Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The joyful life of the lapsed game developer

Once upon a time I was a passionate game developer. Though I still love games and game design, I no longer work in the game industry. I have forsaken the church of game development for the easy and highly rewarding life of mainstream software development.


This is my happy story.

What brought me down this path?
It began with a common enough tale in the game industry. The project I had worked on for the previous two years was canceled. After all those 80 hour weeks, fueled by a feverish passion to build something marvelous, I was cut loose. I never went back.

There are lots of people like me. In fact there are more lapsed game developers in the world than there are current game developers. Let’s look at some back of the napkin numbers. The average career in the game industry is 5 years. With 800 mainstream games a year and an average team size of 40 developers, we have a rough population of 32,000. If 20% leave a year, that’s roughly 6,000 new lapsed game developers every year. Over the past decade, that rapidly adds up to 50,000 or more lapsed game developers.

This doesn’t include the smaller shops that generally have a higher turnover rate. Feel free to refine the numbers, but the basics still stand. The population of lapsed game developers dwarves that of current game developers. If you could put together a LGDC (Lapsed Game Developers Conference), it would be at least twice as large as that little show in San Jose. And when Chris Crawford gave his keynote we would cheer maniacally.


Because he is our god.

Oh, those little reasons
I joined a company that ended up making middleware for the game industry. I still was able to maintain many of my old contacts, but the work environment was quite different. I learned about new ways of doing things that were quite shocking and delightful. As the years have passed, I’ve always contemplated going back, if only to recapture that raw emotion of pushing my creativity to the edge. Yet I never have. Most of our happy 50,000 strong brethren never do.

There are lots of reasons of course, some of which are the fault of the industry at large. Many however are due to the fact that I’m having a blast doing what I’m doing.

The short list of things that kept me away
These are some of the issues that you’ve heard before. They bear repeating.

  • The stunning and widespread ignorance of project management: Fresh game developers are like conscripts in the Red Army, tossed untrained into the teeth of the advancing Germans. They get the job done, but the unnecessary psychological bloodshed is appalling. The 95% chance that I’d end up on a team run by bullheaded milestone sluts that worship the rush of the crunch is worrisome. Everyone has bad practices, but the general inability or unwillingness to learn and adapt is a deal breaker.
  • A general lack of exciting projects: The chance of working on a truly meaningful game project that changes the world is slim. I’m an oddball in that I enjoy making games with interesting new game mechanics. Churning out sequels with mildly upgraded graphics does not seem like a worthwhile way to spend my life. This isn’t insurmountable, but it does reduce the number of viable opportunities.
  • Pay: Taking a roughly 20% pay cut is hard to justify. Pay has nothing to do with money and everything to do with respect. It is hard to swallow my pride and admit to the world that I am worth less because I happen to work in the game industry.
  • Family: We’ve been talking about kids lately. 80-hour work weeks don’t leave much time to change the diapers or watch your favorite little woobie-boo take her first tottering steps. You can’t get those moments back. The thought of giving that up just so I could make a button on a car configuration screen glow a little more brightly makes my heart break.
The things that kept me doing what I’m doing
Here is a little secret. Staying away isn't all about the game industry's faults. It turns out that the world outside of game development is quite wonderful. It is full of fresh honey, flowers, and lithe and luscious servants feeding you goblets of purest nectar. It is a fundamentally better life.

Over the past twenty years, while game companies have been churning and burning their way through the disposable lives of their enthusiastic employees, other industries have been learning and improving. Software development is no longer a mysterious black box…there are better ways of doing things that improve the lifestyle of the workers while improving the bottom line of the company.

Sure, there are still quite a few miserable groups out there, but tides of knowledge have lifted all the boats.

  • Agile development: Once you have run a successful agile software development project, you can never go back. It is the difference between being happy and tired each day after honest labor, and feeling like you’ve spent the day slogging through a wasteland of mud up to your neck. The team is in control and they tend to make products with lower overall design risk and lower execution risk. Agile development works and it has opened my eyes to the possibility of software development without suffering.
  • Reasonable work hours: I have done more than my share of all-nighters, but it pragmatically is not worth it. Here is a little tidbit from the High Moon talk at GDC. By the 4th week of working overtime, your productivity drops below your 40 hour a week average. By working normal hours, I’m happier and I get more work done. People outside the game industry are not lazy when they go home at 5pm. They are smart.
  • Making the world a better place: The applications I build now help people in a very concrete way. I like that warm fuzzy feeling. I was talking to a fellow lapsed game developer who now works in 3d imaging in the medical field. He told me “The work I do now saves people’s lives. You can’t beat that.” There is a moral core that is missing from the game development community that exists in other industries, even in other entertainment sectors. In movies, you can still make documentaries that right past wrongs. In books, you can seek to help and enlighten. In games? I wonder.
Lapsed game developers won’t be coming back
Is the game industry better off without those 50,000 lapsed game developers? Surely, most were slackers that would have just slowed the rest down?

I was a reasonable game developer. I single handedly drew 95% of the graphics for Tyrian in a 4-month period of time, roughly 1/2 to 1/3 the time that art for comparable games had taken. You’ve read my essays on business practices and game design. Could I have contributed? What is more important is that there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of lapsed game developers out there who are far better than I will ever be. Surely, they could have helped the industry in some meaningful way.

It is too late now.

Instead, those talented folks have gone out into the bigger world and seen amazing new wonders beyond even the wildest imaginings of their kept game developer brothers. They stay away, not because they are weak or ignorant. Lapsed game developers stay away because they’ve seen the light of quality pay, reasonable work hour, jobs with meaning, and competent management.

In the process, they’ve incorporated new knowledge of business and successful development practices. Instead of simply doing more, they do the right things first. They have evolved into something wiser and more capable than those who stayed behind.

To all those who are lapsed
This essay is a joyful call to all those wonderful people who are leaving the game industry. Welcome to the bright side of life. You are blessed.

To all those who are tempted
If you happen to be between projects and are questioning your allegiance to the brotherhood of game development, here is a suggestion. Find an Agile development shop that is doing something you could believe in. Try it out for a year or two. If everything I’ve said is a lie, you can always go back. If it isn’t a lie, the experience will be well worth the time, for you, your bank account and your family

To all those who are lost
For all those mournful souls still strapped to the burning cross of waterfall milestone hell, I really wonder if it is possible to improve your lot. I suppose you could learn some modern project management skills. Or you could question why you do things the way that you do and see if there were any alternate methods that might be better. You could even learn from successes outside of the game industry.

In the end, it is probably far too much work. Better to continue what you are doing and to continue to fail. It is certainly far better to continue to damage your mental health and starve your family of both money and your love. The way things are right now is just easier for everyone.

I have faith however. Because, eventually, you too will join us.

Hallelujah.
Danc.

References
It worked, didn’t it?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Army

This is why you should join the LGD coalition:
http://www.igda.org/qol/whitepaper.php

These people are crazy.
http://www.agilegamedevelopment.com/GDC2006/gdc2006_ClintonKeith_0323.ppt

Ah, Chris.
http://crystaltips.typepad.com/wonderland/2006/03/gdc_game_develo.html

Sweet Jesus. Artwork!
http://www.cnprecords.com/hallelujah!.htm