by Alan Emrich
When you make computer games for a living, itís good to know "who the enemy is." But I have met the enemy, and he is us.
God bless our enemies! For if we did not have them, we would surely need to invent them. For all those of you out there who donít play to play but play to win (and you know who you are), you need someone to beat. For all those of you who believe that life is a zero-sum game and that, in order for you to win, someone else must lose, I say that youíll always find an audience. When working in this industry and seeing talented teams laboring every day to make the "best" game in a genre, theyíve set their sites on the competition and fiercely strive to take them down.
Many of you are familiar with these "gotta destroy the competition" types of people. Some of them are quietly determined; others are cheerleading "rah rah" types. They all are driven. Thatís why the working hours in the computer game industry (certainly among those in the trenches who actually make the product) are so notoriously long. The fifty-to-sixty-hour workweek is altogether too common among those who make computer games.
And while I have been as guilty as the rest about putting in those long hours (with little vacation time, my German counterparts frequently remind me), I am not one of those people who feels that all opposition must be crushed. I do not believe that life or work is a zero-sum game. I believe that every good game produced helps by increasing the size and loyalty of our market and every bad game hurts it for the opposite reasons. In other words, whether a game is good or bad matters a whole lot less to me (and my view of the world) than whether any particular game is better any other or the best in its genre. All good games will be bought and all bad ones will rot, so sayeth The Sage (me, in this case).
The Facts of "A Life" Working in the Game Business
After an introspective search, I believe Iíve discovered where the competition really is in the computer game business. Itís not the clash of publishers for market share, nor among the players vying for high scores across the internet. Itís not among the hardware engineers seeking to build the right component, nor the software engineers pursuing the perfect algorithm. No, the real competition in the computer game business is among those who work in it within the same company.
In my game classes, I teach that there is a Working in the Game Industry Triangle. That is, a person can either make games, play games like they did in high school and college, or have a life ― pick 2. That is, you can achieve your dreams in any two of these three categories only by making sacrifices in the third. You can't have all three and expect to either A) sleep or B) avoid catching mononucleosis.
Note that everyone making games for a living has already committed themselves to one of those three sides of the triangle already: they make games. Thus, everyone you see working in the game industry can be neatly divided into two main categories: those that still play games like they did when they were young and, consequently, donít "have a life," and those that now have a life but find that they can't play games like they used to (and would still like to). Think about that. You can walk down the hallways of any game company and, as you walk by the different people who make games there, analyze them quickly and say to yourself either "No life" or "Life."
This industry has a lot of young men (in particular) working in it who donít really "have a life." These people are derided as geeks (or worse) for their love of games and lack of a respectable social calendar. Chances are they know way too much about gaming, science-fiction, the fantasy genre, and such like. They probably like comic books, action figures, and can recite the lines from movies and TV shows with aplomb. People might impugn their eating, dressing, and bathing habits, but these folks are basically happy in their geek-dom and fantasies (and I say, ďGod bless themĒ).
Opposite these numerous employees in the game industry is a steady minority of those who "have a life." That is, they are married, have children, probably a mortgage, and face no shortage of pressing family obligations. They could also be pursuing other hobbies as a primary interest in their lives, some of which might even involve physical activity (gasp!). They have either never embraced, or have evolved from and now eschew, the alternative lifestyle of pure geek-dom (although it never completely leaves them), and have "sold out" for what has long been described as "conventional happiness."
I have often assured parents, as their children enter the school where I teach classes about making games, that many of these students ― their children ― whom they worry about remaining hopeless game geeks for the rest of their lives, often mature into real working adults who "have a life" and that this metamorphosis occurs somewhere between their mid-to-late 20s and mid-to-late 30s. (I tell them, "Don't give up on ever having grand children just yet; there is definitely hope for your family's future." It's a great laugh-line during orientation and at open house night, but the palpable reassurance that washes over these parents' faces demonstrates that this hope is a very real comfort to them.)
Essentially, these "Have a Life-rs" have learned to sublimate making games for the hard-core playing of them in order to find the time to have a life. You'll often find them, as they leave the office, wistfully looking over the shoulder of some hard-core player there who is just winding down his workday and starting an all-night office LAN jam of the latest, greatest game. They leave work with a sigh, wishing they could stay and play late, too, but Life beckons and their decision has been made.
The Social Division
Interestingly, from a sociological standpoint, both of these groups (the "hard-core gamers" and the "lifers") tend to congregate with others from their own group. In other words, the people who are married with children tend to hang out with other married couples who have children. The same rule generally applies to more hardcore game geeks. One group is seldom the featured guests at dinners hosted by the other. Let's face it, married couples tend to hang out with married couples and single people tend to hang out with single people.
Now, let's make a further social science observation. Allow me to take these two categories and divide each into two sub-categories: those that put work first on their daily priority list, and those that donít. You know the types. The former is the seventy-hour-a-week worker/warriors who come in on holidays and always ends up "cashing in" unused vacation time. The latter group are the more traditional forty-hour-a-week workers who never seem to miss a day off so that they can deal with the rest of their life. Just as the game industry is dominated by those people who donít have a life, so too it has engendered more than its share of "work firsters." Thus, when entering the industry, you have to demonstrate an all-consuming passion for games and making them plus a slavish willingness to work in order to be just as competitive as the people all ready "on the inside."
Itís About Who You Envy
That said, I've now neatly subdivided all of the workers who make games for a living into four groups. Why they generally all like each other around the office place, there is always an undercurrent there, noticed by both those slaving in the trenches and those who manage them from high up on Mahogany Row. Particularly among the polar opposites (i.e., the "no life workaholics" versus the "I need to be with my family" types), it is quite visible. Occasionally, corporate politics rears its ugly head and takes sides in this division, and there youíll find problems.
Like most people, though, each person in one of these four groups envies something the other group has. Those who put work second probably wish they could give more to making games (since making games is a passion of theirs or they probably wouldn't be working there in the first place). Similarly, many of those that don't have a life might envy those who do; and those burdened with family and financial / future concerns probably long for the care-free days of their youth when all they had to do was play games. But of all the enemies that could be out there in the game business, Iím glad that this is the worst that really exist on a day-to-day basis. After all, I tend to like all of these people; we make games together. (Even if the "no lifers" could care less about seeing the latest photos of my kids.)
Alan Emrich is the former Strategy Games Editor at Computer Gaming World magazine, has written several computer game strategy guides, and has designed and developed several published board, card and computer games since the 1970s.