It’s never pretty, but game projects often fail. However the interpretation of why failure happens is almost always wrong. The easy thing to do is point at a developer and describe failure in personal terms. If only their ego didn’t run away with itself, or if only they didn’t do such a poor job.
Actually most failure has systemic causes. It’s the result of a dysfunctional publishing culture that is set up to be adversarial, and that in turn is what breeds failure. Most game failures are actually caused at the executive level.
Who’s to Blame?
It is easy to point to teams or individuals who seem to have imploded, and say they are to blame. The lesson, internalised by many in both publishing and development, is that trusting in developers is risky, and risk must always be managed out where possible. So the learned response is not to trust, and instead treat the relationship with developers adversarially. This is usually the wrong lesson.
Whether in a company that produces its own games, or externally under a developer-publisher arrangement, failed projects are usually set up to fail. They are poorly conceived, badly funded, rest on silly assumptions about market or opportunity, and tend to have unrealistic expectations of timeframe.
Game executives are genuinely interested in making great games, but behave in herd-like patterns when it comes to deciding how and in what to invest. They tend to be over-wowed by hot tickets and rock star designers, while at the same time dismissive of unknowns and newer talent.
When games fail, there are generally only two real causes: Underfunding or Overfunding.
A developer has a game idea, the executive likes the idea, but doesn’t feel that the developers are proven. He assumes that they are over-quoting the budget that they need, and so negotiates to get them to cut it and tie it to milestones. He feels like he is doing a good job because he is getting value for his money, and at the same time he believes that any good developer is able to do a lot with a little.
Developers are like creative people in any field, in that they are wired to want to explore, take chances and see what they can invent. The reason that they are in game development and not banking software is because it is in their nature to create. Underfunding is not believing enough in development talent to take a bet, and so the development team becomes a starving artist.
Starving artists will tell an executive whatever he wants to hear. They will make wild promises. They will try to trick the executive with misleading demos. They will try to make sure that they fulfil milestone requirements to the letter rather than the spirit. The starving artist is too concerned about keeping a roof over his head, and the resulting work confirms the executive’s suspicion that the artist wasn’t very good to begin with.
Most work-for-hire game development is stuck in the starving artist rut. The developers are used to shipping poor work which ticks boxes rather than delivering real entertainment, and have internalised apathy. They spend their time trying to please executives rather than customers because it’s a job and they need the money.
The underfunded project comes up short. It’s delivered late, lacks many key features and is poorly executed. It might then get canned or renegotiated to get some form of release out, but the prevailing relationship is soured.
The executive thinks that if the developer had been as awesome as they said they were, they would have knocked it out of the park regardless of time and money. That is just comfort-blanket thinking.
All he’s actually done is allocated his budget badly by not committing enough of it, and created the conditions that will bring about inevitable failure. Nobody wins in this situation because it results in poor games, but it perpetuates because both the developer and the executive don’t really know what else to do. So the project fails, everybody moves on, poor lessons are learned and the cycle begins again.
Overfunding is what happens when a rock star metaphorically walks into a room and the executive gives him a cheque for $100m. The rock star carries the aura of success and celebrity. He is famous, seems to be a part of a marketing story, and so the executive assumes that the star knows what he is doing.
Money flows and then the project implodes because the rock star has too much to spend it wisely. Like a kid in a candy store, he gets distracted by all sorts of curio side projects, yearnings to summon Techthulhu and grandiloquent plans. He has no pressure to ship, and can exist for many years in this state.
Seasoned music executives often say that if you really want to destroy a talent, give him everything he wants. In so doing, the talent becomes soft, disconnected from the real world, and obsessed only with his internal passions. An overfunded artist no longer needs to edgecraft, and can instead venture deep into the blue ocean, often never to be seen again.
This is pretty much what happened to Tabula Rasa, for example. It is a very rare talent that is able to hold onto a gigantic budget and yet still remain clear on what they are trying to make and for whom. The temptation to go a bit crazy is overwhelming, and so the executive has accidentally ensured under-delivery through believing that talent is eternal.
It is not. There are always fluctuations. Think of the author whose best works are clearly behind them, or the musician who still plays great gigs but hasn't written a decent album in a decade. These are examples of how talent ebbs and flows, and rock star game designers are no different.
In games there are many rock stars who have not had a success for over a decade, but who are nonetheless funded repeatedly. It could be argued that they have earned the right to be funded, however it could equally be argued that they are out of touch with the need to ship as opposed to perpetually experimenting.
Perhaps they are no longer the go-to people to make new games. Sometimes past performance is an indicator of future rewards. However past context is extremely important in figuring out whether throwing more money at a talented developer is really a good idea.
Learning to Trust Wisely
The secret to handling talented developers and getting the best work from them is not to be punitive. It is not to let the politics of the executive layer seep down onto their heads. It is also not to underfund and over-expect, nor play games with milestones. Punitive publishing almost never has the desired effect, and these days developers have the alternative of setting up as a single franchise publisher instead.
A next-decade game executive needs be able to do the following things:
1. Trust in Talent
Rather than make the relationship with the developer adversarial, or of the starving-artist model, create enough room for them to breathe. Trust that they want to do an excellent job, and support their attempts to do so. Be flexible, understanding that no project plan goes according to the initial plan, and help to guide rather than punish. The best way to get talent to outperform expectations is to believe in it, not punish it.
2. Avoid Making It About The Money
Most developers are not interested in money beyond making sure that they have enough remuneration to live without worry. What matters is the ability to do important work. Avoid bonuses, payment withholding and other financial motivators. Making it about the money worsens performance because it results in gaming behaviour to acquire bonuses rather than great work.
3. Provide Stability
Avoid hot tickets. Avoid trying to wrench them into a design because your boss suddenly thinks they’re a great idea. Pay closer attention to the movements in the market and think about how you might maximise those opportunities properly with a new project. Avoid obsessing over easy wins and immediate things that increase visibility. Get involved with understanding what’s really going wrong with a project, and then work hard to stabilise it rather than add to the chaos.
4. Practise A+R
Rather than waiting for talent to come to you, seek it out. Few game publishers today practise the equivalent of A+R. They rely on rock stars, recruitment agents, internal teams and the buying of existing companies instead. They don’t seem to see themselves as being in the talent development business, and I think this is a mistake.
Rock stars are rarely as good as their price tag, so avoid getting spellbound. There are thousands of developers out there that are terrible at business, but have a great game that they don’t know how to produce. Find them. Sponsor them.
Most games are made amid a sea of ego and rockstar thinking and are driven by a financial model that ensures failure more often than success. Publisher fortunes are always up and down, their relationships with developers are all poisoned by years of shenanigan-like behaviour, and the end results speak for themselves. It’s a kind of culture which is always only a couple of fiscal quarters away from decline.
Nintendo, Popcap and other companies are able to make amazing games consistently because the executives in charge understand the value of running a steady ship. Asking their developers to think like businessmen, playing games with money and acting in a punitive manner all produce negative effects.
Instead, they just trust in talent to do a great job, pay them well, and give them the time they need. No drama, no hijinks, just positive cultures that encourage success rather than punish failure.
And so their games do not fail.