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The Game Plan: The times they are a-changin’
by Samuel Rantaeskola on 11/28/12 03:58:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


When I graduated from University in 2000 with a Master in Computer Science, the software industry was at its peak. Me and a few of my fellow graduates started creating a 3D chat community and that was smoking hot. We all believed that we would be swimming in pools of champagne and driving Ferraris in just a few years. 

Things changed quite rapidly over the course of a year or so, it didn’t suffice to just do something with 3D anymore. The glory days were over, and now you actually had to make better stuff than your competition to remain in the game. If you were in the game of making better products than the average game developer, you had a pretty good chance at making a nice payday.

I wouldn't consider myself a skilled game developer back then, I was way too inexperienced. Today it seems like the hot topic is talent. The key to success according to the top studios is making sure that you only hire top talent. My past experience agrees completely with that statement. But is that really all it takes?

There are several reports that show that the growth in the game industry is slowing down, it might even be suffering a decline right now. The AAA games market has definitely gone through a quite drastic reduction, at least according to this report on the US market.

To predict what the future holds we first need to look back at the past. This graph below illustrates my view of how the talent pool versus demand evolves in the game industry.

 Evolution of the industry

In the initial state there was just a few game developers that couldn’t meet the initial demand. Pretty much any game coming out would find an audience. As time passes, some developers will become more proficient at developing games, and their games will have a higher likelyhood of succeding. Since demand is growing, the additional consumers will provide room for new developers. More and more developers increase in skill as they gain experience.

When the growth in demand slows down, a point in time will come when the pool of skilled developers are able to meet the demand. At that time it will be very hard for new developers to find room in the maturing market.  The crowded market willl knock out people without skill, it can only sustain the skilled developers. How do you stand out in a market that is oversaturated with talent?

If we make an analogy with soccer, 50-60 years ago a talented team could get very far without much tactics. They blossomed on the individual skill of their players and was able to beat the opposition just because of that. The world cup in 1974 was a turning point in soccer, where the highly talent-driven South American teams were beaten by a very systematic Dutch team. This article talks about the problems in the highly talented Brazilian team throughout the past 40 years. It ends on a really interesting statement regarding the current state of the team:

Most sides, though, would be delighted to have such a nucleus of players already in place. Brazil's problem is to reconcile them to one unifying philosophy.

This statement resonates well with what I see as one of the biggest problems in game studios today. In the latest stage of the evolution of the game industry, the talent pool is overflowing the demand. In the chart above, I added an orange square which represents talented people working smartly as a team (I discuss this in more detail in this post). When acquiring the best talent can’t set you apart from your competition, you need to make sure that you are smarter than the competition. If you can’t attract the best talent, this becomes essential.  Throughout the history of sports there are plenty of examples of teams that have exceeded their individual capacity. The greek team that won Euro championship 2004 is a comtemporary example of this.

We can only speculate whether the current plateau is a slump due to the economical recession, or if the market has reached maturity.  The growth of the games industry may or may not pick up again when the financial climate is better. Though we can be certain that at some point the curve will flatten out, industries cannot grow forever. Whether that is now or in the future, it will pose new demands on developers that want to stand out. Making sure you are recruiting talent is a good starting point. However, to really make an impact, the talent needs to collaborate more effeciently than we do today.

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Jacob Alvarez
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Does this essentially equate to having talented management to bring the talent together, like a coach brings a sports team together?

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Yes, that's a lot shorter way of writing the same thing :)

Nick Halme
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When I was interviewing at a now-defunct AAA developer I remember asking them about their studio layout, and how the team interfaced.

The answer I got was surprising: mission designers sat on one side of the building, and environment artists sat on the other side.

If an env artist uploaded a change that, say, placed an object that blocked a mission trigger or somesuch, this is how the problem was supposed to be dealt with: the mission designer would contact his lead, who would set up a meeting with the art lead to discuss the problem.

My jaw sort of hung open, and the producer nodded and said he'd been trying to fix that since he had started working there.

Doesn't matter at that point whether your team is very experienced; how is anyone supposed to work at their best when they've got to cut through that sort of "procedure" and organization?

Simon Ludgate
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I've seen similar problems at several developers where I've worked. It's exactly what spurred me back to school to get a Master's degree in Knowledge & Information Management. Except I'm facing an unexpected problem: although I can fix the problem, I can't convince developers to let me do it.

Clearly, the problem isn't that solutions are out there, the problems is that developers won't let those solutions into their workplaces.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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The resistance to create a proper game plan usually originates from the fact that the process in itself has no value; it’s just a vessel that will lead you to the end goal. If the team fails to see the value in the process they will not participate.

The most important thing to get the team members buy-in is not the explanation to how it will work, rather why. In my experience managers tends to be too focused on presenting the solution to the problem, whereas the team members might not always see it as a problem from their perspective.

TC Weidner
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when the equity crunch reemerges as it has to,( math doesn't lie,) it will be the low overhead, nimble, small and talented that win the day in this industry and many others. Many of these ridiculous corporate culture problems will just vanish.

Luis Guimaraes
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It would be interesting to see a chart like that attempting to weight different genres and tastes for gaming.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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The chart is not built on any actual data, I created it to highlight how the industry has evolved.

When I started in the industry there was a few programmers considered so much better than everyone else, today almost every major studio has a number of brilliant programmers (and artists).

I think the graph looks similar in any new industry (or segment), where the hunger for more cannot be met by a few pioneers. Slowly, the talent pool starts to build up and talent are attracted from other industries. After a while it becomes hard to just live of talent.

All new genres within gaming goes through these phases, it might just be a lot more rapid than for console games as talent can easily migrate between genres.

The question to ask about your genre is where you think it is. Can you still compete with just making sure that you have really skilled developers?

Luis Guimaraes
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That's kind of what I was implying, on how many genres fall in niche categories that are in different spots in that symbolic chart. Some even past the point where demand remains and developers drop in favor of working on more crowded markets.

Michael Joseph
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Talent can get a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic shipped. So there's more to it than talent. In fact, I think there are a lot of indie developers who are arguably LESS talented programmers than many of their professional counterparts and who's strengths lay more in design and yet they are finding success in a market that is marked by studio closure after studio closure.

If we're seeing some kind of market saturation from boring and uninspired games, then I suppose you could say that represents a kind of market maturity.

But I think audiences are perfectly willing to keep playing games, or come back to games, or play more games IF the games are worth it.

Michael Joseph
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Also I wonder if one potential problem with large and expensive AAA games is that because they are so risky, upper management is heavily involved and the team leads feel the microscope and become too scared to speak out against any part of it. They just buckle down and trust that everyone knows what they're doing and if the boat needs to be rocked, let someone else rock it because it's safer for ones career to just hold on tight and go with the flow.

These games even though they get developed internally, make that internal team feel like a 3rd party developer who are just working for a pay day. (knowing there will likely be a mass layoff at the end of the cycle doesn't help)

I wonder if Valve is immune to these sorts of problems? Because to stand up and sound an alarm, it often takes people who feel very secure in their professional & financial lives and who creatively feel that the buck stops with them, not with upper management.