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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.

07 April, 2019

How to choose your next job (why I went to Roblox)

This is one of those (rare?) posts that I wasn't sure how to write. I'm not a fan of talking about personal things here, and even more rarely do I write about companies.

But I too often see people, especially juniors entering the industry, coming with what I think are the wrong ideas of how looking for a job works, even making mistakes sometimes that lead to frustration, an inability to fit into a given environment, and can even make people want to quit an entire industry altogether.

By far, the number one mistake I see, are people who just want to go to work for projects that they are a fan of. In my industry, that means games they like to play. Not realizing that the end product does not really tell any story of how it was done and/or what your job will be like.

I do strongly advocate to try to follow your passions, that makes working so much better. And if you're lucky, your passion will even guide you to products you personally enjoy playing. But, that should not be - I repeat, SHOULD NOT BE - your first concern.

"Airship station"
I've been extremely lucky in my career. I have worked for quite a few companies, on many games. I have almost always landed in places I love. Working on projects I love. But only once I've actually worked for a franchise I play (Call of Duty, but even there, I play the single player only, so perhaps you could say I don't really play most of that either).

So, I'll do what most coaches do and elevate my small sample set, based on my personal experience, in a set of rules you might or might now want to follow. And at the end, also tell a bit about why I'm now working at Roblox. Deal? Good, let's go.

- Know thyself.

The first thing is to know yourself. Hopefully, if you paid attention and are honest, over the years you form an idea of who you are and what you like to do, what motivates you.
It's actually not easy, and many people struggle with it, but that might not be the end of the world either. If you don't know, then you at least know you don't and can reflect that in your education and career choices.

In my case, I think I could describe myself as follows:
  • I'm driven by curiosity. I love knowledge, learning, thinking. This is nothing particularly peculiar, if you look at theories of human desire and curiosity, gaining knowledge is one of the main universal motivators.
  • My own intellectual strength lies mostly in logical thinking. I have always been drawn to math, formal systems. This is not to say I'm an extraordinary mathematician, but I do find it easier to work when I can have a certain degree of control and understanding.
  • I love creativity, creative expression, and art, particularly visual arts. 
  • I'm a very social and open introvert. What this means is that I like people, but I've also always been primarily focused inwards, thinking, day-dreaming. Especially as a kid, I could get completely lost in my own thoughts. Nowadays, I try to be a more balanced person, but it's a conscious effort.
Ok, so what does all this mean? How does it relate to finding a job? Well, to me, since a very young age, it meant I knew I would either be an artist or a computer scientist. And that either way it would probably involve computers.
That's why I was involved as a kid in the demo scene. After high school, I decided I wasn't talented enough to make a living as an artist, and I chose computer science. In retrospect, I had a great intuition, 
as even today I struggle in my own art to go out of certain mental models and constraints. I might have been a good technical artist, who knows, but I think I made the right call. Good job, nerdy teenage me!

- Know thy enemy.

What you like to do, what you can offer. This second "step" matures as you gain more work experience, again, if you pay some attention. If you don't know yet, it's not a problem - it means you can know your objectives are probably more exploratory than mine. Your understanding is something that is ever-evolving.

What does all that psychological stuff above mean when it comes to a job? Well, for me it means:
  • I'm not a ninja, a cowboy, or a rockstar. I'm pretty decent with hacking code I hope, as you would expect from anyone with some seniority, but I'm not the guy that will cruise through foreign source, write some mysterious lines, and make things work. I need to understand what I'm doing to be the most effective, and I have to consciously balance my pragmatism with my curiosity.
  • On the other hand, I'm at my best when I'm early in a project. I gravitate towards R&D, solving problems that have unknowns. Assessing risks, doing prototypes, organizing work. Mentoring other people.
  • I don't care about technology or code per se. All are tools for a means to an end. I care about computer graphics, and that's what I know most about, but I am curious about anything. Even outside computer science. So, even in R&D, I would not work in the abstract, in the five-years out horizon, or on entirely theoretical matters. I rather prefer to be close to the product and people.
I'm a rendering engineer. At least that's what I've been doing for the past decade or so. But that's not enough. There are a million ways to be a rendering engineer. I think I'm best at working on novel problems, doing applied R&D, and doing so by caring about the entire pipeline, not only code.

There are another million ways to do this job and are all useful in a company. There's no better or worse. If you know what you can offer and like, you will be able to communicate it more clearly and find better matches. We are all interested in that, in finding the perfect fit. One engineer can do terribly at one company, and thrive in another. It's a very complex handshake, but it all begins in understanding what you need.

- Profit?

Note: I don't mean that everything I wrote above is something you have to think about any time you send a resume. First of all, you should probably always talk to people, and never limit yourself. Yes, really. Send that CV. No, I don't care what you're doing, the timing, the company, just send that CV and have a talk. You never know what you might learn, don't make assumptions.

Second, it's silly to go through all this explicitly, every time you think of a job. But. If you know all this, if along the way you took some effort to be a bit aware of things, you will naturally be more clear in your interactions and probably end up finding opportunities that fit you.

"Rip ur toaster"
Ok, let's now address the last point. Why Roblox? I have to be honest. I would not have written all this if a few people didn't ask me that question. Not many, most of my friends in the industry actually were very positive, heard good things, and actually made me more confident in the choice.
But in some cases, people didn't see immediately the connection between someone who has so far been doing only AAA games and almost only for consoles, and a company that makes a platform for games mostly aimed at kids, mostly on PC and mobile, and with graphics mostly made out of flat shaded blocks. So I thought that going through my point of view could be something interesting to write about.

Why Roblox and not, say Naughty Dog or Rockstar, Unity or Unreal? Assuming that I had a choice of course, in a dream world where I can pick...

Because I'm fascinated by the problem set.

Now, let's be clear. I'm writing this blind, I actually intended to write it before my first day, to be entirely blind. My goal is not to talk about the job or the company. Also, I don't want to make comparisons. I am actually a stern proponent of the fact that computer graphics are far from being solved, both in terms of shiny pixels and associated research and even more so in terms of the production pipelines at large.
Instead, I simply want to explain why I ended up thinking that flat shading might be very interesting. 

"Stratosphere Settlement"
The way I see it, Roblox is trying to do two very hard things at once. First, it wants to be everywhere, from low-powered mobile devices to PCs to consoles, scaling the games automatically and appropriately. Second, these games are typically made by creatives that do not have necessarily the same technical knowledge as conventional game studios. In fact, the Roblox platform is used even as a teaching tool for kids, and many creators start on the platform as kids.

This is a fascinating and scary idea. How to do graphics with primitives that are simpler than traditional DCC tools, but at the same time that render efficiently across so many runtimes? In Roblox, everything is dynamic. Everything streams, and start-up times are very important (a common thing with mobile gaming in general). There is no baking, the mantra for all rendering is that it has to be incremental, cached, and with graceful degradation.

And now, in this platform with these constraints, think of what you might want to do if you wanted to start moving more towards a conventional real-time rendering engine. What could you do to be closer to say, Unity, but retaining enough control to still be able to scale? I think one key idea is to constrain authoring in ways that allow attaching semantics to the assets. In other words, not having creators fully specify them to the same level as a conventional engine does, but leveraging that to "reinterpret" them a bit to perform well across the different devices.

I don't know, I'm not sure. But it got me thinking. And that was a good sign. Was it the right choice? Ask me in a year or so...