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January 03, 2013

Fifteen

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the day I first joined the games industry and made the programming of video games my profession.

It's difficult really to remember what life was like before that, because so much of what is part of my life started around then. I've been a parent in the industry nearly the whole time -- my first son was born about eight months from my start date at LucasArts, and my second son two years later. Most of my close friends are friends I gained through my work, though of course not all. I've grown significantly over that time, in my professional habits and my personal hobbies, and it's really hard to cast my mind back.

The one constant through it all has been change and challenge. When I started, significant changes were the explosion of 3D¹ and the threat of the dot-com boom; LucasArts hemorrhaged employees while the economy enjoyed what turned out to be an immense bubble, but at the time the United States was enjoying what appeared to be limitless prosperity. Some artists had trouble making the transition to 3D and quietly drifted away to other things. When the bubble burst, some of those we had lost returned to games, some didn't. The industry grew and grew.

The next significant change and challenge, at least where I worked, was the switch to focusing on console games, another milestone. In the time before I arrived, LucasArts had enjoyed a diverse portfolio that included Nintendo 64 titles with fairly great success and PlayStation titles with perhaps more modest success, but its real bread and butter was the PC. The company started to put an even greater emphasis in the next generation of consoles with titles like Rogue Squadron on the GameCube and my own first game, Star Wars: Starfighter, on the PlayStation 2. These machines sparked another technical trend that has now come to dominate the industry, the ubiquity of parallel processing; for a long time, PCs would remain a bastion of a simpler programming model, but no more. As with 3D before it, some programmers had trouble adapting to the model and moved on. But still the industry grew and grew.

The industry grew and so did its audience. Now that truly beautiful experiences were possible on your TV, without all the finicky driver madness of the PC, consoles came to dominate more and more each year; I seem to remember that around this time Electronic Arts was the first third-person publisher to crack the $1B milestone for revenue on a model dominated by movie licenses. Games became more complex and while there were bright spots of personal expression from design auteurs, they certainly seemed less frequent than they had a decade before. Game teams of course also grew in size; the first team I worked on was around thirty or forty people, with a peak programming team size of perhaps seven, and it has never been smaller than that; now I work with a team of thirty programmers as part of a larger team, and there are development houses who throw truly staggering numbers of people at projects.

As audiences grew, budgets grew and games became more and more a hit-driven business. A high degree of polish became really important² and this was increasingly a demand on the technical team. As a result, crunch times became a truly staggering problem in the industry that drove people away, perhaps really reaching its limits when the "EA spouse" story broke, but still the industry grew and grew.

We started to fracture only recently, perhaps in the last seven years or so, in the latter half of my career thus far. I've read constantly about how one or another segment of gaming has died or is going to die, dire predictions that we're not reaching our full potential and therefore we'll be pigeonholed like comic books were, how this issue or that issue is going to kill off our industry. Adventure games were dead, until they weren't -- I can't tell you how many GOTYs The Walking Dead got, but it wasn't a small number. AAA games are apparently dying -- except I'll tell you right now, they aren't. Budgets will continue to increase, but the market will correct for that; games that don't meet the bar won't sell, and there may be fewer teams that can meet the bar, but there will be a market for AAA games for the foreseeable future. And still the industry will grow.

What I see, again and again, is growth and maturation. I'm glad to hear voices calling for more diversity in both our games and our creators, but then I look down at the iPad I'm typing this up on and about a hundred games of all different kinds, many of them not violent at all, and coming from all sorts of team sizes and make-ups. There are so many roads into game development now -- indeed, you can sit down and program games that are hundreds of times as complex as my very first games³ in your browser or on your phone for a relatively minimal investment. I feel in many ways like we've come full circle from where I began, as a player, but with the cultural heft of products which sell millions of copies behind them.

I understand when people complain that we aren't diverse enough -- we aren't, though I think as a whole the industry is getting better. I understand when people say that AAA is dying -- even though I know it's here to stay4 and that we're simply going to be a smaller percentage of a substantially bigger pie. We do need to explore areas other than violence -- but we're doing so. We do need greater variety -- but I look down at the various devices I carry around with me day to day and I know we're attacking that problem too. I'm glad that people are concerned about these things and demanding that we not rest on what we've done. We shouldn't. And I know we won't.

In an interview a few years before his death, Sir Edmund Hillary was asked whether there were any peaks left conquering in the world, and he remarked that there were a few climbs of interest left... but that he wasn't going to tell, since he might still like to be the one to be first. I feel much the same way about game technology: lots of challenges remain in this field that I love, some that have been identified and some that haven't. I hope I'll scale them along with the rest of you some day, because there are an awful lot of truly great big and interesting mountains out there left to conquer. Here's to the fifteen years just past, in an eye blink, and to whatever comes next.

¹In fact, as I recall LucasArts shipped what it claimed would be its last 2D title ever in the year I started, or perhaps shortly before, with Curse of Monkey Island. It claimed around that time that forever more it would be developing and publishing only 3D-accelerated games. It was sort of like Dylan going electric, an immense surprise to those who loved the 2D adventure games we were really known for. I don't think it was premature, but I bet you could still find a few people on the internet today who are angry about it.
²Recently I've played PS2 games that lacked the polish we see today, and it's hard to imagine how games like those could even be released today, with issues like enemies popping into existence right before the player's eyes, stuttering animations and all sorts of issues.
³I.e. the games I first played and programmed back on my Apple ][+ or on the mainframe at my dad's work.
4Hollywood's a great model for this -- sure, there was room for an indie mindset in film, too, but keep in mind that Skyfall, from a violent AAA series that began in the 1960s, was nonetheless the biggest selling in its history, despite largely following a similar formula to all that had gone before.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 3, 2013 07:01 PM

Comments

Thanks for this - I enjoyed the chance to take the long view with you, and I agree that for all the temporary setbacks and headaches in the industry, there is more opportunity than ever.

Oh, and: Congratulations!

Posted by: Chris Dahlen at January 6, 2013 08:50 AM

Thank you sir! With as many problems as I believe we have, I think we equally have many more people interested in trying to solve those problems, and those numbers are growing. We can't rest on our laurels -- no vibrant art can ever afford that -- but I'm convinced we'll solve whatever gets thrown in our paths. There are just too many passionate and wonderful people around for that not to be the case.

Posted by: Brett Douville at January 6, 2013 10:02 AM