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Game Developers as Chefs

Estebon had an interesting comment on my prior Entitlement Culture post, in defense of the experts:

There is, unfortunately, a general zeitgeist of mistrust toward expertise in the world today, which has bled over to gaming. Gamers, particularly of the self-identified variety, make for an especially fertile ground for that sort of thing, for cultural reasons.

Game devs are supposed to be the experts in their field. They’re the ones who, at least in theory, beat the hiring/funding gauntlet on their merits. That their opinion on how to make a good game ought to carry greater weight than that of the person in the street used to be… more or less self-evident, as with any other profession.

It’s difficult to imagine a set of statements that I disagree with more strongly on a fundamental level.

First, suggesting game developers are “experts in their field” because… they’re game developers… is a tautology. We might assume that these bigger game companies have some kind of hiring standards, but that never really seems to be the case. Instead, it’s often more recursive like “previously sold a popular game” or “already worked for us in QA” or “nobody else applied.”

Remember Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) of WoW (in)fame(y)? From his Wikipedia article:

Street graduated from McDaniel College in 1991 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Biology and Philosophy, later earning a PhD in marine science. Between 1996 and 1998, Street worked as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina.[8] […]

Game Design career
Ensemble Studios, the team behind the real-time strategy series Age of Empires, employed Street as a designer in 1998.[8] With no education or experience in the game industry, Street suspects he was accepted due to his “writing and teaching experience, historical breadth, personal hygiene, gudd speling [sic], creativity, [and] my talent at capturing live alligators”, as well as the user-created scenario for Age of Empires he submitted with his application, which later appeared in Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome. Street helped develop every Age of Empires game from Rise of Rome on, until his departure from the company. At first he designed in-game scenarios and maps, and later graduated to being the team’s lead designer.[9]

Street was hired by Blizzard Entertainment in February 2008, and was the lead systems designer on the MMORPG World of Warcraft until November 2013.[8]

Now, you can hate Ghostcrawler’s philosophy during his WoW tenure – I personally thought it was fine overall – but the fact remains that this marine biologist worked for like two years, wrote an Age of Empires scenario, and then a decade later became a billion-dollar franchise game developer (or a prominent cog in the machine thereof). Twice! We have to either assume that Ghostcrawler is a hidden genius, or there are no particular standards that apply to game designers generally.

There is a third option too: the M. Night Shyamalan effect. You know, the producer of the 1999 cultural touchstone film, Sixth Sense? He followed-up with Unbreakable and Signs which were whatever. After that, it was solid decade of unremitting garbage films. Shyamalan is a supposed expert in his field, as evidenced by movie companies continuing to hire him, but clearly he lost whatever magic he had. Or perhaps more likely, the seam of magic he just happened to tap into shifted, and he wasn’t able to find another.

I bring a lot of this up because I find the hero worship of brands or developers (or anyone) to be… misguided, at best. For one thing, if these people were “experts in their field,” one would expect less game studios to be closing down or laying off staff. As I pointed out a few years ago, most of the same people have been working on WoW this whole time, so any declines in perceived quality can be attributed to the Shyamalan effect.

The only measure that matters for an expert (game developer) is continued, consistent results. Did they make your favorite game back in the early 2000s? Good for you… but why are you still waiting for them? It boggles my mind whenever someone talks about Bethesda and Morrowind, for example. That game came out in 2002. It can still be great, but you knew after Oblivion that something changed. How many new Shyamalan films are you going to sit through before you give up?

From the player side, Estebon pointed out:

J. Allen Brack got memed for his “you think you do but you don’t” line, and devs and customer relations reps have long been trained to pay lip service to the idea that the untutored mob knows best, but people routinely say and demand things that are not remotely reflected in their behaviour or proclivities as reflected in the internal metrics available to game developers. Elsewhere, insane fortunes have been built by paying attention to what people do, not say, and giving us things we never asked for or imagined we needed.

I actually agree with that. Players are generally bad with coming up with the solutions to their problems, even when the solutions aren’t inherently contradictory. What players are exceptionally good at though, is identifying that a problem exists in the first place. The problem might only be impacting them, specifically, but that’s all that really should matter to them or anyone.

All of this is to set up my title analogy.

Game developers are chefs. You don’t need to go to culinary school to be a good chef, and having a degree doesn’t mean you always cook tasty food. Being the best chef in the world will not stop a dish tasting like shit if there is too much salt/it’s burnt/etc. We might expect a master chef to avoid rookie mistakes, but there is another integral component to the dish: the tastes of the person eating it.

In a restaurant, we can assume the customer is choosing a dish they think they will like. If it comes out too salty to their taste, no one bats an eye at said customer complaining about it. “Entitled diners not wanting their food caked in salt!” The relationship is inherently transactional, and there is an expectation of quality. There are limits, of course; no one should expect Chik-Fil-A or KFC to sell burgers, for example. It is also unreasonable for ten chefs to cater to the individual palettes of ten million individuals.

Is that going to stop you from complaining when you get served a salty steak, or if the French Fries are limp at a chain restaurant? Should that stop you? No. I couldn’t cook a restaurant-quality meal, but I sure as shit can criticize one if it comes out poorly. Gaming today is no different.

Granted, it used to be different. The last bit of Estebon’s comment was:

I struggle to think of any other form of entertainment where the audience claims the right to meddle in the details of the creation process quite to the same extent, as opposed to just letting the product succeed or fail as a whole, in a binary way.

Back in the day, games were done. Cartridges were manufactured, CDs were pressed, and physical media was sent to stores. If there were still game-breaking bugs or exploits that got past QA, well, hopefully they weren’t bad enough to sink an entire $10+ million investment. Games in that era were more akin to traditional entertainment like movies or books in the sense that fans could only possibly influence future decisions. Once it was out, it was out.

As we are abundantly aware today though, games are now a service. Something like a Day 1 patch clocking in at 40 GB is not uncommon. No one expects to unwrap a PS4 on Christmas and immediately start playing anything. Moreover, game developers want us to know that development is an ongoing process. A game in maintenance mode is “dead,” and one which is no longer receiving updates is “abandoned.” We barely even have the language to describe a finished product anymore.

Gamer entitlement didn’t get us here. Game makers leveraging social media for free PR and turning “lip service” into a competitive advantage got us here.

Which is just as well, because I’m not especially convinced anyone knows what they are doing. Did Notch know he created a $2 billion game when he released Minecraft? The original dev team for WoW certainly didn’t know they would have 8 million subscriptions by the end of 2008, nor have they been able to do much to stem the bleeding over the last decade. We can’t attribute all of this to corporate malice, because that doesn’t explain why these rockstar developers can’t recapture lightning in a bottle when they move elsewhere.

If you can’t reproduce results, what does that say about your expert game development science?

I think the important thing is to not put game developers on a pedestal. They aren’t scientists (anymore) doing peer-reviewed studies changing the way we understand the world. They’re just people who have eaten food before and think they could come up with something better. Occasionally they do, and even more occasionally they do it on purpose. But can they do it again?

Blizzard Facepalm: Dungeon Edition

While MMO-Champion has the summarized version of a recent Venture Beat interview with Ion Hazzikostas, I think it’s worth reading the whole thing for yourself. Because it’s only after reading the actual words, do you realize the utterly fascinating world the Blizzard devs must inhabit.

For example, this section was up near the beginning of the interview:

GamesBeat: Has anything about the content in the Warlords expansion disappointed you?

Hazzikostas: There are areas where we’ve seen slight declines, but we attribute that largely to a failure on our part to properly keep them incentivized and interesting.

I think [five-player] dungeons is a great example of a shortcoming there. We created a bunch of new dungeons for Warlords of Draenor, but we didn’t really give much reason to keep running them after the initial weeks or couple of months of the expansion.

In the past, you kept running Mists [of Pandaria] dungeons, which probably overstayed their welcome a little bit, but you kept running them for valor points [which you could exchange for gear] a year-plus into the expansion.

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points. But I think we went too far.

Far be it for me to point out that “running the same content over and over” is, in fact, the cornerstone upon which all MMO content is built. In fact, it’s really the foundation of the majority of RPGs, or any game with experience points. Even in pure PvP sandboxes, someone is out there mining space/fantasy ore, someone is farming mobs for loot, and the gears of the game economy turn only from their Sisyphean labor.

And, of course, there’s nothing stopping Blizzard from, you know, releasing new dungeons throughout the expansion if they don’t want us running the same half-dozen. If they’re still gun-shy from the ZA/ZG fiasco, they shouldn’t be, as the solution is easy: scale all dungeon gear upwards. We know they have the technology.

I might be able to take Hazzikostas’ word here as a radical shift of Blizzard philosophy regarding repeatable content in general, especially given Warlords has cut back on daily quest hubs and reputation grinds. But then this happens:

GamesBeat: What features of patch 6.2 do you hope will improve the player experience?

Hazzikostas: We’re adding mythic [difficulty] dungeons that allow even players in a group with four of their friends to go through a harder version of some of our dungeons with a weekly lockout, almost like a mini-little five-man raid. It should be a fun experience. […]

It’s just getting that type of gameplay feeling relevant again. [Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Let me emphasize this a bit stronger for you:

We felt that was a little silly to keep running the same content as you got stronger and stronger and stronger, still getting that reward, which is why we removed something like valor points.

Followed by:

[Group dungeons are] one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre, and it’s definitely a shame that there weren’t as many reasons as we would have liked to do them recently.

Wut

I… I can’t even.

…guys. Out of all the developers in all of the world making all of the games, these people have the one with 7+ million subscribers. They think “hey, running dungeons for Valor points, something we introduced back in TBC and has been working ever since, is silly. How about we axe it for no mechanical reason and not replace the incentive with anything, and just see what happens?” I mean, not even with gold, which would have been an interesting dynamic. Would you run a daily random heroic for a bag with 150g inside? Maybe that would even be too much, but at least it would have been something.

But, nope, they took “one of the greatest strengths we have in the MMO genre” and removed all incentive for doing any of them, followed by a continued failure to introduce any new ones. The issue is not even a lack of incentive for 5-mans, the issue is they thought it was silly for you to do them over and over again, incentive or not. Who are these people, and why have they never played an MMO in their life before? Seriously, what did they imagine their audience would be doing every day? Not playing the game? Unsubscribing after they consume all the non-repeatable content in two weeks?

In which case, mission fucking accomplished.

“Indie Devs are People Too!”

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a largely throwaway Saturday post called “Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes” in which I criticized Falco Girgis for his response to an internet troll on Kotaku. Specifically, he wrote this (emphasis added):

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

My overall point was that the stuff I highlighted in red is him just being an asshole and is otherwise dumb to say in any context.

Well, somehow Falco found the post this past Friday and decided to defend himself in the comments, with Facebook backup. Which was interesting for a whole host of reasons, but I’m not going to encourage you to check his recent (public) timeline or anything.

The Team Falco consensus seems to basically be summed up by this:

We’re just people and will respond as human beings. If indie devs acted like you expect us to act the there would be a whole lot more examples of Phil Fish and to a lesser extent Notch.

In other words, these sort of responses are just people being people.

The problem is that you cease being “just people” the minute you become an entrepreneur publicly selling a product. Or take any job whatsoever. I do have a little sympathy for people like Notch after the fact, but that might simply be because I didn’t follow his public comments too closely; if he was anything like Phil Fish or Falco here, he deserved the shit he got up to and including his meltdown. Not that I think he’s exactly crying into his $1.8 billion right now.

I am not trying to set myself up as some sort of paragon of good behavior. Who knows how I would have reacted in a similar situation? Maybe exactly the same… or worse! But that is all besides the fact that, objectively, those were all monumentally dumb and utterly unnecessary things to say. For anyone, in any scenario. The anonymous hater was put in his/her place with facts within the first five sentences – everything that came after was just him being an asshole. Any sort of “he was under a lot of stress” apologetics not only highlights the underlying lack self-control (or crippling insecurity), it is also a blank check to internet trolls everywhere. “Maybe they were just stressed when they told you to die in a fire.”

No, we can criticize people behaving badly regardless of why they did it.

Walking away from this exchange and having read Notch’s farewell post, it’s pretty clear that one does not simply make videogames; when you pick up the developer mantle, you get all the baggage that comes attached. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly willing to admit that gamers seem significantly more likely to publicly air grievances than, say, Walmart shoppers or whatever. At the same time, this is also what you signed up to do, whether you knew it at the time or not. And now that you know, it’s up to you as to whether the literally infinite reservoir of internet malice is worth responding to every single time.

I recommend not doing so. And especially not in a manner indistinguishable from original source.

What Are Those Titan Devs Doing Now?

Adam of Noisy Rogue brought up an interesting point recently regarding the cancellation of Titan:

Nobody outside the Blizzard bubble knows what Jeff Kaplan is doing right now. Apart from him there are over a hundred other developers and designers that have been working on Titan for almost seven years. It’s a lot of talent. […]

Hey, yeah, what are they going to do with all the people who were working on Titan?

So what we know is that Titan had 100 developers working on it last August, until it was slashed down to 30 when it “went back to the drawing board.” Mike Morhaime said they moved the slashed devs over to Diablo and the Blizzard MOBA. But then I got to thinking: wasn’t the dev count on WoW beefed up recently? Indeed it was, as reported on 8/25/13:

The team size has increased 40% and another 40% increase is planned, which will hopefully allow for a new content patch every month, a new raid tier every three to five months, and an annual expansion.

So the timeline makes sense that a lot of those Titan devs were moved over into WoW in addition to Diablo and the MOBA. But then I came across this Icy Veins interview with Tom Chilton from August 2014 (emphasis mine):

Q. You announced repeatedly that you would release content faster: “every 6 months”, “no more ICC”. Obviously, that did not really work out, so we were just wondering what caused it.

A. That is definitely fair criticism. We did a good job earlier in Mists of Pandaria, having the content come at a more frequent intervals, and certainly we had hoped to have Warlords of Draenor out a couple of months ago. The reality is that scaling up the number of people that we have, to work on multiple projects at once has slowed us down. Honestly, it should have not come as a surprise to us. We increased the size of the team by 50% and the majority of those people had never worked on World of Warcraft before or any other MMO, so it is really difficult for them to create content right away, without getting up to speed. So we ended up redoing a lot of the content that we were doing for Warlords to make sure that we would get it at the quality level that we would expect.

Now I’m not sure what to think. Did Blizzard hire a whole bunch of brand new developers for the WoW team? Were the 30 core devs left behind on Titan the only ones with WoW experience, e.g. Kaplan, etc? We do know that Blizzard is already designing the expansion after Warlords right now, so perhaps the new guys got relegated to Warlords and the core-crew is working on whatever Orcish masturbation fantasy is undoubtedly next (“Thrall’s child is all grown up and mad with power!”). I mean, Jesus, it’s been World of Hordecraft aside from that one brief period of time in Wrath. And it’s arguable that the Taunka and Horde Death Knight quests were far superior to what the Alliance got.

I’m not bitter or anything.

By the way, while I was Googling researching this post, I came across this rather interesting picture:

The jokes almost write themselves.

The jokes almost write themselves.

This slide came from the Hearthstone fireside chat back in November 2013, with those numbers representing the team sizes of those three games at release. In other words, vanilla WoW had 60 people, Diablo 3 had 75, and Hearthstone 15. Supposedly Diablo 3 is in a better place these days, but it kinda tells you a lot about the relative worth of even Blizzard developers when you have 75 people collectively cranking out the clusterfuck of Diablo 3 on release. More is less, it would seem.

Constants and Titanic Variables

In the off-chance you haven’t already read thirteen hundred blogs talking about it, VentureBeat broke the news about Blizzard’s new MMO “Titan” being sent back to the drawing board. Depending on how you slice it, that is between 2-7 years of game development being flushed, with 70 of 100 developers being redistributed to other games while the core 30 presumably get called to the carpet.

First thoughts? Well, maybe now Ghostcrawler will have enough staff on hand so that patches can have both raid and dungeon content instead of these unquestionably artificial “dilemmas.” ¿Por qué no los dos?

The normally sanguine Syp thinks Blizzard should scrap Titan altogether due to the risk:

Blizzard cares deeply about its reputation and position as an industry leader. That’s another obstacle, because any stumble, no matter how small, will be taken and used as a weapon against it by capricious gamers. For example, while Diablo III has sold quite well and boasts a healthy population of players, the error 37 and auction house debacles have damaged the game’s reputation while slapping some egg on the face of the studio. Blizzard has had to learn humility over the past couple of years, and it is odd and unnerving to see this formerly arrogant company stuttering out apologies.

His point about holding Blizzard to higher standards is absolutely true, and the Diablo 3 point is especially apt.

Indeed, I am starting to think this Titan decision makes more sense coming from the other direction. What if it was not so much that Titan’s design was terrible or out-dated (having ostensively been drafted pre-mobile, pre-F2P), but rather it was not good enough to justify the loss of 70 top-quality developers for years?

One of the more frustrating realities of game design from the consumer perspective is that current success pays for future projects instead of being reinvested. While it isn’t that big a deal when it comes to single-player games, it’s huge when it comes to MMOs. Just think about the following:

We first reported on Titan back in 2011. Blizzard chief operating officer Paul Sams told us in an interview that “we have taken some of our most experienced developers and put them on [Titan]. We believe we have a dream team. These are the people who made World of Warcraft a success. We are going to blow people’s minds.” [emphasis added]

They had the very designers that crafted WoW into the 8+ million subscription engine it was back in 2004 tied to an unreleased (and now scrapped) game for the last X years. People joked about Ghostcrawler being a part of the B Team for a long time, of course, although I honestly do not have much against the guy. But regardless of where you fall on the WoW line, really think about that alternate universe where the original team was never split. What kind of game would WoW have been? What could we be playing today? Would it still be shedding over a million subs in a quarter?

So that’s my wild, out-of-my-ass idle speculation of the day: the old version of Titan might have been perfectly serviceable, but not crazy-good enough to justify keeping 70 people tied up when the rest of the boat(s) are taking on water. This is Activision Blizzard, after all, home of the billion dollar franchises. The Blizzard half cannot simply expect investors to be patient with Call of Duty and Skylanders propping up an ailing WoW to buy time for a Titan-ic (har har) gamble.

In spite of its age, WoW could be doing just fine as a money-printing machine. It just needs more and better things. And more agile developers. And server merges. Hopefully this transfusion of developers will be enough juice to keep the engine pumping.