Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Suitability of the Game Industry as a Rational Career Move (The Rewrite)

This is a substantial rewrite of an earlier post that was much more colorful. This version has about as much content, but it is also much shorter and less likely to annoy people.

The subject of this post is in the nature of a response to various friends of mine who wonder why I do not work in the glamourous and rewarding field of computer-based entertainment, e.g. the game industry. These are friends of mine who wish me well, and have seen others from so-called highend computer animation go work successfully in that industry. But I don't think my friends actually understand the game industry very well and maybe are not aware of some of my goals going forward that inform the choice of industry to work in, so this post is an effort to thank them for their suggestion but supply some reasons why it is perhaps more difficult than they realize or has other issues that argue against such a move.

First, I think the future of computer-based entertainment (CBE) is huge, just huge, in terms of its cultural importance as well as the technical challenges and opportunities that it presents. And I have no doubt that various groups are making a vast amount of money in that industry, and will no doubt make much more in the future. Some of them will.

Second, here are four possible scenarios where I could work in the game industry and be very happy and rewarded.   Unfortunately I don't think that any of these are very likely.  (a) EA could hire me to be a senior creative vice president at a modest salary of $500,000 US plus a production R&D budget, (b) I could be independently wealthy and have my own personal laboratory and production company working on topics that interest me, (c) I could be Will Wright, founder of Maxis and creator of SimCity. Mr Wright gets to do pretty much whatever he wants to do in the game industry, and I am sure it would be very entertaining and rewarding to be in his shoes, or (d) I could be a Ken Perlin-like person, who does not actually have to make any money from the game industry, but can instead work on ideas that he thinks are important and interesting and from time-to-time publish these ideas. But Ken is a tenured full professor of computer science at NYU and I am not.

Third, although there has been some cross-fertilization between so-called high-end computer animation and the computer based entertainment industries, it is not in general easy to move between those two. There was a very specific period when someone from ILM or another perceived to be glamourous sector of computer animation could talk their way into the game industry. This was a number of years ago though and that time has mostly passed. And even when it was going on, it did not work out for a lot of people, or if it did work out, it no longer does. There are also some cases of people coming from the game industry and moving into high-end computer animation (so called, again, I think these terms are misleading) but again it is not a general rule that such things are likely to happen.

Fourth, the grass is always greener, and there are good reasons for this. When you are not in an industry, it is likely that you do not know what the problems are in that industry. But every industry has problems and here are a few that afflict the game industry. (a) The industry is very competitive, many titles are produced each year but only a few of them become profitable, similar in many ways to the music industry. (b) Also similar to the music industry, the money is made in distribution and production companies only see a major upside if they have had a hit, (c) The games are financed by advances from the distribution companies (e.g. an Electronic Arts) which pays for the production of the game. If the game does not become a hit then the production company has no money to live on, and must either lay everyone off, make a deal to do another game again at low or no profit, or go out of business. Production companies of successful and interesting games go out of business all the time, every day of the week. (d) Because of the vast risk associated with doing a game and the need to sell an idea to a distribution company or otherwise get financing to create the game, and because game production is both expensive and difficult, people work hard to reduce risk which usually means not taking chances. Thus, very few new ideas are explored in the computer based entertainment industry on a day-to-day basis by the people working in that side of the industry. There are people who get to explore these new ideas, but they are special people and this does not represent something that the great majority of people who work in that industry get to do. (e) Like all for-profit companies, the computer-based entertainment industry is highly influenced by who it is that traditionally buy their products and their likes and dislikes as those people (or their parents) are, after all, the customer.  And the game industry is therefore highly targeted towards boys of certain age groups and the themes that appeal to them.  There are some exceptions to this, and there is a lot of discussion about games for girls, games for adults, games for frogs, etc, and this area will evolve, but for the most part we are talking about games for boys here and what it is that boys like to do.

Fifth, it takes time and effort to establish onesself in any industry, and the computer-based entertainment industry is no exception. Therefore, if one is going to put in that effort, it makes sense to be sure that certain qualities of that industry, sometimes described with phrases such as "lifestyle" are right for the individual in question. For example, some industries are located primarily in certain cities, and therefore an industry may or may not be appropriate based on where you want to live. And since I am coming from a long-history of having helped to invent high end computer animation and visual effects, it makes sense to see if the game industry is any better, worse or different in some of these areas. Here are just a few of these so-called lifestyle issues for your consideration: (a) in terms of stability in comparison to computer animation and visual effects, if anything the game industry is less stable, (b) in terms of being able to work on new technologies and explore new ideas, it is not clear that one industry is any better than another, but possibly the game industry has a slight edge here, (c) in terms of respect for experience and issues of ageism, the game industry is if anything worse than the motion picture industry, (d) in terms of the intellectual level or sense of humor of the industry and the people in it, it all depends on where you work and what you are doing, but the game industry per se is probably not that much better, (e) In terms of whether I would be able to work on ideas that interest me, again it depends entirely on the project, your position on that project, etc.

So, in conclusion, I want to thank my friends for their suggestions, but I don't think that working in the computer based entertainment sector would work for me unless I could somehow engineer a project, job, role or whatever that allowed me to work on ideas and content of interest to me in a suitable environment. Otherwise it would just be a waste of my time and I would be better off trying to establish myself in an industry that has more stability, works on a higher intellectual level, and which tries to help the world. The defense industries and the nuclear weapon industries both come to mind in that regard.

If someone from EA is reading this and wants me to come on board as a senior creative vice president, I hope you will not hesitate to pick up the phone and give me a call.

The wikipedia page for Will Wright:

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