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CHECK YOUR PEOPLE

Filed in Developers' diary by Dan @ 3:08 pm UTC Mar 19, 2012

HOW TO MAKE CALL OF DUTY KILLER FOR LESS

So, how many people do you need to make a triple-A game? In the last century it was anywhere from one nerd, to “big” teams of 15 to 30 pizza-eating individuals in a garage. I remember my reaction, when I saw Daley Thompson’s Olympic Challenge for Atari ST, back in the days when games were made by two people – a programmer and the guy who did everything else – while Daley was done by a team of five and the graphics were completely digitized. My first thing thought was: “Oh boy, nobody needs artists anymore, the good old days are gone...”

Screenshot from Daley Thompson’s Olympic Challenge, a high-budget, AAA, blockbuster hit from 1988

Luckily, I was very wrong. At the time.

A few years later, during high school, I worked on an Eye of the Beholder like game. It was just me and two coders. Later we worked on an Elder Scrolls Arena clone. The programmer was 14 years old, and did awesome work on the engine side. Neither game was ever finished, we were just naive students with zero funding, working on them in our spare time, but even the big games were developed by just a few people in those days. Just look at the credits – Doom was developed by ten people, the first Elder Scrolls or Duke Nukem 3D by 15 developers and those were the biggest games.

These were the days I started in the games industry. I didn’t like the change from small garage teams to big professional software houses. But I didn’t have a clue just how wrong my definition of “big professional software house” was. If only I knew what was to come...

Later, I worked on a big open world multiplatform 3D game, one of the first of its kind. A huge project that combined several genres in one and had an insane amount of assets, game mechanisms and everything. We were making a racing game, adventure game, shooter and extremely long animated movie at the same time. We were developing all of the technology as we went along, the team members were around 21 years old on average. But we were still able to do it within a very reasonable budget and less than 30 core developers. These were the good old days.

THE WORLD GONE MAD

Today, the world has gone crazy. Even simple short linear games are developed by hundreds of people and sometimes I really don’t have a clue what all these people are doing. You simply don’t need 300 people and 60 million dollars to make a 5 hour long corridor shooter with 5 types of weapons and 10 levels with established technology.

I know people who worked on some famous franchises. When you ask them what their work on the game was, they usually answer: “Minigun for the second level boss and enemy soldiers in red shirt and blue shirt.” After several months of work! That’s an example of the modern games industry’s “efficiency”. The worst thing about it is that while working on those three models that would normally take two weeks to finish they were constantly crunching.

Last year I received a proposal to work for one of the biggest publishers as a writer on a big franchise. They asked me what exactly I’d done in the past and so I answered that I wrote most of the game design, mission design, complete story, most of the dialogues plus I also designed controls and parts of the GUI and HUD. Of course I mentioned that I worked with other people, but I did all that stuff mostly myself. There was a moment of silence on the other side, and I believe I overheard coughing as well. ”Ehhh... We have a team of thirty people for that, sir. You would be one of them, working together with our creative director, producer, lead designer, lead level designer and lead writer.” Shit. What are all those people, plus 20 writers under them, doing on the design of a linear FPS shooter? A script for a two hour movie has 120 pages. At the speed of three pages a day I can write it in two months and rewrite it completely 6 times within a year. Who the hell needs a team of several writers to write ingame dialogues (which are usually tragically crappy anyway)? I mean what was the last game you finished and said to yourself – wow, this was a pretty damn good story.

Did we really get to the point, when there is a manager for every person that is actually doing something useful? In some companies, two artists sitting next to each other could not talk directly about their work, they need to ask their dev manager to communicate on their behalf. WTF?

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

This is how games are made today and also answers the question why they are developed by so many people. Yes, graphics and animations are getting more and more complex and you need more people to work on them, so it costs more money, but not that much. And yes, some of the games are so big, that they must be made by hundreds of people, but most of today’s development is just wrong. Fifteen years ago, when you needed to model a wooden box, it was just a box with a very small texture. Today it could have thousands of polygons and several huge textures and normal maps. But... Fifteen years ago, there was no Google, ZBrush, digital cameras, CGtextures, Crazybump, 30 inch diplays or Cintiq tablets. When you needed a texture for a medieval wooden box, you had to pick your ass up from the chair, go to a museum, buy a ticket, take a picture with your analog camera, send it to a minilab, wait a day and then scan it, or draw it with your mouse (Hell yeah a DAMN MOUSE!) in Photoshop 4. Today, it took me exactly two minutes to Google for perfect pictures of medieval chests that could be used as reference and for textures. Now think twice before you tell me, that making games is more complicated today.

The author’s early attempt to create a Skyrim killer

Design is also pretty much the same, if not in fact actually a little simpler. When was the last time you played a game with such mechanics as Ultima 7, Ultima Underworld or Jagged Alliance 2? There is absolutely no need for thirty writers when you need to write 30 minutes of cut scenes and an hour of in-game dialogues, especially when most of them are: “I need more ammo... Arrrgh....” That would be one writer for three minutes of dialogues!

DESIGN BY COMMITTEE

The problems lies in the corporate structure of gaming companies, lack of personal responsibility, collective decision making and incompetence. In the movie industry, producers, who understand movies, are constantly looking for new screenplays and when they find something they like, they put together the team of director, writer and other key people and ask the studio for the money. If the studio likes the project, they give them money and also some creative freedom. There is a huge risk in that, and also a lot of personal responsibility, but at the end, there is a team of creative people working on something they want to do, so there is a good chance it will be great.

Harry Potter is huge and a very expensive project, but it was directed by one director, written by one screenwriter and based on a book written by one writer. Not a department of fifty people, directed by a board of executives, sitting behind the screenwriter and telling him what to do. If it was a game, it would never get made and J.K.Rowling could never keep the rights for the title if she was a game designer. She would be replaced with somebody less stubborn and cheaper for the sequel at the first opportunity and the sequel would be utter crap.

THE AMAZING STORY OF STEVE AND JOHN, THE EXECUTIVES

This is how the gaming industry works: One beautiful morning, shareholders of the company wake up and when they turn on their TVs, they see a report on CNN, that the new Call of Duty game is the “best selling shit evah”. They all call the CEO of their company – Steve – a former CEO of a famous shoe maker and ask: “How is it possible, that we don’t have our own super successful FPS franchise? You don’t want to go back to the shoe industry Steve, do you? And by the way, what does FPS mean?”

Steve is pissed off and calls his director of development: “Hey John we need to release a Call of Duty killer next year. Make me one, buy me one... I don’t know... Do something and do it quick. Here is three hundred million; that should be enough. It can’t go wrong if we throw that much money at it.”

John who never plays games, because he says he needs to keep distance, to make the right decisions, asks his assistant, who is the only person in the building with some understanding of games: “Hey Bill, we are going to make a Call of Duty killa, any ideas?” Bill has some ideas, he knows some people who pitched their FPS games to the company (unsuccessfully), so he starts to negotiate with them.

In the meantime, John decides that he should try to play this game they are going to copy. His other assistant installs it on his PC and John starts to play the tutorial. “Damn! This game is so complicated, that even such a clever person like me can’t get into it! And why the hell am I not killing anyone after five minutes? This is supposed to be a shooter, isn’t it? I bet that if they made it more accessible, they would sell a few hundred million more copies... Damn, I’m smart. That’s a brilliant idea! Now let’s get back to online poker.”

In the meantime, Bill convinces one of the best FPS studios with the famous designer Tom to work on the game. They pitch their project to John. He plays Angry Birds during the presentation and has a speech at the end: “Great job guys, I know you put a lot of effort into it, but we here want to make something special, and we know how to make something special. I was a producer of Lord of the Kings. It was utter crap, but I told them how to fix it and it sold like crazy. I saved it. So let me tell you my genius idea. Those other games are too complicated. Our game is about shooting. We don’t need the other boring stuff like reloading. I want the game to be accessible by anyone, even my grandma. I want my grandma to experience the best shooting she ever had!”

The team looks stunned. Tom tries to raise few questions, but John silences him: “Man, you have to trust me. Those guys at Lord of the Kings also had doubts, but I know what I am doing. That’s instinct. And BTW, we need to ship in 11 months, that’s the end of our fiscal year. So hurry up, we don’t have much time!”

After the crushed developers are gone, John gets little bit nervous. “You know Bill, that Tom guy... I don’t really like him that much. Is he really that good?” “Yes boss, he is the best we could get. He did BOOM. It sold 30 million copies. People love him.” “Well, that doesn’t make him special. Lord of the Kings sold 40 and I also worked on that other game with balls... what was it called? It sold 30 as well. I have instinct, and it tells me that I don’t trust this guy. What if he screws up?” “But boss, their ideas are brilliant. You just heard it.” “Yeah I heard it... more or less.... But we need to make sure that he doesn’t screw up. We will put somebody on his ass. Hire some producer... I have friend at Pepsi who is bored, call him... and what about the story?” “They have their own writer. He was nominated for a BAFTA two times.” “BAFTA what? We can’t make Call of Duty killa with some nerd. Hire someone from Hollywood! No. Hire two. Two is better than one. And I want to make sure, that the game mechanics for shooting are gonna be great. We need a shooting director for my game.” “Yes boss.” “And you know what? We need to look like we really mean it. Shareholders like that. Are those idiots who were just here really good?” “Yes boss.” “Ok, so let’s buy them. That will look cool. And that idiot who thinks his ideas are better than mine will shut up for a while.”

The results are obvious. You have a task for one person, but because somebody is unable to take personal responsibility, you have several people to do that task, because it feels safe. It’s not safe. In fact it’s disastrous. Most of the time, those people will be fighting each other, duplicating their work and protecting their asses. They will hardly produce anything special or try something risky. The fact, that very often, their assignment will change, just because John or Steve changed their minds, which is happening all the time and usually scratches all progress that was made, is also not very helpful. After some time, most talented people leave and all you have is an empty shell of a once famous company and hyper expensive rip-off of some other game. At the end, when the project fails, no one is personally responsible. It failed “because the market is changing” or the team “wasn’t good enough”. So the team is laid off and Steve and John are perfectly safe. If it’s successful for some miraculous reason, and against all Steve’s and John’s “great ideas” and experiments, Steve and John get all the glory (and Ferraris and blow jobs) and the team is restructured (laid off) anyway.

DEVELOPER’S DIARY AT LAST

But let’s get back to us, because this is supposed to be a developers’ diary. I was writing all this just so you could understand our philosophy. Games are a little bit more complicated than before, but the reason why they are so expensive is because they are made the wrong way.

You need to have a clear vision for the project you are going to make, you need to have the right people for the right jobs and most importantly you need to avoid idiots. That last part is very hard. But if you manage to do it, you should end up with better work, with less people, fewer problems and for less money.

We are a small team. Currently we have 19 people working for us for the preproduction phase of the project. We plan to at least double this number as the project will move into full production. But our plan is to keep it as low as possible. Instead of trying to make the game by brute force, we want to make it by clever decisions and perfect bulletproof design. One Special Forces member is better than a unit of cannon fodder. Yes, it isn’t easy to assemble a Special Forces team. We had to make compromises. Some people I would love to work with are not available, we had to bet on some younger, less experienced but talented people, but that’s life and I strongly believe, we can and will make it!

That is our philosophy. I know that it’s risky and I know, that every Steve and John out there will laugh at me if we fail. But I believe that it’s still worth the try.

Dan Vavra, Creative Director

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