An intervention

This is an intervention. I’m not blaming you. I know how you got here and I want to help.

Look at this list and tell me if you recognize anything that applies to your company. (This is not a complete list, but I think it will give you the general idea of what to look for.)

Give yourself a point if your game has finished pre-production and…

  • Your company has hired a half-dozen level designers already, but the level-design tools aren’t finished being coded yet. So those level designers are “working on paper” or making mock ups in 3D Max. And playing lots of games on the clock.
  • You still don’t have a playable demo version of your game that supports even 50 people. (“We’ll add the ‘massive’ part during production! It’s just a matter of scaling.”)
  • The only part of your game design that’s actually fleshed out is the back-story. Most of your system design docs just say, “implement this more or less like WoW does it.”
  • You’re still trying to decide the right “look” for the art style so you can get the final assets started.

Give yourself a point if your game is more than a year out of pre-production and…

  • Nobody’s ever discussed things like “customer support tools”, “live development cycle”, “expansion pack infrastructure”, “billing system”, or “login interface”. You’ve just assumed that’s the publisher’s job.
  • You’re desperately pitching your game to prospective publishers each week.
  • The design team and the engineering team don’t talk to each other. The animosity is growing constantly, but nobody can quite understand why.
  • Lunchtime conversation inevitably degenerates into “such-and-such idea is insane, and there’s no way that’s gonna work,” but despite this, the team just keeps their heads down and does the best they can.
  • The team is on its third Lead Designer (or Producer)… and you’re not sure how long this new guy will last, either.
  • Your “lead designer” is actually a committee of five people, only one of whom is an actual designer.
  • The engineering and/or design teams don’t test their own work at all. “That’s what QA is for!” However, everyone constantly complains about how many bugs QA is missing.
  • QA has no specs to work from, and the only bugs they enter are things like, “Wouldn’t this font look better if it was blue?”
  • This is your company’s second game (or attempt at a game). The first one failed, but nobody has addressed the reason why, and you’re seeing the exact same mistakes made again.
  • This is your company’s second game, but the engineering team decided to throw out all the old code from the first game because it was too crufty, so they’re starting from scratch again.
  • The very core of your game has recently been fundamentally changed by forces outside of your team.

Give yourself a point if your game is six months away from beta and…

  • You can’t point to five people on the team and say, “These five people are truly EXCITED about how this game is turning out.” I don’t mean five people who are accepting of the design, or amenable to it… I mean EXCITED. They want to play it so bad RIGHT NOW that their enthusiasm comes through all the time.
  • The production schedule requires you to create content and add features during the beta process.
  • The engineering team still hasn’t stress-tested the server to prove it can support 1000+ people.
  • If you’re looking for the assistant producer (or some other middle manager type), you no longer even check at their desk… they’re more likely to be found at the foosball table in the break room.
  • It seems like management (and anyone else who can get away with it) is taking longer and longer lunch breaks every day.

How many of these apply to your team? One? Two? God help you, three or more? None of these are made up. I’ve seen every one of these problems… many of them repeatedly. These are all symptoms of a game that will end up being mediocre to poor… if the game launches at all.

And my list is far from complete… are there other looming problems that nobody’s addressing?

Every MMO development cycle has troubles. This is a massive undertaking and it’s harder than anybody expected. But things aren’t going to magically get better if you just wait it out. You may end up with a game to your name, but you aren’t going to end up with a game you’re proud of. And it’s going to cost you three to five years of your life.

So you either need to identify and FIX these problems NOW, or you need to walk away. Don’t keep doing something that isn’t working. Have the company form a “tiger team” or a “cross-departmental group” or have an “emergency meeting” or whatever you have to do, but you need to address these issues this week. By Friday you need to have some plans on how things are going to get better. You need to PUSH to make things better now, before it’s too late. This is way more important than your next made-up milestone.

If nobody is letting you push…

If nobody is willing to change, and you can see the problems are growing…

Then you need to leave.

Go find another job. Look at it this way: on one of the games I was indirectly associated with, the team had to crunch for so long that by the end, their effective hourly wage was $4 per hour. Their souls were beaten too: they were angry and sullen and miserable. These were not people who were having fun, and they would have been making more money as a Burger King shift manager. The saddest part? The game didn’t even ship. The team wouldn’t address their fundamental problems. They kept their heads down and worked really hard at their particular areas and tried not to think about the looming failure. Guess what? Ignoring the problems didn’t work.

What are you doing?! Either you fix the problems, or you get the heck out of there. Decide!

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9 Responses to An intervention

  1. Makaze says:

    It’s sad that I read those lists and barely even recognize a list of things that are wrong so much as just a list of the way things are.

  2. J. says:

    The fact that there exist people who will just stick to what is presented as “their job” despite warnings this obvious that their project is doomed, isn’t admirable. It’s sick. But it’s increasingly apparent that the attitudes described above are perceived at least by industry lip-service as admirable persistence.

    If projects aren’t well managed, planned and executed throughout, they aren’t worth doing. This is especially true of MMOs, where it’s always speculative if more niches exist for the market, but no one with real understanding of the issue should doubt that only the best efforts will make any difference.

    We’ve had enough of bad worlds. No more bad worlds.

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  4. moo says:

    Great post. Any of these things are definite “warning signs”. If several of them apply to your project, it is doomed to failure.

    MMOs are really really hard, *and* nowadays they need to be amazingly good in order to take large enough marketshare to be successful. If several of these warning signs are occurring on your project, it has zero chance of being good enough to be successful. Going down with a sinking ship is not recommended.

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  6. Babs says:

    The really sad thing is that a lot of this list can apply to games that are live, too.

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