Sunday, February 21, 2010

Response to Bonus Round 402 Section 3

This is my response to those that would refute the thesis I put forward in Part 3 of Bonus Round 402.

Can well known developers, or groups of developers, leave a team (through choice or dissolution), start a new development studio, and get a deal with a top publisher with enough financial backing to make something creative and meaningful in the AAA space and thus prevent the industry from losing diversity in product?

This is the question that I posed, and then suggested that in my opinion the answer is a resounding NO.

Many of the responses I got to this question from the panel and in the forums forget why I posed the question in the first place, and attempt to minimize the question by finding exceptions to the rule and fringe cases. This is useless in refuting the thesis.

For example, I think we can all agree that falling out of a plane at 30,000 feet is deadly. Yet the grandfather of a high school friend did just that in WWII and survived basically unscathed. In fact it is not unheard of. But these exceptions do not mean that falling out of a plane is safe.

To support my argument I will speak in norms and generalities. If the question is relevant and the industry works in the way I suggest the MAJORITY of the time then we do indeed face a problem. I will break the question into four parts, first a sanity check on the value of the question itself, and then three assertions embedded in the question.

Shane is irrefutably wrong in his assertion that recent layoffs in the industry are normal and recurring. Not only has EA layed off a record number of people in the last year, but after the taping of the panel Activision also layed off a large number of people and shuttered multiple teams. The two biggest publishers laying off thousands of people at almost the same time is unprecedented. This is not my opinion, a simple check of past years press releases bear this out.

I do not debate that good developers can leave and sign smaller projects (<15 million dollars for this argument), but those developers are leaving the AAA business rather than doing anything relevant to support creativity in that space. Sure, they might eventually grow to get a shot at something bigger, but since smaller projects also take significant amounts of time this doesn’t solve the midterm problem that I propose lies in the 2-5 year window.

I do not debate that complete teams of independent developers can move around at will and get amazing deals. But if Insomniac, Epic, or Valve moves from one publisher to another then they are not bringing more diversity to the AAA space or replacing the lost teams. They are part of the current diversity already. New teams need to be created to replace teams that have disappeared.

There can be no argument that IF out of work developers (or those that chose to leave) cannot sign new AAA deals then fewer people and fewer teams working on these games will negatively impact the number of these titles released. Fewer titles should also mean less diversity unless somehow the industry simultaneously finds a will to experiment at the same time as it is losing projects. I would find that hard to believe. If anything, teams that remain intact will be focused on “proven” product, especially if they are publisher internal, and not in trying something new.

Thus the question is relevant.

I can quickly dispense with the first part of my question: “Can a well known developer, or group of developers, leave a team (through choice or dissolution), start a new development studio?” I will assume that there is no impediment to doing so. Thus there should be no argument by those that disagree with me so far.

The second part of the question: “can such a developer get a deal with a top publisher with enough financial backing to make something creative and meaningful in the AAA space” is the meat of the discussion.

To simplify this discussion I assume that talented developers will ALWAYS make something creative and meaningful if given 1) enough money and 2) enough freedom to do so. This is certainly not true but I am willing to accept the most generous of arguments against my overall point because this is not where I believe the problems lie.

The crux of my argument is that no publisher will sign a small band of developers, even a very talented one, to build a new team to do a 40+ million dollar title, so their only choice is to join an internal team that the publisher deems could be better led. Thus, even if they get the money, they likely won’t get the freedom. This is not because of any conspiracy against or unfairness towards developers; it is an unfortunate reality of the size and difficulty of building these products. There are hundreds of reasons that these titles are too big for a new team to tackle, but there are some easy ways to look at it.

A new developer would need to build a 120-person team. Hiring quickly, the team might try to find more than a person a day. I submit that this is impossible if quality is to be maintained. Going slowly, the team might grow at a person every 3 days. Possible, but the cost of idle hands, or managing a growing team efficiently while money is being spent on those already hired in that first year, not to mention the lengthened development cycle makes the risk adverse publisher refuse.

Once that team is made, there is a “rhythm,” the complex inter-working of a well built team, needs to be built. My old team Naughty Dog is a great team capable of making a game like Uncharted because they have built up and maintained this rhythm for over a decade and a half, broken if at all only by a transition to new management that we painstakingly strung over 2 years to insure that Evan, the new team leader, would be ready to take over and maintain that rhythm (by this I mean to take no credit for their amazing work on the Uncharted titles after I left). Rhythm involves everything from agreeing on methodology, acceptance of leadership, to existing engines, technical shortcuts, and an internal language. Again, full teams have it. Building it from scratch is really hard and usually takes multiple projects.

Publishers don’t want to pay to build an independent developer, taking the risks as the team is built, to end up having them leave as a complete unit to work elsewhere once the teething pains are over. Independent developers are REALLY hard to build today. I submit that this is a non-starter.

So what about internal? This is the most likely exception that would prove my theory wrong. The money would be there, most of the team is up and running, and they may even have the rhythm needed to make a great title. The publisher is much more likely to make this deal, but would it lead to something creative and meaningful?

I’m not sure. Would they get a chance to do something creative? Maybe, but I suggest that the first project is more likely to fix a team that is building a franchise title. Even if this is not the case, the very fact that they are joining an existing team weakens the argument that this is a source of NEW development ability. They are replacing a team, not adding to them. What about all the layed off developers? In any event, it isn’t exactly the panacea of creativity we were looking for.

Thus, it is not a question of talent, but rather a question of real world risk and practicality that would keep even the most well intentioned publisher and developer from signing a deal that risks enough money to do something creative and meaningful as an independent. And as an internal replacement, what is the real impact? Maybe I am stating the problem too forcefully, and joining an existing internal team to improve it and make something creative greatly lessons my thesis. Maybe, but I love the industry and I wouldn’t want to hang my hat on this as its future.

The fact that seemingly independent developers started by legends in Japan form all the time is a red herring. There are lots of reasons for these seemingly independent developers in Japan, much of it stemming from the strict seniority and pay structures inside Japanese companies, but one thing they do not usually lead to is new creative talent in the business. Most often, the same developer works with the same team for the same publisher. Hardly a counterpoint.

The third and last part of my question is: “can this happen enough that it will prevent the industry from losing diversity in product?” This is the most ignored part of the discussion. The entire point of asking the question was the impact on the industry AS A WHOLE. If one or three exceptions to the rule exist, but a dozen indeed follow my prediction, then the industry has a NET loss of development teams and a NET loss of diversity of product. I would still see that as a problem.

Coming up with Miyamoto-san, Will Wright, or a few others as exceptions is not a counter-argument. Miyamoto-san might certainly be the man to survive “jumping out of the plane”. But besides the ludicrousness of suggesting that Miyamoto-san would leave Nintendo, the fact that he might do so and would immediately get hired by another publisher does not refute the argument that this not the case for the vast majority of developers that create the backbone of the thesis.

Of course, a really successful developer might self finance. That is extremely rare and won’t have a large impact on the thesis. There are certainly some who can, but the number is extremely small. Again, they would be the exception and not the rule, and they are probably already making independent games.

What happens to the business if the vast majority of developers cannot sign new deals as I propose? That is the reason I proposed the question, not whether the rules apply to every last person in the development community.

In fact, through no malice on the part of publishers, developers, or anybody else, I think we do indeed have the problem I proposed. I believe that less AAA titles will be started in the next year, and a few years from now that will be felt on the shelf. I am neither pessimistic about the industry, angry at anybody or anything, or otherwise guided by any ill will towards gamers or the business. I am simply making a prediction that I believe to be true. I have no ability to control the outcome, and I would not wish for my opinion to bear out if I was. In fact, I hope I am wrong.

And finally, to those that pointed to the fact that I said on the panel that I couldn’t get a deal as proof that this was “all about me” are utterly missing the point. I was saying am the only one on the panel who has been out in the real world talking to publishers about making AAA games. Other developer(s) may prove me wrong (and I hope they do!), but with no disrespect to my fellow panelists, they have no actual experience to back up what they were saying.

Naughty Dog's 10 Awards and the Completion of a Dream.

I just got back from DICE feeling like a million bucks.

Naughty Dog, the company I co-founded with Andy Gavin in 1985 basically swept the AIAS awards with 10 wins including game of the year.

Though I didn't have any involvement in the making of the Uncharted titles (I left Naughty Dog in 2004), I still take a great deal of pride in their completion of the team goal of linking story and game in a seamless way. Though it isn't obvious, we wanted to do much of Uncharted 2's storytelling as long ago as the first Crash title, but we didn't have the technology or experience to do much story at all in the Crash games.

I still have a binder with dozens of pages of never used background and story that were supposed to link some of the first levels in the first game. Alas, nobody will ever know that Dr. Cortex was a brainy child born into a family of circus clowns or that all of the early boss characters (and Crash) were the result a brainwashing machine that involved bombarding innocent animals with tons of pop culture entertainment. Pinstripe was forced to watch the godfather, while Koala Kong got Stallone movies, etc.

With the launch of the PlayStation 2 I pushed the team to take the challenge more seriously and each Jak title moved the dream forward, though we were still constrained by hardware, our own software, and what turned out to be years of experimenting in just how to get it right.

Again, I claim no responsibility for Uncharted or Uncharted 2, but the Naughty Dog methodology of mixing storytelling seamlessly with gameplay finally worked, and I am proud to have been part of at least the early parts of the journey that got them there. Evan, Christophe, Amy, and the rest of the team should feel incredibly proud of what they achieved.

Congratulations to Naughty Dog, still at the top of the game!

Mark Cerny's AIAS Hall of Fame Award

I wanted to take a minute or three to congratulate good friend and often co-worker Mark Cerny on his AIAS Hall of Fame award. Mark truly deserves the award, he is an incredibly talent and has had great influence on multiple projects over decades.

One of my favorite games growing up was Marble Madness, a game that was truly innovative and fun. Many people don't realize the challenges that game developers faced making games in those days, but the struggle to get anything to work, let alone such an unprecedented masterpiece.

I was lucky enough to work with Mark between 1994 and 2004 on the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series. Mark had a huge impact on both the design and technology in both franchises. Andy Gavin and I, two inexperienced but aggressive young developers, relied heavily on Mark's experience when we were working on the first Crash game. Crash might not have been successful were it not for the knowledge that Mark brought with him from Sonic 2.

I have always said that Mark is the only game designer that I have ever met that can turn the "art" of game design into a "science." Mark wouldn't comment that a Crash or Jak level "felt too hard," but rather he would tell us that "there was a difficulty problem stemmed from too few continue points", and usually specifically how we could fix it.

I certainly hope I get a chance to work again with Mark in the future.

Bonus Round 402 - Part 2 of 4

(Originally posted to Geoff Keighley's Blog 2/16/10)

To Bonus Round Viewers,

I’d like to apologize, because I don’t think I did a good job of explaining what I was suggesting, and the panel quickly turned it into an argument about business models I didn’t suggest and game balance, rather than a fair price for games and the industry’s ability to survive.

Additionally, there were arguments made on the panel against suggestions that were not mine, but somehow I got blamed for: for example Shane suggesting that I would approve of games that shut off if you didn’t pay or paying for prestige. These are not my beliefs and if you watch the panel you can see that I never suggest either and denied that they were good ideas. I want to clear that up.

It is a discussion of industry financial survival that I was brought onto the show to discuss, and it is here that any discussion of what I really believe has to begin.

The first misconception from those that have commented is that the industry can stay as is. The most common comment has been that many gamers like the current model of game pricing. Were the industry in good shape financially right now, then I would agree that there is no reason to change. Unfortunately, this model is not currently working very well and may not support continued game creation. This is not my opinion alone, and I didn’t invite myself to the panel to ask myself these questions. These are unfortunately blatantly obvious facts. Michael Pachter specifically pointed to EA’s recent earnings (or lack thereof) as an indication that something is indeed broken. EA and Activision’s large recent layoffs (Activision after the show’s taping) also point to less AAA games getting made and changes ahead. Losses and layoffs are not a sign of a healthy industry.

Certainly, all of us understand that if a company loses money continually it must either 1) change the way it behaves or 2) cease to be. We can all agree that ceasing to make games is not what we want, so we have to look for a change of behavior that makes the company healthy and profitable so we can all get the games we want to play.

This does not necessarily have to be digital distribution or other payment models. It could be something nobody has thought of yet. But making games at a loss is not a business that can survive so SOMETHING clearly has to change. It is my suggestion that alternate business models and digital distribution are a possible solution.

The second misconception is that I somehow advocate letting people buy their way through games, to get ahead of others through payments, or somehow unbalancing the game, for example by “buying prestige.” Anybody who took this out of the panel was not listening to my continual protests.

I have never believed that game balance should be influenced by cash.

Possibly the most misconstrued (and most unintended) moment was when we discussed WOW gold mining and I conceded that life isn’t fair. This was not a suggestion that games shouldn’t be fair. Nor was it a suggestion that people with money should be able to buy advantage. I was referring to the same unfairness that allows some people to pay $60 for a game while some are unable to afford that pleasure – EVER. That is unfair, so there is already unfairness in the system today. But I would endeavor to make the system more fair rather than stick with the current unfairness. I don’t believe that digital distribution and alternate business models leads us away from that goal. In fact, I believe they may lead us towards it.

To be clear:

I have been a game maker for my entire life and balancing games has been the most important skill I have learned. Over 40 million people have played the games I made and thought my balancing was fair and fun. I am aware that is no less ridiculous to let people buy completion of a level of a game or to buy “prestige” than it is to try to sell them the end of a movie plot before they go into a movie theatre. Furthermore, since many games today are multi-player, unbalancing a game will have tragic results not only for the person buying the advantage, but also for those that did not. In short, it screws up the whole game for everyone.

Buying bullets, buying advancement, buying better guns, and tons of other ideas were shot down by the panel, and those that have commented, but those ideas were never raised by me. It is really easy to rail argue something I didn’t say, but it says nothing about my suggestions.
The third misconception is that while many of the comments have assumed that alternate business models must mean higher costs to gamers on average. We do not know this to be true. I do believe that the model will distribute costs differently, and hopefully a model that is as good for the gamer and better for the industry can be found.

If anything, the current model is not fair pricing. The small number of heavy users for each game get an incredible deal, while the majority of gamers, who are searching for a game they love, can try less games because of the price point. There is a real cost to publishers for multiplayer games in servers and infrastructure, which is unevenly borne by those that don’t play the game as much as those that do. This was not true with the old offline game model, and it is not true with DVD’s. That inefficiency is great for hard core gamers (who of course are overrepresented in the Bonus Round audience) but bad for the industry.

My comments that the industry must take chances and create new experiences, which I was lauded for in the comments in section 1 of this panel, are at direct odds with the current model.
For example, when researching a recent online game I calculated that the highest volume user (who had played 150+ 8 hour days in the games 190 days of release!) was paying less than a nickel per hour. Now of course this was only the highest volume user, but it is insane to argue that this is fair pricing. This user was costing the publisher money based on server and bandwidth costs. Who was paying for this usage? Users that played less and the publisher were paying. That may have been you.

The fourth misconception is that I was suggesting a specific model for specific games.
While a subscription may work for some games (WOW is one), it is not the cleanest or nicest model, and may not fit for many other games. Just a reminder, I never suggested subscription or pay as you go during the panel. And I certainly never suggested your game should “turn off” after a period of time. I don’t like that idea either.

Nor was I suggesting that FarmTown’s model would work for any specific game. Every game is different, and every game might need a different solution. But I think there are solutions.
In fact, I was vague on specific implementations not because I don’t have ideas, but because one solution cannot possibly fit all games.

There are many, many examples of digital distribution and alternate business models that are better and are working for gamers and game makers, from inexpensive games to full sized games. There are billions of dollars in income in such games with tens of millions of users… some with more users than the biggest console game. Anyone who denies this has not done any research.

I believe that game developers are some of the smartest people on earth. If they spent as much time being creative with business models as they are with content then I think that they would find solutions that made gamers and game makers happier… even those who dismiss the concept without giving it a chance.

PS: If you would still like to call me an idiot directly you can find me or on twitter at jason_rubin.



This is less a blog and more a place to place infrequent and unrelated writings. I don't intend to be timely, nor do I intend to have a theme or subject matter. Unlike some of my friends, I will never get a sweet production deal to turn this blog into a TV series because the one thing I know I will NOT write about is dating and sex.

The writings cataloged here are opinions. Opinions often predict the future. If I thought I knew the future, and thus believed my opinions were facts, then I wouldn't be making predictions about the game industry and other topics, I would be playing the horses.

Use at your own risk.