Alex St John’s Ideas About Game Development Are Terrifying

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?


  • Some of his points are fair, if needlessly blunt to the point of being deliberately inflammatory. The vast majority of it makes him come across as an incredibly shitty person, and potentially shitty as a product of the practices he’s now championing.

    • yeah, i think we’ve all known one or two people who would be classified as an “educated Idiot”. most of the points are rather true and fair but are just extremely blunt and with no tact

    • I disagree solely because he’s betrayed every one of his ‘fair’ points with the rest of his awful rhetoric. Looking at his ideology I can definitely say that his concepts of ‘passion’, ‘calling’ ‘work-ethic’ et. al. are not at all like what most of us interpret it as.

  • I worked at a company which was very “churn and burn until you find the optimal team”. In the end, I left because I was sick of continually making new friends with colleagues. I don’t have time for that when I’m holding the entire fort on my own.

    I can see a situation where “Churn and Burn” would work, but it would have be within a short time frame maybe 3-6 months.

    • “Churn and burn until you find the optimal team” implies that at some point you STOP churning, which in turn implies that you stopped burning. The remaining elements of the time waste large amounts of time bringing new hires up to speed on the project, while the new hires themselves will take some time learning the ropes. In the end you’ve probably wasted a month of somebody’s time every time you take on a new hire – never mind the overheads when it comes time to debug the code and the person who wrote it is no longer around.

      In the end it’s basically the consequences of poor project management being pushed onto the employees.

      There is actually some truth to what he says; for almost any engineering job, the people who are good at it are motivated more by a job well done and the thrill of invention than by the cash. But then he screws it up by, in essence, designing an entire project management philosophy around abusing that alternate means of motivation.

      And while the cash is not a primary motivation, it is a signal to the employee of how much they are valued… or not, as the case may be.

  • Minus the obvious unpaying for overtime and sexist remarks he does actually state good personality traits for employees.

    • There’s no way the good traits he’s highlighting are the same ones we know. Every one of the ‘top performers’ he wants will be mirrors of himself, without the drive to overtake him of course! (Because that’s what he’ll get.)

  • Worked for someone once in animation who followed this Ideal exactly.

    Worked 3 days straight, no overtime – about an hours or two sleep, it was absolute hell – he would constantly try to lay the guilt on and use “you should be thankful you have a job” if I asked for overtime pay or had to leave before 7pm (arriving a the studio at 7:30-8am) would tell me that I should be putting my wife in her place if she called asking if I would be coming home or not that day.

    It went down as well as you could expect and was a revolving door of new people constantly every month.

  • He makes some great points but delivers them with the subtlety of a brick to the face.

  • I get the impression he’s never actually got this to work and he’s attributing any failure in this philosophy to individuals who were a bad match. Maybe if he found enough people who were as simple as these bullet points need them to be it would work, but even then he’s assuming these young kids who are passionate, intelligent and looking for a challenge are going to be cool with doing the grunt work. He’s assuming the female in a lead role is going to be cool with being a babysitter.
    The entire thing seems to hinge on finding mindless drones who aren’t mindless drones.

    The harsh truth is that yes, there are tons of passionate people trying to get their foot in the door and they’re super easy to manipulate and exploit, but that doesn’t make this viable and even if it were it’s not a particularly good idea to do so.
    I’m interested in exploring the idea of making crunch time work even if I think it’s a better idea to try and remove it from the equation, and I’m even willing to listen to ideas that aren’t nice, but this seems like he’s trying too hard to be cold and calculating because heartless = strong rather than arriving there naturally through logic.

    All that said I’ll admit his views on traits to avoid are interesting enough.

    • I’m given the impression that he’s been raised by bosses that ‘we’re too good for him’ and now he’s ‘too good for them’.

  • Jesus Christ… and people wonder why developers are talking more about unionization.

    • You only seem to hear about it from the game development industry though. In pretty much every other industry we’re against it and making out like bandits.

  • Wow. This is the textbook for building a culture that overworks developers.

    aren’t real software engineers.

    This is the shame aspect. You aren’t a real engineer if you don’t fit into this narrow slot I am defining! I mean, why even frame it that way? It is like he thinks his manipulative techniques are a lot more subtle than they actually are. I suspect this boss would get a lot of eye rolling when his back is turned.

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

    This is literally Office Space. Except the aspergers engineer just gets abused by his boss and never wins in the end.

    The whole thing is like a rationalisation for continuing bad behaviour. Instead of addressing the fundamental problems, just work out better ways to continue milking the devs. I mean the way he describes who to pick is on about the same level ethically as the pick up artists who try to play with psychology to manipulate women. He wants to identify people ripe for abuse.

    Edit: I mean, seriously. I have 20+ years in IT, have delivered more projects than I could count and this makes me SICK. Burnout is real and will fuck you up.

    • This is literally Office Space. Except the aspergers engineer just gets abused by his boss and never wins in the end.

      Well he did set fire to the building then end up kicking back on a nice beach somewhere which is kind of winning. Although I guess they did put salt in his margarita even though he said no salt. Big grains of salt, floating in the glass…

  • It’s art, not a job, and game developers shouldn’t be as concerned with stress, work-life balance or fair wages

    That’s fine as long as he isn’t concerned about his company being profitable, either. What’s that? You *DO* care if your company’s projects turn a profit or not? So you’re concerned about your own bottom line, but you think the staff shouldn’t care about theirs?

    If it’s an art and things like stress, work-life balance and wages aren’t important then he should be fine with his “artists” wandering in to the office about 10 am then out again about 3pm or whatever other hours happen to suit them. After all, there’s no point having artists just sitting there – if they’re not in the right creative frame of mind to produce their art then they might as well go home and come back another time when they’re feeling more inspired.

    • Yeah, it’s pretty hypocritical. It’s art… but you’ve gotta crunch to meet deadlines.
      Because ‘art’ always has deadlines and has to be profitable.


  • As someone who has been working in game for over 13 years and is actively trying to change practices like crunch and unpaid overtime, there is so much wrong with what this guy is saying I don’t know where to start.

  • And just like that the guy that writes Mr. Burns for the Simpsons lost his job. This little manual will provide material for years to come.

    This guy is seriously horrible to the point of being caricaturesque. If there was a sentence somewhere there like “quickly dispose of the elderly and the infirm” it would have not seem out of line.

  • Ladies and Gentlemen while we rightly condemn St. John’s remarks lets remember the real reason why he would believe such things: they make him wealthier at the expensive of his employee’s incomes, their social lives, relationships and mental health.

    • Yeah. He’s reportedly been through some hard crunch… So I guess when he wondered what was so wrong in his life, he just looked at all that money and though, “Nothing must be wrong then.”

  • Churn and Burn, if you ever see a workplace that has a really high turnover rate, you turn tail and run, thanks for the interview but I’m not interested. (unless there are no other jobs, but then you take it and jump ship at first chance of something else)

    High turnover means managers who cannot adapt and plan ahead properly or a bad work environment.

    I also find it amusing that the guy who took a bunch of rebranded casual games and made a platform commonly used to distribute malware (wildtangent is used as a backdoor by a bunch of stuff) and sell user information to advertisers thinks he is somehow an entrepreneur and a bigwig in the gaming community, no wonder directX was always so far behind openGL when he was on board.

  • Oh man. He has to be a troll (or some kind of case of corporate brainwashing). I don’t even know how you can drum up this kind of ideology without it being some kind of joke. It’s not like he’s peppering quality advice with some controversial opinion; it’s full on wackjob.

  • So, uh, has this guy done anything even worthy of note in the last 20 years? If not, maybe this stuff isn’t working out for him?

  • Clearly being a colossal dickbag is this guy’s passion, and not a job – therefore he shouldn’t be paid for it.

    This is a guide to being a terrible boss and manager – and demonstrates a gross lack proper staff and project management.

  • WOW! If there was any perfect example of modern stockholm syndrome, this is it! This guy is unfortunately a hostage to his capitalist masters. “Exploit the young, destroy their relationships and health and underpay them while extracting as much profit out of them as possible”. Morons like these do not deserve the respect they have.

  • I like how he refers to “software engineers” – I’m not sure he even knows the meaning of the phrase. Perhaps he should read a book on the CMM if he wants to know what it’s really about. One of the main points is to fix the process not the people (relying on a “genius” or a “giant” is a recipe for disaster).

  • It’s a pity but this mentality is not just prevalent in software design, but in many other fields as well.

  • St John is an absolute asshole. No he DOESN’T make some great points, tactless or not, he’s just an asshole. His attitude is clearly one that “employees don’t matter, people’s lives don’t matter, the job is more important than anything else”. He’s a douchebag.

  • Ok, he can fuck off. I know someone with Aspergers Syndrome and he is the complete opposite of how he described it. Autism (Asperger syndrome is just like high-functioning autism,) is very different from person to person. At it’s basics, it varies from a potato in a wheelchair to a normal human being.

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