Knowing Your Role

On a recent phone job interview, the interviewer kept steering me back to the topic of level design, despite the role not being a role about level design. I really don’t bullshit, especially in interviews or resumes despite that apparently being the norm, so I just answered by saying that I worked for a studio that did sports games and sports games really don’t pull lessons from architecture and psychology the way that a shooter or an RPG would, but here are some similar skills I had used that are similar to those of a level designer…

He didn’t seem to buy that. And afterwords I felt like it was a really crummy interview because instead of being able to talk about what I could bring to the company, we talked more about what I couldn’t bring to the company. I was contemplating this on a sleepless night and wondering how I could have handled it better and my synapses fired in a weird way connecting it to an experience I had officiating last year.

Last season was my first season as a high school football official. Many people do not know that there are positions for football officials just as there are positions for football players and each of these positions holds responsibilities for different parts of the game. Instead of trying to be a “jack of all trades, master of none”, I focused on being the best linesman/line judge I could be since that is where I was told I would be assigned most often.

One game I was assigned to be the clock official, which is a comparitively easy job. When operating the clock, you are often seated next to the game announcer who calls the results over a loudspeaker. Often this announcer would turn to me and ask questions before the referee on the field could signal: “Was that a first down?” “What was that penalty?” “How many timeouts are left?” &c.,

After one play, there was a particularly complicated situation with multiple fouls. The announcer turned to me and asked where the ball would be spotted. I wasn’t sure of the answer since I guessed that it mattered on the order of enforcement so that is what I told the announcer. “I’m not entirely sure.” Now that isn’t an answer you give on the field because you need to be seen as in charge and fully competent, but I didn’t want to give the announcer false information and have him read it over the public address system. I wasn’t entirely sure because the nuts and bolts of the mechanics of penalty enforcement are generally jobs for the referee and umpire and as I said, I was studying the roles of linesman and line judge primarily as a first year official.

But when I said “I’m not entirely sure, hang on” the announcer gave a scoffing “Huh” which in it contained an insinuation of “You are wearing the stripes and you don’t even know the rules.” But that wasn’t the case. I knew the rules I needed to know. I handled my jobs on the clock and on the field very well. What I didn’t know was the mechanics of jobs I wasn’t responsible for.

The disconnect came between knowing what I needed to know and knowing what I was expected to know.

Knowing what I needed to know was easy. It was how I studied throughout school (“Oh, that won’t be on the test” or “I’ll never need to use that”) and it was how I applied myself at work. I didn’t know much about level design and I was comfortable with that because my job didn’t entail level design and I wasn’t planning on applying for jobs in level design. But this approach fails when your knowledge is being evaluated by others. You cannot control their expectations of your knowledge. Just as not fulfilling the announcer’s expectations made him think I was a poor official, not fulfilling the expectations of the interviewer made him think I was a poor designer. Yet from my perspective I am both an excellent designer and a competent official.

So in the future I need to focus on sort of the “Platonic forms” of the roles I am appearing to be moreso than simply showing excellence at the tasks put forth to me. Because the lesson is that it is not only your performance that you are judged on but also how you fit the evaluators expectations of how you fit their predetermined role.

When A Minigame Collection Isn’t

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows my abhorrence of minigames. Why?

Minigames have little upside. For every Sumo in Fusion Frenzy, there are, well, 49 other minigames in Fuzion Frenzy. But they appeal to production because they are chunkable and low risk. It’s monumentally easier to cut three minigames from ten than to cut 30% of an AI system, for instance. Also, it’s nearly impossible to argue that a minigame won’t be fun before it is produced or prototyped, so it silences any dissent. After all “it’s just a minigame” when you criticize it, but it is “a bullet for the back of the box” when you champion it. From experience, designers who want to make minigames are either not creative enough to come up with good big ideas or too afraid of what will happen if they try to make something big.

So it’s odd that I was pulled towards Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS. From all outward appearances, it seems to be a minigame collection. And if I wanted to play a minigame collection, I could just close my eyes and pick something off the Wii shelf at Gamespot. Remember the Namco Museum series? They split twenty old Namco games into five collections and charged full price for each on the original Playstation. Those were mostly straight up ports with a couple galleries of miscellany. Retro Game Challenge could have been that, but they focused on an aesthetic and polished it until it shined. My assumptions were wrong. Retro Game Challenge hits home on two fronts: nostalgia and gameplay.

If you were a child of the 80s, you will not only be hit with the pangs of familiar nostalgia when you play through the games included, but also when you view the cutscenes or read the in-game hints and cheats magazines. In-jokes like rumored special areas that don’t actually exist, “secret” cheats and tricks, game magazine editors that change every issue, the bummer of the game delay and co-branded special edition games that are essentially pallete swapped versions of popular games with some company’s branding included. (The creators went the extra mile on the last one. Instead of making two banners for the sponsor, one that reads left to right and one that reads right to left, they simple mirrored the sprite making the text unreadable as was done often in the NES days.) The attention to detail is absolutely A+. Okay, let’s downgrade that to simply A for using the terms “Woot” and “Shovelware” anachronistically.

But making an accurate reproduction of something that isn’t fun in the first place is a worthless achievement. Luckily, the eight (or seven, depending on your view) games in this collection are all in their own right excellent examples of early gaming masterpieces. None are straight-up copies of old masterpieces, but instead seem to simply be inspired by the greats. Each of these games are also the length of an NES cartridge, pushing the limit of the assumption of “minigame”. Indeed, I’ve played the Guadia Quest game longer than many of the full DS games I’ve owned.

For designers, the Retro Game Challenge shows how attention to detail and aesthetics can greatly increase the value of something that many designers treat as throwaway. For players aged roughly 20-35, Retro Game Challenge is a nostalgic trek without the crushing difficulty or gambles on quality. Due to a combination of charm, accessibility, nostalgia and excellence, Retro Game Challenge is the game to beat in 2009. Passing it off as another minigame collection as I almost did would be a huge mistake.

Personal Update

Output has been slow recently as you can see by looking at the count on the archives: nine posts last month, four posts (not including this) so far this month. When I worked, I used this blog as sort of morning brain primer – I’d peruse my usual sites, find something interesting, comment on it and by then the cobwebs were gone, the caffeine was flowing and I could start my day.

Being unemployed has changed that somewhat. By necessity I’ve become a lot more frugal, spending less on lunches and other discretionary items (except I recently bought a set of Frisbee Golf Discs and felt like a sinner). Because of that, I’ve spent a hell of a lot less on games and so have less to comment on first-hand. I’ve been playing the copy of Far Cry 2 I got for Christmas and have clocked untold hours in Team Fortress 2. I’ve been playing Retro Game Challenge on the DS and plan a relatively thought-provoking piece about the design of minigames when I get farther into it.

Beyond the playing less games angle, I have actually spent less time trolling the internet looking for things to comment on. Since posting pings both my Twitter and Facebook accounts, I don’t really use this as a tumbleog where I just post whatever comes to mind. But furthermore, I’ve been in a pretty cynical funk where everything I think about posting about is negative. And I’ve always hated complain-y blogs and I try to catch myself at any opportunity.

Anyway, the point is: Do not think that my posting frequency of late is the bellweather of me forgetting about the blog. I vow it is only a momentary slump while my life switches gears.

What is going on with me?

I’ve lived in Central Florida now for a little over four years and I’ve really grown to like the place. My friends are here, my girlfriend’s family is here, there is plenty to do, I like the climate and so forth. The problem is that this area of the country isn’t exactly a hotbed for game development which is my passion and expertise. Looking at other fields has left me a little deflated. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Pausch book and living dreams and so forth.

What will it take to create my own studio?

Well, either a big heap of money or a smaller heap of money and interested contract suppliers. To get either, I feel I need a broader sense of what it would take to start and run my own business. When I saw that the University of Central Florida had an MBA program with a Technology Ventures certificate that could be completed in a little over a year, I got interested. There’s a local company that may be interested in hiring me part-time in the interim and I really like what I’ve seen and heard about them so we will see how that goes.

So that is what I plan to do. A year off to complete the program and test the waters then into the fund raising cycle. Expect our first game to be out by 2013. You can pre-order at Gamestop already, I bet. I may fail, but that won’t hurt nearly as much as taking a mediocre job and wondering what could have been.

I resolve to post more interesting things on here as I process them, so keep dropping by. When I look at the Google Analytics logs I am always surprised by how many of you are actually reading this. Every time I see that counter go up, it makes me feel like I am supported and for that I thank each and every one of you. The amount of response and support I’ve had since January 15th has been shocking to me. The Internet can be a pretty special place sometimes.

Auto Repair

I’m playing Far Cry 2 after reading the postmortem in GameDeveloper and remembering: “Oh yeah! I got that for Christmas!” It’s reminding me a lot of what game Mercenaries 2 could have been. The latter has a lot more character while the former is a lot more playable. If the numbers in the postmortem article are accurate (65 devs in year one, 105 devs in year two, 265[!!!] devs in year three), using even a lean average of $7k/man-month estimate, the development alone must have cost upwards of $30-40 million dollars and that isn’t counting publishing overhead or marketing.

Fun Fact! To fix any problem with any car, all one has to do is tighten a nut near the engine. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have been paying mechanics all this money these past few years!

Epic Marches On

How did I miss this kerfuffle? Apparently the head of Epic said that he purposely hires devs that he thinks will work 60+ hour weeks and that it is expected as part of their corporate culture to do so. Except that he apparently followed these practices while a board member of the IGDA, an organization formed to support developers. Oops.

In this post-EA_Spouse era, studio heads should probably be a little smarter concerning how they openly and knowingly trade their charges quality of life to fulfill their dreams of working in a creative industry. Most studios know to just put out meaningless statements that say how hard they strive to achieve quality of life goals*. Where the asterisk should lead to a footnote that says: “Unless it is perceived to affect the bottom line.”

And here in 2009 everyone knows that working in game development means long hours. The sort of entitlement philosophy that many (including Costikyian in the linked article) hold that say a forty-hour week is their right is absurd. But what is also absurd is the assumption that “long hours” in this industry is the measure instead of productivity. That we work eighty-hour weeks in alpha or near milestones shouldn’t be expected, it should be a consequence of poor planning, poor execution or both. Developers don’t like to hear about iterative design because it means more throwaway work and longer periods of uncertainty which always leads to running out of time. So plan for it.

Nowhere is “nature abhors a vacuum” more prevalent than in our industry. Where is the drive to plan successfully or code super-cleanly when that just means that the hours saved will be filled with more tasks down the road? The elephant in the room is that we schedule to 200%, work ourselves to death and then mark the remaining features unimplemented as unimportant and the remaining bugs as shippable. And nearly everyone I know in the industry at various studios works this way. Why? Because everyone else does it?

Entrepreneurs work their asses off to run a business or create a product or service. Why? Because they can see and reap the benefits of their sweat. But we designers and developers work extra for what – a bonus dependent on the stock price which itself is independent of the quality of our work? At least the truly rank-and-file sometimes get overtime. Forced overtime beyond a certain threshold should be paid extra, even to salaried employees. This would eliminate the “free labor” that many studios seem to want to exploit by working flat-rate employees until they drop.

It makes sense that the businessmen want the highest return on their investment. The rank-and-file want their projects to succeed too. It’s kind of sad that one has to come at the expense of the other though. And in this economy expect it only to get worse – there are hundreds of resumes pouring in for every open position and certainly one would rather work sixty hour weeks at a forty hour salary than continue to be unemployed.

Just remind me not to apply at Epic.

Will Entertain for Food

I recently came upon the newly-formed blog of an indie dev/operator named Jeff Vogel by some sort of byzantine channel of linking. I’m fascinated and I hope the guy keeps up the blogging. The links from various sources all pointed to his duo of posts on the economics of his particular business. He makes very old-school RPGs for a very niche audience and does well at it. But what I want to comment about is his latest post, which was apparently guest-posted to some other blog or something called IGN? Have you heard of it?

It’s about piracy. Wait! Come back! Yes, it is a very tired subject with lots of hand-waving and histrionics, but Vogel puts a unique perspective to it. The thesis is in the title: “We’re All Charity Cases Now”. Please read it, but I’ll quote a bit:

[L]ately, I’ve had to come to a grim realization. I do have a donation section on my website. It’s called the order form. … It is so easy to pirate our work now that we can only get paid by two types of people – those who don’t know that BitTorrent exists (a rapidly dwindling group), and those honest souls who give us cash when they know they don’t have to. In other words, donate.

Yikes! Screw the moral/immoral argument. That’s distraction. This ties right into Clay Shirky’s assertion that the reason traditional media giants (record companies, movie studios, newspapers) are failing is because they are in the business of selling packaging that happens to contain media in a world where packaging is free and nearly-instantaneous.

Our industry has responded in a number of ways: DRM, subscription games (World of Warcraft), subscription services (OnLive), peripherals (Nintendo), fancy pack-ins (limited to old Infocom games and expensive ‘collectors’ editions) and ad-support. But none of these solve the problem because DRM is hacked in a day, subscriptions only work for certain types of games, subscription services have not been proven to be successful, pack-ins have appeal only to the hardcore and ads don’t provide a lot of revenue.

I know very little about charities except from my own experiences with donating. I think maybe we should be looking at how successful charities raise money. Do I smell a GDC talk for next year?

No, probably not.

But here’s what works on me for charitable giving:

  1. Make me appreciate how my money gets spent. This is the major “trick” of the Feed the Children type ads out there. Obviously, I’m not saying to run commercials of emaciated programmers. The key value here is empathy. I give to Kiva because I know exactly how my money is used. Why did people care so much about World of Goo‘s piracy rate over Grand Theft Auto‘s? It’s because we know that 2D Boy is just a couple of guys living a dream. They do talks at GDC. They do interviews everywhere. They have a blog. We get their personality. It’s like we know them. Contrast this with the “faces” behind the big budget productions. With only a couple exceptions, when there is a blog it sounds like PR-releases. It’s like they bought a hammer and have no idea that you are supposed to use it on nails.
  2. Put me in a community. Public television doesn’t give out tote bags to members because PBS watchers are always totin’ shit around. They do it because it has their logo on the side, so when the members go out to Whole Foods with their other well-to-do friends, the friends can see that the member has a cause that they are proud to support. Those free-loaders don’t have a tote bag because they haven’t put their money where their mouth is. They should call them totem bags.
    Games do this all the time, even without tchotchkes. While Goal Line Blitz is a game supported by microtransactions and thus not completely applicable, they nail this community angle. But it sounds like Vogel’s Spiderweb supporters have their own community that encourages others to participate to remain a part of what makes the community valuable.
  3. Don’t annoy the hell out of me. The week after I graduated, I got a letter from my undergraduate university asking me to donate to them. I just about sent them an envelope with my student loan statement instead. Since then, I get about one of these envelopes a quarter. They hired some of my cohorts to call us before graduation to talk about how we need to “give back” to the university. Sheer volume may work for spammers, but force-feeding guilt and repetition don’t open my pocketbook. This is the same as the game demo that has a “Buy Me!” interruption every thirty seconds or ends with an unskippable five-minute video or an ad-supported game that shoves pop-ups in your face (I’m looking at you iPhone devs).