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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is the Game Industry a Bad Place to Work?

It appears to be vogue now to renounce the game industry as an evil empire.  A recent article posted at http://tinyurl.com/l5gcxo4 claims that "poor work conditions and sexism give games industry a bad rap".

Sexism

It is true that the reports of sexism and bad working conditions give the industry a bad rap.  Note that I am agreeing the reports lead to the bad rap, not that I agree with the reports.

For example, the article cited that only 22% respondents identified themselves as women.  This is exactly in line with other national statistics.  For example, a quick Internet search revealed that about 20% of computer science degrees were earned by women in 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/kcxp2g7),. I realize that computer science is only one discipline used in the game industry.  My point is that if the national average of one of the key skills is at 20% while the game industry is at 22%, then we are not exceptional at all!

Now let's talk about sexism in games.  This is the part where I will really get in trouble.  It always bothers me that people bemoan the blatant use of exaggerated female sexuality in games, but no one ever mentions the same (and probably more pervasive) portrayal of women in almost every other visual media including art, opera, movies, and advertising to name a few.  So why single out the game industry?

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the game industry actually has a split personality on this issue.  I constantly read articles about how the game industry needs to "mature" and "grow up".  Doesn't maturity imply that we can create game content that is mature? That we can use sexuality (or even over-use it, as is the case in most media) as both content and a means of promotion?

Last year there was a huge uproar because the IGDA had exotic dancers at one of their parties (and exotic does not equal nude).  The whole argument sounded very adolescent.  It occurs to me that adults were attending that party, which also included an abundant amount of alcohol, and adults should be able t handle adult oriented entertainment. Adults can also leave if they choose to. Maybe they should have had male exotic dancers as well!

I don't see a problem with an adult industry using the same adult-oriented types of entertainment that you would expect to see at other similar types of events. Do you imagine that parties in other types of media (let's say in the movie or music industry) wouldn't use similar entertainment?  Part of growing up is being able to handle grown-up modes.  And by the way, I have never seen a single article that argues against the abundant use of alcohol at such parties.

Now, I admit:  I am not a woman.  If there are women who feel victimized by the game industry's portrayal of women, then I only hope that those same people also refrain from attending movies and concerts for the same reason.  And I certainly don't condone any kind of sexual discrimination or abuse under any circumstances. .

Working Conditions

Let's finally talk about working conditions.  I agree that companies take advantage of their employees.  It was not uncommon for me to work 15 hour days 7 days a week at the studios where I was employed.  However, now that I am running my own studio, I am still working the same crazy hours.  The difference is that is my own choice. Apparently, 40% of my colleagues feel the same way and stay in the industry because they are willing to put in the hours.

Again, I don't think it is okay for studios to take advantage of their employees.  At least the studios that do it right offer other incentives and perks (flex time, holiday time off, end-of-year bonuses) to try to compensate...something you rarely see in other industries.

Conclusion

The game industry is not exceptional in any of these areas.  I worked in corporate America long before I entered the game industry, and there were the same issues: fewer women, sexism, workers being taken advantage of (and without any perks).

I agree that we should work toward being an industry that treats all people in an equitable manner.  We should encourage diversity in all ways.  However, it bothers me if including any particular group means we have to begin censoring our content or our celebrations.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Indieversity

Diversity is a core precept in the Indie ethos.  Why did we become indie after all?  Wasn’t it to do something different? Wasn’t part of the motivation to leave the mainstream and make the kind of games we wanted to make?  In this sense, indie = diversity.

Nothing contributes more to diversity and creativity in a game than diversity and creativity in a game studio.  Living in America, it is sometimes hard to see a great deal of diversity in the typical game studio.  Partly because of the dominant Caucasian culture and partly because of the historical male population of gamers, game studios in America tend to attract white males.

Much has already been written about the tendency for games to appeal to white adolescent boys (because they have been historically created by white adolescent boys).  But there are
many other facets to diversity than race and gender.  Diversity also includes variations in ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and many
other factors.

When I went to work for a game studio in Canada, I was amazed by the diversity I saw.  In a studio of about twenty developers, at least six different countries were represented.  Working in a game studio where I was the minority gave me a new perspective on the issue of diversity.  I was in a different culture myself.  The holidays were different. The food was different.  The accents were different!

I am convinced that the path to creativity is diversity.   When I see and play the games that come from contests such as the annual Independent Games Festival, I am always amazed.  The dominant thought for me is often, “I would have never thought of that!”  Point made.  Diverse minds create diverse games.

Types of Diversity

Gender is probably the most common concept that has come up recently when discussing diversity in game development.  Games have typically been developed by males and for males.  As a guy, this is great for me!  I have to admit that when I first started reading about the sexism in games I thought, “What’s the big deal?”  That is probably because, well, I’m a guy.

A core measure of maturity is the ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view.  While I am not advocating for a world where sexy women are taken completely out of games, I can understand why a game that uses half-naked women as its fundamental draw probably isn’t going to appeal to the majority of women.  I see why it is necessary to move beyond this gender-biased paradigm, and one way to do that is to include women as part of the development team.  Another measure of maturity is being able to see the larger picture.  That means understanding that if we want to grow our industry we have to create games that appeal to the other half of the
world’s population!

The next big issue is race, ethnicity, and culture.  I think the essence here is life experience.  Being a creative endeavor, game development is essentially a reflection of those who are making the games.  Each person gives a part of him or her self.  This is seen not only in the game design, but also in the art, the coding, the production, and every other aspect of the development life cycle.  The experiences brought to the team by a diverse set of people add to the creative milieu and which means better games.

There are other types of diversity that often go unrecognized.  For example, religious
diversity may not seem to be important to game development until you realize the rich traditions, stories, and mystery that are a part of various religions and beliefs.  These not only provide an alternative word view on the part of the individual but also provide a deep
source of inspiration.  Another example is sexual orientation.  Again, the fundamental principle is that the different life experiences gained from various sexual orientations provides a rich resource that can and should be tapped.

One additional group to recognize is those with disabilities.  People with disabilities are often left out of both playing games and developing games.  I experienced this personally in a small way because I am color blind.  My first professional game was a match-three game in which color was almost essential to playing the game.  I am not completely color blind, but I still get many colors confused and this made it particularly difficult to play the game.  The game designers had actually taken this into account by also including different designs that corresponded to the different colors.

Being color blind only gives me a taste of the types of difficulties that are faced by people with much more severe disabilities.  Developing games for those with disabilities is a challenge that we should accept so that games can be enjoyed by everyone.  But an even greater challenge is opening the doors in development studios to those with disabilities.

Imagine a blind person who wants to create games.  How can we make this happen?  I once corresponded with an individual who felt he would never have a chance to work in the game industry because his health would not allow for the extensive hours required during crunch.  Should these really be obstacles that keep people from being part of our industry?

The Indie Difference

Because indie developers are small, we can also be more flexible and creative. Indie studios should be the most diverse development studios around creating the most accessible games for the most diverse audience.  When it comes to diversity, we can practice what we preach.

One of my team members is a very talented game designer who is legally blind.  We have a programmer who has to take time off for frequent surgeries.  These are just two examples, but they illustrate the point that designing for diversity in game development often means removing barriers and creating opportunities.

Celebrating Diversity

There are some excellent resources that celebrate diversity in game development.  I know that I won’t catch them all here, so if you know of additional resources, be sure to include them in comments to this article:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Contractor Blues!

I haven’t posted in a while. Mostly it’s because I’ve been so busy working. Terrible problem…too much work!

As an independent developer, I depend on contract work to make an income. That means that I spend a lot of time working on other people’s stuff. Not that I’m complaining. I enjoy the work. It is challenging and still allows me to flex my creative muscles.

I’m currently in a lull where I only have one contract project (instead of three at once!).
That means I actually have time to do other things like blog and WORK ON MY OWN GAME!

The Contract Trap

I have read it in other people’s blogs and heard it on other people’s podcasts: Once you start taking on contract work then work on your own game will suffer! The truth is that you have to meet the milestones on your contracts (if you want to get paid) and you don’t have to meet the milestones on your own projects. So, my own game keeps sliding while other people’s games get done.

Don’t get me wrong…I love contract work because I love things like food and cars and having a roof over my head. Being able to do contract work means that I get to stay independent, make a living, and still do what I love which is program games.

Maintaining Balance

When I look back over the last several months I am struck wondering where all the time went. I think the most difficult part of being a self-funded Indie is trying to maintain the balance between making a living and working on my own game, which is the reason I decided to go Indie in the first place.
So, now that I have some time, I also have some time to re-group and re-evaluate. I’m getting ‘back in the game’ and ramping back up on development.

Keeping the Flame Burning

It’s easy to get discouraged. Over a year has gone by since I started my game project and I don’t feel like I have enough to show for it. I remember last year thinking that I wanted a playable demo done by the end of 2010. Now that is my goal for 2011!

However, I keep reminding myself that I’m in this for the long haul. Obviously, I have to survive and that means taking on contract work to have an income. So, I just remind myself that no matter how long it takes I will finish my game.

Connecting with People

It can be really easy to fall into the trap of never interacting with other people. After all, I work from my home and my development team is distributed and online. Weeks can go by without hearing another developer’s voice!

One thing that has really helped me is making it a point to regularly interact with other people involved in the project. My designer recently “forced” me to setup regular meetings so we can talk about the game. My initial choice was to work in isolation to ‘get some coding done’. The truth is that talking with others about the game always gets me more motivated to actually do some more work on it.

Isolation bad. People good.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Indie by Default - Part III

Moving forward

I am a great believer in the Bible, that is, the Game Design Document.  Although the urge as a programmer is to get coding as soon as possible, I know the benefit of a good design document from experience.  Without it, your ideas get fuzzy and you end up doing a lot of programming that is wasted on fleeting ideas.
So, my first step was to start creating a game document.  I found that completing the design document helped me turn my fuzzy ideas into a set of concrete specifications.

The accomplishment of getting that first page of the game design document inspired me. Now there was something concrete to show for my game idea. The more I wrote the more progress I saw.  This is another benefit of creating a design document first:  instant gratification.

Once I finished the game design document, I had a solid reference to use to begin programming. I’m the kind of programmer that tends to work in spurts.  One weekend a spurt happened and I created the first prototype for the game. 

The more I accomplished, the more I was invested, the more I was motivated.

Alternate reality

I don’t want to give you the idea that this has been easy and that I have achieved all of my goals. The reality of survival has side-tracked me several times.  It’s too easy to spend all of my time on projects that actually make money.

Being independent is the world’s most complex balancing act.  If you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself back in the place where you are doing everyone else’s projects but not your own. Once you start down that path, it’s easy to get detoured from your game.  If you find yourself detoured, get back to the main road!
I’m not suggesting that anyone be irresponsible.  I understand that human nature (and sometimes survival) means going for the money first.  However, with discipline and planning, I have always been able to get the game project back on track while I survive.

Going public

One final word. Just last month I had another spurt and created a web page for my new studio. I immediately sent word to all of my friends, family, and colleagues to check it out.
Twitter. Facebook.  The whole deal.
Frankly, I was scared to death.
Going public meant that this was more than just a dream or idle fancy. Now everyone that is important to me knows that I am trying to make it as an indie.  Some of them probably think I’m crazy.  Others will understand and respect my decision. But the fact is, the word is out and I’m really not good at failure. Now, more than ever, I am motivated to succeed because, in a way, I am accountable to those who are rooting for my success.

If you’re unemployed and wondering what happened to your game development career, I hope this article inspires you to do something more.  Even if you already took that job programming for an accounting firm, you can still make a way to do what you love—make games.  Make your own game.
Independent by default. For me, it’s either this or boring.  I now work just as many hours as when I was employed, if not more. The sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction that I am still doing what I love more than compensates for the extra time.
3:00 A.M. Tired, crazy, happy!

Robert Madsen

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Indie by Default - Part II


The new era of indie games

I remember a time about as eight years ago when I was first researching the game industry.  The general consensus at that time was that the days of the small “garage” team game developer was over. Games now cost millions of dollars to produce and thousands of man hours. Furthermore, specialization was the norm.  Not only were their designers, programmers and artists, but also specialists inside of each of those fields.  The conclusion: making a game on your own or with a few talented friends was no longer an option.

Fortunately, the indie game developers weren't listening.

Now, more than ever, the environment and technology are open and supportive to small, independent games. An abundance of tools have cropped up that target the small indie studio.  Torque, Unity, XNA, and PlayFirst are just a few examples of low cost or free game engines. Just as important are the avenues of distribution that have opened up. Services such as Steam, XBox Live Arcade, Kongregate, and many other services have come up that directly focus on smaller games. Finally, there are new platforms that make sense for the indie game including the PC, web, Facebook, iPhone, and Windows Mobile. The point is that the barriers of entry are now lower than ever.

I’m not saying that it’s easy. In fact, the competition is overwhelming on all of the promising platforms I named above.  But there is one thing to keep in mind:  Three years ago, few people took game development on the iPhone seriously.  Now it is one of the most prolific platforms for games.  The same is true of Facebook.  If these examples are indicative—and they seem to be—there is a huge market for the more “casual” games that indie studios are best at. 

Focus testing

No, I’m not talking about getting a bunch of kids in a room to play your next game. I’m talking about the need to focus or you’ll never get anything done! There are so many variables to consider when first starting an independent game that it can be overwhelming.

Once I had decided that I was going to get serious about making my own game, I was immediately lost in the details. What kind of game did I want to create? Which platform and language should I use? Should I use a game engine or should I just start from scratch? 

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Ultimately I used two criteria to make these choices: experience and resources.

I asked myself, “What programming platform do you have the most experience with?” Although I am fluent in C++, I also did a great deal of development in Visual Basic and C# in my previous business.  I had a lot of experience in .NET web development as well.  Knowing that anything done in C++ doubled or tripled development time, I decided to use on C#. I also decided to use the web because I could leverage my existing knowledge of ASP.Net development.  This would allow me to target the web as well as Facebook with my game.

I realize the C# and .NET aren’t the most common tools to use for game programming, but this leads to the second criteria: resources.  In the beginning, I knew the only resource that I had was me, so I chose the platform that would allow me to produce meaningful results in a reasonable amount of time.

I also knew that my greatest limitation was art. I am no artist! So, when it came to picking a game design, I chose a type of game that was not art intensive. I needed a game where even I could supply the art if needed, and hopefully I could get a real artist involved at some point in the future.

So, there’s my focus: a web based game--written in C# and ASP.Net--that doesn’t need a lot of art. Having this focus is what allowed me to move forward.  My advice:  moving forward is always better than not moving!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Indie by Default - Part I

It's been a while since my last post. Part of the reason is becuase life has been a little chaotic since then! Unfortunately, I was laid off from my previous studio, and since then I've been working at starting an independent studio. The way I see it, going indie is the only choice I have right now if I want to keep making games. In other words, it's Indie by Default!

This article was originally publised in the February 2011 issue of IGDA Perspectives. I will be reposing it here as a three part post so everyone can enjoy it!

In the computer world, default is the state of rest--that which occurs when nothing special is going on. It is the status quo. Over the last three years, it has been my experience that the default state of employment in the game industry is unemployment.

Since entering the game industry in 2008, I have had a wild ride. First, Dallas followed by lay off in less than a year…then a seven month job search…next Canada followed by layoff within a year…more job search. You get it. I’ve been unemployed about as much as I’ve been employed. Of course, I knew the game industry was infamous for such instability before I ever decided to point my career in that direction. I also realize that there are thousands of others from the game industry who have faced similar or worse situations over the last several years.

When life gives you lemons...

The first time I was laid off, my entire focus was on finding another job. Seven months and 300 resumes later, I found another job as a game programmer. Looking for a job was literally a full-time affair. Eleven months later I was laid off again.

After the second layoff, I decided to turn my disadvantage into opportunity. Given the current economy, I realized that finding another job would be a multi-month adventure. This time, I wanted to do more with that time than just look for the next job. I also wanted to continue working at what I love: making games. After all, that’s why I got into the industry!

Before I entered the game industry I had been self-employed. My longstanding joke was that a self-employed person is just an unemployed person with a business card. So here I was “self-employed” again. Since I already had some experience as an independent programmer, becoming an independent game developer seemed the next logical step.

I have to admit that having been self-employed for the last 15 made it a little easier. I had a lot of resources to fall back on such as previous clients and online avenues of revenue. Since I was already familiar with the ropes of being self-employed, I decided to spend about 50% of my time working for pay and the other 50% working on my game. Somewhere in there I would keep my eye out for promising jobs.

The opportunity of independence

Anyone who has been involved in making games for someone else has also thought of ideas for their own game. But there are real barriers to making your own games while you are employed for another game studio. Generally, as an employee, you must sign non-disclosure agreements and non-compete contracts that essentially block you from developing your own games. What’s theirs is theirs. What’s yours is also theirs. Being unemployed generally means that you are free of such agreements.

Another new resource you suddenly discover as an unemployed person is time. Now that you're not crunching 12 hours a day, what are you going to do with yourself? Catching up on the last three seasons of Lost will only take so much time! The key is to find a way to balance what is essential (such as making enough money to survive or looking for that next job) with what is desired (making games).

I realize that survival and looking for a job can be a full time effort of its own. However, with planning and discipline, you can make the time to keep making games.

Think about it: while you were working for the typical game studio you are already working 12 hours a day. Why stop now?

Being unemployed can be a great opportunity. First, there is a good chance that you are receiving some kind of short term support in terms of unemployment benefits. You may have the support of a spouse. If you were smart, you saved up some money while you were gainfully employed. Second, even if you spend a lot of time on the job search, you probably still have more discretionary time on your hands than when you were employed. Finally, you are probably free of any contractual limits on your ability to make your own games. You've dreamed of making your own game…now is your chance!

That's it for part 1. See you next week for part 2! R

Monday, December 6, 2010

Going Indy

So you want to go Indy?

I see a lot of posts on forums that look something like this:


I want to break into the game industry, but I really don't want to waste my time going to school or anything. I've got this great idea for a game and I know it will be the greatest. I'm thinking I'll just skip the whole job thing and just start my own game company. Can you give me some advice?

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows that I am a pretty strong advocate for the more traditional route to a job in the game industry: get a degree, then get an entry level job and move on from there. The biggest problem with posts like the one above is that it looks like whoever wrote it:

  • Doesn't really want to work hard
  • Is trying to skip all the prep work
  • Thinks their great idea is so great that everyone else is dumb for not realizing it
  • ...and finally, doesn't have a clue!

But let's say we're talking about someone who has really prepared and wants to seriously consider going independent rather than working for another game developer. What should such a person consider when trying to make this decision?

Motivation

The first question you should ask your self is why? There are many motivations people have for choosing to go independent:

  1. A veteran in the industry may decide that it's time to break out of the mold and start a company that is run the way they want it to be run.
  2. A student may decide that going independent is the best way to extend their project from school and turn it into a completed, marketable game.
  3. In the current economy, going independent is a viable alternative to unemployment.

These are all good reasons to consider going independent. If this is something you are seriously considering, then realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. Running your own studio is much harder than just getting a job and working for someone else, so make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!

Do Your Homework

First, starting an independent game studio is much like starting any other business. You have to consider what form your business will take (e.g. sole proprietorship, corporation, etc.). There are licenses to get and bank accounts to create. Will you have employees? Triple all of that!

If you have never run a business, then you need to do some research and find out exactly what it takes to start one. One resource I can definitely suggest is your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC is a branch of the federal Small Business Administration. They offer free information and advice and can also facilitate a small business loan. Check them out at http://www.sba.gov/aboutsba/sbaprograms/sbdc/index.html.

Are You a Business Person?

I have been self-employed for almost 20 years. I think the most important lesson that I have learned is that being really good at what you do (e.g. art, programming, game design) does not necessarily mean that you are good at running a business. In truth, I am really good a programming, but I suck at running a business.

In order to be successful, you are going to need someone who is really good at business. If creating art or writing code is what excites you the most, then you probably are not that person! Someone who is truly good at business gets excited about things like marketing, sales, budgeting, and cold-calls...these are not things that I love to do.

So, if you are seriously considering starting an independent studio, make sure that you have someone on your team who dreams of running a business more than they dream about creating a great game.

So Many Hats to Wear

If you truly are thinking about going solo, then remember that the full responsibility will be yours to make things work. As an independent computer programmer, I estimate that I spend only 25% of my time actually coding. The other 75% is spent finding work, getting people to pay me, and doing paperwork and other administrative chores. You may be able to run solo for a while, but eventually you will have to bring in other people who are experts at business so you can focus on your area of expertise.

And so much more...

Of course, there is no way I could go into all of the details of starting an independent studio in one post. Hopefully this has at least given you some food for thought. Going independent is a hard road, but it can also be rewarding. And there has never been a better time for independent studios in terms of technology and opportunity.

Until next time...Good luck!

Robert