Making games is a long, convoluted business. If you’re working on a console title, you could be looking at anywhere from 1 to 4 years on a project. There are endless meetings, discussions, debates, stand ups, sit downs, walkarounds. Much of the time, it can be hard to see any progress.
When you reach the point in the project where you swear you’re having meetings about having meetings (that’s called the Point of Metameeting, when all Outlook calendars collapse in on themselves), you may find yourself in a bland meeting room. And you may find yourself staring longingly out the window at the gardener, mowing the lawn. And you may ask yourself, My God. What have I done?
You are having The Landscaping Fantasy.
You picture yourself pushing that mower. Headphones on, listening to...oh, let’s say Jethro Tull. Not a care in the world. Your calendar is wide open. Your only meeting today consisted of your boss telling you, “Go mow the lawn”. This was not followed by a breakout session to review your deliverables. Your deliverables are grass clippings.
And at the end of the day, your work is done. There is no overtime. You just throw your lunchpail in your pick-em-up truck, and go have a couple of tasty brews. Or, in my case, get into your Jetta and go sip an almond milk latte.
I call it the landscaping fantasy, but it refers to any job that’s simple and direct. A job where progress is measured through your immediate actions, instead of posties moved across a scrum board.
I have had these fantasies. They return every project, right in the middle of production. The excitement and newness of the initial concept development has passed, and the fear and energy of finalling is still a ways off. These are the doldrums of production. During this phase of development, the rewards are sometimes few and far between. There’s not much progress in the game, as levels are designed, systems developed, and art is in varying stages of completion. A lot of times, there is no “game” at this point. There are only game pieces. There are, however, a lot of meetings. Scheduling meetings. Staffing meetings. Staff scheduling meetings. Feature reviews. Art reviews. Interviews. Meetings about level designs. Follow up meetings to address all of the new stuff that was mentioned in the level design meeting. One on one’s. And my personal favorite: Backlog Grooming meetings.
This is the point where I dream of running away to join a fishing crew. Years ago, my kids and I were watching an episode of a reality show set on a crab fishing boat in the frozen waters of the Bering Strait. It was dark and bitterly cold. Giant waves tossed the boat around as the men on deck struggled to pull in the crab traps and not get washed overboard. I had attended a 7 hour milestone review meeting that day, so naturally, I wanted to leave for Anchorage immediately. I said to my kids, “Y’know, I think I’d be really good at that!” They turned to me with the look of bewilderment and contempt that marks the first time a child realizes that their father is a moron. “Do you even know who you are?” my daughter asked.
The kid had a point. I’ve been making games most of my adult life. Newborn babies have more callouses on their hands than I do. The heaviest thing I’ve lifted is my tray in the subsidized cafeteria. I’ve had to watch YouTube videos on basic home repairs that I’ve subsequently botched with disastrous results (My Lost Weekend spent dealing with a clogged toilet years ago is worth its own article at HaplessPlumbers.com). I have to go lie down in the bedroom with a pillow over my head when my wife hangs pictures, such is my stress with the idea of holes being nailed into the walls.
The skills I’ve learned in games probably aren’t as applicable to those fantasy jobs, either. I’ve developed ways of working with game artists that probably don’t go over well other fields.
So what, exactly, makes me think I could spend weeks aboard a dank, dangerous fishing boat with a bunch of hardened fishermen who could rip me into chum chunks if they wanted to? Hauling insanely heavy crab traps out of the freezing, stormy ocean at 4 am?
It was the immediacy of the work that I found so appealing. There were no scenes of the crew at a whiteboard, discussing what was going to make up their “Crab Fishing Vertical Slice”. Their progress was measured by the number of crabs in the hold, not by an assessment, 14 months later, as to whether the crabs “felt like they’d been caught during an authentic fishing experience”.
Ultimately, though, it’s important for me to remember that as satisfying as those jobs are, they’re not exactly “me”. For the most part, I actually LIKE the process of making games. I like having heated discussions about things that really don’t matter. I love having a weird idea, then seeing it come to life in a game level. And as frustrating as all of those meetings can be, the results in the game are often worth it. Plus, without those meetings, when would I have the time to draw all of my coworkers?