If you’re in the game industry, you’re a chump!

The recent major layoffs at Mythic have caused quite a buzz. Here’s what Mark Jacobs had to say about them:

With respect to customer service, quality assurance and play testing, prior to the launch of WAR, we hired additional people to deal with the rush of demand associated with an MMO launch and to insure the best possible experience for our players.  We accomplished that goal and as a result we had the smoothest-ever launch of a major MMO.  Since the launch last year, the demand for customer service has gone down as players become more familiar with the game.  Obviously, demand for a large QA and play-testing staff also falls after launch.  As a result, we saw a staff reduction which is in line with the company-wide initiative. In no way does this conflict with our commitment to customer service.  Staffing numbers will always map to consumer needs – it goes up when we launch new products and expand popular ones, and comes back down as players become familiar with the game.

What’s interesting here is that he suggests the layoffs only involved QA and customer service staff, but in fact it appears to have also involved large numbers of designers as well. Does design quality also “map to consumer needs”?

But let’s leave that aside. What he explicitly said here was that he fully intended to fire a lot of people he hired. Those people did not, contrary to popular belief, know that they were going to get laid off after the game shipped. You don’t get high-quality people to QA your game for minimum wage by telling them that they have no future. You let them believe they are “paying their dues” before they can move up the company ladder.

Scott Jennings discusses the feeling of betrayal that those laid-off employees feel. But Tobold wants them to stop whining and accept their responsibility:

If a company makes a good product, which is profitable, all the stakeholders, that is employees as well as shareholders, somehow get a slice of that profit.

So if a company makes a bad product, which makes a loss, the pain has to be shared as well. You can’t just say “let the shareholders take all the loss”. Not only would that be not very fair, but also it is not a viable path into a better future. Layoffs and restructuring are painful, but they are less painful than the company going belly up.

First, I want to know what company besides SOE gives their employees ANY financial reward for success. EverQuest 1 developers got fat bonuses for a while. They were the exception, not the norm. Nobody else has ever gotten regular bonuses for good work. There’s not even a promise of reward! These employees all know up front that they will get jack squat if they succeed, and they will probably get fired if they fail. And then, here’s the real kicker: they may get fired if they succeed, too, if the company needs to down-size or “meet consumer needs” or shit-can or whatever you want to call it.

 But it’s okay, right, because they had to know they were just temps who would lose their jobs, right? I mean, how could they NOT know they were being abused? So of course they deserve the abuse! Nice logic.

I don’t buy the line that all of the hundreds of people who worked on a game that failed are completely innocent and unaware of that failure, and that all the blame is due to high management.

Unaware of the failure? No. Incapable of fixing it? Yes. But Tobold doesn’t believe that. Not deep down. And he’s certainly not alone in that. What Tobold really, really wants to say is that, in the aggregate, barring occasional errors of judgment, employees who get laid off deserve what they get.

But if all of the employees in one of the game companies now firing people would have done their job perfectly, and created the perfect game, perfect game design, no bugs, perfect quality control, perfect customer service, and so on, the layoffs wouldn’t be happening.

An MMO development team is a machine full of cogs. That’s crucial to its success… if every one of those 100 employees had real power over the future of the game, there’d never be any consensus, and hence no game. Most employees have to give up control to a small number of people who lead the development on behalf of everyone. Those leaders are responsible for their underling’s jobs.

Tobold’s examples betray the typical misunderstanding of how the MMO industry works: he doesn’t realize that the industry’s miserable management practices are the root cause of almost all game failings. Tobold mentions how animation problems caused a major fuss in Age of Conan, and he implicates the artists responsible. But actually, the artists should have been following direction from the design team. If the design team failed to give the artists enough direction, that’s management’s fault for not facilitating inter-department communication correctly.

The real kicker in the Age of Conan example is that a proper triage team should have been able to discern the dramatic effect this bug was having and get the engineering team to hack in a temporary fix, rather than waiting for the art team to redo all the affected animations. Again, this was a failure of management. The buck has to stop where the decisions are made. Those people are the ones responsible for the vast majority of the success or failure of the game.

I am the first one to tell people that they need to rise up out of their “cog” positions and try to fix their game before it’s too late. But the reason I need to say that is because it’s hard. It’s not the norm. It’s a firing offense. Remember that at Mythic, people who speak out are fired and publicly humiliated (“burned at the stake”).

Tobold, can you tell me with a straight face that developers who must follow strict orders or be fired are just as responsible as the people who gave the orders? It’s insulting to blame the cogs. (I want the cogs to stand up for themselves even if it means getting fired, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cogs.)

So here’s the bottom line. Tobold may not have the balls to say this outright, but I will. If you get laid off by an MMO company, you completely deserve it. You bought into the broken and unmaintainable development process, you knew full well that you were being taken advantage of and that when you’d done your best work you would be fired. And if you didn’t know that, you deserve to be fired for not doing your homework before you got into the industry.

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9 Responses to If you’re in the game industry, you’re a chump!

  1. Bojan says:

    Im from country which was in war recent.
    And believe me, there is no excuse for “i just listened orders”.
    Haag is proving that.

    Maybe to serious and far off comment, but you all get my point :)

    Not that i dont feel sorry for all those workers…

  2. Sometimes the cogs are responsible for small failings within a game. Sometimes a cog is brittle, doesn’t turn, or tries to turn in a different direction than the rest of the cogs. Most of the time, the cogs turn in the direction that the machinist tells them to, and they do a decent job of it.

    Yes, it’s in large part the fault of the management when a game fails. Not entirely, but in large part. Which management? That’s the hard one to figure out. Sometimes, it’s the management that does the firing, so they stay on and a company stays pointed squarely in the direction of failure.

    Unfortunately, managers or other employees who get laid off aren’t always the ones who should get laid off. The ones who get to stick around are the ones who play nice and make friends with those who do the firings, and those people are sometimes part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

    I might go so far as to blame many of the failures on two things: 1) the wrong people are in charge. 2) the people who can fire employees are too nice (or biased) and let squeaky wheels stay around far too long.

  3. SmakenDahed says:

    Bad choice of direction followed up by excellent (or even decent) execution isn’t an isolated issue in MMO development. It happens in all different types of business.

    I think it is just emphasized in MMO creation because MMO development is sort of like car manufacturing.

    You might be the best at building the lemons the engineers designed and handed over, but you’re still building lemons. And when they don’t sell, they’re more likely to keep the engineers in hopes that they can come up with something that isn’t a lemon than keep the large force of people that builds them.

  4. Makaze says:

    “Unaware of the failure? No. Incapable of fixing it? Yes”

    That pretty much sums up the Mythic experience from the people I know. You do what you can but when upper management hands down seemingly arbitrary and at times conflicting design decisions you either implement them or you get fired… sooner. Squeak all you want but when the “Lead Designers” are too busy being PR whores to do any real down and dirty design work it’s not likely to do any good. And by design work I mean iterating and dealing with the details, simply deciding something high level and moving on to let someone else sort out the details is not real design work.

    On the other hand it is what the industry is. No one in QA these days should ever have delusions of grandeur about suddenly being promoted onto the design team. At a small studio where you’re a person, maybe. Not likely but maybe. At any studio big enough to make a AAA MMO, ain’t happening.

  5. Openedge1 says:

    As I continue to read all the postmortems of various issues in the genre, all I can conclude is the MMO industry is a failed system.

    Lets look at this.

    We keep hearing these excuses of various “layoffs” in this industry, how as the game launches, the need for these workers is less as time progresses.
    But, did we ever read about how Blizzard had to do all these layoffs?

    I do not remember stories about their losses…


    They are separate from the norm. They are a success. Every other MMO is just “trying” to succeed. I am talking present tense as well…not past. The “Golden Age” of the MMO is gone, thanks to the launch of WoW.

    Post WoW MMO development has to be one scary prospect.

    No other MMO has had such success, and none have even gotten close. To me, if you don’t get a million players, why bother. Yea, you squeek by with a tidy profit, but you never reach that marker of notoriety and fame as Blizzard did.

    I can now only wonder why any publisher or even developer would even want to make an MMO in todays market.

    And who would want to work for one.

  6. Grimwell says:

    Makaze: Folks at SOE move from QA to design, or a host of other roles, all the time. It’s not as doomish as you might think.

    Eric: I’m not sure where to call it. I don’t think what you are writing about is unique to MMO’s either, and while I agree with your sentiment to a point, it’s also a reality of business. As a product is being made a company will push a lot of resources at it and hope for a successful launch. Once launched, if that product does not pay the expected bills, cuts get made to staff and more.

    You could be making Tinker Toys and the cycle is the same. Or running a restaurant, or just about anything. I think people should be aware of it and always mindful that they are always at risk of a layoff even when the company is doing well; but I grew up in the rust belt and am more than accustomed to watching folks have their jobs disappear overnight. Perhaps I’m jaded by cultural influences? :)

  7. Tesh says:

    This maps fairly well to the finance world; those in charge may make expensive mistakes, but it’s easier to jettison the little people when the toll is reckoned. The consequences for failure are disproportionately borne by those who do the bulk of the work, but have no power to change the course of a train wreck.

    Sort of like taxpayers.

  8. Tobold says:

    So these people were just following orders? As Gevlon points out in the post I link to here, just following orders is not, and has never been, a good excuse.

    I never said that anyone working in the game industry is a chump. But I do say that if you work in the game industry you *must* know that your job situation is more precarious than if you worked somewhere with a more stable business. Games, like movies, are hit or miss. And if its a miss, you can’t expect permanent employment.

  9. Get ready for a long rant. I should have posted this up on my own blog, really, but here you go.

    There are a ton of issues here, and they mostly center around how fucked up the game industry is. Note that I mean the industry as a whole here; the MMO side of things has no monopoly on this.

    Problem one is the stupid definition of “success”. As Openedge1 wrote above:

    “To me, if you don’t get a million players, why bother. Yea, you squeek by with a tidy profit, but you never reach that marker of notoriety and fame as Blizzard did.”

    Why isn’t making a profit enough of a goal? To say that it’s senseless to make an MMO if you can’t be Blizzard is like saying it’s senseless to make an RTS if you can’t be Starcraft. Except that you have the very successful Age of Empires series that I don’t think is even a national pastime in any country.

    Perceptions are skewed by WoW’s level of success. EQ2 was perhaps the first victim here, where good PR on Blizzard’s part and a negative reputation on Sony’s part made people think that WoW “won” and EQ2 “lost”. The truth is that EQ2 turns a nice profit for Sony. A “failed game” wouldn’t be on its fifth expansion like EQ2 is. Did it live up to every hope and dream anyone ever had? No, but it shouldn’t have to; it’s a business project, and it’s goal is to make enough money, not win popularity contests.

    But, this perception doesn’t just affect game players, it also affects the people making these games. This skewed perception happens at every step of the way. Want a high-profile IP? The company that owns that IP doesn’t want to hear, “Yeah, well turn your world-class IP into the #2 or #3 game out there!” Want to get investment? Promise the moon and the stars before some other company does the same and snags that money. Want to get noticed by the enthusiast press? You better have some reason why you’re more important to cover than yet another story about WoW. Want to get acquired by a larger company? Add 10% to your most optimistic projections to squeeze out a few more concessions.

    Which brings us back around to why people get upset at the managers when something doesn’t go according to plan. The rule of business is that if you take the most risk, then you should get the most reward. That’s why someone with a revolutionary idea has to give up a sizable chunk of his company (and therefore future earnings and worth) to get investment; if the project goes south, the revolutionary idea creator has to pick himself up and dust himself off and look for a new opportunity, but the investor has lost a large sum of money.

    So, considering game development, who gets the reward for landing a big IP license? Who gets the reward for selling the company to a large publisher? Who gets the biggest bonuses when (if) a game becomes a top seller? Hint: not the QA peons. Yet, when the game doesn’t live up to expectations (translation: doesn’t live up to the promises made by the businesspeople), who gets kicked to the curb?

    At EA/Mythic, it looks like it is the QA people (and other little people).

    This isn’t an “all managers are monsters” rant. Mark Jacobs is still a human being, and from what I know about him he isn’t sipping brandy from a snifter while various QA people are now worrying about how to pay rent. I also know that Mythic was very generous with bonuses in the past, so it’s hard to hold up the company as the root of all evil in the industry. But, it kind of looks like the “risk vs. reward” balance is a bit out of balance here.

    But, that’s not the only way the industry is fucked up. Tobold wrote:

    So these people were just following orders?

    Damned right they are! Lesson number one in the game industry is that unless you’re a superstar, you’re easily replaceable. There are college kids ready to line up around the block to get your job. And, when it comes to finding your next job it’s better to have a failed game to your name than to be noted as the person that rocked the boat, or that got fired for “not being a team player.” The game industry is still rather small and incestuous, and this is doubly true in the MMO space; your reputation will get around.

    As much as people might like to dredge up images of Nazis giving excuses, that’s not the case here. A failed MMO is nothing like millions of murdered people. And, until the economy went to hell, it was better to keep your head down and just look for the next job once you got enough experience. Eventually you might reach superstar status and get some measure of freedom.

    But, don’t bet on it. Do you wonder why two of the people ranting the loudest here (Eric and myself) do independent work instead of working at a large company? As I’ve said before, it’s not an allergy to money that keeps me on the outside, it’s a strong dislike for rampant stupidity.