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"Everything I said was wrong"

At GDC, a panel of industry veterans fessed up to years of giving bad advice

Advice doesn't always age like fine wine. The games industry changes with lightning speed, and yesterday's pearls of wisdom might lead to surefire failure today. A quarter of developers acknowledged that fact today with a panel discussion at the Game Developers Conference titled, "Everything I Said Was Wrong: Why Indie Is Different Now."

Former Insomniac game designer Lisa Brown opened the session by admitting a lot of the advice she's given other developers has been flawed. Early on in her career, she would be asked about how to break into the games industry, to which she typically replied, "Make a game. Congrats, you are in the games industry."

She said she wanted to give people confidence and help address any imposter syndrome issues they may have, but over time, she's realized that many of the people asking the question of how to get in don't actually have a problem with confidence. Many are worried about making a sustainable business in games, or figuring out how they would belong in the industry.

Now, she finds herself responding to the question about how to break into games by asking questions right back, trying to figure out what they're really asking. And when she does give advice, it comes with an considerable asterisk in that she broke into the industry years ago now, and what worked then is not necessarily what works now.

Brown also regretted her stock response when people asked what programming language they should learn. Years ago, she would just say that it doesn't matter. On some level, that's still true, but Brown realized her dismissive answer was doing a disservice for people who might have had specific goals or learn better in a certain environment, people for whom one language really would be better suited to the other.

One last piece of advice Brown has since changed her mind about was telling people that group brainstorming was an ideal way to generate creative ideas. That advice doesn't take into account the complexity of human social behaviors and group dynamics, and study after study has debunked the idea. In fact, Brown said she continued giving the advice after studies critical of group brainstorming had started to emerge. However, she was good at the process, and admits now there was a cognitive bias keeping her from devaluing this process which she was proficient at.

Brown emphasized that in all these cases, context is everything. It's not so much that the advice was all terrible, but it was only appropriate for certain people in certain situations.

SpryFox co-founder Dan Cook was up next, admitting that he'd given out plenty of advice over his career, and has had a number of experiences where developers who took his advice came back later and told him how it all went south for them. Cook pointed to his website Lost Garden as a source of many problems, as it goes back over a dozen years and remains up even though much of the advice is now dated. He pointed to a 2005 article about free-to-play games where the idea of games-as-a-service promised a revolution to him, a solution that would free developers from the feast-or-famine cycle of games retail and reduce the power of publishers over creators.

"It's very exciting to listen to dreamers, but don't say, 'Wow, it's going to be everything they promised.' Because usually it's that plus a whole lot more."

Dan Cook

It was one of those things where developers see a beautiful future in their head, Cook said, but then reality and capitalism happens. It turns out that free-to-play games are a pain in the ass to make, and you can spend a massive amount on them and still lose everything. There are thousands of ways they can go wrong, and the free-to-play approach can't be applied to every type of gameplay. The monetization and the game design are inextricably married, and what worked well in the retail model doesn't necessarily translate well to free-to-play formats. The lesson, he said, is that the hot new thing is never a panacea. Every new technology and platform comes with unique constraints you might not see during that early phase.

"It's very exciting to listen to dreamers," Cook said, "but don't say, 'Wow, it's going to be everything they promised.' Because usually it's that plus a whole lot more."

Multiplayer was another thing Cook previously advocated for, believing it would provide games with better retention and players with an enhanced sense of community. What he didn't take into account back then, however, is that it can be more expensive, and there's more design and technical risks that have to be accounted for.

"When you put people together with other people, it turns out they do weird shit," Cook said.

Cook said that pretty much everyone that took his advice over embracing multiplayer "kind of failed," and he feels awfully guilty about that. Now he looks at multiplayer game development as a pursuit for experts, something best attempted after a developer has an assortment of projects under their belt.

Another piece of advice Cook has had second thoughts about was telling people to go cross-platform as much as possible. It meant you had multiple shots at a hit, and creates multiple revenue opportunities. After SpryFox's Triple Town was a hit on its third platform, Cook was sold on the cross-platform approach, but now he acknowledges that his company's success with it depended on a lot more than just bringing it to different platforms. Every platform has its own style preferences, and games don't always transfer well between them, Cook said. Beyond the differences in feature sets and technology, each platform develops its own aesthetic and style preference, and those won't be clear until the platform has matured.

Cook's last piece of bad advice was a Lost Garden blog post about taking a portfolio approach to games. The idea was that since most games fail to even make their money back, it would be good to structure one's business around that idea, creating a large number of games on the hopes that a minority of them will be hits, making back their money and then some. So if you have five games fail, that's fine so long as one game is a success and makes a lot of money.

"It's lovely business school theory, and it works really, really well, but there's a problem with it," Cook said.

In his post, Cook said to make a success, a developer should aim for a 5x return on cost. That was particularly discouraging for new developers who were having problems making just one game, because here was this article suggesting they had to make a portfolio of five to 10 games or they were failures. The advice was based on a well-proven strategy for making games, but it was the wrong advice to people at the wrong stage of their careers, Cook said, and it was incredibly demotivating.

"We're all on a very personal journey when we make games," Cook said. "We start out, and there are certain things we're good at or we're bad at... But we're all on very different points in that career, and when someone gives advice, especially at a conference like this, they're usually at a completely different point of their career than the people hearing the advice."

Cook implored developers to keep in mind that when you get advice, you're getting it from an expert who is very good at one very specific thing on one very specific path. You might not be in the right context for that advice, or have the same skill set. And bad advice for one person may also be good for another. After all, as Cook noted, all of the bad advice he shared are things SpryFox has built--and continues to build--its business around.

"I want you to ask yourself, 'What kind of game industry do I want to have in 30 years?'"

Liz England

Ubisoft designer Liz England was up next, starting with a story of her early years in the industry, where she tried to learn as much as she could from established mentors in the field. She internalized all that advice, so when she had established herself in the industry and people began asking her for guidance, she reflexively passed along the things she had heard when she was in their position. Among them:

"All that matters are your skills. Just do good work and you will succeed."

"You will have to crunch."

"I got to where I am by suffering, and so should you."

"People who burn out just aren't able to cut it."

After a while, England said she began thinking critically about that advice, and she's since concluded that all of it is terrible. People choose to believe that those are ingredients to success, she said, but that success often comes in spite of the advice rather than because of it.

Some of the advice ignores the realities of xenophobia, sexism, and other workplace issues that might keep the industry from being a meritocracy. Some of it is intended to stifle criticism or complaints about the way people are treated. Some of it is just a collection of myths people perpetuate to convince themselves to keep from changing the industry, or to explain why they're still around while others left the field.

When England gave those pieces of advice, she had intended to be helpful. But she hadn't realized she was scaring off so many of the people who could help improve the industry. She had been repeating the advice she'd been given uncritically, without recognizing the harm it could do not just to the people she was giving the advice to, but to the industry as a whole.

Even if these sentiments might seem baked into the culture, England stressed that the culture can be changed, and it can start with people re-examining the advice they give to others.

She implored, "I want you to ask yourself, 'What kind of game industry do I want to have in 30 years?'"

Vlambeer's Rami Ismail opened his session of the panel by saying that in his relatively short time in the industry, he's come to realize that all advice is bad. For example, if someone were to give a younger Ismail the right guidance that would have led to the success of Vlambeer, it would have included going to a school you don't like, meeting a person you don't like, and making Flash games together.

"Did my advice get people killed? I don't know"

Rami Ismail

As for bad advice he specifically had given out, Ismail used to say there were three key parts to success in games: motivation, money, and talent. Of those, he would say motivation is the most important, because you can have all the money and talent in the world, but nothing's going to happen if you don't have the motivation to do anything with it. As nice and inspirational as that sounds, it's not actually true. During the development of many of Vlambeer's most successful games, Ismail admitted he struggled mightily with motivation.

Another bit of bad advice he gave came during a trip to South Africa, Ismail gave a talk to a university game program and a student asked if he should drop out of school. As a dropout himself, Ismail tried to answer diplomatically, saying some people benefit from the regimented academic structure while others find it better to go on their own. The head of the program who invited him pulled him aside after the talk and read him the riot act, telling him that kids there who drop out of school don't enjoy the social safety nets of the Netherlands; they get into crime, they get into drugs, and they die.

"Did my advice get people killed? I don't know," Ismail said. "Did yours? I don't know. Is that dramatic? Yes. Is it true? Apparently, yes. Had I ever considered that? No. Is that the reality of the global industry? Yes. We don't get to pick who follows our advice. We don't get to pick who follows what we say. We don't get to pick how people think of us, what authority they give us."

Any attempt you give to offer "just a perspective" will be taken as authority, Ismail said. You can't contextualize it, or massage it, or add caveats. All advice you give is final, and will be taken as such by some people.

"So all advice in this talk is probably bad. All advice in my talk is probably really bad. How you mix those two to make money, I don't know. That's up to you. But if all advice is bad, I have one thing I think is worse, and that's no perspective. A lack of perspective is far more dangerous than bad advice. A lack of seeing lots of people do something wrong is worse than having nothing at all."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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