Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why Game Development Can Be Like Fight Club

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 2, 2012

Kotaku blasts the games biz for what it thinks is its “biggest problem” – not telling customers (and the press) everything they want to know about everything going on inside a game development studio.

Gaming’s Biggest Problem is that Nobody Wants to Talk

The author chalks this up to some kind of incredibly secrecy that pervades the industry, and judges that this is a crime that is hurting the industry.

Before I attack the article – which I fear may be simply a disgruntled and naive journalist who is tired of having to beg for scraps of information and see other publications and journalists get those “exclusives” – I will admit that he makes a couple of good points.

Is there something of a “culture of secrecy” in the game dev business? Yeah, I think so. It’s been hard-earned, unfortunately. Game developers are so shackled with Non-Disclosure Agreements and threats about legal repercussions (not to mention threats of dismissal) if they breathe a WORD about what they are working on that it becomes a habit. And if you work in the games biz and you HAVE NOT seen someone fired because they were too free with information and your publisher caught wind of it and got pissed, consider yourself lucky. This is how the mainstream industry works – the publishers are the lords, the studios are the serfs, and the serfs must suffer the whims and tempers of their lords, or they starve. So they err on the side of caution on a constant basis, including a secrecy about their games no matter what. After all, even if you are legally allowed to talk about it now, if you take any glory for yourself, even if it is now legal (or no longer contractually prohibited), your lords and masters will get pissed and won’t send any more contracts your way.

Sucks, doannit? Yes, I do consider this a problem. But it’s a problem with the publisher-studio relationship that is already riddled with other problems. And this is exactly why I’m so in love with the indie game movement.

So yeah, nobody talks because talking will get you fired, and possibly land you in court. Don’t like it? Talk to the CEOs of the big publishers. I’m sure they’ll be happy to answer your questions, Kotaku.

Okay. Now that’s out of the way…

Fact #1 – The suggestion that gamers don’t mind hearing information that is subject to change is, sadly, B.S. Maybe author Jason Schreier is really an understanding sort who is fine hearing about games that will be canceled and features that will get the axe. That’s cool. And I honestly think the majority of gamers probably feel the same way. They live in the real world, and know how these things work. Maybe over time, with lots of this communication happening – even more of them will get the message. As an indie, I try to be more free with information because I serve an audience that I think is pretty well-informed and understands how things work, too.

But within gaming-at-large … few things are as difficult to deal with as some major fanboy “opinion leaders” who feel personally betrayed because a certain feature or element was cut. And it happens. Oh, boy, does it happen. And the gaming journalists can be the worst of ’em all. Once again, this culture derived from lessons that were hard-earned: Talking about things that are not 100% certain are almost a sure way to get your game savaged in certain corners, which today would put a hard cap on your overly important Metacritic score.

So yeah, sometimes gamers (and journalists) can be the enemy. It only takes a few bad ones to make you treat everyone cautiously. A hundred times bitten, a hundred and first time shy, I guess.

Fact #2 – A “Triple-A” game’s press coverage is almost entirely determined by exclusives. There’s no getting around this. Want to get on the cover of a gaming mag? Give them some juicy exclusives that they can tout to help them sell their rag. Otherwise, you’ll be buried in a sidebar somewhere. It may be stupid or unfair, but this is how the games journalism business works, and so that’s how the game publishers have learned to respond. This means that the publishers have to keep a tight control over tidbits of information that they can dole out among all the major press sites, or they watch their publicity shrivel up and die. Period.

Fact #3 – Hollywood ain’t a model of transparency. I mean, SERIOUSLY? He uses this as an example? The industry that often buys T-shirts and hats with false movie titles on them to throw off the press? You think all that security is just for the safety of the cast and crew? Sorry, dude… you’ve been played for a sucker.

Fact #4 – Much of what goes on behind the scenes is, frankly, boring. When I started this blog, I named it what I did with some expectation that I would tell all kinds of juicy and lurid tales of my days in the sausage factory of game development. But when it came down to it – either my memory is failing me too much, or really – there isn’t much to tell. Sure, there can be some day-to-day amusements that seem interesting at the time (“Shot Frank with a nerf dart from behind. He didn’t see who shot him, thought it was Jared. LOL.”), but most of the day-to-day work of making a game is really not that exciting. You get to work, you sit down and start working on your task list, answer emails, go to meetings, coordinate and communicate with coworkers as needed, swap a few jokes, maybe talk about new games that you are excited about, work on more tasks. It’s a cool job, but it’s still a job. And even the most interesting stuff can get pretty boring if it was reported on constantly.

When I was doing weekly updates on the development of Frayed Knights, I often had to strain to find something interesting to talk about. Hours spent debugging inventory system code do not make for exciting drama.

And – SHOCK – when we do try and reveal the interesting bits, just ‘cuz… it’s often dismissed by journalists or their editors for not being newsworthy. If you are generous with your information, it will be treated as worthless. See fact #2. The only thing that makes the information worth anything is that it’s protected.

Fact #5 – Sometimes it’s not secret, it’s just too much of a pain in the butt to look it up. And sometimes a simple-sounding question (“How many people worked on this game”) is really pretty complicated.  And considering how often journalists completely misinterpret the clearest-sounding answer you can humanly phrase, sometimes it’s safer (especially when your job is on the line, see fact #1) to just defer an answer. One of my favorites is “how many copies of this game did you sell?” Do you mean sell-in, or sell-through (a much harder number to estimate)? Are you including OEM bundles?

Fact #6 – Journalists aren’t entitled to know any of this, and it’s information that can seriously affect the performance of a game.  At the AAA levels of game development, competition is… kinda scary. There’s information that maybe shouldn’t be trade secret stuff, but it is, and a competitor knowing your budget would give them an advantage. The AAA field (which is really all this guy is interested in… very few journalists, in my experience, give a crap about any amount of information the unknown indies are happy to provide them) is very much a winner-take-all business, where the difference between first and second place is big enough to potentially mean the difference between a studio prospering or going bankrupt, so publishers are loathe to concede those advantages to their competitors. It sucks, but again – it is what it is. Even things like how many copies of a game you sold — that’s something that is treated as an indicator of quality by the game-buying public. If I say a big-name game has “only sold” about 30,000 copies, what do you assume? That it must have totally sucked, right? But if I say it’s sold almost 10 million copies, what do you assume? That it’s a giant hit, and that you ought to see what all the fuss is about, maybe?

Sadly, Frayed Knights hasn’t sold close to 30,000 copies yet, BTW.  I certainly don’t think it sucks. But I’m not in the AAA biz anymore, so hey – you guys can print that.

Anyway, is the games biz too secret? Is it a problem? I think so, sure, but I think it’s a symptom, not the cause.  And until I start making bajillions of dollars as an indie doing it differently, I can’t argue that it’s really hurting the biz any.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • jwmeep said,

    I do agree, it’s a symptom, but I also agree there is way too much secrecy in the business. Particularly NDAs. Why on earth should there be NDAs for every game? What do publishers gain from keeping a game based on barbie, or legos secret? Why is there NDAs for games based on movie titles which everyone knows are coming, since they’ll be out at the same time as the movie. These games don’t need publicity, and coverage of videogame journalism. 1) there is such a bad reputation behind licensed games no one likes to cover them 2) They have built in marketing, due to being tied to an existing product. I realize in most cases it’s best practices policy that is applied to all games, but it just feels silly.

    But yeah, there is something wrong with using the threats of NDAs to keep people so enslaved, when horrible stuff like EA spouses, Rockstar spouses, and failing companies don’t leak until it’s too late.

  • Maklak said,

    To me (as a ‘casual’ gamer), the secrecy itself is not much of a problem. I generally don’t care much about upcoming games and am usually interested in reviews and let’s plays of games that are at least 3 months old (and got some patches) (Reading your blog for a few years after FK pilot was amusing, but I don’t read everything anymore. The best article so far was ‘The black triangle’, but lately there is much talk about marketing and other things I’m uninterested in.).

    To me something else is frustrating.

    1) Some information is leaked and repeated about a game beeing made.
    2) There are controlled ‘leaks’, with very few actual information and lots of marketing speak for those who dig for information. The game is described as awesome and the hype grows.
    3) The game is eventually finished and gets good exclusive rewiews.
    4) After launch many copies are sold quickly, but some people complain.
    5) The maketing answers that their game is great and they are very proud of it and people who complain are stupid.
    6) Profit?
    7) Eventually I get around to seeing what the fuss is about. The game turns out to be okayish, but kinda bland. It certainly doesn’t live up to all the hype and marketing speak from earlier. I feel cheated.

    After a few repetitions of this I no longer care much for hype about new games and prefer ‘Wait and see’ attitude.

  • jeffsullins said,

    “Hours spent debugging inventory system code do not make for exciting drama.”

    Story of my life 🙂

    So much of making games goes like this for me:

    1) Get neat idea.
    2) Design how neat idea can be implemented.
    3) Hours of tedium implementing neat idea.