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Posts Tagged ‘work’

OK, not so much “morbid” as… depressed, but that would have killed the alliteration.

For a little bit of context, I was laid off or downsized from the video game company I worked for just about two months ago.  It’s been… stressful.  Really stressful.  It’s part of why I haven’t posted here for a while.

For a bit more context, there’s this fellow’s insanely large video game collection that hit the news:

Guinness World Record video game collection

Anyway, there’s also this article from Kotaku that made the Facebook rounds recently:

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off

It’s a decent article, but I wanted to chase down a couple of implications that they didn’t get to, and tie a few things together.

As might be noted by the Kotaku article, or by speaking with veterans of the industry, there is a lot of churn in the video game production world.  Staffing woes aren’t uncommon in many industries, so it’s not like we’re super special snowflakes or anything, but it’s worth noting that the industry isn’t a stable one.  It’s a wildly profitable one on the whole, an entertainment medium that isn’t going away, but it’s not financially stable, nor is a career in the industry going to be a stable one.

I read an article a while back (though I can’t find it now), and this thread seems to echo the same thoughts, that careers in the video game industry are short on average.  As in, five years short, or about two big game dev cycles.  It’s true that we don’t live in a world where you get one job right out of college and stay at it until you retire or die, so again, this isn’t all that unusual, but it’s somewhat sobering.  Or it should be.

I’ve worked in the industry for almost ten years.  I’m an old hand at it, in some ways.  That’s… weird.  (Not as old of a hand as some, but still, it’s weird to think of myself as statistically over the hill, career wise.)

Anyway, this does have effects on the industry beyond what the Kotaku article notes.  Because companies are always fluctuating around, “redistributing assets” and such, there are convenient excuses to drop older, more expensive employees and pick up fresh meat from colleges.  The passion in these younger, unattached employees (mostly male) is exceptionally easy to exploit, as I’ve railed against before, and as the EA Spouse kerfluffle illustrated all too well.  Conditions haven’t improved much since then, though some managers do a good job.  Death marches and crunch might be the backbone of a production schedule, but they aren’t healthy.

Tangentially, this explains a fair bit of the “boys’ club” mentality of the industry, for those of you who are up in arms about Blizzard’s recent public relations black eyes.  People who grow up (and actually mature, unlike the ESRB’s definition of the word) and want stable careers for their families don’t last long in the industry.

This is part of why the indie scene is important, as veteran developers try out new ideas that would never fit into the studio or megaentertainment company mentality.  Games are an important artistic medium, but they are hobbled by the realities of the industry.  Indies are opening up the scope of the medium, but like so many artistic avenues, it’s not really a solid career choice.

I could get bitter about this, but really, I’m just noting the realities of the industry as a voice of… not warning, exactly, since I still see great value in games.  It’s more of a voice of pragmatism.  The industry is not a place for long term stability (relevant to those who wish to make games), it’s not a place for actual maturity (relevant to devs and gamers), and it’s not going away.

I’ve been applying to studios around the world, but have no real leads.  I may well be out of the “official” video game world now, more or less “retired” by circumstance, and left to do indie games with friends on the side as I scramble for other work, whether freelance art or some other art position somewhere.  Again, this isn’t a desirable position to be in, but it’s not too surprising or unique.  I’m disappointed, but then, as I noted in that NBI article, I believe that a job or career is just something you do to pay the bills so you can afford to do what you really want to do in your spare time.  I don’t have anything yet, but even if I pick up a new video games job, I can’t really see myself in the industry for decades, just because of how it works.

I’ll work on indie games because they interest me.  I’ll make my Shapeways, Zazzle, Kickstarter and other projects because I just can’t stop creating.  I may well wind up with a completely irrelevant job, but games, art and creativity are something I will always be involved in.

But… yeah… I’m busier now than I ever have been, working hard on a lot of different things, but making very little money.  This blog, as great as it is to write here, isn’t my priority.  I’ll be here now and then again, still, I’m not closing shop, I’m just busy.  Really busy.  I’m updating my portfolio (seen over here), working on my own projects (novels, games, art, photography, all sorts of things) and looking for freelance opportunities.  If any of you have leads, I’d certainly love to hear about them.

See you around!

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All this New Blogger Initiative stuff has reminded me of one of the common pithy bits of supposed “wisdom” that I’ve heard since junior high, when “inspirational” speakers try to tell us good little empty-headed starry-eyed students what to do with our lives and careers.  Perhaps you’ve heard this one before?

Find a job doing what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

It’s my experience that this is not only shallow and semantic, but the philosophy is actively bad for long term health.

There are a few aspects to this:

  • Turning a love or hobby into a job is effectively ceding control of that interest to those who write the checks.  Whether you’re working for The Man as a cog in a machine, or The Herd as an entrepreneurial wizard, you’re still tying your love to money.  That always changes things.  And, as the EASpouse storm made more aware, and this story of Free Radical underlines (hattip to Anjin), passion is easily exploited by unsavory management, canny to optimize assets and maximize revenue.
  • Jobs and work are usually crucial to staying alive; paying the bills, food and shelter, that sort of thing.  Money is almost always a necessity for mere survival, and work is usually how you get it.  That’s healthy, as I reckon it, because I think work itself is a good principle, but the last thing you should want to do with an interest you love is make it something you must do, rather than something you want to do.  It then crosses the threshold into an imposition on your time and energy, rather than something you approach at your leisure.  It controls you, rather than you controlling it.
  • One of the best ways to lose interest in something is to see how other people screw it up.  Hobbyists and wage slaves both have to deal with people at some level, but again, when money is involved, you’re letting someone else have inordinate say in your interest.  No longer are they just a passive voice that can be debated or ignored.  No, customers and corporate controllers cannot be ignored, and when you don’t agree, sticking to your guns can have a real monetary impact.  Maybe that’s a tradeoff worth making sometimes, but it inevitably changes the tenor of how you approach your work.

I’d argue that this applies to your motivation to blogging as well.  To be sure, you can start a blog with the intention of making it a revenue stream, but then it’s a job.  That’s OK, but it’s different from just blogging for the sheer love of communication and shared ideas.

I don’t do what I do here for money.  I work a day job doing something else (I’m an artist at Wahoo/NinjaBee studios), and write here as occasion permits.  Sure, I’ll do some side projects that will occasionally net me a little spending money, like some of my Shapeways or Zazzle/CafePress merchandise, and I’d certainly be pleased to make some money with some of my game designs someday, but that’s just icing on the cake.  I designed Alpha Hex for a contest, and have been refining it in fits and spurts ever since.  I designed Zomblobs! because I wanted to play it and maybe even see others play it.  I’m writing a series of novels because I want the story told.  In other words, I follow a maxim something like this:

Find a job you’d be happy doing, so you can pay for the things you really want to be doing.

Initially, I wanted to work in movies.  I grew up on Disney animation (and I’m introducing my children to DuckTales), lots of drawing and tons and tons of reading.  Animation is what my BFA degree was geared for, and I did very well in the program.  Maybe I will yet work in film someday, but I know what goes on in that particular sausage factory, and I’m OK with not being a part of it, though I’ll toy with the idea of making my own movies sometimes.  I also wanted to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, simply for the sheer love I have for the science, but I took a hard look at the politically charged career paths there and decided I’d maintain the love as an indie and try to pass it on to my children, rather than get burned out by the pragmatic concerns of a career in the sciences, rather than just working on science because it interests me.

I think this is partially what drives indie game developers, at least at some level.  Making games for the sheer love of making games has a tendency to produce some great stuff.  I’d hold up Minecraft as an obvious example, but there are plenty of others.  The Rampant Coyote is my touchpoint for getting a bead on good indie games, though the Humble Bundle and Indie Royale are good to check now and then.

That’s not to say that projects like Psychochild’s Storybricks are somehow lessened by monetary concerns, or devoid of passion.  No, it just means that Storybricks, for all its indie pedigree and passion, is still being worked on as a commercial product.  Psychochild and his intrepid coworkers are working at making the tech interesting and useful, not noodling around in a garage somewhere for the sheer joy of tinkering.  I stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s the wellspring of human progress, the backbone of capitalism.  Working on something with the aim of making money with it can be an honorable pursuit.  This whole Kickstarter thing even taps into the market in new ways, letting customers echo their support of passionate developers instead of waiting for the AAA venture capital machine to churn out homogenized focus-group approved games.  (And yes, I’ve pledged support for Storybricks; it really looks like a sweet project.)  There’s plenty of love out there on commercial projects, and I suspect that the vast majority of them start as labors of love.

It’s just not the same thing as working on something because you love the work, the thing or both.  Money changes the priorities somewhere along the line, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes gross, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better.  (Money changes how we handle things as consumers, too.  It’s not just a producer thing.)

I’ve told my wife on occasion that even if I were independently wealthy, living off of a mine of oil or something in my back yard, I’d still be working hard, just on different things.  I’d push the design of Zomblobs! even more, and develop its sister game that I’ve had rattling around in my mind.  I’d make a steampunk fabrication lab behind the house.  (Probably not by the oil well, though.)  I’d write and illustrate more books.  As it is, I’m doing those things when I can, in small ways, but if I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d simply have more time for the things I love to do.  I’d still love to work and produce things I consider valuable, it would just have a different tenor to the process.  If money could be made with the fruits of my labor, hey, that’s a bonus, but it wouldn’t be the reason for working.  I’d be working because I value what I’d be doing and what I’d be producing.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I’ll tell you this:  when I am compelled by circumstance to do something, it is a task that I may well grow to resent, no matter how much I might like it initially.  When I choose to do something, to act on my own rather than be acted upon, my love for the task is not ground away as I go, but rather, it grows.

Those times when I don’t feel like posting on this blog, I don’t.  It starts to feel like an obligation sometimes, whether I’m feeling pressure to post something so I can keep people coming (I do want to share my game designs, after all), or when I feel like I want to comment on some topic of the month but can’t work up the right words, or some other circumstance where I’m not writing but I feel like I should be… those are times when blogging feels like a job, not something I do because it’s fun.  It’s much harder to write at that point.  I’m not of a mind that you have to push through it and post anyway.  If you do that, you’re treating it like it’s a job, and again, it inevitably colors your attitude.  Sure, there still might be something good in those posts, but they have a different feel to them, and in my experience, they aren’t as strong or as interesting.

There’s definitely something to be said for liking your job.  I like mine, and I’m happy with what I produce.  Working at a job you don’t like gets old fast.  That aside, I’m firmly of the mind that hobbies and labors of love need to be spontaneous and self-directed, or else they change into something else.  That something else might be good as well, but it’s different.  There is great value in doing something simply for the sake of doing it.  Like a schoolchild needs recess and time to just be free, adults need time to be away from imposition and obligation.

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My daughter loves movies.  I’m still hoping I can parlay that interest into teaching her about animation and how to create it, since Couch Potato still isn’t a real career, unemployment reform attempts notwithstanding.  Still, she loves animated movies, as most children are wont to do.  My own childhood fascination with animation turned me early to the part of art and creativity, and despite my lifelong fascination and competence with math and the sciences, I simply find it more personally satisfying to do something artistic with my time.

I’ve had more than one occasion to wonder about the nature of work and welfare, and to wonder just what it is that I should be doing with my peculiar and particular talents.  As I watched a bit of Disney’s Beauty and Beast with my little ones, I found my love for books framed in a new light.

As the Beast and Belle build their friendship/romance, Beast shows Belle to the castle library and tells her reverently that it’s now all hers.  There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of books there.  It’s a great scene, as Belle adores books, and Beast clearly wants to do something nice for her.  Beast is starting to understand the joy of giving, even as Belle takes in the sights.

I had to wonder… what if I had a library like that?  What if I were a monarch, with a castle full of retainers, trained to cater to my every whim?  What if I had no real purpose in life but to consume and be coddled?  Would I spend all my time in that library?  I think I would spend a lot of my time there, though I’d want a nice science lab next door and perhaps an orrery and observatory in the highest level of the library, maybe a foundry for some nice steampunk experimentation a little ways off, next to the wood shop.

I love books.  I devour data, and am almost always reading a few books at a time.  I love learning and thinking, finding new interconnections between bits of data.

And yet… I don’t think I’d be content with a life of pure consumption.  At some point, the itch to create would grow unbearable, and I’d have to go paint, draw, build, sculpt or write.  I just can’t life a life only comprised of taking, I have to give; I am driven to create, to contribute, to turn my energies to constructive ends.

Like Gordon’s “word monkeys”, the thoughts and ideas that are prompted by the education represented by consuming those books just have to go somewhere other than the recesses of my grey matter.  This is why I blather at length about game design (and other tish tosh) rather than just letting myself get sucked into WoW or the latest Civilization game.  Sure, I like consuming well-crafted pieces of gaming almost as much as I love reading… but I have a deeper itch to give, rather than take.

And sometimes, I have to wonder if perhaps games, of all forms of entertainment, might not be the best suited to scratch both itches at the same time.  Ours is an interactive medium, after all, and we really can let the player do extraordinary things in fantastic settings that just couldn’t happen elsewhere.  To me, that’s the strength of games; the ability to facilitate exploratory and investigative thought in situations that might not otherwise be available.  Perhaps we might not harness gamer impulses to cure cancer or Save the Universe… but I do think it is very possible to let games foster creativity and constructive impulses rather than be mere passive entertainment.

This is why I write here on the blog, it’s why I pontificate about making new games and explore new ramifications for fictional constructs like magic, it’s why I’m not working on movies like I was trained to.  I see something here in the medium of games… and I want to explore that potential.  I want to contribute something positive to the world and my posterity, even though I’m a mere artist with delusions of adequacy.

Time will tell if I manage to do so, but in the meantime, please forgive my protracted blathering here and there; I’m muddling my way through like any good muggle with only a foggy view of the more expansive reality around me.  Here’s hoping I can poke through to the light here and there, and show others some of the sights.

In the meantime, thank you for all of your comments and conversation.  As much fun as it is sending these blog posts out into the digital ocean in little WordPress bottles, it’s gratifying and humbling to see when someone lobs a message back, and all of us learn a little more.

Best wishes for Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it!  If you don’t, well, here’s hoping you have a good weekend anyway!

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This is an addendum for my original Making it Real article, but I think it deserved more than a comment in the thread with a few links.

Hat tip to Shamus for this one:

Johanna Blakely: Lessons From Fashion’s Free Culture

TED talks are all over the place in quality, but this one does point out some interesting thoughts on IP protection and innovation.

I have to wonder if the same spirit behind Linux might be moving things like Psychochild’s article on Elemental Advancement.  He could have tried to keep that under wraps as a trade secret, but sharing it lets the blogging hivemind make the concepts better.  It’s then on his head (or someone else’s!) to execute the ideas in a commercially viable way, for which he could and should be rightfully recompensed.  It’s the work of execution that would be rewarded, not really the idea.  This is also why you will never sell an idea to a game company.  Go ahead and try; they will laugh in your face or outright ignore you.  Ideas are cheap. (To be clear, Ixobelle wasn’t selling ideas there, he was selling himself, but the Blizzard response is standard; game companies will not buy ideas.)

The talk’s argument roughly suggests that ideas should be cheap, free and unfettered, and that execution is really what matters.  When ideas can be free, innovation has fewer limitations.  Her list of industries with different IP laws and lack of copyright is especially enlightening.

To reiterate on what I was writing about in the last article, then, if you make your game idea into reality and sell it as such, as a physical game, you are effectively monetizing the actual production and materials, not so much the idea.  The idea can be taken and molded by house rules or knockoff products, but if you maintain quality, you’ll still be the standard of comparison.

Taken another way, you can make your own Magic cards and play with them.  Sure, Wizards owns copyrights on their particular game art and the “tap” icon, but you can take a sharpie to blank cards and play all day long.  You’ll never get them into a sanctioned tournament, but if you’re happy playing with friends at home, who cares?  If you do want to play “for real”, though, you pony up and buy the cards.  If you want the prestige of “real” cards and the option of playing in official venues, you go through the gates.  If you just want to play with the cool ideas, you can do so at home with homemade cards and homebrew ideas.

The WoW TCG has a set of free PDFs that comes directly from the devs, allowing you to print out some game cards and play the game.  It’s just a small slice of what the game ultimately has to offer, but it’s a way to get people playing.  My Alpha Hex paper beta runs along the same lines, though I’m also using it to get playtest feedback.  In either case, the “real” game has more to offer, and can be monetized as such.

IP laws can be weird and wild animals, as Scrusi rightly notes.  I’m not sure that a totally anarchic society of free ideas would function as well as the idealists would suggest, but then, the Big Brother draconian DRM direction doesn’t seem to be paying off with much more than ill will and sequelitis with a nice side dish of piracy.  We don’t make clothes (utilitarian tangible things) in video game design… but offline tangible variations might just be a nice avenue to explore sometimes.

In the meantime, throwing a few game design ideas out there into the wild just may be a good idea.

!!!

UPDATE! Scott Adams of Dilbert fame weighs in on ideas… quite coincidentally.  I like his take on it, though, and his closing line is one that Ed Catmull echoed as well:  “Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.”

In a creative industry, like the one I work in, we’re paid for getting things done.  Ideas are valuable inasmuch as they help get things done, but at the end of the day, if the work hasn’t been completed, and especially if there’s no product to sell, no number of ideas will make the guys writing the checks happy.

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I don’t usually do this bandwagon thing, but Scarybooster touched a nerve on this one.

Developer Appreciation Week

See, I’m a developer.  I’m not looking for cookies (though sending me fudge would be OK) or cards, but let me tell you a little bit about this side of the console.

Game Development is a job.  It is hard work.  It’s packed with thankless iteration, long hours and soul-grinding, mind numbing inanity.  We do have our moments, though.

It is really great to see something you’ve worked on get to playable form.  (“I love it when a plan comes together.“)  Even small victories through the day, when some code works or a piece of art actually looks right in the game, well, those keep us going.

Many of us believe in the potential of games as not only entertaining (though primarily that), but also uplifting and educational.  Putting something you created out into the wild and watching it make people happy is a boon to the soul that few things in life can match.

We love it when people pay our salaries, to be sure, but those sterile numbers on the quarterlies don’t tell the human story.

The occasional blog post or Facebook blurb where someone praises our games are islands of refuge in a sea of grumpiness.  The few times I’ve had someone chime in here on the blog that they liked a game I worked on are delightful.  Most people like to know that their work is appreciated.

And y’know, it really doesn’t take much.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the Boss bring an email or letter to a company meeting, sent in by a fan to praise our work.  Sure, Blizzard has people falling over themselves to praise their name, but they aren’t the only people who make games.  I can almost guarantee that even taking five minutes to send an email or “real” mail to a company, praising their product, will be much appreciated by the sometimes forgotten devs.

We’re not greedy, we just like to be liked and appreciated.  Fudge is good, but a brief “that was an awesome game, dude!” is candy for the soul for the guys in the dev trenches.

So, in closing, let me thank a couple of people quickly:

Thanks to the Three Rings crew, mad geniuses behind Puzzle Pirates.  Special “mad props” (what does that even mean?) to Apollo, Demeter, Nemo and of course, Captain Cleaver, and a huge round of applause from me for the whole dev team and the dauntless Ocean Masters.  The community around Puzzle Pirates is particularly tight knit, it seems, and these folk keep making great additions to the game, and keep the community rolling in good will.  That may not show up itemized on the quarterly financials, but it’s as good as money in the bank.

Individually, I’d like to tip a hat to the good Brian “Psychochild” Green.  He and I don’t always see eye to eye, but he’s taken time out of his crazy days to communicate with me on a handful of topics, and I find his insight to be valuable and interesting.  If you’ve not http://www.psychochild.org/ yet, might I recommend it highly?

To everyone who has chimed in with a comment here about games I’ve worked on, thank you.  Words on a website may not look like much, but the goodwill behind them is always felt and appreciated.

And, if I may, to anyone who has enjoyed a game for any reason, please consider sending a nice email (or more if you feel like it, to be sure) to the guys and gals who made it possible.  In an age of megapublishers and blockbuster games, sometimes it’s easy to ignore the real people doing the work.  Heaven knows I’ve forgotten too many times, and I’m no stranger to either side of the fence.  We could all stand to be kinder, and going out of your way to praise someone is healthy.

Game on!

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My inspiration for this relatively quick post(considering the expansive topics, anyway) comes from two somewhat disparate sources.

First is the talk given by Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently about how work and learning sustained him during his rough childhood in post-WW2 Europe.

Two Principles for Any Economy

As refugees from East Germany, he and his family had almost nothing, and had to work hard to stay alive.  Things eventually got better for them because they kept working.  I’ve long believed that work is essential to mental, physical and spiritual health.  The natural question that I come back to whenever this comes up is simply:

What would you do if you didn’t have to work for a living, and had all your material needs and wants satisfied?

I’d still design games, produce art, and find ways to teach people art, science and math.  (Those aren’t incongruous; I believe that art and games have vast teaching potential.)  When I wanted to work up a good sweat, I’d find someone who needs help moving, or go build something in a woodshop.  I’d go pick up that Ph. D. in Astrophysics that I’ve wanted for years.  I would spend more time with my family, working and playing (play is a child’s work in a lot of ways), learning and teaching.  I love being productive and creating things and/or fixing things.  I couldn’t sit still for long.  Is it any wonder why I’m allergic to the Big Brother welfare state?

The second source is Wolfshead’s article over here:

Why Scaling Challenge Should be the Future of MMO Content

It’s an excellent article that is quite obviously about play, but it prompted a similar question for me:

What would you do in an MMO (or any other game) if you didn’t have to work for gear or levels, and all your in-game wants and needs were satisfied?

I’ve already answered that a bit in my Game Tourism article, but to recap, I’d play the game.  In other words, if the “game” is nothing but the loot treadmill and chasing levels, well… there’s not much there for me.  I’d play with that for a while, and probably have fun, but it’s ultimately a shallow set of experiences to build a game on in my mind.  There is a LOT more that can be done in game design.

Now obviously, these are somewhat different questions, but to me, they both dig to the same core questions:

What is important to you?  What motivates your actions?  If you were freed from mundane concerns, what would you spend your time on?  Are you a consumer, a constructor, or a contributor?

What is the measure of your character?

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