Archive for December, 2008

The Death of Middle Tier Games Studios

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

So, it looks like Free Radical, a Nottingham based games studio, closed its doors today. 

The surrounding scenario isn’t a pretty read (or at least the picture the gaming press paints isn’t) and it’s the latest in a trend of SME sized games developers folding despite the games industry growing month on month with disregard to the current economic climate.  Month after month websites like Gamasutra seem to report record sales of both console hardware and games (and that’s ignoring the Wii shaped monolithic elephant in the corner).

To directly quote a Kotaku commenter (Pyrefly)

“All that will emerge will be EA, Ubisoft and Activision with each consoles respective first party devs. It would be awful for all us gamers to keep losing more and more studios.”

This seems to be the pervading feeling amongst gamers but I can’t help feel that it might be slightly off target.  Nobody likes to see the little guys fail.  In any community people love rooting for the people they can identify with, with the human faces to development.  However, I just can’t help feeling that the studios currently suffering aren’t just suffering as a result of the economic climate, but more because of the evolving nature of games development. 

Gamers seem to be pointing fingers blindly at the mega-publishers as the cause of the collapse of these small studios but I can’t help feel that this isn’t really the case.  It appears as if they’re really just the victims of technological progression in a time of restricted finances.

Nobody likes seeing the little guys fail, but just to single out today’s example.  From memory (and a little wikipedia verification), Free Radical were formed as an offshoot of Rare, started by some of the Goldeneye and Perfect Dark team.  They had pedigree and went on to produce (what wikipedia claims) is the “highest-ranked first person shooter on the Playstation 2″, Timesplitters.  Since then, they’ve released a few Timesplitters sequels, Second Sight on the xbox, Haze on the Playstation 3 and they were apparently working on an unknown Lucasarts game (speculatively, Star Wars: Battlefront 3).

I’m going to go out on a limb here, I never played second sight (though I hear it was decent), I disliked all of the Timesplitters games (they had no soul, and I found them utterly trite) and Haze (which I also haven’t played) was critically panned and a commercial failure.  In my own personal opinion, their games sucked (straw-man here, they’re not terrible, but I’d not choose to play them).

Don’t kick a man while he’s down, I know.  I’m sure the developers that worked at Free Radical are exceptionally talented.  Technologically, their products all seemed very sound and polished, but from the rundown, they’re not exactly iD software or Epic.  They probably fall into the “averagely reviewed, decent sales” bracket of games companies.

I don’t think what happened to Free Radical today was necessarily their fault.  Whilst people point the finger at the big publishers for not supporting enough SME innovation, I think actually this is indicative of the diverging nature of game development at the moment.

This year has seen the resurgence of the tiny independent game studios using the new content delivery channels, operating outside of the bounds of the current mega-publishers and there seems to be an increasing little and large divide to games development.

The middle tier seems to be being either gobbled up by majors (perhaps saved from bankruptcy) or collapsing and if I were to suggest a reason, I’d say that it’s probably indicative of the increased pressure of producing “AAA quality” games for the current generation of consoles.

You can’t produce a Halo 3 or Mass Effect on a shoestring budget anymore.  You either have to think really big and get help from a large publisher (EA have done some great work this year with games like Mirrors Edge and Dead Space, Ubisoft I’d argue have been doing great work for a number of years), or you need to actually scale down to smaller productions to be competitive with a smaller team.

Huge titles are plagued by content creation, gamers want more re-playability and value for money.  Your games have to look fantastic.  You have to be able to afford expensive middleware engines and components. 

Middle tier, under resourced attempts at AAA grade titles end up like Haze and Too Human it seems, whilst gems like Braid and World of Goo thrive in their microcosm and appear to be sustainable and competitive in their corner of the market (I have no idea what the financial rewards of small productions look like, to be clear and open).

I guess there’s always the option of pushing out a bunch of Wii shovelware if you’re an SME that’s running out of ideas, I hear people buy anything with added waggle.

At the end of the day while we’re losing more studios I’m curious if we’re actually loosing talent.  I’m not sure what the job markets like for a game developer, but I’d have thought that actual talent tends to get re-employed.  Your average coder producing average games might suffer, but anyone with a stellar portfolio (or even a half decent one) in an industry so starved of skills must be re-employable?  I guess the bigger risk is losing game development talent to other areas of computer science where jobs are seemingly more secure and the work is less based around a sustained 8 month crunch.  You really have to be in it for the love of games or be working for a good company (as seemingly the scenario this morning at free radical proved, the staff appear to have been quite badly treated in the last few hours).

I just suspect that the industry is going through a period of restructuring at the moment.  Maybe it’s time for the major labels to stand up for more than just profit margins and defend the culture that helps them thrive.  But at the end of the day, the SME with world class talent will probably be just fine.  Look at iD, I’m sure John Carmack isn’t too worried that somehow his skill set will become irrelevant and he won’t be able to compete.

It genuinely is always sad to see the little guys go, you often need the space in a small company to come up with some of the most brilliant ideas, and as a fellow developer, I know how intellectually nourishing small team environments are, I just hope that the majors that hold the financial security (or what’s left of it) choose to nourish and re-house these individuals so everyone can thrive (an
more importantly, keep making great games for me to play).

I don’t work on games, and I’m just a casual observer of the games industry, albeit an enthusiastic one, so take everything above with a pinch of salt.  This has been one of the best years for games I can remember, I just hope this year end doesn’t wipe out lots of talented developers.

On How I Learnt More About Business And People From World of Warcraft Than From "Corporate Life"

Monday, December 1st, 2008

I value time.  In fact, I value time above all else, I really believe it’s the only commodity that you never get back.  I’m not a religious man, I hope something great happens when you die, I’ll settle for something interesting, the thought of nothing terrifies me.

So when I say I’m a “recovering” World of Warcraft player with (well) over 100 days /played over three years (not ultra-hardcore, but reasonably so) and I haven’t logged in for over two months, many people would probably react in utter confusion as to how somebody that values his time so highly can so fruitlessly waste it on a repetitive game like WoW.

It’d probably also surprise you to know that when I look back on my life and mentally prepare the list of “things I regret”, I don’t think that spending three years playing WoW will be on that list.  There are lots of things I regret about playing Warcraft.  I regret missing films, the odd social event, I regret angering my partner, I regret putting on weight, I regret being the caricature that South Park made so famous, but I don’t regret playing the game.

I spent a good year and a quarter of my time playing WoW as an officer and raid leader in a medium sized, social, adult raiding guild (hello “Home of the Ghost Lords”!) and I loved every second of it.  I spent a good four months driving home from work during my lunch hours to plan raids, running through sign-ups for that evening.  I spent all my evenings reading up and planning subsequent raids, and I spent the time in between raid start and getting home quickly raid-prepping whilst eating off my lap.  Sounds like the rock and roll lifestyle, I know.

The funny thing about a medium to large sized Warcraft guild is that it functions as a tidy little ecosystem representative to some degree of the larger world, much like high school.  Only in this world, instead of teens desperately trying to find themselves, you’re paired with adults with the largest sense of entitlement you’ll ever meet.  That’s not a criticism per se, it’s just the attitude that emerges regardless of best intentions.  The other curious thing that emerges, is that you start identifying the traits of natural leaders easily.

A natural leader, in any realm, is a rare and delicate commodity.  I’m no fan of middle management and business meta-work and I believe that anyone that desires to have power over their peers should never be given an ounce of it.  That’s the archetype of a bad manager at work, someone obstructive and destructive to a team dynamic.  World of Warcraft encourages the most unlikely of natural leaders to come forward and do what they do best, they naturally lead.

There’s a very special kind of chemistry that just works when a raid is planned by somebody that nobody will argue with.  They don’t not argue because the leader has a singular vision that’s universally approved.  Often far from it, they don’t argue out of respect and trust in someone with such presence that they’re willing to see through the raid on his judgement alone.

These are the people you need leading your business projects, your art projects, your rock bands.  These are your superstars, your thinkers, and the people that should be given control, often without themselves realising it.

You learn a few things when you’re managing a team of 25-40 people every night.  The first thing you learn is how to say no.  In business, it’s easy to say no, any unobservant middle manager type can say no to something.  Try saying no to 10 people who are paying for the privilege to attend.  Once you learn how to say no with tact and grace, you never forget.  You learn politics far surpassing your average workplace micro-dramas.  You learn team selection.  You learn to play to individual strengths and weaknesses with subtlety.  You learn how to use humour to control a crowd and how to be serious to drive one.  You learn to trust strangers to do their jobs.  But most importantly of all, you learn how to keep moral up (WoW wipe nights aren’t anyone’s idea of fun).

You also start to notice the anti-patterns and their real world equivalents.  You notice the meta-workers.  Anyone that’s played the game will be able to identify them.  The rogue that browses wowhead for 16 hours a day checking out gear upgrades only to stop raiding when he achieves them.  You know who to flag up as a no-show or unreliable team member, you can identify the middle managers of the world, the players that re-open endless debate on trite subjects of non-interest just to make a noise.  The sales people / DPSers that are all talk and no performance.  And you always notice the people that just never meet deadlines, whilst simultaneously hoping that they’re not your healers.

You also notice that however hard they try, people that just aren’t leaders will never be able to learn to be.

I’m a software developer by trade, so there’s a certain amusement value that comes from seeing these same stereotypes in the work environment, purely because the type of mind that’s conducive to working in IT and the type of person that plays RPG’s are often one and the same, so perhaps the similarities resonate more in my field than most, but if you think you ever want to manage people, I’d recommend you try some raiding first.

I miss playing Warcraft, and I miss going to work from the night job for a bit of easy graft.  I miss the guild in particular and I played with fantastic people from all wakes of life and nationalities.  But I’ll always remember, regardless of if I relapse or not, that I had the honour to encounter three genuine leaders, even if they don’t know it yet.

Your teams are broken if your leaders aren’t doing the leading and the troops aren’t naturally rallying.

If you’re going to take anything away from this post:

  1. Always know who your leaders are
  2. Let them lead
  3. Always know who your A team are
  4. Less QQ moar pew pew