9 min read

Competence and Comedy

Competence and tragi-comedy in the games industry.

He was a 50 something senior editor with greying hair on a large metropolitan tabloid newspaper in Brisbane Australia. He carried the casual air of authority that comes with seniority and proven ability. There was no pretence in his manner; he was supremely good at his job.

I had never spoken to him, but had often watched him work, stealing glimpses over the rim of my monitor as I typed. He sat at a desk in front of a terminal like the rest of us, not enshrined behind glass in a private office as was his right. He made difficult decisions all day every day, and communicated them calmly in full view. He was there earlier than the rest of us, and left long after we did in the evening. As was the wont of all city editors he every day consumed more than 20 newspapers front to back, including the obscure details of obituaries and personal ads. In between he found time to oversee three separate major metropolitan editions - morning, afternoon, and evening.

In an office filled with talented and capable people who daily proved their ability to produce to the highest standard, there wasn't a person who didn't respect him.

One featureless weekday amidst the bustle of phone calls, interviews, and story submissions, I entered a largely irrelevant piece for the afternoon edition. The story had started at about 10 paragraphs in length, but by the time it made its way through the submissions queue, past several sub-editors and then to a final cursory check by the day editor, it had been whittled down to half that size with a small heading, and tagged for somewhere around page 12.

He called me over. I was just one of a dozen other cadet journalists among a staff surpassing 100 of all grades working the day shift. I was surprised he knew my name.

"This is yours?" he asked, looking at me over his bi-focals with unnervingly intelligent eyes. I looked at his screen. The glowing green terminal text showed what was left of my story with newly added headline and display code, ready to be sent to the bromiding machines and layed out neatly on blue lined page templates two floors below.

"Yes, did I make a mistake?" I was understandably nervous. Factual errors can cause newspapers big problems, and leave them vulnerable to lawsuits. At the least they damage credibility, which is perhaps the larger disaster. Something as simple as a misspelled name can result in a quick trip to the Editor's office. If you are unlucky or it's a repeated mistake, it could mean a cleared desk and escorted trip out of the building.

"No, your copy is clean. It's well written and concise. Well done." I nodded and smiled with relief. He turned back to the monitor.

"A couple of years ago there was a similar story in the morning edition of the Herald, I think around page 15 or so. It will be in the library somewhere. It might be worth following up."

I did as I was instructed, and returned from the library with the clipping. He was correct. The small article appeared on page 15 of an 18-month old edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, a large and respected broadsheet from the NSW capital. The connection he made between it and my piece created a follow-up story that netted me a page 3 by-line.

The man consumed almost as much printed text in one day as I did in a week - and I read as much as I could. He did it every single day, 365 days a year, even on holidays. There is no telling how many different stories he had read and followed during his career - hundreds of thousands at least. And yet somehow he had managed to recall the details of a nondescript story from the back pages of one particular edition of a newspaper from another city entirely, 18 months before.

I am still in awe, 20 years later.

Once you have been exposed to such competence, it forever marks you. The impression never leaves. It's a permanent high water mark on your perception; a standard against which all future experience is measured. And it has caused me more than once to wonder at the games industry.

Our industry is filled with talented people, some of them beyond brilliant. The best of them have inspired a generation and helped create an entirely new creative field. I have worked with a few, and watched as they pulled projects back from certain disaster time and again. Hopefully I have helped and not hindered them along the way. But such competence has too often been in contrast to those who held ultimate control, and who were the ones pushing projects toward the brink in the first place.

In the newspaper industry when I worked in it, you would not get anywhere near a position of real responsibility and power if you could not perform. You might be articulate, as most writers are. You might know important and connected people, and most journalists do. You might have spent your entire life successfully convincing people of abilities you did not quite possess through a gift of charm and persuasiveness. But in journalism, if you had not at some point proven yourself, you simply would not get the position. And even if you did manage to fool everyone, the reality of what was required on the job would crush such pretence within days. As a result, young journalists knew that whatever they were being asked to do, no matter how menial, the person giving them the task could do it better and faster themselves if needed.

So it is with slow bewilderment that I have observed the upper workings of the games industry. Oftentimes, I genuinely have not understood.

During one PS2 project, a senior executive from the publisher came to visit the developer's studio, and for a few moments stood behind an artist watching her run the game to test her changes. The man was in a position to make major creative and technical decisions and did so, often to the consternation of the developers tasked with fulfilling his requests.

"That's the main character?" he asked the artist, with an authoritative, informed tone. She answered in the affirmative.

"It's made of polygons?"

The artist paused for a few seconds, trying to process the question. She looked at him to see if he was joking, though she knew he wasn't. He looked back unflinching and serious. "Yes," she managed without irony.

The suit walked away, satisfied. The artists and coders left behind looked at each other, wide eyed and incredulous.

That was not an isolated incident, far from it. There was the publisher's QA manager who created weeks of panic and confusion over visual artifacts developers couldn't find, only for them to realize in the end that he was referring to in game fogging. An email explaining his error was never answered.

There were the angry emails from a legal department threatening a developer with breach of contract for not providing a way to execute an (I think) 8-button keypress combination requested by someone somewhere within the publisher hierarchy, when 7 was the most Windows 95 could detect. It took the lead coder sending a copy of a white-paper from Microsoft as a desperate last resort to finally disarm a threat to withdraw funding from the project and sink the 30 member development team.

There was the drunken email sent from the French Riviera at 3am in the morning, thanking a team for staying back yet again to fix a build on time and make him look good to the publisher, while the CEO relaxed on the beach guzzling pina coladas. The same executive had almost killed his own company several projects earlier when on gold master night he charged into the office drunkenly demanding fundamental changes to the game four hours before the final build was contractually due. Those there at the time spent the early hours of that morning registering on employment sites, so certain were they of disaster. Somehow, someone managed to talk him down.

One publisher representative kept a straight face over a conference table while demanding a developer pay USD$750 an hour for the game design services of a martial artist who was the personal guru of the licence owners. The extortive fee for services that were not needed was "in order to maintain the integrity and purity of his art". The publisher previously had rejected an entire game design because a baby hippopotamus had appeared on screen alone. "Where's its mother?" the angry missive had read, as if the point should have been obvious. "You can't have a baby without a mother."

Then there were the CEO and Executive Producer tasked with creating an MMO based upon a series of novels. Neither they nor the lead designer they hired read the books, had ever played an MMO, or even liked the genre. Yet they collectively refused any meaningful input from those who had and did for more than three years, consigning a promising USD$40 million+ project to inevitable obscurity failure.

And there are so many other examples, a seemingly endless stream of absurd tragi-comedies. I'm not suggesting such situations are the norm, or even the majority. But they are uncomfortably common.

Perhaps it is because the games industry grew so big so quickly. Perhaps the highly technical and creative nature of games makes them an easy target for fast talking charlatanism and all manner of associated nepotism. Or maybe its because money really is dumb, and those with it too often believe those who talk the most but can do the least, and are willing to diffuse, defer, and camouflage personal failure so that it effectively rests upon others. Perhaps in the corporate culture that has ascended with the industry too often aggressive arrogance and loud, empty confidence is mistaken for competence.

All I know, as one of the foot soldiers who has watched much of it unfold with wide incredulous eyes, is that my previous experience did little to prepare me for any of it.

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