Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude

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I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management. They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job. Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

I’ve been working at technology startups since I was in my early 20s and later founding and running them. I’m fortunate for the career I’ve had, and I’ve always been grateful for the incredible opportunities that the technology industry has afforded me, especially when you consider that I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work. I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games.

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences. Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people; quit, go make great games on your own, pursue your passion, you’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week making video games. To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage. Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger. They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”, how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management” and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

Having worked with many of the game industry’s most legendary game developers and also many of the game industry’s least known early retirees, I can’t help noticing a clear and distinct difference between the people who really make it huge in gaming and the people who just have long résumes. It’s the attitude. Every legendary game developer I’ve ever known pursued gaming as a vocation out of sheer passion. Most could have made more money, had more security, lived more “balanced lives” in other tech jobs, but they wanted to make games and they pursued it 110 percent all the time. Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness.

Making games is not a job — it’s an art.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together. That’s not to say that there aren’t good organized ways to produce games, but it will always still come down to the same thing. Great games are exclusively made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and then hoping it’s enough. There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude to let it go and put themselves completely into a great game. There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires. It’s art. You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m.  Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else. If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems “strenuous” to you … practice more until you’re better at it. Making games is not a job, pushing a mouse is not a hardship, it’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue … start believing it, and you’ll discover that you are even better at it.

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it — you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Alex St. John is the co-creator of the DirectX family of API’s at Microsoft and founder of WildTangent Inc., one of the world’s earliest and largest downloadable game publishers. He has over 20 patents related to online game publishing and is a speaker and technology columnist on GPGPU programming today.

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