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Burning out your life

Yesterday’s news in the Guardian is skating on an interesting side. Yes, there are more games awards coming, there are new releases and there are all kinds of events coming into play. So when I read ‘Crunched: has the games industry really stopped exploiting its workforce?’ (at http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/18/crunched-games-industry-exploiting-workforce-ea-spouse-software), I read it with a different set of eyes.

The first part is “EA relied on vagaries of American law that classify some IT professionals as exempt from overtime pay. The settlement in the second case featured a quid pro quo: employees would be reclassified in order to get overtime but would give up their stock options“, I can guarantee you that I have been in the same set of shoes, Market Research is at times as caring as a steamroller driving over Miss Daisy. It is nice to see the claim ‘stock options‘, yet that flavour of reward tends to be for the managers and the heads of development, not for all the programmers. They tend to get an evening of free food and booze. Take 35 programmers each having done 100-250 hours of extra time, getting paid off with a $300 meal, works out great for the manager getting his 25,000 stocks at $0.50, not so great for others. I am not stating that this works exactly like that in gaming, but I have seen it in other areas of software.

The most common theory is that the industry is simply too young and too fast-moving to integrate proper management techniques. “Our project was huge and our overall quality assurance process at the time was very basic and waterfall-esque,” recalls one quality assurance worker at EA“, is the second part. This has been shown in several games of late, if we look at the flawed releases of 2014, we can clearly see a lacking scale of QA. It then refers to the work of Fred Brooks on how company size influences efficiency. There is no denying that. Proper management is required, especially when the group grows faster than projected. A special mention of the honour guard must be given to the Marketing department who then also changes the timeline, to get that extra revenue, like marketing COULD have figured that part out at the very beginning. All this will add to the burden of quality delivery and the stress of the workers.

This quote is important, as I consider this to be a stronger part of the sliding quality scale “I was a quality assurance tester at Rockstar, and at its worst, we worked 72 hours a week“, a decent reason for quality to slide (irritating that Rockstar still pulled of a 90% plus rating, although they had a few start-up issues), especially when you consider the following quote “if you had issues with it, you were told ‘Well, you can go stack shelves at Tesco instead or answer phones at a call centre’. You were treated as disposable“, not an entirely unknown event for some in the IT pool. When we consider ““Developers and managers should never have to work more than 40 hours a week,” he says. “It’s a fun job, but it shouldn’t be an exploitative one. Everyone has a life. Let them live it, it’s short enough as it is”“, that sounds partially as a solution, but only if it affects the entire range of staff.

I personally see this all as a reason on why there has been a sliding scale of quality. Is there a chance that Ubisoft has been on this track? This is NOT an accusation! You see, too many hours result in burnout, burnout influences creativity and resolve, crunch time, might give a little extra resolve, but in the end it costs more then it brings. I think that the power of innovation will always win, if balance and rest (to some extent) is made available to revive the soul and the mind.

I think that the next quote sounds nice, but is it enough? “Over the past 18 months, EA has been making significant investments in new quality assurance tools and automation technology, implementing ongoing testing right from the beginning of game conceptualisation. These changes are ultimately improving game quality, as well as reducing the need for the crunch periods”. These tools need proper implementation, they need proper assessment and the people need to properly use them. It tends to add a strain to all levels for a little while. More important, it is only one side of the game (pun intended). For example Mass Effect 4, the engine, the locations, the interface, all are under stress to be made. What if a solution throws the gaming experience? What happens then? What happens when the initial reception is ‘average’, what will marketing do then and more, what will the size of crunch become at that point? You see, the article ignores one little part. For all intent and purpose, games tend to surf at the very edge of technology.  In some cases the makers will attempt to get the max of a system that is at times a little buggy and when you try to use 99% of the system, things tend to go pear shaped really fast. We can offer that the danger of being over ambitious is a bad thing, but this is how some games came into existence. The very first Unreal and Unreal tournament were both chartering the maximum of graphical capability when they were released. Some people invested hundreds of dollars to get a Diamond Labs Graphics card to get the maximum of the game. This is only the tip of the iceberg, when we see consoles there is less manoeuvrability, yet getting the maximum of a game has never stopped the developers. That part is not addressed and that part is every bit as important in dealing with the timeline and QA of a game.

Yet, it is not as much as it was (or so they say), but making the great hit at the E3 or another main release date is the main drive of crunch, especially when the final piece of the development puzzle does not quite fit. That part might be addressed in the management charter, but we must also be realistic that a great game takes time to develop, which made a statement given by Ubisoft “We are able to offer people a new Assassin’s Creed every year because they want Assassin’s Creed every year” nothing more than a joke. Especially if they wanted to rule the gaming industry. In addition I would like to raise that the next big thing is supposed to be ‘No Man’s Sky‘ which will arrive in 2015. We must realistically anticipate that the hype gets away from us all, but it is still seen as the big thing. It took several years, which gives additional view to the hilariousness of: “Ubisoft: No Annual ‘Assassin’s Creed’ Would Be ‘Very Stupid’“, it is such an issue because true innovation takes time, consider on how certain glitches had been around in AC2, AC2B, AC3 and AC Revelations. I can understand that some of these glitches were around in the second game, but to still have those issues 2 games after that is just a laughing matter. There is a reason for me to mention Ubisoft, not because I am ‘so’ against them (I truly am not), but their track record speaks for themselves. So will 2015 be an EA year? That part remains to be seen, however, as I see it at present, there is enough indication that Ubisoft had been hit by burnout staff (assumption on my side). Will a change of atmosphere give us better games? I certainly hope so, because games thrive on the creative and innovative mind, a state that crunch time seems to destroy. This is not just my view, there are loads of views out in the open, some scholarly, some less so, most of them all agree that crunch time and creativity are opposites, so why rely on it? My personal view is that in several cases, these companies (the big ones) didn’t choose the wrong style of management, they choose the wrong sort of manager altogether.

If you doubt my words (which is always fair enough), then consider which games were the true big hits and how they were made. The age old example remains the strongest one. Minecraft was never a big project, yet Microsoft regarded it to be worth over 2 billion. a simple low res game, addictive as hell is worth more than the bulk of the gaming industry, you see, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts both made the same mistake, as they ‘relied’ on a business approach with BI solutions and spreadsheets, they forgot their number one part. If a game is no fun, you lose all your customers really fast. They both made that mistake in huge ways. Both forgetting that their games rely on innovation and creativity, both have ad massive losses in that regard. Will Ubisoft recover? That is hard to say, the EA machine is claiming improvement and it seems that Mass Effect 4 will be their greatest test. EA got hurt badly by Sims 4 and Battlefield, we should also look at ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition is great, but here are 8 things it could do much better‘ on GamesRadar, because when we read that this is a 100 hour game and it loses momentum, we can agree that $100 for a game that could be played within 2 weeks is a little demotivating. It goes back to long before Infamous: Second Son (which is just one of the games that could have been legend), I think that the makers need to retrace their steps on how many hours a game should offer. No matter how good the graphics are, I finished Tombraider in one weekend, which is not good mojo money, especially when you consider that the initial edition (on PS1, 19 years earlier) took a lot longer and was riddled with juicy little challenges. Aren’t games supposed to go forward on more sides than mere graphical resolution?

So as we judge those who make the games we desire, we see that those thinking that they are pushing towards what we desire, only end up delivering a lessened product due to pressures from too many sides, not in the least pressures that they internally created. Even delays (Watchdogs and Elder Scrolls Online) end up not being solutions, in case of the Elder Scrolls, with so many delays that the latest tells us June 2015, has been the reason for many people to just cancel the order altogether. The fact that Elder Scrolls has dropped the subscription part shows just how dangerous their position has been. Here I do want to brag a little, because I came up with an entirely new Elder Scrolls almost two years ago, one that could have saved them many issues as they tried to ‘fix’ their MMO approach. Just as consoles require great games to survive, great games require the right people, people who need to be well rested to get them that golden idea that will make legend. Watchdogs did get a lot closer due to the delay, but what if the difference between 84% and 93% was two weeks of rest? That one golden idea that drove the game to legend status? Is it realistic? You see in hindsight that is all good and well for me to claim, but that is AFTER the fact. I believe my view is the right one, they just needed the right manager to inspire them a little further along, but as always, it is a personal view and it is a debatable one, I do admit to that part.

 

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The fear of creativity

It was not that long ago that I wrote the blog ‘Sandbox Games’. Now I learn that Microsoft has offered 2 billion for Mojang. 2 billion is not much when you say it fast, but the reality is that this is a massive amount of money, even with the ludicrous high taxation norm in Sweden, what is left with leave the man ‘Notch’ with an amazing amount of luxury time to come up with something new and unique. You see, visionaries like that cannot sit still. He might think he can, he might actually truly believe he can, but visionaries like Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriot and a few others never do. Now Swedish Markus Persson joins this group!

Some did not agree with my view given on September 5th, which is fine, but the facts seem to back me up. In the same story there was also an issue with subscriptions, and behold we see ‘World of Warcraft Loses 800,000 Subscribers in Three Months‘ (source: Gamespot), now let it be known that this fact was out before I wrote my blog, so I am not giving any weight to this. It is only my voice that claims that I did not see this until now. There is however another side in the article. It claims: “The company called the decline ‘seasonal’ and pointed out that the dip in subscribers was similar to what we saw in the second quarter of 2012, ahead of the release of World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria“, this is a fair enough answer for now, but overall Blizzard is not out of the woods yet, even though the nextgen versions of Diablo 3 are as wildly wanted as any other version they released, which makes for a quality long term dedicated relationship between Blizzard and their gaming fans. I feel the same way and hope on an additional Act 6, hopefully with the Necromancer and the Assassin.

There is another side to all this, at present several gamers are feeling the cold breath of Sony in several ways. First there is the change that only when online, can a person see his trophies, the port from PS3 to PS4 also came with losses, the gamers at large lost PlayStation Home, and it is such a coincidence that rumours from so many games places up to the days before the release of the PS4 have since gone quiet. Yet, recently Games industry dot biz gave us the following quote “Sony’s virtual world Home will close in Asia and Japan in March 2015, according to an announcement on the official Japanese site“. This has a few consequences down the road, because all you have bought, and all you buy now, will be utterly lost to you. So no more houses, no Harry Potter, no Hogwarts and a league of other items bought will at some point be lost.

We now see two issues:

  1. A console purchase might be temporary at best, and as this market evolved we see a move towards leasing, not buying games. I personally think that this is a dangerous development. We feel for that what we consider we own. Which means that this would enable places like Pirate Bay to grow vastly, even potentially in a exponential way, giving us a new issue, but mostly giving certain corporations new nightmares.
  2. The acquisition of Mojang (if it happens), could be the start of a new wave of indie developers (I really hope so). 99.8% will never have the visionary gene Mojang has, but those who do would soon be bought out and these amounts of money do tend to give the creativity gene the hyperactive status.

Finally I get to have a small go at Pirate Bay. I am no fan of theirs, if you like a movie, or soundtrack, you buy it! I have and lately I have not been able to, but that does not mean I am going all out with downloads. Yet, they could have other options; it seems to me that a large chunk of the population would not like certain steps to be taken to the public. IMPORTANT! Sony has not announced any changes outside of Asia/Japan, but is that such a far-fetched consideration?

I personally see these developments as dangerous for Microsoft/Sony. Yes they are NextGen, yet overall consider the success of Minecraft, people want a GOOD game, is that Google contraption (ouya) such a bad option? Ubisoft can go high-resolution all they want, but if people see their payments dwindle away, another issue will come knocking on their doors too. Ubisoft delivered, I think that it was partially because Watchdogs was new and on NextGen there was NOTHING, so there! Yet, this is not fair either. Yes, it has certain repetitiveness, not unlike the initial Assassins Creed, yet what came after (AC2 and AC2 brotherhood) was such an amazing leap forward, that it pardoned the mediocrity of AC Revelations and AC3 as they were to some degree ignored. This could also be the case for Watchdogs; whatever follows could set entirely new records (hopefully not dependable on cars all the time).

Because of my personal view of a failed Black Flag, I hold out for Unity at present, yet the initial views are a lot more interesting than any presentation of Black Flag EVER was. Yet, in Forbes magazine we see an additional view “If Far Cry 4 is anywhere as good as its predecessor”, and I agree. I kept away from Far Cry 3, for the mere reason that the original Far Cry on 360 was the worst game I played on that console, Far Cry 3 is not that. It had in my view a few issues, but nothing major. Far Cry 4 could set a new boundary and in gaming that is NEVER EVER a bad idea.

So where will gamers go to next? Well, that remains to be seen, but they tend to go where the games and the gaming value is. That part has been forgotten by both big boys Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo is picking up a little, yet the Google console could pick up a lot and they could do it a lot sooner too. Consider that a game like Minecraft can get any person to switch, now consider a treasure trove of great games, or even decently satisfying games. The CBM-64, Atari ST and CBM Amiga, three systems that have a league of quality history, that is even before we consider the early PC games, all waiting to be rediscovered by an entire generation of new players. With a system that can run it, independent developers who can re-engineer it and an eager audience ready to try and buy it.

System shock (1+2), Dungeon Master, Dungeon Keeper, Oidz, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima series, Wing Commander series and Lemmings (believe me, there will always be space for Lemmings). The list goes on and on. Giving it here will keep you needlessly busy for too many hours. I have played hundreds of them and I still smile thinking of some of them. If we could enjoy them in a system with 64Kb, why must we get pushed into impossible hardware requirements? Even today Fallout 3 and Oblivion have never lost their charm. Diablo 3 is another example, yes there is more graphics and resolution, yet both Diablo 1 and 2 have not lost their charm. It is clearly not just the resolution, but a basic form of gameplay that appeals to us.

As the gaming industry is pushing more and more to new micro transactional business models, it is within our grasp to push back and walk towards other solutions that is not about holding us ransom to a monthly fee. Yet, all is not fine there either. At present these monthly MMO’s are doing just fine, ESO (Elder Scrolls Online) with a little over 770,000 subscribers, millions of dollars come in on a monthly base, yet for how long? When the economy is good, many might not care, yet in the view of current developments, that revenue wire will become ever increasingly thinner, then what? At some point many will be forced to select 1-2 of their favourite games to continue, which leaves a gap soon enough, as the business model ‘fails’, or better stated, as the net income will not be in the area of acceptable numbers, what will these companies do then?

I stated it before, there is space if you change the premise of the player and change the options for play, be more fluidic. In my initial view it was a new mapping system, using established locations, but what else can be done? This is at the heart of many contemplations by gamers all over the world, this is partially (IMHO), because the new player tends to be smarter and is also more inclined to listen to their personal friends on social media, so 1-5 will drive the change of 25-100. It becomes a different issue, and if too many of these people are in the student budget ballpark, then the word ‘micro transactions’ will drive them away a lot faster. We will always have novelty moments with Unity (even though the main story line can be completed under 20 hours), Elder Scrolls Online, no one denies that, but the time that EVERYONE goes into the WOW mode is pretty much a given impossibility. I personally believe that WOW continues, not just because they are good (they are good, no one denies that), but the bulk continues because of the vested time they have on their characters. However, WOW is pretty much the only game that can rely on such a level of comfort, or make a claim anywhere near it.

I reckon that as No Man’s Sky develops, the eyes and ears will move more and more in that direction. The ‘promise’ of eternal gaming sandbox style is a lot more appealing than many realise, if you think I am wrong, then wonder why Microsoft is willing to pay 2 billion for a ‘basic’ looking game like Minecraft. Mojang got it just right and re-engineering a wannabe is a lot harder than shelling out 2 billion (Bill Gates likely found it in a jacket he brought to the dry cleaners).

This is the fear these larger players have, not that Minecraft is such a success, but the fear that 2-3 new indie developers have that one idea no one in the high income suits had thought of. Minecraft already represents a low billion and that is only at the start of nextgen gaming. As the game moves from system to system, that revenue will only increase, the secondary danger they fear is as the game is there on Nintendo and other consoles, the uniqueness of nextgen becomes smaller and smaller. A fear that only sounds more and more overwhelming as some regard the failure of Sims 4 and other established brands like Mass Effect are delayed until 2015, which could spell more consequences for the NextGen population, but none of this is new, so why come with this again?

Here we are not looking for the failing established brands (well not really), but the other side of the established makers, the indie developers are getting slowly but surely a new option to shine, as some issues by Sony and Microsoft have not been going forward, we see a growing interest of android development games. this we see (at http://techcrunch.com/2014/06/23/google-play-quarterly-app-revenue-more-than-doubled-over-past-year-thanks-to-games-freemium-apps/) where we see the title ‘Google Play Quarterly App Revenue More Than Doubled Over Past Year, Thanks To Games, Freemium Apps‘, now, I myself do not see my mobile as a gaming tool, but with the Chrome books and the Google ouya, we see a new player and his/her title is ‘gaming enabled’, a group that seems to have been forgotten by executives and gamers alike (myself partially included). Now look back at the games I mentioned earlier and now at the games that Rare developed for the N64. Games released between 1996 and 2003, some became the standard of excellent gaming. The N-64 original of Golden Eye is a lot better than the Wii remake and the Xbox had Time Splitters 3, but then they forgot to make a good compatible version for the 360. a host of games ignored, now ready for grabbing on low end consoles with the promise of great gaming, a premise the high end executives all forgot about.

This is a change in gaming that we had ignored!

We all seem to naturally want to move forward, but is such a step even affordable? Consider that there is a market going towards Christmas, many not able to scrap the coins together for Nextgen, yet the ouya with 3 games at $109 (the price of one nextgen game in Australia) is another matter. good business is where you find it (Robocop quote), that is a reality we have to face, the ‘better’ economy position for many is not getting released until past Q1 in 2015, so if you are an indie developer get used to creativity, because if you get that nice idea out into the open, there is a potential group of well over 100,000,000 gamers who cannot afford a nextgen system with an included game, especially if the android solution is set at 25%, it is an alternative to consider. A global population going the way of pragmatism, one good game is all they need.

This gets us back to my blog ‘The Toothless tiger‘, which I wrote last week (September 8th). I wrote “larger companies have been all about continuing a brand and less about the new idea, which makes indie developers the future (consider the massive success of Mojang with Minecraft), that is the streamline part all ignored“. I truly believe this, which makes the foundations of NextGen rather shaky as cash strapped developers will move towards an open android environment. It also gives us an interesting side effect. The larger players are so used to having the large pool of resources to drown in, that the limits of android will bring forth the old developers as they designed for Commodore and Atari. Games that are slim, sleek and possibly even decent bug free, which in turn gives waves of additional creativity. Will this come to pass? It seems a logical conclusion, but I am not sure. Personally I hope it will and I also hope we will see additional non-male developers, they can shine in this field just as easy as their male counterparts. Time will tell!

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