Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Taking the fun out of making video games

Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick likes to see his name and his words reported all over the internet. To achieve that he uses the same old tactics as every other internet troll, making deliberately outrageous statements designed to make everybody angry enough to comment. Works like a charm, after every interview he gives his words are quoted on every major gaming site, many blogs, he even quite often gets a dedicated Penny Arcade cartoon, the works. The problem with that is again one common to every other internet troll: Everybody reports the outrageous statements, but nobody actually discusses them. They are outrageous! We all agree that there isn't a bit of truth in them! Or don't we?

Look at his latest comments about creating a "culture of thrift" and his goal "to take all the fun out of making video games", talking of "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" obviously sounds just like the place nobody would want to work at, and so a lot of game developers are bringing out the torches and pitchforks. But as a player I have to ask myself: Is the ultimate goal of a video game company that the DEVELOPERS are having fun making video games?

How often you as a player ended up angry with a video game, because the developers had too much fun making that game, and forgot the decidedly unfun activities of quality control and bug fixing? How many players complain about MMORPGs because some developer was allowed too much freedom, and favored his preferred class or mode of gameplay, making the game unbalanced for everyone else?

If Robert Kotick had a better sense of public relations, he might have expressed the same sentiments in far better words, which probably wouldn't have been reported that much, but would have found more people agreeing with them. Instead of "taking the fun out of making video games" he could have talked about the importance of being professional when making video games, having a good overall project management, business process, and quality control. Instead of saying "We are very good at keeping people focused on the deep depression", he could have explained how important it is for a video game company to still be around tomorrow, which only works if money isn't wasted, and quality games are produced.

In the end the video game industry isn't any different than any other industry. Companies need to make a profit, and for that they need to produce quality goods which people are willing to buy. If the *customers* are having fun *playing* video games, the video game company will be a success, and will be able to offer stable and well-paid job to game developers. That way everybody wins, players, developers, CEOs, and shareholders.
That way everybody wins, players, developers, CEOs, and shareholders.

If I worked in an athmosphere of fear I didn't have any fun and certainly didn't feel like winning.

I support this comment by ldonyetich:

The world is a place that seems much more comfortable when you can put it in a convenient conceptual box. When you’re a manager, and your focus is on the people you manage, it’s an natural tendency to want to put the people in conceptual boxes as well. He patting himself on the back for harnessing the power of the recession to motivate his employees, remaining fairly ignorant that his employees likely found ways to motivate themselves and all his policies are doing is adding another difficulty for them to circumnavigate.

His line about using video game IP to 'exploit' year to year makes this clown the 'Wall Street' CEO of video games companies.

And that is pretty much why he is setting himself up for a fall. Where the hell did he get his MBA.....hell?
But as a player I have to ask myself: Is the ultimate goal of a video game company that the DEVELOPERS are having fun making video games?

How often you as a player ended up angry with a video game, because the developers had too much fun making that game, and forgot the decidedly unfun activities of quality control and bug fixing? How many players complain about MMORPGs because some developer was allowed too much freedom, and favored his preferred class or mode of gameplay, making the game unbalanced for everyone else?

In my opinion you have to look at this the other way round:

The goal of management should always be that the developers have fun. They should however, have fun although the activities that need to be done are not that much fun.

QM has to be done and it often isn't a lot of fun. There is nothing to gain by actively trying to make it even less fun. Instead the management should try to make it as much fun as is possible, without making the QM process less effective.

Fact is that with this kind of statement he will have quite some problems to acquire the most talented people of the industry in the future.
As harmful as such a philosophy of management already is, the public statement about it is at least as harmful. And it does harm the picture I, as a consumer, have about Activision/Blizzard to a degree that no level of advertisement can compensate.
@ Ironhalo's link:

It's over and over the same mistake. For example well described by John Kay:

[..]What is true of forests is equally true of businesses. The great corporations of the modern world were not built by people whose overriding interest was wealth, profit, or shareholder value. To paraphrase Mill: their focus was on business followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they found profit by the way.

This is how Hewlett Packard described it: "Profit is a cornerstone of what we do... but it has never been the point in and of itself. The point, in fact, is to win, and winning is judged in the eyes of the customer and by doing something you can be proud of."

If you want to code a great MMO you need to try to code a great MMO. Many people will fail but eventually somebody will succed.

If you try to produce mediocre games, focusing on what worked in the past and nothing else you will fail. Usually after your announcements caused your shares to make a jump upwards for a very short time.

Now, that doesn't mean that one should not copy what worked in the past. But if one does that without understanding why the copied stuff is good it is a grave mistake.

Contrary to public opinion WoW did not only copy. They copied what worked, polished it and often were quite creative. They looked at the competition as a lesson, not as a guide that one needs to follow no matter what. That's actually what the competition does right now and .. they fail.

Considering the fact that Blizzards next MMO will not be based on an estabilished franchise, but on a new one, there's hope that these stupid ideas did indeed not enter Blizzard Entertainment - yet.
As a professional developer, the problem isn't that the developers are having "too much fun" to make a good game. The rude wakeup call for a lot of people looking to get into the game industry is that making games is not like playing games. In fact, many game developers find themselves playing less games for various reasons.

Let me take the example you used where developers "forgot the decidedly unfun activities of quality control and bug fixing". First, the developers are usually not in charge of QA. In developing a game for a publisher like Activision Blizzard, the publisher would often ultimately be responsible for testing the game to ensure bugs are identified and reported. Even if QA testing is done in-house at the developer company, the fun-loving programmers are not the same ones doing the testing. Plus, the main reason why bugs remain unfixed is because the publisher decided to ship the game before the bugs were fixed. Guess who sets the ship date? Hint: not the developers "having too much fun".

Ultimately, it's thinking like Mr. Kotick's that cause the problems you wrote about. They think: it's not important to fix every bug, you just ship it now then make the developer patch it later; the spreadsheet shows that the increase in sales from shipping at the right time will make up for lost sales once people find out the game is a buggy piece of crap. Trust me, it's not developers making these types of decisions.
Come on Tobold, you don't HAVE to take the opposite view every time.

Bobby Kotick represents everything that is bad about this industry. Otherwise great, innovative and creative games that get shelved because "they're not marketably exploitable enough."

Creative people working in a miserable environment where their ideas get squashed by some suit because he feels it won't make him as much money as cloning the latest craze.

Anyone who gets remotely off the starting block in game development is very well aware that making games is not just a big party. We're adults, we get it. If we don't get it, we never make it more than a few months.

We do however still do this job out of passion. Passion is a very large part of what creates good games. If you kill people's passion, you end up with regurgitated, soulless schlock, that might sell, but is horrible for the actual industry.

People don't discuss the nuances of Bobby Kotick's drivel because the man is a horse's ass.
If they want to stop the developers from having fun, maybe they could hire actual testers to play the game?-)
Developers should have fun creating a game. How else can you make a good game?

But you can't always have fun. Bug fixes have to get priority. But I'd say that's only normal as you put them in in the first place. They should have fun but shouldn't ignore their duties either.
I can't say how much fun the respective developers had, but I can say that there have been far to many game development studios that went under in the last decade. Companies that reliably produce hits of high quality, and thus constant profits, are few and far between. And those companies that are profitable have good management, not just good developers. I also know that developers *always* blame management when they produced a bad game, and claim the fame for themselves when they produced a good game. I'd say the responsability is a shared one in either case.

People don't discuss the nuances of Bobby Kotick's drivel because the man is a horse's ass.

Which would be okay if he was lets say just a blogger. But as he is the CEO of one of the world's biggest video game companies, he will be kind of hard to ignore.
Am I the only one that feels that this Mr. Kotick appears to have been grossly misquoted?

He clearly didn't say that he wants to instill fear as part of Activision Blizzard's corporate culture – the fear he mentioned was fear of the economic downturn. That seems perfectly reasonable, doesn't it?

And like Tobold has also said many times, all other things being equal, it seems obvious that a well-managed company would do better in the long term than a poorly run company. Thrift is certainly not something that strikes me as obviuosly bad. Sure, it would be lots of fun if every employee were given a snowboard and a three-week paid vacation to Mammoth Mountain every year, but it all sounds a bit dot com.

Tobold, you say that he could have used far better words to express his sentiments, but is it not possible that Gamespot (not a media outlet most renowned for their objective reporting, if I am correctly informed) skewed the facts a bit?

Ultimately, a company where the employees hate getting up to bed and going to work every morning is not a well-run company. Someone else put it best, I think: there is a difference between having fun at work doing your work and having fun playing the game that is the result of that work. There is nothing to say that two different kinds of fun are not compatible.
This guy clearly loves the attention, and he's setting himself up for a big fall.

= # # =
As a professional developer, you don't want your #1 goal to be developers having fun. However, at the same time, you can't say that you want a culture of fear, depression and unease; such a situation kills team morale, and the quality of work that results is often lower than what a happy, motivated employee produces. We're not robots, developer output is affected by our mental state.

That's rather the point - people who are interested, passionate and dedicated will go the extra mile and put out higher quality work than those who view it as a 9-5 (or, in many cases, 9-9, 9-10, 9-12). The attitude of 'don't make it fun, make it done' that's often so prevalent leads to more software, faster developed software, but ultimately lower quality software.

Games are different than normal software because games aren't measured on an on/off basis. Normal software is either functional or it isn't. Games don't win awards for being functional. They don't become popular because they are bug-free. They are measured on a separate metric - they must be fun.

It looks like Bobby Kotick views game development like normal software development. Maybe he is right, and that we've all been doing it wrong this entire time. But that's from a hugely top-down view. In spite of what Kotick says, the folks at Neversoft, Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Blizzard (ATVI's largest earning studios) are all extremely passionate about what they do. I know this because I know them personally, being a former employee myself.

You realise you are defeding a man committed to stifling creativity right? He may be a troll, but his actions speak louder than his words.

He's milked every drop from Guitar Hero and is still trying to beat it for more cash multiple times a year.

He's realised that Modern Warfare 2 will be a MASSIVE selling game and pushed the price up in anticipation of screwing the loyal fans of the series who are day one buyers.

Commited to stopping piracy on the PC he's also pushed for a price increase on Activisions PC titles??

Under his rule, Activision dropped Brutal Legend (great looking fresh IP) and Ghostbusters in favour of Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot... and when it looked like Brutal Legend would actually do ok, they tried to sue Double Fine to block the release of the game in some bullshit "if we wont put it out, no-one will!" move that thankfully didn't work out for them.

He is quoted as saying Activision is not interested in games if they;

“don’t have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million franchises”

They now refuse to take chances bringing anything fresh to the table and instead rehash old concepts for the idiot masses. It might sell, but they are doing nothing for gaming but holding it back and stagnating the market with refuse while dropping support for original ideas.

Where the hell was Activision before Harmonix dropped the cash cow known as Guitar Hero in their laps? Then he has the balls to accuse Rock Band of being a shoddy knock off of Guitar Hero?? Despite Neversoft cranking out shoddy cash-in's like the GH: Aerosmith game. Even CoD was pretty mediocre till Infinity Ward pushed Modern Warfare out the door.

Kotick is the worst thing to happen to gaming in a long time and the sooner people start buying Activsion games from the pre-owned bin, the quicker the shareholders might realise this dick is hurting the company image every time he opens his mouth.

The guy is a PR disaster, the only thing saving him is the fact that CoD and GH are selling so well.
"I can't say how much fun the respective developers had, but I can say that there have been far to many game development studios that went under in the last decade. Companies that reliably produce hits of high quality, and thus constant profits, are few and far between."

Damn, good thing that kind of issue is only related to the videogame industry. Can you image what would happen if most small startup companies in any industry failed in their first year? Oh wait, that's EXACTLY what happens in EVERY industry. Shocking that it happens in the videogame industry though, one that is hit driven and what makes a game a hit is often more about timing and luck than actual quality.

And whether it's videogame dev or tax reports, any business will want to keep it's employees happy and motivated rather than in constant fear. I'm fairly sure if a QA worker likes his company, he might try a little harder to fully test something than if he just does what is needed to not get fired.
You realise you are defeding a man committed to stifling creativity right?

I'll assume you mean "defending". And no, I'm not doing that. I just think that in general it is much better to engage with ideas and discuss arguments, and not just fall into patterns of prejudice and hate. If you would actually read what I wrote, instead of just exploding, you'd see that I called him a troll, and fully agree with your assessment of him as a "PR disaster".

But there is a big difference between blaming him for saying unpleasant things out loud, and blaming him for those unpleasant things. Bobby Kotick is certainly not the inventor of the concept of "exploiting every year on every platform with clear sequel potential". In fact that is more or less the trademark of his main competition, EA.

And just because you wish him to fall doesn't mean that he is likely to disappear in the forseeable future. Which means that he will have an influence on Activision Blizzard games for some time to come. Listening to what any CEO says is an important tool for analysts to predict the future. You might not like what he says, but listening to him tells you about the possibility that Diablo III will cost $60 and the next Blizzard MMO will have a $20 monthly fee.
This also explains why Star Craft II is being split into three parts. Explains it to a T.

= # # =
Some psycho analysis of Tobold:
There was this thought that writing a more controversial version would attract more comments...

I don't blame you. Just don't overdo it :)
As a developer (albeit, not a video game developer), all I have to say is that, like any job, it's work. You get paid to do work because work sucks sometimes. If work was fun all the time, it wouldn't be work, and nobody would pay you to do it.

I have never understood why video game developers and other so-called "rock star" or "spot light" developers feel that they are a cut above the rest of the industry. Yes, it is more challenging work that requires more hours than the average, so "spot light" developers need to have some perks over the rest of us to compensate for that. However, even if you are a video game developer, work is work, and work sucks sometimes....
But as a player I have to ask myself: Is the ultimate goal of a video game company that the DEVELOPERS are having fun making video games?

Have you ever seen any truly remarkable product not made by someone that enjoyed thier job? If what you are doing is not fun then it is tedius. Do you want games made by developers in sweat shops being "whipped" to produce set goals that don't excite them?

good luck having any fun in that game.

That being said from what I"ve heard from friends who work at game companies,there is a lot of room to improve project management and basic business practices. I'm not saying they can't be more efficient but too much efficiency tends to suck the soul out of art and games are artistic. And we've seen a couple of years of souless games now.
Allen writes above: "I have never understood why video game developers and other so-called "rock star" or "spot light" developers feel that they are a cut above the rest of the industry."

Working in game development in a high-tech hub where I know a smattering of people in non-game jobs, the reasons seem to be:
* higher bar to entry / tougher interview process
* worse hours
* lower pay

The time most places put into hiring candidates here is comparable to university faculty hiring; for comparison, about 4x the effort the local pharmaceutical industry spends on hiring statisticians or the local universities spend on hiring their IT staff. All development jobs have spiky hours, but game dev seems to have longer, and sometimes also more intense, spikes. The pay scale is 20% or more lower than what the same people would get at non-game firms.

Caveat: there are some game shops around here that are less selective than other industries, but they also have worse working conditions than typical even for game companies, such that the average tenure of an employee is < 2 years.
There's nothing wrong with wanting a development team to be professional and well managed, but removing "fun" from the development process of video games is a bad idea. You want the people trying to create a fun product to have fun doing so -- it inspires creative ideas and keeps the developers focused on fun. If you have fun making the game, the game has a better chance of being fun itself.

If instead you stifle fun and creativity in the creative process, you end up with soulless annual clones of previous games that are cranked out by people who are just there to do a job, get it done, and then go home and not think about it anymore.

Oh . . . wait . . .
After seeing the statement and reading all the comments I would like to point out that not all companies are Blizzard. You can tell when you play a Blizzard game that the people involved with it are dedicated to making the game fun to play. Seriously, when is the last time that you played a bad Blizzard game? I don't think they are having trouble engaging with their product (though their CEO is a different story)

But as I said, not every company is Blizzard. Look at all the shovelware that comes out every year. We tend to gloss this over because most of the people who read blogs like this keep up to date on gaming news and the "good" releases coming out. If you look at the release calender for any month you will see that you probably just ignored 50% of the games that are going to be released.

Could all this shovelware be caused by situations where the employees aren't allowed to have fun with the game? I don't know, but it is something to think about.
What irked me wasn't so much the "developers shouldn't have fun while working" quote (which essentially plays into the stereotype that most game developers do nothing but play WoW all day) as the "thanks to the poor economy, we can keep our employees productive through pessimism about their future and terror that they may be laid off" quote.

There is no context that justifies that. There isn't even the spectre of cost cutting due to a poor economy (Kotick cashed out over $100m in stock last year). It purely is management via fear, and it's a subjectively cruel and objectively ineffective method to motivate your staff.

I have zero desire to work in such an environment, ever. I am not alone.
"How often you as a player ended up angry with a video game, because the developers had too much fun making that game, and forgot the decidedly unfun activities of quality control and bug fixing?"

Um, never? (In fact I can't recall ever being "angry" about a video game. I'd really start to worry about my mental health if that happened).

Played a few where it was obvious that no-one involved in the design was really interested, though. But not for long.
I agree, though I feel I should point out that computer games, like movies, are also a medium that some people use for self expression. Easy example: the creativity in Blizzard's art style in the visual aspects of WoW.

This leads to a certain level of conflict between the need to make money, and the want for self expression. In hollywood, the most successful directors and producers are the ones who balance the two. And we're better off for it. It would be possible for hollywood to make nothing but special effects blockbusters, like the Transformers movies. But we wouldn't be very happy about that.

Similarly, the games industry could do nothing but make games that are simply technology upgrades on previous games, like Doom III. But we wouldn't be very happy if that was the only option. Similarly, Blizzard may be the most successful company, but they got there by learning from the failures of all those creative people.

I suppose what I'm saying is that regardless of making money, it's those creative failures, where developers had more fun being creative than actually making a finished product, that drive innovation in the games industry.
Honestly I sort of agree with this D bag. I mean I have alot of fun at work, and it doesn't make me more productive. In fact in alot of ways it makes me less productive.

While you should never work in fear, you have to understand that it is still work. If it was fun they wouldn't call it work.

As always I take a middle line approach. Workers should be happy and comfortable but they don't need to have fun.
That news confused me very much. I can no longer find the full quote, but there was a part of it where I had the feeling that this guy is openly insulting gamers.
I can't believe someone out there is dumb to an extend where he says IN PUBLIC: "Yeah, working for me sucks and we laugh at the people buying our products every day".

I can't think of a way how that quote could mean something entirely else and was just taken out of context. Maybe he had a nervous breakdown? Still don't believe the stupidity..
That's like taking passion and love out of arts or architecture.

The results can be seen in the citys of eastern Europe and Russia, where huge consecrate blocks rule the scenery ... and of course near your local "games-dealer" where "Kong Dong's Fishing Challenge Part 17" and its clones rules supreme!

Talks about some things that are pertinent to this discussion.

It talks about how to motivate people to do creative stuff(like making games) and how cash incentives/putting the fear in them about job security does not work to increase creativity.
So either Kotick is just pleasing the investors or Activision is gonna go bust... due to crappy games generating crappy sales/killing reputation. :-/
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