Denial leads to failure in game development, but brutal honesty can keep a project on track

Tadhg Kelly has worked in games, from tabletop to consoles, for nearly 20 years. All of his columns can be found here.

Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in a lot of games. I’ve worked on console, PC, mobile, handheld, Facebook, web, tablet and interactive TV games (and non-digital stuff, too). On some games, I was deeply involved as a designer or producer, while on others I was a consultant or a troubleshooter.

When you’ve seen a lot of games in development, you start to notice commonalities. You see the same sorts of interpersonal dynamics in studio after studio, the same struggles and the same assumptions. Mostly what you see is failure. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know that you’ve participated more in failure than success.

It’s no great secret that failure is the more common of the two. There are the games that fail to get to market, the games that squeak out to general apathy, and the games that arrive in a fanfare of misdirection and ego. The world is beset by bad apps, poorly conceived console releases and inept service games. And those are just the ones you see. Many failed games never see the light of day and stay buried by the nondisclosure agreements of history.

Failure always feels the same: it has a smell of profound apathy mixed with the tinge of slowly encroaching panic. There’s a lack of energy in meetings. There’s whispering around the campfire and secret exchanges of “I told you so”  between confidants. There’s a glassy stare in the eyes of those who have worked on the failing project too long. There’s a tension between the newbies, who convince themselves it’s all going to work out, and the veterans, who’ve seen this movie before.

“Failure always feels the same: it has a
smell of profound apathy mixed with
the tinge of slowly encroaching panic.”

One thing common to all failure is the way groupthink takes hold. For example, on failing teams, there is a profound lack of public acknowledgement. In part, this is explained by a prisoner’s dilemma (as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”) and personality politics. Those who complain, or can’t couch their honesty, find themselves on the outside of the groupthink. Later, they will be blamed for the failure.

Another commonality is a type of justification where all designs decisions can be explained rationally, even celebrated, and yet the sentiment is conveyed that nothing can be done. In a failing team, a game is a Gordian Knot because of outside constraints (a publisher, a business model, a rights holder, a creative director). Team members tell themselves that they made the best of a bad situation and that at least certain parts of the game are good. Never mind that the controls are broken; the explosions look great.

There’s also a tendency on the part of everyone involved to lie to themselves and each other. One example is the promise to fix broken things later. This has seen such a massive uptake in the era of patches, open betas, metrics and lean startup thinking that it’s now accepted as writ. Yet the reality is that most of that talk is for show. Few of those involved really expect it to happen.

At the heart of all failure, in other words, is the yawning abyss of denial. And, like all abysses, you don’t want to look into it lest it looks into you. But denial’s influence seeps in anyway.

“At the heart of all failure, in other words, is the yawning abyss of denial. And, like all abysses, you don’t want to look into it lest it looks into you. But denial’s influence seeps in anyway.”

Optimism and excitement are replaced by tension and dread. People start to get sick. Firings happen on the weirdest pretexts. Real fistfights sometimes break out. Then comes crunch time and the accompanying groupthink opprobrium that haunts those who go home on time. Politics take the place of camaraderie. Those who know the end is coming start to ensure that the finger of blame does not point at them.

Depressed yet? If you’re thinking about a life working in games, you should know how grim it can get. It’s not always as bad as this, but sometimes it is. And if you want to avoid it, my best recommendation is to practise searing honesty and work with others who do the same.

Like almost all diseases, failure is best caught early and rooted out. The key thing to realise is that failure often has less to do with individuals and more to do with process and project conditions. Failure might happen because the project is founded upon a badly negotiated contract. It might happen because the game is resting on an untested technology that proves incapable. It might happen because the scope is too large, or the tools the team is using don’t work. It might be because the base assumptions about how players play are flat-out wrong. That last one is much more common than you think.

In particular, learn to avoid the urge to deny in the design phase, because most failure is seeded through bad design. Perhaps the root idea is weak, the mechanics are under-designed, or the IP is not a good fit for a game. The whole thing is just not thought through, or it’s assumed that it’ll work in prototyping. Or production. Or after open beta. Challenge early, before it’s too late.

Though they will not admit it at the time, a year later in the pub most people from a failed project will drunkenly confess that they knew what was wrong. So did you. Neither of you said, but you knew. Above all, try not to be that person. Eventually, they learn to hate working in games.