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Complications Ensue:
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Montreal International Game Summit. It was fascinating. The game industry is the kid sister of the motion picture industry. But my, she has grown up. Commercial computer games have only existed since the mid '70's, but they're a much, much bigger business than showbiz.

For example, HALO: REACH sold $350,000,000 in its first 16 days of release. The latest CALL OF DUTY made $242 million in its opening weekend worldwide. The game industry grosses $50 billion a year.

That much, I knew. I also knew that Montreal is now an international hub of game design and production. Ubisoft Montreal has grown from 1000 employees to 2300 in the past five years. The Canada Media Fund has been pushing investment in digital media. Quebec has any number of CEGEPs and universities where you can study game design, game programming, art for games, etc. Warner Bros opened a studio in Montreal this year. I talked to an exec producer from Funcom who's just moved here from Oslo -- along with the whole Oslo operation.

Game production is truly international. The film industry is LA plus the various national industries. Peter Jackson may shoot in New Zealand, but his films are funded in LA. France makes movies, but almost all the tickets are sold in France; likewise Germany, India, etc.

But games are made all over the place, and then "localized." It helps that they're animated, so by definition, they're all dubbed. Games are made wherever the talent can be found, and the funding, and government support. (Quebec has a 37.5% tax credit for labour, but I heard one speaker say you can get up to an 80% tax credit for R&D. 80%! Calice!) And people move around. It's not at all uncommon to hear someone say they got a job offer to work in China, or they flew in from North Carolina, or they spent five years in Sydney.

The game industry is much more seriously corporate. it comes out of the software industry. In the game industry, people actually study the art of management. At an IGDA roundtable I heard people discussing the merits of "scrum management." Scrum is a reaction to the "waterfall" management people tried in the beginning of software development: define the objective, go write the code. "Waterfall" is what we do in showbiz: write the script, hire the staff, go shoot it, edit it, release. In software development, it turns out to work better if you prototype bits of your game, test them out, refine the software, test it some more, etc. It's called "iterative" or "agile" management. Scrum is a style where the whole team has regular meetings where everyone reports in what they've done. It gives a feeling of being on a team rather than in an army. Game companies send their managers off to learn how to do it.

There's a lot of training in the game biz. Showbiz folk rarely get any training once they're out of film school. We work on the apprenticeship system. Work as a p.a. until you can get a job as a production coordinator. Work as a coordinator until you can be a line producer.

I was impressed to see how much of the MIGS was actually people attending seminars. If you go to Banff, the seminars are packed, but so are the hallways. As many people are there to schmooze as to go hear people talk. At MIGS, the corridors were empty during sessions. They had professors there to talk about the latest in psychophysiological feedback studies, and game designers there to do post-mortems on their latest project.

Both of those were fascinating. Prof. Veronica Zammitto's research involves hooking gamers up to various sensors that track (a) eye movements (b) galvanic skin response and (c) smile and frown muscles. Eye movements reveal where the gamer is looking. In the case of an NBA sports game, when are they looking at their player? The player they want to pass to? Other players? Their coach? The other team's coach? The crowd? The electronic advertising banner on the side of the court? (You bet they sell ad space there.)

Galvanic skin response shows, millisecond to millisecond, how excited the gamer is. Tiny variations in the smile and frown responses show when the gamer is feeling happy or not-happy. Put it all together, and you can track, with extreme precision, whether a gamer is excited, frustrated, bored or just having fun. If part of the game is slow, you'll know. If part of the game is boring, you'll know.

I'd like to see someone apply this technology to screening films before release. We're still giving the preview audience little cards to fill out about what they think they liked and what they think they didn't like. Imagine being able to track exactly where the audience is looking, and when they're thrilled or when they're scared. That might clear up the conversation between studio execs and directors about what parts of the movie are sagging (though the fix, as always, might not be in trimming the scene that's sagging).

Post-mortems are a regular thing in the game biz. I've been to a couple. Game designers come before an audience of a couple hundred of their peers and talk about how the production of their latest game went. What were they trying to accomplish? How well did they succeed? What went wrong? What would they do better next time?

It's hard to imagine a film producer talking to a bunch of film producers, directors and techs about what went wrong or right on their movie. Partly that's because they have less control, and it might come out sounding like they were blaming the director or actor or studio. Partly because games attract analytical people. Gamers are naturally analytical. They have to solve problems in order to win games. Many game producers are former programmers. The head of BioWare, Yannick Roy, for example, is a former programmer. Programmers are extremely analytical people.

(And here I'd like to plug Jill Golick's Writers Watching TV group in Toronto, for doing the same thing for TV writers: post-partum analysis of what went wrong and what went right.)

Game production is still a sausagefest. 97% of teens may call themselves gamers of one kind or another, and gamers overall are 40% female, but the game industry looks to be about 90-95% male, most of them guys in their 20s and 30s. (If you are a gal, you'll have a huge leg up in the biz.) Oddly, aside from the facial hair, the game industry is not a geekfest. People are too serious about what they're doing to give off a geek vibe. They really want to design great games / write beautiful code / create compelling characters and worlds. There is as much passion for games in the game biz as there is passion for movies in the movie biz.

Games are still a new business. There was a lot of talk of "indie" vs. "commercial" games, much as in showbiz. But games are still in their Ediacaran fauna period. There are critters walking around with seven feet and fourteen eyes. There's a lot of room for exploration of the genre.

Fascinating, Captain.

(Incidentally, Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA and I are organizing a panel on game writing at McGill on January 19th. If there's any territory you'd like us to cover, please let me know, as we're still working on our list of panelists.)



Thanks for that Alex. Would love to go to one of those.

Here's a link to a great TED talk about games and the study of motivation.


By Blogger Hepworks, at 9:13 AM  

Awesome post! More than anything, this makes me want to get back into playing video games and stop worrying so much about writing scripts. Thanks for the wake up call haha...

By Blogger Alex Dobrenko, at 2:28 PM  

At that conference, any word on a sequel to "Freelancer?" I miss that game. I'm usually 5-10 years behind on the latest games. It makes them cheap and ensures that my hardware will support it. What about a sequel to "Pong?"

By Blogger David, at 6:08 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Erik J. Caponi, at 7:52 AM  

Hi Alex,

Great post! One thing, though:

I've been a AAA narrative designer and game writer for the better part of a decade. On the design (and especially the writing) side of things, the discipline is too young and so little of it is codified that we do operate on an apprenticeship/mentorship system with virtually no system of training at all. In most studios, junior designers are brought in from other disciplines or from outside the industry and basically thrown into the work, having to rely on the expertise of the more senior people around them as the only training they'll receive.

Even with experienced people, there is a lot of deprogramming and ad hoc retraining that needs to happen from project to project because each one is so different.

Game design schools don't teach people the realities of the industry, and inside the business we use GDC and other conferences to learn from each other. Basically, games have evolved so quickly and we're still at the point where we're just making it up as we go along. Experience, mentorship, and (as you pointed out) information sharing are the best tools we have.

But, yeah! Great post. Enjoy the blog. I'm personally tired of being the film industry's little sister. I think that we (especially we writers) spend too much time trying to apply movie solutions to game story problems, but that's another story.

By Blogger Erik J. Caponi, at 7:53 AM  

Dr. Spooky! Can we tawk?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:03 AM  

Hey Alex - great post. I've just attended the London Screenwriters' Festival - partly to speak on some panels, partly to just meet new folks and attend some of the many great sessions.

One of the sessions focused very much on the game side of writing - how can we writers break into it - very, very interesting stuff! Should I find myself with an open window in between paid gigs, I'll definitely want to explore those possibilities.

By Blogger Daniel, at 11:56 AM  

@Daniel Martin Eckhart: if you write up what you learned about the game biz, I'll post a link!

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:24 PM  

@Alex - won't write a blog on this one. But two things - for one, all sessions have been taped and will be available within a closed digital delegates network - 'll check and let you know whether it'll be possible for non-attendees of the conference to access them, too - lots of fantastic stuff, for sure.

The other thing - feel free to grab or link to any of my other posts - no worries. Useful stuff for new writers, I hope. Latest post's about the topic of rejection.


By Blogger Daniel, at 11:38 AM  

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