Game Unionization

Every few years this topic comes up and I always have a hard time collecting my thoughts around it.  So rather than collect my thoughts I’ll just do a raw dump and see what it all comes out as:
Unionization to me is a scary topic.  Typically it happens in an environment where the workers are oppressed (gaming, check), there is an imbalance of reward (gaming, check) and they workers are easily replaced (gaming, no check).  What we are seeing is a further constriction of the console and PC gaming space.  When I started in the industry the top 200 titles a year made a decent return.  The market was smaller, but the costs were a lot lower as well.  In the last few years things have advanced very fast to the top 20-30 titles making money and the rest either breaking even or losing big.  The problem is due to a few issues:
  1. The crazy cost of development – When you have to roll $30 million into a game when you already have an engine, there isn’t a lot of room for failure
  2. The crazy cost ..  I did this already, but the freedom to innovate just got flushed down the toilet with the high cost.  VP’s of this and that don’t want to be the guy who get scapegoated and fired when a risky title tanks.  Much easier to make modern era shooter 12 and call it a day
  3. Casual games.  – Some people who used to play console and PC have given up and are just playing casual stuff.  A lot of potential new gamer blood hasn’t started on console and PC because they hit Facebook first.  I hope *.ville is the training wheels and pretty soon people will be ready for more, but the exploitative nature of these games makes me concerned we may lose potential customers as they exit gaming all together.
  4. Fat – Face it, Industries get fat over the years.  Some companies get fat, have a heart attack and just die.  Others get fat, and get into a treadmill of exploitation to survive.  Any company gains mass over the years as you add people and process.
Ok, so I’m way the hell off track here.
In my opinion, unions block the healthy cycle of creative people and replaces it with a widget fits slot methodology.  I think developers need to be better business people and we need to change the default funding model, not bring in unions.   Look at the budget of a triple A Hollywood title.  You bring unions and the overhead they bring to the gaming space and we’ll be hitting those budget levels in no time flat.  Which to me would kill any slight innovation remaining in the space.

Technology vs Product companies

Apple is not a technology company. Sounds crazy doesnt it? My hypothesis is that Apple has become a product company and as such is oriented around different priorities than other technology firms.

Ive been in game development for 15 years and Ive seen a wide variety of game products created and some were true products, while others were more technology showcases. Technology is seductive. Technology is excessively seductive to software developers. Good technology offers a chance to show your naked ability, almost a billboard for your skills. As a result, technology development can be somewhat masturbatory in nature and gone too far can lead to disaster.

During my career at Bioware we had a term for technology gone awry, we called it Cathedral Building. What happens is the developer focus shifts from developing a solution to a problem to developing a beautiful bit of code or architecture for a system. The end result isnt a solution to a problem, the result is usually overcomplexity and a poor user experience. What does any of this have to do with Apple, you ask? Well, unlike most technology companies, where the means sometimes becomes the purpose, Apple is able to keep the true target in focus and create great products and not great code.

Im not an Apple fanboy, in fact I was a hardcore PC guy for the last 20 years. Im starting to become an Apple fan, not because of the cult of Steve, but because they make some good products, they concentrate on the user experience.

Im a fan of Google, but I can see the differences in the software. Google is a technology company who happens to make products. They dont follow through A-Z in the same way Apple does on user experience and polish. Id argue that Google has become obsessed with everything in a browser even when it doesnt make sense. They are pursuing the technology, not the problem. Now, Im a user of Gmail and Google docs and I think these are great products (free helps a lot). These make sense in the current connected world, where collaboration is a requirement. Some of the newer initiatives seem off track and seem to ignore some truths. We are in an era of unprecedented processing power at our fingertips. My iPhone has more power than most of the computers I developed games on over the years. To me it makes a ton of sense to use that local processing power as much as possible. That power can be used to deliver consistent, quality user experiences. To push everything into a browser (which to me feels like a sub-OS) ignores the quality you can deliver by leveraging all that local power. As a developer I also want to optimally use every pixel on the screen for my software, especially on the smaller mobile screens, A browser does not let me do this and in fact forces a number of unpleasant concessions on my software, limited my ability to deliver a quality experience. Technology is a means, not the end.

The major technology company offender Ive seen lately has been Microsoft. Ive used Microsoft products since I started using PCs and Ive always had a love/hate relationship with the software. Ive lost count of how many times Ive wanted to administer a virtual punch to some Microsoft developer for some haywire feature. MS has been focused on platform and software justification for a long time now. Rather than creating the best solution for problems they look for problems that the platform they have can help with. The end result is often a square peg in a round hole, like all the tablet computers MS has built over the years. They also lack an ability to turn a new concept into reality. Take Microsoft surface. When it was first shown, it blew a ton of people away, but, where is it? Why couldnt I have a surface based PC years ago? Id argue it didnt fit with the MS goals of pushing the platform and software so they didnt fast track it to market.

I recently read an article calling for the death of Microsoft in the Globe and Mail. I think it is sensationalist, but they are somewhat correct in the assessment of an inability to innovate at the company. Theyve lost focus on the user experience.

So, since this is my blog and Im allowed to ramble, Ill end this discussion on technology vs product. Apple is doing some things well right now by focusing on the typical user experience and the product. Google is doing quite good, but I think is at risk of getting lost in the technology. As for Microsoft, I personally know some smart people who work there and the problem isnt in the trenches. The problem is leadership and vision, or rather lack of both. Without a clear focus from the top on the user and the product you have a rudderless technology company. In summation, product and user experience is what technology development is about, not just technology development for its own sake.