What Do You Make?

The games industry does not treat its creatives well, on that we can agree. A troubling pattern seems to be emerging — allow developers the time they need to create a product, and then casually cast them aside when the job is complete. Today, in response, we ask publishers a simple question: what do you make?

In AMC’s Mad Men, main character Don Draper is in the midst of a nightmare. In this nightmare he is confronted with an unexpected question.

“What do you make?” His dead father asks him. This is the question that haunts his existence.

In Mad Men, Don Draper is a character ingrained in the world of advertising, a man who essentially makes nothing, who creates nothing. Draper makes his living from the toil of others, from the products they create. It is his job to help sell these products. Nothing more. His is an artificial role made necessary by our need to consume, to scratch an itch.

But he creates nothing. What will he leave behind?

Last week almost 40 people lost their jobs at SEGA Studio Australia. Just days before we heard reports that 10 developers lost their jobs at Firemint and Iron Monkey, despite the success of both studios.

It’s a common story, particularly in Australia — a story so common that we’ve almost become numb to it. As someone who writes about video games for a living, you might argue that I should keep an appropriate distance — simply write the facts as they exist and get on with things.

But I can’t.

Because in my own way, I create things — I write. Writing is what I’m passionate about and I take it very seriously. By following this path I’ve had to accept that I’ll most likely never earn the same kind of money the person selling my work makes.

Yet I do receive something in return: an incredible and receptive audience at Kotaku Australia and the respect of my employers. I know that, at the very least, I have some measure of job security here, the kind of security that allows me to write and express myself as I see fit. I have that freedom, I have that trust — at the very least I have that.

But those in the games industry, those that lose their jobs so consistently, so easily — they don’t.

No. They are made redundant by people who make nothing, by people who create nothing; whose sole job is to make such redundancies as easily palatable as possible, to spoon feed an array of buzzwords designed to dissociate us from the human element and the simple facts — hard working developers are being siphoned for their ability to create something, then cast aside the second the job is done.

SEGA Studio Australia underwent a ‘proposed restructure’, the closure of Blue Tongue and THQ Studio Australia was part of a ‘right sizing’ of ‘internal development capacities’. The redundancies at Iron Monkey and Firemint were part of ‘cycles of expansion and contraction... a normal part of the game development process’.

Now, I completely understand there are financial realities — there are shareholders to satiate, costs to be cut — but the ease with which jobs are lost in the games industry absolutely terrifies me. This is an industry which takes for granted the efforts of developers. An industry that takes advantage of young men and women following their passion, that takes full advantage of their ability to create. An industry that proceeds to callously spit out talented individuals the second a job is completed, with nothing but buzzwords and a redundancy package to comfort them.

To those who so easily drop the axe on developers — talented, hard working people who worked themselves to the bone creating your product — to those writing the buzzwords, I have a question: what do you make?

What do you make?

Because you don’t make much sense. Your buzzwords are hollow; utterly meaningless, a hallmark of a business model in transition and, some would argue, in decline.

The 40 or so employees left at SEGA Studio Australia are now set to work on digitally distributed games for its publisher. It’s now a smaller studio designed, I assume, to be more agile, to work on smaller projects, to help usher SEGA into a new digital era.

But in this environment, where it is markedly easy to self-publish, what need do these remaining 40 have of a publisher? As this thought provoking piece in Develop suggests: why build digital games for SEGA Studio Australia, when you can build them for yourselves?

It is the publishers who are struggling to manoeuvre in this new marketplace, not the developers. Why should they continue to suffer the constant overhanging threat of potential redundancy when it is the publishers themselves that can’t find the solution?

As time and technology barrels forward, the move towards self publishing is going to become increasingly attractive to those who have been chewed up and spat out constantly by a system that takes advantage of their passions, and takes their talents for granted. What happens then?

It’s a troubling nightmare, and a reality into which you are soon to awake — because you don’t ‘make’ anything worth selling. In fact, you don’t make anything at all.


Comments

    This is a fantastic article.

    I have similar thoughts but I'm never able to articulate them adequately.

    This is great dude, for the Mad Man reference and for hitting the nail on the head.

    Kudos Mark.

    Great read!

    Nothing to add except:

    F**k yeah!! A very satisfying read

      A good read, but left me somewhat dissatisfied with the state of the industry. Articles like this, while I agree with them, just make me sad. These people won't change, and the days of a secure job in this industry in Australia are long gone.

      I guess all we can hope for is that we can rebuild things one day.

    Not pulling any punches here Mark, I like it :D
    In fact, I love it.

    I used to want to join a big studio to make games, but looking at the state of the industry over the last few years, I don't want to do that any more.
    I want to make my own games, the way I want to make them, without the constant shadow of getting axed hanging over my head.

    Maybe the local industry will eventually shape up, maybe the array of indie studios popping up in Australia will grow into big studios, studios that know to respect their talent because they are talent themselves... but not yet, not yet.

      I actually think especially in Australia, now is a great time to be an Indy dev. We have a certain patriotism with our local devs, especially indie ones. If i ever get my head around this coding stuff, i'll program for ya :)

        likewise here! I'll soon be starting a Programming course at AIE and hey, would love to join or build my own Indie Studio... that would be awesome! I think this country needs more like-minded people :)

    + 9001 (yes, over 9000 )

      I was going to say +eleventy-billion, but that sums it up more I think.

      The only real benefit of the "rightsizing" of Australian studios over the last few years is that I basically have a couch to sleep on in every major city in the world. That is, if I could afford the damned plane tickets.

      I don't ever check the US site, but do they republish AU articles? This one needs a wider audience.

    I hope those laid off do go out a form their own studio, there is so much talent and so many great ideas in this country it criminal for it to be wastefully siphoned off into the corporate thresher!

    Glad I was standing in the background of that photo.

    What makes the Game industry so special? This kind of thing occurs all the time with production houses in TV & Film. You want to be in an industry that works on deadlines and production cycles? Then you make that sacrifice. You want job stability, look elsewhere.

    The weekly news reports of studio's closing or redundancies? A game finishes, people are no longer needed. It's not news, its what happens! Yes it's sad, but cry me a river, it's normal and isn't just a gaming thing.

      Unfortunately for those others, this is a GAMING website. If you head to a banking/financial website, there will be similar articles about the 1,000 jobs to be cut @ ANZ.

      Yes it's a fact for every industry but this gaming article on this gaming website is specifically about the gaming industry and the gaming jobs being made redundant. Do you see a pattern there?

        Thanks Zac. Clearly I am lacking the skills to notice the blatantly obvious. You help me good.

        My point was to put things into perspective and encourage understanding of other industries. It's not solely Gaming that suffers through these cuts and Film/TV run on similar production cycles. Hence my snarky "Cry me a river".

          The point is, it shouldn't be normal. No matter what creative industry we're talking about.

            and this.

          It would be great if you could provide some examples, especially of smaller studios based in Australia, where this issue has recently been so prominent.

          Also, I think you have actually missed the point of the article and to me, Mark is asking the question of publishers to look at the way they conduct their business: eventually publishers may shoot themselves in the foot if they continue to treat talented, hard-working staff as grunts because those grunts may eventually find the means to publish their own work. It is simply meant to spark gaming-centric debate - but if you want to compare it to other industries, I will listen, am interested and would love to see examples.

            It all boils down to being part of an industry that runs on creative juices and the production cycles that are required in order for their "products" to sell. We are all cogs in a machine. No matter how good your cog is, you are there to help the machine make money.

            The games industry is full of romanticism. Gamers need to understand that it's an industry just like banking, farming etc... and it needs to make money to survive.

            You are replaceable. You are not unique. At least to the machine.

              That is an extremely cynical view of the world but I respect what you are saying dude.

              Again, I don't think the point of the article is about whinging that people in the games industry are hard done by - its more to point out that developers are powerful people and yet, they can be treated so poorly. It's almost like the writers strike of TV years before - those writers are important people and they were hard done by, uncredited etc. and guess what happened? They had a strike and ruined half a year of television because they wanted to fight for what is right.

              This is about making publishers realize the importance of the people they employ - they should not be viewed as simple worker bees but valued members of a creative team. I just think you're argument is based on the fact you think they should 'get over it'. Dude, if you lost your job, would you appreciate that people were telling you "just get over it, you're part of the machine, too bad".

              You are clearly not an artist.

                +1

                Really? How can you tell? Are you in a position of such high esteem that you are able to judge others by comments alone? Of course you are, this is the internet. Silly me.

                I've gone way off topic and i apologize to Mark & commenters. Happy to continue off topic in 140 chars or less. Name is the same.

        Pretty sure the comment was made in regards to the GAMING industry. What was being said was not "boo hoo, people lose jobs in other industries too" but "boo hoo, you're in the gaming industry, what do you expect?"

        Not QUITE sure I agree, but you seem to have missed the point.

      The real issue is that we don't sign contracts like Film and TV do, and as such aren't compensated. We're hired as full-time employees. This is an important distinction because being on a full-time salary means no overtime for the late nights, and a lower paycheck in favor of job security. I don't think you would find any developers complaining if we worked project to project and were paid appropriately.

    The only real benefit of seeking a publisher over self-publishing is exposure. (I only know about books, so I'm gonna talk about them, and assume that most of it translates across to games.)

    A self-published author can't get into bookstores unless they're on a first-name basis with the owner. Shelf space is a pipe-dream, front-facing a crack hallucination. (Matthew Reilly is the sole exception I can think of, and he busted his butt trying to get shelf space in a handful of stores)

    Even if they got shelf space, how do you get people to look at your book over the thousands of others surrounding it, that have approximately the same cost and similar (or similarish) themes/mechanics?

    Beyond manufacturing (irrelevant in the digital world), the publisher's job is twofold: building relationships with retailers to stock the product in quantitiy, and marketing to alert the general public to the existence of the product. For these services, they take a nice big cut of the proceeds.

    Of course, this whole book/game symbiosis gets a bit muddy when the publisher actually directly employs folks to design their products, something that really doesn't happen so much in the book world.

    ___

    PS: This is a truly awesome article.

      Exposure and money. The primary purpose for a publisher is to commission and then fund a game to completion, then get it packaged, marketed and sold, pocketing the majority of the revenue for use in funding the next project.

    This is journalism, Mark your articles (and contest posts) are always the best things on here.

    No offence to Tracey who is a close second.

    I wish all articles on all Kotaku's were this well written

    Amazing read Mark! I love this point of view and it gives me inspiration to continue my passion and pursuit rather than worrying about the $$$

    This ripple is felt most by those who still work for big companies. Of course inside the industry there are still 2 kinds of workers: One that's happy with less pay because their company offers job satisfaction, and those who are unhappy because there is no job satisfaction even with more pay.

    And then there's the black sheep: the graduates who start off with as much pay as they'd get working at Safeway, with almost no guidance at all in the company and receiving no pats on the back.

    The games industry is still mostly run by people who create nothing, know nothing of their product besides some wishy washy features and some kind of megalomaniac expectation. People who demand features that is completely superficial but 'look nice' and must be prioritised over structural integrity of the game. People working under these kind of leaders are like sheep, easy to herd and dispose of. This industry is run so unprofessionally, with a lot of management issues even in the biggest of companies and we all wonder why it hasn't sunk even deeper than it is. The Firemint round of fire pretty much went like this:

    EA: Choose 2 projects and can them. Fire everyone who worked in those projects.
    Firemint: But can we keep person A? He's a really talented artist.
    EA: No, Let them go.

    This is an industry that recognizes no hardwork, no solidarity and no support. By March I will be rid of it and will probably not look back into entering the industry as it is. If I make games it will be one where I can actually utilise my creativity without a peep form Mad Men who play numbers games.

    /endofrant

      Yeah, it's good to see the media and thereby folks in the general public getting a better idea of how the games industry works, but they really only seeing a small part of the horrors that come from working under a publisher, large or small.

      Kinda glad I can make a living designing robot dragons nowadays. Working on commercial games has a lot of pros, but so very very many cons.

    Nice article Mark... and I agree.
    But, I have an answer for you...

    They make money.

    It may not be long lasting, it may not be as tangible as a chair or a building... but it is what their shareholders demand.
    If we limited ourselves to producing things with tangible results we'd be a nation of artisans.
    Loggers cut down trees, but those trees are used to make houses and furniture... but when their product has been consumed, what did they make? There's nothing left at the end of the day.

    What do retailers make? Nothing, but that isn't to suggest they aren't necessary... or fulfilling a need.

      Yeh but its not viable for a talented furniture maker to go out and start logging trees themselves.

      The point is that publishers serve a purpose that is becoming increasingly unnecessary to be performed by a separate entity. Although, would apple or valve be considered pseudo publishers as they provide the means for you to get your product out there - i know apple takes a hefty cut, not sure what the figures are with steam.

    I loved the article Marky Mark.. Restores faith in Kotaku brand that the yanks so regularly take away... ;)

    But it had me thinking. I have toyed with considering a job in the games industry. I am a passionate gamer and spend most of my spare time working on game related projects... but I also have a family and the ability to earn a decent income outside of the games industry... Articles like this make me realise the reality of the industry, and when I have a mortgage and a wife and a kid, its really not the industry that i should be looking at...

    It's a shame because there are a whole bunch of really talented people working in it and it would be much more interesting than what i've been doing...

    *ponders things*

    I worked at one of the longest running studios, with one of the largest portfolios on the planet, in Melbourne just 18 months ago.

    I was a Designer and Writer there - this was the second studio I received the chance to work, after being fired, twice, from my previous studio.

    It went something like this;
    "Here's a 3 month contract showing probationary role(s), after which you'll be re-evaluated, moved up into a Junior role, with a 50% pay increase."

    After 6 months I was still in the same position, without review, earning the same amount, with a null contract.

    Over the next three months, I helped design some things, as well as maintaining my 3-month QA position. I actually completely designed the final boss in the game, myself, because it was Mis-managed and the gameplay programmer had been given the task and, no fault of his own, he designed an uninteresting, methodical boss fight.

    I got no recognized credit for that.

    Then I got fired - they bought me a present so sate me, and I got my annual leave. Three days later I get called and get offered the position I was promised.

    I work there for 6 months, have a game half made and; publisher pulls funds and I'm out again.

    So back to my original gig - the one I got after that studio.

    I worked there, under credit, as a designer and writer - I wrote an entire sandbox narrative on my own and it totaled about 45,000 words and was fully recorded by actors like John DiMaggio and others.

    I get told that the studio is happy with my work, and I'll get two credits. I got those, but was also promised another project.

    Then the project wasn't given by the publisher and 75% of the staff, including me, were let go after taking several weeks of half-pay.

    I left them with a pitch that made it to Square-Enix being on the phone to them, amped about the idea and wanting to greenlight it. So what do they do? They don't tell me... Nah, they give the pitch to another designer (who lived with me, and also didn't tell me) who effectively 'guessed' what I had in mind, and the project died.

    Since then, last year, they called me in for a project, said I had it, then decided I didn't and neglected to call me.

    So what have I been doing this last year? I've been back at University, studying, so I can get the hell out of this Overseas-contract-reliant industry that offers up creative power to sacrifice on the alter of capitalism.

    I tell you, though, I've thought about giving up on games; but I can't... I just can't. There is nothing else I want to do, and I hate that that means you're up for leverage by someone who 'makes nothing' yet earns more than you for all of your passion and hard work.

    For those of you aiming to get into the biz, ensure there's nothing else you'd rather be doing first, and then remain vigilant... And call me to start an Indy company! Haha.

    Great article, Mark, thoroughly enjoyed your honesty!

      Sounds like you just got blind-sided by your housemate.
      Although I don't share your passion, I've been working QA for 3 years and am completely over it. Starting a graduate role next month for a 50% payrise in one of the biggest IT companies in the world.

      Keep at it and someday the OzDev community will come around, but it's a really volatile time at the moment. Big studios everywhere aren't doing as well as they used to, and imho it's attributed to the rise in casual gamers compared to AAA titles. Just a thought.

    Great read Mr Serrels! Great points. well made and not over sensationalised - kudos to you sir. I think there are many publishers hoping the questions you posed won't be asked.

    I'm interested in why you would think that people in advertising make nothing Mark. That's a strange opinion to have.

      They are middle men who expose the 'product' to the masses. They did not create the actual product itself.

      I suppose if you put it this way, the advertising guys create a 'presence' of the product. But that's just semantic. I don't think Mark is vilifying advertisers but to be successful in advertising they have to understand the product besides just creating smokescreens.

      I don't. It was just something interesting that I took from Mad Men -- that Don Draper often worries about the fact that he doesn't actually create product. Advertisement is important though, and it can be an awesome thing. I was just casting that analogy.

        I work in the television industry and I consider the same thing. It is truly depressing IMHO.

    "essentially makes nothing, who creates nothing... makes his living from the toil of others, from the products they create."

    Isn't that essentially Kotaku?

    When I first finished school in 2004, I eagerly jumped into the course finder to discover any course i could that was relevant to computer game design. I successfully found my way into a Games and Interactivity double degree at Swinburne Uni in Melb and I was on my way to becoming a game developer.

    But something happened along the way.
    Instead of being encouraged by industry pro's that were coming into our lectures to teach these brand new subjects with virtually no structure to make and create. They instead warned us from the get go that being in the games industry was a war of attrition in that you may make something amazing but in the end you won't make much money from it.
    Slowly but surely the message started to sink in when half of my part-time lecturers who were in studios making games at the beginning of my course were out of game development work and had been looking for sometime by the end of my second year in the course.

    This prompted me to wage a battle with myself.
    Do I finish a course in which I will always struggle to find reliable work and give up on something for the first time in my life?
    Or do I change my career choice altogether and start again?

    I luckily sat down with my careers advisor who plonked me straight into an electrical engineering course ( i could use my programming skills and my design skills there!) and the job prospects were tremendous.

    It is a shame to see this happening but the government support for the industry that was promised in 2003 never amounted to anything.

      I went the other way. Finished 2004, did electrical engineering at uni, got bored, switched to games development, got a degree while working in the industry, and now I'm taking a job out-side the industry.

      It's not really a shame. Good games will still be made, however most will come from overseas or small indie studios. I reckon it'll take 5-10 years for us to start producing decent games, let alone anything that can compete with the stuff coming out of NA

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