bitching games industry

IGDA Chair responds to Quality of Life debacle

We finally have a mainstream response (as opposed to responses sitting quietly in obscurity in the forums) to the issue of IGDA Board Members pissing all over IGDA’s main tenets:
(from the IGDA monthly newsletter that just went out to all 15,000+ members)

Instances of the following words in that response:

sorry – 0
mistake – 0
fault – 0
acceptable – 0
unacceptable – 0

I guess that says it all, really. If that was meant to be an apology, or a recognition that the board and the org did *anything* wrong here at all, then it’s a clear FAIL.

If not … well, what was the point?

The fact that the org refuses even now to accept that it did anything wrong, refuses to apologize, or to commit to acting differently next time, that there is no action item offered to rectify it taking 4+ months for the organization to respond (having only acted *at all* after it was pushed into the news, DESPITE the board being present at the damn event), well…

All that seems to me to say:

“it’s business as usual, folks; EA, Epic, and all the other abusive studios – don’t worry, IGDA has your back! Our members come second”

I didn’t used to believe that – I know many key people in IGDA personally and knew they would never ever espouse that – but I’m now staring the reality in the face and seeing that “the organization as run by the board” != “the diligent and wonderful individuals I know who contribute so much”.

PS: quick shout to Tom Buscaglia (one of the board members who’s so far apparently done nothing about all this) – if, after reading this post, you’re going to accuse *me* of being “a whiney little bitch who would rather quit after a loss than jump in deeper” again, then I suggest this time that you link to the post URL rather than the blog domain. That way people reading this will get an automatic trackback link to your site, and get to see your response this time around :).

computer games entrepreneurship games industry massively multiplayer recruiting startup advice

Culture, Reputation, and Running a Game Studio

What’s the biggest single challenge to a Studio Director? Or to the VP of Development / Studios who oversees a handful of publisher-owned studios?


In the games industry there are no raw materials of variable quality, there is no variety of base services to build upon; everything that distinguishes one company (and set of products) from another comes solely from the people they hire.

In the games industry there are no raw materials to pay for, there are no service charges. There are only salaries and employee-support costs.

Recruitment is where the studio heads find their hardest problems, and see their biggest successes/failures as the studio grows in size. Eventually, all their own experience and ability at design, marketing, sales, programming, art, etc become subsumed by their ability to attract, recruit, retain, lead, and motivate their people.


…is the best thing for new game studios to happen in the past 5 years. It’s achieved four things:

  1. Removed lots and lots of people from their comfortable jobs, by force
  2. …simultaneously…
  3. …indiscriminately w.r.t. quality of personnel…
  4. …and made even the supposedly “secure” games companies (EA, Microsoft, Sony) suddenly look as fragile and short-term as the riskiest of startups

The VCs have been blogging about the benefits to startups wrought by this recession, and I’ve put it to a couple of them now that, for the game industry, this one – recruitment – is the biggest by far, and each time met with straight agreement. Our industry is very like Management Consultancy: it’s driven by the people. Nothing else matters.


I’ve worked with a lot of experienced managers who’ve been adamant that “no-one leaves their job because of (too little) salary”. Also with slightly fewer who were convinced that “no-one accepts a job based on salary” (more often, that was rephrased with a rider to be: “no-one good accepts a job based on salary alone“).

In that case, why do people accept / leave a job?

“Culture” is the catch-all term that describes not just the direct environment which people experience each day in the office, but also the emotional and psychological experiences that they go through while there.

It describes how their colleagues think and act – and how those actions effect the individual. But it also describes how the “teams” within the organization think and act, which can often be very different from the people within them. You often see teams of smart people “acting dumb”, or teams of nice people act like assholes when taken collectively. Group think is powerful, very powerful.

But it’s hard, very hard, to really see the culture of a company until you’ve worked there for a couple of years, and in a couple of different divisions, and perhaps a dozen different departments. Which is not an option for most of us. You can work somewhere for just a few months and pick up the culture if you know what you’re doing and really work at it – but even that requires skill and dedication, and can only be done AFTER accepting a job offer.

(this is one of the reasons I posted my Manifesto for a Game Studio online – you can get a strong taste of the culture of my next startup, and decide if you want to work with us, without having to sacrifice a year of working there first)


Game industry staff often worry about reputation. The companies (as represented by the senior management) themselves often don’t.

The former care how their organization is perceived, and assume everyone else does too. They assume that a “better reputation” will lead to “more sales”.

The latter have access to the actual sales figures, and have convinced themselves that this is a nice idea but simply not borne out by fact (in some cases this is true, in some it isn’t – but it’s much easier to look at the figures on paper and believe it’s true than to see the flaws in that logic).

But the truth is that it IS important, very important. It’s the external reflection of the internal culture. As such, it’s what most people use to make a decision about whether they want to work there.

Obviously, it varies. The older and more experienced you are, the more you come to use a company’s reputation as a barometer of its culture – and the more heavily you weight this in your decision about accepting a job. The younger, more ignorant staff generally haven’t been burnt by terrible culture, or haven’t yet learned what to look for / avoid in their next employer.

Back to the issue of Recruitment: the biggest successes/failures are going to be from the more experienced people you hire (and, remember – hiring a “bad” person into a senior position is not just a loss, it can easily cause negative productivity, by screwing up lots of other staff who were doing their jobs better before that person arrived and started interfering / roadblocking them / etc).

So … you probably should care about your reputation, somewhat in proportion to the size of your company.


Pre-WoW, Blizzard had an exceptional reputation, for a handful of common reasons (amongst others):

  1. Never shipped a game that wasn’t really good fun
  2. Frequently invented + defined large sub-genres with their games (Warcraft was one of the first RTS’s, Starcraft created the “truly strategic” RTS genre, Diablo re-invented the hack-and-slash RPG, etc)
  3. Publicly talked about “finishing” their games, and then deliberately deciding to spend another whole year (or similar) working on them before shipping, to make sure they were really polished
  4. All of their games were best-sellers – i.e. they didn’t just make cool stuff, they made cool stuff that the market appreciated and paid for, too

Now, I’m not so sure. If a recruiter called me tomorrow with an “amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to work at Blizzard, my first reaction would be hesitation: would I really want to work at the place that Blizzard has become?

While people have queued up to defend them, the history of their actions against Glider, and now this absurd crackdown on World of Warcraft add-on authors, have left me with a sour taste in the mouth.

In my opinion, using the law to beat over the head people who discover flaws in your basic business model / acumen is the last refuge of those who recognize their own incompetence but would rather not go to the effort of raising their own quality bar. Blizzard seems to be making a habit of it. That’s not encouraging. Ten million paying players for one MMO is great, but … the sales figures of their games were only ONE of those bullets I cited above about Blizzard’s reputation traditionally. Money buys a lot of forgiveness, but not infinitely so.

conferences GDC 2009

Don’t go to GDC; listen to “industry heavyweights” instead!

For a mere $600 (yes, that *is* going to double the cost of the GDC ticket that you already bought), you can go to this competing event on Tuesday next week:

“VentureBeat is teaming with industry heavy-weights.”

Ah, hubris, how we love you.

“You’ll learn how one of the most successful and rapidly growing sectors in the high-tech industry will be critical in the development of every major computing platform, including web, mobile and social media technologies.”

The thing about making such grandiose claims is that you’re going to look particularly stupid if you can’t live up to them. I read this far with interest, perhaps even a little excitement – what were they doing that they felt bold enough to go head to head with the world’s largest and most important games-industry annual event?

Hmm. Well. Let’s look at what these Industry Heavyweights are going to be saying:

8:45: 5 different Venture Capitalists talk about new business models, and which companies are going to “win” going forwards. This would be cool, except that VC’s love to say “if I thought I actually knew, I’d quit and found my own startup”. Probably a good session if you’ve not been to these guys’ VC panels before, just so you can get a bit of insight of how they think. However, the lack of anyone who would force them to be honest takes away most of the value of having them there; VC panels *always* need someone on them who’s post-funding, or a super angel, and not afraid to cry BS on them. Where’s Nabeel, or Susan, or one of the other bullish entrepreneurs with no iota of fear of VCs?

9:30: the man who was so unpopular at the ION conference last year he almost got booed / dragged off the stage is back to take credit for creating an MMO 12 years ago which his company has failed to equal since, and to claim to “launch a new breed of online games” that as we all know is is just a clone of other, bigger, games that came out 8 years ago. Colour me not impressed.

10:00: Someone from PlayStation Network is going to talk about how tough it is to focus on your consumers, and what you should do. This will be a short one; I predict she’ll say “just don’t do what we did, we’ve screwed up on every decision we ever made”. There’s also someone from Nokia, That Failed Mass Market Wannabe Game Company Who Never Saw What Was Right In Front Of Their Faces (as if nGage weren’t enough, they had to make another one to really seal their FAIL title). And a publisher trying to make a play for control of one of the “new platforms”, who’s probably going to be a teensy weensy bit biased. I’d say that Neil Young is going to be the one here worth listening to, bias included, because he might well reveal some interesting things about life as an iPhone publisher. I don’t think there’ll be much on-topic of value, though.

11:00: “Are the barriers to entry just too big with giants like Activision Blizzard using World of Warcraft as a continuous revenue stream to reinvest?”. This will be another short session, we – all – already know the answer: “yes”. That is why no-one sane is attempting it. Wasn’t Hellgate: London enough of a lesson for you? Although it would seem implicitly that at least two of the speakers on this panel are going ahead anyway. What I’d like to know is just where do those guys find the pants big enough?

12:00-16:00: these sessions seem mostly normal, the right kind of people speaking for the topics. Although I’m not sure exactly of the value of e.g. a 30 minute session with a non-game-developer talking about his dream game development studio. Great for him, if he knows what he wants and is getting it, that’s cool. But … what does that have to do with the “industry heavyweights”? Surely it would make more sense to get someone who’s made a whole series of studios answering that question? Maybe I’m missing something here, but IIRC he … hasn’t?

16:00: “Is what sells today going to be socially acceptable tomorrow?” and “If they are indeed becoming routine, then what comes next? And, how do companies make money from it?” – well, the companies speaking at these sessions are near *guaranteed* not to answer, because they’re all betting their own futures on “them knowing, and the rest of you not knowing”. Could be a short session…

16:45: I’m taking a wild guess here that you’ll see 3 Analysts show how little they know about the industry. You’ve got someone from DFC up there, the same DFC that published a report the other week which couldnt’ seem to remember the difference between a “company” and a “product”, or at least was keen to ignore it if it got in the way of producing a vague “top 10 list”. And what’s with this factor-of-3-guesswork at revenues? I’ve got much much more detailed info than that myself!


CMP/Think Services needn’t start sweating yet. It’s going to be a heck of a lot more successful than their own attempt at something similar a few years back (“GDC Prime”), but it’s really just a sideshow, even with all the big names in attendance. They’re names, but not industry heavyweights; the heavyweights are all at GDC, IMHO.

Although … the cunning move of holding this on the Tuesday might well draw a fair few people into going who don’t have 5-day tickets for GDC (have the cheaper 3-day ones). TS has deliberately kept Mondays and Tuesdays quiet by charging an extra fee for attendance. My advice personally would be not to bother with the VB event (if you’re not already on a 5-day GDC ticket) and to instead spend the day meeting up with random GDC attendees / attending meetings.

GDC rocks. I’ll see you there…

EDIT: PS: the rampant attempts to re-inforce elitism at GDC are beginning to really wind me up. GDC Prime was bad enough, but everyone’s got to experiment with their business model from time to time. There are reasons why the elitist, coke-addled, E3 died and the developer-driven, egalitarian GDC did not (there’s a clue there to my own thoughts on at least one of the big reasons ;)), and I don’t take kindly to attempts to turn GDC into “E3 … take two”. They won’t win, so long as TS keeps their heads about them, but … it’s just tacky to watch.

conferences education games design

Serious game researchers: this is you.

Your professor tells you that you can’t study them for their own sake. However, if they’re as exciting as you say, and all the young people are reading them, then perhaps you could write an educational one? He therefore instructs you to go away and write a novel to teach addition.

For one of the conferences I was asked to speak at this year, I proposed a talk on the topic:

“Why the Serious Games movement is fundamentally bankrupt based on an idea that will never work, and what you should be doing instead, because there’s some great stuff you’re doing under that banner – but only when you undermine or ignore the classic definition(s) of Serious Games”

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t accept it. They kept on asking me to talk on something more “positive” and “business encouraging”; I kept on replying that it needs to be said, that it would be more valuable to their audience than anything else I personally could talk meaningfully on, and that if they didn’t want it, fine. Not my loss. Ah well.

(and to those of you who are doing great stuff and calling it Serious Games, but not following the foolishness of the majority – well done, keep it up, and we’re looking forward to what you come up with next!)