Today, more people than ever before are playing video games...but most people still don’t actually understand how games are made. Even for hardcore game aficionados, game development remains fairly shrouded in mystery.
What’s more, a lot of what people think they know about game development is actually misconception. We spoke to a number of game developers who told us about the biggest things people get wrong about game development, and below is where, in their own words, these developers debunk common myths.
This, by far, is the most common thing that developers brought up when discussing prevalent game development misconceptions. Over and over again, developers described situations where players called them “lazy”—and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Game development is often grueling, and it’s not uncommon to hear about people putting in way over 40 hours of work a week just to get a game shipped on time. This is known as “crunch,” and it happens just as often on critically acclaimed games as it does games you might find in a bargain bin.
“We work in a culture of overtime, crunch and death marches,” one triple-A game developer who wished to remain anonymous told me in an interview. “People put their physical and mental health on the line every time, some even lose their families to our industry’s overtime culture.
“We do from 3 to 6 months of crunch on any given project and it’s considered NORMAL in our industry,” the developer said. “People with families, older devs get discriminated against all the time because it’s thought they can’t sustain the ‘normal’ work pace, which is ridiculously long hours as the norm, or crunch for months on end.
“We get told to accept lower salaries because of our ‘passion’ for gaming, we sacrifice our healths and families to overtime to get the game done... and then some jackass decides we’re lazy because a bug is still in the game, or a feature they wanted isn’t there? Fuck that shit.”
Here’s Armin Ibrisagic of Coffee Stain Studios, the folks behind Goat Simulator, describing a common game development misunderstanding:
I think the biggest misconception people have is when it comes to the time and effort taken to make games.
I remember when I worked at an FPS/Tower Defense game called Sanctum 2. In Sanctum 1, we had a server browser where you’d manually have to find a map you like, but in Sanctum 2, we’d just let people pick a map and then we’d use matchmaking to fill up the map with other players who wanted to play that same map. Much better and easier, right? But people still wanted a server browser, and they wouldn’t stop making threads about it on the forums. This one guy was like “well you had a server browser in Sanctum 1, can’t you just copy-paste the code into Sanctum 2?” ARRGHH - You can’t just copy-paste an entire server browser from one game to another!
This “game development is easy” myth usually goes hand-in-hand with the misconception of “lazy developers”. People who don’t work in game development don’t understand that game development is a constant compromise between good content/features, and time/resources.
Chandana Ekanayake of Uber Entertainment would like to set the record straight on how games evolve during the course of development:
Ideas are seductive and perfect. How cool would it be to fight zombies while riding dinosaurs with your friends in a galaxy as big as No Man’s Sky? How about a Far Cry game set in the Star Wars universe playing as Han Solo? How about strapping rockets to a moon and sending it hurtling against another planet, destroying your enemies? A space combat game that’s also a seamless FPS? Ideas are the fun part of game development when anything is possible. Most games that start out as an idea are rarely like that idea when they ship or don’t live up to the expectation of that first idea. Sometimes realities of production get in the way and most times when a game gets to prototyping stage, you find that that idea makes for shitty gameplay. This hasn’t usually been an issue as players don’t see the game until it’s been prototyped, iterated on and proven out.
With the volume of crowdfunded games it’s certainly turned into a problem for both developers and players. A player backs a game based on a slick pitch and expects the game to deliver on the promises of that pitch. Anytime an idea is mentioned during development on a forum, live stream, or Tweet, fans treat those as confirmed features. A developer treats an idea as a starting point and expects things to change during development. This disconnect is what causes trouble. There’s a whole lot of unsexy grind during game development that takes up a lot of time that gets glossed over when developers pitch games. Any added feature has a cost to development time. Things like optimizing, development tools, asset organization, updating middleware, testing and bug fixing can take up a significant portion of development that have zero to do with implementing features that the player is excited about. Things always take longer than you think. There’s no one solution to this problem other than constant communication and not over promise.
Nowadays, developers often announce plans for downloadable content well before the release of the actual game in question. For some people, this acts as proof that developers are out to sucker as much money as possible from the player, who may believe that they are expected to spend money on an “incomplete” game. The reality of DLC is more complex than that, though.
“I see a lot of disparaging of Day 1 DLC especially, but I wish the gaming public understood that in many cases this is in no way taking away from the core title,” Elizabeth Zelle, a games user researcher at Deep Silver Volition, told me in an email. “[DLC] is teams continuing to generate digital content, that doesn’t need to be finished months before the street date like the core title does.”
For developers, having something to work on in-between major releases is huge. Yes, that’s partially because DLC is profitable. But! DLC also provides much-needed security in an industry with an abundance of layoff horror stories.
“In the past you would see large layoffs when a game submitted because there simply wasn’t any more work for a lot of the devs on a team,” Zelle said. “The same studio would start hiring back up months later when their next project got to the point of needing that large team again. DLC production, the employment it provides devs, and the bonus income it generates to pay them works to keep game studios out of the layoff-hire back cycles and lets game devs enjoy a more stable life.”
It’s easy to get swept up in all the dolla dolla billz floating around in this industry. You read about games that cost millions to make. You hear about deals that net game developers billions. You look at the swank mansions that gaming YouTubers buy. It’s easy to think that every game developer is swimming in cash, but that’s not actually the case.
“I’m lucky,” Cliff Bleszinski, co-founder of Boss Key Productions, told me in an email. “I may have worked my butt off for years and made some great games with some great people, but Tim Sweeney was a very kind boss who treated his earliest employees very well. For every person like me that’s been successful there are hundreds of developers that are just getting by.”
Shawn Allen, designer of Treachery in Beatdown City, thinks that people are seduced really easily by photorealistic games—which can leave titles with “beautiful aesthetics” and “exaggerated features” in the dust.
“Pixel art is devalued as a medium because it is considered ‘easy’ when really, ease of creation is not and should never be the only metric for examining art,” Allen wrote in an email.
There’s a danger in valuing realistic graphics so much, Allen says.
“There is a great deal hyperbolic fervor for the newer, bigger worlds featured in games regardless of if they are bringing anything new to the table. Again, [for most people] frames per second & texture resolution trumps art direction.”
Matthew Medina of ArenaNet says that, while developers do have to making a living, making more money doesn’t necessarily drive everything they do:
It is true that there ARE certain design decisions which are made that do in fact hinge on maximizing VALUE (not profits) - but in reality in my experience those design decisions usually boil down to the dev team looking at it from the standpoint of [return on investment] - does it make sense to put X number of developers and Y numbers of dollars towards a feature or a piece of content that you can reliably predict won’t generate adequate revenue to warrant that investment? At the end of the day game studios are businesses where it behooves all employees to be weighing these things to some degree. But I will say that in my 23 year career, I’ve never felt as though any employer of mine was ever out to get as much money as possible from their players (and I worked at EA...twice).
When you play a game, any bugs you come across might seem obvious. I often read comments and forum posts where people are flabbergasted that nobody caught a certain hiccup that thousands of people online encountered right away. Here’s how something like that can happen, according to A Hat in Time developer Dan Tsukasa:
Players completely overlook that a bug requires a very very specific set of circumstances to be met in order to crop up. Sure it might appear [during a certain common situation] but it [also] only appears if you have X number of items, Y amount of ammo, have killed exactly 20 soldiers all before the game’s timer hits 12:01 and 0.003 milliseconds—that’s when the bug crops up, in that seemingly random circumstance. Bugs are a combination of many many factors coming together at the same time; it’s almost never a simple “Ah, it’s exactly this value we need to fix.” You could play the game for 20 years and never encounter it, whilst a new player could encounter [the same bug] in 5 minutes. It’s up to chance. Players give developers like us a really hard time for this one.
Robert Yang, developer of erotic games such as Cobra Club and Hurt Me Plenty, thinks that people underestimate just how important “casual” games actually are:
The Kim Kardashian game, across iOS and Android, has at least as many installs as DOTA2 if not many more — except DOTA2 is #1 on Steam by far, while the Kardashian game is just one of many huge mobile hits with tens of millions of users.
I think what people don’t understand (and what I barely comprehend myself) is the magnitudes of all these numbers. Gamers were shocked that Bioshock Infinite selling five million units was deemed a “failure” — well, maybe we wouldn’t have been shocked if we knew that Clash of Clans has several hundred million downloads on Android alone... and was probably much cheaper to make, market, and maintain.
Gamers want to deny this because it upends a lot of our ideas about which games deserve to be considered popular or successful; games with novelty, systemic depth, high artistic intent, expensive production values... the Kim Kardashian game has none of these things, but by the numbers, it is so much more successful and culturally influential than practically any “real” game on Steam.
Fans are defined by passion—they often know a franchise inside and out, and have very strong feelings about the way things should work in a game. Often, people can be vocal about the changes they want to see, especially on forums and comments section. But catering to fan demands doesn’t necessarily make for a better game, according to the founder of Panache Games.
“If we [listened] to the public and the general feedback [from players] Assasin’s Creed would have [had] dragons and monsters…and nobody would die in Game of Thrones,” Patrice Désilets, creator of Assassin’s Creed, joked in an email.
While many developers couldn’t chat with me one-on-one, I was provided with a deluge of opinions on game development misconceptions on Twitter. Here are some of the best Tweets:
And finally, here’s a funny anecdote by Abbie Heppe of Respawn Entertainment:
We had some guys in to fix our office shower last week and one guy was standing outside my office explaining to his coworker what we do. “They have a shower cause they’re here all the time. They have some guys that just work on graphics and since it’s a multiplayer game, what if a player reaches a point in the game and the graphics aren’t done yet?! So they have to be here all the time.” Long hours are definitely NOT why we have a shower - we added one because we have a really active company with lots of people who run or cycle or workout. We all got a kick out of it, but you can’t really blame the guy for not knowing about our jobs. On the flip side we have no idea how to fix the shower.
Illustration: Sam Woolley.