This dictionary began as a conversation between a colleague (Quoc Tran) and myself, discussing stories we've heard from various colleagues in our industry. He mentioned the concept of "managing upwards" with regards to the phenomenon where a manager spends more time managing people outside the studio than inside.
I had never heard that phrase before, and once he taught me what that meant, I found myself more aware of this occurrence when talking to friends in and outside of the games industry about their own management structures.
It was shortly after that conversation that I posted a status update on my Facebook account: "Learned a new phrase today: 'Managing Upwards'". This led to a discussion amongst many other game developer colleagues about cool phrases that they were eager to share.
I then realized just how much this concept of "Game Development Phrases" resonated with veterans within this somewhat intimate industry.
I put a call out amongst veteran game developers for phrases that reflected their experience in the trenches. More than 80 developers responded, not all of whom will be named in this article.
It is to my dismay that I must confess that less than half of the "Token of Shame" confessions made it into this article... mostly because the majority of tokens were omitted due to ummm... "identifiability".
Vocabulary can be a powerful tool, sometimes. These "game development phrases" were like incantations that validated perceptions and attuned senses to a situation that may have been otherwise amorphous in nature. All of the possible experiences that one may encounter in the game developer multiverse have a chance of resonating with another developer to the point that a single key phrase can yield instant recognition of the complex narrative encapsulated within that phrase.
This article strives to give form to the amorphous by maximizing the perceived realness of common game development cultural patterns in the hopes of evincing the greater tapestry that binds us as people who make games for a living.
Disclaimer. This Studio Culture Dictionary is meant to entertain, educate, and soothe the reader into cathartic bliss. The terms of this dictionary do not necessarily reflect the personal experiences of the author or individual contributors.
This is a story...
…about every game developer that ever was...
…and every game developer that ever will be.
It began with business...
Joe Walmart: The lowest common denominator consumer that many publishers must cater to in order to mitigate financial risk. Coined to describe the powerful force that allowed Deer Hunter to become a market success. Can also be referred to as "Walmartian."
Managing Upwards: When management duties are focused on people above in the hierarchy as opposed to below.
ROI: Return on investment.
Artists had their language...
Fakosity: Simulated radiosity lighting (global illumination) via the use of point lights.
Greeble: The micro-level geometry detail usually found on architectural or mechanical assets that give an object visual complexity on a surface level.
TARDIS: Verb that means to make something up to 40 percent larger on the interior than on the exterior.
Wonkify: to add imperfection to geometry to break the perfect symmetry and "straightness" of 3D. Wonkifying something gives it personality. It can be as subtle as slightly rotating/scaling a couple of edge loops to break the rigidity of a silhouette.
Programmers also had a jargon of their own...
Chicken and Egg Problem: A workflow or engineering problem where two things (usually code and content) depend on one to exist before the other.
Eating Your Own Dog Food: When programmers become users of their own tools to put themselves in the shoes of the designers who will eventually use those tools to do production work.
Egyptian Braces: K&R bracing as referred to by Stack Overflow, due to the resemblance to "Walk Like an Egyptian."
False Start: When you start over a significant way through coding or designing a system because you realize that it won't work, or there's a better way.
Minute Man: The engineer who estimates every task, no matter how complex, in minutes.
Pimp the Tech: Doing something to show the engine at its best (used ironically when the opposite is clearly happening.)
Yoda Conditional: if ( CONSTANT == variable ) instead of if ( variable == CONSTANT ).
Designers use techniques to form the soul of the game...
Data Wrangler: The human that tunes gameplay values for character types, items, and systems in the game.
Dice Humped: Consistently getting a poor result from a random number generator. Originally was used when playing tabletop games, but was expanded to be used as a warning thought experiment for any truly random number in a system. "What happens if the player gets dice humped?" It's a test if the designer actually wants things random or just distributed.
Graybox: The idea of making a game level without textures or high detail models, animations, etc. Just get it working, paced, and ideally, fun without any art requirements.
Grognardy: A game/universe/mechanic that is too niche/hardcore/nerdy. "That JRPG is too grognardy for Facebook, it'll never sell."
High Level: Used to describe an idea that is more conceptual than specific.
Machete: Another term for subtractive design. "Get out the machete and chop what isn't working or needed."
Palate Cleansing: Giving players a break from predominant gameplay to do something different for a while, before bringing then back to the normal gameplay.
Player Package: The suite of movement and abilities available to the player.
Pushing Buttons to Make Rainbows: Refers to a neighborhood of game mechanics and/or interactions where the psychological reward given to the player is disproportionately larger than the effort required on the player's part.
THE Top Five: Any of a handful of creative ideas that always get brought up on every single project you've worked on (i.e. "Wouldn't it be great if you could seamlessly go from space to the surface of the planet?")