Ten Game Development Vices, Part One
Do You Enjoy Fear?

Ten Game Development Vices, Part Two

25vices Last week, we looked at some common vices afflicting Production, Game Design, Programming, QA and Art. The problems of these central development departments could be summarised as a failure to recognise that most players are nowhere near as game literate as most game developers. Players in the wider audience for games have played fewer games, and need more help learning to play than we currently provide. They generally don't care about the bad tiling of textures or the quality of your NURBS because they don't have the intimate knowledge and experience that game developers have of all the minutiae of the process. Game developers get hung up far too often on some minor detail the players will barely care about, and rarely spend enough time considering the diversity among the players who might eventually play their game.  

This week, the focus moves further afield, to the fringes of the development team, and the corporate framework that is supposed to support the development process.


6. Game Writing: Hollywood

To be fair to the game writers, they are practically the bottom of the totem pole, and most of the problems with game narrative are not the fault of the writers but the natural consequence of the circumstances the writers are faced with. It's rare that a writer is allowed to conduct the narrative design at the point in the project when it would make sense to do so, and more usual for a completed game design to be used as the inviolable template within which the writer has to cobble together something coherent. Not to mention the omnipresent threat of interference from marketing departments who despite little or no understanding of the principles of narrative still frequently insist on dictating the terms of story development.

So when I suggest that the chief vice of the game writer is working on a game as if it were a Hollywood movie, it's not really clear that this criticism shouldn't be directed at the marketing department. Nonetheless, treating videogames as if they were movies is a bad idea most of the time, as it puts all the story materials into expensive cut scenes when it is often possible to integrate the story and the play far more seamlessly. The tendency of developers to assume that a writer with Hollywood credits is a step up from a writer with videogame credits is also a baffling catastrophe that afflicts many projects with clunky narratives.


7. Audio: Ham

The quality of sound effects and music in videogames is of an excellent standard – in part, perhaps, because many of the techniques have carried over comfortably from more mature media. But please, can we ditch the ham acting? 

Most voice actors are perfectly capable of giving a good performance if you give them the context of the lines, and provide adequate support in the recording sessions. But too many games (especially Japanese imports) get by-the-numbers translations read by confused voice actors directed by people who have no idea what the words mean, and little or no respect for videogames as a medium. (I don't know who is advising Juergen Peretzki on the voice direction in the English-language Dynasty Warriors games, but I'm quite certain Zhang He was not gay).

An additional problem may be that voice actors are not being given the time they need to do their best work. A typical voice actor session has very little time allocated, and a lot of lines to be recorded – with a ticking clock, and deadlines to be met, it’s not surprising that the work is delivered to a poor standard. Voice actors can improve upon any script if they are given the opportunity, but this won’t happen when the recording sessions are run as gruelling death marches through endless lines of unexplained text.


8. Finance: Chasing Glory

This might be more of a criticism of upper management than of the finance departments who are generally more involved in running the payroll than in making major financial decisions, but too many game projects are based upon the idea that any game can sell millions of copies, so you should shoot high up the development ladder, grab the biggest budget you can, and hope that you catch a wave and make out like bandits. We can have a blockbuster game, right? No, almost certainly not.

In no other industry is the connection between budget and sales ignored. Yes, a blockbuster movie is competing for shares in big money, but even the Hollywood studios know that not every movie is a blockbuster – that's why they make reliable genre flicks, like the romcom (romantic comedy), the sick flick (low budget horror), or even the videogame adaptation. No studio expects a Paul Anderson movie like Resident Evil to shift big numbers, they only expect the sales to be proportionate to budget, which they often are (hence the bankrolling of three Resident Evil movies).

Game developers and publishers rarely get into sales calculations of the kind that are routine in almost every other industry, and as a result companies are frequently deluded as to the prospects of their projects. They are chasing glory when they should be trying to make a comfortable profit safely. The facts of the videogame market are that there are many comparatively stable niche markets that are undercompeted, while moderately valuable genres like first person shooter are radically overcompeted. It is not a coincidence that the majority of game developers play FPS games together at lunchtime – it is symptomatic of a wider naivety within the industry that deludes companies into thinking that “if we make a great FPS, we'll make millions”.

Yes, games like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 sell millions of units (8 million and 10 million respectively) – but most developers are not making games like that. These are flagship titles with lavish development budgets and (most importantly) well-established, heavily marketed brands. The FPS most developers are working on have zero brand value, and if it didn't have a huge budget when the project began it's very unlikely it'll have a huge budget when it finishes. (Note that Medal of Honor: Airborne didn't even sell a million units, and it came to the plate with pre-existing brand value and a significant marketing spend).

Being realistic about the prospects for a game title protects a developer's employees from job loss by ensuring cash flow and avoiding bankruptcy. Nothing could be more important to a developer than its continuing survival, yet many continue to treat game development as a contest to see who can make the best action game. It's shockingly irresponsible not to use the available market data to make calculations as to expected returns, to identify stable and undercompeted market opportunities, and above all avoid falling into the trap of believing that “a great game sells itself”. A great game for whom? What are the typical returns for that audience? And how many other companies are targeting that market?


9. Marketing: Teenage Boys

The role of marketing is supposed to be about anticipating the needs of the consumer, ensuring that the relevant consumer values are met during production, and then raising awareness and driving demand for the product once it is released. Generally speaking, videogame marketing departments are only competent at the third step – and even then, only if the market for the game is teenage boys (maybe going as far as the mid-twenties). If a game has a wider audience, good luck finding a marketing department that knows how to reach them.

This complaint isn't about the narrowing of the perceived market place to just the teenage boys, although as Sheri Graner Ray and others bemoan, this does happen, and there are certainly underserved markets outside of this niche lying fallow while companies fold trying to plough the same furrow as everyone else. In fact, there are times when I am grateful that a developer's bold ambition is brought into line by marketing departments who remind them that the game has to sell to the core market of 15-19 year old boys before it can reach out to a wider market, because there are definitely titles (including FPS and driving games) that absolutely require the support of this audience.   

The problem is that “teenage boys” are not a market segment. For those not in the know, a “market segment” is a portion of the consumer market that has common needs, responds to the same advertising techniques and is distinct from other similar groupings. “Teenage boys” are a market segment for deodorant and acne creams, because you can reach the entire demographic (more or less) in the same ways since the boys in question have similar needs (the need to be less ugly and smelly). But “teenage boys” are not a market segment for videogames, because videogame players within this age range (and indeed, beyond it) have many different play needs, and must be reached with various different marketing strategies.

Consider three wildly different videogames: Halo 3, Final Fantasy X and Animal Crossing: Wild World. Teenage boys actually form a key part of the audience for all three of these games, although from left to right we are also dealing with a greater number of female players as well. The key market segment for Halo 3 is FPS fans, which include a large number of teenage boys. But the play needs of these players are remarkably different from those of Final Fantasy X, some of whom, for instance, will report when interviewed that they don't have the reflexes to play an action game, and enjoy Final Fantasy because it gives them time to make decisions. The market segment for Japanese RPGs is not at all like the market segment for FPS games, even though both contain a lot of teenage boys. Similarly, the market segment for a social sim like Animal Crossing is even further from the norms of the action game genres, and in this case reaches out to a female audience as well.

(The sales figures for these three titles, incidentally, are 8 million copies for Halo 3 and Final Fantasy X, and 11 million for Animal Crossing. Despite the success of the latter title, there are a dozen developers working on an FPS for every one working on a social sim).

“Teenage boys” are not a market segment, and pretending that they are – and that this fictional segment only buys action games – is hurting the videogames industry both in terms of its sales and its image. It's time to grow up and start requiring our marketing personnel to learn about the audience for games, instead of just assuming they know “what players want” – presumably because they suppose they themselves represent the typical player. They don't. And no single person could.


10. Management: Crunch

Finally, perhaps the biggest vice of the videogames industry: crunch. When a project is running late, when there is much to do and very little time to do it in, the staff of game developers are expected to work unpaid overtime to ensure that the project ships on time – which, incidentally, it almost never does if crunch is required, because every crunch is a signal that the project is badly managed. Crunch is such a widespread phenomena it forms part of the assumed background of games development for many individuals.

The principle cause of crunch is milestone schedules. These out-dated production control methods make sense in manufacturing, but in a creative industry such as videogames it is essentially impossible to plan the project entirely in advance, and the effort expended in making the estimates to establish this process drain time from more valuable tasks such as rapid prototyping. In the conventional software industry, agile development has completely replaced milestones as the dominant paradigm because it has been recognized that programming cannot be fully planned in advance, and especially not if the targets are going to change during development which they always do. There are issues adapting agile methodologies to game development, but ultimately this change or something similar must take place if we are to beat crunch.

In the meantime, I recommend the following method of avoiding crunch: at the end of the pre-development period, when the team has an idea of the game they are trying to make and the schedules have been drafted, instruct every department to cut 50% of their content. Half the art resources, half the subsystems to be programmed, half the locations to be built and half the story to be told. As awful as this process would be for the team, it would be infinitely better for them to make this change at the beginning of the project than to be forced by the onset of crunch to throw out a similar quantity of material in a vain effort to keep the sagging balloon airborne. If there is time left over at the end of the project (which there never is) it can always be used to refine the material you have, and in general it is better to spend the time improving what you have than adding more to the project.

The IGDA has identified crunch as the single greatest quality of life issue in the videogames industry, and it's making life a living hell for many hard-working employees who have to give up their personal and social lives (assuming they have one...) in order to compensate for bad management practices. Maturing as an industry means bringing us to the place where crunch is a rarely-employed emergency measure, not a fact of daily life.

Have you been afflicted by any of these “vices”? Or do you have other game development vices you want to moan about. Share your views in the comments!

The opening image is Vices by cartoonist Alan Reuter, which I found here, at his portfolio site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


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Quick comment on number 8 ...

This really isn't surprising. Video games are all about fantasy. Game developers are usually video game fans.... Is it any wonder that they are more prone to reality avoidance?

#10 could also be described as reality avoidance.

The point about voice acting is huge and happens across multiple fields of entertaiment.

The primary writer/designer in charge of narrative and characters really needs to sit down with the voice actors before-hand and explain as much as possible. It is important that critical actors get the full context of the scene/characters and how it relates to the whole of the story or you will inevitably end up with something that just isn't quite right.

The budget in videogames is woefully unbalanced. Little things like voice acting can quickly break that immersive art environment you just spent $2m developing. Usually storyline-centric games get this right but it starts getting worse the further removed the genre gets.

The games ported across languages suffer from this the most. Brings back memories of this horribly awkward scene from Final Fantasy X: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU8-e-C4Uy0

I dunno about the ham being necessarily a bad thing, some of my favourite games half the enjoyment I get is from laughing at the terrible voice acting in the cutscenes. And they're not intended to be comedy either. But then I have a terrible sense of humour.

Scott: "Quick comment on number 8 ... This really isn't surprising. Video games are all about fantasy. Game developers are usually video game fans.... Is it any wonder that they are more prone to reality avoidance?"

Ha, this is an amusing spin on this! It consistently amazes me how easily one gets swept up in the fantasy of what a game *could* be, such that one loses sight of what one actually has. I've done this often enough on games I've worked upon! Sometimes we need to believe in our games in order to give our best to the project. But those in charge of the financial aspects of development should make an effort not to fall into such a trap! :)

Peter: "#10 could also be described as reality avoidance."

Absolutely! In fact, there is definitely an aspect of denial behind crunch.

Quest Yarbrough: I completely agree about getting the lead writer (or their equivalent) to talk to the voice actors - good prep makes a big difference. And I also agree about the unbalanced budget - story materials rarely earn more than about 5% of the development budget (unless you count the art resources for them!)

Thanks for your comment!

Katherine: Ha! Yes, well, I can't deny that I can enjoy a bit of ham here and there... But I enjoy it more in a good B-movie than I do in what is supposed to be an A-game. (A bad B-movie can be wonderfully entertaining).

But mostly, the ham in videogames isn't silly enough to amuse me, and it ends up just grating.

I wish we had a bit more honesty about the scale of videogame projects - every project tries to claim it's "AAA", but most are A's and B's. What a shame we can't let a B-game be a B-game!

Best wishes!

Great pair of articles Chris. Gave me some insight into the differences between game development vices and the sort of problems you have to deal with in design of more specialized software targeting mostly tech-literate clients ;-)

"Nothing could be more important to a developer than its continuing survival"

Wrong, wrong, wrong - see http://theozzardofwiz.livejournal.com/4785.html . (I don't usually use absolute terms, so those who see me commenting regularly might be blinking a bit now.)

Companies are run for the benefit of their management teams when the management team can get away with it, for the benefit of the shareholders when they can't. It is entirely possible that punting on making billions on a game is the rational thing to do *for the shareholders*, who may well have a portfolio of companies, and *for the management team*, who (until recently) could move elsewhere when the company failed. As these are the entities for whom the company is run, its rationality *for the company* is irrelevant.

Kim: thanks for the kind words! I'd love to hear what sort of problems conventional software developers have to endure! :)

Peter: Sorry you couldn't post this comment, but I've added it for you. (Not sure what the problem is).

Almost all game developers are in one of two situations: they are owned by their management team (i.e. independent) or they are owned by a publisher. In the case of the former, the management team are essentially never looking to jump ship - they are invested in their venture, and I have seen otherwise rock-hard MD's reduced to tears when their company eventually folds.

In the case of publisher ownership, shareholders never dictate the actions of individual developers, although they may complain at the shareholder meeting if a promised flagship product underperforms! :)

So although I acknowledge your criticism here, I don't think it really applies in the case of the videogames industry.

I am not very familiar with "conventional" software development I have to say, I mostly work with code that has to be certified for flight avionics, and usually the product we are delivering is the document that proves without any shadow of a doubt that this thing will not make the aircraft drop out of the sky :-P As you might imagine, the problems are more centered around testing and requirements verification (I would think this would also apply for much code relating to network security and the like.)

I have found it interesting these last few months to get insights into game related software development and how it differs from my own work. Of course, my perspective is from an open source standpoint at the moment, as I have never worked for any commercial game projects.

- Kim

Kim: thanks for explaining your circumstances! I couldn't work on safety critical software, personally - just too stressful! That said, if I hadn't changed degree I would have ended up working on the particle accelerators at CERN, which for some reason doesn't perturb me at all! :D

At least with a game the worst thing that is going to happen is that someone will be annoyed with me. :)

Best wishes!

At the end of the day, blame on the mid-level executives, aka project managers who shuffle deadlines, budgets and resources.

azala: While I would say that a great producer can be a boon to a project, if a project goes wrong I would be slow to place the blame here. If the external producer is being pressured by marketing and so forth, they naturally have to go along with this (or risk losing their own job) - I don't think it's necessarily fair to point the finger of blame at this pressure point in all situations. But it's certainly the case that a great external producer can make a big difference on any project.

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

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