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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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!