I’ve been reading Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play.
Honestly, when it was first recommended to me, I nearly walked away. Apparently there’s a formula for the book as there’s an “At Work” series (Coders at Work, CTOs at Work, Venture Capitalists at Work, Founders at Work, European Founders at Work…), which is usually a sign that I won’t enjoy the book. On top of that, all the interviews are Q and A, which often is a sign of small budgets, short timelines, and minimal editing.
But I read the handful of Amazon reviews, then poked around the reviews for the other “At Work” books. Turns out the books are pretty well received. So I went for it (Kindle version, though!).
And I’m really happy I did! Now, as a caveat, I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, so there’s still room for this to go wrong. In the worst case, remember that I only recommended that you read the first half and proceed from there with caution. Additionally, it’s really only interesting if you’re interested in the business of managing a game design company. This is NOT a book about game design.
One of the things I enjoy about the book is that it’s actually interviews with the founders, like Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts or Doug and Gary Carlston from Broderbund. It’s not an unauthorized biography filled with gossip from disgruntled employees.
It’s also pretty candid. Now, no one in their right mind is going to spill the beans on everything. But I have to say, the book is more candid than I thought. The interviews acknowledge the bad — that they lost time with their families or moments where they were on the brink of bankruptcy. One of my favorite anecdotes is when Wild Bill Stealy, who cofounded MicroProse with Sid Meier, talks about how he would meet with potential customers while wearing his flight suit (he was a pilot for the Air Force and Air National Guard). He’d put on a show, talking about being a fighter pilot, all in service of selling their products, which included a number of flight games.
Now, there’s a lot of discussion of the days where people burned discs in their living rooms, packed them into baggies, and shipped them off to customers in the 80s, and there’s also the typical business soundbites that people inevitably underline using that highlight function that’s built into the Kindle apps. (For example, this sentence was underlined. “You get out what you put in. I have always invested heavily in defining and building corporate culture. If you don’t do it, the alternative forms of organizations are dictatorship and bureaucracy.” –Trip Hawkins)
But there’s also philosophical moments to be had, especially if you read between the lines. For example, a common theme reflects the point where a business grows large enough that one can no longer serve as lead designer and CEO. Rather than just lament the creative control that was given up, Don Daglow, who founded Stormfront Studios, talks about his approach to creative input as an executive to say that even though you give up control, you can still be a foil, counterpoint, conscience, and a backup. To me, that’s a healthy mindset when approaching the reality that one person cannot do everything.
It also becomes interesting to consider the different approaches to growing teams, of taking risks, on managing a license, and on forming partnerships, be it publisher, cofounder, or employee. But most of all, it’s clear that these are smart people who loved what they did and set out to make something they enjoyed.
I also have to give a special shout-out to the chapter on Tobi Saulnier, who is the founder of 1st Playable Productions. She is a friend and mentor to me, and the only woman to have a chapter in the book. I’m actually quite impressed that gender really does not come up in the book, as it would’ve been an easy card to play. However, the gender differences is a reality in the games industry, as in many technology fields, leaving me an obligation to point out that not only is Tobi a great role model to girls and technology, but that she’s recognized as a great role model to anyone interested in the games space.
Yeah, I’m a fangirl.