Archive for the 'Industry Rants' Category

Frosty morning

Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web on December 19th, 2007 by MrCranky

So as I look out, bleary-eyed, at the huge puffs of steam being vented past our window by the building’s boiler, I’m kind of sorry that moving to a proper office has meant that I can’t just stay at home in the nice warm flat and work from there on frosty days like these. Still, the office itself is warm enough, it’s just the trip to it that means I have to brave the icy conditions.

Just read an interesting article here on longer term planning with the Scrum methodology. Good stuff, but there’s still the big chasm of “how do we get the publisher to sign up to this”. Until the people paying the money are okay with the less detailed milestone definitions that come along with agile planning, there will continue to be issues. It’s all very well running teams on agile internally, but until there is a solid contractual way of satisfying the publisher’s need for security with the developer’s need for flexibility, there will still be problems. At the moment the milestones are defined fully at the start, but it’s a naive producer that doesn’t expect the content of those milestones to change. It’s at the developer’s disadvantage though – the contract states that they are bound to deliver what’s in the milestone list, and if they don’t the publisher is within their rights to cancel the project at their discretion. They generally won’t, but it’s a quick get out if they want it. Even if the publisher and the developer both know that the milestones have become meaningless, when they’re written into the contract it means that there needs to be a re-negotiation to fix them again.

Personally I think it’s far better to start out with a high level statement of intent – that the developer will be working on a particular title for the publisher, and that they will use their best efforts to deliver builds of acceptable quality. The regular delivery of those builds is part of the process, and the method of arbitration as to what is ‘acceptable’ is written into the contract as well. That way the publisher still retains the majority of the power (control over what they deem acceptable), but they can’t use that control to avoid their responsibilities to allow the developer reasonable time to deliver something acceptable.

Talking to the students

Posted in Industry Rants, Tales from the grind-stone on November 22nd, 2007 by MrCranky

So, since I didn’t have any pressing deadlines this week, I agreed to visit Paisley University and give a talk to the undergraduates there. Sorry, University of the West of Scotland:Paisley Campus (that’s soo got to bite them in the arse when it comes to their stationary). As an industry, I think we’ve somewhat dug ourselves into a hole in the past few years, by cutting back on hiring new people (and instead insisting on experience); now we’re facing a talent shortage, especially on the software side. We’ve seen the error of our ways now, and I see more adverts for graduates again, but that dry spell will no doubt have diminished our talent pool enough that it will take years to restore.

Nothing in the talk was particularly enlightening I’m sure, but I tried to impart a few of the things that you learn after your first years in the games industry: how to write a good CV, what it’s like working at smaller or larger companies, how to spot when your company’s about to go down the tubes. You know the sort of thing – stuff that no-one will tell you before you actually get your job, the sort of stuff you learn in the pub after work. I always remember talks from industry people when I was at Edinburgh, and they almost invariably had people saying “this is our company, look at how shiny it is, here’s our token recently hired graduate, listen to him tell you how shiny it is”. It was always about the potential for recruiting the graduates, and glossing over all the potential downsides.

So I tried to give a balanced view of the industry: a quick summation of the current state of the business, the potential likelihood that your employer will make you work unpaid overtime to ship the game, and the likelihood that the company folds while you’re still working there. Of course, I tried to stress the up-sides as well: the joy involved in making games, the rewards involved in shipping a title that people love. I hope it came out fairly balanced. Otherwise I must look like a bit of a numpty – why would I still be working in the games industry if the pros didn’t outweigh the cons?!

Anyway, if it didn’t come across in the talk, I’ll say it now – making games is great. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, and I find it hard to imagine how a job in the regular software industry would compare. Sure, there’s less money in games, but the non-monetary rewards are many.

Game Credits

Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web on November 6th, 2007 by MrCranky

Well, with the recent furore around Manhunt 2’s omission of certain developers from the credits of a game they clearly developed, the IGDA has put a reminder up about their work on establishing a Game Crediting Guide. It’s a fairly comprehensive guide now, and looking over it I agree with most of the  stipulations within. I could argue that attribution of team roles to individuals is perhaps not necessary (especially when some developers fulfil many roles and so appear in the credits many times), but that’s probably a rare enough case not to worry about.

Proper credits is certainly a real issue though, as it’s a tangible benefit to your team. Being able to point to a good and/or successful title and say “I made that” is of real value for their sense of worth and their career long term. While not being credited isn’t the end of the world, there are enough unscrupulous people that claim credit for the work of others that not being credited when it is due is sufficient cause for doubt on the part of an interviewer.

Credits are, in my experience, usually knocked together at the end of the development process, and not thought about in advance. The list of people is usually drawn up quickly, and if there has been a lot of movement in and out of the team, people can easily be missed. It’s the producers job to maintain a credits list throughout development, detailing who worked on the title and for how long, and it’s not a chore which should be neglected.

Finally, my biggest bug-bear is with the ordering of the credits. I’m sorry, but the publishers, external producers and company management are not the most important people for a game. The director comes first, followed by the core team, and then the less involved parties. It might seem like a good idea to pander to the management or external partners, but you’re selling your team short if you don’t proclaim them loudly to be the most important part of the game.

Public Service Publishing seminar

Posted in Industry Rants, Tales from the grind-stone on November 1st, 2007 by MrCranky

Just back from Glasgow, after attending a seminar from OfCom about their Public Service Publishing work. Yes, I know, PSP. Confusing, and unwieldy to say the full version. Here’s hoping they change it before long. I’d suggest British Media Office, but that probably wouldn’t get past committee.

Anyway, the goal of the PSP is, as far as I can tell, to provide a vehicle for financing public service content, in the same manner that content like the BBC, ITV and C4 currently provide. I believe the remit goes something like “content that informs and entertains, and enriches our cultural heritage”.  The consensus is that the traditional TV broadcasters and producers are unsuited to finance new types of content, such as websites (interactive and regular) and games.

Of course, it is the games part that interests me. There is, I believe, huge scope for producing games which both inform and entertain. Specifically I object to the fact that we have to Americanise our games in order to target the largest possible audience. Even when set in fantastical or science fiction environments, we still get American voice actors to play our roles. Our children can readily identify many American cultural references, at the expense of our own. We don’t have fire-hydrants, our taxis are black, and our postal carriers drive red vans.

I think there are many games to be made that use British culture, settings and characters. Be that an adventure game based on Inspector Rebus, or a modification to a real-time strategy game to put it in a British historical setting. We invest much in British programming, for the education of our children or the entertainment of us all. For E.R. we have Casualty, for the Bold and the Beautiful we have Eastenders. But where is GTA: Liverchester? Okay, bad example.

Anyway, the seminar itself was informative, but not entirely heartening. The games industry moves very quickly. Project life-spans are measured in the order of months, not years – and I’m not convinced that the PSP would be able to move quickly enough to operate successfully in games. It was clear from the turn-out (a couple of dozen TV industry types, and only myself and someone from Realtime Worlds representing the games sector). Apparently in the London version of this seminar, games weren’t represented at all. And yet the shift in people’s habits, especially in the young, is clearly moving away from TV and towards games and the internet. While the PSP is a good step towards allowing new content creators access to public money to make worthwhile public content, it still feels like the traditional TV producers, who have little to no games experience (and I’d venture ability) are lining themselves up to be the ones to continue to recieve that public funding.

OfCom are still in the process of a ‘review’ stage that is feeling out the remit of the PSP, and from talk at the seminar, is more than a year away from even really getting going. With the rate at which technology is developing and public attitudes towards how they use media are changing, I can’t help but think that this is moving too slowly.

So in summary, I think the PSP is a laudable idea, but it needs to stop worrying about the bickering about what exactly the PSP should do (primarily by TV producers and broadcasters who feel their financing is being threatened), and get down and dirty and actually get to encouraging more public ‘new media’ content. Whether that be by financing, or simply by facilitating existing projects, whatever – as long as what they do results in publicly valuable content being produced that otherwise would not have been. Getting mired in an extended ‘consultation period’ where people argue back and forth is not only inefficient, it may mean that any action they take is just too late, and the free market will have replaced valuable public service content with commercialised pap (Beauty and the Geek anyone?), and may never get the public’s attention back.

Speaking strictly from a games industry point of view – unless the PSP is a responsive and fast moving entity, it will never be able to engage the help of the dedicated games sector, and may find itself quickly outpaced. That would relegate public service games to being second rate, pale imitations of their commercial counterparts, and so never gain the attention of the public they are supposed to serve.

Scottish Games promo

Posted in Industry Rants on August 8th, 2007 by MrCranky

So I had a brief moment trying to be telegenic yesterday, being in front of the camera to do a bit for a promotional video being done for the EIF next week. I’m sure I will be edited to some extra small section as we don’t have much interesting stuff to say, but we shall have to see. Anyway, amongst the topics covered was “Why do you think VIS Entertainment went under” – which is sort of a tricky question to answer.

Sure, in the many times in Milnes after work at VIS we laboured long and loud over what we (the grunts) thought the problems were, and anyone for several tables around would be able to repeat them, but I think in the end it wasn’t as bad as it seemed then. Of course, we don’t have any insight into the real goings on, either financial or managerial, so it’s all supposition. However, from where we were sitting it seemed to boil down to one thing: cashflow.

VIS was pretty big at the end – probably still over 100 employees. That makes for a lot of salary going out the door each month. We had two big and one small project on the go (State of Emergency 2, Brave, and NTRA: Breeders Cup), and those had been going for a while, so there was probably little sales revenue from previous titles, only publisher milestone payments. Then of course Brave completed, with nothing to take its place – suddenly more than a third of those payments are gone, with potential sales revenue from it not likely to appear for many months. That’s going to hurt any company’s books, and if the balance is already tight…

That’s not really a ‘why’ so much as a ‘how’ though. The ‘why’ is even more supposition, but I think is reflected in much of what I’ve said here before. Publishers were being hit by tighter margins due to increasing costs, and were responding by tightening down on the developers. Slice the margins thinner and thinner, and the developer becomes so fragile that they cannot long survive if a project finishes with no follow-on, or worse, is cancelled early. In that sense, VIS were just another amongst many studios which died – Visual Science, DC Studios, and so many more across the UK and beyond.

Arguably had projects been cancelled or different decisions been taken things would have played out differently, maybe better, maybe worse. But it seems to me that even if a studio played a perfect game and made no wrong moves, they would still be only a small amount of bad luck away from failure. That for me is a symptom of a troubled industry, and is something I hope will improve. Certainly we all need to work smarter, not harder, to keep costs low enough that making games is profitable.

The one true handed-ness

Posted in Industry Rants on April 25th, 2007 by MrCranky


It’s right handed. Get over it. It is an arbitrary decision, but so what? Everyone has their own preference for how they visualise things (I for example interpret +z as forwards/into the screen, and +y is up, and don’t really care about x), in the same way that everyone visualises the flow of time differently. The maths is no easier or harder either way, but it’s a real pain to convert between them when people make different assumptions. DirectX doesn’t insist on left handed (no matter what anyone has told you – it provides left and right handed versions of all the view/projection functions that care), OpenGL assumes right handed, all the big modelling tools use right-handed. The majority have spoken already on this, but every single developer that chooses to buck the trend makes the rest of our lives more painful.

And if I ever have to debug another handed-ness related problem, I think I’m going to cut off my right hand and replace it with a sharpened set of axes, then go round visiting all the games studios in the land, slashing and gouging all those who want to argue about it.

UI design

Posted in Industry Rants on February 1st, 2007 by MrCranky

One of the many bug-bears I’ve developed working in the software industry is about bad user interfaces. When I was at university I did a course on human-computer interaction, and though I didn’t think it at the time, I realise now just how valuable it was. I firmly believe, now I’ve seen the fruits of so many bad user interface designs, that the course should not only be compulsory, but it should be repeated several times throughout the degree, just to drive the point home.

The particular bit of software that has inspired this rant is the software for this:

my new phone, the O2 Ice. Hardware wise I can’t fault it – sleek, light, good build quality. Software wise, it’s awful. More than awful, its so bad I find myself shaking it in the air and cursing, trying to resit the urge to bash it off the table in frustration. Almost everything in the user interface runs contrary to even basic usability principles. Buttons change function radically as you move between screens, resulting in a single extra accidental button press (of a button that you need to press), will wipe out a laboriously crafted message, without saving it anywhere, or more crucially prompting if you are sure. Conversely, when you are sure about an operation, for example deleting messages, it prompts you, then, just to make you grind your teeth, prompts you to press okay on a screen that says only ‘deleted successfully’. Why do I need to click okay on a message telling me that you’ve done what I asked you (twice) to do. Sure, tell me if it fails, but don’t tell me if it succeeds. I assume it will succeed!

Worst of all though is the behaviour when a new message comes in – I pull the phone from my pocket and see the message prompt displayed on the screen. Great, all good. But because its not a clamshell design, I habitually lock the keypad before putting it into my pocket. And the act of unlocking the phone causes the message prompt to disappear, and I have to go search through three levels of menus to go find the message that’s arrived. And that’s only for SMS messages, if a multi-media message comes in, pressing any key just freezes the display on the animated message icon – no feedback, nothing. Eventually I found out that holding the power key will free things up again, but that was one of the “don’t throw it across the room, it’s the only phone you have” moments.

Fact is, user interface problems aren’t generally hard to solve. Some of them are tricky because you have design constraints (say only being able to use a one button mouse, or limited feedback options. But in general bad user interfaces are down to bad designers, and there is no excuse for it. The end-user does not care, in the slightest, about how good your software is underneath; if it feels like crap to use, then they will hate it, and you have failed.

Games are normally a bit better in this regard, partly because the limited control mechanisms force us to spend more time thinking about input mechanics, but also because a game that doesn’t feel easy to control will drive players away in droves. Even still, it still makes me curse in frustration every time I use a tool that was chucked out of the door with a sub-standard UI, and everyone is stuck with it just because there are no alternatives on the market. (Rational Rose I’m looking at you…)

Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web, Tales from the grind-stone on November 28th, 2006 by MrCranky

This news about the initial sales figures of the Wii amused me more than a little this morning. So far, pretty much all of the launch titles for PS3 have been unimpressive to say the least. I haven’t got my hands on either console yet, but Zelda, Rayman and even Wii Sports are all looking good, and I’ll be out on the 8th to try and pick up a Wii for myself and Pete. If the Wii’s sales momentum keeps up, it will be looking to eclipse the XBox 360’s by sometime next year, but unless some serious fan support (and better production rates) shows up, the PS3 is looking like a poor cousin. I’m wondering how much of a co-incidence the timing of the Gears of War release is – given that its a much more impressive title for the 360 than I’ve seen to date. We shall have to see how it pans out, but I’m sticking by my early bet on Nintendo.

Its been quiet on the posting front recently, mostly because I’ve been working overtime on my contract role, with various planning and build automation things occupying the extra time. But I’m taking some well deserved time back in the home office this week, and tackling the pile of paperwork that has accumulated in my absence. Double curses to the inland revenue now that I have to deal with VAT returns as well as payroll and corporation tax. When the CBI are complaining about the massive tax burden the UK industry is bearing, they’re talking not just about the amount of tax, but the sheer size of the administration required to keep up with all the obscure rules.


Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web, Tales from the grind-stone on August 8th, 2006 by MrCranky

This item from Charles Cecil (Revolution) I thought was interesting. Of course, Revolution have been saying this for a while – they’ve gone radically to the other end of production, and adopted a similar model to the one William Latham was presenting in his talk at Develop. I.e. Creative input coming from a tiny core team of IP holders, with the main body of development work being outsourced to work for hire companies. But the fact that the probability of making money from high end development is extremely slim is undeniable. Even the companies that don’t expect royalties and are making all of their profits from up-front publisher advances will die under that model, because even if they survive for a while (by allowing the publisher to accept the risk/loss), the death of the publishers will leave them without anyone to front for their next big project.

Anyway, enough ranting. I’m feeling ill enough this morning without dwelling on depressing subjects. I blame the hot sweaty venues I was in over the weekend watching the Festival preview shows. Some good, some bad – I’d definitely recommend Jason Byrne though.

On a more games related note, I’ll be attending the EIEF this coming 21st/22nd of August, on the grounds that any opportunities to get us noticed and more business is good! Some more interesting talks there, and the fact that its about 10 minutes from my front door is just an added bonus for my lazy self.

Yesterday was Pete and my first visit to the IC CAVE office in Dundee – they are involved in our new project, so we’ll probably be spending a bit of time there over the next six months. Very nice office, although the building itself gave me flashbacks to University. No exams to pass any more though, just games to make.No news from Brave NTSC as yet, although I’m told it’ll be at Sony America in California today. Oh, and as a final note, we are no. 1 in Google, with a page ranking of 3/10! Take that Lionhead.

Develop Brighton Debrief 2006

Posted in Industry Rants on July 17th, 2006 by MrCranky

This was the closing session of the main conference, and from my impression, consisted of a lot of slapping each other on the back really. The panel (including Phil Harrison of Sony and Mark Rein) touched on a few points, but basically summed things up as “things are rosy right now, everything’s going well”. Well, I’m not sure how well everyone else is doing but it doesn’t seem that way to me. So at the end of the session I asked whether or not they thought the next-generation of consoles had really grown the market enough to justify the huge cost increases, and basically was there enough money in the system to support the current crop of developers. Admittedly, all credit to Phil Harrison, he took it on the chin and said ‘No’, but to be frank if he’d pretended otherwise I probably would have got up and walked out.

The gist of the reply was ‘No, people are going to have to be smart, reduce costs, and take advantage of new markets’. That to me says everything is not going well. That to me says that we have a set of developers all scrabbling to develop on the next-generation of consoles, despite the fact that they have a tiny market share compared to the current generation, despite the fact that the games cost many times more to make, and despite the fact that the technology is totally untested. That to me says that the remaining big developers are betting heavily on the next generation, and everyone’s just playing a big game of chicken. No-one wants to say: “actually, we can’t afford to continue like this”, because they’re hoping someone else will say it first, and reduce market congestion, or something else that will save them. And most of all, that says to me that Sony knows they (and Microsoft) are pushing onwards too quickly, and that some developers and publishers are going to die in the transition.

Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to run a company based on something more than just enthusiasm for the new crop of technology. It doesn’t matter if its new and trendy, if it doesn’t sell enough product to make back the cost of developing for it, then its worth nothing.

Unfortunately, that was the last question of the session, and apart from some people talking to me about it as everyone was getting up, there wasn’t much debate about it. I hope at least I did something to damp everyone’s enthusiasm a bit, and get a bit of realism back. My goodness, aren’t I a miserable b&*%ard.

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