The Myth of the Poor Developer

Image from kavistechnology.com/blog

Almost every other week you read sad stories of studios closing down and talented people losing their jobs. This is a great tragedy within the modern games industry that is evolving faster than you can say, “What’s your business model?”.  With retail sales, subscriptions, 99 cent downloads and free to play the market has a plethora of choices on how to monetize a product and more often than not companies will fail in trying to figure it out. There will be a lot more failures before there are successes unless there’s a shift in thinking, especially in the development side of the business.

Much like in the music industry where the record company is always the bad guy and the bands are the cool creative ones, the same applies in games. Publishers are the money hungry corporate vultures that don’t understand gamers while the developers are the downtrodden and beaten stepchild that’s lucky to get a pay check. Mmhhh, not quite… there are in fact quite a few developers that are extremely well funded either through private investment or publisher backed money. Development studios aren’t poor, they’re just really expensive to run and in certain cases not run effectively.

I know developers that have signed up publishers with no intention of ever delivering a real milestone and strung them along for a almost a year taking 160,000 a month for ‘concepting’. I’ve witnessed games being developed for 5+ years with development teams of over 250 people that are released and tank, I know of studios that haven’t shipped a successful product for 7 years that get bought for 50 million dollars, I worked with a studio that bought their team of 300 an ipad for Christmas – which would be cool if they weren’t 2 years behind schedule. The list goes on but I don’t want to sound like I am ranting. Or actually I do! Not just to rant though – my point is this: There are some accepted losses that come with developing a product but these losses have crept up exponentially over the last four or five years. Look at the Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s rumored to have cost over 80m USD already, and that’s just pure development before any marketing or server infrastructure. These type of development costs set the ROI bar very high and put a lot of pressure on a publishing org. to turn a profit. If you’re starting 80m down that’s quite a large forecast you need to make up.

There needs to be more control and accountability on the part of developers, at all levels: financial, studio management and individual contributors. Not to be mean and controlling but to stop developers working on something for years only to go bust three months post-launch ala APB (All Points Bulletin). Imagine a marketing director is over budget 2 months in a row he’d be looking for a new job, right? Let alone going over budget for 2 years. So why is it okay for this to happen in a development setting and not anywhere else? It seems that development has become an accepted black hole, and the longer it remains that way the more damage it will cause and more good studios will close. So what are the solutions? This is something that’s not going to change overnight, but here are a few basic suggestions:

1) Stop throwing good money after bad. If the game is bad 3 years in, it’s going to be bad 5 years in. Cut your losses earlier and walk away.

2) Don’t be afraid to not launch. Sure you just spent an arm and leg to get this title to gold master and the main investor put his island in the Caribbean down as collateral but launching is going to cost you even more, and a negative critical reception of a below par product could jeopardize future launches.

3) Make milestones mean something. If a project is a year behind schedule then why have milestones in the first place? Stick to the schedule and if that’s not possible seriously evaluate if it’s financially viable to continue rather than pour more money in blindly.

4) Take individual responsibility at every level. So if you’re on a team that is several years behind and you’re watching Family Guy on your ipad while munching your free lunch in the pool room maybe think about where all that money is coming from and what you can contribute to making this work. Every individual at every level can contribute to changing the mind set of what’s okay and what isn’t.

5) Work with the publishing teams and not against them. Believe it or not all either of you want is to make your product a success. I’ve seen a lot of products stumble due to petty politics. Cut it out and get it done.

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