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Ice Cream Time: How Great Games Are Made
by moo yu on 09/15/13 04:04:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I've been really reminiscent about Ice Cream Time lately. I think one reason is that ice cream is delicious and even more delicious when I don't have to pay for it, but the other reason is that I'm going to be embarking on a new adventure soon and I'm really excited about making something great. 

I should probably take a step back and explain what Ice Cream Time was. The first year of my video game career was working on Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal or RC3 as it was known internally. If I remember correctly, there was a team of about 75 people working on the project. Like pretty much every game that's ever been in production, RC3 was at the very least, a little ambitious for the time frame and team that we had. As a result, it was a project that required quite a bit of overtime.

One of the institutions that arose towards the end of the project was Ice Cream Time. At the stroke of midnight, every day, Slim and I would scooter around the office attempting to collect everyone that was still there to come to the kitchen to take a short ice cream break. Insomniac's kitchen was legendary and the ice cream selection was no exception. I was quite partial to the Vanilla Caramel Drumstick.

At the beginning, it was just nice to take a break. We'd all been working so hard that it was nice to have 15 minutes where all the testers were eating ice cream instead of finding more crash bugs. 

But it was more than just a break. The was a nice side effect due to the midnight timing of Ice Cream Time. By midnight, there weren't many people left in the office. However, it was always the usual suspects. There were two amazing things about the group, though. The first was that it included people from every department. The second was that it was the people from each department that cared most about the game they were making.

There was a lot of work for everyone and everyone was working very hard. But if the project was at a point where everyone was required to stay until midnight, we would have just started cutting features. So everyone on the team was probably assigned enough work to keep them busy until 8 or 9, but not midnight.

The thing about the Ice Cream Time crew were that we didn't just do the work that we were assigned to do. We didn't just fix the bugs that were assigned to us. We obsessively played the game, looked for small tweaks that would add up to take the game from a competently made game to something really special.

In the end, that was the magic of Ice Cream Time. There was the team hierarchy of how things were designed and specified and handed down as work. There were the official communication channels for review and feedback. But Ice Cream Time was something entirely outside of that system. It was getting together with the handful of people who most cared about the game and working together to make something magical. They were all people who couldn't go home knowing how much better they could make things.

During the day, there were a tons of requests that went up the chain in one department and back down the chain of another that just vanished into the ether. Someone might have said no. Someone might have forgotten. Maybe a bug was created and never got assigned. Who knows. But at Ice Cream Time, it was a world where anyone could talk to anyone and make a case for how something would make the game better. And if you could convince the one person who needed to do the work, it got done.

I will always look fondly back on Ice Cream Time, but will always be saddened by the context in which it lived. My theory today, almost a decade later, is that if you can find the people who would have come to Ice Cream Time, you can make great things all the time, not only after a midnight ice cream-based rallying cry.

Will you come to Ice Cream Time?

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Radegast Verizhnikov
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I will come to Tea and Cookies Time ;) I think, it is nice alternative.

Daniel Cook
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With a small team, every day is Ice Cream Time. :-)

scott anderson
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I've worked on small teams where that unfortunately wasn't the case :(.

moo yu
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Your Plus and Minus post was definitely another reason I was thinking about the topic.

Only plus people show up to ICT. =)

Link for those who haven't read it:

Matthew Woodward
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Concerns I have with endorsing this approach to development:

1. It assumes that people are going home at 9pm rather than 12+am because they "just don't care enough about the game", rather than because eg they have families to look after.
2. It assumes that the people clocking the longest hours are better placed to determine overall development priorities than whoever is formally responsible for them.
3. It assumes that regularly working until past midnight is likely to be a net positive for the project, which to my limited understanding is not supported by productivity research.
4. It assumes that the best way to deal with perceived process failure is to silently circumvent it.
5. It ignores the negative impact exclusive cliques have on the rest of the development team.
6. It ignores the possibility that, by incurring productivity penalties during scheduled hours in order to work on unscheduled work during the night, it's actually pushing the project further behind schedule.

moo yu
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Hi Matthew.

I completely agree with your assessment and I recognize that I didn't do a good job of addressing it by the end. I had a much longer explanation of my view on the topic, but it got really messy so I removed it.

I don't think more hours means more passion about the project actually. I think the people that came to ICT were a subset of those who had the passion and those who could. Importantly, though, nobody was there who didn't care. I'm sure there were many many more passionate people who couldn't be there. And also there were people who were there that I knew, even at the time, shouldn't be. They should have been with their families.

The point that I really meant to make is that no matter how big a team, for a project to be great, you need at least a handful of people who are highly passionate about the project with the ability to act on their passion.

I've seen teams without enough passionate people (at least one from each discipline) but much more often I've seen projects with lots of passionate people who were never given a chance to express themselves and have to tie their names to mediocre products not for lack of trying to make them great.

Ice Cream Time gave us that opportunity in a context where it otherwise didn't exist and that's why I look back fondly on it. Obviously I wish that it was simply how we worked back then during normal work hours. If I'm ever in a position to control these kinds of things, I will be extremely aware of getting the best out of people.

In regards to trying to change the actual process, believe you me I did. But when you've got to ship something in 2 months, you've got to fight the battle the right way AND the wrong way, if you get my meaning.

Cliques are definitely an issue but if the people with the most passion and the best ideas are the ones getting through, that's obviously ideal. Ice Cream Time didn't perfectly filter for either, but it was the best we had at the time.

Regarding the last point, I'll let the game speak for itself. I'm very proud of it and I think a lot of the small things that made it great were all things we tried to raise as tasks and bugs but that got waived because they weren't perceived as important.

Frank DAngelo
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I agree with Matthew's comment. He addressed many of the same disagreements that I have with the article.

I think my main gripe though is that this article seems to say that the people who worked the longest hours, or stayed the latest at the office, were the most passionate or best workers on the project. There are some issues I have with this conclusion.

First, there is a big difference between office hours and actual "working" hours. We all know many a guy that comes in at 10AM, takes a 1 hour coffee break, then a 2 hour lunch break, then a 1 hour break sometime in the mid day as well, on top of a variety of shorter 15-20 minute breaks wandering around the office chatting with colleagues. Nothing wrong with this, but this guy might have to spend a 12-14 hour day at the office to make his 8 hour workday. Just because he is at the office longer doesn't mean he is actively working and improving the game compared to someone that comes in, takes minimal breaks, and is in and out of the office in 8-9 hours.

Piggybacking on that, what about early morning workers? I'm personally a morning person, and I prefer to get to the office at 7AM, whereas most of my game development colleagues don't roll in till 9AM, quite a lot not even till 10-11AM. Heck, I even knew guys that didn't get to the office till after lunch. Just because I'm out of the office at 4PM doesn't mean I put any less hours or passion into the game then a person there from 10-7, it's just different time frames.

Last but not least, I think work life balance is greatly under-valued in the game industry. Having a strong work life balance is something I strongly believe in, and it's important to live life, spend time with friends and family, and in essence, not spend your life just making games. It's been shown in studies over and over again that workers in crunch are not performing at an ideal level, but companies keep crunching. Happy and well rested employees make the best employees. and most importantly those with families should be spending time with their spouse and kids.

Now don't get me wrong, Ice Cream time sounds like a wonderful thing, but I do think it's wrong to classify this group of people as the best and most passionate employees. If that were the case, you just as much need the "early morning coffee group" at 6AM and the "mid day I skip lunch to work" group from 12 to 1. :)

moo yu
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Yup. I completely agree. I didn't express it properly.

Anything that let's people work together as a passionate, talented, multi-disciplined group is great. It's pretty horrible that the way we got that outcome was to sacrifice our lives and our health and to exclude people who worked at different times than we did. Was definitely the ideal or right way to do it. Definitely not the way I'd do it today. =)