Saturday, August 11, 2007

Down on the Farm: Barnyard Developers

I'm in the mood for a little Saturday afternoon amusement, so here goes:

I met up with a friend for breakfast this morning and we're both games industry peeps. As such, we invariably got around to the subject of the industry, developers, and all the amusement that that topic generates. In the middle of it all, I coined a phrase to describe a particular type of company, to wit: barnyard developers.

As I said adios and made my way into Kingston to lust over the new iMacs (they are very lustworthy incidentally) I thought to myself that I have encountered various kinds of company in the industry, as well as hearing stories of others. I thought it might make a subject of some humour to caricature them a bit. So here goes:

(shout if you recognise any of these)

Barnyard Developers
A barnyard developer is often a large-ish studio(or multiple studios in some cases) that literally works out of a barn, shed, or other farming-based building. More loosely it might apply to developers that work in big facilities off the beaten track, but the barn image is the nicest. These developers are often led by a charismatic member of the industry's old guard. They are surprisingly common in the UK, with many counties in South-east England having one, or maybe even two. They are usually located in this hap-hazard fashion because the leader was originally born in the area and is not inclined to bring himself to the mountain.

Barnyard developers are usually very introverted, egotistical and political places to work, rather like extended families. They usually have a culture split into what you could call lifers, parole cases and 2-year stretchers. Lifers are the long-timers who've stuck with the company through thick and thin and can regale you with stories of yore. They are usually engineers, long-standing designers and that one QA guy who sort of seemed to hang around until he became company president. Parole cases are the 6-month limited contract types, the ones who are green, new to the industry and full of bright ideas and hope. This is usually drained from them by degrees. 2-year stretchers are the ones who have been around a little longer, figure they know how the industry works and, the mad fools, are actually looking to make a career out of advancing up the corporate ladder among a number of barnyards. This usually does not go so well.

The goals of the companies are uncertain, the engines and tools that they use are often Byzantine. They don't seem to be that commercially successful any more, but rather seem to trundle on from project to project. Every project is deemed worthy mostly in the light of how technically cutting edge it is, but most of the employees, especially the lifers, are generally unsure if the project is actually any good or not. A general air of plus ca change pervades much of what they do. Even when bought, the culture remains largely as-was, though usually with the addition of fancy amenities like running water and non-power spiking electricity supplies.

Every veteran of a barnyard developer has their hilarious stories about working conditions and general conduct of the upper echelons of the company, whether it be that time when the tea and coffee facilities were taken away, to the bumpy carpet on the second floor that eventually caved in one night, to the fist-fight that broke out in reception over whose soft toys got turned upside down, placed in a dishwasher or whatever. These stories prove the subject of much amusement in the local pub, which is used copiously at lunch and other occasions.

Although located out in the middle of the countryside, away from what is generally held to be civilisation or at least the local village, most barnyard developers have about a 50% ratio of employees who can't drive. This is further compounded by a frequent crunch culture, which leads to people sleeping in the office a great deal and trying to find a take-away that will deliver at 1 in the morning when the troops are restless and hungry the night before milestone. Often the company seeks to solve these problems by bringing in a high-powered manager who brutalises the staff and makes them work like dogs until bonus day, whereupon he vanishes "to take on new and exciting challenges".

All in all, barnyard developers are quirky, amusing places in which every industry person worth their salt should spend at least 2 years to see what the good and the bad can be like. If you're a fan of the smell of damp, wall-high mold and occasional flooding, this might be the game development lifestyle for you!

Next: Rubik's developers.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

The End of Novelty

As is my wont, I shall now wax lyrical on the subject of novelty.

As some readers may be aware, I have in the past taken pains to note that the trend for novelty and innovation is not one that is self-sustaining. What I did not pause to consider when looking at, say, Nintendo last time is how wide the novelty culture goes. Actually, it is of course far far larger than gaming, encompassing user-generated content across several media (such as this one).

Novelty has been a very powerful force in recent years. It is the backbone of Web 2.0 for the most part, having spawned a variety of services that have become household names. Youtube is one. Wii is another. What novelty is exactly is saying to the audience "Bet you never thought of that before". Users love to play with novelties, like magpies,particularly if those novelties are free or reasonably cheap. They get off on the idea of little things that brighten their day as long as they continue to do so in some way.

The problem is that at some point novelty itself must give way to depth. So we can see the novelty of Youtube and all of its short films and trailers etc, but after a little while Youtube becomes damn boring to play with if you're just out for some entertainment. As a sharing tool it's useful in a holiday-video sort of way, but the sheer entertainment of it as a thing for itself is actually very low. Similarly, blogs are the for the most part airbags full of text rantings about nothing in particular. The vast majority of music on Myspace and the like is simply amateurish.

And then games, oh games, where you see ten thousand versions of the same game again, or the company that pioneered the controller to end all controllers then turning around and producing half a dozen more, as though to underscore that their innovation is, y'know, a bit lacking once you get past the joy of swinging your arm in the air.

What we can see here is that the so-called year of "You", the joy of the strange and unbridled creativity is very quickly giving way to the dawning realisation that, actually, "you" isn't very good at most things, and so "you" naturally creates a wall of content that eventually turns people off wholesale. It's the same reason why podcasting has basically failed to find a general audience in the face of radio. Amateur is still amateur, and one man's democratised content is ten men's idiocratised mess that they just have no interest in.

Of all the Web 2.0 content tools that have emerged, the only one that shows examples of depth is Wikipedia. Some people like to lambaste Wikipedia for its inaccuracies, and it sometimes is, but what they are missing is a genuine community devoted to gathering all there is to know about everything. And it proves that vetting matters, editing matters and, ultimately, quality matters. Once the novelty has passed you by, Wikipedia remains useful.

The backlash against user-generated content is gathering pace from all quarters, but what's missing from it is the understanding that it's not the whole thing that's borked, it's the essential lack of editing/vetting that makes it so. Editing is what weeds out novelty with no purpose from novelty that is an actual font for creativity.

Turning to games, what this means is that the content vetting still matters. Casual portals perform this function automatically by ranking on popularity, but the games sites and news arenas are much more important as both seeds of discussion and vetting that which is not. Yet they have the problem of being so wrapped up in the industry's press whorl that they really often become mouthpieces.

As a result, the thing that the industry actually needs is not more indie games or more access for developers or whatever (well it does, but that's a separate gig). What it actually needs is a site/magazine blog that focuses its energies on being the vetting force behind indie. There is more than enough reportage on the activities of the main industry with its boom and bust, its half a thousand cliche's and its endless wranging over meaningless theories of game design. What there isn't is an indie media mag that effectively tunes all this out and spends its entire time finding the cool stuff.

Media needs guardians and gatekeepers, because without them all that happens is that they the public simply turn away. Without some measure or means to define and gauge taste, novelty simply dries up, buzz vanishes and the ladder that helped the very lucky few at the start get established disappears for everyone else. This applies all across the spectrum, and we are no different.

So, who's going to start the magazine revolution?

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