A Game Industry Primer – Part 1

Recently I had occasion to be in LA for interviews (which is why this blog has been so sparse recently) and I also had occasion to have dinner with a bunch of Media People – TV, Movies, Books, Script Writing, even *gasp* Actors. And what a fascinating evening it was too.

Much was learned on my part about the machinations of the Media Industry *outside* of the bits Video Games touch – but what was also learned what that in turn quite a lot of the Movie / TV / Book industry don’t really know how Our industry works either. There is a lot of disbelief that someone pitching an idea to our industry usually doesn’t get to own the result, or even get it to first base without a complete team behind it.

So, after chatting with my friend Dave T, I decided on writing a bunch of primer articles in my blog that will – hopefully – pull back the curtains a bit on how our industry works and maybe clue in Trans Media people about why people in the games industry behave the way they do.

So there will be several parts to this, starting with a Glossary of Terms that mean very different things in the games industry than in the Movie / TV industry.

We’ll move into pitching and then into production, hopefully with some clarification about what the infrastructure is.

Any questions, drop me a line.

So onwards. A very basic Movie Directed Glossary.

The Producer.
Ahh, the Producer. How different it is in the games industry. The producer is responsible for daily development and guidance of the product. They don’t design the product (and it’s important that this point is made clear) – they don’t tell people *what* to make (beyond setting demographic information and constraints – for example they can say “We are making a 3rd person Action Adventure game aimed at the 12-20 male demographic, we have 2 years and 12 million dollars to make it and it has to be built on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC platforms”, but they don’t say “The main character has to be a woman with long green hair who is schizophrenic”. The details of the design come from the design group, not producers.), they implement it being made.

Basically a producer (and there are usually quite a lot on a video game) are enablers and trackers. They track that the game is being developed correctly and that the team isn’t going off the rails developing something they can’t sell.

They will make decisions when the combination of Art, Design and Engineering can’t agree, but generally they stay out of that position. Producers provide the framework and over-arching direction of game development but Do Not design the game.

Now you Do Not get a producer credit on a game WITHOUT being intimately involved in it. You don’t get a producer credit for just providing financing, or because you negotiate it. You only get it if you actually ARE a producer.

In Movie / TV terms producers are really like a mix between Show Runners and Directors / AD’s. Very hands on guiding the product day to day.

Executive Producer
There’s only one of those on almost all projects and he’s the guy who carries the major responsibility for delivering the game. This is the ultimate decision maker for the Big Decisions – the signing of game engine licenses and so on. Again, you only get this by being able to walk the walk. There’s only one and it’s not a negotiated credit.

This, in video game terms, is far less of a “must have” than in the movie / TV world. The video games industry is much smaller and everyone knows each other and most have a good idea of who did what. Credits are a big variable – each company does it differently. Valve, for instance, just lists the entire company alphabetically. Most companies won’t list you if you leave before the product ships, and even if they do what the actual credits mean are different for shops / game type. For example, designer on a First Person Shooter game means Level Designer, someone who builds the level architecture. Designer on something like The Sims means something completely different.

There is little consistency in terms of what the actual credit means for what people have done on a game which is why the games industry doesn’t tend to place much emphasis on them. They do not, for example, use them for pay scales or anything like that.

Yeah, we don’t have any. Nope, we don’t. The games industry is not run the same way as the movie industry, with everyone on contract game to game. There is too much that is specialized and not carried game to game for the industry to work this way. Lighting and cameras are not standard game to game, for example, as they are in the movie industry. Lots of stuff gets invented just for each game although it often sits on a bed of previous work that is proprietary to each software development house.

Given that there is little need for a union to protect developers and to provide medical benefits for when people are out of work. Contracting in the games industry is very much a sideline – almost everyone is in regular employment.

Unions by and large have a very negative view within the games industry being seen as doing more damage than good. Lots of older game developers are all about working overtime and doing extra hours during what is called “crunch mode” with the belief that the extra hours and passion will show through the final product. The argument is that for every great game on the market there was crunch mode behind it and a union would just impede that and make every thing sub quality.

While the Video Game industry is slowly waking up to the fact that most of it’s stories and dialog are crap and that it needs good writers, there just aren’t that many around. Most are contract workers – Ann Toole, Rhianna Pratchett and so on.

Writing for games is a specific skill – just like you can’t expect great novelists to be good screen writers. Knowledge of gaming conventions, what the game is capable of representing and so on is critical.

But whilst the games industry has come around to understanding that their games need better stories, characters and most of all, dialog, writers are still traditionally brought in *after* a story is decided on. They are mostly there to either punch up what has already been decided on or provide links between bits of action which basically provide justification for the next bought of blowing things up.

Writers do NOT come up with an idea, develop it to a treatment then present it to a company or publisher. That’s what producers / designers do. Writers are just there to flesh out what is already decided upon.

This needs to change, but small moves Ellie:) It’s hard enough convincing the Executive Producer of the need for a real writer at all, let alone leaving them to come up with ideas in the first place.

Funding for most development comes from one of three places – either the publisher who is going to distribute the product (effectively the same as The Studio in movie terms), private financing (which could be Angel or VC funding. If you go with VC then usually you’ll end with the VC pushing people onto your board of directors and often owning part of your studio) or internal funding.
Internal funding means development is funded by either what the founders bring into a start up or by the profits from previous games (which is the usual thing).

Internal funding is what most developers strive for because while it has it’s risks – if you fund a game and no publisher picks it up then you’ve wasted X million dollars – when a publisher does pick it up it means the developer can negotiate a far better deal in terms of royalties and marketing than they can if the publisher funds. They are also far more in control creatively of what they make than they are if a publisher is cracking the whip since as publishers are publicly traded companies their quarterly returns are far more important to them than the artistic merit of a given game. They will force games out for the quarter if they can rather than give them extra development time for polish (to make the game better) because of their economic realities.

So if you internally fund you can take as long as you want (and can afford) and make the creative and developmental decisions that often will be made for you if your are publisher funded. Valve has enough in the bank to fund themselves, as does Bungie and Id Software – the more success you have the more likely you are to have more success because now you are in control of your own destiny. That which has enabled you to have success just gets strong because crucial decisions are not being subverted or made by commitee at the publisher level.

VC or Angel investing is rarer in the games industry mainly because most of the investment industries don’t know much about how the games industry is run. This is either a blessing or a curse – either the VC’s are hands off because they know they knowing nothing about it or they start installing regular managers to try and drive development along and thereby doom a project to mediocrity because these people have no feeling for making games, plus they tend to have much harder deadlines that most game industry people are comfortable with.

Most developers publisher funding is the way it goes – the game is pitched by the developer to the publisher who demands changes, then funds development and who then takes the majority of the profits. This puts all the power and authority in the publishers hands, who makes periodic payments to the developer called MileStones when the developer hands them pre-agreed builds of the game.

It’s also worth pointing out that developers hate reselling and rental of games. Unlike the movie industry that has several money streams – Initial Theatrical release, Rental, DVD’s, product placement, advertising, residuals and so on, the games industry has one and that’s the initial sale. Once that’s done, they see nothing of resale – all that money goes to GameStop or whomever. There is starting to be a way of bringing in more regular money called Downloadable Content (DLC) – the songs available for Guitar Hero is an example of that, but it doesn’t require the game to be on a platform that supports that. Doing it on PC, for example, is harder because the selling infrastructure isn’t provided.

The incoming money stream for developers is pretty single threaded which is why so many publishers insist on DRM on the game discs.

These are new Intellectual Properties (IP) that are developed with the intention of having them cross media boundaries – having a TV show, a comic book, a movie, toys etc.
Traditionally the games industry has been totally blind to these opportunities in terms of the IP they themselves develop. When it has happened it’s happened by accident, with other media coming to them and saying “Hey, can we make a Mortal Kombat Movie / Dolls / TV Show?” – this isn’t designed in in anyway.

However that is starting to change. There is a new group called Radar who are developing IP in partnership with developers with the express intent of building TransMedia friendly IP. Other developers are starting to see the power of it – Epic is developing Gears of War with this in mind and so on. It’s a new way of thinking for developers but bear in mind they all makes games first and foremost, so all decisions are oriented in that direction first.

This means somewhat the same as it does in the Media Industry, except it’s very unusual for an indie team to be offered anything large in the games industry. A team that does small indie games (and that’s considered to be games self funded that are very small in scope, very much like the Movie industry) even with success are almost never offered a AAA game that’s big in scope. Most of the ways an indie group will make games will in fact rule them out of large scale development because indie methods do not scale.

It’s also telling that most Indie groups want to stay that way rather than attempting to sell out to larger publishers since lots of them got burned when working for larger developers.

It’s worth pointing out that indie is often looked down upon in game developer circles. There is not the same massive indie culture that there is the movie industry – no festivals and competitions for scripts and so on. Generally indies have it pretty hard since they have to market themselves which is a tough thing in the games industry.

First party, Second Party, Publisher and Third Party development
This is a pretty simple one. First Party development is a team directly employed by a platform holder (defined as someone who owns a platform. So for Xbox that would be Microsoft. For Playstation, that’s Sony. Nintendo for Wii and Apple for iPhone etc) . So the internal team at Microsoft developing Halo (because Bungie isn’t any more) is first party. The internal team developing God of War for Sonys Playstation 3 is first party since they are Sony employees.

Second Party is where an external studio is working directly for a platform holder – they are developing an exclusive directly for the platform owner but are not direct employees of the platform holder. So Epic, who developed Gears of War were second party development since they were working for Microsoft, but Epic is it’s own independent entity.

Publishers – like studios – usually have internal development teams, which is Publisher Development. They usually develop games that are cross platform, making games for both the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 (although not always).

By the way, the major publishers are Electronic Arts, Activision / Blizzard (same company now), THQ, Take 2 (of which Rockstar, who makes Grand Theft Auto are a sub division) and some smaller more indie like publishers.

Third Party development is an independent studio that is working for a publisher, building (usually) cross platform games for a publisher who funds and then distributes.

Casual / Hardcore / Mainstream
This usually relates to the scope of the game and the learning curve. Large scale games – like large scale movies – are expensive to make, take time and require a large element of risk. AAA titles budgets can range from $10m to $50m for some of the larger types.

Casual games are by definition easy to play and easy to fire up and have little in the way of depth. It has been argued that casual games need game mechanics that can be shown and understood with a YouTube clip, without anyone ever needing to play the game. Games for Grannies is another way of describing them. Tetris is a classic casual game, as is Solitare, Minesweeper and Bejeweled.

Call Of Duty, Halo, Gears of War and so on are the other end of the Hardcore spectrum. They require time and effort to play, have a usually fairly steep learning curve and are huge in scope in terms of the visual presentation they have. They also tend to have a very tight nit group of fans who are very vocal about ‘their’ game.

Mainstream is considered to be any game that mainstream recognizes – when Call of Duty references start showing up on chat shows and episodes of Chuck then it’s considered mainstream, even though it’s a hardcore game.

Genre means what kind of games you are making. Just like in movies you have the Romantic Comedy Genre, lots of games can be similarly labeled.
Some of the more obvious labels are:-
FPS – First Person Shooter (Doom, Quake, Call of Duty, HalfLife, Halo)
3rd Person Action – where you can see the person you control on screen in the middle and the camera is behind them (Heretic II, Tomb Raider, God Of War, Prince of Persia).
Racing Games – you control a car and race. Pretty obvious.
Platformers – where there is lots of controlling the character and jumping around from platform to platform. The most obvious example is Mario and Zelda.
Puzzle games – basic casual stuff – think web based games.
MMO – Massively Multiplayer Games – always online with thousands of other players at the same time. Think Everquest or World of Warcraft.
Sims – Space dog fighting games, plane simulations etc. Think Flight Sim or FreeSpace.
RTS – Real Time Strategy games – basically you control vast resources and have to convert those resources to military might which you then use in real time against opponents. Think the Age of Empires series, Command and Conquer and most recently Supreme Commander.
Turn Based Strategy – games where you have specific turns to make your moves, usually on a large scale. For example Civilisation, Xcom etc.
RPG – Role Playing Games. Basically you create a character and then as the game progresses you ‘level up’ that characters ability. Good examples of this are the MorrowWind games, Knights of the Old Republic and Bards Tale games.

Then there are lots of games that cross two or more genres, borrowing elements from other genres as well as lots of games that just defy labeling – Spore and The Sims are great examples of that.

Ok, that’s enough to start with. Next time I’ll go into pitching and production.

By the way my contracting rates for presentations are very reasonable!


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