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Class Acts at GDC
by Kim Pallister on 03/21/10 11:44:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Cross posted from my personal blog]

It's been a few days since GDC 2010 wrapped, and between the thoughts reeling in my head and the work that piled up at the office, I haven't had time to post much on what I learned.

Having thought about it though, I've decided what my favorite session was this year: the rant session. It's among my favorites every year, but this year's rant, "Fired and Fired Up: Jobless Developers Rant" had a couple of rants that I thought were worth calling out.

I had to dash out of the session halfway through in order to make my flight, so I missed a couple of the rants. However, the first half-hour had two sessions that shared a commn thread:

Justin Hall, former CEO of Gamelayers, now at NGMoco (disclosure: he's also a friend), presented on the rise and fall and eventual crash & burn, of Gamelayers. He talked about everything that happens when a graduate student takes on 1.5M in VC money and ramps a company rapidly up to a dozen-plus employees to build an innovative browser-based MMO. Raph koster has a detailed write-up of Justin's rant.

Paul Bettner, formerly of Ensemble Studios, spoke about the decline and eventual closure of Ensemble. Pretty different than Justin's case, where this was the decline of a well-funded studio with a long history of doing AAA titles. The rant centered on how the grind of crunch in trying to chase the high of hitting the top 10, over time wore away at quality, morale, and execution. At the end, Microsoft was shutting down a studio that was a shadow of its former self. Joystiq has a detailed write-up here.

So, given these very different stories, what did they have in common? Both Justin and Paul had one identical phrase in their presentations:

"It was my fault. I failed."

Justin could easily have blamed the gamers for not 'getting it', the VCs for not throwing more money at it, browser companies for lack of interoperability, or any number of things. Instead he blamed himself. He was at the helm and it was up to him to watch the bottom line. Raph's writeup has the details.

Paul could have blamed Microsoft for mis-management, the team for not crunching hard enough, HR for not hiring the right people, console vendors for their complex platforms, etc. Instead he pointed out that he failed by ignoring the wear of crunch on people and families and he apologized to the people who's years he stole.

Both talks were passionate and brutally honest.

I watched them and noted that we came out of 2008/2009 watching news coverage of a cavalcade of Wall street and Detroit CEOs shirking any responsibility for their companies tanking and taking out people's life savings and jobs in the process.

I think in an age where "The Buck Stops Here" has disappeared from the leadership vernacular, I think these guys deserve kudos for displaying leadership and, quite frankly, class. 

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Glenn Storm
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Werd. While I frankly couldn't help but feel a little bit of the, "You did what?!", we have to admire the mea culpas and their willingness to share with us the details so we all learn and avoid these situations for ourselves. Much respect.

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This has been a crazy two years.

"Always moving the future is. The Dark Side clouds everything."

I really don't know what some of these execs are doing...or even some of the other game companies. Maybe this is a rant in and of itself, and maybe I'm just too damn nostalgic, but I remember developers making games and publishers doing their job and letting the devs control the series.

Now you have publishers milking a game for all it's worth without any innovation (*cough* MW2).

These were really good discussions.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Well, at least class; not leadership by their own admissions.

ken sato
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This has always been a difficult hurdle going from cadre to company.

Small successful groups tend to self-organizing, able to shift rapidly as needs arise and are more capable in dealing with unforeseen issues. This rapid shift inevitably helps with day-to-day matters but becomes problematic the large any body grows. Since more information and details need to be communicated and approved, as well as having effective inter-departmental communication, responsibility shifts towards an operational infrastructure of staff that are just responsible for making sure everything stays on track, on budget, and all parties are informed.

Being a person who's employee number was in the thousands and having to deal with those who were employee number 8, 7, or even 6 required a bit of skill. You couldn't go to those individuals unprepared since you not only had to communicate but also convince, to effectively specify changes being made and why the current model for format was no longer working. This meant pointing out issues that had been accepted but unresolved, and being able to give a solution that could alter the structure of existing process. Luckily most of the initial cadre were willing to acknowledge internal issues, other companies I've been at have more readily allowed problematic issues to reoccur.

So costing, risk assessment, and 'calling the ball' acknowledgment is a welcome trend. The only question is whether opportunities to show what they've learned from failure and how to prevent it or to ensure success, profitability, and creativity, is granted. It's really tough for profit models to accept failure as a cost of doing business but innovation suffers from it, as do operations, marketing, etc.

Jason Bakker
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I think he means that that by taking responsibility, they were displaying leadership. And as for their leadership skills, it's pretty hard for us to say - even the best leaders require a decent modicum of luck and good favour to succeed.