Over the last few years my primary source of income has been working for a serious games company. Recently I’ve been debating over the differences between, what I call, private games development and commercial games development. Having sat on both sides of that fence, I can say that there is a lot to debate over.
There is a lot to love about commercial games. They have a certain flare that makes them unique to any other technical industry. When we think of Software Engineering or Product Development, we might be suckered into thinking that it’s all banking software and operating systems. There is however, a much larger world out there and games are definitely on the more glamorous side. It may not feel that way sometimes. Working long hours, dealing with the escalating issues of growing teams, missing our families, short development schedules, hard milestone dates; it’s enough to make you want to burn the place down and take your red stapler with you. It sounds like the furthest thing from a glamorous lifestyle, and in may ways it’s not. It’s hard work, but it’s a labor of love. We all periodically ask ourselves if it’s worth it, and it must be, because most of us stay. There is always the opportunity to move into other industries; arguably more stable industries than gaming, but there is always a new batch of hungry kids who can’t wait to see games from the inside. That feverish hunger to make these games is what makes it glamorous, it’s the “hard” that makes it great.
It only takes a trip to GDC or E3 to remind us just how big the industry has gotten. With it’s growth, however, the industry has been forced into a corner. The gaming industry has been obsessed with this idea of growth. We think that if we are not growing, then we must be doing something wrong. Nintendo has done a great job, this generation, of widening the audience. They have brought in the older crowd and kept the younger generations interested in their name. Even though I would love to sit here and say that it has brought nothing but good, I can’t help but wonder how it has effected our industry in other ways.
Many serious games are done on shoestring budgets. They are funded by research dollars and congressional earmarks which means that you are talking about single-digital millions on the very best of contracts. The gameplay and general rules of the game, such as conditions for winning and game types, are on par with many modern commercial games. Arguably, serious games have aspects of realism that surpass modern commercial games because they are designed for real world training. We don’t see many commercial shooters where you assume the role of a combat medic that doesn’t involve using your magical healing gun to bring your friend back from the dead. We don’t perform the appropriate launch procedures before firing our nuclear missile; we just pull the trigger. The largest difference, however, comes in when we discuss the production value of these products.
It seems that, today, a commercial game must have the glimmering sheen of an Apple Store to be accepted as a top tier game. The “feel” becomes increasingly important. From the smooth transitions of each button press to the clear and chiseled edges of every HD image on the screen, we accept nothing less than what we’ve seen before. Sadly, it’s this polish that takes a $3M game and makes it a $30M game. It’s the thousands of man hours consumed by each artist who’s sole job it is to animate a walk cycle or clean up some mocap. It’s the countless hours of engineering effort that is used to optimize the rendering pipeline and write massive offline optimization tools instead of sacrificing a few extra polygons or splitting an environment into two environments. It’s the immeasurable amount of dollars invested to ensure that we look and feel like the other guy, but just a little better.
Out of the ashes all that burned cash is where we realize that, we spend 90% of our time and money to finish the last 10% of that precious look and feel that we strive to achieve. I am not here to preach about the old days of $1M blockbusters, but I will say that this last 10% is the sacrifice that is often made to keep serious games alive. They continue to evolve in ways that help reduce the cost while they nip at the heals of commercial games, but they tend to lack a certain “feel” that makes them commercially viable. Personally, I don’t know that the serious games industry will ever quite reach commercial games because that last 10% has never been their focus. I do wonder, some times, how long commercial games can sustain this way of production. Will we be looking at $150M-300M budgets for games? Is it worth it; or should we pull back and create a more stable industry that doesn’t bet the farm on every release?
Games are almost always built with the intent to target a certain audience. In the case of private games, we often target a single client. This client may be as large as a military division, or as small as a single person. Still, in the larger scenario, we receive our designs and focus our products to the requests of a single person who is in charge of that large division. At the end of the day, our goal is not to be widely accepted by millions of users, but only to be accepted by the one person who is signing the paychecks. This has it’s share of advantages and disadvantages.
On the surface, it seems like the ultimate dream. We don’t have to superficially stuff multi-player, or unwanted mini-games into a product with the hopes of gaining a few more buys. We don’t consider specific designs because they would make a good bullet-point on the box. We don’t have to make generalizations and sacrifices to appeal to a wider audience; we just have to make one guy happy. The problem with making one guy happy is that he will assume a roll that is unfitting for him. He becomes the game designer and we become the tool at his disposal. To ensure that our client will get exactly what he asked for, we have to accept his guidance as the design bible; even if it’s not a very good idea.
There is joke in my office that defines most clients, “It’s what I asked for, but not what I wanted.” Currently, many military leaders are often older gentlemen from a generation before the big gaming boom. This means that their perception of digital entertainment; what they perceive to be the value in games for training, can be off target. They are drawn to the visuals and mistake realistic art style as some form of tool of immersion. They are unfamiliar with terms like “uncanny valley” and enforce physical limitations onto virtual worlds such as, one person per seat, or traveling by foot across vast terrains. They envision a world that is much like their own because they think that it’s easier to create, than one that possesses unnatural phenomena such as teleporters or augmented reality peripherals. Asking a non-gamer to be your primary designer is like giving your drunk uncle Ted the keys to the city and telling him to stay away from the liquor stores. It’s hard for them to understand the limitations of modern hardware as well as the possibilities beyond the physical world.
On the other hand, this blissful ignorance does work to your advantage. Working for some major commercial games publisher implies that they have a clear formula in their heads; “we spend X dollars to make Y dollars on the other side”. They may not accommodate for the simple things like, having a life, or getting sick, or any number of complications that may occur over the span of a year or two. These parameters are ignored because it complicates the formula. It’s assumed that the hive of engineers and artists will figure it out along the way instead. With serious games, the money is made in advance. Because we are talking about research dollars and earmarks, the objective is not to make a game with the hopes of selling big. The object of serious games is to properly schedule your time and complete the required list of features by a specified date. Many of these aforementioned military leaders may not understand games, but they do understand deadlines and strict task requirements. If they throw a number at you and you return with a list of features that can be done in that time, then expectations are set before the first line of code is written. This method of development actually gives merit to concepts like, pre-production, and feature design. It means that people can work 40 hours and go home early on Fridays, as long as they properly estimated their time and continue to work diligently while they are in the office. It doesn’t mean that finishing early will only earn you more work in hopes to overachieve the last 10%; it means having a life once again.