Casey O’Donnell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University. His research examines the creative collaborative work of videogame design and development. This research examines the cultural and collaborative dynamics that occur in both professional “AAA” organizations and formal and informal “independent” game development communities. His research has spanned game development companies from the United States to India. His research examines issues of work, production, copyright, as well as third world and postcolonial aspects of the videogame development workplace. Casey is also an active game developer, releasing his first independent game, “Osy,” in February of 2011.
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Hey, I enjoyed your piece about transparency. I’d like to get your thoughts on it at some point, because one of my goals in the new venture is a greater degree of transparency with the fans into our development process. My focus right now is getting the team placed, but maybe before my talk at GDC, we could have a chat and I pick your brain a bit?
I was reading your Gamasutra post on Institutional Alzheimer’s and it definitely starts to touch on some of the fairly crushing problems that plague the game development industry.
The truth is, game dev tends to be a horrible environment for long term participation, and seems set up to stay that way.
The moment you walk in the door and decide to do game development, instead of mainstream software dev, you’re taking a serious pay hit just for the privilege of working on games. I’ve certainly done both, and I’ll grant you that I like working somewhere that gaming isn’t reviled as some sort of youthful aberration, but it also meant a huge pay cut to make the transition.
Beyond that, the game industry generally goes out of its way to hire young, exactly like the mainstream software industry was doing for a while. There are a bunch of short-term advantages to this – lower pay expectations and most importantly, nothing else competing for your time and attention so you can work massive numbers of hours without really having to confront the hard “why am I doing this?”
Of course it also then pays the price for that youthful hiring, in a serious lack of mature methodology. Schedules are often (gross generalization here, but no one is proving me wrong) crafted out of fluff and wishful thinking, rather than based on past performance. Knowledge tends to be concentrated in a few key individuals, rather than generally distributed (creating workflow bottlenecks), and schedules almost never include times to improve the underlying tools and processes, such that projects can be made more efficiently in the future, rather than just perpetually repeating the mistakes of the past.
I think a lot of these issues are really driven by the project-based funding model that game development runs under. Small to mid-sized gaming companies aren’t built with a sustainable ongoing model in place, but rather are structured around specific projects. The desperation to acquire those new projects is huge, and taints good decision-making, causing contracts to be taken for too little money and with too little time to produce. Since most of these companies don’t have a large reserve buffer, they can’t afford protracted negotiations or periods of inactivity when the right project isn’t available, something that publishers frequently use against them in the negotiation process. They have to staff to meet the needs of specific projects, and only for the period that that project needs it.
This causes constant brutality on employee security. A project that peaks at 30 employees may only do so for 3-6 months. That means for the rest of the project, some significant number of those 30 people need to have some other way to support themselves. Unless you are one of the company’s core employees (every company tends to have a few, usually guys that started the company or are just absolutely crucial), then you can look forward to being regularly unemployed for periods of times as projects come and go. That’s rough in a good economy, but absolutely hellish in the current financial climate.
This tends to be coupled with dodgy practices that many small companies engage in as they try to find ways to survive the poor cashflow of this contract based work. Generally speaking, just laying off your whole staff between projects is pretty lethal as a company, since not only will they all go looking for other work, but the people you are negotiating with for new contracts will come do their due diligence and realize you have no employees. So the company will try to string them along, with partial hours, partial layoffs (for periods of time or groups of people, but don’t worry, if we land contract XXX we totally want you back!), or the altogether common late paychecks, as the company falls months behind paying you. This practice is very common, but leaves no good options for the employees. The company has effectively just taken money away from you and you have no real recourse… getting the government involved will end your job (granted that isn’t paying you, but might some day), end the jobs of all of your friends, and potentially blackball you in the industry for any potential employer in the future. So you bleed, and bleed, and bleed.
It is no wonder that the game industry constantly hemorrhages talent. We all show up filled with the bright and shining love of gaming and want to make good games, but we’re probably going to end up working on someone’s badly designed version of Franchise Quest XXVII anyways. Developer salaries are horrible, bonuses non-existent, and cost-of-living adjustments simply don’t occur. Every year you just fall further and further behind.
So yeah, there are a couple issues out there.
By all means, please write more about them.