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28 April, 2019

On the “toxicity” of videogame production.

I was at a lovely dinner yesterday with some ex-gamedev friends and, unsurprisingly, we ended up talking about the past and the future, our experiences in the trenches of videogame production. It reminded me of many discussions I had on various social media channels, and I thought it would be nice to put something in writing. I hope it might help people who want to start their career in this creative industry. And perhaps even some veterans could find something interesting in reading this.

- Disclaimer.

These are my thoughts. Duh, right? Obvious, the usual canned text about not representing the views of our corporate overlords and such? Not the point.
The thing I want to remind you before we start is how unknowable an industry is. Or even a company, a team. We live in bubbles, even the ones among us with the most experience, with most curiosity, are bound by our human limits. That’s why we structure large companies and teams in hierarchies, right? Because nobody can see everything. Of course, as you ascend them you get more of a broad view, but from these heights, the details are quite blurry, and vice-versa, people at the “bottom” can be very aware of certain details but miss the whole. 

This is bad enough that even if internally you try hard, after a success or a failure, to understand what went right or wrong, most of the times you won’t capture objectively and exhaustively these factors. Often times we don’t know at all, and we fail to replicate success or to avoid failing again.

Staring at the production monster might drive you insane.

So, I can claim to be more experienced than some, less than some others, it truly doesn’t matter. Nobody is a source of truth in this, the best we can do is to bring a piece of the puzzle. This is, by the way, a good attitude both towards oneself, to know that we probably have myriads of blind spots, but also key to understand what other people say and write. Even the best investigative journalists out there can at best report a bit of truth, an honest point of view, not the whole picture. 

To name names, for example, think about Jason Schreier, whom I admire (have you read “blood, sweat and pixels”? You should...) for his writing and his ability to do great, honest research. His work is exemplary, and still, I think it’s partial. In some cases, I know it is.

And that is ok, it’s intellectual laziness to think we can read some account and form strong opinions, know what we’re talking about. Journalism should provide a starting point for discussion, research, and thought. It’s like doing science. You chip away at the truth, but one single observation, no matter the prestige of the lab, means very little. 
And if we need multiple studies to confirm something as simple as science, where things are objective, measurable and unchanging, think how hard is the truth when it comes to entities made of people…

- Hedging risk.

One thing to understand is where the risk for abuse comes from. And I write this first not because it should be a personal responsibility to avoid abuse, but because it’s something that we don’t talk about. Yes, there is bad management, terrible things do exist, in this industry as in others, and they have to be exposed, and we have to fight. But that doesn’t help us to plan our careers and to take care of ourselves. 

So, where does the potential for abuse come from? Simply, imbalance of power. If you don’t have options, you are at risk, and in practice, the worst companies tend to be the ones with all the power, simply because it’s so simple to “slip” into abusing it. Sometimes without even truly realizing what the issue is.

So, you should avoid EA or Activision. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, right, the big ones? No, that’s not the power I’m talking about, quite the opposite. Say you are an established computer engineer working for EA, in its main campus in the silicon valley, today. Who has power, EA or you, when Google, Facebook et al are more than eager to offer you a job? I’d say, as an educated guess, that the most risk comes in medium-sized companies located in countries without a big game industry, in roles where the offer is much bigger than the demand. 

Does that mean that you should not seek a career in these roles, or seek a job in such companies? Definitely not, I started exactly like that, actually leaving a safer and even better-paid job to put myself in the above-mentioned scenario. It’s not that we shouldn’t do scary and dangerous things, but we have to be aware of what we are doing and why. My better half is an actress, she’s great and I admire her ambition, work ethic, and courage. Taking risks is fine when you understand them, you make conscious choices, you have a plan, and that plan should also include a path to stability.

- Bad management or creative management?

Fact. Most great games are done in stressful conditions. Crunch, fear, failure, generally the entire thing being on fire. In fact, the production of most great games can be virtually indistinguishable from the production of terrible games, and it’s the main reason why I advise against choosing your employer only based on your love of the end product.

This I think is remarkable. And often times we are truly schizophrenic with our judgment and outrage. If a product fails, we might investigate the reasons for its failure and find some underlying problems in a company’s work conditions. Great! But at the same time, when products truly succeed we have the ability to look at the very same patterns and not just turn a blind eye to them, but actively celebrate them. 
The heroic story of the team that didn’t know how to ship, but pulled all-nighters, rewrote the key system and created the thing that everyone remembers to this day. If we were to look at the top N games of all time, how many would have these stories behind their productions?

Worse, this is not just about companies and corporations. Huge entities, shareholders, due dates and market pressure. It happens pretty much universally, from individual artists creating games with the sole purpose of expressing their ideas to indie studios trying to make rent, all the way to Hollywood-sized blockbuster productions. It happened yesterday, it happens today. Will it happen in the future? Should it?

- The cost of creativity.

One other thing to realize is how this is not a problem of videogame production, at all. Videogames don’t have a problem. Creative products do. Look at movies, at actors, film crews. Visual effects. Music? Theater? Visual arts? Would you really be surprised to learn there are exactly the same patterns in all these? That videogames are not the “worst” industry among the creative ones? I’m guessing you would not be surprised…

This is the thing we should really be thinking about. Nobody knows how to make great creative products. There is no recipe for fun, there is no way put innovation on a predictable schedule, there’s no telling how many takes will be needed to nail that scene in a movie, and so on. This is truly a hard problem, fundamentally hard, and not a problem we can solve. By definition, creativity, research, innovation, all these things are unknown, if we knew how to do them up-front, they would not be novel and creative. They are defined by their lack of predictability.

In keeping with movie references...

And I don’t know if we know where we stand, truly. It’s a dilemma. On one hand, we want to care, as we should, about the wellbeing of everyone. We might even go as far as saying that if you are an artist, you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself to your art. But should you not? Should it be your choice, your life, and legacy? Probably. 
But then we might say, it’s ok for the individual, but it’s not ok for a corporation to exploit and use artists for profit. When we create packaged products, we put creativity in a corporate box, it’s now the responsibility of the corporation to ensure the wellbeing of the employees, they should rise to higher standards. And that is absolutely true I would never question such fact.

Yet, our schizophrenia is still there. It’s not that simple, for example, we might like a given team that does certain products. And we might be worried when such a team is acquired by a large corporation because they might lose their edge, their way of doing things. You see the contradiction in that?

In general (in a very, very general sense), large corporations are better, because they are ruled by money, investors looking at percentages, often banks and other institutions that don’t really know nor care about the products. And money is fairly risk-averse, it makes big publishers cash on sequels, big franchises, incremental improvements and so on. All things that bring more management, that sacrifice creativity for predictability. Yet we don’t really celebrate such things, do we? We celebrate the risk takers, the crazy ones…

- Not an absolution.

So tl;dr; creativity has a cost in all fields, it’s probably something we can’t solve, and we should understand our own willingness to take risks, our own objectives and paths in life. Our options exist on a wide spectrum, if you can you should probably expose yourself to lots of different things and see what works best for you. And what works best will change as your life changes as well.

But this doesn’t mean that shitty management doesn’t exist. That there aren’t better and worse ways of handling risks and creativity, that there is no science and no merit. Au contraire. And ours, being a relatively new industry in many ways, certainly the youngest among the big creative industries, still has a lot to learn, a lot to discuss. I think everyone who has a good amount of production experience has seen some amount of incompetence. And has seen or knows of truly bad situations, instances of abuse and evil, as I fear will always be the case when things involve people, in general.

It’s our responsibility to speak up, to fight, to think and debate. But it’s also our responsibility to not fall into easy narratives, oversimplifications, to think that it’s easy to separate good and bad, to identify from the outside and at a glance. Because it truly isn’t and we might end up doing more harm than help, as ignorance often does.

And yes.
These are only my 2c.


Anonymous said...


DEADC0DE said...

I didn't write about unions because I don't feel I know enough. It might be time, especially in some countries without a good welfare system, to introduce them in videogames. One thing I know pretty much for sure though is that they won't help w/the crunch problem. Why I say that? Because movies have very strong unions and work there is much worse. Pretty much all jobs are temp contracts. Overtime is paid, yes, but brutal and unavoidable. Reducing a complex problem to a simple solution is exactly what I did not want people to do :)

rroc said...

Some nice thoughts there :) Having been in the games industry also for over a decade, it has surely been an interesting ride. I have had the privilege to work in a country with a good welfare system, so no real pressure from that end. I also never have had to worry about getting laid off only one day in advance (basically, it is not even possible to fire a single employee if you work normally).

But of course, also here we know the crunch. It is never forced and you always either get paid or get the free time after. Somehow it is the nature of the industry - I guess... there are releases to be made and sometimes nasty bugs manage to sneak in that "need to be" fixed ASAP - no matter the time of the day. And the normal pressure of "everybody" waiting for your changes/fixes.

Also, at the beginning of the career, I could see that salary negotiation was influenced by: "you should be happy just to be able to work in this industry". But I guess those times are mostly changed as there is a huge demand for capable/enthusiastic (junior and senior) employees throughout the country/region.

Eric Haines said...

One thing that would help is understanding salaries, for sure - employers have the advantage in this country. I'm entertained and impressed by Finland's approach: Also, know that some states have laws against employers asking for pay histories -

DEADC0DE said...

US has this thing