Jan 252012

Back in the olden days, I used to be a programmer writing code for a computer game company. It was hard, unglamorous work, and once the initial excitement wore off, it really became “just a job,” rather than something I loved to do. However, what drove me over the edge into outright hating the entire industry was a particular project that led me to question not my own sanity, but the sanity of artists who thought they were game designers.

Let’s see if I can tell the tale without using names.

Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, lots of movie studios were setting up game development studios to take advantage of languishing properties that they might be able to turn a fast buck on by turning them into games, or, with luck, game franchises. One of these decided to take a family movie from the ’60s and see if they could get an educational game made out of it.

They selected a team of artists — the operators of an outfit in Southern California that produced 3D animation for commercials and other projects — to design this game. That was their third mistake (the second being their selection of a project, and the first being the setting up of an “interactive” division in the first place).

These artists came up with a game idea, got it approved, and subcontracted out the programming to us.

They then proceeded to ignore every bit of design advice we gave them about what was remotely possible using 1997 software technology targeting computers that would be commonly found in schools and homes with small children. We would have meetings explaining how their designs were not possible to achieve, and they would apologize and make changes that made things even worse.

Over time, their grand design did gradually get scaled back — not by removing the impossible features, but by stripping out vast chunks of the game, leaving what had been envisioned as some two dozen scenes with fun, interactive puzzles as just short of 20 screens with animations that would activate when items were clicked and a few mediocre not-really-puzzles. In order to accommodate their poor design choices, multiple versions of the various animation sequences were required to cope with the cases where two animations could overlap one another; we would then select the video to play based on how many animations were supposed to be running, and play one movie covering both animating objects.

On top of all that, their lusciously, beautifully rendered cartoon graphics (and, yes, the artwork was beautiful) would sing and perform, with really quite nice voice acting and music. Except often they would sing songs that included inappropriate lyrics. Then there was the dance that included moves so suggestive that when I first got the video files, my jaw hit the keyboard, and I summoned everyone else in our company to see it, upon which they had to collect their jaws off my office floor.

Not long after that, the designers decided we were so far behind schedule that they moved into our offices and set up a dozen SGI workstations on our conference table to render videos, so they could make all the adjustments needed as we pointed out all the ways they had violated the set of rules we gave them for what they could and could not do in order to pack all this stuff onto a single CD-ROM. It was around that same time that the project manager from the movie-studio-interactive company started hanging around our office despite our having no actual direct business relationship with them. That was awesome too.

By the end of the project, there had been four-day-weekends during which I got less than 3 hours’ total sleep, weeks in which I worked 170+ hours, and actual physical fights in the office. In addition, there was the time I literally fell asleep, face on my keyboard, and one of the designer guys saw me and yelled at me for sleeping, despite having been there for over 20 hours.

As that project wound down, I started looking for a way out of the game business. I’ll continue that story in my next post, since this is a good place to break this one off. I’ll wrap up by saying that the game in question did ship, although less than 3000 copies were delivered, and the movie-studio-interactive company in question folded up not long after that.

 Posted by at 11:30 AM

  One Response to “A writer’s inspiration: The designers of that game”

  1. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that happened in Romania… My condolences. Hopefully one day you’ll give game development another try — this time as a hobby, so you can do it properly.