Working in gamedev: HRM

Here comes the cecond part of the "working in gamedev" cycle. For the first part - you can visit here. It was about the atmosphere in gamedev. This part will be a little bit more managerial - I wanna talk about Human Resources Management. 

For those who don't know it, HR splits into two main categories: one is "hard HR", which means all the stuff related to payments, benefits, vacation days, work agreements - all the stuff that is mandatory for all the companies if they want to hire employees. There is also the "soft HR" that deals with things like employer branding (how the company is perceived by potential employees), motivation, talent development, recruitment, coaching, leadership... The list goes on, as soft HR is a field where people constantly come up with new ideas that become more or less trendy and widely misused for propaganda rather than actually increasing the satisfaction of employees.

I happen to have a Master's degree in HRM. I have worked in HR for some time as well and you wouldn't believe how many brilliant theories on team building, motivation and personal development I have heard of. In all the places I worked before, lots of these theories were well-known. The HR departments often had more people than an average gamedev studio. Still, the only means of motivation they could use effectively was salary. The only means of team building was an occasional "conference" causing boredom in the day, double vision in the night and extreme hangover the next day. Personal development in 90% of the cases were position name changes from "junior manager" to "manager" and then "senior manager".

Corporate HRM often claims to treat everyone as an individual while applying unified management methods and programs.

How does it work in gamedev?

Hard HR works pretty much like everywhere else. If you are used to corporate approach, you are probably familiar with HR system or applications on the intranet, where you can manage your vacation days, check payment grade and see the number of overhours you have accumulated, based on the times on the entrance/exit gates. If you happen to find a job in Blizzard, EA or Square-Enix, you most likely have a chance to see this kind of systems too. Most of the time though, even studios that are widely recognized for their games, can have no such things, just like small companies of any other type. All the vacation days, absences, overhours, you need to count by yourself or trust the person that is supposed to do it. On the plus side - every request can be handled face-to-face in 5-10 minutes. In big companies, where everything is "one click away" it often means that after you click, someone needs to accept it, then someone else needs to verify it and you end up feeling grateful that at least one of these functions isn't outsourced and that getting the acceptance only takes 48 hours max.

Soft HR is where the main difference exists. Would you believe that studios employing over 150 people can have no HR manager? That recruitment is being done from scratch by Team Leaders? That "Jobs" sections of their sites are often so out-of-date that not a single position mentioned there is vacant or needed? There are of course some reasons for that. One is level specialization. In many cases, an HR manager conducting a general interview with a candidate is wasting everyone's time. People in gamedev are most often hired based on strictly determined sets of skills that can be verified with an art test or portfolio and cannot be assessed by an HR manager. Second reason would be the market size. In most countries the industry is so small that every Team Leader looking for a specialist knows exactly the names of people with skills and experience he needs. The international recruitment isn't as popular as you might think (you need a really strong brand for it).

Paradoxically, managing a horde of individuals proves to be easier than it looks - in a creative environment lots of HR tasks just take care of themselves.

Recruitment is of course only one of many elements of soft HR - who is taking care of the other ones? Well, in gamedev, lots of problems take care of themselves. There is nothing more motivating than seeing the results of your work in a short period of time. Most of the stuff you make or help to make gets integrated into the game as quickly as possible, so in a relatively short time you can see your drawing modelled, animated and attacking you. It really is an amazing feeling. People do meet after hours on their own, play multiplayer games together... Integration conferences happen, but they are just a cherry on top, not the sole means of letting people get to know each other.

Being a dynamic and project-based industry, gamedev takes care of talent development without any special programs. For example, you are a 3D artist. You start your career making a game X for 2 or 3 years. If your skill improved enough to become a senior 3D artist in any other project, you will almost certainly be offered such a role (gamedev needs lots of specialists, so a skilled person rarely has problems finding a job) - in your current company or any other in your country or abroad, depending on your mobility. People's loyalty lies with projects rather than companies. If they want to do an RPG and their current company is making third shooter in a row, they will migrate as soon as they have a chance. To do something new, to work on new skills and new type of project. This of course means that the industry can be cruel for those that lack initiative. There won't be any programs that will artificially encourage you to broaden your horizons. 

Another really nice thing is that people in gamedev rarely have problems sharing their experience. If you are willing to learn, you will always find someone to teach you. Mentoring and coaching relationships appear more naturally when people's tasks interconnect. There's no real need for company-coordinated mentorship programs. There's this "new" HR trend called Lifelong Learning and lately poor corporate employees are being bombarded with encouragement to learn and develop their potential towards their personal and professional goals (or some other mumbo-jumbo). Luckily in gamedev, people rarely need incentive too learn, so there's no annoying, bullshit-driven HR manager doing anything he or she can to make our jobs seem less miserably pointless.



DISCLAIMER: when games making noob writes a review, he first focuses on everything that he found ridiculously bad. Then he moves on to weaknesess and for dessert, he leaves the things he liked. Most people never reach these cool things he saves for last.

READY PLAYER ONE is, like most of the modern american literature, in fact an elaborate movie script and has very little in common with an actual novel. Pretty much every scene, every dialogue and every character is prepared for the silver screen. The amount of suspence used on under 400 pages of RPO is probably two times bigger than in whole Dostoyewski's and Hemingway's collection put together.

Characters are more flat than those in Parappa the Rapper - every single one of them can be described with only one dominating and in most cases stereotypical feature: Japanese are honorable, protagonist's crush is sarcastic and his best friend is his cheering bitch. The enemy is as evil as any faceless James Bond's nemesis. Dialogues between them always sound like this:
Protagonist: I am saying a clever, cool line to impress the girl I am in love with.
Japanese 1: Protagonist-san is a honorable man.
Best friend: Lol, protagonist, high five!
Japanese 2: Protagonist's best friend-san is also honorable.
Protagonist's crush: This is a retort shooting down the protagonist, just to act like a bitch.

Luckily, the dialogues between those guys happen really rare. What's also very fortunate, is that the book is written in the first-person perspective, which forces the author to actually make the protagonist more 3-dimensional. Since most of the book is about his solo actions, the flatness of other characters lets us treat them like we would treat any other episodic NPC.

Logic and probability aren't Ernest Cline's best friends either. I would say his relationship with those two virtues has an on-again, off-again character. Everything that happens in the book is really cool and highly implausible. Like a group of teenagers beating the crap out of a horde of "bad guys" that were recruited for analytical thinking, but just all happen to be dumber than a pack of tic-tacs.

One thing that actually seems really cool is the world Cline has described. Every social and economic element of RPO's setting really adds up - both outside the Virtual-Reality-MMO and inside it. On the other hand, I would be really surprised if it didn't. The world outside is a generic cyberpunk setting and the MMO is nothing more than WoW mechanics + Entropia Universe economics + Second Life social functions blown way out of proportions. There's just no way to go wrong there.

Summing up this rant - if you looked at it from the literary side - Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE is really a terrible novel. Which didn't stop me from immensely enjoying every bit of it. Imagine a story about a kid, living in the future, that starts a D&D-style quest. Correction - not a quest. A QUEST. A QUEST that leads him through the whole popculture of 20th century's 80's. Imagine pac-man arcade machine sounds jamming the Van Halen and AC/DC music in the background while the CRT TV plays "War Games" or "Revenge of the nerds".

Now I myslelf, being born in mid-80's, know most of this culture from my parent's records, from TV re-runs of older movies and sitcoms and from digging in the old games libraries. I knew maybe 60% of the references, but it still felt great. If you happened to actually grow up in the 80's, this book will probably make you cry more than once. It's a true tribute to the decade.

Once you realize that what you are reading is not supposed to be Blade Runner or Johnny Mnemonic but rather Goonies or Back to the Future, you stop caring about the logic or how the characters are built. You don't give a shit whether the universe is a total cliché. You just go out on a quest with Parzival. You fall in love with Art3mis and go save the virtual world from Sux0rz. And it's worth every minute spent with the book.

And if you are an aspiring developer, you should read this book for one other reason. Apart from being about the 80's popculture, it is about secrets and Easter Eggs in games. It shows their importance, the fun they bring and how they build a dialogue between the developer and the gamer. It touches the topic of Easter Eggs so much that you can find one in the book itself. People who found it had a chance to win Cline's DeLorean DMC-12. The contest is long gone already and tips how to find the Egg in the book are already googlable, but I encourage you to try and find it yourself, without help. As an excercise in geekiness and perception.


When ratings become censorship

This topic came to me when I said to our Art Director: "wow, it would be cool if we could shoot off the enemy's limbs". He agreed it would be cool. He also said "but then we wouldn't be able to sell it in Germany". I investigated this topic a bit deeper and it turned out that the whole issue with various ratings is really, really vast. I by no means want to start a Wikipedia here. Therefore I decided I'll just bulletpoint the overview of the situation and then focus on the thing I really wanted to write about.

The general situation: there are at least 9 different rating systems all over the world. Every single gaming market that counts has a different one: Northern America, Europe, Brazil, Australia, Japan, South Korea... Also, in Europe alone 3 countries have rating systems of their own: UK, Germany and Finland. If you want details on all these systems: how they differ, what tiers they have - you will have to do some research on your own. It's not what I want to cover here.

In a perfect world, all these rating systems shouldn't affect games at all. A developer finishes a game, it gets various ratings in various countries and it arrives in video game stores. Unfortunately, it's not so simple. If a developer wants to target their game towards certain age group, they sometimes need to sacrifice the coolness factor in order to meet all the requirements of different rating systems for this age group. This means introducing all the restrictions there are all over the world. Still, most of the time these are minor tweaks without bigger impact on the game and - frankly speaking - if the developer wants to make a game for little kids, I'm pretty comfortable with all these ratings guarding our children at once. Especially since a game doesn't have to be violent to be loads of fun! The biggest problem is with the games rated M or 18+ and the USK system in Germany.

What's so special about German USK? As far as I know, every system has these rules, what's acceptable for every age group. If a game has elements unacceptable for all the lower groups, it just gets an 18+, 21+, M or whatever the highest rating in the system is. USK has limitations even for the highest tier. This means that a game can be "too mature for a mature user" and that it falls out of the highest tier as well. As a result, the game doesn't get a rating and you cannot legally sell it, you cannot promote it. Shops won't take it, Steam, PSN or XBLA won't sell it online. Shipping from neighboring countries becomes the only way to buy this game in Germany.

All of a sudden, a rating system becomes a form of censorship. And censorship is what yours truly really hates. Every censorship kills an artist. As Picasso once said "Where it is chaste, there is no art".

Since pretty much every developer and publisher wants to sell the game, the general trend is to try to meet the rating's requirements as long as the most violent features are not the game's core esthetics. This way lots of games get a special version for Germany where the blood is either green or nonexistent. In cases, where a gore-based feature actually is a big deal for the game, developers and publishers sometimes decide to sell the game everywhere else but in Germany. Whether censorship bans the whole game or just its small part, it's still a rape on art.

You could say "well, sucks to live in Germany". Wrong! Germany is Europe's biggest market in terms of revenue. It's not a market the publishers want to ignore. Not every developer has the manpower to deliver special versions of the game for a single country, so they just censor the game for everyone. Therefore... It sucks to live in the world were German rating system sometimes censors the games for all the nations on the planet.

Of course this system still hurts mature German players the most. They are the ones that have restricted access to some games. Pretty much the same way Chinese have restricted access to the Internet. Don't smile just yet though, my non-German friend. It affects you as well. Every time you play an 18+ game, stop for a moment and think, how much more fun, realistic or shocking this game could have been if the developers didn't have to cope with any restrictions. If the highest rating on the box could buy them artistic freedom.

You probably think I am exaggerating and that in reality it almost doesn't happen. Let me tell you an authentic story then. When The Witcher 2 was about to be released, the studio asked for the ratings in US and in Germany. For Germany, they had to hide the existence of a scene depicting extreme violence and gore. Amount of sex in the game was not the issue. US however, came back with the feedback: "Well guys, you have a lot of sex your game. You might wanna raise the violence level to keep it consistent". Now imagine you are a developer who gets this kind of mixed feedback. How do you react? What decision do you make? Will you always just go your own way, not listening to the suggestions that might boost your sales?


Speed runs and cancer

This is actually a first post that I haven't planned in advance. I have a queue of topics I really wanted to cover and this list is rather getting longer than shorter, but this one issue I wanted to write about right away. 

I just came across an SDA Charity Marathon, which I find one of the best gaming - related events ever. The idea is simple: for a whole week gamers gather and do speed runs of their favourite games, commenting on what they are doing while playing. Sharing all the tips and tricks. These guys really know what they are doing. Dark Souls run under 90 minutes, Contra run under 12 minutes or Starcraft 2 campaign in under 3 hours 30 minutes on brutal difficulty - these are just a few out of (literally) hundreds impressive game completion times. They are doing these runs 24/7 and accepting donations for Prevent Cancer Foundation. So far (there's still two days to go when I am writing this) they raised... Lemme check... $241 250. From what I've learned, they are doing it for the third time already.

The whole event is streamed online HERE
I admit I didn't do much research, but people behind it seem to be gamers associated with speeddemosarchive.com joined by speedrunslive.com community. All great gamers. Both links are getting a sticky link on my blog.

Now there are two things I really like about this event. One is the message it sends to the world. Message about gamers wanting to help people in need. Message of games going beyond simple entertainment, beyond e-sports. Games becomming socially attractive tools for doing a simply good deed. The numbers are speaking for themselves. There are thousands of people watching these streams. Thousands of people donating. All of them interested in what is going on on the screen, but also in helping the cause. You can hate me for it, but I will say it anyway. The fact of gaming community uniting and reaching out to people is what moved me much more than the whole cancer thing. I mean - sure, preventing cancer is cool and stuff. I even sent them all the cash I made selling Diablo III items. Still, I didn't do it because I was moved or touched by the cancer tragedies. I did it because I really admire the effort of these guys and I really think that events like this can change the image of a gamer in the public opinion. Show that games aren't the Satan's tool for igniting the torch of juvenile violence. Prove, how easily games can be used for higher causes.

The second thing is speed runs. To all gamedev wannabe's out there: watch at least a few. Personally, I don't speedrun - I prefer to lay back, enjoy the views, read the plot, identify myself with the character, explore the area, get a trophy or two and check out a cool easter egg. Speed runs though are the ultimate challenge for a gamer. They require top skill and knowledge of the game. They mercilessly exploit all the mechanics in the game. All level design flaws. All bugs, all glitches, everything. These guys - speedrunners - are the true testers of every game's design. They use all the tools given to them in ways that the developers would never think of. They expose the bugs testers didn't see comming. They find holes in solid walls, analyze every single enemy's AI to the point nobody would even dream of. But most of all, they show how deep the gameplay can truely be.

Summing up:
- speed runs are cool
- cancer isn't
- gaming events are cool
- obesity isn't (and can lead to cancer)
- don't do drugs, drugs are bad, mmkay?