[Game development involves a lot of uncertainty -- but could inviting professionals from other walks of life help? Turbine and Disney veteran Patricia Pizer shows how an architect, a naval officer and a professional CSM have helped "serve as examples and inspiration" while working as game professionals.]

If you ever played any of the Zork games, you know that being in the dark for more than a turn or so is a bad thing; it inevitably leads to being eaten by a grue. (If you haven’t, go find a copy to run on your phone or PDA; your education is incomplete.)

Exactly what’s a grue isn’t germane here. The important point is that wandering in the dark is a bad thing. You run into walls, you go in circles, you fail; in general, you’re not the highly productive output machine we like to think of as Game Development.

Fact is, we game developers walk around in the dark a lot. We don’t intentionally do this; culturally we’ve just become accustomed to believing that only game people know how to make games. Largely, this is true. We’ve seen some disasters result from coupling the film industry with game development.

More recently, we’ve seen some better entries in this field (such as EA’s recent Boom Blox) but historically, the track record hasn’t been encouraging. Game dev culture is somewhat insular, like gamers and game devs themselves. Why should we ask some other industry how to do what we know and do best?

Occasionally, we decide to hop on the Escalator of Enlightenment and ascend the Ivory Tower. After all, academia offers so much... information. So much research. Surely there are lessons to be gleaned there. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for research.

I firmly believe in user testing, large scale studies of people and their avatars and research in general. For instance, Ted Castranova’s work on Everquest’s economy got game developers actually talking about, studying, understanding and adjusting their in-game and out-of-game economies. This is a Good Thing.

What’s not particularly useful are the ethnographies that are so often the product of academic research; imagine Margaret Mead playing a game as a hard-core fangirl, then publishing her "results" as an in-depth study of an MMO. It’s been done. Plenty.

A number of academics approach games and cyberspace with either the magic dust of fandom in their searching eyes or the complete blindness of a lack of context for why and how games have evolved the way they have over the years.

This research isn’t invalid; it’s merely not as useful as academia would have us believe. Often, the Ivory Tower is presented as the only source of "growing" our knowledge base and improving our games. It seems there must be something useful lying between our deep, dark dungeon of Game Goodness and the sparkling tower of Academic Light.

What, exactly, occupies the Main Floor of this castle and what lessons can be learned from it? Are there industries we can glean from other than the aforementioned pair? Is it possible that these other industries might teach us lessons about the experiences we craft and make them better or make the dev cycle run more smoothly?

Is it conceivable that some other industries could even make games more appealing to more of the market than we’ve garnered with our FPS/RTS/MMO/Sim/Sports offerings?

Yes. Absolutely. We haven’t begun to tap the resources that other industries offer us. Rather than analyze a slew of industries and what they might offer, let’s profile a few real-life individuals[1] who brought great gifts to the game development community – individuals who can serve as examples and inspiration in casting our nets wider as we investigate resources, informational and human.

Case Study 1, Subject M

Oftentimes, game devs show dislike, contempt and outright hostility for players. "If only we didn’t have players messing this up, it’d work perfectly." This is a direct quote from a dev; in fact, more than one dev on more than one project.

It seems that, in the ordinary course of business, the customer is... important. Often revered. "Always right." But all too often, this is not the case in game dev. Somehow, this seems like a Bad Idea. We have "Community Management" and "Customer Service" departments, but neither lends much credit or importance to the Player. You know, the one who actually plays the games we develop.

In light of this, let’s look at M. When a large online gaming service was building a Customer Relations Management (CRM) system and team, a resume from a totally unexpected source came in –- this individual had been managing Customer Service for a global trendy furniture vendor. This was like a lightning bolt to the hiring manager: "But of course!! Why didn’t I think of this before?".

During the interview, the candidate asked the interviewing panel some very difficult questions. "What do you do when you get a bomb threat?" The CRM folks looked at one another blankly or with raised brows. Who’d threaten to bomb a game company? Well, it happens. And they had no answers.

Again the candidate shocked them, "What about suicide calls?" Now, no one assumes that a person making a decision between couches in a furniture catalog pushes even the most unstable individual to contemplate suicide, never mind the time it’s taking to level up to use the uber-armor. However, if the catalog is lying in front of that individual, there’s a good chance your phone will be ringing momentarily.

And how would a team of kids trained to deal with trivial issues like dropped connections, downed servers and player killings deal with such a serious call (this is not to say that servers going down isn’t very serious... but let’s be real here).

Of course, running a global customer-care operation of this type, the candidate had seen pretty much everything any ostensible customer could produce, and on a very large scale. This candidate proved to be one of the best CRM managers of all time -– that team had a handbook that walked them through virtually every crisis that could come up.

They once even used flashlights and lighters to walk through and document the problems and corrective steps as they suffered a power outage so that the future team would know what to do, quickly and efficiently.

Case Study 2, Subject Q

One of the most challenging roles in a solid game dev team is that of Producer. Often, the producer plays Wendy to a gaggle of Lost Boys, trying to get them on the same page and moving in formation.

Add to that the complexities of dependent development items, MS Project, dealing with outside developers, vendors, IP owners and a host of other interested (or involved parties) and it becomes clear why being a Producer can be a nightmare. Very few individuals are "naturals" at this particular type of project management and even fewer have good training.

The luckiest (and best) have held the supporting role of Associate Producer (AP) beside an accomplished, mentoring Producer and have a clue; the rest simply flounder through and have to learn very difficult lessons, often to the detriment of the project and the team.

In light of this, the next unexpected game dev hero in this list is Q, a former United States Naval officer who helped coordinate 1,100 combat aircraft sorties per day from two difference aircraft carriers during Desert Storm. What other jobs in game development could possibly require that level of organization and attention to detail, with the stakes for failure being so high?

If being a Producer, often compared to herding cats, isn’t doing exactly this sort of thing, we’ve missed the point. Driving towards a strategic objective, giving clear orders under pressure, delegating authority, coordinating schedules and getting results is exactly what this naval officer had been doing for many years.

Knowing how to get results out of diverse individuals with tact and respect to each and every one on time is the thing. Q was a master at this. Ever polite but firm, the cats are herded, the ferrets are rounded up and put to work and the job gets done. Thank you, Captain Q!

Case Study 3, Subject L

The final example cited here started out as a professional architect. Architecture provided L with not only the ability to design physical structures but the ability to draw reasonably well (with perspective even!) and turn someone’s "vision" into a concrete structure.

The ability to translate vision into a working model is a rare skill and one designers constantly draw upon. L was hired to be a Content Designer but, more significantly, as Structure Czar, working with each and every designer or artist to make sure that any structure (above or below ground) followed reasonable and consistent architectural principles.

Each building would thematically match others of its type and origin. Every structure would feel as though it not only belonged in this world but that it would be an emotive experience (pleasant, restful, really scary) in keeping with the objective or mission that brought players to that structure. It wasn’t long before L became the Lead Designer of one of our most historically successful MMOs.

This is not to say that we should promptly stop looking at game developers with experience and troll for the odd gem; rather, it’s an indicator that we might consider widening our search when looking for great talent.

What about when you meet someone who so obviously has great talent and intellect, has an aptitude for games but is working in a completely different industry? Try asking if that person has any interest in game development. My Good Deed for 2008 was getting a fabulously talented individual to give up his law practice and enter game design for which his aptitude and passion was obvious. He’s doing a great job, by the way.

Obviously, we’re just scraping the surface here. What about the hospitality industry? Are there lessons there for Virtual Worlds? Publishing of periodicals provided the subscription model of Virtual Worlds. Anthropology, psychology, sociology and other social sciences help us build worlds that are more compelling, pleasant and sticky.

Is it possible that we can get consumers to spend some of that enormous pool of cash that Neal Stephenson claims is mostly "spent on pornography, sugar water & bombs" on our games[2]? Stop and think about it. Try to come up with an industry worth looking at and learning from to make your worlds better places to play. Consider it a game.

1 All names altered to protect the privacy of the individuals in question.
2 Anathem, Neal Stephenson, 2008, ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5

[Patricia Pizer debuted in the gaming industry at Infocom in 1988, making games back when you didn’t even need graphics. Over the next decade, she worked at such studios as Boffo Games, THQ/GameFX, CogniToy and Harmonix Music. Patricia moved into massively multiplayer games as Creative Director at Turbine Entertainment before working on MMOs at Ubisoft and Disney’s VR Studio, makers of Toontown.

After applying her design skills to Alternate Reality Games for 4orty 2wo Entertainment and an unannounced MMO, she returned to Disney Interactive Studios where she designed DGamer, a DS and online avatar SNA service and worked on the recently released Club Penguin DS adventure, completing 20 years in gaming. Mostly though, she just likes to play games.]