April 2009

Well, I Been Workin’ In The Pixel Mine, Goin’ Down Down, Workin’ In The Pixel Mine, Whew! About To Slip Down!

Apparently GDC was the spot for all sorts of well-mannered discourse – as seen on Greg Costikyan’s blog (via Zen of Design), a studio head at Epic Games declared that there were no EA spouses there!

Mike Capps, head of Epic, and a former member of the board of directors of the International Game Developers Association, during the IGDA Leadership Forum in late 08, spoke at a panel entitled Studio Heads on the Hot Seat, in which, among other things, he claimed that working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.


Now, of course, the idea that a studio head, which Capps is, would have such notions is highly plausible; but he was, at the time, a board member of the IGDA, an organization the ostensible purpose of which is to support game developers. Not, you know, to support management dickheads.

To be fair, some game developers are also management dickheads! That being said, this taps into quite a bit of pre-existing discussion, both about the IGDA and whether or not it’s actually of any relevancy at all (Adam Martin and Darius Kazemi both have had a few things to say about that) and the long-running discussion over whether long overtime (“crunch”) is a workable model for game development.


My views on the former are simple: meh. My views on the latter are also pretty simple.

Crunch doesn’t work. You simply don’t gain more productivity by applying a 1.5 multiplier to everyone’s work hours. More likely, you start to introduce failure into the system as people get sloppy and careless as a best case scenario, and as a worst case scenario people start to flip you the virtual finger and spend their hours at their cubicle playing World of Warcraft instead. (I’ve seen both.)  This is not a problem unique to game development, and there have been literally hundreds of studies that show that the productivity gained from crunching is minimal at best. It should be noted that the management consultant who originally came up with the 40 hour work week was Henry Ford, who was anything but a soft humanist.

Quality of Life is a choice. I’ve been lucky in my game development career to work on teams (Mythic, our team at NCsoft, Webwars, and my current Player To Be Named Later) which agree that part of keeping the best team members is in offering a work environment conducive to, well, being a well-rounded human being. I, and my peers, are older now. We have families, friends, and lives outside of work, and that helps shape who we are. Effective managers understand this. Ineffective managers don’t ship good games.

60 hour work weeks usually aren’t. Although there are exceptions (such as the weeks before a milestone or a big demo or if your entire production timeline has fallen apart) generally keeping people in the office for their waking hours does not mean they are actually working. What you are doing is instead creating a very efficient subculture of slacking. People will watch online videos, post to their blogs about how abused they are for never leaving the office, killing each other in this week’s shooter of choice, and have a Naxx raid going on the other monitor. Some companies fight back by aggressive firewalling and system monitoring. Those companies find out how easy it is to bypass those systems. If you treat your employees like enemy children, you’ll find that they can throw a lot of stones at you.

Note to the game industry: the economy collapsed. Maybe I’m pointing out the extreme obvious here, but this is not a good time to go on a tear about working conditions given that there are quite a few of out-of-work people quite willing to put up with whatever horrible pixel mine conditions exist, over and above the usual “holy-crap-I-can-work-on-games-and-come-to-work-at-10” college kid talent intake, thank you very much. Of course from an ethical standpoint, that shouldn’t matter. Yes. And from an ethical standpoint unicorns have pretty flowers in their manes, and that’s about as relevant and realistic. You pick your battlegrounds, and this isn’t a terribly good one.

Internet Griefing

Sadly, the biggest story to hit Austin yesterday wasn’t an April Fool’s joke – Time Warner, the local cable provider, announced that tiered pricing and bandwidth caps would be coming into effect virtually immediately, for Austin/San Antonio TX, Rochester NY, and Greensboro NC. It’s no coincidence whatsoever that all of these markets are effectively Time Warner monopolies (AT&T just ran U-Verse, which is essentially DSL that can run at cablemodem-equivalent speeds, to our neighborhood last month, in what now seems spectacularly good timing). That sound you hear is everyone dumping Time Warner in Austin for anything remotely approaching internet service… U-Verse, Grande, DSL, carrier pigeon, whatever. Interestingly, J. talked to someone at Time Warner who insisted that Business Week was liars liars pants on fire. Guess they didn’t get the memo from their CEO.

By charging a premium to the heaviest broadband users, much the same way cell-phone providers collect fees from subscribers who exceed their allotted minutes, Time Warner would upend a longstanding pricing strategy among Internet service providers. Typically, phone and cable companies charge flat fees for unlimited access to the Web. “We need a viable model to be able to support the infrastructure of the broadband business,” Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt says in an interview. “We made a mistake early on by not defining our business based on the consumption dimension.”

Which is more than a little ironic, given that the now parent company of Time Warner gave up “defining their business based on the consumption dimension” in 1996. Clearly, a lot changed in 13 years! What could it be?

Well, the announced bandwidth surcharges ($1 per gig over the limit) hold a clue to that. They are ridiculously punitive – the hosting company that I use for this blog charges me less than 10% of that. I guess those bits cost a lot more when you use them at home. Or, more to the point, if you use more than Time Warner’s top-end cap of 40GB a month, or the probably  ridiculously priced supersize option of 100GB a month, or the literally ridiculous budget cap of 5GB a month – Time Warner (and other ISPs) literally do not want you as a customer. You cost them money, because you actually use what you buy. One of the longest running dark jokes among MMO live teams is that MMO publishers would make money by simply banning everyone who logged in. Once you filtered out the customers that actually *played*, your support costs of the remaining people who rarely check credit card statements would drop dramatically! Except with ISPs, it’s not dark comedy – it’s a business model.

So let’s look at typical use cases.

The MMO Player – you don’t watch much online video (unless it’s raiding strategies), you don’t download games or video, you simply play – oh, just to pick a random example, World of Warcraft AND NOTHING ELSE. The good news is that most of the proposed bandwidth caps won’t affect you, because MMO networking is written in such a way that the game is theoretically playable over a dialup modem (though this becomes more and more theoretical a proposition as time passes). So, a good reasonable estimate is that, playing WoW (or Call of Duty 4, or any other online game) 20 hours a week, you’d use about 700 MB in bandwidth. Add in Ventrilo (which is also optimized for bandwidth usage) and the occasional Youtube rickroll and you’re probably at around 2 GB a month of bandwidth usage. Congratulations! Time Warner likes you. You’re well behaved. You’re also an outlier, because outside of online gaming, almost no one uses that little bandwidth any more. And truth be told, how many MMO players do YOU know that JUST play MMOs? Be honest, you have those Naruto torrents running, don’t you.

The Entertained – you play the occasional online game, but mainly your time online is spent watching yesterday’s Daily Show snippets and the occasional program on Hulu. Well, you’re in trouble, because that whole reason you got a cablemodem to begin with – the ability to watch streaming video in something approaching high definition – will break your bandwidth bank. About 7 hours a week of online video will break the 40GB limit.

The Steam Customer – oh, you’re so, so screwed. The last game I bought from Steam – Empire: Total War – weighs in at 14.8 GB. Most AAA games today are of a similar download size. Gamestop is dancing in their used tennis shoes, because online game purchases just quit being cost-effective.

Bill Harris has a piece on his blog on what this is really all about. Money. And not even yours, really.

When in doubt, look for the deep pockets, and in this case, those pockets belong to the content providers. Video-on-demand has absolutely EXPLODED in the last two years, and new services seem to get added daily. Content providers are stampeding to get all of their content online and watchable on demand.

Particularly interesting is ESPN360, which offers an incredible amount of content, both live and via replay. Well, maybe:
ESPN360.com is available at no charge to fans who receive their high-speed internet connection from an ESPN360.com affiliated internet service provider. ESPN360.com is also available to fans that access the internet from U.S. college campuses and U.S. military bases.

Hmm. So if my ISP isn’t an “affiliate,” how do I get access?
Switch to an ESPN360.com affiliated internet service provider or to contact your internet service provider and request ESPN360.com.

Oh, and guess what–Time Warner, among others, isn’t an affiliate.

Oh, yes–it’s war.

I think Time Warner has very little interest in us. What they’re interested in is getting money from content providers who are now finding that on-demand video can be very profitable.

This is, of couse, similar to Time Warner (and every other cable company) charging its broadcasters as a business model. Why should the Internet be different? Why indeed. Like Bill Harris, I look forward to the blowback as Time Warner discovers exactly how many ways Austin is a connected town (hint: it’s not just Internet cabling). Because the alternative is fairly grim: the end of the Internet as a content delivery system.

April Fool’s Damage

Funniest: City of Heroes wins, hands down, but I’m old-school and biased.

Almost Most Disturbing: World of Warcraft forums translates each and every post into Blizzard’s vision of roleplaying.

Not A Joke But Should Be: If you live in Austin, hope you switched off of Time Warner! (UVerse worked well for us after the first few days’ jitters.)

Most Disturbing: after a hailstorm damaged my front windshield, someone thought it’d be funny to knock out an entirely unrelated window of my car three days later. Thanks, humanity.