Game publishers offer an interesting incentive plan: "Work like a slave for two or three years to ship this game, and as a reward, we'll fire you." It's a morbid joke among artists, animators and quality assurance testers. The bulk of game production nowadays requires a large team of 90 to 150-plus people, but as soon as the game ships - or anyway, after the first couple of patches - there's seldom a good business reason to keep the team together. Did you break new ground, maybe help create an instant classic? Yeah, great job. Buh-bye!
Sure, if the company is lucky and foresighted enough to have another project well-along in development, at exactly the stage where it needs bodies, individual employees can move over. (That's assuming they're a good fit. Maybe the guys who just spent 18 months designing spaceships don't necessarily want to texture orc armor.)
But for a small studio, with only enough resources to handle one game at a time, "transition" equals "layoffs." The early stages of a new project - concept art, placeholder code, design docs and blue-sky brainstorming - work best with small teams. So the execs fire everyone else, until it's time to ramp up once more. If they try to reassemble the same bunch later, guess what? Everyone has scattered to other jobs. It's just one more way the industry is broken.
Yes, this does affect you, the player. It isn't a studio that makes the games you love, it's a studio team. Whether or not the studio stays in business, the practice of "ship and lay off" means the team, that irreplaceable combination of talent, is gone. Whether or not you know it, this has already affected you, and will again.
But there is another way to make games, one not only less disruptive than the current cut-and-run model, but also cheaper, faster and more efficient: the Wideload way.
In-House Design, Outsourced Production
Alexander Seropian co-founded Bungie Software with programmer Jason Jones in 1991, during his senior year as a Math major at the University of Chicago. Their early releases, the complicated multiplayer action fantasy game Minotaur and a spin-off called Pathways into Darkness, were modest successes. With the Marathon and Myth series, Bungie became the leading Macintosh game developer, for what that's worth.
Actually, it turned out to be worth a lot: After starting Halo, the founders sold out to Microsoft in 2000. Flush with funds, Seropian left Microsoft in 2002, returned to Chicago and soon grew bored. In 2003, with half a dozen other Bungie alumni, he started Wideload Games.
From day one, from the ground up, Wideload was built to implement a new method for producing games. It sprang from a set of commandments Seropian outlined in a talk at the Game Developers Conference in March 2006:
- Establish your own creative direction.
- Own your intellectual property.
- Be no one's bitch.
- Keep your overhead low.
Number 4 led to the Wideload approach: Design the game in-house, then outsource the entire production. In a Newcity Chicago interview with Mike Schramm in November 2005, Seropian explained:
"To make a game these days, if you want to do a console game with some story and depth to it, it takes a lot of people. And that's really where all the expense is." Most of the idea work (as opposed to the production) is done by "above-the-line" talent. "The big idea with Wideload is that that's who we are," says Seropian. "We're the above-the-line talent. We're the guys who are coming up with the idea, fleshing it out, getting the technology that's going to drive it, designing, prototyping, getting the project into production." And everyone else necessary to make the game is hired contractually. "And that's a very, very different way of doing a game than has ever really been done before."