The gaming world is
perverse, as are its constituents. And what makes it all so perverse?
Perceptions. Allow me to start by digressing.
When I first arrived at
Hewlett Packard, a rosy-cheeked budding youth fresh out of college, I
was rather a wild and crazy sort. To the dismay of some, the delight
of others and the befuddlement of most of my corporate cohorts I was,
in a word, unsubtle.
Over time I noticed
their reactions coalesced into two basic camps and I came to think of
this phenomenon as the 80/20 model of programmers.
The 80/20 model states
there are two kinds of programmers: 80% of programmers like objective
facts and figures and indisputable results. They love the fact that
computers do what you tell them, behave consistently and never lie or
play politics. 80%’ers see computers as an alternative to dealing
with people and if they weren’t programmers they would be
accountants or actuaries.
The other 20% like
expressions of intricacy and complexity. They are creative types who
are always looking for an outlet and simply see the computer as
another medium. Infuse a nerd with ham and you’ve got a 20%’er.
It’s rather an odd recipe and if these people weren’t programmers
they would be artists of some sort or another.
After 25 years hopping
all about the software industry this perception (and proportion)
remains solid, albeit not particularly perverse. So what’s the
point of digressing?
My point is: the gaming
world is perverse because it totally violates the 80/20 model.
Game programmers are almost exclusively 20%’ers, the ones who need
to express themselves and have their product seen and enjoyed. The
world of game development is populated with the most perverse
A second perverted
aspect of the gaming world is that perception is the key to
evaluating your work. No one says, “This word processor isn’t
nearly as exciting as my C++ compiler.” Most software just needs to
work, to meet technical specifications, which is a pretty objective
criterion. You code away until text box A pops up when the user
clicks button B. You know if it works and you know when you are done.
Which is perfect for 80%’ers.
A video game is
different. A video game still has to work from a technical standpoint
but it also has to be fun, which is a very subjective criterion. And
who is sitting in judgment of your work? Some eleven year old who is
getting paid 50 Pounds and all the pizza he can eat.
You spend a year or
more of your life pouring your heart and soul into the code, crafting
and polishing each aspect and nuance from every angle you can
imagine. All those days, nights and weekends lead up to that one
special moment when you go sit behind the two-way mirror and watch
your work presented to the “client.” After two minutes the little
bugger tosses the controller aside and says, “this sucks.”
And you know what? He’s
right! How do you deal with that? Egoless programming? I don’t
think so. You have to take responsibility for that. You have to put
yourself on the line. Good games don’t come from disengaged people,
they come from neurotic oddballs who seek out this kind of emotional
punishment. Why would anyone do this? Because when someone plays your
game and loves it. . . of all the highs we had at Atari, that was the
Another pillar of
perversity lies in how game programmers are perceived by the rest of
the software world, which I promise you is not anywhere near the top
rung of the esteem ladder. Amongst my software endeavors outside
gaming are such diverse elements as operating systems, precision
manufacturing, networking, CAD systems, quality assurance, industrial
robotics and even compilers. Through all those experiences I have
never found any job as broadly and deeply technically challenging as
video game development.
Yet many people
unfamiliar with game development really think it’s just mucking
about and we spend most of our time playing games. They think they do
“serious” software and then they cop an attitude that reeks of
“Isn’t it cute that you’re a happy chap who’s done some
games, but what makes you think you have the chops to do real
coding?” In these moments I defer to the great American wit, Dick
Cavett, who, when confronted with a similar situation was quick to
quip: “Please don’t mistake my levity for shallowness any more
than I mistake your gravity for depth.”
Take some strange
people to start with, put them in the position of having their work
dismissed and discarded on the word of preteens, then rob them of the
respect of their professional peers and you get the video game
industry. If that’s not perverse I don’t know what is.
Why do I prefer working
in game development? It’s the most challenging and varied type of
software I’ve seen, done by the most interesting characters I know.
As for the idea it doesn’t get the respect it deserves? Well,
there’s an aspect of that which appeals to me as well. At least
that’s my perception. . . or perhaps my perversity.
The gaming world may
not last forever, but for the foreseeable future I expect it will
Boxout 1 (149 words):
At some point during
virtually every interview I’ve had outside of gaming the
interviewer would say, “Oh, you made games?” Chortle.
Many software people
don’t take game development seriously. They confuse making games
with playing games. When I explain to them that a video game is a
real-time control system with zero lag-tolerance, state of the art
graphics functionality, artificial intelligence, a quick resolution
3D collision detect system and real-time audio stitching with
multi-channel streaming which is dynamically reactive to the
environment and that console games have to ship on time and bug free
since there is no opportunity for updates or bug-fix releases, well. . .
they kind of glaze over a bit. But the attitude persists.
Nowadays I frequently
interview game programming candidates and every once in a while I
simply cannot resist the opportunity to glance up from the resume and
“Oh, you’ve never
made games?” Chortle.
Boxout 2 (100 words):
When I graduated from
college I was one of very few people with a good deal of experience
in microprocessor based real-time control system programming. There
were two primary applications for this type of skill at that time:
games and the military. Intelligent weapons and cruise missiles were
emerging and needed people with my kind of background to make them
work. I even interviewed with the National Security Agency (my most
frightening interview ever). We had a colorful phrase to describe
this choice: “you can either entertain people or kill them for 12
cents a head.” I made my choice.