Ex-Halo devs find fault with big studio practices

Highwire Games' Jaime Griesemer and Marty O' Donnell critical of planned layoffs, "auteurs" on large teams

With resumes that include decade-plus stints at Bungie each, designer Jaime Griesemer and composer Marty O' Donnell have plenty of experience working in AAA game development. But speaking with Playboy recently, the developers said there were some aspects of working on large teams they were happy to leave behind when they went indie to form Highwire Games.

"It's really easy to get into a situation we call feeding the beast, where there's this enormous production team that isn't allowed or isn't capable of making progress on their own, so creative directors are always just trying to generate something for those guys to do," Griesemer said. "And you come in every day and you're like, 'OK, there's a line of like seven people waiting for me to tell them what to do, I guess I will just--as fast as I can--make something up.' And that's crisis mode... I don't want to ever put myself in the position where I'm just kind of making it up as I go along, because otherwise we're paying people to sit around and twiddle their thumbs--or worse, talk shit about the direction of the game and the team."

Right now Highwire actually has its development planned out further than the team has been able to keep up with, so the studio is actually looking to increase headcount a little. However, they're intent on keeping the core of full-time developers at Highwire small, with reinforcements coming from freelancers and contractors as needed.

"I think it's going to turn out to be similar to the movie business, where you have the stakeholders of the film, the director, the producer and a few core people, writers and whatever," O' Donnell said. "And then they hire in to finish pre-production, bring in all sorts of experts for production and then they go way down [in staff] again and go into the editing room in post-production. And they put it in the theater."

Griesemer added, "And to be honest, that's kind of how the industry works already. [Companies] just are not up front about it, so they get to the end of the project and lay off half the team. And it's always the sort of mainline art production staff that they lay off, because they just don't want those guys sitting around for the next nine months or year while they figure out what game they're making next."

Studios might plan to simultaneously run post-production on one game and pre-production on the next, O'Donnell said, but it doesn't really happen in practice "because as you're screaming to the deadline of post-production on a game you keep sucking all these people in that should be on the next project already. Then at the end, it's like, 'Oh, now we need to fire you because we have nothing for you to do. We never spent the time figuring it out nine months ago.'"

It's a common enough failing that Griesemer suggested studios are actually counting on it happening.

"They plan--the layoff is part of the budget," Griesemer said, "I mean, it happens before the game even is out the door. So they know it's coming, they just don't tell their employees until the game is in the box. And to me, that's kind of treating people like cogs, like a resource. It's not respecting them as professionals. If you bring somebody in and say, 'Look, we're not going to be able to pay you after the project ships, so you should be reaching out [to find future projects], but please do stay and help us ship the game,' 95 percent of the industry would do the right thing and stay until the game is shipped. And then they'd already have something lined up."

Both Griesemer and O' Donnell stressed the importance of having someone with a vision at the helm of a production making decisions to keep development on track and ensuring everything worked together, but they weren't ready to embrace the "auteur" model of game development.

"I'll be honest," Griesemer said. "I think the auteur version of game development works really well if you're making a game by yourself. And actually a lot of those guys got started that way. You know, the first Metal Gear was-I think the team was like 10 people. I think once you get to bigger teams, 'auteur' almost always means 'I'm not disciplined enough to plan ahead,' so I just have to react to everything and tell you I don't like it. And a lot of those games end up going way over-budget and way under-delivering or just being a kind of a disorganized mess..."

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Latest comments (4)

Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire Interactive2 years ago
Grim, if not surprising, reading really. But it is handy for those of us committed to running sustainable studios - we keep getting opportunities to recruit great staff! Shameless promotion time:!
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour Interactive2 years ago
The other option is to do work for hire in the down times to make sure everyone keeps busy and motivated. This way people get to work on a variety of projects and they keep their job stability. It's a win-win for everyone involved.
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Benjamin Solheim Aerospace Think Tank (Shareholder in several gaming companies) 2 years ago
The problem with that approach is it is just people who got laid off at the end of the project and had to work for minumin wage wanting every one else to do what they did.

When a project ends there is not another project magically starting right then. The teams of people being laid off are almost always the people who have no idea what is going on because they are numbers game. There is so much work that has to be done in order to complete a milestone or loss the production investment because the people paying for the game don't want the lead developers sitting around and playing other games... instead of working.

Some one will eventually realize that the reason people sit around doing nothing is because most studios are working on one game starting with pre-pro or the visualization and scripting out the concept. They have to get that to a point that it can be funded. A smart studio would simply separate the concept team from the project teams. That way the concept team is creating multiple projects to try and get funding. Once the teams get funding for complete pre-pro, they turn it over to a production team instead of expecting people to sit around waiting for concept art that may or may not get approved. Then those teams can be spun as they hit mile stones and if the game goes gold, paid them to two weeks off while you find out if the game sells well. If it does give the whole team a new project while every one knows what to do. If it sells badly let the other projects steal who ever they want from the team and lay the rest off. That way you retain the quality and not the drones...

Most studios collapse because they hire their friends and some of their friends simply think being there friend they are entitled to a job... those are the ones that instigate the problems but no one ever wants to fire them in case they spread rumors.

So basically indie who want to AAA studios need to figure out spending six months to year training some one to do a job then laying them off because they did not get another project funded... that is just silly they will go to work for your competitors and laugh when you offer them a job again unless your competitors did the same thing but at that point both studios have shown no loyalties to their workers so if someone bribes them to tank the project you have all ready built into your development plan the means for your competitors to prevent you from releasing a game in the same window as they need to make money on a game to fund their other projects.

So smart studios know that they have to become the production studio running smaller studios to keep making money. Indie development may be agile but usually is too busy trying to figure out how to save money for that next project they forget they have an investor all ready looking and spending money. If they simply spin up teams to sort people to where they are best suited, which means playing people to just sit around all day and make sure the projects have people on them, well that is why hollywood is more profitable than game per project. They simply don't take some one with years of creating art and make them trying to figure out how to manage a team. The indie part of the game industry still for the most part assumes that management is simply a senior designer who micromanages every part of a project... which why when it gets to crunch mode and they teams are running around doing things with only one or two people over seeing them directly things get done.

You pay people to create assets, you then pay some one to make sure they are getting those goals complete before they are needed for the milestone. You pay some one set up focus testing to tell you if it is appealing. You pay some one build an engine, that covers licensing and modifying another engine. You pay someone to get stuck with making the hard decisions. Usually that is the studio heads go to to people. The final person is the person you pay to sit there and make sure if something comes up that no one has an answer you simply get paid to make those decisions, or you toss possibilities at your investors, either way the number of decisions increases the further down the chain from your position you look.

Indie development stay that way no matter how many games they make because they never hit critical mass to fund their own development form their own profits. So you can keep wasting money because you want to make every decisions and have cogs with no opinions or creativity... or you can simply remember your employees skill set is the greatest asset you have when talking to an investor. If you expect an investor to fund you repeatedly when you have changed the studios name five or ten times because no one wants to work for a studio that maintains a skeleton crew and plans on laying off the majority of the people because they assumed the game would fail, well then keep doing what your doing as an indie studio.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 2 years ago
He doesn't differentiate between a true auteur and a prima donna.

Steven Spielberg is an auteur. He has total control. But he stays on time, on budget, doesn't throw temper tantrums, etc.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 4th March 2016 10:49pm

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