Downsized: The Wake-Up Call

On April 2, 2010, in Business & Industry, Experiences, by Steffen Itterheim

Today i learned about Downsized Games through an interview on Gamasutra: The Upside Of Downsized And Desperate.

It wasn’t in Gamasutra’s newsletter, it wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter. I was on Gamasutra for a different article as i glimpsed over that article’s headline and was immediately interested to see if that was really the kind of inspiring article i hoped it would be. And it was.

Downsized Games is a group of 4 people, previously employees of Pandemic who got shut down … well, not the people but the company, although the downsizing effect obviously has been a huge wake-up call for them. As Manny Vega puts it:

“You can see when developers are just making games for the paycheck, and no matter how skilled they are the game lacks that ‘sparkle.’ If we ever get to that point, I hope EA buys us for a ton of money and then shuts us down. It’s a hell of a wake-up call.”

I can totally understand them poking fun at EA and the person we only know as “JR”. The mystical ruler of the empire if you will. The one and only. He, who we would be watching on Livestream when he gave his quarterly earnings speech to the company. A ghostly appearence of the man we never knew. Joking aside, what i found interesting during my time at EA is how my colleagues started making fun of him in a way that was both ridiculing yet still expressed admiration. Maybe that’s because he was never as blatantly evil as that other man Bobby Kotter. Or it was because he was a good man fighting a lost cause. Or none of that. In any case i remember that he was present throughout, everyone knew who he was and they were talking about him or what he had said or done. Sometimes his image was used for evil purposes, like if you wanted a colleague to do something and who then pointed to JR’s image on the wall – where he was portrayed smiling and looking handsome – then saying in a creepy, mysterious voice: “Oh no, i can not do so, the JR would not want this.”. All in good fun without hard feelings – as far as i can tell. I bet it must be a whole different story for the people at Infinity Ward though. I can only hope for them to find the necessary comical relief in a common enemy but their target is too easy, i just hope they don’t fall for the dark side.

Err, anyway, as far as i’m concerned, i can’t wait to see their game BulleTrain hit the App Store. Because there we have another couple of former EA game developers who suddenly start doing their own thing and learn how many details go into making even the simplest of games. Our Black Hole game is no exception and i just hope that in April we’ll finally see it on the App Store – it has been basically finished since i don’t know … probably at least 3 months if not more. But we still keep working on it on the side whenever we find the time to implement required changes, fixing bugs and doing the final polish to a codebase that – admittedly, looks nasty to me now. It was a learning process after all, and not just learning the iPhone platform or the iPhone SDK but also Objective C and the cocos2d engine, Xcode, the Mac OS and above all trying to start a venture-capital funded game development business.

Here’s to Downsized Games. Cheers, guys! Game long and prosper!

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I would like to start the week by referring to a couple dramatic articles about the worst side of the game industry. The kind of stories that actually force companies to back down and turn around how work is done. As far as i know, things have changed for the better for EA. If the same is going to happen with Rockstar is still out in the open, first reports tell no immediate positive effect other than the promise of an extended time-off after production.

Back in the days when EA spouse was a hot topic it was quickly followed by the even more interesting report of events by Joe Straitiff as he experienced them while working for EA. Since then, it is said that EA has made major concessions and leaps forward to secure employees are treated fairly and crunch times are very limited. I can not really confirm or deny this, since i’ve been working in an EA studio that was bought in 2006. It was promised to us that we’ll continue working as we’ve always done. However things did change of course, there’s no way a big corporate entity who bought a small development shop is not going to have no or just a little effect on the team and how it’s working. Some things changed for the better, for example we finally got air conditioning, upped our server farm, hired a full-time system administrator and got access to a huge knowledge base and useful tools. Others changed for the worse, for example i’ve already mentioned how much i hated the employee rating system. It felt way too corporate and formal for our tastes. Overall i can just confirm what everyone who has ever worked for a big company already knows: how you feel about your work and how your work / life balance turns out to be like is highly dependent on the studio or department you work in, and of course the team and how they work together (or not).

A month after the EA spouse letter, Noel Llopis wrote his 2-part article “All work and no play makes Jack a dull game developer” which is by far the best summary of issues, myths and recommendations anyone has ever written on the subject. Make sure you read both part one and part two. I do, however, disagree with him that sleep deprivation might actually help for design and art, as they “have some of that touchy-feely creative mystique” as he puts it. It does not hold true as it is not creative art or design that is forged but often art is developed with certain technical and gameplay constraints, tools need to be used efficiently and numbers juggled. The same goes for designers who regularly juggle with numbers, navigate excel sheets of varying complexity, and always have to keep side-effects in mind with whatever they’re planning to do. So it’s not typically a touchy-feely kind of work that you perform as artist or designer and is subject to the same issues a programmer feels. Besides, even programmers have and need those intuitive, creative moments so they’re not all number crunchers and byte eaters either.

These issues were unfortunately debated again just recently, as Rockstar spouses made similar accusations about the working conditions at Red Dead Redemption developer Rockstar San Diego. The article itself was terribly written and received numerous bashings because of it. And i would say mostly because people feel it’s such a big issue and worry that the terrible writing could have a detrimental effect on the cause. If you read the Gamasutra article, don’t forget to concentrate on the comments. It currently ends with a statement from self-proclaimed Rockstar San Diego programmer Code Monkey after Rockstar apparently has promised employees an extended time-off after production is completed. He says:

“My apologies go to Rockstar for not anticipating that anything I said here could possibly have a negative impact of some kind.”

I can’t shake the feeling that that’s not the end of the story.

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Project Natal sucks – it’s casual!

On June 2, 2009, in Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

I’m curious … why do so many people dismiss Microsoft’s Project Natal as being casual? Of course it’s casual. Remember: we as “hardcore gamers” are an absolute minority. We aren’t even the tip of the iceberg, we are merely the ice cube put on the tip of the iceberg. Plus, we actually happen to enjoy the casual stuff as well – if only we weren’t so dickheaded and would actually admit it. First and foremost to ourselves.

And in this light Penny Arcade’s comic hits it straight on (pun intended):

UPDATE: i find it interesting how many people find my blog and specifically this post in search for the keyphrases Natal sucks. Wow, you just really hate the fact that Microsoft is about to release an additional device for your Xbox360! How about just ignoring Natal if you don’t like it? There’s no need to buy it then, right? It won’t affect your gaming experience. It doesn’t have to if you don’t allow it. It’s completely optional. Or do you hate the thought that suddenly your mom might want to occupy your Xbox360? And did you also search for “pink Xbox 360 controller sucks”? No, according to google you did not.

In a way it reminds me of the all too common criticism against EA’s sports titles. It’s the same every year and costs as much as any other game. I’m not going to buy it. Whine, whine. So, you don’t buy it, maybe only every other year as i did most of the time. Then you get enough fresh new material for your money. In the meantime, shut up. It’s just a business model that works, it doesn’t mean that the millions of players buying the same game every year are the same buyers. There are a lot of them, and if that’s what they do, let them. But there’s also a lot more who don’t buy the same sports game each and every year but when they buy it, they want to buy the current version. Not the one that’s two or three years old.

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