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A Game Studio Culture Dictionary

Looking for a term that perfectly describes a situation you're likely to find while developing a game? Chances are you'll find it in this feature, a collection of submitted terms from real developers in the trenches.

Kain Shin, Blogger

October 6, 2011

20 Min Read

This dictionary began as a conversation between a colleague (Quoc Tran) and myself, discussing stories we've heard from various colleagues in our industry. He mentioned the concept of "managing upwards" with regards to the phenomenon where a manager spends more time managing people outside the studio than inside.

I had never heard that phrase before, and once he taught me what that meant, I found myself more aware of this occurrence when talking to friends in and outside of the games industry about their own management structures.

It was shortly after that conversation that I posted a status update on my Facebook account: "Learned a new phrase today: 'Managing Upwards'". This led to a discussion amongst many other game developer colleagues about cool phrases that they were eager to share.

I then realized just how much this concept of "Game Development Phrases" resonated with veterans within this somewhat intimate industry.

I put a call out amongst veteran game developers for phrases that reflected their experience in the trenches. More than 80 developers responded, not all of whom will be named in this article.

It is to my dismay that I must confess that less than half of the "Token of Shame" confessions made it into this article... mostly because the majority of tokens were omitted due to ummm... "identifiability".

Vocabulary can be a powerful tool, sometimes. These "game development phrases" were like incantations that validated perceptions and attuned senses to a situation that may have been otherwise amorphous in nature. All of the possible experiences that one may encounter in the game developer multiverse have a chance of resonating with another developer to the point that a single key phrase can yield instant recognition of the complex narrative encapsulated within that phrase.

This article strives to give form to the amorphous by maximizing the perceived realness of common game development cultural patterns in the hopes of evincing the greater tapestry that binds us as people who make games for a living.

Disclaimer. This Studio Culture Dictionary is meant to entertain, educate, and soothe the reader into cathartic bliss. The terms of this dictionary do not necessarily reflect the personal experiences of the author or individual contributors.

This is a story...

…about every game developer that ever was...

…and every game developer that ever will be.

It began with business...

Joe Walmart: The lowest common denominator consumer that many publishers must cater to in order to mitigate financial risk. Coined to describe the powerful force that allowed Deer Hunter to become a market success. Can also be referred to as "Walmartian."

Managing Upwards: When management duties are focused on people above in the hierarchy as opposed to below.

ROI: Return on investment.

Artists had their language...

Fakosity: Simulated radiosity lighting (global illumination) via the use of point lights.

Greeble: The micro-level geometry detail usually found on architectural or mechanical assets that give an object visual complexity on a surface level.

TARDIS: Verb that means to make something up to 40 percent larger on the interior than on the exterior.

Wonkify: to add imperfection to geometry to break the perfect symmetry and "straightness" of 3D. Wonkifying something gives it personality. It can be as subtle as slightly rotating/scaling a couple of edge loops to break the rigidity of a silhouette.

Programmers also had a jargon of their own...

Chicken and Egg Problem: A workflow or engineering problem where two things (usually code and content) depend on one to exist before the other.

Eating Your Own Dog Food: When programmers become users of their own tools to put themselves in the shoes of the designers who will eventually use those tools to do production work.

Egyptian Braces: K&R bracing as referred to by Stack Overflow, due to the resemblance to "Walk Like an Egyptian."

False Start: When you start over a significant way through coding or designing a system because you realize that it won't work, or there's a better way.

Minute Man: The engineer who estimates every task, no matter how complex, in minutes.

Pimp the Tech: Doing something to show the engine at its best (used ironically when the opposite is clearly happening.)

Yoda Conditional: if ( CONSTANT == variable ) instead of if ( variable == CONSTANT ).

Designers use techniques to form the soul of the game...

Blueroom: Graybox.

Data Wrangler: The human that tunes gameplay values for character types, items, and systems in the game.

Dice Humped: Consistently getting a poor result from a random number generator. Originally was used when playing tabletop games, but was expanded to be used as a warning thought experiment for any truly random number in a system. "What happens if the player gets dice humped?" It's a test if the designer actually wants things random or just distributed.

Graybox: The idea of making a game level without textures or high detail models, animations, etc. Just get it working, paced, and ideally, fun without any art requirements.

Grognardy: A game/universe/mechanic that is too niche/hardcore/nerdy. "That JRPG is too grognardy for Facebook, it'll never sell."

High Level: Used to describe an idea that is more conceptual than specific.

Machete: Another term for subtractive design. "Get out the machete and chop what isn't working or needed."

Palate Cleansing: Giving players a break from predominant gameplay to do something different for a while, before bringing then back to the normal gameplay.

Player Package: The suite of movement and abilities available to the player.

Pushing Buttons to Make Rainbows: Refers to a neighborhood of game mechanics and/or interactions where the psychological reward given to the player is disproportionately larger than the effort required on the player's part.

THE Top Five: Any of a handful of creative ideas that always get brought up on every single project you've worked on (i.e. "Wouldn't it be great if you could seamlessly go from space to the surface of the planet?")

Those disciplines were coordinated by a group of organized adults and simulated customers... They were called Production and QA, respectively.

Going Down a Rabbit Hole: Discussing the full implications of an idea to its logical conclusion.

Offline: Where conversations are suggested to go if a meeting gets sidetracked by some off-topic discussion.

Scoping: A process where leads remove features from a game to meet deadlines.

Soggy Scrum: When some elements of scrum are mixed in with a waterfall production method.

All was well...

Adhocracy: Organization in which tasks are done by the people who realize they need to be done and / or are able to do them best. (see Pirate Ship)

Core Pillars: Identifying characteristics defined to make sure bets are safe. What at the three core pillars of the game? Jumping, Running, Talking Pies!

Drinking the Kool-Aid: A feeling of faith or trust in the direction of the company.

Making Bread: Used to describe the gruntier and less glorious tasks of game making.

Meritocracy: The philosophy where promotions are given to the hardest workers and best performers regardless of who they know.

Pirate Ship: Tends to describe a smaller studio in which things get accomplished with success despite a lack of formal process definitions.

Rotating Trees: Work with a very poor payoff to time ratio.

But then the honeymoon ended.

Problems arose amongst the humans...

AggroNerd: Hyper critical, combative, argumentative developer.

Alt-Tab: People with a reputation for not spending their time efficiently at work.

Babe Ruth: Developer who always swings for the fences, but hasn't got a great batting average.

Banana: A check to see if someone is actually reading something or is listening to you by putting the word "banana" into the conversation just to see if they notice.

Flusher: A phone conference where you're muted the whole way through (and probably not even listening.)

Hand Waver: A person who is great at performing animated, hand-gesture-laden lectures, but never actually rolls up his sleeves and does anything.

Idea Guy: Used to indicate a trench developer who doesn't want to do any work. Came about after a string of underperformers in other departments asked to transition to design and were thus given tasks like "learn the editor and build a scenario" or "learn the database" but, faced with such, decided they wanted a more mythical designer job.

Learned Helplessness: When a developer persistently reacts helplessly to a problem he/she is perfectly capable of solving, usually because other members of the team can be relied upon to solve these problems for him/her.

LSD: Light Sensitive Douche. A phase some developers go through where they get a bit of fame and feel that wearing sunglasses indoors is the right image for them.

NIH Syndrome: When the wheel is re-invented in code because it was "Not Invented Here."

Paper Awesome: As in, "Dude, that guy is paper awesome. He writes up all this crazy stuff and can't implement any of it."

Pixel Wanking: Analyzing a single frame for something that should not be analyzed.

Polishing the Bolts Before the Engines Are On: Spending time tweaking and arguing minutia when there are raging fires in core systems.

Shiny Object: the method of distracting incompetent (but unfirable) developers from hurting the project by derailing them into a harmless area of the game's development.

Sponger: Anyone who goes into a bathroom with their shoes off.

Relationships across hierarchies became strained...

Buzzword Compliance Pass: Adding a bunch of bullet-points to a presentation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the game but will certainly be brought up at the meeting by an exec, e.g., "I don't see anything on this update about leveraging social networking or microtransactions. How do you plan to ensure that your game has a high retention index?"

Cabal: A small group of employees secretly operating together toward ends that differ from those of studio authorities.

Eye of Sauron: When the project suddenly endures the fiery gaze of publisher executives and marketing people who have recently decided to start paying attention to the previously autonomous development team.

Failing Upwards: The phenomenon relating to high profile individuals who get placed in higher-profile positions with each successive failure.

Feature Creep: When unplanned features creep into the game through subtle and unofficial channels.

Hello, Monster: When you encounter horrible design decisions, often from a marketing exec or someone far from design. Like, "Why don't you just make the game open world?"

Ivory Tower: The floor where all the execs work and hand down decrees to the rest of the underlings.

Management Roulette: When you have every producer and lead coming around your desk several times over the course of a day to see if a feature that has been deemed important by upper management is complete yet, generally resulting in being pulled out of your train of thought every 20-30 minutes. You never know which manager will be around next, but you know it's just a matter of time.

Meat Shield: When middle management protects subordinates from the whims of upper management.

Peter Principle: The concept that all employees eventually get promoted to one level beyond their actual level of competency.

Pink Lightsaber: Something thrown in to give the IP Police a safe item to reject from your build because they operate under a directive to find at least one item to reject.

Publership: When team leaders distance themselves from the actual workload and behave more like publishers than leaders.

Quacking Duck: If something is blatantly wrong somewhere on the screen, it gives the execs an obvious aesthetic error to focus on instead of tearing something else apart which may have nothing wrong with it.

Reality Distortion Field: The phenomena that exists in the Ivory Tower that allows execs to set completely unrealistic goals and/or deny the obvious.

Seagull: Used as a verb to describe when a high level executive swoops in and craps all over a decision made in the trenches.

Star Chamber: A chamber composed of an insular elite authoritative body with strict, arbitrary rulings, secretive proceedings, and an inherent lack of objectivity that casts doubt on the legitimacy of decisions made.

Yellow Pixel: Counter-strategy to the phenomenon where each manager in the review process felt the need to "fix" something regardless of its relevance or value. It entails adding something obviously broken so that a producer could point it out and feel good about adding value.

The game was just not fun...

Chopping Wood: The feeling one gets when melee combat fails to hold the player's interest due to feeling like a lumberjack mashing buttons in a forest of highly durable trees.

Crazy Quilt: A way to describe a level with too many textures and no unifying theme.

Dead Monkeys: Ideas, particularly design-related, that the champion will not let go of regardless of the evidence that they should not be done. Came from a documentary about monkeys where a mother would carry its dead offspring around for some time before finally acknowledging that it was actually no longer alive.

Design Grenade: When a non-designer identifies a problem and comes up with their own solution to replace the existing design... Oblivious to how their solution will blow up the rest of the game and disrupt any developer within that vicinity.

Know It When I See It: A style of direction where creative vision is developed through expensive trial and error as opposed to being synthesized via mental simulation before implementation.

My Immersion: Freakouts about realism in spite of a ton of other unrealistic things with which they have no problem.

Shelf Moment: A point of frustration or boredom you hit on a game where you decide to put the game down and never return to it.

Ugly Baby: When someone in power has a favorite design or idea that the team doesn't like, and it will be a very uncomfortable conversation to let them know.

Bugs proliferated uncontrollably...

Alien Queen: Named after the queen alien from the Alien series. A nasty bug which spawns countless other bugs as defenses, making it extremely hard to find... and when you do finally find it, it suddenly becomes a real fight.

Bugbombing: The inevitable portion of every final cycle when publisher-side QA testers try to bury the dev team in bugs based on sheer quantity over quality... often with testers vying with each other for the highest defect-reporting totals.

Count Virtula: A bug that happens in C++ when you misspell a virtual function in a subclass and spend a while figuring out why your polymorphism is broken.

Defactoring: applying refactoring methods to make the code less stable, less resilient to bugs, and harder to maintain. Often associated with turning a function into a class so you "don't have to pass all of those parameters around."

Engine Imps and Fairies: When no one touches the engine and something magically breaks overnight, the imps did it. When no one touches anything and something magically gets fixed overnight, the fairies did it.

Friendly Fire: Someone comes along, thinks there's a problem with a particular bit of code, rewrites it to fix that (wildly overblown) problem, and in doing so destroys all sorts of implicit assumptions built into it because they don't have the big picture.

Glory Code: when a programmer implements something that didn't take very long, but visually is very impressive. Sometimes glory code is unstable and not done -- a fact that oftentimes is hard to explain to a an overeager manager who assumes it's done because it looks done.

Kickbombing: A natural defense against bugbombing, it means to kick back bugs en masse to the pub QA lead because they weren't written correctly or they failed to include a screenshot.

Olé: The subtle, fine art of passing a bug along to someone else without doing a damn stitch of work on it. Usually, said passing occurs at 5PM on Friday afternoon.

Showstopper: A bug that prevents the game from going gold. Normally found an hour after delivering a release candidate.

Voodoo Code: Code that magically fixes a bug, but you have absolutely no idea how.

And the build broke often...

BlameBot: a non-automated robotic process of finding out who is responsible for breaking the game using Perforce history. Activation of Blamebot is often announced by the human in robot voice.

Drive By Check In: Synonym for Commit and Run... Often pantomimed/re-enacted with imaginary guns/grenades.

Fat Finger: Breaking an important build by clicking the wrong button. An inherent flaw of build processes with manual steps (verb or noun.)

Franken- : Prefix for any cobbled together collection of pieces never intended to work together. Most often "frankenbuild."

The Voodoo: The processes and incantations that team members follow as the build and tools pipeline change over time, for the worse. Usually the result of sloppy data versioning and/or poorly documented interfaces.

Those responsible for breaking the build were sometimes given a "Token of Shame"...

Shamebrero: Some object of public shame or indignity that you have to wear or keep at your desk for a while after a particularly heinous build-breaking.

Broken Controller Award: Another version of the shamebrero.

The Dance: Performed around/for someone who has broken the build, usually accompanied by body percussion and impromptu singing/lyrics.

Flame Shirt: A XXXL black shirt with a skull, ace playing cards, and flames.

Shame Monkey: A screeching mechanical Shame Monkey that could be passed around with the nice addition that you could touch a switch on the foot and have it screech in an irritating manner for maybe 15 seconds after you really wanted it to stop.

Getting collectively ambushed with NERF weapons (has no official name in this dictionary)

And so began the Crunch...

Donut Diplomacy: Management tactic applied to game developers where cheap incentives are provided in the hopes of boosting output. See also: "pizza diplomacy."

Eater Leavers: People who stay just late enough to get the company-bought dinner, but leave right after eating instead of working for a few more hours.

Hero Death Spiral: The cycle you get into where one or two people end up always being the hero to "get a project going in the right direction", and those one or two people work later and later into the night, and show up later and later in the morning/afternoon, until you operate as two nearly distinct teams. The team that "does stuff" and the team that "breaks stuff."

Stockholm Syndrome: Usually refers to junior developers who are loving this hardcore crunch-laden life that is being imposed upon them because suffering gives meaning to their existence.

Vultures: Folks who eat the crunch dinner, often before the people who are working too hard to immediately jump up and run for dinner as soon as the announcement comes in can get to it.

Morale diminished with each passing day...

Cassandra: A person who foresees the future (usually pending doom) but is ignored for various reasons.

Clown Shoes: A really bad mistake or decision born out of shortsightedness, inexperience or just plain incompetence.

DarkPathing: Deep, deep bitching about the project or company. Contagious negative ranting that can spread toxins into the company culture.

Donkey: Used as an adjective to indicate something as terrible and utterly lame (noun form: "Donkey Porn")

Gone All Kurtz: Someone tasked to get something under control who instead makes it worse.

Lipstick on the Pig: When you know the project should be cancelled (high likelihood of vaporware) but the publisher still wants it in the box and on the shelf.

Rally Monkey: Person who engages in ill-advised attempts to raise morale.

Something needed to change...

80/20 Rule: 80 percent of the game comes from 20 percent of the work. The remaining 80 percent of the work goes into polishing that last 20 percent of the game.

Chainsaw to Scalpel - Dealing with the biggest problems first, and then the smaller ones after.

High School Problem: a problem that seems huge and awful at the time, but reflecting on it later, you realize it wasn't that big of a deal.

Gold Edition: A feature to be saved for a future edition of the game that will probably never happen and we all know it, but nobody wants to commit to killing the feature entirely.

Isle of Dreams: Lowest priority bugs that may be addressed in the sequel.

Pre-mortem: Someone messed up really bad, usually a group of people, and we need to talk about it as a team right now.

Reboot: when you need to restart a project because something big (usually the design) failed.

Save the Astronauts: The "Save the Astronauts Meeting," "Let's go Save the Astronauts," "We were out Saving Astronauts." Inspired by the scene in Apollo 13 where the scientists on Earth have a table full of equipment and very little time to figure out how to save the astronauts' lives, the ten-minute, time-boxed meeting is one of my favorites: "We have 10 minutes to squash this problem and Save the Astronauts."

Shotgun Decisions: pushing someone to make a decision quickly on something. "Imagine you have a shotgun to your head and you have one minute to make this decision. What would you do?"

Triage: Going through the bugs to determine priority.

Eventually, the game became stable.

90/10 rule (for code): 90 percent of processor execution time is taken up by 10 percent of the code.

Bobblehead Help: When a helpful person is just nodding and making "I understand" sounds until you figure it out on your own.

Cardboard Cutout Dog: The person you drag to your desk to explain why a bug can't possibly be happening, so that halfway through you can discover what the bug is, without them saying a word. From Steve Baker's seminal article.

Binary Chop: Applying the binary search algorithm to commenting out lines of code in order to track down a bug.

Kludgy: Describes an awkward or inelegant solution to a problem.

Ugly-Pretty: Code that looks ugly until you realize that the problem itself is horrendous and that the solution is good relative to that.

Space Magic: Glowy technology that makes no sense at all.

And the fun started to manifest.

Cobra Venom: The distilled-down, core coolness of an idea or a project. You just need a little bit of this to make a big impact.

Special Sauce: That one missing gameplay element that hasn't made it in yet that's needed to make the core loop fun and engaging.

Sticky Grenade: Named after the feature in Halo. A game mechanic that simply never gets old no matter how many times you use it.

Until finally, the game became ready for the masses.

This was a story...

… about every game developer that ever was...

… and every game developer that ever will be.

You are not alone.

Contribution Credits

The phrases in this Studio Culture Dictionary did not come from any one source.

However, some of these sources graciously gave permission to credit them for their contribution to this article:

Aaron Hoffman
Aaron Leiby
Andrew Willmott
Bill Dugan
Brad Welch
Brandon Rowlett
Brenda Brathwaite
Brian Chan
Caryn Vainio
Chris Hargrove
Chris Jurney
Chris Rhinehart
Dan Magaha
Dave Taylor
David Goldfarb
David Gregory
David Navarro
Erik Doescher
Gaurav Mathur
George Broussard
Greg Snook
Harvey Smith
Hayden Duvall
Ian Fischer
J.J. Hoesing
James Everett
Jaymin Kessler
Jeff Gardiner
Jim Shepard
Jeremiah Slaczka
Joe Houston
Joe Waters
Joel Burgess
John Comes
Jordan Thomas
Josh Jay
Josh Sawyer
Kenn Hoekstra
Kim McAuliffe
Mat Noguchi
Mathieu Berube
Matthew Rice
Matthew Rosenfeld
Michael Cahill
Michael Vance
Miles Jacobson
Quoc Tran
Ralph Barbagallo
Ricardo Bare
Rich Carlson
Richard Evans
Richard Sim
Sami Vanhatalo
Scott Foe
Scott Warner
Seth Shain
Tim Lamb
Tim Probst
Tom Forsyth
Tom Plunket
Tre Zieman
Will Kerslake

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About the Author(s)

Kain Shin


Kain is a former games journalist and lifelong gamer with core experiences amongst JRPGs, CRPGs, SRPGs, Shmups, Beat-em-ups, retro twitch, and fighting games (formerly a competition level Soul Calibur and Street Fighter player). He will always have a special place in his heart for emergent simulations that follow the Looking Glass school of design. Kain eventually made the transition into the development side of the industry in 2000 as a programmer. His credits over the last 10 years include Microsoft/Bicycle Casino, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows, the N-Gage 2.5 SDK, Mushroom Men, and Ghostbusters for the Wii. Kain is currently a senior gameplay programmer/dishwasher working on Dishonored at Arkane Studios in Austin. An archive of his past presentations and non-game-related endeavors are located at http://ringofblades.org/

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