Industry Layoffs: First Person Perspective

13 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/bowbrick/1237202/

Gamasutra have been doing some fairly interesting games journalism recently, which is very encouraging in the face of so many sites that copy and paste press releases and add a bit of fluff around them.

This article, interviewing people recently laid off from games companies, has a few interesting perspectives from job hunters as well as wider commentary on the wave of redundancies and studio closures currently hitting the games industry.

Of course, layoffs significantly hamper fresh graduates by freeing up some very experienced people:

“I’m still looking,” he says, “but it’s far harder than I expected. While there seem to be quite a few jobs out there, there are also quite a few people hunting, which means that employers are now able to find the perfect candidate who ticks all the boxes.”

“In the past, a candidate could fulfill 90% of the role and it would be understood that the remaining 10% could be worked on. However, that ‘100% candidate’ is potentially out there in the large job-seeking pool. So the difference between getting that job and missing out could be a very minor feature or attribute.”

One of the things we’ve been discussing at the office is that a lot of firms, games industry or not, are using the credit crunch as an excuse to trim their more optimistic hires away, or even shut a mismanaged firm down while there’s still some of it left. It also functions as a signal to shareholders in other businesses, affecting confidence and making further layoffs likely. As the article and later a commenter point out:

“These layoffs are not the result of the economic downturn that is affecting other industries,” Mencher maintains. “Our industry is having record sales. What we’re seeing is a combination of the not-so-unusual year-end layoffs that we see every year at this time when games have been shipped… plus a few companies that are having troubles, like EA, which has been struggling for some two and a half years.”

These layoffs often come as a result of simple human instinct, much the same way the stock market’s rise or fall is often dependent upon investors feeling confident or scared. If Company A hears constant reports of how bad the economy is, then they also know that their shareholders will be worried, and so they go ahead and secure the bottom line with layoffs…regardless of whether or not actual sales figures would support that course of action.

The comments in particular are at a very high standard for an online news source.

(CC image by Bowbrick)

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UK Games Archive

30 09 2008

I’m pleased to see this being set up by one of my local universities; I was present for the launch of GameCity and the announcement of this:

An archive to preserve the history of videogames is being set up by university experts.

Nottingham Trent University says the global videogames industry is worth about £22bn and steps are needed in order to record its development.

The archive will be housed at the National Media Museum in Bradford and put together by researchers from Nottingham Trent University.

The collection will include consoles, cartridges and advertising campaigns.

The archive will chart the history of videogames from Pong in 1972 to present-day blockbusters.

A lot of people won’t appreciate just how necessary this is, yet as Dr. James Newman points out countless works from other media have been lost over time due to a lack of these kind of efforts. A minority of people in the comics community have been agitated for years over the lack of a similar archive for comics, while important indie work piles up and gets forgotten.

Despite similar efforts for film, plenty of celluloid film has simply rotted away, and that’s somewhat due to it languishing under copyright law for decades at a time. That games are a retail product will no doubt make that less of a barrier to collecting and archiving important games and the media surrounding them.

(CC image by Brainless Angel)





Sim City: Not For Educational Use?

4 09 2008

I don’t generally worry about violence in games. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, on the whole, have the negative effects that the anit-videogames lobby attach to it. I do, however, still worry about the potential negative effects games could have. As vehicles for the transmission of information, they have potential to actually do damage, much like biased news coverage and mistaken text books.

Jamais Cascio writes about Sim City on WorldChanging:

While some of Lobo & Schooler’s complaints arise from the fact that SimCity is built as a game — the “God Mode,” for example — most derive from inability to modify the underlying model, whether to include mixed-use development (the ground-floor commercial/upper-floor residential buildings which help to make dense urban environments livable), to vary the demand ratings for various services, to make pedestrian travel more acceptable, or to alter the efficiency and availability of renewable power generation. As a result, some models of urban development, such as the “New Urbanism” movement of the mid-late 1990s, fall outside the scope of the simulation, and become invisible to developers-in-training.

As games become more commonplace, especially in training and simulation, such effects will probably be far more pernicious and widespread than the risk factors associated with someone from a gang-ridden area playing Grand Theft Auto. Nonetheless, the passing on of harmful assumptions is absolutely nothing new to culture; it’s something we’ve always done with all forms of media.

Will spoke at BAFTA a few year ago and mentioned that Sim City has caused kids to think about urban planning, which is great, but when assumptions cause us to see it as valid training that’s not so good. It’s kind of like average FPS players thinking they’ve learned to be soldiers or commandos, when in fact they’ve generally trained themselves to get killed over and over again.

The patching process a modern game goes through could easily alleviate this, though the codebase for such a project could easily become a nightmare as it’s incrementally modified over the years. Blizzard are one of the few developers I’ve known to cope well with this, patching Starcraft a decade after release. Perhaps a modern iteration of Sim City could become an excellent urban planning trainer?

(CC image of the Shanghai projected for 2020 by eugene)





Paper Protoypes

3 09 2008

Game Career Guide posted a truly excellent article yesterday, on teaching game design without computers. This kind of thing seems an ideal activity to do at secondary level. In fact, prototyping our own boardgames and RPGs was exactly what me and a bunch of mates did in our early teens, beginning with Space Crusade mods and also making up rules for an Advanced Heroquest set we got hold of sans rulebook. We quickly moved on to building our own dungeon crawlers, boardgames and RPGs.

There’s a lot to be said for paper renditions of game assets and prototypes. Several studios I know of cover their walls with printed versions of stuff to keep developers focused on what they’re making, finding in the past that just committing things to a server meant things disappeared into a kind of digital void. This would lead to a state where not many on the team had much idea of the scale of the project, what had been completed, and what remained to be done. Protoyping, it seems, can suffer in a similar way:

Students tend to identify “games” with AAA titles, rather than simpler casual games or games of 20 years ago (Tetris, Space Invaders). These AAA games are often terrifically complex, but they represent the kind of game most students want to produce. However, as a practical matter, most of them actually won’t go on to work for companies producing AAA console games; nor in an educational setting can they make such complex games requiring dozens of work years of professional effort.

All this complexity obscures the actual game design in the games. That obscuring complexity rarely exists in non-electronic games; furthermore, the students aren’t likely to design complex non-electronic games because they cannot expect the computer to take care of the details. Gameplay is a much more obvious element of non-electronic games than it is of video games. The result is that the student is forced to concentrate on the most important part

The article states that video-game prototyping tends to lead students into either story-telling or game production, resulting in the waste of a great deal of time on non-game design practice. It seems the lack of a representation of everything on a project can lead to a profound lack of focus. Typically, only producers have such a representation, but all can benefit from it. Non-electronic protoyping can create the right focus for designers.

Lego and components nicked from other board games are great resources for prototyping, as recommended in the also excellent Siren Song of The Paper Cutter (The article above links it, but the link is broken). Siren song indeed, it’s made me quite nostalgic for cattle abduction strategy boardgames.

Both articles are well worth the time needed to read them. At a time when game development skills have mostly become so complex they require a Graduate or Master’s degree as well as additional years of vocational training at a studio, paper prototyping offers a very accessible way for students at nearly all stages of education to get into and start discussing game design.

(CC image: Portal papercraft by a440. Bet that game would be difficult to prototype with paper).





Games Research Problems

20 08 2008

Richard Bartle has weighed in on the current state of affairs between academia and the industry, talking about former polytechnics now being the best universities to get graduates from for the games industry, since they’re more willing to take risks.

the best undergraduate degrees for game development in the UK come from Abertay, Coventry, Derby, Nottingham Trent, Portsmouth, Sheffield Hallam, Staffordshire and Teeside.

We’d add Imperial College London and London Metropolitan University to that list, since both have some heavyweight CS and visualisation degree courses that have successfully led people into the industry (Technically, LMU was founded in 2002, but its constituent parts are well over a century old).

Overall though, Bartle is correct. Traditional, more established universities are way behind on games education in comparison to newer ones. There are also massive problems with games research:

Modern universities focus on training in the way that vocational schools do, says Bartle, while older ones have a tradition of education.

“The difference is that training is the acquisition of skills and knowledge as a result of being taught, while education is the acquisition of skills and knowledge as a result of learning — a more rounded, think-for-yourself ideal,” says Bartle.

The problem is, these modern training houses are doing their jobs, producing plenty of adequately-trained would-be games professionals — “But because the older universities aren’t doing theirs, we’re getting too few educated people,” Bartle says.

And higher education funding in the UK never goes to computer games research, says Bartle — they fund “games as education” research, not games research.

“We also see games as AI, economics, psychology, sociology, therapy, training…There’s nothing wrong with this, but we’re seeing games for everything except for games,” he says.

[…]

“Where will the games industry be if the only public money available is for games-as-anything-but-games?” asks Bartle.

It’s good to see a game developer acknowledge this problem. Many, tied to 18 month production cycles and thinking only of recruiting, are heavily biased toward vocational skills and care little for theory. Academics who seem to be working on the issue are, as Bartle says, tending to go for “Games and *”

Not many people are doing pure games PHDs. In fact, the only one I can immediately think of is Robin Hunicke.

(CC image “Teaching Math or Something” posted to flickr by foundphotoslj)





Jonathan Blow: Slides Online

8 08 2008

Many more of the slides from Games:EDU will be online soon, but for now I’d just like to draw your attention to Jonathan Blow’s blog, where he’s posted his slides and audio.





TIGA Expands Lobbying

16 07 2008

TIGA is expanding it’s efforts to lobby the UK government, with a tightly packed argument built around training and education. Game development studios have far more to offer the UK than exports, and there’s opportunity for the government to utilise this in developing a more highly skilled workforce.

It’s good to see TIGA making such specific recommendations rather than just demanding tax breaks. They’ve had a much better line in PR for the past few months, especially with the launch of Games Up?. The question mark makes the name clunky, and it doesn’t seem to have a website, but they’re certainly talking to the right people and making sure to get a varied message out regularly.

Not only that, but under Richard Wilson the organisation seems to be taking a very proactive and intelligent approach to supporting the industry. Hopefully, that will prove to be contagious.

(CC image of longhand mathematics by misterbisson)