Last time, I painted a fairly bleak picture of what it was like to work at RTW, leaving me with an uncomfortable problem: why did so many smart people put up with these problems? There are fundamentally two reasons: complacency, and love of what we did. In this post, a few words on complacency.
It’s perhaps best summed up by our own words, the blurb from the graduate recruitment section of our website. It’s still on our website as I write this, but I’m going to quote it in full as presumably it will disappear at some point soon!
If you’re looking for your first job in games, it’s worth thinking very carefully about your future employer. Do you want to work on jaded, derivative titles that receive scathing reviews and go straight to the bargain bin? Do you want to work large amounts of unpaid overtime because your project is underfunded and poorly managed? Do you want to work on codebases that are messy and poorly-designed because there’s never time to do things properly? Do you want to live in fear of your company’s financial security?
It’s sad that these and other games industry horror stories are more frequent than they should be, but it’s not like that here. We only work on original, ambitious projects: our first title, Crackdown, was a number-one hit, winning critical acclaim and multiple awards, and our best is yet to come, beginning with our first online game, APB. And while making games is great fun, we take our work seriously. We pride ourselves on our unusually sensible, sustainable and professional development practices, resulting in smoothly-run projects and far less overtime than is normal for many game developers. We’re passionate about engineering and crafting our games to the highest of standards. We cultivate an open working environment where ideas are valued on their own merits, no matter whose they are. The growth of our company and size of our projects allows us to provide a wide range of opportunities. And the investment we’ve raised puts us in a strong financial position with security and creative control over our projects.
Ouch, ouch, ouch. I don’t know if a comic writer could have hand-crafted a more deliciously ironic piece for us. And yes, complacency did stray into arrogance at times.
From the creator of Lemmings and GTA!
For a long time, Realtime Worlds cultivated an air of success about the office. Raising $100m sounds pretty cool on paper, we all walked past the Crackdown awards cabinet each morning, the press were excited about APB and we had Dave who apparently could do no wrong.
But after the investment, we lost our scrappy startup mentality and used our money to build this highly “corporate” culture, mimicking an established, successful organisation. We lost our hunger, our fear of failure, our focus on staying lean and making do, on building the simplest thing that could possibly work. The external signs of success were everywhere but the driving force was gone. We forgot to tell ourselves that the investment was just a small step towards success, not to be confused with success itself.
The complacency showed through in so many ways. We were complacent about game design, papering over APB’s obvious shortcomings and telling ourselves it would somehow come together at the last minute before release (an argument that was strengthened by the experience of seeing Crackdown do just that). We were complacent about business planning, deciding to spend all our investment getting APB to launch, assuming that we would sell zillions of copies and over-spending on server hardware. When we were told we were being made redundant, we were told something along the lines of “the market is just so bad right now … we could never have predicted this … even our worst sales projections were so much higher than this”. I think that was supposed to be consolation but it was just complacent, and dumb.
It’s a gross generalisation to say the whole company was complacent. It’s deeply unfair to a few pockets of incredibly passionate, hungry developers that worked their socks off and created some amazing stuff – like APB’s character customisation system, and its super-reliable back-end software, to name just a couple (apologies to all the other good examples of work I missed). Sadly, it was not enough to overcome the problems.
The investment and Crackdown’s success were obviously contributors to complacency. Another reason is that we forgot to wear tin foil hats … because
Dave has his own reality distortion field
I was reading “The Pixar Touch” recently, when I came across these passages about Steve Jobs:
We’d have to deprogram our troops after he had made a visit, because he has this charisma. When he starts talking, he just takes people’s minds. He would start talking to the Pixar people and I would just see their judgmental faculties go away. They would just sit there and look at this guy with what I would describe as love in their eyes.
– Alvy Ray Smith
And yet when we would go down to a meeting with Steve, he would be so convinced that this [3D rendering] had Everyman potential that he would talk tough to you. He would say how this was really like PostScript and that we can have it in every printer, we can follow the Adobe model. So while you are in the room with him, you’re thinking, Well, yeah, that’s true … But when you get back to the real world, you realise, I know that wasn’t going to work.
– Pam Kerwin
There was something quite eerie about reading this, because this is exactly what Dave Jones does to people. I hadn’t heard about it before, but it turns out Steve Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field” is famous.
Dave’s version was also famous, amongst people who’d worked with him before. There was a running joke from the old DMA days, that everyone should don their tin foil hats when Dave entered the room, to block his mind-control rays. There’s an old picture from the DMA office of them all sitting with tin foil hats on, although I couldn’t find it. If anyone has it, send me the link and I’ll do an update and stick it here because I seem to remember it being pretty funny.
Unfortunately, Reality Distortion Fields do not provide total mind control. They can convince people to believe anything, but they cannot direct people’s efforts. Once we became over-sized, I think Dave really struggled to direct our projects as he’d have liked. Our best efforts were in our early days when we were small – Crackdown, the early builds of APB including the core of the customisation system, and the prototype of MyWorld that essentially won the initial investment. That last prototype was built by Mike Dailly all on his own, and represented perhaps the best outcome-to-effort ratio of anything we ever did. The contrast with our 20-person committee meetings to review APB builds could not have been more stark. I genuinely felt sorry for Dave in some of those.
The Reality Distortion Field was a double-edged sword for us. I’m pretty sure it was a big part of us raising $100m. It also obviously contributed to our complacency. If anything ever reached crisis point, Dave was always, always able to convince people that everything would be ok. I think at times this prevented us from actually taking problems as seriously as we should have.
I don’t blame Dave for that though; it’s a brilliant skill to have and I don’t think he ever wielded it maliciously. We were the fools for not staying hungry.
I’m going to put together one more post. As I mentioned at the start of this one, part of the reason we put up with the bad stuff is that we loved what we did. For all the frustration that I’ve poured out over the last three posts, I had an amazing time over my 6 years at RTW. While I regret not doing more to help fix our problems, and am deeply disappointed by our failure, I don’t regret taking part in the adventure. I learned a huge amount, met some incredible people, and fully intend to leave my retrospective on a high note :)