It is time for revolution. Walk into your local bookstore; you’ll find tens of thousands of titles. Walk into your local record store; you’ll find thousands of albums. Walk into your local software store; you’ll find perhaps 40 games.
Yet thousands of games are released each year.
The point deserves to be qualified, however. Your local bookstore and your local record store carry first run titles, second editions and every other sort of reprint, and have no qualms about stocking old titles that people still buy. The better record stores tend to carry more than a given artist’s latest album. That’s rarely the case in the computer industry. The only games that generally get a reprint–usually in a more modestly packaged value line–are blockbusters that are at most several years old. Other than that, the shelves of new games and best sellers at most two years old have very little competition for their shelf space at most retailers.
It is perhaps fitting that the manifesto is hosted on a site dedicated to preserving videogaming’s history, and sad that said site and others like it continually have to fight with the current copyright holders to preserve said history. Part of that fight arises from the fact that classic emulation sites became current-console emulation sites and crossed the line from preservation and emulation to warez, and that the copyright owners responded with a shotgun attack on emulation of all shades, but that’s a subject that deserves its own rant.
The only games that fill those 40 slots are those on which publishers have lavished millions in placement and promotion and advertising and marketing dollars. The only games that make it to the shelves are those on which publishers have advanced millions in development funding, because they know that only a handful will succeed, will ever recoup the millions or tens of millions they spend in developing and launching them, because to succeed, a game must pass through the eye of the needle, become one of the handful that make it to the shelves or to the cover of PC Games.
Which is to say it’s the victim of a aggressive maturing publishing industry. An aggressive publishing industry homogenizes, reduces the opportunity for anyone taking creative risks to take them in a public forum, and co-opts distribution chains. The process of paying retailers for shelf space and special product placement is analogous to the process of payola in the music industry. The individual DJ in any successful radio station has no say in what gets played. The playlists come from the corporate office. This is a key factor in the homogenization of musical tastes across a large nation that would otherwise–and in fact, used to–have distinct regional tastes even within existing genres. The metaphor isn’t entirely useful because software retailers, unlike radio DJs, never had pretentions of creativity to deal with. This is good for the big game publishers, as it makes co-opting the distribution chains a lot easier.
The magazine industry doesn’t fare much better on the merits of creative investigation of the industry it allegedly covers. The example the authors give is wonderful illustration of the same point. Every game in the previews section is the Most Important Game Ever. Why? Because the developers in the interview say so. Every one of them will Revolutionize the Industry. Why? Because the eye-catching blurb from one of the developers displayed prominently at the head of the article says so. To go one step deeper into this perverse unholy alliance, the only reasons developers allow this sort of exposure to their embryonic projects is another PC game magazine truism: the preview section is in-house advertising. Nothing critical of any import is ever said about a title in development. Take any game that was nearly universally reviled–I don’t want to lead the audience, so I won’t provide an example–and check it out in the prerelease previews. It was probably heralded as Important, Industry-Changing, Stunningly Innovative,
and by god, it probably even did your goddamn dishes. Of course, that’d be a good thing, as I hate washing dishes.
An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation.
A project that costs millions must have a development team to match; ten people, twenty, thirty, more. It must take years from project start to completion. It must involve so many talents, and so much labor, that no single creative vision can survive. Certainly, none can survive the clueless demands of marketing weasels and clueless executives drawn from packaged-goods industries and inexperienced external producers who think demanding unnecessary and counter-productive changes will prove their merit to their bosses.
We say: Basta! Enough! It doesn’t have to be like that.
Budgets went up for many, many reasons. FMV (Full Motion Video) is a wonderful example. Remember when FMV was being added to nearly every game in development? Most of it was wasted eye candy. It started out looking woefully artificial and candy-like, and eventually became slick and produced-looking. The acting–first voice acting, then motion capture and voice acting–was generally atrocious, and that may be too kind a description. It had a tendency to bloat game production budgets, and lended very little, if anything, to the game itself. More often than not, FMV screenshots were on the packaging covers; eye candy that told consumers next to nothing about the game itself in the place many of them were likely to look for information. The UO and UO:T2A boxes featured shots from the FMV that most players probably watched once, maybe twice if they were really impressed. Diablo II–an awfully recent entry to have as much tedious FMV as it had–was advertised on television in ad spots that consisted wholly of FMV
sequences; there wasn’t so much as a single glimpse of actual gameplay.
The oft-quoted wisdom that the gaming industry rivals the movie industry is much like the old truism about how humans only use 10% of their brain. Both are patently untrue. Science has no basis to assume that anything less than all of the normal human brain serves a useful function, and any neurologist will happily agree. They might be more hesitant if they met your typical game publishing executive. As far as videogaming goes, the “gaming is bigger than movies” is true if you only compare domestic theater grosses to all videogame grosses. Once you add the international market and the astoundingly profitable rental and home VHS and DVD sales to that number, videogaming takes on a more accurately modest stature.
Clearly, there is potential for the industry to blow itself up to cinematic proportions, and a staple technique of that concept is to throw money into lavishly extravagant budgets. Enter a floor of cubicled Photoshop jockeys, a marketing department on amphetamines with no compunctions on selling the Brooklyn Bridge, copious amounts of FMV (middle 90s) or fully 3D worlds with lighting effects that would make your typical California power company executive salivate like a hungry puppy. Good Pavlov, sit. If the miserably bad acted motion capture or FMV sequences aren’t good enough, make miserably bad acted motion capture or FMV sequences featuring highly paid Hollywood talent.
You need thirty talents to develop a game? Bullshit. Richard Garriott programmed Ultima by himself in a matter of weeks. Chris Crawford developed Balance of Power sitting by himself at his Mac. Chris Sawyer created RollerCoaster Tycoon–last year’s #1 best-selling game–almost entirely on his own.
This may be overstating the point. The top five selling videogames of 2000 were Pok\’c3\’a9mon titles. If you wish to pare down this manifesto to computer games specifically, it’s still helpful to bear in mind many derivative games that did pretty well: Deer Hunter and its innumerable sequels, Quake II and Quake III and every non-id Quakealike, several entire series–Might and Magic, the Mortal Kombat and its ilk–Final Fantasy X (over two million units shipped in Japan, and not even a US release yet), any game with Mario in it made in the last five years, the sequels to all the above games listed as innovative, and almost every hit adventure and blockbuster sports game ever made. It’s more useful to take the above and learn from it that unique and innovative games aren’t doomed to failure rather than suggesting that derivative games are risky because sadly, they’re not. Catering to the lowest common denominator
never made anyone poor, and videogames aren’t any different.
What do you need to create a game? Two people and a copy of Code Warrior.
You need millions in funding to create a great game? Garbage! As recently as 1991, the typical computer game lost less than $200,000 to develop. NetHack, still one of the best computer games ever created, was developed for nothing, by a dev team working as a labor of love, in their spare time. TreadMarks, this year’s IGF finalist, was developed by a team working for scratch and paying their groceries with the meager earnings of a little downloadable game they’d put up on their site.
What do you need to fund a game? Food stamps and enough scratch to pay the electricity bill.
Note: Food stamps don’t buy Ferraris, nor a posh rental to show up at E3 in. What used to be a fairly insular, somewhat nerdy industry has attracted people who want to be known when the open the door of a Las Vegas hotel. Programmer as Rock Star. ROMS to richesse, as it were.
The narrow retail channel forces millions in promotional expense? Then kill it. There is no shelf space on the Internet.
That may have been true, in a sense, several years ago, but it’s not true now. The payola scheme may not be as well developed on the internet, but make no mistake, it exists. Having said that, it is true that it’s easier to get around, as there are many independent game sites that don’t carry advertising, or have a strong enough watchdog of editorial policy to keep the advertising from affecting the site’s content. To quote a friend, as well as an annoying 70’s TV ad campaign, “you’re soaking in it”. There are, however, many perils: search engines that offer higher placement for a fee, web sites of magazines with no interest in covering games by organizations which–by definition–don’t have a hefty advertising budget, and web sites na\’c3\’afve enough to agree to outrageous terms for a sneak preview of a beta or development materials for an up-and-coming game.
You need hundreds of thousands in sales to recoup your costs? Yes, under the dysfunctional business model that rules today. But if you develop games the right way, the fearless way, the independent way, your costs are drastically smaller. A few thousand unit sales will pay the bills.
Death to Software, Etc.! Almost every PC in America is connected to a pipe that can carry bits. Why are we copying bits to a plastic-and-metal platter, sticking it in box full of air, and shipping it cross-country, when it is far easier, cheaper, and environmentally sensible to ship those bits down that pipe?
There was a day that box was jammed packed full of pertinent gaming materials. Some games were actually shipped with manuals that were useful to read even if you could figure out the basics of the game without it. For other games, the manual was essential. Copycat games, however, don’t require a manual. “Think Quake, but with hot dogs, fence posts, and nylon bristled hair combs”, and a keyboard command chart. Of all the standards of software distribution for console games PC game publishers have tried, they still haven’t picked up on the best one: the use of the DVD-style case for software releases that don’t require a thick manual. I should be careful for what I wish, however, as an industry-wide move to compact casing might encourage even more publishers to neglect including a manual, or to include the manual in HTML or PDF format on the CD, which is the worst of both worlds. The better solution would be to make games that have manuals when appropriate.
Death to EA and Vivendi! Your groveling to the retailers, your lack of understanding of what constitutes a game, your complete failure of aesthetic sense, your timidity in funding, your attempts to grow by choking off competitors, your inability to make developers and marketers understand each other, has led us to this pass. You are dinosaurs, your brobdignabian sloth nothing but a drag on what ought to be a field of staggering originality.
Death to Sony, Sega, and Nintendo! Your insistence on controlling every step of development, of ensuring that no product strays too far from your own blinkered twitch-game aesthetic, your absurdly high platform royalties, your gouging prices for development stations and SDKs, your boxes with the controllers wholly unsuited to a game of any depth make you irrelevant to anyone who wants to develop games of enduring merit.
Death to the gaming industry! Long live games.
We find our heroes not among rock stars, or game developers whose real desire is to direct movies, or designers who bare their breasts in the pages of Playboy. We find them among the men and women who created this industry, whose imaginative vision once sparked its rise, who developed games the way we mean to:
Chris Crawford, once vaunted as the world’s greatest game designer, now cast aside by a marketing machine that can’t figure out how to sell anything that doesn’t fit into its tedious categories.
Revisionism? Chris Crawford, once highly interested in the process and concepts of game design, burned out on making games for the same 200,000 people and moved away, consciously, from the industry, and toward work in interactive fiction. Leaving is distinct from being “cast aside”.
Dani Bunten, who understood the importance of socialization in gaming far better than the Verants and Origins of the world, with their customer-hostile policies, spurned by a bigoted industry because she was a transsexual.
She was also spurned from the industry because she was unwilling to modify her vision to include the rather brain-dead marketing driven demands of gaming publishers. Transferring all the blame on her sexual issues does an injustice to a greater appreciation of the rank stupidity of marketing staff.
Richard Garriott, the virtual inventor of the computer RPG, cast aside like a used condom by a machine that thinks it’s sucked what useful value it can find in him.
To say that someone is the “virtual” anything is to say that they are not that thing. Proper credit goes to Will Crowther (~1968) or Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman (1980), depending on what you consider a computer RPG. It may be more important to remember Richard as the inventor of the computer RPG which includes a moral element, which was a breakthrough in the genre. More to the point, Richard has also not been “cast aside” by the industry, and remains an important figure within it.
Julian Gollop, languishing in obscurity, the fruits of his own labor denied him by an industry that values trademarks more highly than talent.
While I can’t speak to his reaping of fruit, it seems disingenuous to characterize the creator of the X-COM series as obscure. If the point of this inclusion is to make issue of the fact that MicroProse is continuing the series without him, it’s useful to note that selling the rights to the titles was a decision made because he had no desire to re-create the same game over and over. That is, presumably, a good thing.
Will Wright, who somehow still manages to force his vision through despite all the obstacles the machine puts in his path.
As they did, so shall we do.
We will develop for open platforms, not proprietary consoles.
We will work in the white-hot ferment of our own imaginations, striving to produce games of enduring merit, games so fine that generations to come will point to them and say, this, this was important in the creation of the great artistic form we know as games.
We will strive for innovation over imitation, originality over the tried and true.
We will explore the enormous plasticity of what is “the game,” the fantastic flexibility of code, seeking new game styles and new approaches to the form.
We will create games we know gamers will want to play, because we ARE gamers, not MBAs or assholes from Hollywood or marketing dweebs whose last gig was selling Tide.
It’s a point worth stressing: there are indeed a lot of marketing leads and gurus who have no previous–and little current–connection to the product they peddle. It’s not unique to the gaming industry by any means, but in any industry that has an artistic basis, it seems inappropriate for publishers to lack that sort of connection. One of the results is a sense that marketing to base instincts is acceptable. If you have a poorly executed game, no amount of skin-hugging bodices on the front of the box can change what’s in the box.
We will work in small, committed teams, sharing a unified vision, striving to perfect that vision without fear, favor, or interference.
We will find our market not by bribing retailers to stock our product, but on the public Internet, reaching our audience through the excellence of our own product, through guerilla marketing and rabble-rousing manifestoes, by nurturing a community of people passionate about and committed to games.
It would be helpful to elaborate on what constitutes guerrilla marketing lest the uninitiated assume it begins and ends with making a company web page on which to sell your product. Guerrilla marketing is to advertising what guerrilla warfare is to traditional warfare: squad based if you will, unconventional, fighting dirty–in this case, against the numbing buzz of incessant production house advertising. Turn the existing advertising back on itself. Co-opt public space. Insert yourself into otherwise tightly controlled dialogs.
We will create, through sheer force of will, an independent games revolution, an audience and market and body of work that will ultimately redound to the benefit of the whole field, providing a venue for creative work, as independent cinema does for film, as independent labels do for music.
We reject the machine. We reject the retail channel. We reject big budgets and big teams. We reject $50 boxes of air. We reject end-caps and payments for shelf-space. We reject executives and producers who don’t understand what they sell. We reject timidity. We reject the notion that “we know what works,” and commit ourselves to finding NEW things that work.
We will turn this industry on its head.
Tremble, Redwood City! The forces of revolution are on the march.
First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.
WE are gamers, game makers, writers and readers of computerized media.
We think some things are deeply fucked in the game industry — no surprise, given how much is fucked in every other industry. We’ve figured it out: shareholders, corporations, managers don’t care how good a game is to make or play. They’re just looking for their return on investment to be higher than humanly possible.
We want to play good games, and we want making games to be an art, not an electronic sweatshop. This problem, also not unique to the gaming industry, is as old as Das Kapital and as new as The Matrix.
And it can and will be changed.
Marketing should be geared towards selling the game that the developers have created and not used as an extension of management. They work for you, the developer, not you for them. If they want a game with a feature list, then they should program it. If they can’t sell the game that you’ve created then fire them and find someone who can.
Therein lies the classic conflict between entertainment industry creators and their distribution chains. The programmers are making art. The management is pushing product. The compromise is often seen to be a sort of “design by committee” ethic. This is wrong-headed; committee-based design isn’t a compromise between art and product, it’s a complete rejection of the art of design. Art by royal commission rarely succeeds unless the king is willing to allow the artist freedom to work. Stay out of the driver’s seat unless you know the destination.
We reject crunch time.
It is anathema to the principles of quality for which we strive. Nobody EVER does their best work at the end of a 12-hour day. And if you’re not doing good work, then what the hell are you doing? Go home. Sleep. Play with your kids. Mow the lawn. Watch some television. Then, when you have some creative energy to give, come work.
We will declare a game done when it IS done, not when marketing says it has to be done. If it’s not done, it will suck. If it sucks, then no one will want to buy it (or even download it for free) and no one will pay attention when we release the next one.
A corollary: no one should pay for being a beta tester. Listen up, everyone — yes, even you, id software: we will do our level best to make sure the damn thing is done. If it ain’t done, it’s a beta. And those are free. If we discover something is wrong, we’ll fix it.
This of course also requires the userbase to think of a beta test as a beta test rather than a preview of the game. Previews, demos, of commercial games serve a useful purpose. It’s useful to get the buzz out, to get the users interested. It does, however, carry the requirement that the developer differentiate between a beta test and a preview or demo. If your game ships with bugs reported during the beta test, then you didn’t have a beta test, you had an advertisement. Be clear about what you’re offering.
Another corollary: our games are our responsibility. (You listening, Jason Hall, King of teh monstars?) If it’s broke, we fix it. We don’t blame it on other people, even computer and video card makers who don’t adhere to standards. If we can’t fix it, we let people know that we can’t, why we can’t… and we give them their money back if they ask.What we’re about is credibility, in a fundamental way. We’re saying that games should be created by people who play them and love them. That comes with a responsibility to create games we would want to play — and we sure as hell don’t want to play buggy, unfinished games that make our systems crash.
The original Incredible Machine was developed for $35,000, and went on to sell over 800,000 units.
The Quotable R
Someone is raking in so much dough that even Zaphod Beeblebrox, or John Romero, would blush.
As for the state of game development…I need to use an even more disturbing metaphor: The Donner Party tragedy…their journey was also doomed to fail, and in the worst imaginable ways, due to inexperience, overconfidence, bad judgment, wasted resources, in-fighting, taking short cuts and heeding what turned out to be just plain bad advice…I have come to the conclusion that if game development is going to be so blindly ignorant that it only succeeds in causing itself to relive some bizarre version of the Donner party story again and again…then it deserves whatever grim fate awaits…
There is a denial of failure pervasive in this business, from top to bottom, that defies common sense. Taking risks and failing is an important part of the creative process. Denying one’s self of this experience is to enter the realm of the mediocre.
I see a utopia for game designers, artists, writers and musicians. I see a perfect balance of freedom, lifestyle and creativity as the norm, not the goal or the exception. However, this utopia cannot arise within a system which is based upon concepts of management, marketing and product development which are uncreative, out-dated, wasteful and ineffective.
Do you want an arcade-based, shoot-’em-up, puppet-show, Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic criteria to dominate the industry? Do you want more crappy games made with assembly-line techniques by yuppie puppies in luxury sweatshops?
Remember: John Romero wants to make you his bitch.
As a matter of fact, so do about a dozen other game developers I know…
Creator’s Bill of Rights
The full version of the Creator’s Bill of Rights that Scott McCloud created in 1987 can be read by clicking here. It is very applicable to the computer game industry.
The Rights are:
1. The right to full ownership of what we fully create.
2. The right to full control over the creative execution of that which we fully own.
3. The right of approval over the reproduction and format of our creative property.
4. The right of approval over the methods by which our creative property is distributed.
5. The right to free movement of ourselves and our creative property to and from publishers.
6. The right to employ legal counsel in any and all business transactions.
7. The right to offer a proposal to more than one publisher at a time.
8. The right to prompt payment of a fair and equitable share of profits derived from all of our creative work.
9. The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.
10. The right to prompt and complete return of our artwork in its original condition.
11. The right to full control over the licensing of our creative property.
12. The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of ourselves and our creative property.
This system is incompatible with a traditional corporate model. The current model for artistic content distribution always favors the middlemen. Something not really dealt with in this document is the concept of cooperative distribution–a sort of collective bargaining institution that is formed by artists working for themselves collectively rather than an institution based on wringing from content creators a product and then selling the product with rapacious markup, paying paltry slave-wage royalties (or worse yet, an hourly/yearly slave wage in lieu of royalties), and unabashedly lying to the customer about the virtues of the product. Having made a practice of unsubstantiated hype and outrageous lies, these same middlemen should probably pause to wonder why it is the customer has to be marketed to more aggressively as time goes by.
The Scratchware Manifesto
Phase Two: Know Your Enemy
Power And Money In The Game Industry
What is wrong with the game industry? Why do games come out buggy, why do good game companies go under, why are the games we play today just like the games we played 5 years ago, with better graphics? To understand why this is so, and to understand what we can do to change it will require an understanding of how power and money flow in the game industry.
The game industry is first and foremost an industry like many others in the world. They call it the new economy, as if it is in some way fundamentally different than what has gone before. Is it? Hell, no. When you get right down to it, the industry as a whole is populated by economic players (corporations) headed by people who are doing all they can to make money for themselves and another group of people (the stockholders), while getting as much money as they can from the customers, and paying as little money as possible to the people making the games.
The corollary to this should be obvious: the only message you can send to corporations about their products is a message you send with money or its lack. You complain all you want on messageboards about how the game you’re looking forward to has been seriously scaled back for some artificial deadline necessitated by a fourth quarter release, but buy it anyway? Allow me to translate the message you’re sending to that corporation: “Keep up the good work, guys!” Stockholders don’t listen for any message other than the message you send by buying their products, or not buying their products. If there’s no correlation to public user feedback on web sites and sales, industry analysts–and therefore the corporations in that industry–will ignore user feedback.
The Vampires Of Wall Street
If the economic and political world were a first-person shooter, it would be infested by the undead. That\’e2\’80\’99s right, the world is controlled by a bunch of vampires. Ever wonder why Exxon, Microsoft, Monsanto and all their buddies run so many commercials on how great they are? That\’e2\’80\’99s because they have to hide the truth to us. Vampires control the world, in the form of corporations.
What are the characteristics of vampires? Well, they\’e2\’80\’99re immortal. Strangely enough, a corporation can live forever, too. Morgan Bank, Ford Motors, and General Electric – they can go on and on and on. Another characteristic of vampires? They live by sucking blood. You know the feeling you get when you boot up a new game and it crashes five times in the first 15 minutes? That\’e2\’80\’99s your blood being sucked. The corporation exists for one reason only (and don\’e2\’80\’99t let them tell you otherwise) – to make as much money as it possibly can. It\’e2\’80\’99s like we\’e2\’80\’99re cattle, kept alive for the greedy bloodsuckers to get as much profit as they can out of us. (They treat the Earth the same way, too – ever seen a clear-cut forest? Corporate vampires in action!) Vampires are notoriously hard to kill, and so are corporations. Exxon spilled oil all over
Alaska – but it\’e2\’80\’99s still going. Union Carbide killed thousands in Bhopal, India, but it\’e2\’80\’99s still trucking. You can try and sue a corporation, but they have millions of dollars and thousands of lawyers to make sure their evil undead masters remain in control. Bridgestone/Firestone made a bunch of shitty tires, which killed a whole bunch of people in their SUVs. They might get in some trouble, but you can be sure that the corporation will go on. (An interesting fact: many of the faulty tires were made in the Decatur Illinois plant, where the regular workers were on strike. The tires were made by \’e2\’80\’98replacement workers\’e2\’80\’99, also known as scabs. Vampires and scabs? Some coincidence.) Vampires also have nests; usually the basement of some dusty castle. The vampires who run America have a nest, too, but
theirs is called Wall Street. Vampires have a dark charisma; corporations spend billions on advertising.
If this sounds flagrantly un-American to you, you’re probably one of the millions of people who think that corporatism is the ‘American’ system. Democracy is the American system, and an economic model that puts an extraordinary amount of power–not just economic, but political–in the hands of the elite few is inherently undemocratic. The knee-jerk reaction to this sentiment is to assume that the person expressing it is some sort of radical communist. In fact, the icon I made for this story is a tongue-in-cheek reference to this reaction. This assumption would, however, be inaccurate. It belies a presumption that the only choices for an economic-political system are either extreme radical social totalitarianism (Soviet style communism) or a no-holds-barred extreme radical corporate free market anarchy (American style corporate state). There are many other choices between these two extremes, and one of the best–and most American–is actual democracy.
Benjamin Franklin The Vampire Slayer
The founding fathers of the US were an interesting bunch; some of them were into some strange things. Many were members of secret societies, with hidden knowledge and rituals. You think the eye in the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill doesn\’e2\’80\’99t have some hidden meaning? Right. These people knew of the evil arcane power of the vampire-corporation; the British controlled the colonies with a few huge and powerful corporations. After the Revolution, they let corporations exist, but they reserved the right to plunge a stake into their hearts at any time. For the first 100 years of the US, corporations were highly limited. But they were plotting and planning their release. They got their big break during the Civil War. At the same time that black folks were getting freed from slavery, the vampires of Wall Street were slipping their bonds, setting up a slave system for all of us. In 1872, they convinced the Supreme Court that corporations had all the rights of a person. And that\’e2\’80\’99s what we have today; America Inc.,
a wholly owned subsidiary of GlobalCapitalists\’e2\’80\’99R\’e2\’80\’99Us.
This may be seen as overstating the point, but it isn’t. In fact, the point can’t be stressed enough. It’s the fundamental lie which keeps even the most socially irresponsible of corporations extant: the Corporation as Person. It’s a legal fiction, and a damning one to entrepeneurialism, let alone democracy.
We Are All Renfield
They\’e2\’80\’99re crafty, these undead princes. Most people rely on them for a paycheck. They have created this hierarchy of slaves; from the zombies at the bottom to the cherished and pampered few at the top. They love dangling carrots, almost impossibly high. There are a lot of carrots in the computer industry right now – you too could be a dot-com millionaire! At the same time, the shortage of skilled computer workers has them trying to ship in people from abroad with the H1-B visa proposals. Now, there\’e2\’80\’99s nothing wrong with an Indian, Thai, Finn, or German wanting good work; remember, they\’e2\’80\’99re vampire-food too, but these visas tie these workers to the companies that hire them, which results in more company control. And the wage rates for all computer workers go down.
Which is, of course, exactly the point. The H1-B visa proposals serve many purposes for the corporations shilling for them. It gives them lower-paid workers which they can control under the fear of deportation. The sponsoring corporation doesn’t have to worry about H1-B visa employees doing anything corporately worrisome like joining a union, filing any sort of grievance, or voting with their feet to find another employer. It’s preferable to these corporations to actually hiring Americans at the industry standard wage rates, it’s preferable to keeping on older employees who may swiftly be approaching a pay raise, becoming fully vested, or nearing eligibility for an expensive retirement package.
While they\’e2\’80\’99re crafty, they\’e2\’80\’99re also stupid. You\’e2\’80\’99d think immortals would have a longer outlook, but the rules of their nest – sorry, Wall Street – have caused them to focus more and more on quarterly returns. Ever wonder why some buggy game got rushed out for a Christmas release? Fourth-quarter profits, friend!
So the computer game industry is getting caught up more and more in a blood-sucking scam. Venture (vampire?) capitalists make sure everyone knows what side the bread is buttered on. The large amount of blood – sorry, capital – that is required to make a game nowadays mean more and more of the small development shops are being forced out or forced into \’e2\’80\’98partnerships\’e2\’80\’99 with big corporations. At the same time, working conditions in the industry are getting worse. Crunch time (crunch, like the sound Renfield makes biting into the carapace of a tasty bug?) seems to be more and more common, and to go on longer and longer. Descriptions of crunch seem to have a lot in common with the kinds of work practices you find south of the border. Here\’e2\’80\’99s one from Ion Storm Dallas, as reported in Salon (link: How do game developers hack it?). It’s rife with ‘I love my vampire masters’ baloney.
Since Daikatana’s inception, elite and obsessive gamers have road-tripped from around the world to work with their hero, Romero. They’ve quit school, left relationships and literally built beds under their desks to live and breathe nearly every breath in the house Romero built. Their commitment to a self-described “death schedule” — the final, endless rush to perfect their game — isn’t just some start-up novelty, it’s a way of life.
The commitment of a Mexican maquiladora worker to their imposed ‘death schedule’ isn’t a choice — it’s a hard economic decision in a poor country.
One of the differences is that many employees in these programming jobs are starry-eyed, thoroughly enjoy their craft, and/or are willing to make severe personal sacrifice to be involved in a profession they’ve been enamored with ever since they played The Bard’s Tale on a Commodore 64. This makes them even easier to manipulate than mere economic self-interest alone can. All the ‘cool’ companies do it, and the ‘cooler’ they are, the more they do it.
The first 14 hours are always the easiest.
“Aaaaarrggggggggh!” Shawn Green screams as he thrashes his computer keyboard against the ground. It’s midnight in the coders cove of Ion Storm and the cubes are as dark as the city below outside. Green, a stocky, long-haired programmer in a paunchy black T-shirt, hunches like an ape at the beginning of “2001” and whacks keys across the floor like loose teeth.
A skinny programmer stretches his neck out of a nearby cube to observe the tantrum, then nonchalantly returns to his work. Green brushes the hair from his face as a smile creeps across it. “Nothing like a little stress relief,” he says, tossing the battered keyboard down the hall.
Nothing like a little violent behavior induced by an insane schedule. This is Texas — will the next step be to grab a handgun and whack loose teeth across the floor after trying to eat a bullet?
Not that this anger transference is new. The darling of many avowedly liberal digerati, Apple, was masterful at anger transference as a tool to squeeze merciless amounts of office hours out of people by making the competition, rather than the management forcing these schedules on them, the enemy. Bash the keyboard and take one for the team. Management’s right behind you. Great job, maybe they’ll get some more Jolt Cola in the fridge for you so you can make your next all-nighter even longer.
Green, the 28-year-old lead coder on Daikatana and a veteran of id Software, is 14 hours into one more 18-hour day. In a few minutes, he’ll take his first and only break, heading off to an abandoned abortion clinic to practice with his doom-metal band, Last Chapter…
The great thing is, if people in the industry were paid hourly, crunch time would be a clear violation of even the miserable US labor laws. Mmmmm\’e2\’80\’a6 I love working 18 hours with one break. Sign me up, oh dark lords of capitalism!
Everyone teeters on the brink of self-destruction during crunch mode, the ruthless death schedule that comes during these final months of production.
That’s got to be healthy!
The sheer relentlessness of crunch mode, Romero insists, is the only way to make sure everything gets covered.
The sheer relentlessness of global competition, sweatshop managers insist, is the only way to survive. Back to work, lazy sheep!
To hack it, survivors like Green have transformed crunch into their high-tech frat’s equivalent of hazing — the upperclassmen being the machines, and the pledges, the humans who serve them\’e2\’80\’a6 Brian Eiserloh, a bushy, 29-year-old coder who goes by the nickname Squirrel, set the office record for spending 85 out of 90 days without going home. “You can get an amazing amount of work done,” he enthuses via e-mail. “I thrive under [short bursts] of pressure.” The thing is, Daikatana turned out to be a long burst.
They get longer and longer. And soon enough, they become the expectation. This is called ‘reduced expectations’, baas and moos, and it’s one of the favorite tools of the vampire.
And this one has to be the crowning glory. We’re so much better in the US than in other parts of the world. There, you have other people forcing you to work in unlit, unventilated workplaces for 18 hours day in and day out. Here, we get people to convince themselves to do it voluntarily. Aren’t we so superior?
Many of these same companies have turned a blind eye to excessive in-office abuse of amphetamines and other stimulants. That on top of ridiculous working hours produces a sleep deprived staff filled with junkies, broken marriages, socially inept outcasts, and generally thoroughly used people. The idea is that these are the people most likely to produce good work. Even if this were true, it would be morally indefensible. Excessive adulation of free-market capitalism has all sorts of solutions that are morally indefensible. Many of these workers are prone to back and tendon disorders that were the primary concern of those pushing for enactment of ergonomic regulations. Predictably, these regulations were fought by the management of the businesses whose workers needed this protection the most. The fact that our current and previous presidents had no use for anything that impedes the interests of business ensured that the legislation would be passed so late by one that the other could repeal it. Neither would recognize
an ethical issue if it landed in their coffee cup.
Now Ion Storm’s 31 game developers don’t just work in the shade, they work in the black. To get into their cubes, they part felt\’e2\’80\’a6 It was a fairly awesome and ironic sight as I wandered through the glass-domed gamers’ haven last October. All I saw were rows of caves. And of these caves, Weasl’s was the darkest.
“I call myself a mushroom,” Weasl told me as I crouched inside, “because I’m always working in the dark.” With a couple extra layers of felt draping his cube, there’s not even the slightest trace of light, let alone fresh air. But Weas\’e2\’80\’a6 doesn’t seem to mind. “Darkness is really helpful when you’re trying to shut out outside influences,” he explains, tweaking an animated pool of lava on his screen. “After you spend enough time in here, your personality adapts.”
After you beat a child repeatedly, it’s personality adapts, too.
In an ethical company, this behavior would be seen as wholly physically and mentally unhealthy, unsanitary, and dangerous to him and very possibly, his coworkers. Under a reasonable system of ergonomic standards, this would be one step removed from the horror stories that emerge from the meat packing industry. In this industry, however, it’s seen as some sort of twisted gnomic badge of honor. Weasl needs a job, but does he need a job where he is encouraged to dehumanize himself in the process?
Luke “Weasl” Whiteside is the newest level designer to join the Daikatana team and, in a way, the most enigmatic. Since he came to the company just a few months before my visit, Weasl managed to miss out on Ion Storm’s tempestuous back story. He’s still so awed to be working here that sometimes he doesn’t leave. Underneath his desk there’s a pillow. On some nights, he hunkers down below his computer, munches some M&M’s and goes to sleep. For Romero, who dreamed of populating a company with gamers as intense as himself, Weasl is as hardcore as it gets.
Sounds like poor Weasl is suffering from a case of vampiric possession. Concentration camp victims identified with their oppressors, too. Not to say that the much (and probably accurately) maligned Ion Storm is the only company where this happens — no, not at all. It’s all over. Doesn’t that make you feel better about the games you buy? It\’e2\’80\’99s a good thing that CDs don’t carry bloodstains well.
Slash And Burn Development
So the companies are getting more work out of people under worse conditions, and making them like it. At the same time, they are increasing their control over the fruits of worker\’e2\’80\’99s labor. When you say it like this, it sounds great: \’e2\’80\’98Intellectual Property Rights\’e2\’80\’99. Who could complain about people having control over their own work? Well, brothers and sisters, it\’e2\’80\’99s not the worker who has the control, it\’e2\’80\’99s the undead. Work for hire contracts leave computer creative workers with no rights whatsoever. Further, there are many games that get lost in the mad scramble for guaranteed profits. The industry is littered with the corpses of games that had funding pulled at some point. And who owns that work? The corporations. So thousands on thousands of hours of work have disappeared into the secret vaults of the demon princes.
The wrecking swath of the marketing juggernaut has no appreciation for anything but the most heavily hyped products of the week. Not only are the single-player products of yesteryear at risk–including those products which have no commercial value anymore–the online products are in equal jeopardy. As has been demonstrated several times in the last few years, companies with total control of their former employees intellectual property would rather consign that property to the junk bin than give it away or even sell it for a nominal fee for the customers, the fans, to continue to enjoy.
An Unholy Alliance
How does something this wasteful and evil manage to keep going? One way is through good-old-fashioned anti-competitive marketing strategies. Why is it that every game in the world has to retail for $55.00 when it comes out? Well, the vampire lords of the gaming industry have made a pact with the vampire lords of the distribution giants to make it so. And the lackeys of the computer gaming press, both online and in print, keep up the scam. The computer hardware masters don\’e2\’80\’99t mind either, as these games are pushing bigger and better hardware sales. And the Demon King of the computer world, Microsoft, does it\’e2\’80\’99s part too.
Again, another form of digital payola. When the retailer doesn’t have any interest in the product, don’t expect much attention to detail, or shelf space for those games without a multi-million dollar marketing budget. They’ll sell you software, but they’d be just as happy to sell you a television or a toaster. It’s all generic product to them.
And let\’e2\’80\’99s not forget the \’e2\’80\’98keep the cattle in line\’e2\’80\’99 strategies. The dark masters of our industry are well aware that they are outnumbered, both in the workplace and in the gamer community. They have used the time-honored methods of divide and conquer, baffle them with bull, and keep them in the dark and feed them shit. The most common way people have fought for their rights as workers is to organize themselves, often into unions. Well, unions have been on the butt end of a bad-PR campaign that has gone on since the 1930s. Certainly these warriors of the new economy wouldn\’e2\’80\’99t want to take part in something as stinky as a union. We\’e2\’80\’99re Game Professionals, not autoworkers!
Another problem with the image of unions is that several of the more powerful unions have adopted a method of operation which can best be described as corporate. This is a shame, because as mentioned before, the only message the stockholders and upper management understand are messages which involve money. A union of workers acting collectively can send a very decisive message. That is, they can if our supposedly elected representatives don’t interfere on behalf of powerful business lobbies, as they’ve been consistently wont to do since the 70s, regardless of administration.
The Sun Is Rising
Our vampire overlords don\’e2\’80\’99t do too well when the sunlight of truth is shined upon them by well-educated workers and gamers. You can see signs of the rising sun all over. Microsoft\’e2\’80\’99s operating system monopoly was one of the forces that has helped the LINUX movement to grow. LINUX is deadly to vampires, because it works directly against one of their main sources of control – copyright of software. Without that, the cattle can slip out of the pasture, grow horns, and do all sorts of dangerous things. The whole open-source movement draws many people who are tired of the way the corporations do things. Another great anti-vampire example is Napster, and the other MP3 swapping schemes. People are really tired of vampire radio, vampire music companies, and vampire CD stores. The Indymedia movement is another example of resistance to the reign of the undead, particularly in their control of the media (baffle
them with bull, keep them in the dark). Alternative forms of organization abound on the Internet, from everything to internet collectives (www.tao.ca) to Quake clans. Some of these are aware of their dark bondage, some are not.
Putting A Stake Into The Heart Of The Game Industry
Our vampire masters know their rule is precarious. Resistance is growing, from the Seattle uprising against the WTO to this manifesto. The corporate hold over our \’e2\’80\’98democratic\’e2\’80\’99 politics is slipping. There is a simple, three point plan that can take these guys out.
First, we need to pull the blinders off our eyes. Wake up. Games don\’e2\’80\’99t have to be shitty and buggy, working on games doesn\’e2\’80\’99t have to be some equivalent of slavery. We need to get mad and get active.
Second, we need to educate ourselves on the real story in our industry. Look for alternative sources of media. If you get the feeling that someone is trying to bullshit you when you read some news story, you\’e2\’80\’99re probably right. Find out the truth.
Third, we need to organize. This is what makes them tremble – that the cattle and the sheep are getting together. We need to take direct actions to change things. We need to organize ourselves into a new industry, find new channels, and use our economic power as buyers and our labor strength as workers. We need to get out from under the thumb of the corporations, either by tearing them down or by making them obsolete.
This strategy requires consumers to make informed choices rather than market-driven choices:
Feel free not to be the first one of your friends not to buy a particular game because it’s been at the receiving end of a deafening campaign of hype two years before hitting a shelf.
If you’re interested in a game, but unsure of whether or not it lives up to the hype, download a demo, and if there is no demo, demand one on future products, and take it upon yourself to play the game through other means. This too comes with an obligation – try before you buy, but buy it if it proves worthwhile.
Don’t, under any circumstances, pre-order. Pre-ordering upcoming titles advertises to a bloodthirsty industry that you have absolutely no intention of exercising any sort of quality discrimination. Pre-ordering is you shouting to these companies “I don’t care what you put in this box, I want it!“. That does damage to any hope of quality control in an industry which desperately requires it.
New Model Utopia
Picture if you will, a time when we don\’e2\’80\’99t have to rely on our vampire overlords for our gaming or our game-making. Game development teams are small groups that share all the proceeds from their work and have control over it and ownership of it. Games are not bought in the mega-stores, but off the Internet or from your local independent game-download outlet. Games do not all cost 50 bucks – some cost 30, others 10, some are free for the first chapter and then 50 cents per chapter download. We have games about everything, from worker\’e2\’80\’99s revolution and women\’e2\’80\’99s rights to raves and pagan rituals to shooters and citybuilders. Faced with real competition, the current big players can no longer get away with releasing buggy product that\’e2\’80\’99s just a rehash of last year\’e2\’80\’99s hit title. We can do it, if we get mad enough, educated enough, and organized enough.
What do you want to overthrow today?