves spending more of their valuable time training their teammates – versus managing and ensuring consistent quality across the board.
Imagine the lost resource being one of those very team leaders. While in-house training has become invaluable, commercial game development has never been sustainable when the talent training has equaled or surpassed talent work product.
Just because “everyone in the industry has to deal with this reality at one point or another” does not make this problem acceptable or incurable. The best results often require the best plans and best work environments . . . to attract and keep the best resources.
There is, indeed, a
vicious cycle towards the collection and retention of talented
as an employer
simply need to be ready and
willing to act in favor of a reasonable mix of
experience levels . . . or the choice between raw-but-promising
juniors and established veterans.
Once you have taken reasonable steps to retain your employees, most of those employees naturally expect proof that you will honor your workforce commitments through other big-ticket items like project budgeting and scheduling. After all, why should talented employees remain with your company – at any salary level – if your chosen project schedule will burn through available funds and burn out that employee before the project even reaches beta?
While the vast majority of game development studios continue with the standard-and-legitimate practice of carefully padding their production schedules, where reasonably appropriate and necessary (for all manner of planned and unexpected events) . . . there have been and continue to be situations involving purposely scheduled overtime (otherwise known as "crunch time" or "death marches").
Even the very best plans may not completely eradicate overtime, but the very best plans at least tend to limit overtime to balancing truly creative vision versus painful scope creep.
While it can absolutely demolish a given work environment, the deliberate scheduling of overtime actually makes sense (however warped) if you are having to absorb a toxic combination of poor project planning, limited resources, a little bad luck, and an ill-conceived delivery date. Besides, an employee's unquestioned "passion for games" is really a "passion for overtime," right?
This overtime choice (and it is a choice) can also come from the ever-popular executive push of larger corporations – where that executive may have received unforgiving "guidance" from key shareholders . . . involving the quarterly bottom line, which directly affects the (continued) existence of your project(s).
At the end of the day, all of these active elements and moving parts comprise the work environment in which your talented personnel are supposed to deliver your triumphant products. Sometimes you get the bull and sometimes you get the horns – for all game development participants – but you will always be cheating yourself, your product(s), and everyone involved if you refuse to make a reasonable attempt at establishing the creative and fun work environment in which all great games must initially incubate.