How can game educators prepare their students for a place in the ever-changing games industry?
In this keynote from the Game Education Summit, held in Dallas last week, Junction Point’s Warren Spector and Disney Interactive’s Mark Meyers took a look at the issues inherent in the game biz, with Spector admitting he’s "so tired of making games about guys in black leather carrying guns."
"I graduated with electrical and biomedical engineering and I never thought I’d be in the game industry," opened Mark Meyers, now Vice President of Internal Studios at Disney Interactive. "Up until five years ago most people got into the game industry by accident!"
Meyers, who started out as an engineer before moving into design and then production, touched on changes to quality of life and demographics. "Working in game development is still a lot of hours, but it was at least eighty hours a week when I started," he said.
"Back in the day only 20% of the team members had kids and now it's more like 50%, and the whole industry is getting older, having kids, and needing those nights and weekends. We need good programs to back fill our organizations because we’re no longer our own demographic."
"Working in this industry everyone’s had their own disaster, and Sony was mine," he laughed. "EA was getting all the sports licensing, and everything kind of collapsed."
He related an anecdote speaking to team culture: "We were in this hacienda in San Diego, a crappy building where we lost power all the time, but everyone loved it. We moved to a new building with all the power we needed and everyone hated it and wanted to go back to the hacienda!"
"It's amazing what a simple thing like a move to a different building can change a studio, and I ended up moving to Disney. Disney is great because they understand a corporate culture and allow teams to keep their studio cultures even though they've been acquired."
Warren Spector, now creative director at the Disney-owned Junction Point studios, agreed. "We had a similar experience at Ion Storm when we made Deus Ex," he said. "We had a similar old rickety building we loved. We also moved to a new building which must have had the world's worst feng shui, and the culture fell apart."
"The culture is critical. I think it's even culture and team over talent at this point in my career. Find a home in a place that’s simpatico with you and make the games you like."
Continued Spector, "Building a game is as complex as making as a Hollywood movie. Do we have the right people and how do we harness creativity without crushing it? We are in a business that is both software engineer and entertainment, and we have to balance it. It used to be that you could trade off gameplay for graphics, but you can’t do that anymore."
As he has often done in the past, Spector commented on his frustration with some of the dominant tropes of video games. "I love working with Disney because I'm so tired of making games about guys in black leather carrying guns. I don’t want to make those any more," he said.
"Game costs are going to be $35-40 million, even $100 million, and the expectations are huge. You have to differentiate yourselves. One-hundred hour games are on the way out… How many of you have finished GTA? Two percent, probably. If we're spending $100 million on a game, we want you to see the last level!"
Even on the other end of the economic scale, Spector did not paint a rosy picture. "I heard people say that casual games are where to go as an indie, but you still need to differentiate yourself because that’s a really crowded field," he pointed out. "If you don’t make it on the front page you don’t get your game seen."
Shit Shots and Specialists
Meyers noted that new forms of distribution are bringing new development attitudes, which in turn bring new demands for educators. "The next console cycle may be mostly home distribution - downloadables and episodic games may be much more of the market and it means that on-line gaming and episodic content may be what you need to be teaching," he said.
"We also hear more and more about increased need for storytelling and it's almost a requirements at this point. It’s a changing dynamic. In the last year demand is going up and up."
Spector chimed in. "That’s a sea change," he said. "A couple years ago - I won’t say the name or the company - they told me, 'Warren, you are not allowed to say the word story.' What we need is students who are innovative creative thinkers who want to be part of teams that push their limit."
He stressed the importance of team members who can bring creativity to any corner of a project. "I go to Pixar a lot and they talk a lot about guys who get 'shit shots' - the scene of Remy walking across the room or something," he recalled.
"The people who say 'I don’t want to do that shit shot' last three weeks. The people who stay are the ones who can take that on and make it special. That’s what we need - people who are going to make the boring parts special. People who push boundaries - and there’s maybe 20 guys in the world who do it now."
Meyers cautioned against narrow education. "We’re getting a lot of specialists -- 'I program shaders, that’s all I do.' We don’t want that," he argued. "There are some publishers who will tell you that those specialists are what they want, but -"
"If you’re going to be a specialist, you'd better be the best in the world," quipped Spector.
How Can Educators Help Students Meet Developers' Needs?
Meyers spoke on ever-increasing development team sizes. "In the 80s, a nine-man team was standard. PS2 development was huge, with forty man teams. PS3 and 360 - in our organization, the team size is 65-90, plus a couple million dollars in outsourcing. At points in time we can have 150 people working on a title," he said.
"Before, organization was flat: one leader who communicated with everyone. In the PS2 days, lead programmers and lead artists who've never managed anyone in their life had to lead others, and they didn’t know how to have those tough conversations. Disney has a class to teach managers to have those conversations."
He called for more leadership training in development education. "Team sizes with leaders and managers have doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and needs are not being met today," Meyers went on.
"Most game developers have not had management and leadership training. For example, a lot of leaders and managers don’t understand the difference and impact between talking to people in front of other people and taking them aside. If I came to Warren and said something like that I wanted a decreased costs, compressed time frame straight away? Warren'd jump ship!"
"Processes, communication, leadership, culture, vision and team fit are all vital," he emphasized. "We have to reassess what we’re doing and what we’re tasking people with weekly."
Meyers also touched on changes to the overall development timeline, which seems pre-production take a more important role than it traditionally has had, and was sure to point out the importance of team communication.
"There’s always one guy who says 'We’re going to do it my way,'" said Meyers, who admitted as a programmer that his programmers in particular can be poor communicators. "We need educators to really hone in on people skills and styles. They still should speak their minds, but not step over the bounds. Leadership and group dynamics are tough. In the industry the chances of getting good leadership mentors are really tough."
Spector agreed. "Give students 'touchy feely' skills," he said. "How to manage creativity without killing it. Compassion, tough conversations, understanding their audience, ability to lead, how to be a part of a larger group and understanding dependencies. Don’t wait to do this at the end of the project. Do evaluations at the end of each milestone, and part of that is teamwork."
Development Education Must Adapt
Spector then laid out an overarching point about the amorphous nature of game development. "Vocational training doesn’t meet our needs," he argued. "Platforms are always changing, technology moves faster than we train, focus on concepts instead of tools. At Pixar they say you can be a world expert on one film and useless on a second."
He noted the multidisciplinary nature of game design: "Your people need to love chaos, love change. I’ve had to know how WWII planes fly, how medieval castles work. If you haven’t studied economics, you haven’t studied game design. Psychology, game design are all about reward cycles. We need people who can tell us why they love the games they do. If you can just say, 'It was fun,' you’re not getting the job. You need critical and analytical skills."
"We need people who can see what comes next," concluded Spector. "For every position I have, I get to pick and choose the best. If all you have to show me is class projects and grades, I won’t even see you. If I tell you you probably won’t get a job in the industry and that scares you, get out now. That should make you push harder!"