Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 08, 2014
 
Love, hate, and professionalism

I was reading an article about recruitment at Blizzard, which talks about how lousy an industry this is to work for: Low job security, long hours, low pay. Not just the people who make games, but also the attached industries, for example the people who talk or write about games. And the official numbers just cover those who "made it", that is who have a job contract with a game company or news outlet. That is just the tip of the iceberg: There are many more people who either make games or report on games without having a contract.

An economists view of the situation is very simple: There are far too many people who would love a job related to games, and far too few jobs on offer. The reason there aren't more jobs is that we are already in a situation of oversupply of the market, there are too many games around. So the laws of supply and demand drive down the prices for games, and then drive down what the industry can pay to the people making games. There are people who love games so much that they are perfectly willing to work a game-related job or perform a job-like activity for free. Me for example. My income from donations to this blog in 2014? $25.14. I'm clearly not doing this for the money.

There is a word for people who work out of love, from the Latin word for lover, "amator". They are called amateurs. The word has both positive and negative connotations. If I work out of love, unpaid, and not in any way controlled by an organization, my standards might be not as high as those who work for money, the "professionals". On the other hand in other aspects my standards might be higher, because I am not worried about the commercial impact of my decisions. An amateur creating a game out of love would have the freedom to make the game he thinks is best, and not be pushed towards the middle of the road by some marketing types. An amateur reviewing a game doesn't have to worry losing advertising income from the game company.

I don't believe in things being black & white. Almost always everything is somewhere on a grayscale. I'm not 100% an amateur, because I have those $25 income from donations. And many of the people making games or reporting on games are part amateur, part professionals as well, being either low paid, or part-time employed, or freelancing.

Now there has been a lot of hate going around lately, accusing many of the people involved in making games or reporting about games of having a lack of professional standards. There has been talk of corruption. And just like so much else in this industry, even the corruption appears to be somewhat amateurish. The sums being discussed are one extreme case of $200 Nexus tablets, more commonly swag bags of under $50 value, and $10/month Patreon donations. Even a Nigerian minor border official makes more corrupt money than that.

Now personally I get e-mails every week asking me to put up some advertising or to promote some product in exchange for some money. And I always say no, there are no advertisements or paid-for promotions on my blog. The only deal I accept is reviewing a free copy of a game or product, and even there I only agree if I already had some interest in the product in the first place. If I would never buy a game, I wouldn't review it either, even if I got the review copy for free. Now I am very much on the amateur end of the scale, but I've been to a Blizzard convention with a press pass around my neck and went home with a swag bag. Actually I went home with THREE swag bags, because my wife and me had first bought tickets to the convention before getting a free ticket, and each ticket gave you the right to one of those swag bags. And you could say that these bags had some value, because there was a code inside for a WoW pet, and those codes sold for some money on EBay. Me and my wife used ours and gave away the third code to a friend.

Because ultimately, if you do something out of love, you aren't all that interested in the money. I cherished the press pass as a symbol of recognition of my work, but I didn't give a damn about the monetary value of the free ticket and swag bag. And so if I hear the story of the indie game developer who is flat mate with a freelance game journalist, I don't see corruption. I see two adults who earn so little money that they have to share a flat, who both love games, and who share a certain enthusiasm about games. If would be extremely weird if in that situation the guy who is programming a game at home because his company can't afford an office ISN'T showing his game to his flatmate.

While I am not 100% convinced that an adversarial relation between game developers and game writers would even be a good thing, I am pretty certain of the way we could get there: Pay both of them a decent salary. Which isn't going to happen as long as there are so many people who love games so much that they are willing to work for free or for peanuts. To me it seems somewhat mean to first pay somebody less than a living wage and then to complain about his lack of professionalism. On the other hand we might well be on our way towards more professionalism, because all that hate is going to drive away a lot of the people who work mostly for the love of games. If we continue that hate campaign, we could see less people interested in working for free, leading to higher salaries and more professional attitudes. Just don't complain if games cost $100 then. 

Comments:
It's like petty politics for the plebs - people will get angry over that guy who abused the social system for 500 bucks, a person that is already at the very end of the pecking order, and have discussions about this huge, huge subject for days. But nobody talks about what salaries politicians are getting in this country or the money that's destroyed by speculators and bankers every day. No, we go after the small guy. Someone up there is very proud of themselves how they keep managing the diversion from more important issues.

Excellent post.
 
There's nothing new about any of this and nothing unique to gaming either. In the 1980s a friend of mine, who was then manager of a large high-street bookshop, showed me a drawer full of letters from recent university graduates offering to work for a month or more for free just so they could have a chance to get a regular job working in a bookshop. Several decades later that same bookshop is staffed with university graduates, many of them now in their 40s and 50s, working at not much above minimum wage because it means they can spend their days surrounded by books and other people who love books.

On the other hand, industries can change, radically, when it comes to work and rewards. The comics industry underwent a sea-change during the 1980s and 90s following a number of protracted legal actions over ownership of intellectual property rights. Comics writers and artists went from being poorly-paid, disposable peons on work-for-hire contracts to highly-valued, extremely-highly paid "creators" with the kind of royalty and residual payments common in other creative industries. Before comics movies went through the process.

In time the same process will almost inevitably come to gaming. Whether the product received by customers will be better for it, who can say? Are movies better now than they were under the 1930s and 40s studio system? Are creator-led comics of the 21st century better than company-controlled comics of the Golden, silver and Bronze age?
 
I've wondered for a while why gaming news sites like Massively seem to be in decline (they had very high profile layoffs earlier this year)?

It's still a go to site for me news-wise and I enjoy some of their regulars columns but I guess they're not getting as much advertising revenue anymore. I hope the site survives as I'd hate to have to go hunting around twitter and facebook to try and collect all the gaming updates I'm interested in.

Is this the effect of so many "do it for free" bloggers, tweeters etc covering the same topics? Is it because the industry doesn't value such 'professional' sites anymore?

An interesting topic. Not just because of the implications for cost of games but also for the possible evolutions of gaming news coverage.
 
I've said it for years about local law enforcement; if you want to eliminate corruption, pay them well enough so they don't get tempted.

@gamingsf-- I think that Massively's issues mirror the decline in WoW subs. Massively's WoW Insider does post news, but a lot of the opinion pieces boil down to how great WoW is, and that eventually wears on people who aren't 100% on board with everything WoW.


 
Pay both of them a decent salary

Sound advice in another respect as well. Low wages means that you don't attract top talent to work on games.

Amateur may mean 'out of love' but the other thing we expect and commonly associated with amateurs is that the aptitude of the individual is significantly less than the professional.

And that's something for people to think about when they pay $5 or less for a game on Steam or mobile devices while complaining about how crappy games are today.
 
@Redbeard
Massively's WoW Insider does post news, but a lot of the opinion pieces boil down to how great WoW is.
Really? Last 6 months of WoW Insider the opinion pieces have been almost very negative about WoW with rants over why feature X is bad and story Y is terrible. The general Massively site tends to be much more balanced with articles talking about good aspects as well as ones that fit ill with the writer. At first I found that odd since the general Massively audience is generally more anti-WoW, but on second thoughts I think it is because the Massively looks for reasons to play games.
 
@Redbeard
Massively's WoW Insider does post news, but a lot of the opinion pieces boil down to how great WoW is.
Really? Last 6 months of WoW Insider the opinion pieces have been almost very negative about WoW with rants over why feature X is bad and story Y is terrible. The general Massively site tends to be much more balanced with articles talking about good aspects as well as ones that fit ill with the writer. At first I found that odd since the general Massively audience is generally more anti-WoW, but on second thoughts I think it is because the Massively looks for reasons to play games.
 
This is a great post Tobold both for highlighting yet again the hopelessness of working in the games industry and also for pointing out how utterly meaningless the whole "gamergate conspiracy" issue is.

As regards the "willing to work for free" thing: Can we at least cite this as evidence that computer games are indeed a form of Art? It seems to be a common feature of all forms of creative art: Books, Painting, Music etc.



 
@dobablo--

Okay, I went back and looked at the opinion pieces for WoW Insider to see whether there's a positive or negative bias.

I went back through to the beginning of July, and I threw out the articles that are mainly a) audience participation (WRUP, Breakfast Topic, The Queue, Around Azeroth, etc.); and b) are not pure news related (such as the beta/patch info, Hearthstone info, etc.).

The articles that were left were opinion pieces to varying degrees. Of them, the largest number (45%) were neutral in tone, 35% were positive in tone, and 20% were negative in tone. Admittedly, the majority of the positive toned opinion pieces were from one person, but still the overall tone of the place from the staff's POV is positive.

Now, the commenters, on the other hand....

 
Why would somebody make a website about one specific game and then do mostly negative reporting about it? Doesn't writing WoW Insider, and an audience of reading WoW Insider, presume a certain positive relation with WoW? As such I find 45% neutral, 35% positive, 20% negative to be very balanced for such a site.
 
I was actually quite surprised that it was as balanced as it was, because when you get within that month before and after Blizzcon, the "isn't this great!" stuff can get annoying. It's like watching tech sites yesterday when Apple was giving their presentation.

But still, as WoW subs have declined, people going to WoW Insider has declined as well. The WoW Insider crowd is only a subgroup of WoW players; of the guilds I was in, almost nobody bothered with WoW Insider at all, and more than one calling the place a "company shill." If you're disenchanted enough to no longer play the game, you're not going to want to hang around WoW:I.

 
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