Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 25, 2012
A contrarian view

I can't help it. When I read a dozen blogs expressing exactly the same sentiment, I have to ask myself whether that sort of group think is justified, or whether there is another possible interpretation of the same facts. In this case the facts are that a lot of game developers lost their jobs lately. Bioware laid off an unspecified number of SWTOR developers (and started talking about server mergers), and 38 Studios fired everybody. And the common sentiment I hear is what a shame that is. Dare I ask: Why?

If you think about it, the theory behind the sentiment is that a game developer is an innocent victim of layoffs. For that to be true, 100% of the responsibility of the success or failure of a game development studio must lie in the hands of the upper management. For example it was revealed that 38 Studios would have had to sell 3 million copies of Kingdoms of Amalur to survive, but sold 1.2 million. So the general conclusion is that Curt Schilling is an idiot, because selling 3 million copies of Amalur was impossible from the start, and the people he employed are now suffering from the consequences of his illusions of grandeur.

Skyrim sold 3.4 million copies in the first 2 days, Diablo 3 sold 3.5 million copies on the first day (plus handed out 1.2 million free copies for WoW annual pass holders). For me there is a logical conclusion from that: Either 38 Studios should have been able to sell 3 million copies of Kingdoms of Amalur because they made a great game, or they shouldn't have started making a $112 million MMORPG in the first place. Either you play with the big boys, then 3 million copies sold doesn't appear all that impossible; or you don't play with the big boys, but then your chances of pulling off a successful triple-A MMORPG are nil as well. Curt Schilling may well be an extremely bad businessman, but it appears that his major flaw was to overestimate the ability of his team to produce a smash hit. Can we really say that his team is 100% innocent of that? Can we not imagine an alternate reality in which the game developers at 38 Studios were all so great that they made a game nearly as good as Skyrim or Diablo 3, selling 3 million copies? At the very least we need to admit that we don't have enough data to judge on that, before all coming out in support of the supposedly innocent victims. As I said earlier, I do believe that the quality of Copernicus has nothing to do with the bankruptcy, because you can't be judged on the success or failure of a game that isn't even released yet. So it is totally possible that the 38 Studios case is mostly the fault of management. But then I'm not sure why we would all be crying about the demise of Copernicus, because if we think it is normal that Kingdom of Amalur is just an "okay, but not great" game, then why would we believe Copernicus to be much better? $112 million is an awfully large price tag for a flythrough video and three screenshots.

The sentiment of the innocent developer being laid off for no fault of his own is even harder to maintain in the case of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bioware admitted losing 400,000 out of 1.7 million subscribers, which as a percentage is a greater loss than WoW going from its peak to its current number of subscribers. And SWTOR lost those subscribers in a much shorter time. Plus there are some doubts whether the number of remaining subscribers isn't padded by Bioware handing out free months of gameplay. In short: SWTOR isn't doing that great, and the company reacts by cutting costs, which means laying off people. But the people being laid off are those who made the game that isn't doing so great. Are we saying here that the game developers have absolutely no influence over the quality of the game they are making?

I get pictures in my mind of Ford workers producing cars on an assembly line. In such a production process it is possible that the Ford worker has close to no influence whatsoever on the quality of the produced car. Are game developers assembly line workers? Or do we believe that if we read a review saying that some video game characters animation is wooden, the guy having written that animation simply didn't do a very good job? Is there absolutely no way of there being some justification in a management decision of "you made a game that wasn't good enough, you're fired!"?

As I said, these are just contrarian questions. Open questions at that. I don't claim to have an answer on the degree of responsibility of the game developers over the success of their games. It just appears somewhat weird to me to assume that the degree is zero.

My contrarian suggestion would be that if they hadn't been making Kingdom of Amalur or SWTOR would apparently have been unemployed altogether, so on the whole they are better off than they would have been if upper management hadn't made the mistake of making the game in the first place.

To the degree they can just get another job, which I would think wouldn't be a problem for a bunch of highly skilled people working at the peak of a thriving industry (worst case scenario they replace the guy who got a job making Wii shovelware because they were busy making SWTOR), then this is a fairly minor problem that is just part of the industry.
I'm pretty sure a good portion of the development team are just like Ford line assembly workers. In fact, many probably have little to no impact on the design, look, or feel.

Oh, sure, they probably made that texture, model, or animation, but none of them had the final say.

Blame for failure must be laid upon the decision-makers. Be that a lead designer, producer, manager, VP, or CEO. And to be fair, even the mid to lower level decision-makers can be overruled, so the crap really does rise to the top.
You yourself said just a few days ago that a lot of Diablo III's popularity had to do with the fact that it's Diablo III, and not the quality of the game. I'm not sure how failing to meet the sales of games with already established fan bases is the responsibility of the developers.

As for outsized ambitions, I think it's worth distinguishing between 38 Studios and Big Huge Games. BHG delivered on what they intended to do. It was the leadership of 38S that decided that the profits of KoA needed to support MMO development *and* pay back the loan used to buy BHG in the first place.
I agree with Snafzg. Take Stephen Reid, one fo SWTOR's CMs who was laid off. I'm sure he faithfully communicated everything from the official boards to the dev team. If SWTOR's problems are as fundamental as overestimating the impact fourth pillar, how could a CM be held responsible for that. That came from the Drs. (who by the way are still employed.)

I would suggest that some of what you are seeing is nothing more than one human being seeing another human being going through a tramatic and difficult situation (a job loss) and expressing sympathy.
I sometimes wonder, in artistic persuits, how much success or failure depends on uncontrollable factors. Right place and right time, economic conditions, competing products, etc. can certainly affect success or failure, especially when success or failure is determined by such a narrow metric as number of units sold.

So, does the failure of the game to sell a predetermined number really prove that the endeavor failed, or that the people weren't talented or work hard enough? What if it was exactly the game they wanted, but just failed to generate enough buzz?

Does economic success really prove that a development team is better, and worked harder, or just fortunate to be on the right project at the right time?

Talented and hard working sports teams don't always win championships. Often it's some intangible quality, or "chemistry", code for when experts have no idea why they succeeded.

Working in an industry like video game development is risky, I'm sure all those that lost jobs understand that, and weren't blind sided. I wonder if most felt fortunate to have had the chance to try, and the experience will certainly bolster their chances of succeeding in the next project.
" or they shouldn't have started making a $112 million MMORPG in the first place"

That's still a management issue.
I would bet that the success of KoA had entirely to do with when it was released....they tried to knock this one out in a market that was swept away by the likes of Skyrim and Dark Souls; they should have either gotten the game out before Skyrim, or given it a few more months (not likely they could have done that, knowing the financial issues they were having).
It's easy to harp on management sometimes but honestly the buck often stops with them

When building a business you need to build and maintain a sustainable business. You owe that to the people you hire. If you are serious about building a great company you have to make sure it is sustainable.

In the case of 38 Studios it is clear from the start there was not a sustainable business model there. Forcing themselves to put a single player game out to fund the studio proved that they were essentially making it up as they want along. And honestly - no company should ever be built on the grounds of "we are going to do this first thing we are doing and expect it to sell at the golden standard level".

What sane person sets out to make a video game and says - yep, I can make that sell like Diablo ... Come on. Diablo is a beast, a huge IP with 3 titles. That's what 38's first game had to compete with number wise. It wasn't going to happen.

As for TOR. I don't think TOR is a failure. I don't think any game with >1million (or >250k for that mater) is a failure. It's a matter of scale. And unfortunately the way they have to scale is with layoffs. They likely should have been more realistic in the planning stages. They made the mistake of telling their community, and more importantly their staff "don't worry, we won't be like every other MMO who shifts resources away after the game launches". That goes against industry standard (you just don't need a team so big to maintain a live game, you just don't, even if you are pumping out content) and it goes against common sense in terms of sales and subs expectations. MMOs churn. If you sell 2 million copies you aren't going to have 2 million subs. If you are lucky you'll hold on to half at best. There are people in the management team at Bioware attached to SWTOR who should know better. They should have been honest with their fans (expectation management is something not done very well in the mmo space) and they should be honest (MOST importantly) with their staff
If you needed more proof for your "Diablo 3 has succeeded because it's Diablo 3" theory, this is it. If I suppress the inflationary effect of nostalgia and compare Kingdoms of Amalur to Diablo 3 game-to-game, they are about equally as good. The game mechanics are about the same, the level of polish is about the same, the gameplay and story are equally shallow. No multiplayer or AH in KoA, of course, but sitting down and playing a session in one feels an awful lot like playing the other.

38 Studio's biggest problem may have been not developing a sequel to one of the most popular games ever.
@Tori KoA was not a good game. It was literally the only game in 2011 that I bought played 2 hours and gave up on it.

That's of course a personal opinion, but there were many that shared this view. Every new franchise needs something to anchor it, good world build or story or gameplay etc. KoA was average in most areas and built in a very flavorless world. Chances of it having generated a strong following was small.

I agree with Tobold, the market decides if your game is good or bad, and there are many different random factors out of a person's control. For example, reviewers keep saying Psyonauts is a really awesome game. I've bought it (cheap) played perhaps 3 hours and have not felt the need to continue. However on diablo 3, I'm 50 hours in on one character and show no signs of slowing down.

It's not worth lamenting failed game studios unless you were actually part of that company. Regardless of bad design, bad management etc, eventually it is a failed company, just like thousands of other failed businesses out there.
I don't even understand the criticism regarding the programmers getting fired. They worked and they got paid for their work. No one got ripped off. Now that deal is over, and they need to look for a new deal. No one has a right to a job forever.
@Eaten By a Grue - They actually weren't paid for their last month of work. That's what missing payroll means.
In my experience, management often seeks to employ people who agree with them. Naysayers are often labelled "not team players." Modern Management theory stipulates that winners think positive. A healthy dose of realism is often needed but goes unheeded when so everyone's expectations are so high. No one wants to be the messenger of bad news.
@Ted A.

"I agree with Snafzg. Take Stephen Reid, one fo SWTOR's CMs who was laid off. I'm sure he faithfully communicated everything from the official boards to the dev team."

To play devil's advocate, SWTOR did not launch with an LFG tool. And from the comments that were made, this was almost certainly because they thought an LFG tool was detrimental to the community.

Maybe Mr. Reid strongly pushed for no-LFG because of his communication with the community. In that case, he is responsible for misreading the community and getting captured by a vocal minority who did not represent the majority. He may be directly responsible for SWTOR not including a feature that would have strongly helped it.

Now, I have no idea if the above is true or not, I'm just playing devil's advocate. But I think it represents a plausible scenario where Mr. Reid is at fault for some of the flaws of SWTOR.
Rohan, if at this point the guy managing an MMO doesn't know to ignore the twits on the message boards, we're once again circling around blaming management.
While I agree with your general point, consider a few counter points:

-SWTOR is the second most successful MMORPG in the history of North America (and I believe Europe).

-SWTOR has by far the best retention rates of any major MMORPG released in the last 5 years. All other major releases lost subscribers much faster.

-Assuming the rate of decline continues at the same pace or even slightly faster, and an initial budget of $300 million, my most conservative estimates have SWTOR paying off their budget and pulling in at least $100 million profit in their first year.

-If WoW did not exist, SWTOR would be generally considered the most successful MMORPG of all time (with some fair arguments for EVE).

Given that, these developers have to ask themselves, "is surpassing WoW in under 6 months the only thing that could have saved my job?"

If those were the expectations from management, then I DO consider that a management error.
I suspect you've confused the term "laid off" with "fired". They have completely different meanings.

I know this happened in the U.S.A which has very different labor laws, but in the U.K. it would actually be illegal for someone to be, as you suggest, "laid off" for doing a bad job. Selection for redundancy has to be rigorously fair and cannot reference your previous disciplinary or performance record. To dismiss someone for those reasons requires entirely different legislation.

As I understand it, both the TOR and Copernicus devs were "laid off" because the jobs for which they had been hired no longer existed. Fault or competence are simply not factors in such a decision.
I'm in software.

We as a company are currently, to be honest, delivering crap. Not because our local Asian dev team isn't good. We may be quirky as coders tend to be, but whn we writecode, we are essentially fucking good. BUT. We are faced with corp procedures that essentially cut our productivity in... Half. If not worse. Management can, and sometimes will, fuck up royally. Being good at writing code and understanding customer requirements and translating those properly into the code does NOT mean you're in a safe spot at all. Meh don't blame the code monkeys. (usually) (I have to admit we have some horrible coders back in Europe actually, and worse legacy code). If management can't get the procs right, NO GOOD SOFTWARE will come out.
My opinion is that no matter how good the game programmers, artists, modellers, sound people, and all the other folk that it takes to make a game are, it's management, that screws up big budget games. Based on game company/player interactions on many message boards since the days of the original Everquest.

It takes a huge ego to drum up the nerve to start a game company. And it probably takes a huge ego to get the project going and keep it going. The huge egos drive the 'dream'.

Unfortunately if the dream is wrong, managements' huge egos prevent them from seeing it - they don't listen to their dev team or player feedback with open minds.

Most people with huge ego's don't take criticism well.
Bhagpuss: Depends how long they have been in post. In the UK you can lay people off for any reason* (or no reason) if they've been in post for less than a year, and the govt wants to increase this to 2 years.

You are also perfectly able to lay off longer term workers for poor performance, as long as you can prove it.

* I think you're still not allowed to sack women for being pregnant and other racist/ disablist stuff could probably also be appealed.
Like any other complex situation, the blame is likely shared across all parties.

Having said that, it's really on the management and the board of the company to make it successful, or make decisions when failure is inevitable.

As a small business owner, I'm look at this situation very closely to see what I can learn from it.
I didn't finish my thought.

It's really on the management and the board of the company to make it successful, or make decisions when failure is inevitable to help its employees move on.

Based on the evidence available, I think the leadership of this company was either blinded by visions of grandeur to their reality, or someone lied about the state of the company.

In my experience, believe it or not, the latter is more likely.
Yes, every employee, from the janitor to the CEO, has some responsibility. But it is fair to say the CEO has a lot more.

I think Windows Vista is a good analogy to TOR. Huge, late project that one could argue was not a failure but that calling it a success would be quite generous. I don't see a level one or even 2 person in either organization being that responsible. I just don't see how if any individual contributor or first level supervisor had done their job much better, it would have had a material impact on KoA.

There are many, many mistakes with TOR. But whenever I read comments about the subscriber drop, I assume the person mentioning it is quite biased. A drop seems to me to be expected. There are a number of players who regard a new MMO as a single-player/console purchase decision, try it, get X hours of play, then put it down. If TOR had the advertising & PR budget to get 3 million subscribers in December, I bet the % drop would be higher. TOR seems to have done more than most MMOs of expanding the market rather than canibalizing competitors' customers, so I would also expect higher initial drop. ( Realistically, the next #s will be even worse and that will be far more indicative of the problems with the game than the initial drop #s.)

Isn't there a famous developer quote that the game designers can not change the basic shape of the subscriber curve; all they can do is try to stretch it up & out?
The problem is you never know who made certain decisions. Why does SWTOR not have an LFG system? Or a configurable interface? Or respecs or multiple specs. Or any of the things that we have come to expect of games in the last several years. Were these management or design decisions?

What will be interesting in 38's case is we are going to know because when government fails, there are no golden parachutes to keep people silent. Instead there are subpoenas and lawsuits and legislative probes. Rhode Island is a very small and not very wealthy state and this is not going to just go away and be written off.

38 Studios never had a chance. Schilling was a little boy opening his own candy store. When a studio tosses $5 million at an author to do backstory just because he's the founders favorite writer or hires an artist because he's a baseball fan, you just know things aren't going to go well.
If a new developer sells 1.2 million of their first game, it receives recognition as 'good, not great' and does not have the financial means to stay open, it is a business failure.

As you have previously identified, Diablo 3 sales were carried by its name. So the sales difference between the two were a marketing challenge.
Initial Diablo sales will have been on brand (blizzard/diablo), but if Diablo continues to sell strongly in the coming months (similarly to New Super Mario Bros Wii) then it will be clear that Diablo is a good game on it's own merits because of continued consistently strong sales.
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