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Book Review - Gamers at Work

25th April 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

It seems like anywhere you go, there's still more than a fair share of negative talk concerning the game industry. However, if you wish to surround yourself with positive influences, then Gamers at Work will do much more than satisfy. This book offers such a refreshing take on the industry through the viewpoints of seventeen different individuals and their powerfully captivating stories. If you're even remotely serious about the gaming industry, the impact this book will have on you is that of undeniable inspiration and encouragement.

    Gamers at Work deals with a lot more than just general startups. In it, you'll find persons of humble and prestigious beginnings -- often backed by prior experience in gaming, film and other industries -- who are clearly willing to lend support to up and coming game designers and company executives for the furtherance of the industry. Gamers at Work digs a lot deeper than simply analyzing the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of a particular business model. The book offers an honest glimpse into the inner workings of the featured companies, the risks they've undertaken, and problems they've encountered. As the interviewees look back and remark about things they wish they had done, younger studios can definitely glean valuable insights from the words of wisdom they impart both outright and through indirect means. 

    I loved how each interview felt like they tied into some of the topics discussed in the one before. In Chapter 3, for example, Wild Bill Stealey talks about the "make somebody famous" strategy employed in the promotion of Sid Meier's Pirates and its later releases. In the subsequent chapter, Tony Goodman's words establish a link to what was stated earlier, once again pointing to Sid Meier but in the context of using Civilization as a means of inspiration. In so doing, although the interviewees present unique viewpoints and their own supply of compelling anecdotes, the book is very cohesive in the way one interview actually ties to the other(s) in a somewhat subtle fashion.

    One of the main draws about this book is authenticity. The words you read from those who have been in the business convey this very feeling as they respond in a forthright manner without hiding behind glossed-over responses. There are some very astute remarks made about other companies like THQ, for example, but they never come across as resentful, accusatory, or slanderous in nature. The more you dig, the more trustworthy the various anecdotes become, as well as the persons relaying such stories in the context of an interview.

    You could argue that some of the probing questions asked by the author help to arrive at these answers, as some of the questions are actually atypical of what would be asked in a standard Q&A for a publication. Just as an example of this, Ramsay actually points out that a particular company seemed to be "hemorrhaging" employees, which in itself is quite a statement to make. But in the defense of each of the interviewees, I never felt like they were withholding information or only offering bits and pieces of general info. It really feels like they are sharing their life story with us as readers, and that in itself is an honour. To read Warren Spector relate the hard-to-swallow revelation he experienced at E3 2003, you can't help but have even more respect for him. And, happy to say, this is something that's true practically across the board. Even though we are not the ones interviewing, there's definitely a humbling sense of appreciation for even getting a morsel of valuable information from these experienced individuals.

    Not all of it is all sugar and spice. Many of the persons featured in the book humbly take or at least share the blame when it comes time to discuss a serious problem they encountered with the company they were working for at the time. Reading along as interviewees recount difficult challenges comes with it heaps of insight into the circumstances they were faced with, how they did (or didn't) deal with certain problems, the professional squabbles that arose, and where they had to make sometimes ultimatum-like decisions towards balancing family and work. It was fascinating to read about Jason Rubin's pickle with Universal Interactive; John Smedley and the major issue that arose with EverQuest; and when Nolan Bushnell talked about how his work was blatantly copied. In other cases, decisions were basically made for the individuals. Tim Cain talked about how an RPG he was working on was shipped with serious problems that were "easily solvable" had the publisher loosened their grip. There were some similar cases where a set of unreasonable expectations were given by a publisher, leaving a team with parameters that stifled their ability to flesh out the concepts and designs in the way they wanted. 

    Interestingly enough, not all of these issues spoken about were from external forces. Even within their own companies, there are issues relating to conflicting philosophies on the growth of a business; a breach of trust from employees; an inability to step back from an original design; and the reaction of being in the spotlight. Whether internal or external in nature, some had to pay pretty high prices as a result of different things, and to read about how these individuals were able to cut their losses and learn from discouraging situations has the opposite effect of providing encouragement, regardless of your background in gaming.

    A couple of the interviewees like to touch on the whole concept of what it was like starting a video game business back in the 80's and 90's and some of the challenges that stemmed from that. For instance, in Nolan Bushnell's case, it was commented that the notion of running a business dedicated to the creation of games was "too strange" back then, while Jason Rubin spoke about what it was like to publish his first game under the USP of having units distributed in Ziploc bags! At times, events are also discussed, but hearing what it was like being a developer during these aforementioned eras is something I appreciated getting to hear about even more.

    There's more than one sentiment expressed relating to the chaotic nature of the games industry and how critical things like adaptability are in wanting to not only dodge common pitfalls, but also to learn a great deal from them in the process. One such remark touches on the importance of building internal attachments to a project with everyone in an office playing their own products. In line with this, there are also many mentions of how beneficial a culture-first atmosphere is for development teams both big and small. On a more individual level, some shared company values that actually differed greatly from how other companies also featured in the book approached game development. For instance, John Smedley portrayed the ideology of examining what's missing in a particular market as backwards thinking, while individuals like Tobi Saulnier of 1st Playable Products has a contrasting approach of looking at "emerging genres" while they are still ripe for growth and open to new material.

    A person might jump to the conclusion that the interviewees would focus more on their personal difficulties and share less about their viewpoints on gaming at large. Thankfully, while a considerable portion of the discussions present are in fact done with a retrospective outlook, there's still talk on current developments and relevant topics that are very much worth reading. In Chapter 5, for example, Feargus Urquhart mentioned his stance on licensed games; that they are a "privilege" that require a level of respect. Along with this, social gaming is also looked at in broad terms, as well as how companies have had to deal with criticism from gaming press, and the increasing power of digital distribution services. These topics fuel the book's position as a relevant collection of discussions that relate much to what currently takes place in the industry.

    In summary, there are tons of take-away points for anyone interested in starting their own game company someday or even desiring to have a role in game development. Gamers at Work imparts valuable life lessons that any young person interested in pursuing business can also learn from. Even passionate gamers cannot do without this book. There wasn't a single chapter in this book where I was unable to find something I could personally learn from. Heck, even I want to start my own company now! Gamers at Work is truly an invaluable resource that's well worth adding to your personal library.

Feature by KnucklesSonic8