A Software Fable

Stevey's Drunken Blog Rants™

I've been playing this video game called Fable. It's for the XBox. I've got Fable on the brain now, and since I have a growing list of 1/3-finished blog entries, I'm guessing this might be the first one I can actually get done in one sitting.

So I'll just ramble about it and see if it gets me anywhere.

Like I said, Fable is for the XBox. I have four consoles at the moment: N64, GameCube, PS/2 and XBox. I gave my original Nintendo and my original Playstation away to kids who didn't have any console at all. I miss them, though. Not the kids, the consoles. I guess the kids are cool too.

I play about 2 video games a year. That's all I have time for, because I usually get absorbed in the game and play a few hours a day for a week or two, and I don't have that kind of time to kill for any old game. So it has to be a good one.

Earlier this year I tried playing Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. The basic idea was you were this Japanese/Anime-looking elf creature living in a world filled with poison gas, and you had to go on a pilgrimage once a year and milk these anti-gas trees for a few drops of "beano", or whatever it was called, to stave off the gas for another year. I didn't get very far into it; it was an interesting-looking game from a great game company, but it was amazingly annoying to play. You had to carry around this giant jug, with both hands, over your head, as you wandered the land looking for Beano trees. And you had to put the jug down every time you wanted to talk or fight or look around. The jug generated a little atmosphere-bubble around you that allowed you to wander more or less freely. If you ran too fast and bumped up against the gas, you'd take damage. I can't even begin to tell you how fast that got annoying. I played the game for a day or two, and gave up on it.

Bummer, too, since Final Fantasy X was arguably the greatest console RPG of all time. What a lame follow-up. Crystal Chronicles is almost as bad as Final Fantasy X.2, which had an even dumber premise — you play this trio of female characters who specialize in changing their clothes. I kid you not. I played that one for 2 hours before giving up on it.

I like console games in particular, and I've decided that I like them because I have a big squishy couch and a big TV set. So it's a lot more comfortable (and immersive) to play games in that setting than it is to play on a PC. Some people love PC games, but I just can't live without the ol' couch and the TV. There ya go. No accounting for taste.

Fable is an example of software that is almost unimaginably different from what we do here at Amazon. Heck, you could probably make a reasoned argument that the game (i.e. killing bandits, going on quests, leveling up) is more similar to what we do than the software development process they use. Fable took 4 years to make. We don't do anything that takes 4 years. Sheesh.

But I'm just blogging, so I'm not going to talk much about the software development aspects of it, I think.

Well, OK, I lied. Let's talk about it a bit. I bet you have absolutely no idea just how different it is. Betcha.

Game Industry 101

The game industry is a grillion-dollar-a-year industry. It's hard to say exactly how much a grillion is, but here are some tidbits for you to chew on:

    1. The mobile game industry (phone games, GameBoy games, etc.) is a billion-dollar industry. That means that one billion dollars is spent by customers on these games each year, worldwide.

    2. Electronic Arts is the largest video-game producer in the country, with just under $3 billion in yearly revenue (and growing).

    3. The Fantasy Sports industry (where you play online games that are closely tied to the real sports in various ways) is a billion-dollar industry. Lots of companies participate in this particular gaming industry.

    4. Computer and video game sales worldwide totalled about $7 billion in 2003, of which $5.8 billion was in the US. This isn't subscription-based games, just single-unit game sales.

    5. Online games are above a billion a year now in the US alone.

    6. About 5% of Koreans (2.5 million out of 50 million) play an online game there called 'Lineage', mostly in internet cafes.

My 4 minutes of research has shown that without question, the word "billion" is used a lot when people talk about game industry revenues. Or even revenues from pieces of the game industry.

The industry is hit-driven. A handful of games (20 or so, maybe) generate most of the revenue in a given year. A single game can make well over $100 million in revenue, enough to start an entire game-publishing powerhouse. Warcraft and Diablo did that for Blizzard, for example. Tomb Raider did it for Eidos. Etc.

Microsoft Game Studios just issued a press release saying that Halo 2 is poised to generate more revenue in one 24-hour period than any opening movie day in entertainment history, even the opening days of Spiderman 2, Harry Potter 2, and Matrix: Reloaded.

Most video games, though (like most movies?) are miserable flops, and don't even come close to recouping the costs for developing, distributing and advertising them. In fact, a single failed game can ruin a publisher in much the same way that a single failed movie can ruin a movie studio.

One last interesting tidbit for our Game Industry 101 course: all the major game development houses despise one another. That includes powerhouses like Microsoft, EA, Sony, and Nintendo, as well as smaller (but still big) players like Blizzard, Id and Yahoo. They hate each other and would never dream of cooperating with each other in a hundred years.

But in 2001, Wal-Mart sent them all an ultimatum: they had to package their games in smaller, standard-sized boxes (5.25"x7.5"x1", or about the size of a DVD case, but thicker), or Wal-Mart wouldn't stock them. The game publishers whined and cried, but they all switched. That's because Wal-Mart sells about 25% of all video games in the US, which comes to just under $2 billion a year for Wal-Mart.

OK, that's enough for Game Industry 101.

Game Development

So how do you make a game like Fable?

Well, it's more like making a movie than shipping servware at Amazon.

You have programmers, sure. There are always programmers. Even movies have programmers these days. Look at Lord of the Rings. Gollum was entirely CG, all done in Common Lisp by the way, because Peter Jackson's team wasn't so farging stupid as to try to use C++ for something that complicated on that tight of a schedule. (And yes, I can say the f-word in my blogs, but on advisement from my team, I've changed it to "farg".)

Being a game programmer is no fairy-tale job, though, unless you're talking about the peasants, or perhaps the slaughtered orcs. See, everyone wants to be a game programmer, because everyone likes games. Inexperienced programmers fantasize about game programming being as cool as actually playing the games. In reality, though, it's about as cool as getting your teeth drilled. Maybe I'll talk about that later, if I don't pass out. But I have it on good authority that game QA testers for EA live in their cars in the parking lot of the corporate headquarters. And firing people there is so commonplace that they do it faster than Trump does on The Apprentice every week. I have a friend there who's the creative director for the James Bond games, and I get to hear all sorts of great stories that make me glad I'm not working for EA.

Anyway, there are programmers. But who else works on a game? Well, what non-programming roles are there at Amazon? A bunch. You have your useless middle-managers like me, and your HR people (gotta have them if you want to fire people like Trump does!), and recruiting, and finance, and customer service, and legal, etc. Game companies have most of those roles too, in varying proportions.

But for actually making a game, well, then you get into all kinds of stuff we don't have here.

For starters, you have artists. Craploads of them. As many as you have programmers. 3D game art is essentially a commodity skill at this point; art institutes (such as the Seattle Art Institute) churn out unemployed artists by the truckload each year. The steady-state for artists is unemployed. It's a tough gig: you can't get a job without experience, so you have to work for free for a long time before you can start making that coveted minimum wage. And there are so many artists that game companies can afford to be fairly choosy. Boy, I could tell you about game artists. But that's what they do, and it's ALL they do, so they keep doing it. And since artwork can't really be automated programmatically very well (except for weather effects and other things that can be simulated with physics and other natural algorithms), every game company needs an army of artists.

We don't have very many artists. I think most of them work on our e-cards. Who knows, though. I've never interacted with an Amazon artist in my six years here, so they must be a rare breed, or perhaps they just move in better social circles.

Game companies also have Producers. A Producer is pretty much like a movie producer. They decide which games get funding, which games get told to take a hike, and which games get yanked after their first N rounds of funding. They're a combination of venture-capitalist, movie producer, and backstabber. You have to be a little of all three in order to succeed in that role (or in any role in the game industry, or so I hear. I've never worked in it, so my "backstabber" comment is spoken without malice. It's just what I've heard.)

Game-company Producers get fired a lot too.

I'm not sure what Amazon role corresponds to a Producer. A Producer's role is to listen to pitches from starving independent game shops (and they're all independent, and all starving, working paycheck to paycheck, when they can get it), and decide which pitches and teams sound like they might be profitable. They don't have to pick huge hits; as long as you can crank out crappy games at low cost, and they turn a profit, many publishers will fund them. There are lots of bottom-feeder games in this niche.

A Producer also monitors the progress of the development team, and decides if they've met their next milestone so they can get paid. Yeah, it really works that way. Miss your milestone, don't get paid. That has interesting and far-reaching ramifications that I'll discuss in a bit.

(Damn. In this paragraph, I'm in my one editing pass that I make on blog entries before shipping them, and I see that I never followed up on this. And it's probably the most interesting problem in game development. Basically, they always rewrite their game engine from scratch, on every single game. It's because they're always in demo mode, trying to make the next milestone, so they'll do any unimaginable hackery in order to make it look, to the Producer, as if they're making progress. As a result, the game engine is always hung together with duct tape, and they have to throw it out and start over on every new title. The game industry is on a horrible treadmill because of their slavery to hitting tight milestones. I'm sure glad we don't work like that.)

Producers aren't liked very much in the game industry. I still don't know what role we have that corresponds to a Producer. Probably none.

Then you have your Directors. Each game has a Director, just like each movie has a Director. Gotta have one. Not having one would be like having an orchestra without a conductor, or a sports team without a coach. A Director is part visionary, part scapegoat, part leader, part terrorist. The Director's ass is Most On The Line for getting the game out the door, and Directors will Fire At Will, so to speak. They've got their finger on the ol' Fire button, and the only thing stopping them from firing all those lazy, slack-jawed, do-nothing programmers is the disturbing fear, in the backs of their minds, that the programmers might actually be telling the truth when they say they're working as hard and fast and smart as humanly possible. Like a good torturer, you have to have a feel for when the screams are real.

I think nobody likes Directors much, either. Everyone wants to be one, though. They get fired a lot, too. So I'm not sure what corresponding role we have at Amazon. I'd venture to say that 2PTL is the closest we've got; I was in that hot-seat for a year, and it did feel a bit like a watered-down version of EA Game Director. But only a watered-down version — when my friend at EA launches into his stories about the Iron Fist of Sauron ruling the Lord of the Rings Online team, I start to think maybe my issues were just whining by comparison.

My friend paints fairly colorful pictures, though, so who really knows.

Now we start to get into roles that really have no equivalent in the Servware industry.

There are Voice Actors, of course, but we have those. Bet you didn't know that. C'mon, you can do it. Think! What do we need voice acting for?

No, not TV commercials. That's real acting, by people wearing red sweaters.

No, not for anything on our website. Keep trying...

It's for our IVR tree — the imaginary, computerized person you talk to when you call our 800 number that we don't publish anywhere. We contract with the phone company to get "voice talent" to read and record the "phone scripts" that Customer Service puts together for our customers.

So we DO have voice actors. Not as many, and they don't have to try to sound like convincing pirates, but we do have them. Or we contract them, anyway.

One role we definitely don't have is motion actors. There are people whose job is to wear a tight rubber suit covered in a network of sensors for doing motion-capture. And the actors act out agonizing deaths, grandiose soliloquies, sneaky thievery, fingerhold cliff-climbing, and every other motion you see in modern video games.

Fable keeps track of how many times your character has had sex, believe it or not. I haven't had my character do that yet, so I don't know if they used motion actors for it. But it wouldn't surprise me. It's a hit-driven industry.

If you've ever been to a game conference, you'll be under the mistaken impression that motion actors are all beautiful models who do dance moves on stage in their rubber motion-capture suits. That's obviously not the case, though, since (a) some game characters are fat, and (b) they're not dancing all the time. Plus you may have noticed that most of the booths at the game conferences feature hot models in bikinis, so if you're possessed of a Clue, you may realize they do that to lure you over to their booth, so they can ask you if you're a game developer interested in buying their micro-payments solution.

That's something we don't have: armies of sub-companies all working on micro-payments software. Well, I could be wrong there. And if we don't now, we will. Trust me.

At some point, it wouldn't surprise me if we have people in bikinis. Retail is a bit of a hit-driven industry too, in a way. Although I believe all the models at game conferences are rentals.


Anyway, who else do they have in the game industry, working on games like Fable? Well, they have QA testers, but you wouldn't know what the hell that is if you haven't worked in the software industry before. Let's just say it's a person who's paid to exercise the specified functionality of your software, but they're not actually a paying customer. Oh never mind, it's too complicated to explain right now.

(Meta-point: doing the "drunken blog entry" really does appear to have better results. Just in case you were planning on writing a blog.)

To make a video game, you also have people doing the story. I forget what they're called. Writers, or storyboarders, or mini-directors, or something like that. Usually they're just creative people who are subject to the Iron Will of the Director (who is, in turn, subject to the Iron Will of the Producer. Who is, in turn, subject to the Iron Will of the Marketing Director's girlfriend or boyfriend.) But the story writers have a particularly interesting personality characteristic, which is that they function 100% without any knowledge whatsoever of how computers work. That would hamper their style. So they ask the programmers WHY you can't have the orc fly through the air underwater and do a half-twist while landing in the boat that's equipped with machine guns, even though it wasn't in the spec, and they throw a fit when their creative impulses are hampered by the mundane realities of computer programming.

We don't have that role at Amazon either; that role is mostly filled by our customers, who wonder why we can't get their order to them when they haven't specified an address in the correct country.

Ah, those mundane realities of programming. They'll get you every time.

There are other roles required in the creation of a game. You have the mandatory Build Guy, who's just doing this on the side because he's really going to be an actor. And you have the website developers, who are told to develop a site that's every bit as playable and flexible as the game itself, before the spec is finished. And you have writers, who are supposed to tell you how to play the game even though the spec is changing almost weekly, as the Director and Producer attempt to avoid getting fired by the Marketing folks, who are finally looking at the game and saying WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO MARKET CARRYING A BEANO JUG AROUND SOME POISONED LAND MASS?

You get the idea.

Aren't you glad you're not a game developer?

Back to Fable

I'm certainly glad you're not a game developer, because I like my games, and games are only written by people who don't waste their time reading my useless blog rants. There's some law of conservation of time going on; I'm sure of it.

Anyway, this blog actually looks to be the first one in weeks that has a hope of finishing up before I pass out, so I'll talk a bit about Fable and then wrap it up.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Fable, it's that you can go a LONG way by copying the Legend of Zelda, in its varying incarnations.

If there's another lesson to be learned, it's that you should never trust a bunch of white male programmers from Redmond to design a medieval English fantasy game, because their cultural (and gender) bias will show through so painfully that you might actually quit playing at any moment, no matter HOW good the game is.

But the most important lesson, the one I want you to leave this blog with, is that there is only One True Calibration System.

The One True Calibration System

How many countless hours have we wasted, as a company, trying to decide how to stack-rank developers? Or all job titles, for that matter? But we can't seem to agree on how it should work. Should it be one-dimensional? 2-dimensional with performance and potential? Should ego factor in there? What about your manager's ego? Can we count lines of code?

The problem is, there is only ONE ranking system that we all actually understand, and we should be using that ranking system for virtually every situation in which we need to compare human beings at some skill set (and one human can be better than another human at it).

That system, of course, is the Dungeons and Dragons level system.

Oh sure, go ahead and laugh it up. Shake your head, write me off, whatever. But you HAVE wondered, at one time or another, what level programmer you are. Or golfer. Or guitarist. Or skiier. Or whatever skill you happen to do well that involves getting better with practice.

See, Dungeons and Dragons might be an outdated system, and it's been replaced with skills systems and all manner of other weird systems (witness FFX's sphere grid, for instance). But practically everyone, at least everyone in our profession (be honest!) has played Dungeons and Dragons at least once in their young teenage years. And you know darn well that some of you played it (or some variation of it) last weekend, Halloween or not. Hell, you probably did it in costume.

The great thing about the D&D leveling system is that everyone knows it. You don't need to explain it, at least not much. It goes from level 1 (apprentice/newbie/utter novice/cs grad) to level 20 or even higher, with some exponential increase above 20 that means Gandalf himself (played by John Carmack of Id Software) is only about 29th or 30th level.

And it makes sense, too, because it's actually not quite an exponential scale. It's more like 1.5x, which means you can level up pretty quickly, so you get to SDE2, I mean 5th level, within a year or two, but to get to a 10th level, uh, magic-user III, requires like 5 to 7 more years.

You can intuitively feel the weight of the D&D system. Each level is harder than the previous one. You need Experience Points (XP) in order to go up levels, and XP corresponds to Deliverables. Kill an orc, launch a feature, fix a horrible bug, you get experience.

There are a zillion variations on the D&D system, all of them perfectly acceptable. None of them are 2-dimensional, either. Performance. Potential. Pshaw! Take a look at D&D's biggest failing: the 2-dimensional alignment scale. You had Good and Evil on one axis, and Law and Chaos on the other. What the hell is Chaotic Neutral? Neutral Evil? The whole thing was a farce. You need one dimension or N dimensions (i.e. attributes, a generic keyword-based heirarchical weak-typing system that works for everything; I'll talk about in some future blog, after I've woken up with a huge hangover and a cold sweat when I realize that I've blogged about Dungeons and Dragons to an audience of dozens.)

Anyway, about 2/3 of you know exactly what I'm talking about, although you're too ashamed to admit it, and the rest of you think I've turned into an alien from the planet Zyst. That's sort of typical of my blogs, I think.

I'm going to go play Fable. G'night!

(Published Nov 04, 2004)


Um, Steve, drop the jug and report to the nearest beano tree. Pronto.

Posted by: Larry H. at November 4, 2004 04:27 AM

Artists actually tend to outnumber programmers on most game dev teams, in my experience.

It's not true that all game engines are rewritten from scratch, unless you're implicitly excluding sequels and the like. Even then, there are commodity game engines that are used (and reused) in best sellers.

Posted by: Andrew W. at November 9, 2004 02:55 AM