Series Info...Introduction

by Jessica Mulligan
September 25, 2001

Well, it has certainly been an interesting two weeks. The last column was published on September 11; need I say more? Sitting down to write about games seems so unimportant right now, and yet our lives must go on, or the bad guys win. So no matter how little importance games in general may have in the grand scheme of history, I’m carrying on.

And no doubt, in years to come and after the worst of this is past us, I’ll be kidding Raph Koster that I turned my column over to him for a response to my ranting just once and see what happened?

Scratch ‘n Sniff

I said the next column was going to be about some amusing terms that have cropped up in online gaming. So naturally, that last one was a response to a previous column and this one won’t be about amusing terms, either. Why is that, you might ask? In the words of the immortal Earl Long, former Governor of Louisiana, on being asked why he raised taxes after promising not to do so during his election campaign, "I lied."

That’s an exaggeration for effect, of course; what really occurred was that something happened to change my mind on the column subject. What happened was the Scratchware Manifesto, a somewhat screeching screed written a year ago and languishing in obscurity until now. I twigged on to it on Sunday, September 2, from a couple articles (article one and two) at the Lum the Mad Web site. I encourage you to read the Manifesto before finishing out this column. Reading it certainly made me want to make a couple points.

First, let me say: I sympathize at least a little bit with what the authors are saying. There are definitely problems in how we do things as an industry and this column hasn’t been a big fan of the way things get done sometimes at the big publishing houses; just check out Jack and the Beancounter and you’ll see what I mean. The point where we match up the closest is one they don’t state in so many words, but which is inherent in their rant: Publishers rarely take risks these days, and it is hard to move forward as an industry when risks aren’t being taken. So, I can understand how the unnamed authors of the Scratchware Manifesto came to be frustrated enough to write it.

On the other hand: They’re full of crap.

When you scratch the Manifesto and sniff the results, the fetid odor of unreality exudes like the miasma from a swamp on a windless day. It becomes clear that the unnamed authors totally miss the point with their call to revolution. The Manifesto turns out to be just another generic "Corporations are always bad, developers are always good" rant. A pretty well written one for a polemic but, like it’s Marxist forebear, it tends to ignore reality in favor of a Utopian vision of how things could be, if only everybody thought like them. Reading the Manifesto, in fact, I have to question whether the authors have ever worked in the industry or are just running on rumor and innuendo. The main thrust seems to be that the poor, overworked, ground-under developers can’t slip an original idea past the stupid, lying, venal publishers, who are only in it for the money, mandate what pieces of doggie doo-doo will be produced and have bloated the workforce so much that games now cost millions.

Yeah; right. Time to explode some myths:

Point of the First: In many cases, if not most, projects are sold to executives by the development team, not the other way around.

In fact, most executive teams depend on the guys in the trenches to come up with winning ideas. An internal team or external development house pitches a concept to the exec in charge and convinces him to part with the money to build the project. This is especially true for PC games, and somewhat less true for many console games, which tend to be pretty much clones of each other or this year’s version of a game based on professional sports. In my experience, only rarely does executive management mandate a project out of thin air.

If you want to know who to blame for so many bad games hitting the retail shelves, now you know; both sides of the equation have a finger pointed at them, but the developers in many cases have a couple. Yes, there is a certain amount of pre-screening of proposals, based on what developers think execs will buy into. On the other hand, almost all of what those execs see on paper starts with "The concept for this game is Sim City meets "Quake" or similar uninspired bat dooky.

And there is one other point to make here: Quite a few publishers pay bonuses to development teams, and those bonuses are based on sales figures. One reason so many uninspired proposals are made for tired-butt clones is because everyone involved knows that is what you’ll buy. Developers aren’t stupid; if the retail results say you’ll buy 500,000 units of the latest lame first-person shooter, but only 250,000 units of a new and daring adventure game, then the Quake clone is what is going to get built. There is a finger pointed at you, too; if you want better, more original games, stop buying the same old thing every time you go to the store. If the same old thing is all that is on the shelf, buy nothing.

Point the Second: I know that it is heresy to say so and I’ll probably lose my Rant Against the Rat Bastard Publishers guild card for daring it, but: Internal development teams lie.

Like cheap rugs on a mud hut floor, sometimes. I’ve been in situations where Producers have actually faked code deliveries for months, then finally ‘fessed up as Beta test time approached. I’ve been coincidentally seated in a high-walled restaurant booth next to members of an internal dev team from a company I worked at, listening while they crowed among themselves that the execs actually bought the short development timeline and listened while they planned when to announce they’d need an extra six months. I once watched helplessly while the top two executives at a non-profit organization, two men with honor and integrity, were fired by their Board of Directors because a project we were developing under license from them was going to be twelve months late. The project was late because a Producer had blatantly lied for six months about the state of the game and it hadn’t been caught out because his Executive Producer trusted him.

That kind of outright lying is rare, thank god. What you see most often is developers overestimating their own talents and underestimating the development timeline. Games don’t come out late because executives come to work one morning and say, "Hey, let’s push back the ship date for Game X. That way, the project will cost us more money and irritate our customers." There is some of the "Hey, let’s add this feature in, because research says it will sell!" syndrome, and that does make some games late.

However, a game is just as likely to come out late because the dev team pitched a product they said they could do in 24 months and at Month 21, they embarrassedly inform the executive producer or VP of Development that, gosh, this isn’t going as fast as we want and we’re going to need another 3 months. Or 6 months. Etc., etc., etc.. It is one reason publishers prefer to go with external development houses for some projects; you don’t have to pay for the work until you actually see the results. With internal teams, you’re paying out every two weeks regardless; if you don’t catch out hanky-panky for months, you could be out hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Point the Third: Most developers work long hours because they want to.

Sure, every project has crunch times where everyone puts in 18 hour days and there is certainly an unspoken industry rule that everyone should put in obscenely long hours. It is generally expected that dev team members will routinely put in 50-60 hours weeks (which is not unusual in any US business today).

On the other hand, that expectation is there because that has been the choice of developers since day one; it has been part of the culture forever. Anyone who wants to work 9 to 5 can, because computer game project tasks are generally scheduled around an eight hour work day. Most of the developers I’ve worked with are young, lack busy social lives and just plain get off on what they do for a living. When they get their teeth in a game, they just work, sometimes for days straight without a major break (including shower breaks, which is a whole other story). Sometimes I think half my job is convincing 25 year old coders that there is a life beyond that reflected in a monitor screen and that that life includes Irish Spring.

Yes, everyone bitches and moans about the long hours. It is a point of honor to moan about the latest 80 hour week, because outright bragging about it — which is what is really going on — is considered déclassé. It is a custom, just as it is a custom in the military to moan about the stupidity of the commanding officer... and then to kick the butt of anyone outside the unit who dares say the same thing.

Point the Last: If game budgets and development teams are bloated, we only have ourselves to blame.

This is where those pesky sales figures come into the picture again. They demonstrate one fact very clearly: Games with primo eye candy and other ‘added value’ usually sell a heck of a lot more units than games with just good play mechanics. This is not in dispute. The sales figures don’t lie; why do you think dev teams now have twice as many artists and/or modelers as the rest of the team put together? Which would you buy, Mechwarrior 4 with OK game play and great art, or Mechwarrior 4 with great game play and stick-figures? Would Diablo II with excellent game play and wire-frame art sell better than Diablo 2 with nifty art and average game play? In those situations, pretty much any of us can add up 2+2 and get the same answer.

Except, apparently, the writers of the Manifesto. They suggest they will begin writing Scratchware, harkening back to a simpler, golden era where games were games, by cracky, written in a garage by two or three insanely talented people who didn’t need any of this capitalist, thirty-man development team, bloated waste of money BS. We’ll make games the way Nature intended them to be made, with chicken-wire and bubblegum! News Flash: The market has spoken. Those days are long gone and never will return. There will be the occasional exception, but it will not be the rule.

On the other hand, they do have one point: Small, nimble teams have come up with some of the best sellers of the last seven years, including such games as Warcraft, Diablo, Master of Orion, Descent, Doom and Quake. It was only after the likes of Blizzard, SimTex, Parallax and id bloated out that their games started coming out years late. Does this mean large teams are no-nos? No, what that tells me is that small developers who grow too fast don’t learn how to manage large teams and don’t have time to learn while it is happening. It happens a lot; let’s not forget that until about 1993, this was a relatively small industry. Even today, there aren’t many people in the industry with experience at managing 30+ person game development teams; eight years ago, you didn’t even have to take off your shoes to total them up.

To sum it all up, the publishers aren’t solely to blame for the way things are done in this industry. We, all of us, publisher, developer and customer, have to take some of the blame on our shoulders. And at the risk of alienating some readers:

If you customer-types would buy something out of the ordinary once in a while, we wouldn’t keep shoveling the same old garbage under your nose, hoping to pass the scratch and sniff test.

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