With some prompting from a friend, I recently downloaded and started Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story. It’s a cute little game. You manage an up-and-coming video game studio—hiring employees, picking combinations of types and genres to create games you hope will sell, advertising your upcoming titles, purchasing licenses for development kits, choosing a presentation for your booth at the game’s equivalent of PAX, so on.
The game spans a twenty-year period, during which time you witness and experience the industry expand and advance. In many ways, it’s an endearing homage to industry history, with references that are amusing and even a little wince-worthy in their complete obviousness. Sonny releases a new console—the Playstatus; or Intendro, the hand-held GameKid. A particularly enjoyable moment for me was when, at the annual Game Awards, the grand prize was presented to a game titled “Resident Neutrality” by game studio Campcom.
But for all the cuteness, there are some uncomfortable similarities between industry and game as well.
The first time I played through the game, I had done no reading on how it worked or how to play or how to be good at the game. I just jumped in and decided to figure things out. Early on, I started hiring new employees. And as the company grew, more employees. And soon I realized that maybe I had some redundant positions and that there were new ways to hire employees, and maybe that meant I was supposed to try hiring different employees. I’d moved into a larger office and was making a little more money by then, so I bought a fancier ad to see what I could find.
But hiring new employees meant firing old employees. And even though there was a handful of prospective new employees with much better stats than those currently in my studio, I just couldn’t bring myself to press “Fire” when the employee I’d resolved to kick out begged me to “Please reconsider…”
I decided that loyalty was more important. I would stick with Newb Ownerton (whose very name seemed to suggest that he was a beginner, not to be held onto in the future) and the other members of my studio, stats be damned. We’d all just work hard and train hard and make a great studio with the best video games on the market!
About midway through the game, I started struggling. No amount of training seemed to get my employees to progress. We were putting out games with consistently low-to-middle reviews. We were just managing to straggle along. The studio made enough money for me to pay my staff, create basic games, put out basic advertisements. Soon, we couldn’t keep up with new console releases, unable to afford licenses for development kits. Incapable of keeping pace with the industry, we had to continue releasing games for aging consoles whose share of the market diminished before they were discontinued entirely. By the time twenty years was up, my studio was severely behind in an industry that was racing ahead at an ever-increasing pace.
I restarted, this time resolving to play the game differently. I was ruthless. The forlorn little sprites would plead “But I need this job…” And I would fire them and hire high-leveled, powerful directors and producers with names like Stephen Jobson and Walt Sidney. Leaving, some of my former employees would tell me what an honor it had been to work for the company, how it had been their life’s dream. Others wouldn’t take the news quite so well, telling me that they would teach me to regret my decision when they went on to found their own game studios or became powerful developers in their own right. I felt guilty each time…but quickly enough, my studio was booming, producing award-winning games with high review scores, taking in more money than I knew what to do with.
Interestingly, I found, the way to hire the employees with the best stats was to find them through a Hollywood agent—the most effective option, but also the most expensive. The Hollywood agent would yield results that clearly indicated the applicant’s celebrity status and power. Names were either recognizable references to media and technology executives or jokingly pointed to wealth (e.g. John Dough). Although some of the beginning employees followed some similar patterns (beginning-level coder Gilly Bates, for instance), on the whole, it was obvious that the way to assemble the best staff possible was to aim for celebrity, influence, wealth, and power. The starter employees could never hope to catch up to these characters, no matter how I might try to train them or level them up.
Even with my studio’s perpetually increasing profits during my second playthrough, or with the satisfaction of “winning” (more so than last time, at least—if one can really “win” Game Dev Story at all) and, at the very least, doing better than the first time around, I was pretty disappointed with myself. My company’s success depended on laying off employees, never at any point taking into account the costs of these actions or the value of those members of the studio that helped to build it up in the first place. To make a profit, to make “good” video games, I crushed dreams and left despondent ex-employees telling me “I’ll have to find another job tomorrow.”
How accurate, though. Only two weeks ago, Irrational Games closed down. Under the direction of Ken Levine, the studio responsible for the BioShock series would suddenly close its doors. Levine would take only fifteen members of the Irrational staff with him to create a new entrepreneurial venture, firing the entire remainder of the studio. Meanwhile, he and his group of survivors would go on to make a new studio with games for “the core gaming audience.” Suddenly, all but fifteen members of an entire studio was without a job. The day of the announcement, I watched on Twitter as a number of now-former Irrational employees that I happened to be following posted that they were now without jobs.
The fate of Irrational follows a similar logic to that of Game Dev Story. The lifeblood of the company pulses with a cult of personality, with celebrity, status, and power. What is important is the maintenance of this status with little to no consideration for the human costs of sudden layoffs and closures, of the shuffling around of studios with the aim of making good games (i.e. success and fame and profit).
What does it take to make good video games? If Game Dev Story and Ken Levine are to be believed, the answer certainly doesn’t lie in any consideration of the lives, needs, and dreams of a studio’s hard-working employees.