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Lessons in Visibility from the Arcade Generation

There is nothing more dangerous or destructive as an arrogant youth with authority, and a big title. A retrospective.

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The most valuable lessons, I’ve realized, almost always come from epic failures and intense moments of shame. In my own life, the most profound example of this was the lesson of visibility. It was taught to me by a man I will refer to from here forth as The Dinosaur.

The story takes place many years ago at a small game development shop in San Francisco. I was a newly appointed Art Director on a Playstation port of a very popular arcade title. I use the term “port” very loosely, as this project was a port in label and budget only. A true port should not suck the life out of its developers, leaving a crusty dry corpse in their stead. That kind of sickness should be limited to original titles, resurrected classics, and movie tie ins. Not this time. Because of the limitations of our engine and the console, we had to build the entire game from scratch, art and all. The project warranted a team three times the size of what we had and a budget to support it. I also warrant a single malt scotch every night after work, but it doesn’t mean I’m getting one.

There are many people at fault for the situation we were in, but it is my own that concerns me. The experience was so painful it almost cost me my job and my marriage. Almost, but it didn’t. I even got a life lesson for my troubles, the value of which I would not fully appreciate for years to come.

I blame myself, because I should have known better. I should have realized our mission was doomed from the start. As an Art Director, I should have been able to see it from a mile away and made my case. But in truth, I was no Art Director, and I didn’t know the value of visibility.

I was not an Art Director. I had the title, but none of the experience or knowledge that should come with it. Instead of experience and knowledge I had an ego and an attitude and an impressive title that granted me a lot of authority. I went into the port project believing I could do no wrong. We had recently performed a small miracle and shipped a game no one thought would ship. I had turned the art around in a short amount of time and was rewarded with an Art Director title. There is nothing more dangerous or destructive as an arrogant youth with authority and a big title. Especially when money and jobs are on the line.

In my defense, I had a modicum of talent and I was a wickedly hard worker. I practically lived at the office. Sixteen hours was a normal workday for me. I even designed game screens from my sketchbook during my morning commute to maximize my productivity. You could say hard work was my tool of choice. I was raised to believe hard work was the key to success and was always rewarded appropriately. Thanks Dad! While this is a fine family value to carry with you, it doesn’t explain the billions of impoverished workers who put in eighteen hours a day and could never hope to own a home or even go to the doctor. Hard work means jack if it’s aimed in the wrong direction. Hard work is nothing without visibility.

Six months into the project we were as behind as a game could be without starting over. My team most likely wanted me dead. I tried everything I could think of to pull us out of it - all of which included working harder. This is the tactical equivalent of my dog digging at the hardwood floor trying to get to the ball in the basement. Digging is all my dog knows. It has never occurred to him to take the stairs.

Eventually our publisher caught on to our shenanigans and called in the arcade team to pay us a little visit, which is how I met The Dinosaur. This brought on a plague of righteous indignation the likes the world has never seen. We were the Vanguard of game development! We were the new Technocrats leading the charge in the world of console development! The arcade team was a bunch of bitter old dinosaurs who didn’t know their time was at hand. Looking back I wish I valued experience and wisdom as much as I do now. There are so many people I could have learned from if I only had the intelligence to set my ego aside for a minute to learn from those smarter and more experienced than I. Here I was given the opportunity to meet with the original pioneers of video gaming, true life legends in our industry, and all I could think about was how degrading it was to be told how to do my job by a bunch of old guys.

Old or not, they showed up very much alive and well, but none too happy, I’m sure, to be there. I was glued to my monitor, wrestling with the engine as usual, trying to export terrain tiles. I had my art team in the room with me. I’m sure we made a sorry sight, all pale and sleep deprived. The Dinosaur lumbered into my office. I say lumbered because he was a big man. Very big. About 6’4 with a full bushy beard. He was an Art Director from a different generation. He might have been mistaken for a longshoreman. In another time he would have worn chainmail and carried a bloodied war hammer. He made for an intimidating figure, especially considering the mood he was in. I’m sure he felt he had better things to be doing with his time than babysit a bunch of punk kids working on a console game. While we thought them facing extinction, working in a dying medium, they believed we were nothing more than fad toy makers who would be replaced in a year by the next big thing. It turns out we were right. In two years arcades would be dead and consoles would reign for many years to come. Not because we were better, smarter, or more talented in any way. We were just in the right place at the right time. Now that I am older and a little bit wiser, I have nothing but the most profound respect for our arcade pioneers. I wouldn’t have a career of it weren’t for them. We wouldn’t have any of this.

Back in that old Victorian-turned game studio that day I did not have the gratitude I have now. I had nothing but contempt. The Dinosaur cut right to the chase and began asking questions. He recorded my answers on a Palm Pilot. I had to admit that was kind of impressive. He was years ahead of me in his use of tools. I wasn't going to let that throw me though. I leaned back in my chair with my arms crossed, all smug like. Bring it on, I thought. I think I planned on staring him down, but when he looked at me, he didn't really look at me. He looked through me. As if I wasn’t worth his eye contact. That was the beginning of the end. He asked how many levels we had left to do. I told him. He asked how long it took to complete a level. I told him I didn’t know. I hadn’t yet completed one. He continued asking questions and all I had in return were pathetic, vague, non-answers. Each question painted a clearer picture of who I was as an Art Director. I wasn’t one!

An Art Director – a real Art Director – would have had answers to every one of these questions. I could take that a step further and say an adult wouldn't have gone into that meeting with the attitude I had. Not only was I not an Art Director, but I wasn't even an adult! The questions were obvious and should have been expected. They were crucial questions. They all contained a central theme. What was my visibility? The answer was I didn’t have any. I had no visibility and I was no Art Director. The Dinosaur standing in front of me had more visibility in ten minutes than I had in six months of working on the game. The Dinosaur was a real Art Director. He was a professional. I was not a professional. I was just someone who worked in games. Incidently this is a distinction that would stick with me for the rest of my career. Over the years I have met more people who work in games than I have met professionals. There is a huge difference. Before I met a real Art Director I simply worked in games. It was afterwards I became a professional. In truth, it was probably even a few years after that. I had learned the value of visibility that day. It took me a lot longer to learn how to achieve it. Even longer to be good at it. I can tell you now that I’m not as good at it as I should be. No one can be good enough at visibility.

Twenty minutes after meeting The Dinosaur I had been stripped of my ego, my rank, and my self importance. It was painful. Necessary, but very painful. He finished entering some numbers into his Pilot and said, “Days like this I wish I stayed in the restaurant business.” I tried to think of something clever to say in return. Something that would shorten the gap between us. Maybe bond on our past lives in food service. The gap was too far and wide though, and it would be years before I would shorten it. Not that it would have done me any good. I never saw him again.

“I used to be a bartender,” I said. He looked at me. His look was not of contempt, annoyance, or any of the sort I would have expected. It was so much worse. It was pity. It was him saying I should have stayed a bartender. He put his device away and walked out.

I turned around to my team, knowing full well they had just witnessed my death - the career kind. They were staring at their monitors. I hoped maybe they were so involved in their work they missed the whole exchange. Their animated screensavers said otherwise.

A short time later – a few days, a week – our publishers showed up and shut down the project. They collected their dev kits and went home. We convened at the bar downstairs and threw ourselves a “canceled” party. We got very drunk and fed our egos best we could. We talked about the original titles we were planning on shipping. We talked about making the next Crash Bandicoot, or Resident Evil. We complimented each other more that night than we had in five years. Joe was the best Producer in the industry. Kurt could make a Playstation sing. Mike was the next Myamoto. We felt better about ourselves. The company even lasted another year before it closed down for good, but that’s another story for another time.

These days visibility is the most important tool I have in my quiver. It trumps everything. I can never have enough of it. Visibility is about gathering information and creating a road map for where you are heading. Visibility is the reason we annoy our clients with so many questions at the beginning of a project, though most understand why. Many of our clients share our appreciation for visibility.

In risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, visibility is about separating the knowns from the unknowns. There are plenty of knowns to work with. Every project has a start and an end date. Certain tasks take a specific amount of man hours. Certain materials are needed before you can move forward. There are also the knowns of experience. Having been derailed in the past by so many random events, you can keep contingency plans in your back pocket for the ones that are most likely to repeat. These are all the knowns you collect at the beginning of a project and use to build visibility. Then there are the unknowns.

The unknowns are the phantoms, the ghosts in the machine - unforeseeable incidents that you don’t have contingency plans for, because there are no precedents. These are usually technical but the worst kind are self-inflicted. These are unknowns that should be knowns, but you don’t face them. The arcade port, for instance - I should have known we hadn’t the time or resources to ship the game. The reason I didn’t have the visibility I needed was purely out of fear of discovering the truth – that it couldn’t be done. Instead of planning, I went straight to work, distracting myself with that feeling of getting something done. This is a grave mistake and I see it all the time in games. That feeling of productivity is like a warm, fuzzy blanket of ignorance that lulls you into a false sense of security - until it’s too late. I’ve seen so many teams work themselves to death trying to ship inside an impossible schedule. We all know the specter of crunch so well that it’s become as integrated into our culture as the games themselves. There are so many legendary stories of teams working all-nighters for months on end, to barely make it to the finish line. The best stories are the ones that lead to a hit title. Naturally, we love our victory stories. They’re the mythology of our industry. The stories that aren’t told so much are the failures. For every success, there are twenty or thirty failures. Most teams end with a whimper and no game to show for their troubles. Every one of these failures, and successes, have their roots in visibility.

I now have multiple teams to run. Each team is managed by a Lead, which is basically an Art Director. They are all amazing, talented people and I am honored to work with them. Some have had much longer careers than others and have gone through similar catastrophes as me. Many, however, have had more victories than failures here at SG, which I am grateful for. It makes for a positive culture. I want our culture to embrace visibility as much as it does positivity. I just don’t want anyone to have to endure the pain and humiliation I did to learn its value. I know experience is the best teacher but it has a tendency to lay it on a bit thick with the pain and suffering and all. I’m hoping I suffered enough for everyone here and no one will need to be slapped upside the head by a dinosaur.

 Paul Culp is the Studio Director for Oregon-based video game Art and Animation firm, SuperGenius. www.supergenius-studio.com

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