Thursday, May 31, 2012

Baseball and Videogame Development: Some Thoughts

[Note: All opinions expressed here are mine and not my employer's. You have been warned.]

I love baseball. I work in video games. So naturally, the collapse of Curt Schilling's 38 Games is of more than passing interest to me, not just because I feel terrible for the several hundred people who abruptly lost their jobs. And of course, there's all sorts of casting blame going on, and righteous pronouncements, and dire commentaries about how the real story, whatever that might be, will never be told.
I don't know. Like I said, I feel tremendous sympathy for two crack teams' worth of game developers who have suddenly found themselves unemployed. And I find myself suddenly trying to explain game development to folks who read or write about baseball, in a way that will make the story make sense to them, when I'm not quite sure it makes sense to me yet.
But in any case...

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When Schilling first came up to the big leagues, he was famously a knucklehead. Self-admitted, even. It took a conversation with Roger Clemens after he was traded from Baltimore to Houston to get his head screwed on straight, an admonition to stop pissing away his talent and do what he was capable of. The light went on, or started to go on, and Schilling started to improve. Of course, he didn't improve that much, or he wouldn't have been available straight up for Jason Grimsley, but that's where the trending began.
Once upon a time, that was an inspiring story of one sort. An all-time great admonishing a talented screwup about working hard and changing his ways - that's the pure Horatio Alger stuff.
Except, of course, these days the story's a little different. With Clemens snared in PED and perjury allegations, the message can read a little different. Rules are for other people. Do whatever you have to. Win at all costs. Never admit when you're in over your dead - just keep swinging.

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It was former Phillies GM Ed Wade who once said that Schilling was a horse one day out of five, and a horse's ass the other four.

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When he pitched for the Phillies, Schilling never wanted to come out of the game. When the manager came out to get him, he'd argue, gesticulate, and generally do everything except fling the ball into center field to avoid handing it over. The reason was clear; he visibly trusted his own abilities to pitch out of a jam more than he trusted anyone in the Phillies' bullpen, which probably led to some awkward dugout conversations. But he never wanted to come out, never thought anyone could get out of a jam better than he could. And on those occasions when he talked the manager into letting him stay on the mound, once in a while he'd pull it off. The rest of the time...not so much. But he had that "bulldog mentality" that sportswriters love, and he "never wanted to come out of the game", and all those gritty old-school cliches that meant that he always thought he was the best man for the job. And to be fair, in those days, the Phillies' bullpen was pretty horrendous. On the surface, maybe, it made sense to want to avoid putting the ball in the hands of a Wayne Gomes or a Jerry Spradlin or a Bobby Munoz. At the same time, it made sense to get it out of the hands of a Schilling who was past 100 pitches, who was visibly running out of gas, who didn't have what it took to seal that particular deal.
Before the Bloody Sock, the most famous visual of Schilling came from the 1993 World Series. It's Curt, sitting in the dugout. Phillies closer Mitch Williams is on the mound, trying to protect a lead. And Schilling, old-school Schilling, has a towel draped over his head because he can't watch.
"Yeah," people say. "You can't blame the guy. It was Mitch Williams."
Except, of course, it was that game that helped turn Mitch Williams into "Mitch Williams". In 1993, Curt Schilling won 16 games. Mitch Williams saved 12 of them. Didn't  blow a single one.
Word is, he's still mad. Still feels shown up. Still feels like his teammate, the guy he closed the door for all year, threw him to the wolves for a little more camera time.

***

While he was playing, Schilling had a gaming habit. Those of us in the know had the 411 on his obsession with Advanced Squad Leader, but when ESPN.com started running articles about his MMO shenanigans with Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville, it was news. Big news. Schilling became the "gamer ballplayer", never mind that tons of athletes play games at home and on the road. I remember reading an interview with Eric Chavez, back before he turned into the Samuel L. Jackson character from "Unbreakable", where he talked about playing Ghost Recon. As one of the guys who worked on the Ghost Recon series, that gave me a thrill. The guy playing the game I wanted to, played the game I worked on. It was cool.
Having a gamer-ballplayer-in-chief, that was cooler.

***

Game development is, in a word, hard. MMO development is about as hard as game development gets. It requires a tremendous amount of investment and, depending on who you ask, a minimum of five years or so run-up before you can launch. Game developers don't do a good job of educating their audience about how much work goes into making a game, but it's a pretty impressive amount. Every item, every color, every word, every interaction, every creature, every motion, every sound, every thing in the game has to be designed, built, tested, polished, and most of all, made. Everything. Now think about populating an entire world - say, a World of Warcraft - when you have to make every single thing in it, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
It's a lot of work. There are no shortcuts. A single mistake can lead to brutally unbalanced gameplay, which in turn will drive players away like risk-adverse lemmings. It's a viciously competitive market space - just ask the folks at BioWare, whose massively constructed, critically lauded MMO tied to the biggest license of all time just shed 400K players and a bunch of staff as a result. There's a huge up-front investment - in people, in time, in overhead, in servers, in all the stuff that allows you to actually make the game. And you don't see dollar one until after launch, five or so years down the line.
The successes, when they happen, are impressive and immensely profitable - World of Warcraft, Eve Online, Maple Story, League of Legends. The failures are legion - Vanguard, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, Fallen Earth and many more. Millions and millions of dollars, years of development - gone.
That's the market Curt Schilling wanted to get into.

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According to an industry source, at one point there were over 300 MMO projects in development. One can only assume that most of them were set up with the expectations that they'd be massive successes, that they'd rake in subscriber cash month after month.
That's the golden promise that everyone looking to dive into the MMO market - and most people outside the gaming business - sees.
Those 300+ games? You probably never heard of most of them. And most of them are gone now.

***

The teams working for 38 were, by all accounts, top notch. Big Huge Games is singlehandedly responsibly for my wife spending one more semester in graduate school than planned, by virtue of the addictive power of their port of Settlers of Catan to XBox Live. The folks at the Rhode Island studio were serious, smart, experienced pros who knew their business. The armchair quarterbacks pooh-poohing the talent or the dedication or the skill of the people actually making the game quite literally don't know what they're talking about. But all the talent and skill and experience in the world can't necessarily save you if you're not put in a position to succeed, if you're not given the resources you need, if you're not working within a framework that limits your risk and maximizes your chances of success. Even the best teams make games that fail, or that get canceled, often through no fault of their own. The market gets tight, or a title slips, or a marketing campaign fails, or a game just doesn't find an audience.
Or, the publisher pulls the plug, and the studio runs out of money. That happens, too.

***

Folks over on the baseball side ask questions like "does it really take that many people to make a video game?" and "How can you spend that much money on making a game?"
The answers are "it certainly can" and "very easily."
I don't blame them for asking. They don't know what goes into game development, or how many people and how much labor it takes to get a polished game out the door. There's no reason for them to know. As an industry, we do a great job of keeping our process under wraps. We project the image of crazy nerds playing games all day, if we can see over all the action figures on our desks. The hard work, the logistics, the crunch - all of that stays behind the curtain. And that's how you get commercials for game development "programs" that talk about "tightening up the graphics on level 3", and folks on baseball blogs wondering how many people it actually takes to make a game.
In case you were wondering, a game like 38 was making? It takes a lot.

***

The deal Schilling took to move 38 to Rhode Island was that, in exchange for $75M in loan guarantees from the state, he'd move the studio to Rhody and create a pile of new jobs. Seems simple, right? Except these things are never simple, and the more things get dug into, the more complicated the explanations get.   It is indeed likely we will never get the whole story, and in the meantime the accusations and rumors fly. Did 38 stick employees with second mortgages from houses that the company said would be sold for them as part of relocation? Did the state block 38 from selling tax credits to raise much needed cash? How much did Schilling know/do, and how much of the blame is his?
We don't know. We won't know, even when the investigations start and the walls come down and the digging gets serious. There's always going to be questions.
But there's one narrative that's easy to plaster over this. You take that bulldog Curt Schilling, the one who never wanted to come out of the game, who always thought he could bull his way through any situation. You put him in a field he loves but isn't trained for, something that years of playing games tells him should be easy and should be profitable. So he doubles down, and he doubles down again, and he moves the company to Rhode Island, and before he knows it, the Mets have put a six-spot on the board and he's blown the lead. Except, of course, it's not a lead, it's nearly $50M in Rhode Island taxpayer money, and it's the lives of nearly 400 employees spread over two studios, and sometimes, the solution isn't just to try to rear back and throw harder.

***

The instant the news broke on 38, folks from other studios were up on Twitter offering sympathies and job leads to developers affected by the news. It's that kind of industry. We all play each others' games, we all pretty much move from studio to studio as the dev cycles take us (I'm an exception, but that's for reasons too lengthy to go into here). And best as we can, we try to take care of our own.
Does baseball do that? I don't know.

***

In the end, the story's going to be less about the game and more about the guy who founded the company. Schilling put himself front and center at every opportunity, living up to the nickname "Red Light Curt" that his former manager gave him in Philly. And if you stand up front and you take the credit and you hog the spotlight, then like it or not, you're going to be front and center when it all comes crashing down. That's part of the deal, one the universe tends to keep with you whether you want it to or not. But in the meantime, the rest of us can think a little bit about bulldog attitudes and diving into fields that aren't our own, and maybe wonder a little bit about whether that was what went wrong
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