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Content with content

Thoughts on staying satisfied when making games.

This was originally posted on on Monday 11th April 2016.

Recently I was having a discussion with a couple of game developer friends about the perfect industry role. Inevitably the conversation progressed on to the challenges of staying content and motivated over the course of a project.

They are currently in the industry and have positions of responsibility in their respective organisations, so their outlook is that much different to mine. Unlike them, I no longer belong to a 100+ strong team of experienced developers. Instead I work with one other at the same level as me and a few above, one of which is an academic and the other a surgeon. Unconventional I'll admit.

Both friends work on big-budget titles, and I think generally enjoy doing so. The argument for being part of a large organisation is reasonably clear; you get to be part of something much larger than yourself, and I have to concede having worked on The Division I do get a kick out of seeing people playing and enjoying it, reading the reviews, and watching the surrounding buzz it's generated with videos, commercials, etc. But that feeling is muted because of the way these kind of games are produced.

Impressive fan art from RobinTran

A team of many hundreds of people is needed to bring something like The Division over the line, so an individual developer's role in that team is specialised to the point that you can't possibly feel like you have any ownership over anything beyond your immediate realm of influence. And that plays into one of the biggest barriers to contentment for developers in the industry which is the current state of the project being worked on. It could be so many things beyond what it is, but it never quite meets that vision - and that’s difficult to contend with.

Even the hardiest dev can't resist finding flaws; it's human nature to do so. It's some kind of in-built survival strategy that mentally detaches from - and protects against - the game's failings. It's an unconscious way of absolving responsibility for things you aren't proud of.

In truth everyone working in 'triple-A' games has to employ this way of thinking at some level because given the scale of such a game there's no way to hold on to every last thing and have the unswerving conviction that it will eventually fulfil it’s potential by all falling in to place, gracefully combining to make something greater than the sum of its parts. For many it's enough to motivate and drive forwards to address lingering issues, for others it inhibits, narrowing commitment to just the things they're safely able to hold on to, in turn exhibiting overly defensive behaviour when those things are questioned by anyone else. When you see these wheels within wheels you start to understand how bad games see the light of day.

Contributing to big-budget games is a real slog. The work is physically and emotionally draining, so when it finally comes out the couple of weeks of fanfare is such a wonderful release that you almost forget the turmoil you've gone through to get to that point. For me this is both the positive and negative side of making games. The feedback is great, but the energy that's been put into the project in no way directly correlates with what comes out.

The Division will have a long life because of how Ubisoft are backing it and the type of game it is, but so many others don't have that luxury. I would wager that hundreds of thousands of man hours went into developing it – if not more, and I suppose in this instance there will be cumulatively more than that spent playing it after it's release, but for the individual developer all you see is the fleeting buzz I mentioned earlier. Is it enough? For me the balance is skewed, others might disagree.

So what is the ideal industry role?

The ability to continually challenge yourself by working on different aspects of a project is fundamental to deriving satisfaction from development. Being too specialised denies the ability to grow and improve. If all you do is make really nice looking bricks eventually you'll get bored, dissatisfied, and jaded. Ultimately it has to be a role that allows a developer to enjoy the work. There's an inherent satisfaction to making games, and that can help make up for the effort required to do so.

This may sound obvious, but working on a project that is fun and interesting is important too. I would bet that most developers at the big studios wouldn't be making the game they're working on if they had the choice. This is why you see so many weird and wonderful projects being created by indies free of market-led direction. Though being on any project for long enough becomes wearing, so working in short development cycles is ideal. I think anywhere between three and 18 months is probably about right. Combine that with strong community engagement throughout development and a long tail post release and you're on to a winner. For a developer to see the reaction to their work is what it's all about. I remember working with a junior level designer at Ubisoft who was overjoyed when the focus testers were in and he was able to see someone first hand interacting with his ideas. It was like he'd just realised that was his reason for being.

Finally; the studio's working culture is key. Being small enough for it to be possible to know everyone else on the team encourages a sense of belonging and enables the management to respect staff individually rather than just as a name and a discipline and understand that nine-to-five isn't and shouldn't be a privilege. This works both ways too; if the developer knows the management on a personal level, there's more chance that they will trust their vision, leadership, and ability to elegantly slot all of the game's elements together as required. Of course this all implies that cohorts are competent at their job and show openness and willing when challenged, if they aren't it falls down somewhat. You can't beat a good attitude.

I'm sure there are places out there that satisfy all of these points. And I'm sure that the developers in those studios are contented, and I'm sure they do great work on great games because of it.

We are currently (contentedly) developing Beyond the Infinite, follow us to stay up to date.

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