Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

“What should game developers learn from Blizzard failing at Titan?”

April 22, 2016

Over on Quora I was asked to answer this question. Here’s what I wrote:

A few clear lessons come to mind:

  1. Most games fail. Having a team that is smart, passionate, talented, deeply experienced, and insanely well-funded doesn’t change the fact that your game is most likely to fail.

    Let that sink in for a moment.

    Not even having had an enormous success one time means you will be successful the next time. Hard as it is to say, if you’re lucky this happens before the game is released (or even announced!). The long droughts between successful games is part of the landscape of the games industry, and something almost everyone has to internalize.

  2. Failure is not permanent. The story of game development and the games industry is nothing if not one of re-invention. Developers, properties, technologies, and companies all re-create themselves every few years. You try something new, you fail, you try again. Just as success is not a given, neither is failure. You fail, you sit, you cry, you mourn, and then you get up and try the next thing. That’s been my experience in more than two decades in the games industry.

  3. Know who you are. While re-invention is pervasive, it’s also true that success breeds inertia: the longer your company is successful at doing what it does, the harder it is to change that course. Is your company about ground-breaking innovation, or about tweaking known formulas? Both can work. But culture is real. Cultural inertia is real.

    Here’s a story I don’t often tell too publicly: in 2002, I interviewed at Blizzard for the lead design position on this new game they had going, World of Warcraft. I had recently been the lead designer on three MMOs (Meridian 59, SimCity Online, and Ultima Online 2 — one out of three of which were released), along with leading the design on The Sims 2. I had a really terrific day talking with the team at Blizzard. But every time I said something like,”oh that’s cool, and you could really take this in a new direction,” the response was along the lines of, “well… we’re really not trying to reach too far with new things on this project.”

    At the end of the day I sat in a conference room while the managers conferred. While I did, it became really clear to me that this was a great team and a great company — and definitely not the job for me. I’ve spent my career trying (and very often failing) to do things that were really new, and that’s not what they were trying to do. So, when they came back in the room (I’m abashed to say I don’t recall now who it was I talking with), they very graciously said, “we like you, the team likes you, you have a great resume… but we just don’t think you’re the guy for the job.”

    I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to interview for that position, and even more fortunate to have been able to respond, in that moment, “You’re right. This is a great project and team, and I’m not the guy to lead it. But I think I know who is.” I recommended Tom Chilton, a terrific designer who was on the team I had just left, and someone who was a classic fantasy MMO designer in his bones. Not too long after that he took the job, and is still at Blizzard doing great work.

    The point of all this is that at that time, Blizzard knew who they were and what they wanted. They had an established culture and they played into their strengths in phenomenal ways.

    But that strength also made it more difficult for them to in fact do something new, to make whatever it was that Titan would have become. I mourn with them a bit for what might have been, but I also celebrate their re-invention via Overwatch.

Chefs, creativity, diversity, and our old friend risk

September 13, 2015

I’m on the outbound leg of a trip from the US to Sweden for the Sweden Game Conference. On the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt I watched the movie “Chef” again. It’s a small but worthwhile movie directed by and starring Jon Favreau. He plays an accomplished chef who is sick and tired of having to cook the same old menu over and over again. He’s lorded over by his money-guy who just wants butts-in-seats and for the chef to give people the mainstream fare they want. This results in a disastrous review, and the chef eventually flips out and leaves. He then goes on a journey of self (and family) discovery, and ends up  opening a small food truck that gathers a big online following.

So you can see, this is really a post-Iron Man/Avengers movie about making movies. It suits the making of games equally well — with the exception of the “all’s well that ends well” ending that most movie and game creators don’t experience.

Which brings me to this article from the Guardian. I fully agree that our range of “acceptable” game genres has narrowed to the point that our diversity issues go far, far beyond “we don’t have enough women represented in games.”  The result of this is that I often don’t find much that’s really interesting to play — and those games that do catch my imagination (and dollars) are often the smaller indie efforts – FTL, Banished, Sunless Sea, Prune, and most recently Kings Quest, which at least feels like an indie effort (which is an accomplishment for the developers in today’s environment).

Like many others, I believe that we are far too insular in many parts of game development, and that increasing our underheard voices (including but not only women) has been a distressing serial failure. As the Guardian article points out though, our lack of diversity extends far beyond how women are represented in games or how many women we have in leadership positions in game development. This narrowing extends well into the kinds of games that get made — and thus the kinds of games that get played. The developers often serve a narrow audience, which further narrows the demographic pool of people who are interested in game development, which sets off a vicious cycle.

In the middle of this though is the problem that game developers, like anyone else, want to be paid for their work. Absent a wealthy and disinterested patron (please let me know if you find one of those), being paid requires running a business — and games are most definitely a business. Businesses are necessarily risk averse; the chances of complete failure are just too high otherwise. Creativity and diversity are inherently risky. Therefore most successful game companies will avoid creativity and diversity as much as possible, and in doing so end up contributing to the (at best) reluctant relationship with diversity, and the narrowing palette of game genres deemed worthy of consideration.

TL;DR: We want to be creative and diverse, but all the necessities of making games professionally are set against this.

What to do about this? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.

I have a few hopes and hypotheses: for example that as we increase the diversity in the pool of developers, we’ll find new ways to make games without increasing our risk — and that maybe, just maybe, some of the wildly successful game companies we see today will look past their IPO or current stock price (I can dream) and actually invest a certain amount of their healthy profits on on-going,long-term R&D. You know, the kinds of things that fail a lot, but eventually give us iPhones, self-driving cars, or the ability to choose from dozens of movies on a trans-Atlantic flight — the very kinds of investment most game companies have little interest in making.

Dragon Con 2014

August 31, 2014

dragoncon logo

DragonCon ends tomorrow. It’s been terrific and honestly, somewhat eye-opening for me. It’s enormous (60,000+ people), with an unending number of talks and panels on anything connected to games, movies, fiction, and a ton of other topics. I spoke on a panel on Friday on “making awesome video games,” which was fun and easy duty.

It’s also sort of a concentrated geek Mardi Gras that takes over downtown Atlanta (the locals love it too, which is nice — they say it “makes Labor Day into Atlanta’s favorite holiday”). The lobbies of the Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and other hotels downtown are packed (and I mean packed, several floors deep) with people just about 24 hours a day. I’ve been to big conventions before, but nothing as concentrated as this.

There are people in costumes (“cosplay”), many stunningly elaborate, as far as the eye can see. They’re all made by fans of just about anything you can imagine. Some are sly jokes, but most are just unadulterated and un-self-conscious love for some character — or “property” as those of us on my side of the industry looking-glass tend to say.

On that note I have to say that being here has been a useful re-education for me: It’s helped me regain an understanding of the real joy people derive from fiction, shows, and games (my own little “Sullivan’s Travels” moment). Sure it’s all froth, but everyone knows that and they jump in anyway. People “like liking things,” as one TV character said, and being able to share that with others brings its own form of joy.

For my part, and at the behest of two of my daughters, both veterans of the convention, I put on a tux and a small arc reactor I made over the past few weeks, resulting in an older (but I’m told creditable) Tony Stark — or as one person said, “oh, you’re ‘The Most Interesting (iron)Man in the World!'” There will, I’m sure, be pictures.

And with any luck at all, I’ll be back next year.


November 6, 2013

I realize, for those few who check this blog, that I never mentioned where I am now.

Still in the SF Bay Area, geographically, but I’ve moved to Rumble Entertainment, where I’m now Creative Director. Rumble’s current game is KingsRoad, a very cool free-to-play fantasy RPG with excellent gameplay, graphics, and multiplayer. We’re working hard on expanding the features and world of KingsRoad. Of course, we have some other things in the works as well. Rumble has a terrific team of game veterans who, I’m happy to say, really get game design, supporting strong production values, and the importance of providing increasing depth in their games.

I’m continuing to work on my AI as well, and it looks like may be teaching again this winter. More on that soon.

One other thing: if you happen to see an ad below this post, well, it’s not mine, it’s from WordPress. They make their software freely available, so now and again we get to see ads. It’s the 21st Century.


GDC Trends: Anxiety and the bandwagon. Also, hats.

March 9, 2010

From the first day at GDC – I’m mainly attending the AI Summit and Social Games Summit.    Every year I watch and listen for trends, to get the vibe of where the game industry is and where it’s going.  Thus far, I’ve seen a few things – an unnerving anxiety, a fast-rolling bandwagon.  And hats.