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Interview with John Henderson
The Austin game development community has a strong heart. The IGDA chapter is involved and dedicated. And its chapter secretary, John Henderson, has done more in recent years to keep community alive than anyone I know. It's time to put him in the spotlight. We'll start with a little background.
JH) I've lived in Austin since the summer of 2008, but had gone to many functions related to video game development in Austin before that, mostly organized through the local IGDA chapter, as well as though Austin Community College. I was secretary for IGDA-Austin from September 2009 to December 2013. During that time, IGDA-Austin was my conversation starter at various events around the greater Austin area, which led a lot of people to think I was a lot more important than I was. While I got a lot of fulfillment out of volunteering my time at summer picnics at Richard Garriott's property, career building events like Catalyst and Captivate Conference, the (Not) The End Of The World panel discussion show we did with KLRU at historic Studio 6A
or my biggest deal, the speaker series Microtalks
, I wasn't pushing for a lot of notoriety or even recognition. As a result, the work I've done has just barely managed to stay relevant with a modicum of friendly folks in Austin and a few scattered throughout the Internet. It's been fun, but I need a break.
AB) Were you always involved in games?
JH) When I graduated from college in 1998 with a journalism degree, that was probably the last year you could buy a new computer without either a modem or a network card. I entered the newspaper business, starting as a reporter and continuing as a page designer and copy editor, right at the start of when the world's media consumption was fundamentally changing, and it was clear almost from the start that ownership and senior leadership had no idea what they were in for, and most would struggle as they never had before to stay relevant, even with long-lasting regional franchises. If a newspaper hadn't decided by 1998 that the print product would Real Soon need to be the secondary supplement to the web, rather than the other way around, they were going to be in trouble.
Still, I will continue to tell any writers that want to make a living in words, to get a job at a newspaper. Offer to work for free. Find a real editor who will challenge you and not let you settle for what you can do. Starting out, you'll want to get better. I've got at least one success story out of this advice.
Writing about games came as a result of friendships I made by accident, largely by being brazen and fearless enough to put together points of view I thought made sense, to a new Internet that had no editors. I wasn't writing as a player myself, but I made friends with a lot of hardcore operators in the genre that would be known as MMORPG, first with Ultima Online and much later, Shadowbane and the ill-fated Ultima Worlds Online: Origin (what Ultima Online 2 became before it was shut down.) I went to two E3's (1999 and 2000) and several Austin Game Development Conference, and I met a few people willing to pay me to write about them, for fansites such as CrossroadsXRG (which became Warcry) and Gamasutra. In turn, that was enough to get me a few more writing gigs on the side, and right around the time I was about ready to leave newspapers for good, I got an offer of a full-time job that enabled me to move to and live in Austin in 2008.
At this point in my life, it's just about staying content. I have a job that pays my bills that doesn't require me to be there more than 40 hours a week, at least not most of the time. I don't have a family so I have time to spend on other things. Austin is where most of my friends are, and quite a lot of the things I like doing. I don't consider myself a creative sort, but I can talk to lots of those who are. In a way, it's the kind of thing I used to do all the time as a reporter, even though I'm not writing on a deadline anymore. My friends tend to be the sort that can put up with me asking them pointed questions long enough to realize I mean them no ill.
AB) What makes Austin unique?
JH) Forty-four years ago, a guy named Willie Nelson moved back to Texas after having made it big as a songwriter in Nashville. Around the same time, some enterprising folk south of Town Lake in Austin took over a National Guard armory built hogan-style, a kind of big cylinder cut in half and set on its flat end, with a rounded top. They turned it into a honky-tonk and called it the Armadillo World Headquarters. That was 1970, at that awkward time in America when the civil rights and counter-culture movements were clearly on the wane, but an unpopular war was still going on, and great places for creative people to live like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco were starting to get pricey. So, as it turned out, a lot of them were moving to Austin, following a trend that had been true about Texas for more than a century before that -- you go there when nothing else makes sense, you need to refocus and you want to take a breath. Maybe you'll move on after that. But sometimes you want to say, you may all go to hell, I will go to Texas.
And as the story goes, the cowboys started growin' their hair long, and the hippies started wearin' hats and boots, and pretty soon they'd all be at an Armadillo show and you couldn't tell 'em apart.
It's still like that in Austin. People like to grouse about certain folks acting one way or another, but just by looking at anyone here, it's hard to tell why they're here, unless you talk to them. There are lots more reasons to be here than there ever were. Back in the 70s, there really wasn't much going on beyond the University of Texas and government (city, county, state, federal, etc.) Now there's a load of industry, art and science and tech and more tech. Semiconductors from AMD and Freescale and Samsung. Movies and TV shows from Rodriguez and Linklater and Judge and Malick. Going to watch them at the Alamo Drafthouse, or music and comedy shows at every bar in town with a stage, which is pretty much all of them. Checking out all the people who pack the city for SXSW or Austin City Limits or Fun Fun Fun Fest or Fantastic Fest or RTX or any of the other events going on all the time, then escaping to the fringes so you have room to breathe again. This is a crossroads where high technology and creative enterprise intersect, and lots of people want a piece. The rent is still pretty cheap, too, and it could be a lot easier to get around, but people put up with a lot and miss it when they go away.
And people have been making video games in Austin for more than 25 years. But there are reasons to like being here, to do what you want to do most, that aren't just about your job.
And if you're broke and on your ass because you got laid off or your project got canned or your project shipped and there isn't something else they need you to do, you might not starve.
And while not everyone you meet in Austin is going to be able to help you directly, they'll at least care enough to treat you like a person.
There are few places where it has been possible to be a professional game developer, where all those things are true. It's not just one thing that makes Austin unique. It's all the things.
AB) What kind of response have you had to these events? Do people understand their benefit?
JH) I hem and haw about questions like this, and while I'd love to be at the forefront of shows that bring in people by the hundreds, sell tickets by the trainload and have my every word be followed, that hasn't happened, and in a way I'm glad it hasn't been that notorious. The few who have been to the shows and enjoyed themselves have told me so. I've enjoyed seeing the shows come together, and the audiences and participants come together as a result. Ultimately, they're the sort of shows I want to see. So if I get to take part, that's the benefit I understand. Everything else is cake frosting.
If you're talking about game developers and their attitude about community and how it affects them personally and professionally, then yeah, I'd say most understand that anything that reminds them that there's a world outside of home and work, and a distraction is welcome most of the time, especially if it connects them to peers that do the same kind of work but on different projects. There's a lot to be learned from perspective, which unlike knowledge is not universal, and a lot of inspiration that can come from the unexpected and unplanned connections you make outside your little bubble of comfort and familiarity.
But if you're talking about game developers, you're talking about busy people, who are often introverted and reluctant to spend time outside of routine. And if you're talking about game developers in Austin, you're talking about busy people who have to choose from any number of a thousand other things they could be doing besides anything I'm doing.
AB) How do people find out about what to do and where to go, is it all Facebook?
JH) The best possible method to get the largest number of people would be all the methods available to everyone, and more than one person responsible for spreading the word. Social media is cheap, but everything takes time. I've been guilty of using Facebook solely because it's cheap and versatile and lots of people use it. The IGDA-Austin web page (http://austingamedevs.org/about
) has good links to everything. I regret making the Facebook group secret, because now it can't be changed back.
AB) Would you say there's a lot of apathy in Austin after the layoffs in 2012-2013?
JH) Compared to what? 2004-5, when Austin game dev got its heart got cut out? Something like half the people making games in Austin got laid off when Origin got shut down by EA, Acclaim went Chapter 7, Microsoft shuttered Digital Anvil and Eidos shuttered Ion Storm.
Anyone with any memory knows this is a cyclical thing, and it's not just about Austin. What happened to Austin 8 years ago, happened to Vancouver in 2012
. But some months later, we're hearing about new high-profile stuff
coming from there, a few established smaller-scale shops riding out the storm
and there's probably a bunch of new stuff in the wings we haven't heard about yet. 2013 was a rebuilding year for Austin, which meant almost nothing shipped, but a few studios were staffing up (Wargaming.net in particular, though not necessarily to produce games in their entirety out of their Austin office.) If it hadn't been for small-scale and indie projects, there would be nothing on the board coming from Austin in 2013, unless you count expansion packs and DLC.
(How many people know most of the group that worked with Davey Wreden on THE STANLEY PARABLE live here, including him? If they did, would they be less apathetic?)
If people are apathetic, they probably just need new perspective on what they're doing, and why. Thing about layoffs, they're easy stories to tell, and everyone loves to hand-wring on social media when their friends get laid off, but not many know what to do about it. What's harder to report on, because people in professional transition usually don't open themselves up to interviews, is that pretty much everyone with any proven ability who got laid off, found new work within a few months, and most of the ones who really wanted to stay, have found a way to stay.
No two stories are the same. I was at a holiday party last month with a mutual friend who had moved out of the country to take a contract gig, then moved back to Austin and told his Facebook wall about it. Because he was an experienced designer with good connections, he got two invites to apply for work in Austin, just because people knew he was coming back. And yet, just today my friend Joe Houston made a blog post
about how his family's health issues and lack of company benefits associated with being an independent developer have worn down his resolve for completing THE UNWRITTEN PASSAGE, to the point where he could barely focus on whether he was going to finish it.
That to me isn't about apathy, which is a lack of caring. If anything, it's a lack of certainty. But when have game devs ever had that? I think every creative person appreciates having help clearing the runways and taking care of the stuff that stands in their way. But sometimes the best way to provide that is to not get in the way, yourself.
AB) What's your personal view of the indie scene in Austin? Any recommendations for those either involved now or interested in diving in?
JH) Make games. If you're going to talk about making games, that's OK, but you should still be making games, or you're not a game developer.
I'm not a game developer. So I don't think my point of view is all that useful.
I am concerned for the many who seem to think game development is ready and willing to take in people with no experience and/or no connections or social skills. I've encountered quite a number who have come to Austin to seek their fortune, straight out of "game schools" with little if any notion about what they were going to do when they got here. As above, the situation of being an overeducated barista isn't so bad in somewhere like Austin as opposed to, say, some other cities where rent isn't so cheap. Then again, it looks as though Seattle's getting a standard minimum wage hike earlier than we are.
I'm also concerned about Austin's "independent spirit" being borne less of coherent vision and the ability to do most of the work by yourself. That part's OK, but the other edge to the blade is how independence can make you blind to what's going on around you, and deprive you of the opportunity to work with others in a mutually beneficial sense. (Then again, "collaboration" is too often used as a synonym for taking credit for someone else's work, and contributing the choice of color for the bike shed.)
AB) What about investment in an area with a lower cost of living?
JH) I've heard it said recently that investment money exists in Austin, but it definitely doesn't have the culture of investment in speculative technology and entertainment than California does. I've heard more than a few colleagues trying their hand at indie game development relate stories of investors wanting them to move to California just for the sake of investment, and I've long observed companies with established operations in Austin have a footprint in California for that purpose, even though most of the work is done here. It's not just game dev, of course -- AMD has a lot more employees here in Austin and their fabrication plants are bigger, but they're technically a Silicon Valley company. Meanwhile, Samsung, Intel and Apple are all increasing their manufacturing bases in Austin.
So the money's here, but arts and entertainment folks don't know how to get to it. Somehow, other software-based companies are finding their way to get the capital they need, but not enough of them have games as a product. Given how much at a premium hardcore programmers are in the game space, you'd think that the opportunity for them to make software, get paid well and enjoy the environment even if they aren't making games, would be considered more of a critical issue.
I think that problem is being addressed locally by experienced programmers forming their own boutique shops and hiring themselves out as needed. Midnight Studios, Steel Penny Games, Bluepoint Games and so on -- they've all worked on fairly high profile projects in recent years, but you wouldn't know their names unless you did your research, but then you'd probably never know they were based in Austin.
The most critical need for Austin is more people who can run a business and employ all the creative and technically proficient people who want to continue to live here, choosing to put down roots here, themselves. The old saw is that SXSW and other events draw people like that here, but then they go back home. Or worse, they stay and don't get used to the lack of a California-like investment climate, then go back home after less than a year, discouraged and full of bad omens. I'd like to be a snob and say we don't need people like that in Austin, but we really do -- we just need a little more patience and a willingness to get in on the ground floor.
AB) You've done a lot for people who have been laid off with events to assist with networking as well as social get togethers to honor their work. Without resorting to finger pointing, purely post mortem advice here, are there any overall observations for large companies that you can impart?
JH) Make money, but be less partisan. Understand that Austin's value is in its diversity. We've been in the place where just a handful of studios employ everyone, and we should all be thankful that isn't how things are, anymore. Make money, so you can give some away to mutual efforts to improve the quality of life for all, so talent will want to stay here, and they can have more seamless transitions in their careers.
If anything, I don't think big companies get appreciated enough. Big projects come from them, and there are some devs who really like working on big projects. Plus, they have the biggest piles of money, so they're most often solicited whenever resources are needed. However, smart phones and Steam and the years following their advent have proven that big projects are just as risky as they've ever been, and that it's no longer absolutely necessary for games to be big, to be successful. Those finding ways to empower smaller teams working on smaller scale projects, identify their market, make sure it ships and bring it to market, are doing remarkably well, measuring their success in tens of thousands of units sold rather than millions.
If more companies in Austin understood that reality better, we'd have fewer big projects collapsing under their own weight, or teetering under untenable and uncertain risk. Don't be big just because big is all you know how to be. Be as big as you have to be, and then pay it forward for everyone else, and remember where you are, who came before you and who your neighbors are.
Be less partisan, so you don't forget how to work with others for mutual goals. To riff on the "independent spirit" business above, if there was a way to make it easier for everyone who wants to work to know what resources exist and who to work with, honestly, the events we have could be more casual and less desperate as people fumble around in the dark (figuratively) for what they need to get their job done.