Before I go any further, I’ll lay out the requirements for being in the second group, so you can stop reading now if you want. You are going to have to pull your head out of whatever “mission critical code” you are writing, every once in a while, and pay attention to all of that “irrelevant shit” that goes on at other levels. You’re going to have to investigate politics; you’re going to have to think about logistics; you’re going to have to talk-to (and worse, listen-to) people you think are useless. Yes, I am suggesting that you stop thinking about how to squeeze just one more instruction out of that shader, for as much as maybe an hour a week.
Too much to ask? Then stop reading. You are a drone.
That piss you off? Good. Want to keep on reading so you can post snarky comments at the end? Mission accomplished.
An Earnest Business
Your team does not exist in a vacuum. Your company does not exist in a vacuum. The company that owns/funds your company does not exist in a vacuum. We’ll keep it at just three levels, for the purposes of discussion, even though it’s frequently more complicated.
Given those three levels, you likely have no fewer than: a producer, who reports to an executive producer, who oversees several projects and reports to a manager, who still can’t find the ‘any’ key and reports to an executive, who is subservient to a C-level but also deals with the equivalent of a producer at the company which owns/funds your own, who hands down edicts to please their superior, who really hopes the Board of Directors doesn’t find out about the latest multi-million dollar fuck-up they oversaw.
None of these layers are irrelevant. You’d really like to think that they are. You’d like to think that if you just put your head down, and make good games, that everything will work out for the best. That may very-well be true, but developing situational-awareness in the game industry will not only let you know when to start sending out your resumé, it will make you a better developer.
Two Levers Move Man
While decisions may seem to be handed down, from on high, by faceless committees in corporations, they are made by people. These people are driven by the same two motivating factors that drive you: fear, and self-interest (yeah go ahead and argue against that point … you’re wrong; moving on). When you know what motivates people, you can more easily encourage them to take mutually beneficial action.
Your first task is to figure out who has skin in the game. Figure out what those individuals, as well as their group has got on the line. Did they go to bat for this project/company? How much stock do they have (See ‘They Have Boats?’ below)? What’s the company culture with regard to under-performing projects? What kind of returns do they generally expect on investments? What else do they have going on outside this project this quarter? This year? What do they want more: profit or write-offs?
It is important to note, at this point, that these are questions you are asking of yourself to try and focus your analysis of the information you have collected. This is a practice of deduction, and it works in likelihoods, not certainties. The more specific you try to get, the more inaccurate the analysis will be. At the end you will distill everything down to what is essentially a guess, and a confidence level in that guess.
When in doubt, bet on fear, and accounting.
The Use of Spies
The more people with which you have relationships in each layer of management, the more informed you will be. Do you drink? Drink with them. Do you smoke? Smoke with them. Do you have no vices what-so-ever? Find the ones that have no vices and ride around on high-horses together. You just need a foot-in-the-door; you don’t want to be a sycophant, that doesn’t accomplish your goal (also it’s kind of lame). In short: you need in-roads from which you can obtain information to which you wouldn’t otherwise be privy. These in-roads are people. You are recruiting spies.
You must now keep your spies, and grow your network. The easiest way to stunt the growth of your network is to blab information you’ve been given. You aren’t on a mission from god; your task is not to “save” your less-informed piers. Just know when to show up with beer, and what kind is the favorite. Eventually you will discover with whom you can talk about different information. This isn’t gossip time, it is information exchange. Never discuss the source of information, or put someone in the spot about their sources, and be wary of people who do.
You are not trying to construct the one, true picture of what is going on. You will never get the whole picture. That is because nobody has it. Your task is to collect as much information as you can, filter out unreliable information, and then look for inconsistencies. You’re a developer, a nerd, this is what we’re good at. The patterns of thought that you use every day to design, to code, to make art are the same patterns of thought that will help you make the most of your spies.
“Be subtle! be subtle! and use your spies for every kind of business.”
They Have Boats?
You likely have far more information available to you than you think about the people at higher levels outside, or even inside, your company. Is the company publicly traded? If so, and you are in the United States, than the Securities and Exchange Commission has your back. Mandatory SEC filings will tell you (among other things) who has how much stock, and from that you can extrapolate how much money is really on the line for individuals (start with Form 10-K filings). You can also compare your salaries to theirs, and weep bitter tears.
You can find out many useful things, for example: “Oh my! It appears that the general councel for this company is on the board of directors and has a metric-assload of shares. I bet this could be used to our advantage.”
Why is this important? If you want insight into the minds of the people with the purse-strings, than you better damn well know what’s been going on with their company. If you want to provide a compelling reason to continue funding your studio, get advanced warning about when they may decide to stop funding your studio or help them to understand how not seeing things your way could lead to very bad things, read SEC filings.
Lies, Damned Lies, and PowerPoint
Some of the most successful games in history were almost axed. The lists and anecdotes are out there, just look. This is because, at some point the people who wrote the checks looked at them and said, “Too much risk.” (Remember when I said, “bet on fear and accounting?” Bet on fear and accounting.) In contrast, some of the dumbest games ever conceived have thrown millions of dollars down the drain. There are (in)famous examples of this, as well as ones only discussed in hushed tones over beer. How can this be?
So why do bad things happen to good games; or good things happen to dumb games? At some point, it all comes down to somebody standing in the front of a room with PowerPoint. The person in the suit does not want to hear about what you hope will work. They do not give a shit about your game design. They want to hear and see one thing: “It’s a slam dunk!” You can tell them this, but it’s the connotations of the bullet points and mock-up shots that either scream “slam dunk” or, “risk”. Games that look similar to successful games appear ‘less risky’ than new looks. Games that are rehashes of successful games seem ‘less risky’ than trying to introduce new play experiences.
So, what, are you just supposed to pitch the same re-hashed garbage that everyone else tries? No; hell no. Have you been paying attention? You need to know to whom you are pitching, to whom they have to pitch, and include appropriate content. You need to review your pitch docs, mock-ups, screenshots, and any other communication with a fine-toothed ‘risk’ comb. You want to deliver a pitch that compels someone who plays games, but include enough content that they can then turn around and use to pitch to the person in the suit. Tailor your deliverables so that, at each step, it is more lucrative for the person passing them up the chain to deem them a “slam dunk” rather than a “risk”, and then ensure that the deliverable contains the material they need to pass it to the next link of the chain.
Why is this relevant? Because a project that is deemed sufficiently ‘risky’ will be presented, at each layer, with the presenter trying to distance themselves from any potential future failure to later spin as, “I told you so.” If the project is presented properly, it will instead be backed by the person presenting it, because they want to take credit for its success. When a project that is backed by self-interest comes under fire, those people in suits will throw additional money at the problem, in an attempt to validate their support of the project. In contrast, when a project that has been deemed as ‘risky’ hits the skids, the person in the suit will axe it to validate their initial assessment, and be seen as cutting costs.
“Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.”
Know When To Walk Away, and Know When To Run
Few, if any, game companies exist in a steady-state. Exceptional companies are exceptional. Company life-cycle could be imagined as a Koch curve described by, and made up of Freytag’s pyramids. Projects are introduced, rise, reach a climax, wind-down, and are resolved. At the same time, the company, as a whole, is either in it’s foundation, it’s growth, it’s climax, or stagnation/decline (the accountants do the dénouement part).
Different people are motivated by various parts of this lifespan. It is up to you to know yourself, and what fuels your creativity. Do you need to have your hands in all aspects of development? Can you only do work that you feel is meaningful when things aren’t on fire? Do you want to only focus on specific bits of specific projects? Do you need to be flying by the seat of your pants to be interested in what you are doing? Do you just want to come in, and write code from 9-5?
You do not work at the company which your company once was. You do not work at the company which your company can become. You work at the company as it exists. Making games is hard (Valve said so), so don’t mistake hardship for badness. If everyone around you pines for the company it once was, it may be time to walk away. If a guy walks in, says, “Hey I’m the new CEO. At my last company I moved everyone to Los Angeles, and laid off half the staff because it got me more money,” laughs and then says, “We’re moving the company!” it may be time to run.
Ultimately you are the one who is responsible for the the direction, sustainability, and satisfaction of your career. Understanding the issues that surround your daily tasks, and keeping your ears open will allow you insight into the processes at play, and give you foresight into what will happen next.