Reviews

Gamers At Work: Stories Behind The Games People Play – Book Review

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds so much of the game industry? Have you ever wondered how the likes of EA, Naughty Dog and Bioware all began? How they were born? how the founders  managed it all, giving birth to future multi-million companies who bring us titles like the Mass Effect series, Uncharted and the Elder Scrolls? In short, have you ever wondered about the stories behind the people who make the games you play? Well, Morgan Ramsay, founder of Entertainment Media Council, did wonder about those stories, and the result is 17 interviews  across  342-pages in a book titled Gamers at Work: Stories Behind The Games People Play, a title aimed primarily at those looking to get into the videogame developement business, but one that’s worth a look from any gamer who loves the industry. 

And before we start on this it’s important to talk about something first: this isn’t a book about videogames as such. This isn’t a criticism toward the book itself, it’s merely a statement of fact: this is a book that delves into the business side of the videogame world, exploring the trials and tribulations of those that formed some of the biggest companies in the game. It’s a business book that just so happens to involve games, and as such for gamers that just pick up the latest Call of Duty title and don’t really care much about the industry that created it, this probably won’t be something that you’ll find that interesting. For someone like myself, though, that practically lives and breathes videogames and their world, it’s great to read through these interviews and gain a better understanding of the business practices involved in the making of the games I play. And that’s good, because this book quickly clears up something a lot of people struggle to grasp: developers and publishers are, first and foremost, a business, and thus their primary goal is to make money. It’s a harsh reality, and one that many gamers just don’t seem able to accept, but read through this book and you’ll realise that it’s the most comment theme running throughout each interview: the company has to make money to survive, and that takes precedence over everything else

But before you get to the meat of the book, the 17-interviews with industry pros, some generally well known and others not, there’s a rather strange foreword by the legendary Peter Molyneux,  the man who created Lionhead Studios and that is known for the creation of such games as Black & White, Populus and the awesome Fable series.  Oh, and he’s also well know for being incredibly optimistic, eccentric (rich people are eccentric, poor people are just nuts. True story) and having a tendency to promise lots of things in the games he’s developing without actually knowing whether he can do them. The foreword isn’t strange because of its content, it’d actually pretty cool, but because there’s no interview with the massively optimistic Peter Molyneux himself anywhere in the book. It’s a shame that since he wrote the foreword he wasn’t willing to do an interview for the book as well and share some of the many, many stories he must have hidden away in that mind of his, the cheeky sod. Ah well, you can’t have everything, I suppose.

But anyway, on to the interviews themselves, and that means providing you with a list of just who gets questioned within the book. It’s quite a list of names, so take a deep breath:

Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts
Nolan Bushnell, cofounder of Atari
Wild Bill Stealey, cofounder of MicroProse Software
Tony  Goodman, confounder Ensemble Studios
Feargus Urquhart, cofounder of Obsidian Entertainment
Tim Cain, cofounder of Troika Games
Warren Spector, founder of Junction Point Studios
Doug and Gary Carlston, cofounders of Broderbun Software
Don Daglow, founder of Stormfront Studios
John Smedley, cofounder of Verant Interactive
Ken Willians, cofounder Sierra On-Line
Lorne Lanning, cofounder of Oddworld Inhabitants
Chris Ulm, cofounder of Apple Entertainment
Tobi Saulnier, founder of 1st Playable Productions
Christopher Weaver, founder of Bethesda Softworks
Jason Rubin, cofounder of Naughty Dog
Ted Price, founder of Insomniac Games

So, with all of these names within the book, is it a Holy Bible of information for those looking to create their own company and get into the videogame business? Is it the cornucopia of wisdom for those getting into the industry? Well, the short answer is, not really. The main reason for this is because of a recurring theme throughout almost all of the interviews: good fortune. While smart decisions obviously played a part in bringing these companies to life, the simple truth is that most of it all came down to luck, timing and circumstance. This means that it’s  hard to use this book as a serious reference point for starting up a company, after all, it’s pretty hard to replicate the very same circumstances that proved so fortunate in the first place. However, that’s not to say that you can’t pick up some great information, such as the differences between PC and console markets as discussed by John Smedley, Cofounder of Verant Interactive. In those moments you’ll be, like, “Oh, yeah, I never thought of it in that way.” The next problem, though, is  when it comes down to the actual specifics of how to start-up and run a company. When Morgan Ramsay tries to drag some specifics out of the interviewees about the tactics they employed on their journey to the top they tend to answer in pretty general ways. It could be because they’re trying to protect their secrets, but it’s far more likely that it’s because there are no precise secret ways for success, and so general advice is all they can really give, which is understandable given that the world has changed a hell of a lot of since many of these guys started their companies, and so things work a lot differently now. Things that may have worked back then probably wouldn’t these days, or not to the same degree.

Something else that becomes abundantly clear throughout the book is that the videogame developement industry is something of a closed club, treating outsiders with nothing short of suspicion and perhaps even disdain, leading to the feeling that like Hollywood you have to be an insider that already knows certain people to have much of a chance at getting a major career in the business. In other words, anybody out there looking to start-up an indie company should really be looking at the so-called outsiders for inspiration, rather than perhaps most of the interviewees in this book. That’s no slight on the men that took their passion and turned it into something huge, but it’s clear in almost every interview that already knowing people on the inside played massive parts in their success. Happily, though, a change is currently happening within the industry and indie developers are becoming a more powerful force to contend with.

So, rather than a source for business information, where the book truly shines is in providing 17 incredibly interesting personal tales from behind the view that shrouds so much of the industry in secrecy. You could almost be fooled into thinking this as a series short biographies of the various interviewees, but really they’re not because sometimes the memories of these guys are a little hazy and the details can get lost to time, so it’s important to take a few of the shadier stories with a pinch of salt and a dab of, “uh-huh.” Take for instance when Bill Stealey, the cofounder of MicroProse, claims that Trip Hawkins, founder of EA Rather than biographies, pushed for a merger of EA and MicroProse in the late 80’s, a fact which Trip Hawkins never even refers to in his own interview.  These, then, are more like a series of 17 self-portraits, told through the haze of recollection and ultimately biased. Don’t go thinking that’s a flaw in the book, though, because if you wanted a biography then you’d go on Wikipedia and simply read through the history of each company.  These stories are a pleasure to read through because they’re personal stories and completely biased, shedding light on the stories behind some of the biggest companies around and providing insight into how a lot of our most beloved games actually came into existence. It’s also very interesting to see just how these people paint their own personalities, careers and the industry itself, each creating a radically different view of things. Some of them come across as genuinely honest people given to self-criticism, while others come across as almost self-delusional. And a few, despite themselves, come across as ruthless, cut-throat, selfish bastards who I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a saturday afternoon at the pub with. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s mostly down to not being able to see the faces of the interviewees as they talk, but I couldn’t help get that impression. Still, that’s partially what makes these interviews so fun to read: the rich variety of characters that make up the industry.  

And of course much of it all boils down to some old-fashioned finger-pointing and insider bitching. It’s funny, but in these interviews it’s almost always someone elses fault when things go horribly wrong, but then that’s just human nature.  Rubin of Naughty Dog points the finger at Universal for causing problems,  citing “spite and contractual misbehavior”, and Tim Cain gently chastising Activision for their handling of Bloodlines. Like I said before, these moments are best taken with a pinch of sale because without the other side of argument it’s sort of hard to draw a fair conclusion, but it certainly makes for fun reading. And even in the midst of all the shenanigans it’s nice to see that some companies can form genuinely close relationships, such as the one between Naughty Dog and Insomniac.

When it comes to the actual quality of the interviews themselves, things are solid but certainly not impressive. The stories that the interviewees tell, such as Hawkins on the fall of the 3DO, are enjoyable to read, and it’s certainly interesting to see what these people are like, but throughout almost every interview I never got any sensation of passion for what they do. These guys formed companies, brought people together and crafted  games, yet they come across as lacking any real passion for any of it. This is, of course, one of the downfalls of interviews done in a book : it’s harder to get across the emotions of those involved. But most of all it just felt like they were doing a standard PR interview, carefully choosing their words and only really letting loose occasionally, and that can make for dry reading at times. Only a few of them felt like they were really offering their true personal opinions on the subjects at hand and saying exactly what was on their mind, offering their views on the industry both past and present.

Part of this is because of Morgan Ramsay himself. He does a good job at gently prodding the interviewees along, simply asking just the right questions to keep the stories flowing, but he also never asks any tough questions of them, never challenges them with harder queries to get them thinking. For the most part the questions that he does ask, though, are professional and well judged. Sometimes Ramsay asks a question  and the interviewees clam up, leading to a little bit of prodding to try to get them to open back up again, a problem which a bit of editing could have solved by simply removing or merging some of the answers and questions. Occasionally Ramsay misses opportunities or doesn’t delve deeply enough into certain subjects. A prime example was when talking to Hawkins, it would have been  a fantastic opportunity to pose the question of what Hawkins thought about EA’s current reputation with gamers, now that he’s no longer a part of the company. It would have been both a tough question and a hugely interesting one given the hate EA is currently used to seeing from gamers, but Ramsay simply avoids it. Perhaps it’s because he felt a question like that wouldn’t really fit the tone of the book, but it still felt like a missed opportunity to pose a great question.

The interviews all follow the pattern you’d pretty much expect: a short page provides a quick background of the victim before Ramsay launches straight into the questions. At 342-pages each interview gets a pretty hefty amount of time, and while Ramsay does occasionally seem to skip sections of the interviewees career out, there’s still a pretty hefty amount of information in this book to digest, and the interview format makes it nice and easy to just pick up and read when you’ve got a bit of spare time.

This may also sound like a bit of a weird complaint, but it would have been nice to have perhaps included a few interviews with those who didn’t quite manage to make it in the harsh world of videogames. Obviously the tone of this book is supposed to be one of inspiration, to motivate you, but for the few that make it in the videogame industry there are thousands that don’t. By including a few interviews with such people willing to share their experience it may have offered  a broader perspective on the industry and provided  opportunities to learn from their experiences that they garnered on their journey. Yes, a lot of the people in the interviews had to sell their companies or had some serious struggles, but in the end they still made their name in the business.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’ve really struggled to write this review. At the end of the day it’s pretty hard to review a book like this, because without actually going and starting up my own company, who am I to say that the advice, general or not, found within this book will actually help or not?. From my perspective, as a gamer rather than somebody trying to create a brand-new developement studio, Gamers at Work provides some interesting insights into the industry told through the eyes of those who have been there and done it. At times it can be a little bit of a dry read and can occasionally feel like the interviewees are being a little stiff, but the stories contained within the pages of Gamers at Work make it all worthwhile. And yet what the cover of the book promises is a valuable resource for those looking to get in to the business, so do I think it is? Well, as I said, I’m not forming my own company, but no, I don’t think it is. Why? Because the advice in here is mostly just a case common sense. I just think it’s a  good read that anyone with an interest in the business, whether you’re starting a company or not, should check out.

You can also read the first chapter of the book, which is an interview with Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, for free on the books official page by clicking HERE.

I leave you with this qoute from Gamers at Work on gaming journalism that highlights something I personally hate about the industry:

“I invested a lot of time with key editors (in gaming journalism), seeding the idea that Age Of Empires would be ‘revolutionary’ and become ‘a phenomenon’…When the first early previews began appearing, they were using the terms that we seeded: ‘revolutionary’ and ‘phenomenal’. These early opinions were then picked up and echoed by other publications, creating a snowball effect. Eventually, all the publications would get on board with this message just so they didn’t look out of touch.”
– Ensemble Studios’ Tony Goodman.

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