This Developer's Life

This will be the first in a weekly series syndicated from Game Culture about the trials and tribulations of being a game developer. They'll be out every Friday

This Developer’s Life

Ever wanted to know what happens in the video game industry?  How games are made? The macro decisions that push this industry around?

Ever curious how a title goes from being a concept in someone’s head to something played by millions of people around the world?  Over the following many months I’ll try and answer these questions for you, one week at a time.

My name is James Portnow.  I’m a developer.  I know how opaque our world can be, sitting on the outside, but even more so, I know how mysterious our world can seem from the inside.  As a developer it’s easy to lose touch with what’s happening outside your office or even outside your cubical.  I’ve been asked to alleviate that through the only method I know how, writing about my life. 

I’ve been asked to do this because my life is odd, perhaps even rare, but it puts me in a unique position to answer the questions laid out above.  For those of you outside the industry, don’t take this as the typical developer experience.  Life isn’t like the Westwood college ads, you simply don’t “tighten up the graphics on level three”.  Of course, at the same time, the life I lead is open to anyone; all it requires is some hard work and planning.

But let’s continue this villanelle…

My name is James Portnow.  I am the CEO of Divide by Zero Games.

I run my own game company.  We are producing the game that I have wanted to make since I was sixteen.  My childhood dream accomplished…except for the fact that I rarely get to have an active hand in development these days. 

Last time someone clocked me I was working a 76 hour week.  I think this may be fairly typical: 12 hours on week days 8 hours on weekends.  What do I do?  At this point I mostly raise money.  Money is the blood that drives the engine of creation.  Without it there can be no entertainment and no art.  This is a hard lesson, but one every developer and aspiring developer should internalize, it makes this industry make much more sense.

From this vantage I can deliver to you the business realities of taking a scrappy startup and getting a game made.

My name is James Portnow.  I am a designer.

I come from a background in design.  Designing for development is one of my fortes, it is something I’ve spent much of my waking life studying.  I believe innovation has to be coupled with business sense and business sense with innovation.  It is my firm belief that there is so much more that we can do with this medium, and that it is criminal not to do it, but to change the world and the way we view games we have to do it in a way that is commercially viable.

Advances can’t be made in isolation.  If you can sell a million copies of a game all the majors will stand up and take notice.  To push the medium you need Activision and EA, you need THQ and Ubisoft.  Once those companies start to integrate your innovations into their games you reach the world and you’ve truly raised the bar of what a game should be.

From this vantage I can deliver to you the trials and tribulations of a developer.  I can present you with the puzzles and problems that plague us as we go to build a game on time and on budget and show the hard compromises that have to be made in the development of any game.

My name is James Portnow.  I am a journalist.

I moonlight as a journalist.  I’ve written for everyone from Edge to Gamasutra.  I write because I believe it to be important.  I believe that we are at a crux in the industry; that we are on the verge of a sea change.  We’ve gone from being the recreation of a few hobbyists to an industry which effects the lives of tens of millions.  It is time we begin sharing information.  It is time we theorize and surmise and postulate in public lest we continue to do what we often have done: reinvent the wheel.

From this vantage I can deliver you an eagle eye view of the industry.  I can, on occasion, show you how the pieces fit together and why decisions that seem completely inane from the ground level become perfectly rational a thousand feet up.

My name is James Portnow.  I am a speaker.

I speak at universities and conferences around the world.  In the upcoming months I’ll be speaking at GDC, Login and Carnegie Mellon.  I try to share what little I know with whomever is willing to listen, and, in turn, learn from my audience.  Speaking is valuable because it forces you to accept where your wrong and provides you access to input from sources you would have otherwise never encountered.

From this vantage I will show you the inner workings of the how public speaking works in our industry, I will take you to exotic locals (or at least industry conventions) and bring you in contact with the people who frequent the speaking circuit.

My name is James Portnow.  I am a writer.

Oxford University Press has recently asked me to pen a chapter for one of their upcoming major release books.  Writing forces us to examine our own ideas and to become experts in areas we never expected.

From this vantage I can show you the insights into the industry that come from without.  We are a truly multidisciplinary field and the more time I spend with games, the more I become convince that nothing is unrelated to game creation.  We are crafting experiences, so all experience is valuable.

My name is James Portnow.  I am an activist.

We are something unique in the history of mankind: we are the world’s first interactive mass media.  As stewards of this media we are tasked with no small task.  We may well have to sacrifice our own leisure for the public weal.

There is a great deal of good we can do with games and the time is coming when we will have to make a choice as an industry: we can continue to hide behind the idea that “we’re only making games” or we can accept our maturation and truly explore what our medium can do.  Choosing the latter option is difficult.  It means asking more of ourselves.  It means elevating our audience so they will no longer accept bad games.  It means living up to a new standard.

I am the industry advisor to the Video Games and Human Values Initiative and as such I believe it is criminal to not step up to the task which history has presented us.  At the same time I believe it to be equally criminal to cut out the heart of what we do.  Right now there stands a chasm between the “serious games industry” and the “video games industry”, this must disappear.  We have to be able to present our audience with experiences that are as rich and fulfilling (aka fun) as any triple A blockbuster while leaving them with something that enriches their life when the electronics are off. 

From this vantage I will relay my beliefs.  It is the only indulgence I ask of you as a reader.  I will try to keep clear of sermons and in general keep this section to a minimum, but when I am compelled to venture into this territory, I invite disagreement and debate.

My name is James Portnow.  I am 26 years of age.

I believe in fun.  I plan to be your gossip columnist and your party correspondent.  I’ll fill you in on the afterhours at GDC and the gaming high life.  While I talk about toil and lofty notions, my life has its perks:  I get to hobnob with rockstars and hang out with the rich and famous. 

From this vantage I will try and fulfill all your voyeuristic needs…


You can find my latest adventures and more on the cultural side of our industry at  If there’s anything you’d like to see in upcoming weeks, you can always reach me at [email protected]

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