So I hinted last time about my continuing disappointment with the IGDA, and promised a more complete write-up of why. It seems though, just to take the sting from my tail, they’ve chosen this month to do something useful. So that has cheered me somewhat. It doesn’t erase the failings of the past, but it at least gives me hope for the future. Here’s a summation of my last couple of years of impressions of the IGDA.
[EDIT: the original draft of this article did not mention the IGDA press release made a week after the Rockstar San Diego Gamasutra post mentioned. Thanks to Erin for pointing this out in the comments, it's definitely pertinent information, and in the IGDA's favour.]
Credibility Hit #1: Mike Capps and working hours
This was the incident which prompted my previous posts: a board member, who had become aware of the IGDA’s efforts to work towards more sensible working hours, and didn’t agree with those efforts. Now, fair enough, the best (indeed only) way to influence policy in an organisation like the IGDA is to get involved, and he’s forthright about why he joined though:
But yes, I’m familiar with that [IGDA QoL white paper]. In fact it’s one of the reasons that I joined the Board in the first place. Because when I ran for the Board it was right around the time of “EA spouse” hitting and there were certainly organizations that were not taking quality of life seriously. But I thought that the efforts of the IGDA SIG task force were really misguided.
His stance ran completely counter to what the IGDA had been campaigning for. When pressed, the IGDA had the choice of standing by their original position, or defending what Capps had said and done. They chose the latter, which to me invalidates all they’ve stood for. Worse, individual board members made statements which pretty much supported Capps’ views, although many of them were later retracted.
Credibility Hit #2: IGDA and Rockstar San Diego
A chance to redeem themselves came in early 2009, when the wives of various R* San Diego employees got together and threatened legal action against their husbands’ employer. Not the best of moves admittedly, but a move borne out of frustration and an inability to help their situation any other way. After a week, the IGDA posted a press release which nodded to the Gamasutra article, and re-iterated their position on QoL, without outrightly accusing R*SD of anything (understandably so). This I can’t disapprove of, although I felt it could have been far more critical, and should have called for R*SD to respond publicly to the accusations made against them.
However I was worried by the immediate response (on the day of the article) from the IGDA, in the comments, as represented by Erin Hoffman. In it she voiced vague moral support, followed quickly by claiming that things were better than they were 5 years ago, defending the IGDA against criticisms about its inaction, and seemed to be blaming the developers for not asking the IGDA nicely for help.
It is an inflammatory red herring to call attention to the IGDA in this case. I have sat on the IGDA’s Quality of Life committee since it was formed and the ECQC since 2005 and its formation. No one from Rockstar has ever once contacted either group, nor, to my knowledge, sought advice from the IGDA on this issue at all. I have individually spoken with multiple Rockstar San Diego developers over the years and have known that this was brewing, but until someone was willing to do something about it, there was nothing to be done from the outside.
The QoL SIG has achieved very little over the years, and it seems very much that it is content to sit and debate the issue, without taking any active steps. What role does it have, if not to act as an independent voice through which the development community as a whole can criticise the actions of studios who abuse their staff’s quality of life? They shouldn’t be waiting for permission.
If there’s even a hint that conditions like this exist at a studio, it’s time to make a carefully worded statement condemning such practices, and asking the studio in question to defend itself: either by debunking the accusation, or by coming clean and apologising for the way things are (and explaining what they intend to do to fix them). The IGDA is one of the few organisations in a position to bring these practices into the light, and by doing so help us start the conversations needed to fix them. I was cheered to see their statement in January about Kaos studios and a similar situation. This should be the norm, and I hope to see more of it in the future.
But at its heart, the IGDA’s position is inherently unclear. Are they representing the individuals, the staff, who develop games? Or are they representing the studios (a large chunk of the IGDA membership is from ‘studio’ memberships, where every developer at a studio is a member only because their studio is a member). When it comes to Quality of Life, those two groups are in tension, and in trying to represent both, the IGDA would represent neither.
Credibility Hit #3: Tim Langdell
More trouble on the IGDA board. A member who not only does not represent the games industry, but indeed is someone whom the games industry is actively ashamed of. Someone quite happy to use the fact that he was an ‘IGDA Board Member’ to bolster his own reputation. Elected in March 2009, eventually forced to resign in late August 2009. His underhand tactics and practices regarding abuse of tenuous trademarks have since been thoroughly exposed, documented, and now thanks to EA of all people, consigned to history. But I mention this here not for those reasons, but because even once the full extent of Tim Langdell’s business practices were exposed, the majority of the IGDA board not only condoned his actions, several of them even defended him. Much like the Capps affair, it seemed clear that the IGDA board would stick together, regardless of their members actions.
The resulting furore and outright uprising on the IGDA forums should have been ample indication to the board that they had royally pissed off their membership, and that they needed to do something. What they did, sadly, was to first ignore, then to suppress the discussion, by locking threads and deleting the increasingly shrill posts condemning their actions. Month after month, it dragged on. Those most passionate about the whole affair demanded that Langdell be removed from the board, but the board refused to do consider this, stating that the IGDA membership would have to raise a petition before they’d consider it. But, they wouldn’t consider the forum thread a petition, nor would they consent to actively poll their members on it. Eventually, those involved had to scrape the membership’s email addresses from the website just to solicit the membership opinion. Very quickly thereafter, the support for Langdell’s removal (or at least a proper vote on the matter) was irrefutable. Only then was the IGDA board even starting to acknowledge that Langdell’s position might be untenable.
Throughout this whole affair, I was flabbergasted by just how disconnected the board was from its membership. If this is how the IGDA as an organisation responds (or fails to respond) to a matter where their membership is clearly polarised, how can they be expected to reach a representative decision when the matter is less clear cut. As a democratic organisation, it is continually struggling to reach quorum on its votes, and as a result very little can be actioned. Even board membership elections fail to reach quorum, but by convention the board accepts the votes anyway (otherwise the whole thing would fall apart). So how it can claim to represent developers, I’m not entirely sure.
Ironically, the mechanism by which the whole Tim Langdell debacle really kicked off: the forums, is also one of their most chronic failures. For several years, a new website had been promised, all bells and whistles, which was to transform the IGDA website and how the community interacted with each other. To say that the website, when it was finally delivered (late), failed to deliver would be an understatement. The old forums weren’t great, but at least it worked. The complaints about new forums are so bad, it’s no surprise that conversation has dropped off to a pitiful amount. Which I suppose is great for avoiding controversy and criticism by your members, but much less so if you want to maintain a thriving community which promotes communication amongst your membership.
It would be remiss of me to write a post like this without talking about the up-sides to membership of the IGDA. For an ‘international’ game developers association, the benefits of membership are largely not that international. The biggest tangible benefit: health-care discount, is only applicable in the US. The discounts on conferences are mostly for US conferences, except for GDC Europe. There are discounts on books and they provide web resources though, which is very likely useful.
There certainly are useful SIGs as well: the Toolsmiths SIG is a gold-mine of knowledge, a great place to bring some very good and very experienced tools developers together to share knowledge.
But the biggest benefit of the IGDA in my eyes however has always been the social aspect. The local chapters are where the real value of the IGDA lies: getting game developers to come together, share knowledge, and get to know each other. That is why, for all the organisation’s flaws, I’m still happy to see efforts to restart the IGDA Scotland chapter. As a banner to rally under, it’s a pretty decent one – well known and easy to find.
The vast majority of usefulness I’ve seen come out of the IGDA has been voluntary work, done by chapter organisers for the benefit of their local community, not paid for by the membership dues. I want to know how I can support those people, not the IGDA. Absolutely, let’s get together and get involved: the more we work as a community the better we’ll be. But that doesn’t need to involve paying $48 dollars to a US-based organisation, for some intangible benefits. Especially when that organisation gains both cash and credibility by counting you as a member, but is not actively working in your best interests.
Some people think the IGDA’s day is past, and the declining membership is a sign that a new organisation is needed. I don’t agree. There’s a new crop of board members elected, that know fine well what has gone before. Some of them (like Darius Kazemi) have been open and honest about the organisation’s flaws, and are working hard to make things right. I want those people to succeed, and restore the IGDA to being something I am not only happy about, but would actively support. And in taking a stance against Amazon’s app store policies, it looks like they’re heading in the right direction. I look forward to the day when they sort out their work on Quality of Life in the games industry, and I can reconsider my stance.