Here's a story we've all heard. You join a studio and work on a project that you really love, and then the studio starts up its next project, and it's just not your cup of tea. Happens every day in this industry.
So what are you to do? Your choice today is to stick it out and work on a project you don't like, or quit the company and feel like a chump. I believe this is a false choice, and we can do better. And the best way for us to do better is to embrace the idea of free agency.
Free Agency is a short name for a single, simple principle: creative workers should be given the opportunity to choose their projects. On the one hand, this idea is so simple, it almost doesn't seem worthy of discussion. But on the other hand, it stands so far outside of the mainstream of current game development, it ends up feeling closer to revolutionary.
Imagine your studio's producer coming to you and pitching the studio's project to you. I've had this experience, and I can tell you, it feels great. Even if all you do is say "yes", you know that you are on the project because you chose to be there. It fundamentally changes the relationship between the developer and his or her work, and shifts the power dynamic of the developer/studio relationship.
First a definition:
"Game Developer: A person who is directly involved in the creation of games."
We have this funny habit of conflating the terms "developer" and "studio." But these are very different entities. The developers make the games, and the studios provide the infrastructure and framework for them to do that. Neither can exist without the other, but they are not the same. Getting this language straight makes the rest of this conversation immeasurably easier.
Presently, the vast majority of game developers do their work as 'permanent' employees of development studios. Because they are tied down by contracts and ethical commitments, the expectation is that these developers are in it for the long haul.
The reality of course is already very different. Developers jump ship like clockwork, and studios either downsize or close down constantly. However the assumption of permanent employment drapes a veil of secrecy and false expectation over this whole process, leading to frequent feelings of betrayal and anger. Let's get beyond that.
When I advocate an "open marketplace" of developers, all I'm really advocating is lifting the veil. In a Free Agent economy, it's OK for studios to contact developers, and for developers to contact studios.
A free agent developer has no less obligation to finish projects in a complete and dedicated way, and his or her client has no less obligation to do its best to manage the project such that it is shipped and successful. Looked at in this light, all I'm asking for is transparency in what has already become a relatively transient relationship.
A very important part of this equation is that it is not zero-sum. Though I am asking developers to wrest control of their careers away from their employers, forward-looking studios stand to realize great advantages as well.
Studio management across the industry rightly laments a lack of access to good and especially experienced talent. But as more developers become free agents, studios gain easy access to a far greater range of talent and knowledge than they can hope to get in a traditional recruiter-based employee search. This is a significant advantage for a savvy studio, especially one trying to break out of a rut of similar products.
The other advantage to studios, one that should not be overestimated, is the economic efficiency of free agency. Studios who rely on in-house talent in the modern era create gigantic overhead loads, and almost inevitably have extensive redundancies, especially as they move between projects.
Free agency allows studios to add talent only when it is required, and to remove that talent from the balance sheet as soon as it is no longer required. While it might sound strange for a developer like myself to endorse this kind of cold-hearted approach, tackling the problem of runaway overhead is vital to the future economic health of studios, and without the studios, there are no developers.