Monday, December 06, 2004

Die, Myths, Die! Part II

Q. I've never had a game crash on me. They must be designed really well, right?
A. Have you ever seen that old commercial for luggage, where they give it to a gorilla, and it beats the crud out of it? That's pretty much how games are tested. QA does any random thing they can think of, and if it crashes the game, somebody fixes it. If you've studied Computer Science, you should be familiar with the software design process. The gaming industry pretty much ignores that process. There are few if any requirements, and they're usually as vague as "gun must look really cool." In their defense, it is very hard to quantify what makes a game fun, and it usually takes a few iterations to get it right. Unfortunately, nobody plans for that, and the changes that need to be made often take place between the hours of 12 and 5am.

Q. Woah, wait a minute. I have to work past midnight?
A. Oh yes. The typical dev cycle works like this: there's a preproduction phase where all the features are planned out. Then there's the development phase where the features are implemented. Depending on how well organized the studio is, this could be as normal as a 40 hour work week. If not, you could be spending, well, every waking moment at the office. Then every 1-2 months, there will be a milestone, where the recently added features have to be shown to the higher-ups. This usually takes place over a weekend, and you will very likely be at the office all weekend. I mean, 10am to 2, 3, 4am Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Fixing crashes, finishing up last minute changes, and so on. Then there's an Alpha phase. Again, depending on the studio, this can vary greatly. But you'll probably be working at least 5 days a week, 12 hours a day. All the crashes have to be fixed, all the gameplay tweaks need to be done, and everything else that slipped through the cracks during development. Alpha can last anywhere from one to three months or more. This is the time that can be really, really draining.

The IGDA (International Game Developers' Association) has an excellent resource on quality of life issues in the industry. It has essays, personal journals, and a great white paper with interviews with a number of different employees. I'd highly recommend going there to learn more.

Q. I'm an excellent programmer and extremely well organized. I won't have to work late, right?
A. It doesn't matter. You can't predict the future, and if the powers that be decide that the game has to have online multiplayer or no one will buy it, and you thought the game was going to be one player only... well, you've got a lot of work to do.

Q. That's crazy. Why would anyone put up with that?
A. I honestly don't know. The only thing I can figure is that everyone really wants to make a cool game.

Q. Well, you must be rich from all that overtime, right?
A. Try again! You'll be on salary.

Q. Is the pay good?
A. For a programmer, virtually any comparable job in another industry will pay more. The tradeoff is that you get to (hopefully) work on a really cool project. From what I've seen, the other aspects (art, etc.) are the same.

Q. But at least I have a stable job, right?
A. Well, if you're working for a major development studio, yes. Unfortunately many smaller studios have only one game, and if it fails, they're done. Be very careful if you have a family you'll need to support.

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