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Attend Inside Social Apps Conference & Expo

By: GameRecruiter

Join GameRecruiter at Inside Social Apps 2013, June 6-7 in San Francisco, a two-day event focused on the future of app and game growth and monetization on mobile and social platforms. Enter our special exclusive promo-code, GR15, and you’ll get 15% off your conference pass.

The conference will provide you with the opportunity to discover the latest solutions to challenges presented by social and mobile platforms, receive insider advice on exciting opportunities in the space, meet with emerging top companies and exhibitors, and enjoy great company at our cocktail reception and after-party.

The event will feature 40+ speakers and industry experts for keynote and panel discussions. Past speakers include professionals from Facebook, GSN Digital, TripAdvisor, EA, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Wildfire, and more.

PARTICIPATE IN THE JOB FAIR

The event’s companion job fair on June 6 allows job seekers to meet with top startups and established companies in the social, mobile, and gaming spaces. If you’re interested in having a recruitment booth at the event, please contact Trevor for available opportunities.

Remember to enter our promo-code GR15 to save 15% off your ISA conference pass.  Register Here  


Physics and Game Development; or, What Goes Up Better Come Down

By: Marc Mencher

Unless you’re making a text-only game, you’ll need to apply some form of Newtonian physics to pretty much every action that occurs on the screen. Computer and video games apply the laws of physics so that objects “behave” as they do in the normal world. This means that programmers need to know the physical science equations to apply them accurately and appropriately to the game code. (Even objects in an “alternate” or cartoon universe have to follow the rules of physics to be believable.)

The online book description for Physics for Game Development states, “Colliding billiard balls. Missile trajectories. Cornering dynamics in speeding cars… By applying the laws of physics, you can realistically model nearly everything in games that bounces around, flies, rolls, slides, or isn’t sitting still, to create compelling, believable content for computer games, simulations, and animation.”

Game elements that require application of physics include things we take for granted in the real world, like elasticity, light, sound, reactions and interactions, and especially gravity.

  • Gravity – This basic principle is at the core of motion in our world; all falling objects respond to the force of gravity according to the laws of physics. Falling objects accelerate according to certain equations but all objects fall at the same rate, unless they are affected by air resistance.  Likewise, if a game character jumps in the air, that character must come back down to earth according to the rules of gravity. (Even the girl in Leisure Suit Larry fell back down at some point . . . )
  • Motion – A game in which things don’t move is going to be pretty boring.  Even old school side scrollers have at least some type of motion on the screen, even if it’s rolling terrain and limited pixel animations. The more you understand physics and programming, the more efficiently and you’ll be able to add realism to your game—which means the more you can do with limited funds.
  • Elasticity – Things bounce, stretch and snap back to their original form depending on how they react to the force effecting change are—in other words, depending on how “elastic” they are. This principle can be applied to create realism in an MMO, humor in a cartoon-based world and action in a super-hero type of game.
  • Light – There are laws about how a beam of light will reflect off an object or how it will bend or refract when going through something transparent. Not only will application of these rules affect the overall realism in your game, they will also affect the game’s visual appearance. Myst explored the use of these principles to great effect. Modern MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and action games like Call of Duty set a very high standard for the dramatic use of physics in this area.
  • Sound – Sound characteristics like echoes or the Doppler effect (the effect of relative motion on sound waves) are applications of physical laws on sound.  While we know that there’s no sound in space, we accept the convention of explosions, collisions and engines in our entertainment media.  Lack of sound would not only hamper the storytelling (and the drama) but it would mean that a lot of talented sound engineers don’t have anything to do!
  • Collision detection – Used to determine how two solid objects interact in the envrionment.  This could be as simple as whether your avatar walks through a fence or over it, whether you go around an NPC or through her, and whether you can shoot through rocks or not (applied as “line of sight.”)
  • Particle systems – A common aspect of computer games are explosions. Early computer games used the simple expediency of repeating the same explosion in each circumstance. However, in the real world, explosions vary depending on the terrain, altitude of the explosion and the type of solid bodies that come in contact with the explosion.  A particle system model allows a variety of other physical phenomena to be simulated, including smoke, moving water, precipitation, and so forth.  An environment’s realism is limited by processor power, the knowledge of the programmers and of course, time and money available to make it fancy.
  • Ragdoll physics – A procedural animation and simulation technique that displays the movement of a character when it drops to the ground, usually when it’s killed. The character’s body is a series of rigid bones connected with hinges at the joints; simulations model what happens to the body as it collapses to the ground.  More sophisticated physics models of creature movement and collision interactions require greater level of computing power and a more accurate simulation of physical principles and elements. Programmers need to understand how physical principles in the environment affect anatomy—and they also need to be able to communicate really well with artists!
  • Cartoon physics – We’re all familiar with hapless characters who fun off a cliff and continue to move horizontally until they realize that oh no! there’s not more ground and down they go. Sonic the Hedgehog moves at superspeed, characters survive being crushed by a heavy safe and just about any object can endure the classic “squash and stretch” process. These physical anomalies are intended to provide humor and create improbable situations for superheroes. While we don’t necessarily want to see them in Call of Duty, we would feel cheated if they didn’t show up in a cartoon or superhero-based game.

The bottom line is that while you might be able achieve these important (and expected) game elements without a knowledge of physics, the quality and believability of your product would probably not support a high level of art, action and story without them. Without the appropriate application of physics in a computer or video game, you might as well be attacking creeping coins or going through a maze of twisty little passages.  As Alice said, “What is the use of a book without pictures . . .?”

_______________________________

[1] Pertaining to the laws developed by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

2 http://www.amazon.com/dp/0596000065/?tag=stackoverfl08-20

3 Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Marc Mencher Biography:

Game Programmer / Technical Producer-turned-Recruiter and Career Coach, Marc Mencher has been in the Game Industry for 27 years.  He is the founder and CEO of GameRecruiter www.GameRecruiter.com

Marc began his career working for Spectrum Holobyte, Microprose and The 3DO Company.  While he enjoyed coding, through the experience of developing product and leading teams, he realized that his true passion was helping people plan and manage their careers.

Marc is the author of “Get in the Game! ” an instructional book on building a career in the video game industry. His articles have been featured in a variety of industry publications. He is a speaker at game industry conferences and volunteers as an advisory board member for several colleges. Marc has been interviewed on television and radio as an expert on working in the videogames industry.  His detailed bio can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Mencher

Along with his team of Recruiter / Career Agents, Marc has had the pleasure of representing the game industry’s hottest talent, and has helped thousands of people manage their career and obtain strategically important game jobs.  Integrity and confidentiality are the cornerstones of his success.

 


Hiring Managers: Vetting Game Programmers

by: Marc Mencher

So you’re in that blue sky brain-storming session and there are a ton of awesome ideas up on the board, and then someone says, “This is GREAT! Now we need someone who can make it work like that.” Yep, you need a programmer. And not just any programmer. You need someone who can push the envelope, work with all the teams and fit into and grow with your company’s culture. That’s the moment your Quest begins . . .

There’s a lot of “ebb ‘n flow” these days and a lot of open jobs. A lot of people are getting hands-on experience, thanks to the ease of making small social games. Their work is easier to see but harder to vet. There are programmers at big companies whose projects are either ending or whose companies are downsizing (or closing), but there may be relocation issues that have to be considered in addition to salaries.

To increase the odds of making the best hire for your company, you want to develop a basic “vetting” system that looks at traditional and non-traditional aspects of your potential new programmer.

Step 1: The Job Description

Before you write the job description, be sure you have a good understanding of what various job titles mean. Terms like developer, programmer and engineer aren’t always interchangeable. A QA person might be called an engineer at one company, while developer might refer to someone other than a programmer. Some programmers prefer engineer because it sounds less like a drudge position. If need be, include a sentence or two that describes what the title means at your company.

Figure out what you want your new hire to do, then write a job description that clearly states you’re required and preferred criteria. Aim for something between “as long as you’re breathing” and “must have a Masters Degree in everything.” (Hint: It’s pretty easy to spot a job req that’s been customized for someone you’ve already decided to hire.)

Here are some things to look for:

  • Deep interest in gaming, both as a programmer AND a player. This used to be designated as “avid gamer” but what does “avid gamer” mean any more? Of course candidates are going to tell you they’re avid gamers!
  • Wide variety of gaming genres (ok, at least two!) If you make MMOs or FPS games only, specify that you want someone whose interest and passion is in your genre.
  • Want someone with corporate-culture experience? These days, that’s different from “must have shipped an AAA game” because small companies can ship AAA titles too.

Let candidates know if some kind of testing will be administered. If you have questions about the legality of testing, check with your HR department, and if they don’t know, get the info from someone who does, like your state’s employment agency. Surprising an interviewee with an on-the-spot test (the formal kind) can be grounds for action, and not the good kind.

Be clear about your interview agenda. Will candidates be asked to undergo both “personal” and “technical” interviews?

Do you want to see a demo of the candidate’s work? Do you want to see it online by yourself? Ask for a CD or URL. Because of proprietary software and NDAs, be willing to look at open source work and/or game modding.

Does your formal application allow for an attached resume, or will the candidate be required to fill it out? Will the candidate be asked to provide a salary history? Letting interviewees know this in advance saves you time and helps reduce the normal anxiety that comes with interviewing. (It also tells you if the candidate can read and follow directions.)

Step 2: The Resume

Read the resume before the interview. This may sound sort of “duh” but looking at the resume in front of the candidate sends a message (intentional or otherwise) that this interview is either inconvenient or a pro forma exercise so the company can hire the person it REALLY wants. Reading the resume in advance gives you a chance to come up with specific questions.

Check out the companies listed on the resume. How long has the candidate worked at the past few companies? Are any of them start-ups? Do you really want someone who has moved quickly up the ranks and name-drops like crazy but has no real experience?

Step 3a: The Interview

If someone in HR is doing the initial interview (other than having the candidate fill out paperwork,) be sure you’ve reviewed the job reqs with that staff member, and provided some initial questions you’d like them to ask the candidate. Letting someone with no technical background and/or real industry knowledge conduct the initial interview might let a fast-talking candidate in the door and a good one get away.

Everyone who’s participating in the interview should be prepared (i.e., has a copy of the resume and has seen the website or CD). If you’re including “peer” interviews for the candidate, be sure your staff knows that their job is NOT to scare the candidate way.

You know the drill: be prepared, be prompt (and if you might get called away to an emergency, let the candidate know before you start the interview), don’t take calls (unless there’s a pending emergency). Be focused and ready to listen. As a courtesy, if you’re deathly ill, stay home and let a colleague conduct the interview, or make arrangements to do it via Skype or some kind of video conferencing.

Having a member of the team with whom the potential hire will be working, preferably the team lead, as part of the interview process is always a good move. While there are many skilled programmers who can fill your job, getting one whose personality meshes well with your other programmers is always a bonus and in some cases, a must.) Remember that these people will be working very closely with each other, often in frustrating circumstances (the dreaded crunch time, for instance), and an argumentative or disruptive team member can cause a hit to productivity. Personality and work ethic is just as important as skill set, especially when you’ve got a small team, a tight schedule and no money to spare.

Step 3b: Interview Testing

Assuming you’re cleared for testing, use simple programming or logic tests. Asking very specific questions, like hex and terminology definitions, isn’t the most effective way to evaluate a programmer’s ability to code because rote answers don’t tell you how the candidate programmer THINKS. Recent grads will probably be able to answer “arcane” questions because the info is fresh in their heads but is that what you really need? Good programmers like to solve puzzles, riddles and mysteries rather than apply canned solutions. The right candidate will have some basic problem-solving skills in addition to specific programming knowledge.

Propose a simple programming issue and ask the candidate how s/he would handle it. Maybe a brain teaser or a suggestion for a modification to your product, which has the added benefit of showing you how well the candidate prepared for the interview.  A good type of coding question is one that has several answers; ask your prospective hire to give you the most optimized solution. You can quickly gauge how well he/she thinks and solves problems based on the answer. Someone who consistently picks the most obvious but less optimized answers is good for entry level positions, but if you’re hiring for senior positions, you’ll want people who can think on their feet, understand the need for optimization and have good reasoning behind their choices.

Here’s an example of a good question:

Every number between 1 and 100 has been inserted into an array of 99 integers in random order, with a random number missing. What’s the most optimized and memory-efficient way of figuring out which number is missing?

A weak answer would be to create 100 flags, then loop through the array and log each number, and subsequently loop through the flags to find the missing one. A stronger answer would be to loop through the array and add them all up into a single integer, then subtract the answer from 5050 (the sum of all the numbers between 1 and 100). An even stronger answer would be to sort the array, then loop through until a number gets skipped.

If you want to ask technical questions, avoid asking hypotheticals like what types of inheritance or global variables appear in a CPP file or polymorphisms or singletons in C++. Instead, present actual situations that are relevant to your product or project (unless, of course, any of those other examples ARE relevant. Bear in mind that the simplest code is, more often than not, the best code. A programmer who loves to pepper the code with unnecessary methods like ‘mutable’s and ‘goto’s might not be the best candidate. Likewise, don’t ask questions that are overly complicated for your code base. Unless you regularly need inline assembly code, don’t ask the hire to describe how to unwrap loops or other overly complicated questions. While it’s a great indication of general knowledge, it won’t tell you if they’ll do a good job.

In some circumstances, you may be looking for someone who can not only move forward with a project’s code but also knows how to deal with legacy issues in a manner that doesn’t involve stopping the entire project and starting over from scratch. It’s great when the candidate sees this situation as an interesting challenge but you want to avoid the candidate who claims to be able “fix anything.”

Step 3c: Interview Questions

Ask the RIGHT questions. Hopefully, the combination of a well-crafted job description and vetted resume has weeded out candidates who aren’t right for the job.

Does the candidate use/play your product regularly? If you make MMOs, you’ll be able to determine the level of immersion and investment pretty quickly. If the candidate gets that glazed look and launches into a Very Detailed Account of her avatar and the last raid, that tells you something, too.

“Beware the lone programmer in a room” is an old industry adage that still rings true. You want someone who will fit into your company’s culture and actually likes working with other people. Does the candidate seem like someone who will thrive in a high stress team environment (if that’s what you’ve got) or does the candidate seem like someone who’s more interested in showing others “how it’s done.”

Consider asking some off-the-wall questions like, Do you prefer cats or dogs? Cake or pie? Summer or winter? And why? An industry veteran interviewing a programmer candidate said, “Tell me a joke.” The stunned candidate replied, “Oh. Do you want a funny one? I didn’t really prepare anything.” That told the interviewer what he needed to know about the candidate’s ability to think on his feet.

Ask about a “hot” programming topic that’s making the rounds on industry boards and at conventions. Is the candidate passionate about one side or the other? Dismissive? Baffled? (Hopefully the candidate will not say, “Well, does that really have anything to do with this job?”) Having a sense of humor is actually pretty important in our industry because it reduces the possibility of melt-down at the worse possible moment.

Ask candidates what they love about programming. (Hint: “An easy way to earn a living” probably isn’t what you want to hear. “I love to solve problems” or “I like to make great games” is better.)

What’s the biggest thing the candidate worked on that didn’t ship? Do they have any idea why it didn’t ship? Watch out for indications that the candidate thinks failure was other people’s fault. One of the tenets of Agile Development is that failure by one unit is failure by all, so you don’t want to hire someone who’s more adept at finger-pointing that accepting responsibility and proposing positive solutions.

Has the candidate worked in an Agile Development environment and if so, how was it? If it seems that the candidate felt it was intrusive, see if you can determine whether the system was poorly administered or the candidate just doesn’t like to be interrupted or told what to do.

What was the biggest challenge the candidate has faced as a programmer so far, and how did s/he solve it? (For female programmers, gender bias may be the biggest issue so be sure you stay within the boundaries of what can and can’t be asked legally.)

Ask question(s) that give you a sense of how flexible the candidate is, how willing to try new approaches, take suggestions and explain solutions. Odds are you probably won’t be happy with some hot shot who thinks that everyone else is too simple-minded to understand what he does. (In fact, sometimes this is a red flag that the programmer might not be so good at building strong foundations or accepting responsibility when fixes don’t hold together.)

If you decide to review the candidate’s demo in person, ask what specific portions s/he handled. Obviously, with a small app, it’s probably “all the programming” but if it’s a big game, the programmer was probably part of a team. Ask about how collaborations worked and whether the programmer’s suggestions for game play improvements were considered. Avoid the programmer who says, “Oh, I write the stuff but I don’t play the game.”

Here are some questions on the “lighter” side:

  • What do you like about gaming?
  • What was the first computer or console game you played?
  • What was your first computer?
  • What’s your favorite game and why?
  • What’s your favorite book? Movie? TV show?
  • Do you prefer open worlds or well-defined quest lines? Do you think a game should/can have both?
  • What’s your favorite character class?
  • How would you briefly describe the mechanics of your favorite game to a non-programmer?
  • Do you usually play games to the end?
  • What’s your Beta test experience? (No, you’re not looking for a QA person BUT it doesn’t hurt to hire a programmer who thinks like a QA person at least a little, as in being able to vet their own work before they hand off a fix as “done.”)
  • What’s your favorite game of ours and why? (If you’ve only published one game, they better have played it! And listen for their own words—if they sound like they’re parroting what they read about your game, it’s entirely possible they haven’t actually played it.)
  • If you could work in any other area of our industry, what would it be and why?
  • What makes a game fun for you? (No, you’re not hiring a game designer BUT the programmer’s job is to make the designer’s vision work.)
  • If time and money was no object, give me a quick pitch for a game idea. (No, you’re not hiring a marketing person but you want your employees to be well-rounded and be able to communicate with each other.)

Although there’s no single magic formula for hiring the best programmer, you’ve got a lot of tools at your command that will give you a pretty good sense of which candidate has the right skills and is the best fit for your company.

Special Thank You: Kody Kahrizi for participating in this article.

 

Marc Mencher Biography:

Game Programmer / Technical Producer-turned-Recruiter and Career Coach, Marc Mencher has been in the Game Industry for 27 years.  He is the founder and CEO of GameRecruiter www.GameRecruiter.com

Marc began his career working for Spectrum Holobyte, Microprose and The 3DO Company.  While he enjoyed coding, through the experience of developing product and leading teams, he realized that his true passion was helping people plan and manage their careers.

Marc is the author of “Get in the Game!” an instructional book on building a career in the video game industry. His articles have been featured in a variety of industry publications. He is a speaker at game industry conferences and volunteers as an advisory board member for several colleges. Marc has been interviewed on television and radio as an expert on working in the videogames industry.  His detailed bio can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Mencher

Along with his team of Recruiter / Career Agents, Marc has had the pleasure of representing the game industry’s hottest talent, and has helped thousands of people manage their career and obtain strategically important game jobs.  Integrity and confidentiality are the cornerstones of his success.



Joining an Established Company vs. an Underfunded Project

By: Steven Granieri

The core hardware and software markets in the Game Industry have matured far enough to require a large capital investment and a great deal of team experience to ensure success. Companies like Infinity Ward, Blizzard Entertainment, Rockstar, Epic Games, amongst many more, have solidified their position in this core market, and within a capitalist society, the Video Games Industry slowly teeters the cusp of monopolization.

A job within this market can come along with a lot of positives:

  • You’re likely to be working for a company that is already established and financially secure.
  • You’re likely to work with many experienced individuals in which you can learn from.
  • The experience will look good on your resume and help you with future employment.
  • You get to be a part, however small, of a big project that can potentially make a lot of money.

Now, although the aforementioned sounds lovely, there are a few cons to breaking into this market:

  • These jobs are HIGHLY competitive and difficult to obtain without a few notches under your belt already.
  • You are unlikely, in most cases, to be working on projects that prioritize innovation.

I say this because, on average, most established developers make marginal profits; however, they also have expenses that deter them from taking risks. If you have a team of 75 developers working on a game, you can’t run the risk of delving into avant-garde, post-modern gaming innovations that could potentially tank your company.

A good example to take is Infinity Ward. Clearly the Call of Duty franchise is unbelievably successful and has rewrote the standard for production values in a first person shooter; however, you’ll notice how playing things safe is indicative of their success. They build on top of game mechanics that work, and drop the ones that don’t, while preserving the core formula that makes Call of Duty distinguishable.

This isn’t to say that no big name developers prioritize innovation. An obvious example would be Nintendo, who clearly thrives off of new technologies and innovation to push hardware. Nintendo has an entire generation of success to cushion the event of a failure, so it makes being creative not only possible, but a direction the company foresees to be conducive to success.

Still, underfunded companies are often the ones to take risks and try new things because they understand that rivaling a big name company and trying to deliver a polished product that’s better than what’s currently available is unrealistic. The funds and team experience just simply won’t be there in most cases. Young companies have looked for new areas of expansion such as mobile and online gaming. These outlets combined with innovative ideas have led to growth of prosperity for many new developers who understand that taking calculated risks is necessary.

So, say that your resume is as detailed as a decorative paper towel and you’re not making Blizzard melt when you apply for a job. Joining an underfunded project may be your only option; however, you have to start somewhere, and this project has the potential to help you start climbing the ladder.

I feel the best thing to keep in mind when looking for a job is make sure you believe in the work you are doing. Have confidence that you are producing something of merit, something that you would want to play yourself. Be innovative, be creative, but be realistic in the longevity of these ideas, and how they would be actualized and a sustainable source of profit.

 


The Expansive Market of Video Game Advertisement

By: Steven Granieri

The amount of time people spend playing video games has grown exponentially over the years, subsequently resulting in new monetary opportunities for the Advertising Industry.

According to research from the Pew Internet Project, 53% of adults are playing video games through some medium, whether it may be a gaming console, a computer, or a handheld device.

Noticeably, 81% of those between the age of 18-29 report playing video games.

When sized up against those watching television, keep in mind the myriad of mediums in which you can play games. This gives advertisers options on what platforms they want to focus their ads.

Advertisers are spending millions of dollars each year to have their branding in games, but this new way of reaching out to the younger demographic hasn’t come without its share of ethical controversy. There are those that argue that In-Game Advertisement (IGA) compromises the integrity of the gaming experience, and on the opposite spectrum there are those that defend IGA for its ability to help fund the production of the game, thus resulting in a lower cost of the product itself. In the end, the matter becomes subjective, varying from individual to individual based off of their tolerance for these ads.

Regardless, numbers don’t lie. The amount of money spent on IGA is growing at a staggering rate.

 

eMarketer has forecasted IGA to grow from roughly $400 million in 2008 to close to $700 in 2013. This is excluding advertising in mobile games.

So if IGA is causing such a controversy within the gaming community, why are companies pouring more and more money into this method of advertisement?

The answer is simple: Because it works.

While Console and PC-based advertisements have seen a marginal gain over the years, Web-based ads are projected to almost double by 2013. This correlates with the fact that there are a plethora of Web-based games that are available to play for free due to IGA. Nothing else puts morals and ethics to bed quicker than the word free. Gamers are willing to endure exposure to IGA as long as they don’t have to pay to play, and really, can you blame them?

Through video games, advertisers have a gateway to reach out to the increasingly elusive youth, but are there standards for what is appropriate IGA? Allow me to draw the lines.

Good   

Advertisements that naturally fit into the gaming world without breaking the lore. For instance: the advertisements that appear in a sports game that are spread out across the perimeter of the stadium. These banners and ads often reflect the ones used in real life and even go as far as adding to the authenticity of the game.

Or even a couple soda machines spread out across an open world, sandbox game. Once again, not taking away from the immersive experience that the game offers, and even adding a layer of realism.

Bad

Advertisements that fail to mesh with the universe of the game or even flat out contradict the universe of the game.

A giant billboard about a sub-par movie is hardly relevant to the experience of a first person shooter. Tasteless ads such as these take away from the potential that IGA has to seamlessly integrate itself into games, and inevitable save the consumer money.

Free-to-play games online have done a lot for the reputation of IGA. They have showcased the endearing potential ads have to bring you free gaming experiences, and because of this, IGA has become a less sensitive subject for the time being.

“But, let me be clear…”

I live in a generation where the current president of the United States used video game advertisement to help boost his presidential campaign. That speaks volumes over the power of this market. Now, every time I pop in a copy of Burnout: Paradise, I remember those who desire change, and those who oppose it.


The Exponential Growth of Social Gaming

By: Steven Granieri

In a universe where all things are in continual flux, constantly changing and evolving, it would be silly to expect the Video Game Industry to exist outside of these governing principles and remain static. In fact, if you are looking for variety, there is no better resource for entertainment than video games.

Innovation and creativity are what help companies flourish, this is universally understood, and it’s apparent when you look at the progress of console gaming over the past 20 years. Even if you boil things down to a small scale example such as a timeline of Nintendo’s controllers, the amount of change and innovation is incredibly overt. From a D-pad to help you traverse the two dimensions in Mario Bros, to a Wiimote, helping you traverse the three dimensions of your living room; it is clear that things have changed.

But what happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Why ditch a conservative mindset when it comes to video games? Well, there will always be the old-school, 8-bit enthusiasts, but I’d like to believe that this desire for innovation is inherently human. It’s quite simple: We like to be entertained, but humans grow bored of repetition, so the desire for a variety of stimuli is naturally spawned. We want devices and games to intellectually captivate us. We want something we haven’t experienced before.

With the aforementioned in mind, taking a look at the market today is very telling of society as a whole. In the 90’s, consoles flourished, but now they’re tackled with a daunting competitor: The Social Gaming Industry. Now, you may tease your friend if you walk in on him playing FarmVille, but the numbers for Social Gaming are nothing to joke about.

BI Intelligence, Business Insider’s research division, has predicted the market to grow to $5 Billion by 2015, currently valuing the industry at about $3 Billion.

(“We think social gaming will reach new audiences and new people, and we think it’s disruptive to current models of video games. Because games are provided as a service they can be optimized on the go to improve the product and monetization, and they’re inherently viral because they live on social platforms.” 


                Due to accessibility, Social Gaming is reaching a broader audience via Facebook and mobile apps. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of people playing video games has risen 241% since 2008, and they feel this is due large in part to the craze of Facebook games such as FarmVille and CityVille, along with the multitude of mobile apps being downloaded.

But how is this possible? How are games with low production values making so much money? This, my friends, is also inherently human. The social connectivity that allows you to be a part of a community, and allows you to either play with or best your friends is what fuels this market. The compromise in production values is supplemented with social interaction and accessibility.

However, this must end at some point right? When are gamers going to start demanding more from the games they play? As it stands now, you either spend anywhere between $40-$60 and you get an isolated experience, sans Xbox Live, PSN, etc. Or you take the free-to-play route and you compromise in terms of graphics and cutting edge hoopla. When I try to forecast the future of gaming, I see a bridge being drawn between the two. Microsoft had a hunch in 2002 with Xbox Live and they unearthed a market with limitless potential. The ability to share experiences with people all around the globe is powerful.

I imagine that the consumer is going to get the better deal in the end, with the console market taking a big hit in the long run. People have so many outlets to play video games for free now, so they won’t to be willing to pay $60 for a single-player game without some “Level 99” apprehension. I feel like in the end, mobile gaming will conquer all, it just depends when technology will catch up and be able to provide the gamer with all the power they need in the palm of their hands.      
 

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Catch 22 – (Game Artists): Prior Experience Required

You know the routine: there’s this job you really want but you don’t have the experience. You could pretend you did but then they want to see your portfolio and odds are you probably haven’t finished it (or even gotten around to starting it.) Does this mean that you’re doomed to sitting in front of your monitor dreaming about a career as a Game Artist?

No!

Put down the game controller and pick up that stylus! You’ve got a ready audience for your work—all you need is a website and some determination. (Oh, and maybe a class or two if you’re not up on the latest game art programs, but it’s easy enough to get going on that.)

Instead of wishing for a job, it’s time for you to make it happen. . .

The Art Stuff
If you’re serious about working in the video game industry, you need to get serious about your job hunt, and that includes creating your demo / portfolio. Here are a few pointers whether you’re doing one for the first time or updating the one you have:

If all you have is art completed for coursework, don’t submit your resume (yet). Competition for these jobs is pretty fierce so you have to have an established career or be a complete (if undiscovered) superstar. A degree doesn’t prove your ability and does not entitle you to a job, it just equips you with the core skills you need to perform in the job and to build your demo / portfolio. Apply the knowledge you learn in school and continue to create art assets. Keeping pushing yourself to increase your skill level. That said, if you have an opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed, do it! Practice makes perfect.

It really helps to have a well-maintained blog with interesting articles showing your experiences with game development and game art. What if you can’t post anything from your current game? It’s ok to explain that you can’t show anything from the game-in-progress but you can clearly demonstrate that you know how to use the tools. (If you’re working on an indie game, creating a production blog is a good way to create some buzz.) Just remember that you’re trying to build a career here so don’t use the blog for political rants or questionable art.

Avoid fan art in your portfolio (unless it was commissioned by the show and / or the author, and you have permission to show it or link to it.) If you want to join LucasArts to work on the next Star Wars game, don’t re-create Darth Vader or any of the original characters. The hiring manager is trying to assess not only your skill but also your creativity, so design original assets that could be used in a Star Wars game. (It’s also a chance to show your knowledge of the IP as long as you don’t get too geeky.)

Be sure the art in your portfolio is 100% yours. A candidate who went for an interview at a big company included some gorgeous screenshots in his portfolio from a well-known game. The interviewers were very familiar with the game, and queried him about that art. It turned out that those were shots of levels he’d played in the game, NOT levels he’d created! Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

The Technical Stuff
Today’s game industry artist needs to be specialized and technical. Showcase your strengths. Is it 3D? Create some strong environment pieces: one natural, one man-made, maybe something futuristic or fantasy but always totally original.

Character art is harder to break into but not impossible. Maybe show a progression of how you got from sketch to character with brief explanation (probably in a blog) about your inspiration and your tools.

Thriving platforms include Steam, XBLA, PSN, mobile, and Freemium. (Yes, there is a definite bias towards social games.) With the shift towards social and casual, you should know Flash, especially with recent announcements by Epic and Unity about their in-engine support for Flash11. This requires strong 2D skills and facility with a Wacom tablet.

It (almost) goes without saying that every artist needs to be good at drawing if for no other reason than you can illustrate feedback or suggestions to others–look good doing it. Split your time studying from life and drawing and painting from imagination. You might even try doing master copies of great artworks (that’s how students back then learned), studying human and large animal anatomy, and knowing key artistic foundations like perspective, color and composition.

Study the path of those whose work you really admire. You’ll be amazed at some of the secrets you can pick up from doing a little research.

Pointers for Specific Specialties:

  • Modelers: No Moving Videos. Show still images from different points of view. Show wireframes, unwraps, normal maps, spec maps (all as separate files). Hiring managers wants to see the modeling decisions you have made. Stick to Modeling; we see way too many demos where the modeler is also showing animation or special effects and this gets confusing. Focus on what you do best and show only the best work within that piece, whether it’s Characters, Weapons, Apparel, etc.
  • Concept Art: It’s really hard to break into the games industry as a concept artist. Hiring managers want to see a lot of early and quick exploration of rich strong shape design, good understanding of color and color theory and the ability to render—all of which their current art department already knows how to do. That said, if you can do amazing concept art AND have an equally good specialty, you might be able to show your creative process through a progression.
  • Animators: Focus on a couple of high quality moments of animation in your demo and really pay attention to weight, push / pull tests, and fluidity. You’ll get hired on two seconds of push / pull rather than an entire unfocused demo. Study the basic motion loops needed for the genre of games your target company publishes and prove that you can do that.
  • VFX: Show quality in-game effects that make sense and fit the genre. Understanding the Unreal and Unity Engines and their related particle effects systems is a big help. Innovate, don’t imitate.
  • Technical Artist: Understand Unreal and Unity, specifically their scripting languages (MEL and MaxScript). Learn Python. Show examples of your scripts (code), along with little movies of the scripts in action.
  • About Unreal:
    • If you’re an awesome modeler who can do awesome textures, everything needs to end up in Unreal—and it needs to work.
    • If you’re an animator, make sure you have some Animation Tree going shoe me what your animation. Show me what the animation are doing to textures and your assets in Unreal. Take everything you know about art and apply it in the engine.
    • If you do Visual Effects, designing particle effects and coding Cascade (using Unreal’s Particle engine).
    • About Engines in general: Plain and simple: demonstrate a mastery of your craft and knowledge of the engine your target game company is using.

 The Networking Stuff

Regardless of your area of expertise and / or interest, you need to network. Join one of the Social Game Developers groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. It’s ok to read and “listen” for a while. Find the sweet spot between total n00b and flashy know-it-all.

Online Art Community and User Groups

  • MeetUp
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • PhotoShop
  • Digital Art Groups

Online Resources for Artists

There are a lot of sites out there that provide all kinds of helpful information. Here are a few of the bigger ones:

  • www.CGSociety.org (www.CGTalk.com is the site’s forum)
  • www.3DTotal.com (3DTotal was founded in 1999 as a simple 3D resource website. Over the last decade the site has evolved into one of the premier CG art websites.)
  • www.PolyCount.com (Polycount offers 3D videogame artists news, resources and a forum)
  • www.DominanceWar.com (The website of a massive annual game art competition)
  • www.ConceptArt.org (Offers a forum, news, information about a variety of classes, and contests)
  • www.visualliteracyprogram.com (The Visual Literacy Online Program is for both the serious student of any age and the professional artist.)
  • http://www.unrealengine.com (If you don’t know what this is, don’t apply for a job until you do!)
  • www.design3.com (This site has over 1K amazing demo’s to teach you 2D and 3D art skills.)

Which Company?

If you’re just starting out, even if you have a degree but you haven’t landed your first job, keep applying to the smaller studios. It would be exciting to claim Bungie or Blizzard as your first job but you’re up against a lot of “veterans” who are already making gorgeous, cutting-edge art.

Apply directly! A seasoned recruiter will rock your world once you have at least two professional games sold on the market. Prior to having professionally published titles the best way to succeed is by directly applying for a job yourself. There is no magic bullet or easy way to skirt around the job hunt.

Stay current on big games or AAA tiles, especially the ones that use the Unreal and Unity engines. (This does not mean be obsessed because you need time to work on your portfolio!)

Creating a Killer Demo

Find other people who also trying to break into the game industry. (See Networking above.) There are plenty of Programmers; Game Designers, and Web Developers who also need a demo. Combine your skills and create an online demo that rocks. Create mini games that are a logical extension of your favorite games (or the games of your target hiring company).

Customize your demo for your target audience. If you excel at sci-fi images, approaching EA Sports probably isn’t the best career move. Unless the game involves some kind of futuristic sport, they probably don’t care that you can do a spectacular rendition of Fenway Park or Tom Brady throwing a perfect spiral pass.

  • Keep it simple and easy to navigate.
  • Customize and target your work for the interviewing studio.
  • Create original assets.
  • Never force downloads to view assets.
  • Create a “brand” for yourself and manage it via social networking sites, etc.
  • Pay attention to poly count and use it as a measuring stick. Hiring managers want to see how well you used polygons in the art asset itself.
  • If you are showing your senior project from school, make sure it’s finished. Often senior projects are too ambitious and don’t get completed so scale it back to reality. Managers hire folks who can complete things.
  • Show both low poly and high poly work. Tag each image with brief info; the 2D or 3D software you used and how many pixels is usually enough.
  • Show only your best work. Less is more!

 

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The “Catch-22″ – For Designers: Prior Experience Required

The big Catch-22 in the game industry is that to get a job you need experience and to get that experience, you need to get a job. It can be pretty frustrating for someone who wants to get a foot in the door.

So . . . if you don’t have “official” experience, CREATE YOUR OWN!

Picking up new skills is always a great idea. If you can, enroll in an accredited degree or certificate program where you not only learn the ins and outs of your chosen area (game programming, animation, game design, etc.) but can also create something that can go into your portfolio.

No matter what game job you want, you’ll need to show examples of your work and demonstrate that you have what it takes to do the job. The good news is that you don’t need to be employed or have a shiny new degree to create a portfolio. Create your own art, design a soundtrack or . . .create mods of your favorite games.

“Modding” means modifying software to design an element or perform a function that isn’t currently in the product. Many games, like The Elder Scrolls series, come with a mod editing tool that actually encourages users to create and share original content. Some games even provide source code for player experimentation and publishing.

Still others, like 18 Wheels of Steel, provide the non-programmed data (images, small code pieces and the like) in a simple archive. Modders take the game in directions that the developers may have never anticipated or didn’t have time or funding to create. Some games, like Neverwinter Nights, could never have been as successful as they are without a thriving Mod community, which is why a number of game companies openly support modding. In the case of Half-Life, a mod called “Counter-Strike” drove sales of the original software for years.

GECK

The Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) allows you to edit and create game content for Fallout 3. The data is stored in files that are read directly by the game. The GECK allows you to build your own areas (towns, dungeons, etc.) and populate them with your own characters, creatures, items and storylines. Want a job at Bethesda Software, the developer and publisher of Fallout? Create a killer Mod and watch how quickly you’ll get the company’s attention!

Hammer

The Valve Hammer Editor (known as Hammer) was the official mapping tool for the Goldsource engine, the engine that ran Half-Life and Counter-Strike as well as other pre-Source Valve games. The latest version is included in the Source SDK, for mapping under the Source engine (under which all newer Valve games run).

Aurora

The Aurora Toolset (also known as the Aurora toolkit) is a set of software tools developed by BioWare for use with the Aurora Engine, the game engine first used in BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. The toolset is included in the Windows version of the game, and allows players to create their own adventures. The tools include a visual tile-based terrain editor, a script editor, a conversation editor and an object editor. Use modding to show BioWare that you love the game AND understand the engine.

Unreal Development Kit (UDK)

UDK is Unreal Engine 3, a complete professional development framework. It includes all the tools you need to create great games, advanced visualizations and detailed 3D Simulations on the PC and iOS platforms.

Many game companies actually follow the mod communities and may approach the good modders for jobs. EA, for example, has a strong reputation of mining the Sims Modding communities.The good news is that you’re not helpless here, so roll up your sleeves and GET MODDING!

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Managing For A New Market

Five years ago when I first approached the subject of what it takes to be an outstanding manager, we were enjoying a rise in free-to-play MMORPGs. DDO (Dungeons & Dragons™ Online) had been released. We were playing City of HeroesEve Online and Guild Wars, and waiting for Age of Conan with its highly-publicized “mature” content. There was a lot to play online! Facebook was three years old and had just opened its doors to anyone over 13 with a valid email address.

The online landscape has changed dramatically since then. Facebook has become a household name (as well as a verb and an adjective.) People are immersed in FarmvilleCityville, and dozens of social games—that is, when they’re not posting pictures, “Liking” all kinds of things and filling up virtual Walls with comments on just about everything. Companies are scrambling to add “social content” to their existing games and obsessing over microtransactions, virtual goods and the arcane language of metrics.

It sure seems like anyone with a computer and a little seed money is making a social game. Hey, you have a computer! And maybe a little extra money? Now all you need is a fantastic idea for a social game that could make you rich, and you’ll be ready to jump into the pool.

Just one question: Are you planning to do all this by yourself?

Tackling this solo may sound like an ideal way to control everything but it’s not a great way to get things done, especially in the current crazy competitive environment. (Not to mention, no one can ever control everything. . .)

Something New, Something Old

The products may be new but the challenges from concept to release remain the same: need more time, need more money, could use some help. While some things have changed in the past five years, there are still basic unchanging precepts about jobs, teams and management. Whether you’re working in someone’s basement (yes, people still do that) or in an actual office for an established company, you still need a team and a team (usually) needs a manager who can match the right people to the game jobs, make sure they know what to do and help them do it.

Whether you’re making a big MMO or a small social game, teams always need the same things: consistent reliable leadership, positive motivation, achievable goals and the individual ability to work and play well with each other.

Building a team is like building anything else (including video games)–the best plan in the world won’t survive without a solid foundation. The stronger the plan, the more positive the environment, and the better your talent, the more successful everyone will be.

The Usual Suspects

Savvy managers know that along with stuff like education and experience, they have to take personalities into account when building a team. Although everyone is unique, there are some archetypes, if you will, that seem to persist in the video game industry.

The Intern: You usually have the services of an intern for the summer or for one semester. You put a lot of effort into training the intern, often because you’re short-handed. You need to be able to entrust the intern with certain responsibilities. If you’re lucky, you bring someone on-board who is not only eager to have a career in the industry, but is also a hard worker and understands (or at least learns during the internship) that for all the “glamour,” this is still a business. If you’re really lucky, the intern helps improve your overall process and becomes a qualified candidate for full-time employment, which is a nice way to capitalize on your training investment.

On the other hand, you might also get stuck trying to find work for the son or daughter of an executive (or friend of the executive) who spends more time checking Facebook and taking long lunches than working. There’s not much you can do except find some moderately meaningful work for this person and be cautious about what you say because it might get repeated, with or without interpretation, to your boss or your boss’ boss or. . . you get the idea.

The Eager Volunteer: “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” is the favorite refrain of the eager beaver who is always volunteering to help, regardless of his or her workload. Some people can multi-task very well, while others continue to volunteer eagerly but have time management issues that will eventually come back to bite you.

Your challenge is to find a way to help this team member achieve gradually increasing successes while learning some much-needed time management skills. The darker side of this situation is the volunteer may get others to do the work and then takes credit for it in hopes that you will assign even more work.

The Ladder Climber: This team member comes in several guises. It might be someone who has been able to jump from a “service” department like clerical or HR into Design or Production. While they have the skills to do the work, their goal is to get as high as fast as they can, and sometimes they will use their in-house “connections” to insure that those above you see their efforts, whether or not they have done the work themselves, or whether the work they did was correct. When problems arise, the Climber is frequently the one who pushes a team member—including you–under the bus rather than admit error.

The Anxious Being: More often than not, this person is extremely intelligent and can do remarkable work but has absolutely no self-confidence. What you get is a blow-by-blow report of what they will do, what they are doing, what they just did, and what they will do next. There are probably very good reasons for the anxiety but you haven’t been hired to be a therapist so you need to find a way to get good work without the running dialog. Hopefully, this person will gain confidence through consistent successes.

The Resister: Nope, won’t do it your way or anyone else’s way. Period. Refuses to accept more responsibility, or worse, accepts it and then refuses to ask for help. Resisters have their own priorities and schedules. This is especially dangerous when the Resister is a programmer who is quick to kludge and able to hide the evidence.

The “Assistant”: This self-appointed back-up is happy to speak for you in meetings and give others the impression that you’ve delegated a lot of responsibility. Assistants may even take it upon themselves to advise others on the team about how they’re doing and what they can do to improve. Because this person is usually a smart hard-working employee, the assumption of power may go unnoticed for a while.

The Newbie Know-It-All: This person is often a combination of Eager Beaver and Newly-Hired Graduate/Former Intern. Frequently an avid gamer, he hits the ground running, works super-hard for the first month, and then begins an aggressive campaign to get hired as the Senior Game Designer because, after all, he has played Every Game Ever Made and knows Everything and Everyone.

The Rock Star: This would be the Untouchable Golden Child, the one management just loves, the one who frequently is called in as an expert trouble-shooter. She doesn’t appear to have to follow any rules or answer to you even though she’s on your team. Her work is actually quite good but if you catch her in an error, rather than admit she was wrong, she’ll blame it on people who “don’t know what they’re doing,” tell you she has a fix for it, and then make the fix without discussing how it will affect the rest of the program.

It would be great if you could build a work team like you build your fantasy sports team–just choose the prime players, set the line-up, swap players at will, and do whatever it takes to win, but the reality is that it’s your job to find a way for your team to work together.

You want people with solid game design experience but they also need to be able to work comfortably in this new continuous deployment world of social games but somehow understand that the basics of production never really change.

There’s no limit to the personal and group potential of a great team. Given an “impossible” task, team members can (and should) reinforce each others’ confidence and skills. It’s the synergy thing–the collective ability to achieve innovation and success.

Drafting Your Dream Team

There’s no “magic number” of people that insures you’ll have a successful team. Whether you have fewer than 10 or more than 200 , the team’s shape is far more important than its size. Finding people with basic skills is a given; getting people with the right mix of skills is crucial if you want to succeed.

In addition to technical expertise in specific game-related disciplines (i.e., engineering, marketing, production, creative, testing, etc.), each team member needs:

  • Solid problem-solving skills
  • Accountability as an individual
  • Good interpersonal skills and flexibility
  • Commitment to working as part of a team
  • Respect for colleagues regardless of experience, age, gender, etc.

You need to hire with an eye to how skills and personalities will complement each other and grow the project in exciting ways. This includes how you fit into the mix as the manager.

Your Management “Style”

Even if you’ve been a manager for a while, it’s not a bad idea to do a little research about management principles, if only to refresh your memory. You probably already know that there are some basic foundations for a solid management style:

(1) Honesty: The word “transparency” is thrown around a lot these days instead of honesty which some people regard as old-fashioned. Perhaps a better word would be “opacity”–the degree to which light is not allowed to travel through something. Think of it as how much upper management really wants everyone to know. In some cases, it’s actually better to be honest about the degree of opacity than to claim full “transparency,” especially when everyone is aware that it just doesn’t exist.

(2) Flexibility: In the social game arena, flexibility is one of the most important qualities for success. The requisite almost-daily “throw the pasta on wall and see what sticks” approach means that people can’t get too attached to a concept or idea if the group or the metrics don’t support it. When you’re not coming up with cool stuff for your game, you need to be fixing the stuff in your game that needs tweaking, figuring out what all those metrics really mean, playing other social games to see what Everyone Else is doing and oh yeah, trying to maintain a balance between work and the rest of your life.

(3) Responsibility: As a manager, you set an example for your team (you know, sort of like being the older sibling.) It doesn’t mean you should be autocratic or condescending. It does mean that you need to be fair, consistent, and aware. It also means that you favor delegation over micro-management, and that you know when it’s time to have fun, and when it’s time to knuckle down, dig in, and just get the work done.

(4) Accountability: This means doing what you say you’ll do, sharing the credit, and taking responsibility when it was your fault. Your team needs to be able to trust that you will act in their best interest and management needs to know that you will act in their best interest too. Hopefully, these two elements are not mutually exclusive; if they are, see “Integrity” below.

(5) Commitment: Being a great manager means that you’re always balancing your commitments to the company, your team, the product, and all the personal outside stuff. It’s great that you’re one of the hardest-working people at the company, but how do you display that? By working 24/7, putting work ahead of family, allowing management to make consistent and excessive demands on your team? Or worse, throwing your team under the bus rather than standing up for them and taking responsibility?

(6) Integrity: Being a manager isn’t about power, it’s about helping others achieve a group goal, in this case to build a successful game. It’s about being honest with yourself and admitting when you’re made a mistake. One of the toughest challenges you’ll have as a manager is to navigate between being part of the team AND a management representative.

You may not be comfortable with the way the company is asking you to handle various situations. There may even come a point where you can no longer compromise your integrity and you decide to leave the company. Under no circumstances should you encourage mutiny among the crew, and whatever you do, don’t leave your team to clean up your mess.

Leading the Charge

Different people respond to different types of goals; some prefer ambitious, challenging ones while others do better with smaller bites of the elephant. If possible, set both general and specific goals for your team that aim high but remain realistic. Encourage everyone to participate in setting personal as well as team goals. Part of your job as a manager is to provide some level of career mentoring, whether it’s formal or informal. Hopefully, your company realizes that offering identifiable career paths is a good way to retain employees.

Most people respond best to consistent, constructive and positive leadership. Without being annoyingly rah-rah, show confidence in the team’s ability to reach its targets and make each team member feel appreciated. Believe it or not, this doesn’t have to cost you a dime; “Thank you” has a great deal of positive power when said sincerely and at the right moment. Taking the opportunity to call out various accomplishments at all-hands meetings shows the team that you care and shows management that you’re on the right track.

Whatever you do, don’t promise the world and expect your team to deliver every time you feel pressure from management. It’s great if you can pull it off once but you don’t want management or the client to assume that they’ll get everything they want whenever they want it (especially the night before the deliverable is due!) Protecting your team is as important as helping them. And it should go without saying that you should never use the team as a scapegoat for your failure as a manager.

Managing Change

This isn’t the Middle Ages where serfs were expected to work the land and quietly accept whatever was (or wasn’t) given to them. Today we have unions and we have the internet where abuses are Tweeted, Twittered, Facebooked, LiveJournaled, and posted pretty much everywhere, instantly (and often by employees while they’re at work.)

Change affects everyone and people need a chance to react. Tell your team about changes as soon as you have enough detail to answer questions, and if you can’t provide the information, offer to report to the team as quickly as you can. Listen carefully to your team’s reactions – the more committed they are to the project and the more they feel that they have management support, the better able they will be to handle change, even if it’s negative.

Technological advances, new competitors, or simply new tastes in the market (like social games) may be seen as threats by more “traditional” companies, but even unwelcome changes can be a springboard for improvement and renewed motivation. As manager, it’s your job to analyze proposed changes objectively. How can drawbacks be offset or eliminated? How can positive aspects be exploited? Follow this analysis by brainstorming alternative courses of action with the team. Devise a flexible plan that offers the least disadvantage and the greatest opportunity for progress and financial success.

Although there’s a good chance that some team members who were there at the beginning might not be there at the end, start with the goal that everyone will be able to contribute throughout the project. Things happen. After the game has been green-lit, the guys who built prototypes on the fly for the big marketing pitch may decide to start their own blue sky prototyping company. The publisher may cancel your game and refuse to let you use the assets. Your job is to help your team deal with the changes and still keep working (assuming, of course, the project remains viable.)

Don’t paint a rosy picture if it’s just not true. Be honest and don’t let the team go down a road when you know the bridge has been washed out. Have faith in your team and give them a chance to offer suggestions about how to deal with negative situations. The ability to manage change is a critical skill that can make or break a team.

Does Anyone Know Anything?

With the current flood of social games being released almost daily, and the resounding success of a handful of companies, people are scrambling to figure out just how the competition is forging ahead so rapidly. Tweets and Twitters pop up all the time with catchy titles like, “The 10 Things You Need to Know about Social Games” or “How to Make Metrics Work for You.”

It’s popular to use phrases like, “Nobody really knows anything” or “Throw out all the old stuff” when talking about social games. When you scratch the surface of a hot FB game even slightly, however, you’ll see a stratified foundation (sort of like the cross-section of a geological formation) that shows a more or less logical progression of game development. While the platform and the concept of social games are new, in fact, a lot of what’s happening is really giving old models a facelift.

Be sure that someone on the team (who may or may not be you) monitors external changes that could affect the success of your efforts and your product. Whether that person comes from your company’s Marketing Department or is a consultant with an intimate knowledge of the industry from outside experience, the information has to be fresh and accurate, and delivered in a way that doesn’t create a false impression or worse, an atmosphere of paranoia.

Present the team with the data and give them a chance to discuss the latest trends (makes for a great “working lunch.”) Work together to figure out why something was successful and how those lessons can be applied to your product. Maintain a balance between metrics and game design. Marketing’s research is important but so are your game design and content. Success comes as a result of finding the “sweet spot” in the market, not just from copying whatever the most popular FB game has right now.

A side note here about your own experience: Odds are that you have been working in the video game industry longer than five years, although not necessarily at the managerial level. Hopefully you’ve learned the difference between your favorite games and what’s hot, and you’ve kept up with the latest trends in the industry. It’s particularly difficult for “old school” producers and managers to embrace the new social games model because it seems to go against what we remember from games with longer production cycles and bigger budgets.

It’s also possible that members of your team have more hands-on experience with social games than you do, at least in the beginning. As tempting as it is to dismiss social games as a trend, you may find yourself scrambling to explain to management why the game isn’t successful. Do your research (and harvest a crop or two) so that you understand how these games work.

We aren’t going to spend a lot of time discussing the applicability of agile development and lean management principles here but there is one important element of those philosophies that does factor into your success as a manager: how do you address things that didn’t work? This can be anything from an issue with the code to an item that didn’t work properly in the game space to a concept that failed to catch on and make money.

There is a level of anxiety across the board because competition in this market segment is so ferocious. No one wants to take the blame for a failure and most people are uncomfortable with the concept that if one group failed, the entire team failed. What’s important about a failure is how quickly you can fix what’s wrong and learn from the mistake. Hopefully you’ll stay in business long enough to make more mistakes (and have lots of successes too!)

Points to Remember

  • Be flexible and fair
  • Delegate whenever possible
  • Treat your team with respect
  • Stay current with industry and competitor trends
  • Do what you can to help team members progress in their careers
  • Keep everyone focused on the goal
  • Remember to say “thank you”!
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Hiring Wars

Imagine seeing this press release . . .

Press Release: Thousands are flocking to play Hiring Wars, the hottest new web-based social game. You choose between the Eager Employer, ready to shell out big bucks to new programmers with less than two years’ experience, and the Frustrated Employee with experience and title credits who’s being asked to work perpetual crunch time for a salary well below the “new market” average. Along the way you’ll deal with challenges like Fickle Investors, Giant Competitors, Insatiable Consumers, the twin demons Gamification and Monetization. You’ll seek rare items like the key to the Secret Metrics Scrolls!

You may think that all sounds a little silly but it’s where we are right now in the industry–finding and hiring the best talent as fast as we can to create games as fast as we can in this extremely competitive web-based game market. Isn’t that where we always are, some might ask. The answer is yes . . . and no. Companies should always be looking for the best and the brightest. What’s different now is the speed at which everything is happening.

We’ve gone from “how do we appeal to the mass market?” to “how fast can we get that up on Facebook?”

Oooh Shiny!

Casual, Social, Cloud, Web, Downloadable, and Free-to-Play games are what’s hot right now. You don’t need to know the storyline (such as it is) or spend hours leveling up. You don’t need a fancy controller, and you don’t even need to spend any money (although that’s not what the game makers want you to think!) It’s all about web-based-product with a social media component and microtransactions . . . and did I mention speed?

The rapid move toward casual games took many in our industry by surprise and has sent traditional segments like console and MMO-producing companies scrambling to adjust, often by rapid “restructuring” (read: layoffs). Traditional PC and console games take years and millions to build while the initial release of most casual games can be created within 90 days for an average of $30,000.

Hundreds of new media game companies are popping up everywhere, and even the console and MMO companies are trying to re-focus current product, at least to some degree, on Free to Play and more “casual” MMO’s rather than putting all their eggs in the traditional multi-year development cycle basket.

My Kingdom for a Coder

This relatively sudden change has also caused a shift in desired technical skills and forced our industry to compete for talent with the already highly competitive IT, networking & security, Information Services and industries. Sure, you still need artists (and marketing) but now you’re hunting for programmers instead of writers, and hey, if they can knock out some text too, that’s great. In this new world of “rapid deployment and “empowerment,” if the programmers can police their own workflow and bug tickets, so much the better.

According to the Electronic Software Association (ESA), the game industry generates over $25 billion in annual revenue, and employs more than 120,000 people. Current research indicates that by 2015, 60% of the new jobs created in America will require special skills held by only 20% of the population. On top of that, the number of college students enrolled in computer science and information technology majors has declined even though the demand for the talent has increased. The result is that in 2011, Computer Science graduates are receiving an average starting salary of around $98,000. (Yes, there are higher base salaries but they tend to be at the mega-companies like Google and Facebook.) New programmers without degrees or much, if any, real experience are commanding salaries previously reserved for more senior people.

Sadly, this hasn’t necessarily resulted in a company-wide shift upwards in salaries at all levels. Companies think they can maximize profits by laying off current “specialized” employees to get “multi-taskers.” Even at the higher salary, the company figures it’s saving money because it’s paying less than before the layoff. Given the competitive situation and finite supply of qualified talent, it’s the perfect storm to fuel a hiring crisis.

Outsourcing Woes

In previous hiring wars we were able to supplement a lack of U.S.-based talent by bringing well-qualified talent from other countries like the U.K., back when the U.S. dollar was strong and UK salaries were lower. It also helped that getting approval for H1B work visas was easier.

In today’s world economic and political climate, not only does the weak US dollar work against us, the process of obtaining a U.S. H1B work visa has gone from simple to torture, and many game companies won’t even consider it. So unless you come from a country operating under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), obtaining a U.S. work visa is nearly impossible.

Some, U.S. game companies think they’ll save money by using a small company outside the country. This works more or less until the parent company decides to “restructure” (again) and cuts the smaller foreign company adrift without so much as a Bon Voyage pizza party. Doesn’t do a whole lot for U.S. relations in an already difficult market, and certainly doesn’t do much to bolster investor confidence in the parent company

Pay to Play . . . in the Job Market, That is

With the new business model for generating web-based games, the industry has returned to something of a “garage” mentality. Lured by the desire to create the next Farmville, companies are using variations of Lean Management, AGILE development, and “throw it on the wall ‘n keep what sticks.” Those who can afford it will grudgingly pay the higher salary while those who can’t might offer a range of inducements like stock options and profit-sharing. In some ways, it’s like reminiscent of that crazed time Before the Dot Com Bubble Burst when the perceived potential to generate an endless revenue stream fueled reckless business practices.

Case Study: A client wanted to hire a programmer at a maximum base salary of $120K. After approaching well over 300 candidates via recruiting it became clear that this company wasn’t going to get anyone until it raised the base salary to somewhere around $165K, the current average cost for that particular talent in today’s market. The company wouldn’t upgrade the base salary so the position is still open, months later.

They pushed existing staff to make up for the slack, which created a stressful work environment. Ship dates slipped which wreaked havoc on the revenue stream and meant even MORE crunch time. The already-underpaid employees began job hunting for better pay and freedom from eternal crunch time. The executive staff offered large pre-IPO stock grants but sadly for them, employees and candidates today are much savvier about the business environment and would rather have real cash. They know that they can’t pay their bills with stock options.

In the long run, the company could have done some negotiating on the base salary and saved themselves a lot of money that was wasted on overtime. There was a time when the caché of working for certain “big name” companies outweighed the known downsides but political in-fighting and employee abuse isn’t worth even the big money. Penny wise and pound foolish in this situation, they have earned themselves a reputation that has already come back to haunt them.

As this case proves, not only is it a war to locate and hire talent, it’s a challenge to keep the talent companies have already. The climate is so aggressive that candidates are joining companies only to be lured away a few weeks later by a competitor. Loyalty is nice but in this economy money is what motivates employees.

Lean Mean Overworked Machine

Companies are enamored of the “lean ‘n mean” approach, especially when it comes to engineering departments. Candidates are being asked to do virtual online white-boarding sessions even before the formal interview. At the interview, they are asked to walk through code samples and are subjected to intense questioning to test horsepower, agility, and problem-solving skills. They quickly figure out that the high salary probably comes with a high price tag in be this tough new environment. Shouldn’t a company perform due diligence on new employees? Definitely, but in this case they might as well say, “Hey, we expect you to do everything, do it lightning fast, and oh yeah, sleep under your desk.”

“Empowerment” is a great word, but what does it really mean? It means that you get a chance—sometimes only one chance—to throw your pasta on the wall. If it sticks and people love it, great! You survive to cook up something tomorrow. If it fails (or worse causes other things to fail), you’re outta here!

“We’re paying better than anyone else out there, so what’s their problem?” management asks. It’s hard, if not impossible, to explain that burning through waves of employees (who either quit or work sick until they’re too sick to come to work) can very well mean you’ll end up with a lot less money, no real product, and an incredibly bad reputation touted far and wide on the very social networks you had hoped to conquer.

Less is More, Right?

Since its inception, the game industry has been known to pay lower base salaries with the justification that unlike traditional business, working in the game industry is just too cool, and everyone will make lots of money from all those AAA games. In the early 90s it was common for companies to assign significant royalties which made up, at least in part, for the low salaries and long hours.

Then game companies moved from the garage to multi-story office buildings and spacious campuses, and royalty programs morphed into “bonus programs” with all sorts of caveats and qualifications that didn’t pay out as well. In the end, although the sodas and snacks might be free, base salaries remained lower than in other industries seeking the same skills.

In the last three years, over 10,000 employees have lost their job in our industry. Although the economic crisis is usually the excuse for this, several other factors at work as well:

1) The rapid and steady advancement of technology. One day your skills are in high demand and literally within months you can be perceived as obsolete or unqualified (especially if you make the mistake of getting older.) Nowadays, the older you are and the more experience you have, the harder it is for you to find a good job. Companies don’t seem realize they’re sending a mixed message here: “Sure, New Kid, we’ll pay you $98,000 to start” vs. “Hm, (Older) Person with tons of experience, you’re probably going to be too expensive, and besides you’re not cool.”

2) The rise of new game industry market segments. These new entities (Casual / Social Gaming, Cloud-based Gaming, Browser / Web based gaming, even the industry’s move towards digital distribution and downloadable games) seem to spring up overnight on little or no money. Established companies see this and figure that they don’t have to spend any money to jump into the mix.

3) The normal changes. Hardware platforms, software sales, hot new things, whatever Marketing thinks a game Has to Have, budgets, investors, and of course the constant specter of the Economy.

Summary

1) The game industry is now squarely in the midst of a hiring war.  We’re competing for the same talent many other software segments seek.

2) Game companies can no longer attract quality talent with lower salaries and the vaporware offer of a stock option to cover the difference. Candidates are savvy and don’t care about your stock unless you’ve got a proven track record (i.e., Google, Facebook, Apple.) It’s “show me the money now!”

3) The “glamour” of working for a game company is beginning to wane now that just about anyone can put a company together and say they’re in the industry. While it’s exciting to be part of a start-up, the lure of independence and “unlimited profit” is often replaced very quickly by long hours, exhaustion, and the need to provide your own soda.

4) Candidates would rather leave the game industry than compromise on life / work balance issues.  People want to be paid fairly and work a 40-hour week instead of being underpaid (often dramatically so) and working on average 60 hours.

5) With the average salary for a programmer fresh out of college at around $98K, companies need to look at their entire salary structure and adjust accordingly. Otherwise, they’ll have a tough time attracting new talent or even retaining existing staff, especially if they’ve shifted into Eternal Crunch Time.

6) Hiring limited-experience talent just because they’ve worked on one Facebook game isn’t necessarily good planning (or even planning at all!) Seasoned professionals who have tackled game creation on several platforms with multiple genres and demonstrated the ability to learn new stuff are usually a better investment in the long run. It’s hard not to be attracted by the promise of big profits but you still need to have a solid foundation with experienced talent to survive. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider hiring a young inexperienced person who obviously has a flair for game design but don’t underestimate the ability of your experienced employees to create fresh, engaging content.

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