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February 21, 2011

“Say it ain’t so!”

Filed under: Thoughts and Rants — Tom B @ 1:47 pm

Last November I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Keynote presentation of Danny Bilson at the IGDA Leadership Forum. Danny is the Executive Vice President of Core Games at THQ. He discussed his journey into the industry from films and the transition of the Core Games division of THQ under his leadership. The reason I say “distinct pleasure” is because normally I spend sessions splitting my time between listening, checking my email and staring longingly at the door. But I was transfixed by Danny’s talk as he discussed his efforts at THQ to turn a company known for mediocrity into a top quality AAA game company.

How did Danny intend to accomplish this transition? By putting the decisions regarding game design and production exclusively into the hands of the creative teams. Huh, you mean the creative teams are not making these decisions? Well, no. For those unfamiliar with the decision making process used in many captive studios of top tier publishers, Marketing departments often have significant input into the design of games. Typically instituting changes to design or gameplay based on features in recent hit games. If a game has a feature and is a hit, then Marketing dictates the inclusion of a similar feature in a game in development at a competing publisher in the same genre. To most game developers, this is an incredibly dumb idea and frustrating model to live with. But to the suits who often make the final decisions for AAA titles - where risk aversion, not hit making, is the standard - spreadsheets with financial projections from the Marketing department are something they understand. High concepts or unique new gameplay ideas are not something the suits really can “grok.” The result for THQ was a parade of games known primarily for their mediocrity. The result for other publishing giants, like Midway, was even more severe.

Apparently, Danny’s solid history in the film industry and him repeatedly calling the Marketing department’s financial projections guesses (which they are…) finally convinced THQ management to put him in a position where he was in control of both production and marketing of their core game business. So, Danny put the creative teams in charge of making the games and the marketing teams in charge of selling those games. This clear understanding that ours is a creative industry from someone in a position to actually do something about it was awesome. When I heard him explain this philosophy and his approach, I started “crushing like a school girl” on Danny. Here was someone in a position of control saying what I had been waiting to hear for over ten years. I even followed him out of the session room and told him so. His plan of releasing 10 primarily creative driven games over the next 18 months will, hopefully, result in a string of critical and commercial hits for THQ. I certainly wish him nothing but success.

So, what’s with the whole “Black Sox Scandal” reference in the title to this post? Two things. First, a significant quality of life issue at one of THQ’s top core studios. On January 12 word leaked that THQ was putting the their Kaos studio, responsible for the upcoming game Homefront, on a 7 day a week 60 day “death march” until its release in mid March. I have been involved with the IGDA’s Quality of Life advocacy for years. There is a huge amount of evidence to support the proposition that this sort of crunch is detrimental to the health and well being of individual developers. It also contributes heavily to industry burn out, a scourge that continually drains our industry of experienced creative talent. In addition, there is substantial scientific evidence to support the proposition that this level of overtime is actually counterproductive because much of the extra time on the project is actually consumed correcting mistakes that occur during crunch due to fatigue and overwork. And my “hero” Danny was, apparently, the guy behind this decision or, at least, was openly defending the decision to drive this team to the finish line.

The second issue was talk of relocating the Kaos team to THQ’s recently announced Montreal Studio. In situations like that, team members are often given the Hobson’s choice of either relocating or losing their jobs. Of course, the economics of this move to Montreal are indeed significant with the huge incentives offered by the Quebec provincial government such as a 35% rebate on salary expenditures. However, the detrimental impact on team members of uprooting them and their families, or treating the individuals on the Kaos team as simply fungible “game factory” workers, creates a significant potential of destroying a solid team with years of history working together. The Kaos New York studio has bee in operation since 2006 from the remains of the Trauma Studio team, which had already been in New York for several years. So, quite probably, the upheaval on the members of the Kaos team would be significant. All too often publishers fail to comprehend the difference between the “golden egg” of a valuable franchise and the real value of the “goose,” the team that created it. Examples of this mistake are legion and we have all seen great franchises die as a result of this misapprehension by publishers.

My real issue here is what seems to be a tremendous disconnect between the professed “games are at their core a creative endeavor” espoused by Mr. Bilson at the Leadership Forum Keynote and this apparent lack of regard for the detrimental impact these decisions by THQ management would have on the individual developers who create THQ’s games. After all, the creative part of games is not some inchoate force or even derived from a few creative leads. It comes from the team of individual’s that create those games. One must wonder at the level of commitment at THQ to this philosophy of creativity ruling the process.

Of course, the death march may simply be a need to make Homefront meet the high quality standards that Danny feel he must meet in order to succeed and the inability to postpone the launch date due to financial necessities. Perhaps it will be a lesson learned and better planning and oversight of the development of games in the THQ core games division in the future may, in fact, be the result. This would be a great result for everyone working at THQ’s numerous core studios in the future; possibly a hard lesson well learned. Also, the economics involved on managing studios does often dictate decisions on studio locations. The THQ reloaction of Kaos to Montreal is only rumor at this point since the relocation decision has not yet been announced. If Homefront is a hit, it may not happen. But if it does, the impact on the Kaos will be potentially disastrous to that team and, ultimately, to the long term value of that IP.

One must wonder at these decisions and the apparent lack of regard for the well being of the individuals that are expected to make the hits essential to THQ’s desire to become a quality leader in our industry. After all, what is a creative endeavor without acknowledging the inherent value of the individuals that comprise the team that “creates?” If games are, as Danny says, a creative endeavor, then valuing the individuals that create them and protecting them from alienation and harm from corporate ignorance must be a top priority. It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds. But my concern remains. Danny, “Say it ain’t so!”

GL & HF!

Tom B

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