At the Office


Home
On the Couch
At the Office
In the Library
Through the Mirror
Mailbox
Neighborhood
The View from the Other Side: So, I'm a Suit

Well, actually I'm more of a button-down shirt and jeans guy, but metaphorically, I am definitely a suit.  I work for a publisher; I make decisions about what games will and will not do on the design side; I take pitches from developers and help decide which ones are going to get funding; I look at the budgets and the bottom lines and make calls about whether a project is ready to ship or not.  So, when developers or gamers blame the suits, I'm the guy they're talking about.

If you've hung around the game industry for any amount of time, you're probably familiar with the litany of the suits.  The suits won't sign original projects.  The suits hate risk.  The suits will only support licensed games and sequels.  The suits only care about the publisher's financial well-being.  The suits make absurd demands for last-minute changes that ruin games.  The suits push games out the door full of bugs.  The suits don't understand why a game was fun and insist on taking the best parts out of sequels for no good reason.  The suits don't care about gamers.  The suits ran over my dog and then slept with my wife and beat up my children.

Okay, so that last one isn't so common, but in pretty much any conversation about what's wrong with the industry, sooner or later, someone is going to blame the suits.  There are some good reasons for this.  One of them has to do with the history of the industry.  Back in the day, game developers were artists, programmers, designers, and more often some combination.  As the industry grew, and larger teams became the norm, the people who headed up these teams and ran studios were often developers.  On the publisher side, the people who made decisions about funding and managing projects often didn't come from development, they came from other businesses.  They were sales people, marketing people, business executives, and the like.  As the industry grew, and they needed people who knew games to manage development, they drew from the pool of experts who were closest to them: QA.

That's right.  There was a time when many of the people who were put in charge of running development teams had no actual development experience.  A lot of them also had no business experience, but they knew games, or at least, they knew what they liked and didn't like about games.  Now, don't get me wrong, a lot of these guys were very good at what they did.  They learned the business side; they learned management; they had natural talents in managing relationships, or they developed them, and they made good decisions.  After all, a lot of good games made it to the market, the industry grew because it was successful, and they went on to even higher positions of responsibility.

However, a lot of these guys had little to no clue.  They made extravagant demands of developers because they didn't really understand development.  They had no idea what made a demand "extravagant"; if another game had done something, they assumed that this game could do it too, no matter how hard it might be or how it might conflict with the rest of the design, the base technology, or the schedule.  Without business experience, they didn't understand the cash flow issues that might result from delaying payment, or denying payment, to developers.  Without project management experience, they didn't know how to scope projects in the contract phase.  And perhaps worst of all, they were sometimes managed by people who had as little understanding of the realities of game development as they did, or they weren't being managed at all.

So, you ended up with people in charge of game development with no development experience, little to no business or project management skills, and absolute power over the developers under contract to them.  Bad decisions were made.  Bad relationships were formed.  Bad contracts were signed.  Potentially good games were marred by bad management.  Bad games were released.  This is the history that produced the litany of the suits, the saddest part of which is that some of this stuff is still going on.  As far as the industry has come, not everyone has learned from the mistakes of the past, and as we speak, history is repeating itself.

But, that's not the end of the story.  You see, most developers don't have any meaningful contact with the publishers, not in the general sense of development studios not working with publishing companies, but rather in the specific sense that Joe Programmer doesn't have meetings with Mr. Suit.  Producers on the publisher side tend to meet with producers on the developer side.  Occasionally, the publishing folks will meet with the leads, or studio management, but the guys in the trenches have almost no contact with them.  For most developers, the publisher is a complete unknown; they may get told what's going on by their leads or by management, but that's as close as they get.  And it's a sad but true fact that there are times when it's easier to blame the people who aren't there.  If the team is going to have to crunch because the internal producer screwed up the schedule, it's a rare individual who will recognize this, much less own up to it; if you blame it on the publisher, the work still gets done, but the team's not mad at you.  If management signed a contract that they knew wasn't realistic, and things go pear-shaped, they can blame the publisher, and the developers will never know, because they never saw the contract, never were in the meetings where the real problem was discussed.

If the publishers are an unknown to the developers, they're even farther removed from the gamers.  Developers talk to the gamers.  On forums, at cons, through the press.  Gamers identify their favorite developers.  They appreciate that developers build the games they love to play.  What value publishers add to this process is invisible, incomprehensible.  So, when developers tell gamers that the publishers are the problem, a lot of them buy it.  It makes sense, after all; the developers have made good games, so they must understand how to make good games.  If they say the problem is these outsiders who prevent them from making good games, they should know, right?

So, at this point, the suits are the easy target.  There's a history there.  The suits are far enough removed that most of the people making these arguments can't think of a single reason why they wouldn't be at fault; the suits are the barbarians on the other side of the wall, the aliens who behave irrationally.  It's easier to blame the suits than to come up with a more nuanced argument.  Like I said, there are good reasons why people blame the suits.

Then again, there were a lot of good reasons why people believed the world was flat.  The reality is more complex.  Just because a studio makes one good game (or even one incredible game), that doesn't mean they can only make good games.  Look at Daikatana.  With all the resources one could imagine, and years of additional development time, they still couldn't get a good game out the door.  These were the guys who made Quake and Doom.  They were handed a blank check by their publisher, and they produced a bomb.

Making a good game takes a remarkable confluence of elements.  You need resources (time, money), a good team (talented developers, sure, but also good team chemistry), solid management (internal and external), a good idea, and key leaders to bring it all together.  Take any piece away, and there are myriad examples of how it breaks development.  Need another example?  Let's take Valve.  Yes, Valve, the guys who have made two of the most highly-acclaimed games ever.  What would have happened to Half-Life 2 if it had been made by a studio that didn't have the exceptional resources they had?  Let's remember, they were off by a year on when they would be done, only five months prior to their scheduled release date.  If this had been a rookie studio without a huge bankroll, faced with the decision of pushing the flawed game out the door on time or closing the studio, which do you think they would have chosen?  What about Wil Wright, developer of the best-selling PC game ever and highly-esteemed design guru?  SimAnt, anyone? SimCopter? SimTower?  Now, I have no idea what actually went wrong on these projects, but clearly, having a key leader isn't enough.

Game development is hard.  Making a good game is exceptionally hard.  Making a good game that is commercially successful is just mind-bogglingly difficult.  Even people who have been through it and been successful can't necessarily reproduce that success.  Sometimes things just don't come together.  Are the publishers sometimes to blame when this happens?  Sure.  Are the publishers always to blame? Only if you're looking for a straw man.

Let me clue you in on a very basic reality of game development:  game developers are not the only ones who benefit from making good games.  Publishers live and die based on the success of the games they fund.  If we had our way, every single game we funded would be a good game, in fact, if we could do it, every game we funded would be a great game, for the very simple reason that we make more money the better the game does in the marketplace.  Gamers are a discerning lot, and the great games do better than the good games, and the good games do better than the bad games, with some notable exceptions.  The only way for us to stay in business is to put the best games we can out to the market with the best support we can muster and convince gamers to buy them.  Developers can stay in business just on the development costs; if the game they make doesn't recoup its costs, they still got paid to develop it.  Publishers, if the game tanks, they don't get the money they spent back.  Bad games hurt publishers more than they hurt developers, at least economically.

So, if we can agree that publishers go into development deals with the best intentions, that it's in everyone's best interests to make good games that sell well (remember, if the game does recoup, developers get royalties on top of the development money they were paid), then what's the problem?  Is it still that Mr. Suit doesn't understand development?  Well, not in my experience.  I worked for almost five years as a designer before I went to work on the publishing side.  In fact, one of the requirements we have when looking at job candidates in the group that manages external developers is development experience.  The people we have managing developers are designers, programmers, and artists who have developed not only those skills, but management skills, relationship skills, marketing skills, and business skills.  It was a conscious decision to build the department this way, because you can't expect people who don't understand development to manage developers.

The people I work with, they don't hate risk.  They understand that risk comes with the territory.  We work to mitigate risk, to manage risk, but we also embrace risk.  Without risk, you can't make games, much less great games, and all of us are trying to make great games.  Every original third-party game you've ever played has been funded by suits.  We don't fear creativity; we fully understand the value of innovation, of new, fresh gaming experiences.  We fight to get the original game concepts funded; if we didn't, the only original games you ever saw would be self-funded or first-party, but also because we know that you have to take big steps if you want to win big.  We swing for the fences on a regular basis.  It doesn't always work, but we're the guys who put the money into trying to get there.

On top of that, publishers--at least the successful ones--are constantly working to be better at what they do.  We work on being better managers, better business people, better partners.  We scour conferences and books and web-sites and training programs for better practices.  We have to put out more games that are successes than games that are failures to stay in business, and the best way we have to ensure that happens is to be the best at what we do and to push the developers we work with to be the best at what they do.  Hampering the developers is self-defeating.  Part of our job is to make sure that we help the process along, and we do, in ways we can measure, ways that we do measure.  It's not as visible as what the developers do, but publishers help make great games.  We fund them, we manage them, we test them, and when necessary, we sometimes even get into the trenches ourselves and help build them.

I'm not trying to defend all publishers, or all producers.  There are some bad apples out there, sure, that's the law of averages for you.  But, that very same law of averages should also tell you that we're not the only ones who have problems in our house.  It's easy to blame the publishers, the suits, too easy in fact.  It's easier to believe that there's someone in charge who's ruining things than that things sometimes just go wrong, that we make mistakes, or that we just weren't able to deliver on what we promised.  That's part of why conspiracy theories are so popular.  In their own paranoid way, they're comforting, because they tell us that someone else is at fault.  But, if you really want to understand how things work, if you really want a chance to change what is broken, you've got to get past blaming everything on the men in black, and get to the truth of what's really going wrong.  Even if it's the suits who are showing it to you.

Back to top

Home
On the Couch
At the Office
In the Library
Through the Mirror
Mailbox
Neighborhood