[Veteran, possibly pseudonymous game developer Matthew Wasteland writes the 'Arrested Development' humor column for Game Developer magazine, and we're now reprinting his best insights on Gamasutra. This installment helpfully translates common instances of producer-speak into painfully direct English.]
The path of career development in the game industry is fraught with strange hazards, not the least of which are the odd delusions that may be foisted upon you by your Management such that you may be a more productive and harmoniously integrated Work Unit.
Now, far be it from me, an established professional both famous and important, to stir up a hornet's nest of raving discontent -- I simply mean to help you keep a careful eye on your situation. It can spiral out of control very quickly and, like the lovely and tragic GLaDOS, you may find yourself in a kind of frenzied denial about how things really are.
In that light, here are some patterns you should learn to recognize so that you may have some signposts to guide you into the bracing realizations that may eventually lead you along the path of truth -- one which may lead you to greener pastures or to a fortune sought elsewhere. Or at least to an embittered and spiteful temperament that will scare the producers off so you'll be left alone.
"We just have to hunker down and ship this game, and then you'll all be rich -- like me!"
A potential bonus is not something that should be used to justify complete insanity on your part. We all know that money is a great motivator -- all the better when the people in charge don't actually have to pay any of it. Hinting at some breathtaking royalty payout that's just around the corner after the game is a huge hit (which it is practically guaranteed to be, surely!) usually does wonders for the crew, so it happens rather too frequently.
Here's a funny experiment you can try: ask someone in charge to describe how the royalty is actually calculated. You're likely to get a lot of puzzling airy statements, hand waving, and suddenly important phone calls. In the very best case, you may get a fancy chart or graph that tantalizingly teases at some kind of meaning, but never quite reaches it.
If you're truly curious, the real process is this: all that money goes into a big black box, and the tiniest little drop comes out of the other end for you, the diligent worker. That's given that you have a game that sells well at all, which sometimes you don't, exactly.
"Come on, you aren't being a team player -- support your buddies."
Everyone else buys into this whole "crunch for no reason and bad project management" thing, so why don't you? Maybe you're the crazy one!
Blatant attempts to coerce team dynamics like this are another management machination of which you should be very careful. Don't let them try to leverage to their own ends the soldier's camaraderie that develops when people are thrown into crappy situations together. Your grandchildren aren't going to ask you to tell them about the war video game you worked on once. They probably won't even know what video games are, let alone care.
"Well, you could always be flipping burgers."
When people complain about low pay or poor conditions, you sometimes hear the "you could always be flipping burgers" defense (or, "you could always be programming databases" for engineers, since they want to be speaking your language, of course). This is a strategy meant to distract the grumbler from realizing his job sucks by trying to get him to think of something even worse, never mind that a job flipping burgers might actually have reasonable hours.
Passive-aggressive overtones aside, this kind of justification is logically suspect since it confers upon the game industry some kind of special, extraordinary status. It's different than all other industries of the world! Getting utterly, totally screwed is somehow the price one must pay for the glamour and mystique of making video games for a living (or working in porn?). And if you can't deal with it, go get a "real" job.
It would be sublimely ironic if these ended up being the same people who wonder why the game industry doesn't get the respect and cachet it deserves from the other creative media, but that's probably too perfect to really be true.
"At least we have a really fun work environment."
The team is stuck at work late and on the weekend trying to get a disaster of a project into a box and out the door. Is it bad? Yes, it's terrible -- but wait! You get to eat barbecue! And there are fun distractions around the office. Why, it doesn't even feel like work at all, so what does it matter if you're there for all of your waking hours?
Standing around having a blast playing Guitar Hero
with all your office mates in the wee hours of the morning is sure to have absolutely no effect on the pile of work that must be done to ship the game -- the pile of work being the reason you started crunching in the first place! -- so all you're doing is munching on the hair of the dog that bit you. I mean that metaphorically in most cases; the others -- you know who you are.
"Okay, we learned our lesson. We'll never run a project like this again. Promise."
After it's all over and the game has shipped, you'll hear this one. The reason is that suckers believe it every time.
[Mr. Wasteland also writes for his own blog, Magical Wasteland.]