Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
Inside Job: It Takes a Method

Erin Hoffman | 2 May 2008 17:00
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In the past week I received three media requests for interviews, all wanting to know the same thing: What's going on? Do things still suck? Have they gotten better?

I'm not sure what caused this precisely - maybe the time for re-evaluation was nigh, maybe there's something in the collective unconscious. But after about a year and a half of the gaming media being content to assume the industry was clicking quietly along on its own, everyone seems to want to know the State of the Game all at once.

My answer is roughly the same as it has always been: Yes, there's progress, and much of it should be celebrated; there's still a long way to go; improving quality of life is a long and winding road populated by various jabberwockies and few sherpas.

But one of the most significant forward movements in the last three years, in addition to those documented by earlier editions of this column, concerns game production, the method by which we approach the making of games.

Primordial Ooze
Production methodologies have been discussed by a small contingent of the development community for a very long time, but by and large they did not reach the mainstream until just a few years ago. Prior to Scrum's galloping arrival onto the scene - online and at GDC and other conferences, primarily - game production primarily existed in the form of documenting the organically developed trial-and-error process by which games grew from independent single-person experiments into analyzed content delivered on a pre-set schedule. Most developers certainly did not bother documenting that process, even the ones who wanted to discuss the production pipeline, and in this long early period of game development, rarely was there someone whose sole function was what we would now call "Producer"; "Executive Producer" on a game usually meant the person with whom the buck stopped, and they were usually simultaneously a CEO and an Engineer. And very, very tired.

One of the earliest forays into documenting the production life cycle was Erik Bethke's Game Development and Production, which wasn't published until 2003 - considering the early-'80s start to the game industry, that's quite a long primordial period. And yet Bethke's book stands up today as one of the continuing landmarks in the documentation of game production.

In the relatively short time since GD&P, discussion of production methodologies has exploded, in part as a result of quality of life concerns and their immediate reflection on development process. The IGDA's Production SIG has been making significant strides toward developing a knowledgebase of production methods, and last year's related Leadership Forum was a tremendous success and a significant step forward in discussing better ways to make games from the top level down.

Can We Meet to Talk About That?
Discussing game production with a "front line" median developer is an interesting prospect. It's a lot like politics; almost everyone has an opinion, often a passionate one, but the real answers prove complex and require a lot more debate and discussion than the average person has the stomach for.

Game production, being leadership at its heart, is a similarly difficult prospect to manage. On a basic level a producer often protects developers from themselves and the vortex of the creative process; they also frequently interact with the publisher more often than anyone else and so are the bearer of good and bad news. They may be a coordinator or a person with more authority, depending upon individual studio hierarchal structure - but in all cases they are dealing with "talent," a volatile element that requires finessing and not simple "red stapler" style top-down authoritarian control.

This point requires emphasis: Game developers are a completely unique breed, often combining the finickiness of creative minds with the relentlessness and intolerance for inefficiency of hard-line engineers. And ideas are what they do. They represent unique challenges in management, and if they even think they're being "managed," you may well have problems. A producer who comes in to a game development environment with too much of a management mentality - a software development mindset of "I am the boss"-style control - is going to sink a game in short order, and may well get themselves lynched to boot. And this is without even considering the extra world of complication when you talk about integrating game design, and what exactly a game designer's role is in the production process once it leaves the primary design phase.

Add to all of this a good dose of basic human nature and the conflicting desires of "let's have the best production possible" and "I hate long meetings, let's just get to work" and you have a brief sketch of why talking about game production is a fairly significant challenge. It must be Zen mastery, realizing that it is perhaps the lynchpin in a game's development and simultaneously the least hands-on of all development roles, requiring therefore a certain egoless humility for effectiveness.

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