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volume 1, issue 20

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Behind the Curtain:
The Whirlwind

 

 

 

 

 

By Matt "Thraka" Gilbert

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"
-
The Wizard, The Wizard of Oz

hen you sit down and fire up the latest mega title, what goes through your head? Most likely, unless you’re a developer yourself, the time and energy that went into the creation of the title is not foremost in your mind. Maybe later, especially if you’re interested in making games yourself someday, you think to yourself, "Man, it must be the coolest thing in the world to get paid for this!"

Well, it is and it isn’t: it depends on who you are. For those who have what it takes, it is a dream come true. But it is a grueling, difficult trade at times: the making of fun and games is not, oddly enough, all fun and games. You have to have a firm grasp of where you are going, or you won’t endure the trip. You need passion, drive, and ego. In short, instant gratification types need not apply. If ‘good enough’ has special meaning for you, again, go elsewhere. Only ‘the best’ is good enough.

Well, now that half of you are slashing your wrists or mailing me bombs, let’s move on.

The idea of Behind the Curtain is simple, really: no nonsense commentary on the life of a game developer, from someone who has been at it a few years. If you’re thinking of trying to be a part of this business, you’ll find out some things you didn’t know, and maybe some of those things will bum you out. You may even change your mind about your intended profession, and that’s a win-win scenario: if you don’t have the desire to step up and do what it takes to excel at game development, you would only be hurting yourself and your future teammates by carrying on. On the other hand, there will be those who are not merely confident about their ability to handle the scene, but energized by the challenge: if you fall into this category, and you have talent, you’ll go far.

But don’t get the idea that this is merely a column for neophytes. There are plenty rants to interest the pros: the zombie project that never ends, but keeps mutating enough to keep you in crunch mode for six months; compromising your design because of standards and various legalistic bullshit; keeping the peace with your SO when the crunch is on; etc. You know the issues well enough by now.

So who am I to shoot off my mouth? I’m nobody special: just a crank, another Joe like you with something to say. Keep that perspective, and we’ll get along just fine. Call me Thraka. Everyone else does, so you might as well do it, too. I’m a console programmer by trade, and that’s a coded way of saying that every couple of years, I go from guru to complete moron, and start the process of fighting my way back up the ladder all over again. No doubt, some of you will eventually conclude I am a full time moron, but I’m used to that. It comes with having a big mouth and little patience with things that I think are stupid. You’ll love me or hate me; either way, you won’t be bored.

There are a million topics to cover, but the best place to start is a reminder of the fact that we’re talking about a business. Like every other business, it has it’s ups and downs, and it is subject to the whims of the economy and the market. Not every job you take lasts. Not every project you start gets finished. The best way to illustrate this is with a personal history. I won’t claim this to be typical, but it’s certainly not unique.

The Whirlwind

Hold it now…
Wait a minute…
Come on!
Whew…
Just let me catch my breath….

Dream Theatre, "Take the Time", from "Images and Words"

If I were to sum up in one sentence what it’s like to work in game development, I couldn’t do a better job than this quote: "Things move fast in this business, bra; if you sit around and think about it, it passes you by."

I started my first job in the industry with a brand new company in Chicago; three months later, I was unhappy enough there to leave. I won’t go into the reasons; that’s the stuff of another piece. Suffice it to say that startups inevitably take some time to get their shit together, and during that time, management and employees alike can get off on the wrong foot. It’s a learning process.

I had flown into the Bay Area for an interview two days before, and I was being made an offer to join up with a small, energetic development house named Illusions. The two owners of the company, Darren Bartlett and James Coliz, were, unlike big corporate sceners, part of the team, an artist and a programmer, respectively. They were real people, not phony, suit types. I had hung out with them and the company producer for the weekend, a sort of summing up process designed to answer the intangibles that can make or break a team. Is this guy cool? Do we get along? Is he going to crack under the pressure and bail mid project? Is he leaving the job he has because the boss is a jerk, or is he the problem? As it turned out, the answers we all came to were the right ones. We were all pretty comfortable with things, and they hit me with the hard figures and dates. It was Sunday night, and they wanted me to start Friday. For an unpublished programmer with little but raw talent, the offer was pretty good, but Friday? I would have to fly back to Chicago, pack up my entire life, what little there was of it, and make the trip in five days. Wasn’t that awfully soon?

That was when Matt Seymour, my future producer and friend, hit me with the line I quote above: "Things move fast in this business, bra." It’s one of those sound bites that sticks with you, because it’s so damned true. (And yes, that was "bra", not "bro". He’s a Howlie. Ask someone from Hawaii.)

We sealed the deal with a toast of margarita glasses. We were going to do great things, and we were going to see our products in the stores. That was what mattered.

Over the next three years, we laughed, we cursed, and we spent many a sleepless night along with the rest of our ragtag team, hammering and polishing and sweating deadlines. It was hard work, but we kept our noses to the grindstone, and we shipped two products during that time. We also managed to squeeze in a hell of a lot of drinking, adventuring, and game playing into the mix. Ah, the stories I could tell about late night Doom and Mario Kart sessions….

But it is a fact of life that things change. Over time, more people came onboard, as they inevitably do when a company is successful. One day, I looked up from my monitor and I thought, "Hey what’s that guy’s name again?", and I realized, with this sinking feeling in my gut, that it was no longer a family: it was a company. There were new things, like filling out paperwork for sick days; ‘official work hours’; an employee handbook; office politics; and, worst of all, a distance between management and the teams: there was an us and a them.

It was time to move on. Next stop, another small developer called Abalone, with a brief 1 month hiatus to get married in Vegas and introduce my new wife to the psychos I call my family. After that, I rolled up my sleeves and settled in with the new folks at Abalone. It was a bit like going back in time to the old Illusions. The company was run by a Glenn and Janine Anderson, a husband and wife team, both programmers. Glenn was an old school guy; he had been in the business since the 2600. He was wise and patient, and resolved technical disputes with an ease I have never seen duplicated.

All was good for three months. My wife and I bought a house close to work. But, for the industry at large, things were going south, and in September, they began to hit home. Projects were being cancelled; some publishers weren’t even paying for milestones: Abalone got hit with both. Glenn never kept the problems from us: we knew finances were a problem. Of course, the day came when there were no paychecks. We worked for two months without pay on his promise that he would catch us up. I was lucky enough to have some money in the bank, so I could make the payments on my new house. Some of my coworkers weren’t as fortunate. Some had kids in addition to everything else. I’m not even sure they were all eating regularly, much less paying the bills. But we stuck with it: we had a vision, we had team spirit, and we knew we could turn out a good product.

 

(Continued on next page)

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Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Behind the Curatain is © 1998 Matt Gilbert. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.