June 4, 2011
Costa Mesa, CA
After ten years in the game industry, I am probably bailing, effective Friday.
Yes, “probably”. I haven’t quite decided where I’m heading. It’s a good feeling, like an open game world with no invisible collision walls. Maybe I’ll take one last contract for old times’ sake and they’ll turn out to be Something Completely Different and everything in this note will be absolute bollocks and everyone can laugh at me then. Believe-me-you, I’d really like that. It would make me feel better.
I’m writing this because if I had read it ten years ago things might have turned out differently. Writing about this is probably career seppuku. Don’t even think about Liking this. You’ll poison yourself.
TLDR answer: The industry (funny how we never call it ‘the biz’ or ‘games’– it’s always ‘the game industry’) chews people up and spits them out, and I don’t want to be part of the machine anymore. I’ve been on both sides of the You’re-In-Trouble desk now, and neither feels good. The industry attracts huge, volatile personalities and I am relatively mild-mannered; if you know me, that should give you some perspective on the exact size and volatility.
Why do all these bright people with degrees and experience accept these $11-an-hour jobs that turn them into piles of shrapnel? It’s not ‘just capitalism’. We all know that. Why don’t we fight it, do something, refuse? This career demands obscene amounts of dedication. Doing your job, and doing it well, is insufficient. You have to be a work in progress, moving forward at a pace you don’t get to set. Your bosses think they have the right to ask what you’re doing in your off-time when you work mandatory 12-hour days. You are expected to declare a major, eliminating even more flexibility. How are you ever going to have a family or buy a house if you don’t get That Job?
And then there’s the fear, the constant reminder that you’re an easy cog to replace. If you’ve been doing QA for more than a year, someone is going to be willing to pour more of their life into the job for less money. Everyone on the planet wants your job, after all. Just ask the cashier at the Counter.
Yes, we all love games passionately, but two factors tend to bring in QA people: 1. The lifestyle. 2. That Job. Everybody wants in and we don’t argue because when things are good, they are amazing. We’re like rock stars. From what I’ve seen, some things apply to all game companies. It’s a lifestyle, not a job. When you arrive, people hand you awesome free stuff and printouts about their movie nights/tabletop groups/softball league. The camaraderie, the dizzy nights out at the Spectrum with your new best friends, the gaming and booze, the fun team-building stuff, the pats on the head, the getting laid. [Eventually, ALL your friends will be Company people. Your spouse will probably be in the industry too; outside people will never understand why you stay. All of this gets politically interesting when you decide to switch companies.] And E3! The spectacle, the industry’s rock stars, the proximity of EVERYTHING you love, everything you’ve ever dreamed of. It’s impossibly beautiful, irresistable, addictive. E3 and a perfectly written and resolved bug are the two most beautiful things in the world to me. [Did I mention that I love the work I do? I honestly do. This is a note about the cost.] If you could just get That Job, your life would be perfect and there would finally be peace. Hell, you have an interview next week! You had one last month, too. But your cube neighbor acted kind of funny when you headed to the office for the interview… did he have one too? Is he after That Job too?
It’s a flimsy, fickle, fragile fantasy. It can turn on you in a split second. One day you’ll say the wrong thing or wear the wrong skirt and suddenly nobody will speak to you. You’ll be put under some rude eighteen-year-old you trained a few months ago. Your friends will make plans in front of you and stop inviting you. The overtime will drain; nothing will replenish. You’ll spend the mornings reassembling and galvanizing yourself so you can walk back in there and say “good morning” to people who look right through you. You’ll try to ask what happened, but you are no longer in the bubble and there’s an invisible wall between you and the people you respect. You’re no longer a good investment. You put your head down and try to find the maze’s exit, try to find your way back to warmth and oxygen, but there isn’t one. You’re finished.
For someone who never wanted to do Quality Assurance or Compatibility, I was pretty good at it. It turns out that a lousy IT person can build one Hell of a compatibility lab! What’s really funny is that I’ve probably been making more money than I would be in the job I actually want, my personal version of That Job. All I want is to save players like me from facepalming over grammatical errors in video games. Other people wanted to be producers and writers and artists and other fancy, well-paying things. I thought my path would be clear because I saw a need; that’s what kept me hanging on. For ten years, nearly every decision I’ve made was made because it would let me have That Job. It’s been my religion, my compass point, and without it I feel disoriented. Disoriented and free.
The problem is that we want it too badly. It clouds our judgement and makes us competitive and cruel in ways we normally wouldn’t be. It’s not a civilized business.
For God’s sake, wake up before you fall into the pit I dug. Don’t end up like me– marginalized, heartbroken, bitter and obsolete after wasting too many years on a dream that felt so possible. My skill set is rusted through; I’m five versions behind on pretty much everything. My suits are ancient, my hair’s all wrong and I’m not sure I can make it through a job interview without dropping an F-bomb. I’ll get out there and find something to care about anyway.
I don’t actually remember what I liked before I started working in the industry. You’re not chained to this, and neither am I. We have value, even if we don’t get That Job. We can’t all be rock stars. We can do other things. It’s a big world, and there’s so much we can do for it, and the trees are so realistic.
Ciao, baby. I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll go to E3 and take one last swig, but this is [probably] goodbye. I lack what it takes and I have zero interest in acquiring it. I’m going somewhere where a spade is a spade, where gravity works and where willingness to throw a basket of adorable kittens in front of a train to get a leg up isn’t a positive attribute. Suggestions welcome. And if anyone knows a good colorist, hook me up.
After losing my job at NCsoft I relocated to Los Angeles and got heavily involved with the indie game scene. I am currently the Technical Director of IndieCade: The International Festival of Independent Games, and I work on multiple small teams’ games on the side. If you’d like to learn more about why everyone should be making games instead of killing themselves to keep the machine going, check out anna anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. Her description of the game industry made me cry my eyeballs out, and it’s a fantastic book.