Alex St John’s Ideas About Game Development Are Terrifying

Earlier today you would have seen the story how Alex St. John, the creator of DirectX and founder of WildTangent, came out over the weekend trying to recharacterise the conditions of game development. It’s art, not a job, and game developers shouldn’t be as concerned with stress, work-life balance or fair wages. Those were some of the arguments St. John made, although you should read them within to understand the full context.

St. John also has strong views on who precisely game studios should hire. It’s contained in a presentation called “Recruiting Giants” and suggests, among other things, that coding isn’t actual work, “real” programmers don’t value money and that working juniors and interns so hard they burn out is “good for them”.

[credit provider=”shutterstock”]

But let’s take a step back and provide some context.

In the wake of this year’s Game Developers Conference, there’s been renewed debate about how to tackle crunch within the video game industry. The International Game Developers Association revealed that they would be releasing a report on studios with the best crunch time practices later this year, with tangible rewards to be offered in 2017 to companies that are performing the best.

According to the IGDA, 37 percent of developers last year told the association that they didn’t receive any compensation for crunch time. And the causes of crunch haven’t changed over the years: feature creep, managers who don’t have the experience for their position, inept project management.

St. John’s answer to those criticisms was that developers today have developed a “culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations”. “Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world,” he continued.

Jason’s piece from earlier today tackles that in further detail. But the question remains: if you’re leading a game development studio in 2016, and you subscribe to the same philosophy as St. John — how do you avoid these supposedly toxic employees?

His answer is contained in a 14 page presentation hosted on his website called “Recruiting, Training and Retaining Giants”. The idea is simple: how do you recruit the best employees in a world where turnover is high, talent is being headhunted by major corporations with “bottomless pockets” and the market is filled with “spoiled kids who know their value”?

The whole idea is to find giants — employees so productive and so beholden to the company that they are worth 10 or 20 “ordinary engineers”. Giants view coding as a calling, not a job — and those are the people you should be targeting.

You can’t target these super engineers with money, because according to St. John the money only goes to their wives and girlfriends anyway. “They don’t ‘feel’ income,” the industry veteran argues. “Consistent income is taken for granted, they feel ‘change in income’. Bursts of unexpected bonuses for achievement and long hours work well while controlling overall compensation costs.”

He adds that “potential money is worth more than actual money”, at least as a motivational tool and incentive.

Perhaps the most objectionable of St. John’s philosophy, however, follows a section titled “The Young the Old and the Useless”. The young are interns, engineers just out of university or TAFE, people fresh into the industry — people that, St. John argues, should be worked “too hard” as “it’s good for them and the only way they get seasoned”.

Hiring managers should also be keenly aware for the “holy grail” of employees: “the undiscovered Asperger’s engineer”.

Older engineers have their use as well, although St. John notes that you’ll often have to pay well for the benefit of experience. “[They] can’t be recruited with money,” St. John says, with challenges and a lifestyle change often more successful motivators. They’re also great mentors for younger employees, which you’ll want to hire lots of to offset the expense of hiring a veteran in the first place.

But the worst employees of all are the mediocre, workers who St. John argues are concerned with a work-life balance, workers intelligent enough to know their market value. “They are generally specialists who have stopped learning. They have entrenched habits and attitudes that can’t be changed,” the slide says.

St. John also espouses on why “technical women” and female engineers are highly valued.

In short, if you want a manager then you want to hire a technical woman who doesn’t have Asperger’s. That last bit isn’t mine, either: it’s a note on the final slide.

In a world where game developers are seeking ways to overcome crunch and the causes within, St. John is actively arguing that hiring managers seek out personalities best suited for that world. I’d like to say it’s an antiquated take on game development, but the reality is many studios still demand crunch time from their employees — and knowing that, companies are likely to want characters prepared to sacrifice for that.

Fortunately, it’s not a philosophy many subscribe to. Hojo Studio’s Richard Salter told me St. John’s views was like reading a pick-up guide for game development. “This is like the recruitment equivalent of that Real Social Dynamics guy, with his ‘diss fatties, bang hotties’ mantra,” he remarked.

Tim Dawson, the co-founder of Witch Beam (Assault Android Cactus), added that he had plenty of experience with companies and managers who subscribed to similar philosophies as St. John — and it doesn’t work.

But perhaps the most telling element of all of this is St. John’s own experience. In an interview by Christopher Redner, St. John himself suffered burn out at Microsoft to the point where he “got himself fired”. “He would pass out at his keyboard and straggle into morning meetings with key marks on his face. Worked sucked everything out of him; his marriage disintegrated.”

St. John’s hiring practices haven’t changed, either. “As a CEO, St. John makes sure his staff is populated by younger versions of himself–smart, energetic, creative problem-solvers with workaholic tendencies–and hires sharp managers to tame them.”

According to a Shacknews interview from 2007, St. John was going through a “messy divorce” at the time. He wanted to get fired rather than quit, because that ensured he’d retain his stock options for Microsoft.

“That’s a common pattern at Microsoft — had it not been for that going on, I probably would’ve wanted to gut it out because I was having a good time,” St. John reportedly said. “It was an enormously high pressure job, and it was very difficult to have other stuff going on in your personal life at the same time you’re dealing with a high pressure job.”

As Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail points out: how many people has this industry lost because they left for a career and environment where they wouldn’t burn out? And what would DirectX look like today if St. John was still working at Microsoft, if someone had seen to ease the pressure on him?

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