Wrapping up the second day of the D.I.C.E. 2007 summit, Method Games president and co-author of the "Cerny Method," Michael John addressed what he called “The Case for Free Agency,” and spoke to how embracing the idea of the freelance developer can help to make the video game industry more efficient and profitable.
John, who most recently worked on Daxter for Ready At Dawn Studios, began his presentation by commenting on a recent conversation he had after wrapping up that project for the PSP, at which time he was approached by Ready At Dawn to be the lead designer on the company's next game. “It’s a really good project – I can’t tell you about it yet,” he teased.
He then commented that it was at this moment that he realized that the opportunity he had been given to decide on his career path within the industry was somewhat unique, and that “most people do whatever their company’s doing.” From this, John began talking to others within the industry in an effort to gauge other's interest in opting for choice.
“I’m calling for an open marketplace of developers,” he stated. “If anyone in this room wants to call me, you just call me, and I’ll take your call. I don’t have to sneak around. Now, an open marketplace has a lot of implications, one of which is that it’s really scary. But I believe in markets, and I also believe in talent, and I believe that if the market is open, talent will come out. I guess I’m kind of betting on that.”
John spoke of several factors in his call for free agency, echoing Jason Rubin's comments at GDC 2003 and noting that “it’s not really possible for a company or a dev studio to differentiate themselves on graphics. What Jason left out,” he continued, “was that the consumers still care.”
Illustrating his point, he brought up the fact that Microsoft and Epic Games' visually stunning Gears of War took home the bulk of the awards at the event's 10th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards. “People are still going to expect those big games, people are still going to want to buy them, and frankly we’re still going to want to make them.”
However, John commented that while the bigger studios get this sort of attention, independent studios are going to be the source of most of the industry's innovative ideas, noting “I see no reason that’s going to change. So, what will they do?”
John then began to outline his vision for the ideal independent studio, noting that when it comes to staff, “the magic number is 30.” He added: “At 30 you still have fun, anything above 30 is a quantum step to have 100. So keep it to 30, and then bring in outside experts. Like me!” The industry veteran then offered examples of developers that were subscribing to this model, such as Delirious and Wideload, which, to his amazement, has actually kept their staff at 15.
“So the second thing we need to do is what I call a new contract,” he continued, noting that existing contracts are “kind of antiquated.” “This is a new model. The employer offers opportunity, the employee offers productivity. They offer a cool project, I offer creative effort.”
The main reason for free agency, noted John, is simply a case of freedom, accountability, and loyalty. “I’m accountable for the work I’m going to do. I do not care about the corporate politics of any company I work for. I don’t have to And that’s very liberating...I’m very loyal to my projects. I’m not going to abandon them, because I’ve chosen the project.”
Among the potential issues surrounding free agency, John brought up a number of concerns that have been voiced, including a lack of corporate healthcare (a system he notes as being antiquated), and unions, something which he outwardly admitted developers should form within their own ranks.
“You say this word in a room of game developers, they think of Hoffa and Tony Soprano. Here are some things I’ve heard. Unions will bankrupt small studios. Unions let slackers keep their jobs... Yeah, if we’re stupid.”
Concluding, John stated simply: “Last but not least, we just need guts. If you think this is a good idea, just do it. I’m going to start with something really simple, the word ‘developer.’ We use this in two ways: small company that makes games, and person who makes games. They’re not the same. People are developers, companies are studios. I want that word. I want developer. I am a game developer.”
He added: “Talent has to force this change. I believe in talent... remember who makes games. You make games. I think once people get this in their mind, things will get much easier.”