Thursday, April 21, 2016

Game Industry Problems

Just so we are clear, yes, this is a Masonic Conspiracy...

You don't have to be ancient to be aware that at one time the studio system in Hollywood was this vast evil empire of powerful people who took advantage of the dreams - and careers - of aspiring actors and even well-established actors.

Colorful and morally questionable stories of the Casting Couch and studio union-busting are all the more fascinating because they are true. In the burgeoning period of the 1930s, when the film studios rose to power over the now dying vaudeville and even traditional stage-based live entertainment industries some horrific whispers came out of that sunny town on the west coast.

Stories of pedophilia, non-consensual sex, blackmail, the use of chemicals for crimes that we now classify as rape, and the use of money and contracts heavily weighted in favor of the studios to control the talent were not exceptions to the rule - they were the rule. That was how “The Biz” was run. The actors for the most part knew that and, even more sad, chose to live with it because they had no power over it.

When an actor finally made it - became famous and had their own following - a lot of those abuses disappeared from their life - but they did not disappear from the industry. In fact they wouldn't start to go away until the early 1990s if you can believe that?

One major catalyst for change in Hollywood is down to social media and how easy it is for scandal to be tracked and revealed today. Another is the very real threat that the traditional film industry now faces from the Video Games Industry - an industry that even when they use their clout and money to buy into it, still cannot be controlled.

New Media - New Bosses
Some experts on the entertainment industry point to the non-traditional power structure in the games industry for reasons why it will never face the sort of corruption and vice that the film industry faced as it began to mature. That may be true, but that does not mean there are not different and equally egregious issues in New Media.

The truly massive studios (and their publishing partners) are corporations - artificial people who exist as a business entity and who are largely run via committee in the form of a managing board of directors and, naturally, whose interests lay more towards profits than creative expression.

That's okay though because the writers, producers, and directors who actually make the video games are there to protect the creative process and preserve its voice. Someone has to count and collect he beans - someone has to write the checks that pay for the infrastructure under which modern games are created.

Despite a business model that at least on the surface appears to value the people who work in it at a higher level than its sister industry film, there are still horror stories to be heard in whispers in the cafes and bars of Hollywood and, naturally, in distance San Francisco, but also in Charlotte, North Carolina, Boston, Massachusetts, New York City, and Austin, Texas - those being all of the places where game development studios seem to cluster these days.

The horror stories are probably not what you think when the words “horror story” are trotted out. In place of physical and sexual assault, egregious and abusive contracts, and a system that blackballs any talent who fails to toe the line, we instead find tales of mandatory and uncompensated 90-hour work weeks, verbally abusive management, and entry-level coders who are forced to sleep under their desks at work not because they cannot find a place to live that they can afford, but because they cannot get the time off from work to even LOOK for a place to live!

There are a number of major game development studios on the west coast that are spoken of in whispers, with stories that more often than not conclude with the sentiment: They Eat Their Young.

What the tale-teller is saying when they say that is simple and epidemic in the games industry - major game studios hire massive amounts of newly-graduated coders and artists, then give them impossible to maintain schedules on a specific game project until either the game project is completed, or the new hire is so badly-burnt out that they quit.

The logic behind that production-line strategy is simple: new talent is cheap and plentiful. Don't use up or damage your brilliant veteran coders and artists, save their skills for the polishing process of the finished game. Instead throw large numbers of cheaper talent at the problems until the problems are solved.

If that sounds familiar it is probably because you have read stories about it - and the practice that is called “Crunch” that was heavily covered back in the year 2000.

The surprising thing is just how much modern video games have in common with modern movies at least with respect to the creative process and the talent system - and a willingness to treat their employees like any other resource.

It is even more of a shock that, despite the fact that we live in what are arguably enlightened times -- with government agencies whose sole occupation is to seek out and prosecute just this sort of abuse -- it still happens.

Video Game Development: How it Works
Behind the scenes a lot has to happen before a video game production company can even be formed, let alone seek out and hire the voice talent, the animators, coders, and a literal army of staff and skilled artists who ultimately create the game story and the game itself.

A modern video game development team generally sets out to do the same thing a modern film production company does: tell a story.

The difference is that in addition to genuine acting talent being hired to help tell that story, what actually moves the story forward are the gamers who play the games and, oddly, who serve as a sort of surrogate director and star for all of the action!

Making video games requires the developer to draw from a talent pool that while very deep, largely is made up of the same sort of people: creative types. The reservoir from which that talent is drawn arrives there via many different disciplines, offering the sort of talent that is key to the creation process.

The typical AA Title today combines all of the traditional film elements into a computer-generated set, from writers who create the story and dialogue to sets and locations that offer danger, adventure, and challenges for the characters to overcome and experience. But all of those elements are brought to the fore via computers, which means Han Solo is not going to have his ankle crushed by the door of the Millennium Falcon because that ship is being projected by ones and zeroes.

Despite the fact that the game world is created, and the situations are all scripted and manufactured, just like film production teams, the video game production teams endeavor to put players inside the story, seeking the very same measure of immersion that a film does, but with the added benefit of being portable.

Building into the story telling process a measure of intensity that helps with the immersion process, in the end there really is very little difference between film and video games - at least from the point-of-view of the two being an entertaining experience.

So how do all of these different creative forces come together to make a great game?

The process all starts with a pitch - a writing team and core artists have put together an idea for a video game and meet with the head of development for either a major games development studio or, if the team intends to form their own small studio for this project (that happens a lot more often these days) the pitch is made to a major games publisher.

During the pitch the development team presents the story in the form of a standard story pitch - which is to say they have story boards created by the artists and dialogue created by the writers, and the producers then help the project director with the pitch by filling in for the characters who are part of that small slice of the overall story to be told.

The development team offers up a synopsis of the story, outlines its plot development and sub-plots, and shares whatever the plans are for collectible activities, side-quests, and character development. That all concludes with a “reading” in which one of the key dramatic moments in this new game is played out by the assembled team - who despite the fact that if production actually gets green-lit will have absolutely no connection to that process whatsoever.

Once they get the go-ahead, that is when the real work begins. And by real work what we mean is that is when the team must go out and find a game engine to use for their game, and then convince the engine owner to license it to them.

If they are pitching the project to a major games outfit like EA or Ubisoft, that process is a lot easier.

They can simply ask for a license to use the preferred engine of that shop - at EA/Dice that would be their Frostbite Engine; at Crytek that might be CryEngine; and at Ubi the selection would likely be the UnReal Engine. 

But there are literally dozens out there to choose from, many being independent of a given studio, so you never know just what may end up being used to create and power the world of that new video game. Still, once the game engine is chosen, both the back-end and front-end tool suites also have to either be selected and licensed, or created if the team opts to go that route.

Following that, months may be burned through in creating the full script and then creating a full set of storyboards to outline that script and present the animation team with the guidance that it requires to actually begin the process of creating the world in which the game takes place, as well as all of the interiors that it will use for its action and play.

While all that is going on, the Continuity Team is busy documenting every aspect of the game, game world, and the people and characters who will occupy it. They work closely with the Character Team, and with the Location Scouts who are used when a game world means to recreate elements of the real world - a good example of that is the recently released next chapter in the Fallout saga - Fallout 4 - which had Location Teams in Boston and elsewhere.

Other teams who work closely with those above include the Environments Team, who is responsible for documenting matters like weather, seasons, specific conditions, and the various mundane facts that shape and form a given place.

For example the team for Fallout 4 probably never actually visited the environments it was modeling - because while they got the basic appearances for houses and neighborhoods right - New England slate and shingle architecture - they totally blew it on the actual house designs!

The houses in Fallout 4 appear to have been based on the architecture that is common to Los Angeles not New England. A good example for that is roofs. Specifically the commonality of flat roofs on houses in the game - whereas in New England all of the roofs are pitched steeply on residential housing, with the only buildings likely to have a flat roof being commercial structures whose designers utilized heat bleed to control snow buildup.

If the houses in Fallout 4 were actually built that way in New England, by the time the protagonist stepped out of the vault there would not have been a single house left standing - because the crushing weight of season after season of snow would have done for them long before the radiation began to subside.

So the work that these teams do before even the first frame of a game is created is of critical importance to he story telling process - and even more so to immersion!

Once all of the teams have filed their reports - having completed their research - the information that they bring to the party works its way into the corrected story boards. The casting teams can now know what characters will need to be cast, and what will no longer be in the story - and they all get to work using the now completed storyboard system to fulfill the remaining pre-production elements so that full game production can begin.

The world builders get busy building the world, the animators get busy building the character motion models, and the voice people get busy finding the right actors for each role. The game is taking shape.

Eventually the story will grow closer to fulfilling its overall immersive potential. Once it gets close the Alpha Stage begins, a stage in which all of the awkward moments and dialogue, as well as superfluous elements are either corrected or removed.

Focus groups of players experience the story and provide feedback so that the immersion and story telling process can be tweaked and, once the team feels that the Alpha stage has taken the game as far as it is going to be able to do so, the Beta Phase begins.

During the Beta real-world players are brought in to play the game and help the team not only refine its story and story telling, but identify and document bugs so that the Bug Hunters can go in and kill them. The idea being that by the time the game reaches its launch window, the more dangerous and potentially game-braking ones have been fixed. Well, that is the goal anyway.

With all of that out of the way - and believe me when I say that there are actually a LOT more teams involved and a lot of additional steps too - the game will get released and find its way into the hands of millions of players all over the world.

Then the bugs that the Bug Hunters and Beta Testers never found will begin to emerge, and the first month or so of release - if the team behind the game is reputable and actually cares - will be spent fixing all of that.

Increasingly today that is what actually happens, largely due to the fact that one of the core revenue streams for modern games is the DLC and expansion content programs that were planned for each. The teams have to fix those bugs because if they don't a lot fewer gamers will shell out $20 for the next expansion. Just saying.

Something to note - this is the point in the path where the film entertainment experience and game entertainment experiences part ways - because for a film, that is the whole enchilada, whereas for a good game, this is the point where serious money gets made.

You see the game publisher already knows how large the current audience is for that game - and they also know that if the expansion process is handled properly and the game development team is viewed as being responsive to player needs and bug killing, they can easily increase that player base through word-of-mouth and targeted advertising as each piece of expansion content is released.

If you need examples of games that truly managed that process in smooth and successful ways, look no further than the last three titles in the Fallout Series - as each successive chapter further refined the process to tremendous success.

Rockstar Games has recently started down that path with its GTA franchise, and Elder Scrolls has really demonstrated that with both its offline story based tiles and online MMO titles, they grok the way forward.

The End Results
In the end the creative process - what some detractors call the games assembly line - is responsible for games that are rich in entertainment value and that offer many times the entertainment per dollar than film and other traditional media can even hope to reach.

But the price of that process has been and continues to be a range of social ills that seem to endure no matter how much light is shined upon them.

The “Crunch” system is still used by major studios to squeeze out as much performance as they can in the typical 72-hour work week of the games industry.

That Crunch process was first exposed to the world via an anonymous blog written by a spouse of an employee at EA Games. The blog was anonymous due to the very real concern for her husband keeping his job. But don't think to single out EA Games for this - it is an industry-wide issue.

It's been more than a decade since Erin Hoffman published her online journal detailing the grueling experience that her husband found working at EA -- and in that 11 years everything - and nothing - has changed.

What we mean by that is that the industry has come to understand that it cannot legally force hourly employees to work overtime without paying them overtime wages. So now, when an hourly employee is in a section of the company where their skill is required, they are promoted to a salary-based position that is immune to overtime laws.

Unfortunately the decision as to whether or not to accept that promotion is no decision at all - any hourly employee who declines the promotion is shown the door (sacked). The ones that accept it find that they are now working a 72-hour week for which they are only paid for the first 40 hours at slightly more than their previous hourly wages.

A typical employee in that situation who was previously earning more than $70K a year (including overtime) now finds themselves earning just $48K a year (their salary) while still working the same hours! Well, they do that if they want to keep their job.

Stories of discrimination are everywhere, but mostly they are ignored in favor of the more news-worthy ones like sex discrimination against women both as gamers and in the industry.  Yes we are talking about #Gamergate - but we are not going to get into that subject because it doesn't deserve even more coverage when it has already received too much.

The one thing about #Gamergate we will comment on is the fact that it somehow managed to gather a massive following but, when we asked some very outspoken members of that movement what it was that it was about - they couldn't really tell us.  When we asked why they were so passionate about it, the reasons we heard were all different, and completely unrelated.  And that is all that needs to be said about that.

Understand something - we're not saying that sex discrimination is not the very real problem that it clearly is - what we are saying it that the grrl gamer community is working hard to address this and they don't need our help.  And that there are other issues of discrimination that encompass a far larger percentage of games workers.  Specifically the manner in which lower-level employees in the industry are treated by the regular cadre.

In the world of modern game design, game studios employ a wide range of classes in terms of employees - and the largest segment also happens to be the most abused - quality assurance and bug testing.

Employed mostly as minimum wage temps, in some studios the young and eager college grads taking those jobs in the hopes that doing so will lead to something better - as in starting at the bottom and working their way up - more often than not find that the industry itself has very little interest in helping them to achieve those goals.

While it is not uncommon for the recruiters who populate those departments to mention that it is a good entry-level position for working your way up the chain, in reality that rarely ever happens. One game tester - who describes herself as a “game drone” posted in her personal blog that the reality was simple: they are hired as minimum wage temps to do a specific job, and once that job is completed they get shown the door. There is never any talk of moving up or even sideways to a new department or job.

Instead they are told that their name and number will be kept on file and, should they have another project that needs them, they should expect to be called.

It is fair to characterize that sort of environment as a hostile one - and by now you might be thinking that the comparison we began with - the egregious practices of the early film industry - is not so very far from the point in comparison as you might have been thinking.

Is it any wonder then why so many upper-tier developers end up leaving the employ of established game development studios to form their own companies? To make their own games?

Fortunately as those developers leave to create their own companies, Crunch is often the first thing that gets eliminated from their business model. Another element that gets changed is the one-way process that entry-level employees find. Opportunities to begin building a career in the industry can be found in the new studios - a phenomenon easily traced to the motivations that caused the new studio bosses to create their new studios in the first place.

Better working conditions tend to naturally follow the devs who take off on their own, and that might be what saves the industry.

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