Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
A Game Studio Culture Dictionary
View All     RSS
October 20, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 20, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

A Game Studio Culture Dictionary

October 6, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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...

Blueroom: Graybox.

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?")

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Related Jobs

Monochrome LLC
Monochrome LLC — Aptos, California, United States

Senior Programmer
Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — London, Ontario, Canada

Character Artist
Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — London, Ontario, Canada

Sound Designer
Gearbox Software
Gearbox Software — Plano, Texas, United States

Server Programmer


Gerald Belman
profile image
Awesome. 100% awesome. I love patronizing out of touch rich kids. (and people who have achieved a high position in a company solely based on their connections and not on their actual skills)

I'm going to actually use some of these. My favorite is the dead monkey.

Oh, and by the way, Banana.

Benjamin Marchand
profile image
Hell yeah, I just couldn't stop laughing from the beginning to the tend of the list.

Daneel Filimonov
profile image
Bookmarked and stashed. This is pure awesome! Thank you, Kain :)

mike amerson
profile image
I love this article, Thanks for compiling all this jargon. However, I think "Crunch" or "Crunch mode" should be in there. Game development has its own derivative of the meaning and it's a common practice.

Steven Halls
profile image
"Yoda Conditional". I love that one!

Joel Nystrom
profile image
"Cabal" has obviously changed meaning since I heard the term first - for me it just means a dedicated design-group that are tasked with a single problem during a short time. It comes from Valve btw.

Harold Li
profile image
Fantastic list, I've heard a bunch of these before, but never in such a neatly put together list. "Pixel Wanking". Bam, short and to the point.

Ali Afshari
profile image
This is great! I have no experience in the game industry yet, but I think this will help me to accept how things are :)

James Youngman
profile image
I've been on a number of teams that used "Save it for the sequel" in much the same way as the Gold Edition.

Gil Jaysmith
profile image
We talk about 'p4blame' when the build breaks.

Josh Morton
profile image
Don't forget "low hanging fruit". That one is used ALL the time.

Alexander Jhin
profile image
This article not only defines useful terms but encourages good practices (and mocks bad ones.) Awesome.

Wyatt Epp
profile image
Jay Barnson first brought the term "Black Triangle" to light in reference to the seemingly-underwhelming successful first test of some very complicated core system.

I can't remember for the life of me who coined it, but "Lootiness" also came to mind.

Andrew Grapsas
profile image
Missing a few:

"Ship it!" -- mantra espoused when something is completely broken... or when something finally works.

"Not my car" -- used to indicate not being the owner of a particular flaw or feature

"Version 2.0" -- great idea, but, we'll push it off to the next version

Borut Pfeifer
profile image
A couple favs of mine:

Weeble physics - cartoony physics simulation code that prevents characters from tipping over.

Throbbing box technology - the code that makes interactable objects gleam periodically in FPS or other style gmes

Kain Shin
profile image
HI BORUT! Long time no see!!!

Steven An
profile image
Gross... Sponger: Anyone who goes into a bathroom with their shoes off.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
profile image
""What happens if the player gets dice humped?" It's a test if the designer actually wants things random or just distributed."


sean lindskog
profile image
Some of those have got to be studio specific, but there's a lot I recognize too.

Wylie Garvin
profile image
Some of this vocabulary is obscure, but the descriptions that come with them are all very familiar. A great collection.

Joshua Dallman
profile image
No social game lingo?

Jason Bakker
profile image
A couple from my work, not sure whether they're used in other places:

Extreme Programming - When two or more programmers work at fixing a bug or issue at a single workstation.

Bucketheading - Talking out a problem to try and fix it. (Sometimes can end up being a Cardboard Cutout Dog situation.)

Pre-Rewarding - An oft-suggested period of gaming and relaxation before a painful crunch begins.

Tejas Oza
profile image
Wow... An article like this really starts the day off on a positive note.


The Stockholm Syndrome Guy...

Bart Stewart
profile image
Great stuff!

I thought "Yoda Conditional" was great, too. I've seen that weird constant-first idiom in other people's code before but never had a name to put to it... until now. (Is there some processor/compiler combination in which phrasing a conditional in that way winds up saving a few cycles? Or is it just a programmer quirk?)

As for "Binary Chop," I will admit to having used that one a few times myself, although in my head I've always called it "Divide and Conquer."

But what's a better name for "printf debugging"?

Ian Uniacke
profile image
The logic is that if you replace (i == 1) with (i = 1) it will compile fine, but if you replace (1 == i) with (1 = i) the compiler will complain. But really the use case is so specific that it's not really achieving anything of value in most cases (and makes the code less readable).

Bart Stewart
profile image
Ah! Compiler judo, then.


Andrew Grapsas
profile image
printf debugging is "carpet bombing" where I'm from

Maurício Gomes
profile image
Here printf debugging was called shotgun debugging.

Kain Shin
profile image
"But what's a better name for "printf debugging"?"

I have heard people call it "Caveman Debugging... Throw rocks at it and see what happens".

I use that one :)

Ron Dippold
profile image
Yoda Conditional is a great example of cutting off your nose to spite your face, and journeyman programmers and coding standard dorks love it.

Any decent compiler will warn you if you do an assignment in an if, and if your compiler won't even warn you about that you should at least be using lint, right? Right?

But it completely disrupts the flow for anyone reading it, and since most code ends up being 'write once or twice, read dozens of times' it's a major time waster. Only needed if your tools are so primitive you have far worse problems.

William Ravaine
profile image
Here are a few more classics you may have missed! ;)

- Heisenbug: describes a bug that disappears when you try to look at it (usually memory-overwrite related bugs that get affected by the debugger) - Name comes from the Heisenberg principle in quantum mechanics, where knowing one variable makes another one unreadable

- Bugfoot: an elusive bug that someone has seen happen only once but that cannot be reproduced

- Rubber Duck effect: same as the Cardboard Cutout Dog

- To bloatify: wanting to make code prettier/better (beautify) but messing things up in the process

Ali Afshari
profile image
Heisenbug...awesome :)

Kain Shin
profile image
Ah yes, "Heisenbug" is one of my favorite coding terms... sadly, it was a contribution to the list that I did not recall before it was contributed... and I was unable to get permission from the author of that contribution in time for this article... and so that term had to be omitted.

There are going to be a lot of omissions from this article just because language is so naturally prolific. The goal of this article was not to name every single existing phrase in the games industry as much as it is to capture the essence of the game development experience through a sampling of the spectrum.

Hanneke Debie
profile image
I had this Cardboard Cutout Dog effect so often, I wished I knew the term back then! I was a leveldesigner, and something stuff would go wrong, I'd drag a programmer in, and we always discovered how it was my fault after all.

So after a while it would go like this:

"Hello programmer, can you come and have a look at my computer? I have this bug, and I want to explain it to you, so I can have this realization of what causes the bug and how it iactually my fault half-way through the explanation."

Luckily, the programmers were nice guys and obediently played the cardboard cutout dog for me.

on "'Learned Helplessness", that also hits home. It is sometimes caused by vague negative feedback. let's say you make a level, and it gets returned because 'it's not fun', and no other explanation is given, you really start to doubt the things you make. This causes a person to ask for a lot of feedback, a lot of times, and asking a lot of help to make his stuff.

Kain Shin
profile image
Thanks folks! If this article has inspired you to think about the correctness of noted phrases or phrases that were not included, then it has done its job.

The prime message of the article is that "You are not alone" :)

Scott Crisostomo
profile image
LOL where did he get these? I've been in the industry for almost 20 years and I've only heard maybe 4 of these (greybox, pillars, scoping, and feature-creep) across multiple companies.

I know about "Idea Guys" but never called them that, we just called them "@$$holes."

Cartrell Hampton
profile image

"I know about "Idea Guys" but never called them that, we just called them "@$$holes.""



- C. out.

Gregory Kinneman
profile image
Gamasutra articles are the #1 contributor to my alt-tab personality :D

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Engine Fairies visited me last night.

John Bigelow
profile image
I work in games but my biggest passion is baseball and, even though it absolutely doesn't matter, I wish to correct a mistake they make. They have the term: "Babe Ruth: Developer who always swings for the fences, but hasn't got a great batting average." yet in reality Babe Ruth always held an amazing batting average as well as power. His lifetime batting average was .342 and any developer called Babe Ruth should be considered nothing but the best of their generation, or preferably someone who stood up and made the outside world take notice. That is all. Back to games :P

Trent Oster
profile image
My Favorite was always "Chimp Factor Five". It relates to reducing the complexity of a UI or other game element down as far as possible. Often used as an adjective. Is that UI "Chimp Factor Five"? Yes, it is.

"Cathedral building" is a term which refers to a programmer going off and creating a beautiful architected system when a simple system will do. Cathedrals look like art to the programmer who built them, but they rarely handle specification changes well and as such are a large investment of time when a small investment would do.


Kenneth Barber
profile image
Hilariously, most of these fit none game related software projects also. For example, we use the phrase "ivory tower of power hour" to describe our manager's closed door meetings.

Gene Dowen
profile image
Wonderful piece. As a IT program manager I have heard most of these. This vocabulary is very prevelent in projects. Again, great read.

Cartrell Hampton
profile image

Very nice dictionary. (:

Glad to see "Kludgy" in the list, but I thought it would have just been listed as "Kludge". "A quick hack" also comes to mind.

- I've been Seagulled a few times. The seagull usually drops a Design Grenade.

- Sometimes when one's own eyes gets bigger than one's own stomach, it can lead to Feature Creep.

- Chopping Wood: In my experience, this means grinding. Personally, I hate grinding in games, especially RPG-types.

- Know It When I See It: So in other words, they don't know what they want.

- AggroNerd: They sometimes have big egos as well.

- Pirate Ships are awesome, especially one-manned Pirate Ships! (:

I also have some other terms, and definitions that just need a word or phrase to go with them:
- Situation when upper management wants all three ends of the Project Triangle (fast turnaround time, high quality, and low cost), instead of choosing any two.

- Put the cart before the horse: When High-Level design design details are given to the programmer, and the programmer completes and presents the first draft. THEN, all the specifics come out.

- The Expert: The last person to touch the code, or a particular aspect of the project. It is never their choice to become The Expert; they are bestowed this glorious (infamous) title automatically.

- When upper management decides to continue development rather than resolving existing issues.

- Someone who shoots down ideas, but can never come up with anything constructive or better. (I'm thinking "Prima Donna"?)

These are some of my favorites:
- Regurgitate: To reskin one's project (changing only the media [graphics and sounds], and maybe some minor design details), and call it a "new game". Actually copying the source code/and or just changing the media. While regurgitated games are usually built from the same engine, they are always from an existing game.

- Regurgitation Factory: (Note that this may or may not be Regurgitation): A game that is updated and released often (can be several months, yearly, or whatever the the time interval may be). The "new game" often offers small changes from the previous, and can sometimes resemble an Isle of Dreams. Example: Games like these are all those EA Sports and WWE/F games that keep coming out. The company must have many diehard fans who are Drinking the Kool-Aid to have good sales.

- Ziro out.

Julian Cram
profile image
I'll add:

Re-Golding: Releasing a patch with all the features that had to be cut at the last minute to hit a publisher's inflexible Gold Date.

Producer's Touch: The inexplicable ability of producers to find bugs simply by picking up a controller, often in front of press and/or senior execs.

Christian Allen
profile image
Undulaty: A term used when requesting a level builder to use more variety in the elevation of the terrain.

Shiny Monkey: A feature or scene for the game that is used to satisfy executives so the team can focus on core elements that are "boring."

Jason Young
profile image
programming terms: