Free Agency: Opening Up the Game Developer Market

In a preview of his upcoming GDC speech, veteran lead designer Michael John (Daxter) advocates for free agency in the game biz; that is, the destruction of full-time employment, and the beginning of per-project contracting.

Here's a story we've all heard. You join a studio and work on a project that you really love, and then the studio starts up its next project, and it's just not your cup of tea. Happens every day in this industry.

So what are you to do? Your choice today is to stick it out and work on a project you don't like, or quit the company and feel like a chump. I believe this is a false choice, and we can do better. And the best way for us to do better is to embrace the idea of free agency.

Free Agency is a short name for a single, simple principle: creative workers should be given the opportunity to choose their projects. On the one hand, this idea is so simple, it almost doesn't seem worthy of discussion. But on the other hand, it stands so far outside of the mainstream of current game development, it ends up feeling closer to revolutionary.

Imagine your studio's producer coming to you and pitching the studio's project to you. I've had this experience, and I can tell you, it feels great. Even if all you do is say "yes", you know that you are on the project because you chose to be there. It fundamentally changes the relationship between the developer and his or her work, and shifts the power dynamic of the developer/studio relationship.

An Open Marketplace of Game Developers

First a definition:

"Game Developer: A person who is directly involved in the creation of games."

We have this funny habit of conflating the terms "developer" and "studio." But these are very different entities. The developers make the games, and the studios provide the infrastructure and framework for them to do that. Neither can exist without the other, but they are not the same. Getting this language straight makes the rest of this conversation immeasurably easier.

Presently, the vast majority of game developers do their work as 'permanent' employees of development studios. Because they are tied down by contracts and ethical commitments, the expectation is that these developers are in it for the long haul.

The reality of course is already very different. Developers jump ship like clockwork, and studios either downsize or close down constantly. However the assumption of permanent employment drapes a veil of secrecy and false expectation over this whole process, leading to frequent feelings of betrayal and anger. Let's get beyond that.

When I advocate an "open marketplace" of developers, all I'm really advocating is lifting the veil. In a Free Agent economy, it's OK for studios to contact developers, and for developers to contact studios.

A free agent developer has no less obligation to finish projects in a complete and dedicated way, and his or her client has no less obligation to do its best to manage the project such that it is shipped and successful. Looked at in this light, all I'm asking for is transparency in what has already become a relatively transient relationship.

Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander

A very important part of this equation is that it is not zero-sum. Though I am asking developers to wrest control of their careers away from their employers, forward-looking studios stand to realize great advantages as well.

Studio management across the industry rightly laments a lack of access to good and especially experienced talent. But as more developers become free agents, studios gain easy access to a far greater range of talent and knowledge than they can hope to get in a traditional recruiter-based employee search. This is a significant advantage for a savvy studio, especially one trying to break out of a rut of similar products.

The other advantage to studios, one that should not be overestimated, is the economic efficiency of free agency. Studios who rely on in-house talent in the modern era create gigantic overhead loads, and almost inevitably have extensive redundancies, especially as they move between projects.

Free agency allows studios to add talent only when it is required, and to remove that talent from the balance sheet as soon as it is no longer required. While it might sound strange for a developer like myself to endorse this kind of cold-hearted approach, tackling the problem of runaway overhead is vital to the future economic health of studios, and without the studios, there are no developers.

This Is Not Outsourcing

It's important to point out that Free Agency is distinct from "outsourcing". While outsourcing has clear economic advantages, studios are rarely engaging outsourcing partners in order to gain specific expertise. Indeed most of the time, the studio is not even certain which individuals the outsourcing company will assign to their task.

Free Agency by contrast is a studio seeking highly specific talent, and talent that is probably very well paid. Where the point of outsourcing is to get cheap work. The point of free agency is to get the right work, at the right time.

So while outsourcing is rightly criticized by talent as being a 'race to the bottom', free agency is just the opposite - a 'race for the top' for the best talent in the industry.

It's Really About Developers

Make no mistake, I am taking sides here, and I have taken the side of talent. And the wealth of remarkable talent flowing into the creation of games makes me optimistic that free agency will take hold.

In the open marketplace of free agency, yes studios get to shop around for talent, and that's great. But developers get to window shop for the best opportunities as well. That's a much more meaningful shift, and it's a shift that restores the balance in our industry between business and invention, a balance that's shifted way too far in the direction of the bottom line over the past several years.

A Quick Checklist For Talent

There are many factors that make working as a Free Agent challenging, and even frightening, but primary among them is simply the will of developers to stand up and make a change.

Though there is far more to the process of free agency than I can discuss in this column, here are a few things that talent can do starting today to begin affecting this change.

  1. Stop thinking like an employee. You’re a creator, not an employee. It is your studio's responsibility to put you in a position to create, and if it's failing, or if it's going a direction you don't agree with, then you have no obligation to stay.

  2. Be honest with your studio. Planning on moving on? Tell your producer. The sooner the better, even if your planned date of departure is months away. You put them on the hook in #1; now it's your turn to be accountable.

  3. Demand credit. The IGDA has a crediting standard; insist that your studio and publisher follow it. Developers make games, developers deserve credit for the specific work they do.

  4. Don't sign non-compete agreements. Blanket non-compete agreements have no place in our field. Your employer has every justification to require that you use none of its tools or assets outside of the workplace… but your ideas formulated outside of your work for that employer are your own. Don't sign that away.

  5. Stay tuned for future developments. There are a great many changes needed to create a true free agent marketplace, including a growing and evolving group of agents, a possible change in the health care system, and possibly even a trade union. All of these are important and are underway.

  6. Try out free agency! Consider being a free agent, even if it's just between gigs. See if you feel any differently toward the work that you do. Free agency is scary, unfamiliar, and definitely not for everyone. But you just might find it changes the way you think about making games.

See you at GDC!

(Michael John will be presenting a talk Cutting the Apron Strings: Developer Freedom Through Free Agency at 4pm on Friday at GDC)

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