Tobold's Blog
Sunday, January 28, 2024
Jobs in game development

Imagine that over the course of a year you were reading the following news about the car industry:
  1. Supply of new cars built outstrips demand
  2. Customers not happy with the quality of new cars
  3. Car companies lay off thousands of employees
You would probably be able to remember whatever basic economics you know and conclude that news number 3 is a direct consequence of news number 1 and 2. The laws of supply and demand apply. When there is a glut of production, and the overproduced goods aren't even very good, companies end up not selling all of their product. So they have to reduce production, which usually involves firing people. That is of course bad news for the people fired, but not especially malicious. It is just how the free market works.

Curiously people are unable to remember these basic economics when it comes to game development. There is definitively a glut of videogames, with Steam alone releasing 14, 532 games last year and breaking all records. 2023 was also full of stories where highly anticipated and major game releases ended up disappointing customers, or just got a very "meh" reception. But if you look at the video game news, most sources describe the resulting layoffs with a narrative in which evil managers, who were solely responsible for the bad quality of games, maliciously fire hardworking game developers, who aren't to blame for the quality of the games they produce at all. That is very unlikely to be true. Game companies fire employees simply because the economic numbers don't add up for keeping them. And if you are upset about a specific bug in a game, it probably wasn't a manager who put that bug there, even if he might have created an unhealthy work environment which in part explains the bugs.

I don't have a particularly high regard for game developers in general. Yes, there are obviously some good guys making great games. But there are also a lot of very snobbish game developers constantly hitting the news for bad-mouthing the competition on X/Twitter. Make a game that sells millions, and you'll get a wave of hate from the developers of other companies telling the world that they can't be expected to make a game as good / popular as that for various phony reasons.

I enjoy good games. But I have spent a large chunk of my life working in a large company, and I am very aware of the fact that in a big organisation the majority of employees are very small wheels in a very large machine. If you read that a game was developed by hundreds of people, only a handful of them is actually responsible for the major gameplay decisions that most strongly determine your enjoyment of the game. The majority of "game developers" don't develop games at all, they work all day on minor parts of the game, like the animation of characters for example. Yes, you'll notice if that guy did a particularly bad job and characters in the game walk funny, but you'll probably won't be able to spot the difference between him doing an okay job and him doing an excellent job. I find the work of very small indie teams developing a full game a lot more impressive than the work of employee number 473 on a triple-A title.

And let's be very clear about the future: The small indie teams will still be there tomorrow. The handful of people actually designing good games at big companies will still be there tomorrow. Employee 473 will be out of a job and be replaced by AI, because it turns out that AI can do his job as good as he did, and do it a lot cheaper and faster.

I think that once issues of ownership of source materials used to train AI models are resolved, the use of AI generation of assets for video games is a good thing. Earlier this year I was interested in a newly released indie game, Dominions 6; but I ended up not buying it, because it was just too ugly and the UI too clunky. Which is mostly due to it being developed by a company with just 2 people in it. Any indie game in which the small team doesn't by chance contain an incredibly talented artist would probably benefit from being able to generate the characters and the UI in their game by AI. A lot of indie roleplaying games would probably benefit from AI voice acting rather than having no voice acting at all.

I am not saying that all art should be produced by AI. I think that art by good artists will always be superior to what AI can produce, which will by definition always be mediocre. I think that motion capture will always produce superior animations than anything AI can do. I think that real voice actors will always sound better than AI voices. But AI art, AI animations, and AI voice acting isn't totally bad, it is mediocre. And mediocre is a step up for many games that can't even afford mediocre artists, and where the drawings are made by a guy who is good at programming, but terrible at drawing.

In the very large teams that produce triple-A games, a lot of the artwork *is* just mediocre, because you can't have a team of 500 highly talented people. Not every rock in every video game needs a highly talented artist to draw it. There are currently a lot of mediocre "artists" working on these assets, and if they get replaced by a mediocre AI, that will make game development cheaper and faster, without loss of quality. The really talented game designers and artists will always find work, and it is them who will make the really good stuff in the really great games. But if most of the 14,532 games released on Steam last year feel like shovelware, the people making that crap can't really claim that we would lose something if they were to be replaced by AI.

We have been living in a world in which humans have been replaced by machines that can do repetitive jobs better than they do for over 200 years. It turns out that this is a good thing, because it frees up that human to do something more productive, something that a machine can't do as easily. I am sure that the luddite weavers who tried to destroy textile machines 200 years ago had the same feeling, of them being absolutely necessary and being able to weave better than a machine, as the game developers today raging against AI have. It turns out that there are still handwoven items sold today, at very high prices, made by very good weavers. The machines just replace the mediocre workers making the low quality stuff that doesn't need the highly skilled workers. And the replacement of workers by machines benefits the customers. And while the transition is initially hard, it ultimately also benefits the workers, with the average jobs today being a lot more comfortable than that of an 18th century weaver.

Great logical and concise summary of the problem and most likely outcome. Which of course means it will immediately be disregarded and you will be attacked as a patriarchal misogynistic neuro-normative capitalist tool by the millenials and Zers that dominate online culture.

They will figure it out eventually but unfortunately will wreak a lot of lives in unproductive attempts to stop progress as we have seen with every great technological leap.
Tobold: "Curiously people are unable to remember these basic economics when it comes to game development."

I'm not always sure if people know about that in the first place...

"The machines just replace the mediocre workers making the low quality stuff that doesn't need the highly skilled workers."

One angle here is that if you extrapolate from this and say ALL mediocre work is covered by machines, where do the mediocre workers go? Since they can't go up, their only way is down to the work that isn't covered by machines due to cost or effort.
So you have a large part of the population in those jobs, then a gap for the machines and then high skill jobs. There you have quite the potential for tensions and I don't think the jobs being more comfortable than 18th century weaving will make up for it.
I think many people are overestimating just how much AI tools can "automate" game creation. We've already had things like procedural generation for years and the lesson that has taught us is that skilled workers are still needed to make that content good. I believe the exact same thing will happen with Ai toolsets.

Ai tools are indeed the future but just like how machines created a slew of new jobs to service and operate them Ai tools will do the same.

I'm already using Ai tools to help me code at my current job and I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years all programmers are expected to be proficient at prompt writing and AI assist tools. Same with artists and other jobs. Ai tools will simply be another tool in the bucket.
Good article. It is indeed difficult for those who lose their jobs, I've experienced it first hand so my heart goes out to them. But ultimately it is like you say, economics. If your contributions are not valuable enough to your company, you find somewhere else to work, or something else to do where they are. Don't give up, and don't cast blame, it won't help. Take ownership of your life, and keep moving forward.
You make talk about the evil manager and the blameless employee in a way that makes it clear that you don't think this is a reasonable interpretation of what happens in these massive corporations, but then you talk about how no employee is especially meaningful to the whole because they're all cogs in a machine... A machine run and directed by management. Do you not see the dissonance there?

You're absolutely right that no particular employee or developer is "responsible" for a game bombing, but you're letting management off the hook, executive management in particular. The Chief Monetization Officer is absolutely a scourge on modern game design, as they direct dozens or even hundreds of developers' work to ensure it is more capable of extracting consumer surplus from you through lootboxes or gacha mechanics. The decision to reduce workforce may not have malice, but that's only in a vacuum. The executives who are responsible for the binary boom-or-bust outcomes, who prioritize design and fun-per-hour behind exploitative monetization, or otherwise make the decisions that constrain development into the gutter do so with, if not malice, something sufficiently close to it. And the resulting workforce reductions are collateral damage of those careless or malicious decisions.
There is a strong tendency with people to paint stories in black and white, to assign labels like “victims” and “oppressors” to the groups in any story. The reality is never that way. Reality is nearly always a story where the responsibility for anything is shared between many people.

I don’t let management off the hook. I am very well aware that they are responsible for bad working conditions in the industry and features like monetization. I just don’t let employees off the hook either. What generally happens, in all industries in which working conditions are suboptimal, is that employees either leave or “silent quit”: That is to say they stop believing in what they are doing, and just show up for the monthly paycheck. They lost their passion, and simply don’t care anymore. And in the case of programmers, working that way is likely to produce various bugs.

Have you read the story how Suicide Squad was giving players who bought the premium edition of the game a few days of early access, but then there was a bug that gave newly logged in players a 100% story completion and spoiled much of the story? They had to shut down the servers for 12 hours to fix that, which meant that people didn’t get as much advance start as they had paid for. You need to do some real strange mental gymnastics to claim that management was 100% responsible for that problem, and no employee is at fault in any way for this.
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