I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful that you are taking some time to read GamesBeat and this column. Today’s the day when the real season for gaming begins, as shoppers decide which creations they want to spend their hard-earned money on. I hope you make some good choices. This week, I’m going to dwell on the choices and advice that game developers have for each other.
As I noted last week, I attended the Montreal International Game Summit for the second year in a row. The event drew more than 2,400 people across 90 sessions. The closing talks, where prominent developers speak for five minutes each in a session dubbed the MIGS Brain Dump 2016, captured the zeitgeist of game development. The idea was to get some smart people on stage and force them to crystallize their thoughts in lightning sessions.
This year’s theme was “What no one tells you.” The speakers included Adam Boyes, Aleissia Laidacker, Anna Kipnis, David Calvo, Jason Kim, Jill Murray, Richard Dansky, Richard Rouse III, and Steve Escalante. I’ve summarized four of the talks below, and I covered the others last week. I hope you enjoy them, and thanks again for reading. (Here are my stories on last year’s talks, part one and part two).
Jill Murray, president and writer of Discoglobe Interactive, talked about “feelings.” The writer of stories for games such as Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation said there isn’t enough feeling in the game industry. She said you can see that in the crunch time that happens when games run off schedule and developers have to work unpaid overtime, resulting in medical leave and burnout. You can see it in women harassed to the point of leaving the industry. And you can see it in calls to keep politics out of content, “as if our games do not spring from our lives,” she said.
“In 2016, as we face important challenges for civil rights and freedoms,” she said, “Our emotional health and our ability to hear each other may be our most important asset. But still, every day, devs in production, in the guise of performance feedback, to control their emotions.”
The thing you can’t control, she said, is your emotions. Feelings are feedback, giving you cues about your environment and your world state, she said. What you can control, she said, is behavior and action. You can acknowledge and express a feeling, or try to ignore it and hope it goes away, Murray said.
“Anger is a rocket,” she said. “It can get you to the moon or you can keep it in your garage and it can burn your house down.”
If you want to know how a project is going, you should get in touch with the feelings of your team. If you ask them to suppress their feelings, they will spend most of their time faking their feelings or hiding them.
“I would much rather let people feel whatever it is their feeling, and save their energy for really important superhuman things,” she said. “Let’s save our miracles for awesome things and stop trying to control our feelings.”
Jason Kim, CEO and creative director of Cardboard Utopia, has a background in 3D art and game design, working on titles such as Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Far Cry 3. He has been running his own studio for four years now and shared his learnings. Kim’s studio is working on Children of Zodiarcs, a Steam and PlayStation 4 game for early next year.
“You will be an entrepreneur, so learn about this stuff,” he said. “When I came in, I said I was going to be a game dev 80 percent of the time and an entrepreneur 20 percent of the time. The truth is you’ll be an entrepreneur 80 percent of the time. And you’ll also be a game developer 80 percent of the time.”
You should learn about the business and get yourself a lawyer. Get someone to help you out and delegate.
“Don’t assume you can just wing it, and ask people who do know about these things,” Kim said. “You have to find that balance between being a creator and being an entrepreneur. I had to learn how to slowly relinquish the details.”
You will also have to learn to be a leader, adjusting your priorities as a studio head. You have no one above you to blame, and so you have to make good decisions, have confidence in the ones you make, and adapt when you are wrong. You have to think about what’s best for the studio, not for yourself, and what’s best for the team.
Kim also said, “You will go crazy. It’s hard as fuck. There are days when I want to run away from it all and drink myself into a stupor under a bridge. It’s a huge emotional strain. Game development is already hard. That difficulty is magnified by the pressure of owning a business you want to succeed. So much is riding on this project that all of you are pouring so much love and passion into.”
Know all that now, Kim said, “I have no regrets about what I’ve done.”
“Here is something useful no one will ever tell you about game development,” he said. “It’s fake. It’s bogus. It’s a scam to make you believe that our games are actually worth paying for.”
Games, he said, should really be free.
“If a player knew how easy it was to make games, they would ask us to pay them to play games, yet our industry keeps on charging them,” Calvo said.
Crunch, he said as he pivoted to a new topic, is a medical sacrifice game developers make. He said developers can forget why they do things, lost in the maze of their own work. It is not about selling more games than your friends do. He thinks developers should contribute to a “freeverse,” a shared “hallucination” or canvas that represents everything we’ve learned, and games are a way to unlock it.
“We have a responsibility toward the children,” he said. “We want to design games for them, for a perfectly valid reason. They are both door and key. We have a responsibility toward older generations.”
“From an indie, perspective, one of the things people don’t tell you is your baby is ugly,” Escalante said. “It’s a hard thing. We all remember Benjamin Button. We all remember that scene. Being told your baby is ugly is quite depressing. My job as a publisher means I get to see a lot of product pitched. To go through that is very difficult. The common question I get is ‘Why did you say no?’ And I have to say their baby is ugly.”
He wants to give constructive feedback, but he just has to say he doesn’t believe it will be a commercial success. Even his own games have been ugly babies from time to time. To deal with that, you have to step back and reflect on what that means. Do you have to keep selling the idea, or abandon it?
“Many successes today were ugly babies six or seven years ago, the AAA publishers turned them down, and that is why the whole indie scene was formed,” Escalante said. “When it’s fun, you know it. Surround yourself with people who really truly say you should fix something.”
Escalante said that “focus groups are basically worthless” and can lead you in the wrong direction. You have to be careful about analyzing data, and spend a lot of time getting feedback from real players and people who will give you the truth. Your friends, he said, will tell you what you want to hear, and your family will tell you what you need to hear. You have to take that feedback, adjust, pivot, and keep working, he said.
Disclosure: The organizers of MIGS 2016 paid my way to Montreal. Our coverage remains objective.