What would a Game Developers Guild (GDG) look like? Would we want such an entity? Would it hobble the world of game development with the kind of "not-my-department" surliness many associate with unions? Or could it be a tool that game designers, developers, producers, and unions can use to move game development into a new paradigm?
What Kind Of World Needs A Game Developer's Guild?
Our company is unusual in the game industry. We are a "game producer". What's a game producer?
A game producer company asks game designers to come forth with their best game designs. It's the opposite of conventional wisdom (which has it that game developers don't want to hear you when you say "I've got a great idea for a game!"). Such a company is modeled after a film production company. It asks for inspired, well-thought-out, well-written designs. It sends word out it's looking for free agent designers to approach with their best design for a game.
Surprisingly, while many have looked at us as tire-kickers, maybe semi-seriously applying, almost none have full-on committed and submitted a well-done design that could plausibly spark a full game.
Our CFO, who comes from film and television, can hardly believe this. In film, writer-directors will wash dishes, wait tables, mortgage their house, max out their credit cards, do anything to get the time and freedom to craft their dream script or shoot a short film. But their game development equivalents -- designers -- seem to crave security.
It's not because they don't have great ideas. Most do. But they come to us as if we are a game publisher. They want to do the minimum -- a pitch doc, basically -- and then have us hire them, buy them out, and make the game.
Problem is, we aren't that. A game producer can't work that way. It isn't about being a monolithic corporation with a static roster of unchanging talent, grinding out games that, even if they come in the front door with a unique vision, leave the back door all looking the same: large, brown-castle shooters done in the Unreal Engine (or something like that). So we tell them, we need more. A game producer needs commitment. Needs a good design that it can establish chain-of-title to; that forms a selling basis -- one you breathe life into.
But then, when it comes to this, many of them back away.
Why do they do this? Why don't they make a more thought-out, better design, with actual production-ready documentation and maybe an early playable prototype?
It's not because it's not doable (though there aren't many good writers of design docs today).
Mostly it's because it's dangerous.
The Danger Of Being A Free Agent Game Designer
You're an intermediate game designer at Game Company X -- not some Will Wright (yet). Just a person who's worked in a supporting role for some years, maybe designed some levels, wrote the odd mission design, or something to this end. You have a "dream idea" for a game -- but you hold it close to your chest, not wanting to share it with your employer because you know that if you do, it might get co-opted into the game you're working on now. Or you won't share in the reward if it becomes a major hit. Or it will get distilled in the churning groupthink of your typical game development company so that by the time it's released anything original in it will have been boiled out. Or you haven't the time or energy to somehow cobble together the production resources required to quit your company (giving up healthcare benefits and so on), and finance an entire vertical slice.
Or, worse, if you do start shopping around your design you might piss off your current employer and they might fire you -- and now you're out of a job, health insurance, and so on. Or if you actually do take a chance to write up the idea into something close to a well-executed, readable design document (maybe you're between jobs and have some time), you know that you have very few places to take it as publishers "don't read designs", and even if they did they wouldn't greenlight anything until they first saw a vertical slice.
So your Dream Game sits there... On your hard drive... Or in your mind... In limbo...
Now let's switch the tables somewhat. Take the perspective of us, the game producing company. Not a game developer; not a game publisher... a game producer. We do on occasion see a designer with that good early design. Working like a film producer, we want to do a deal on it and begin to "package" it: to attach elements to it which will both map out the production picture and have a sway over whether it gets greenlit: if Outsourcer X says they really, really want to build Game X by Designer X, then the idea would be that might have sway over an investor or publisher (after all: who better to judge whether a design could actually be turned into a good game than a game creator? At least, that's how it often works in the film industry with key talent).
So the game producer needs to be able to shop it around. It needs to be able to find outsourcing parties to come on board if it gets greenlit (as a game producer maintains no internal production resources to minimize its burn rate). It needs to be able to show your design to investment parties to see if they like it. So to pound that pavement, a game producer needs to do a deal. (Otherwise we're just giving you charity.) The game producer either options it as a design document (using the literary model) or does a co-production with you. But to do either, we need that design to be substantial. There needs to be a something there. You, game designer, need to put some sweat equity into it.
We say this to designers, but they don't seem to want to take that time to flesh out their designs. They don't want to lose their jobs. They don't want to lose their healthcare. They don't want to alienate their bosses. They don't want to spend all kinds of time writing up a design and beginning the journey of realizing their vision when they could be doing something more useful -- like learning how to optimize lightmaps.
The Uncertainty of Free Agent/Producer Dealmaking
So if you are a game designer with a good game design, and you do get it in front of a game producer, and you want to do a one-off deal -- say an option of your game design (since you have four others in your back pocket you want to shop around) -- what about making the deal?
If you have three or five game designs, and you're firing them out there to game producers (hopefully several will come into existence in the future), odds are not all are going to get picked up. So, playing the odds, you want to option them all -- that's why the option helps both you and the producer. Hopefully at least one will make the cut and get some prototype financing.
But that's a lot of option agreements to negotiate. If these are long, imagine how bogged down that will get you.
In our experience on one option, a designer's lawyer treated it as if we were doing a publishing deal. We were up to our eyeballs in a twenty-plus page document, as if designer had given us a vertical slice, and we were publisher about to advance them a million bucks for the first milestone.
But a game producer isn't a publisher. It's a game producer. We were only asking for a one- or two-year window to shop it around where, if we found interest, we'd have the first right to buy it and put it into prototyping. Soon you, as game producer, will realize that negotiating a complex legal document each time you want to merely option a design is going to bog your business down as you want to option ten or twenty designs at a shot for each slate.
How does the film industry deal with this when optioning screenplays or when hiring key talent?
They do a deal memo.
What's a deal memo?
It's a quick one- to five-page note of the key points of the deal. Often major projects are greenlit on nothing more than a deal memo.
But, you say, that's a sketchy agreement? Yes, but that's the strength of it. It's a quick agreement that fosters that fast hustle of dealmaking. It lets you grab a property or a talent when it's hot, and get things going.
But how do you survive the intrinsic danger of making a sketchy deal? If there is a dispute, the whole thing can fall apart by the lawyers shooting holes in the gaps.
Well, it would be good if there were a master list of deal points out there somewhere, wouldn't it? A gold-standard list of agreement points you might write "we'll go by those terms" when you're doing up this quick deal. A yardstick that would cover a myriad of details, from creator credit to payment levels to production terms and so forth so that you wouldn't have to get bogged down putting all those points to paper. Wouldn't that help facilitate a quick deal and getting on with it?
The Danger Of Being A Game Producer
But let's say we, the game producer, do get that great game design (document and/or prototype), and we do do an option or co-production deal on it. What kind of problems do we have now?
Well, since a game producer has no internal prototyping or production capacity -- giving it zero to no overhead; allowing it to spend months working out the early vision of a game with the designer with little pressure -- it has a problem. It now has to crew up for prototyping and later, hopefully, for full production.
And since any core talent they found to work on this might only be available for a certain period -- on top of the ticking clock of the option -- it has a time pressure to do this.
You might see the risk in this. You might hire the wrong people or the wrong outsourcing company. How do you know they're any good? Are there any professional standards to rank them by? If some of them turn out poorly, do you have any recourse to replace them? If you get into a production schedule, and you realize you need more capacity or you're going to miss a deadline, can you quickly ramp up with more production capacity?
A Game Developers Guild
I think you see where this is heading.
We all know that a Game Developers Guild would lead to game developers fighting for better pay, better hours and so forth. That's the stereotypical view.
But it's only a stereotype. Only a half-truth.
Even the various film/tv unions can't survive by slacking off. They need to work. And when they do, the stuff they produce... They work hard.
So there are advantages for all sides in creating a Game Developers Guild.
In film and TV, guilds provide group healthcare to their members, allowing individual members to better act as free agents, and increasing the quality of their medium as a whole. We have spoken with many game designers who tell us that this alone would help them find the courage to leave their current employers and pursue the visions of making their dream games as free agents.
The standard deal terms in the contracts of the various film/TV guilds enable parties to make quick agreements. If a producer wants to sign a director quickly, a deal memo lets them both write up the basic terms, but the guild regulations are a solid fallback they can both point to as a common ground -- allowing them to do a deal and get on with making a project rather than getting bogged down in lengthy negotiations where every single deal point needs to be spelled out. The same could be applied in a game industry paradigm. (In our negotiations with free agent game designers, the only similar thing we've been able to use is the International Game Developers Association Crediting Standards -- which we defer to in our baseline game design option contract.)
After a deal is made, and a project gets greenlit for prototyping and production, a Game Developers Guild would provide standardization and security in the outsourcing process for the game producer. In film/TV the guilds actually work with producers to get their projects staffed and up to speed with locations, office facilities, key crew -- even going to far as to take on the burden of hiring temporary outside staff on an as-needed day-to-day basis. The same could happen in a Game Developers Guild. If something were to go wrong -- if an outsourcing company that is a signatory to the guild were to screw up royally -- a game producer would have recourse to correct the situation and get new production capacity online quickly.
For the production crew themselves, the hard work of crunch would now be mixed in with long rest periods as they moved from project to project, as we are speaking here of a core-team/outsourcing model, where development staff need not be held permanently in the roster of some game studio (bloating its overhead).
A Game Developers Guild would be deeply involved in professional development and the accreditation of its members. Numerous courses would be offered, and outsourcing members might be officially qualified as developers using various middleware platforms. This too would greatly increase the security for game producers who need to fully staff up for production of a major game for a temporary duration.
A Game Developers Guild, like its film/TV counterpart, would be actively involved in regional development, to acquire everything from tax credits to temporary production facilities (where myriad outsourcers can meet for a few months while building a game), to arrangements with nearby educational facilities for new talent.
How To Start The GDG
How would a Game Developer's Guild begin? Well, since we aren't on that side of the table, we can't offer much outside of two general options.
First option: the IGDA could decide to take on the powers of a guild. They're a no-brainer as they understand game development. However, I recall there is reluctance on IGDA's part do to such a thing.
Second option: One of the existing entertainment guilds -- SAG, AFTRA, ACTRA, DGA, DGC, IATSE, whatever -- could be invited in to organize the GDG. They are already well-established. However, these unions do not understand game development.
There are probably other options. But others would have to find them. I would just say that if they did, they would find parties on our side of the table ready to talk.
All the major Hollywood film studios (equivalent to game industry publishers) are signatories to the various guilds. (Go watch the final credits of your typical Hollywood blockbuster: you'll see the guild crests toward the end.) There is a reason for this. Yes, these guilds want to be fairly compensated through collective bargaining -- but the work their members provide more than demonstrates the worth of this. (Not many people know that Ronald Reagan once served as president of the Screen Actors Guild.) They bring organization, security and standardization to all sides -- the entrepreneurs as well as the labor.
The same could be true in the game industry. We are a capitalist venture. We want to do deals. We want to realize the talents of individual designers. And yet, we game producer companies would really be helped if the Game Developers Guild did appear. It would stabilize the game industry and help make a new world of free agent game development that much more possible.