Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Living the Dream by Jesse Snyder



Jesse Snyder, the lead campaign designer on Halo 4, left 343industries recently to take up a position with Infinity Ward. Today, he made a quite remarkable blog post detailing a normal day in his life as a 343i employee. It's a fascinating read and a rare peak behind the curtain of life in game development.

I know some folks are having trouble connecting to Jesse's blog at the moment, so I've copied in the full post after the jump. It's a big one.

- Cowboy Out.

Living the Dream


March 11, 2013 11:43 pm Sir Haxington Game Development, Life, Seattle, Stories
I wrote this a while back but never posted it. It’s a bit of a noir / gonzo take on game development, so take that as you will.



8:45 am. A combination of rustling coming from the bathroom and the repeated squeal of the cell phone alarm going off wakes him up.

Groggy, he pulls the cover over his head. Sagan puts his nose up over the edge of the king side bed, saying good bye to his dad. Tail wagging, Sagan wishes he could see more of his pack leader, but daddy has been really busy lately.

“Common! Sagan! Yes… I know. I miss him too. We need to go.”

Sagan won’t leave the side of the bed and has to be dragged away.

“Love you hon, have a good day… when did you get in last night?”

“Not sure, 2 I think…” he gurgles out from underneath the comforter.

No response that he can remember. Shuffling of feet and paws and slamming of doors and vehicle engines. He’s home alone again.

Gotta wake up. Shower.

Rolling out of bed, he holds onto the wall, still sleepy and shaky on his feet. He turns on the shower and goes back into the bedroom to pack his running gear for later in the day. He imagines the brief period of about an hour where he can just run, uninterrupted. The music is nice too.

Back in the shower, the water is hot. Too hot. Nearly scalding, he turns it down. Once behind the pure glass and metal stall, he slowly turns the heat back up. He’ll repeat the same scalding mistake tomorrow.

Cleaning himself, he thinks about the day before. A level needs to run faster, the frame rate is still suffering. If it’s not taken care of, his boss and their bosses will be upset. They’ll go into meeting rooms and talk about him. He knows that people are working on the problem and it’s a high priority for the team to fix.

Ultimately, it’s out of his control.


A narrative pass on a few missions still needs to take place. Some features are missing. Some features are in but broken. Many others are unpolished. Everyone on the team has their own ideas of what needs to get done first, and rarely do they align.

He think back on a collection of emails that scared some people on the team.

And the Internet. Oh man, the Internet. When will certain developers learn to ignore the Internet? Stop reading the forums, you’ll give yourself and ulcer.

And then he smiles a bit. He thinks about the other day when someone asked him “Why aren’t you freaking out? You should be freaking out.”

He’s shipped bigger games than this one. He been in far worse situations with completely broken technology. He’s worked with crazier people. This is nothing compared to what he’s been through before.

Plus, he doesn’t freak out about anything. It’s not in his nature. Maybe that’s why he was asked to lead part of the project. He imagines General Patton freaking in front of his troops in the middle of a battle.

He’s seen people freak out on projects before. He thinks about that one the lead producer on a previous game repeating “We’re doomed. We’re all doomed!” up and down the halls when the project was “on fire.” It was one of the most enlightening moments of his life, watching a grown man losing his mind over slipping a deadline on a videogame, then watching his career end not long after.

Why do people freak out so much? Is it the pressure to deliver? The money? Being thrust into the public spotlight?

Too much time in the shower. He slams the faucet off, dresses himself and is out the door and into the car.

Public Radio, KUOW. The station basically never changes in his car. Time to catch up on the news. War in Syria. Iran sanctions. Economy is doing better, but maybe it’s too early to tell. People across the globe are killing each other for religious or political reasons. Millions of people are out of work and don’t have any money while others have billions and want more.

Politics and money. Money and politics. Seems to be a theme everywhere, even in videogame land.

Stop and go, stop and go, in a leather-lined Prius. A fitting car for catching the waves of a public radio station.

Construction again. Right lane closed. He lets in a few people in today. He’s still super sleepy but at least in a good mood. He eyes the nav system and plans a shortcut for the next day.

Eventually he makes it to the office around 10 am. Deja Vu. Out of his car, he wonders what the other people in the business park thinks he does all day. He looks into their drab offices and thanks the Universe for not having to go there everyday. Beige walls, florescent lighting, old clocks with hour and minute hands spin round and round. He imagines a day where all he thinks about it the hour hand slowly reaching 5 and getting out of there as soon as possible. It’s his version of hell.

Past the breakfast joint, he politely moves out of the way of an old couple exiting the building. He thinks about what life will be like when he’s older. 60. 70. What will be be doing in his spare time? Will he even be able to play games? What will games be like 40 years from now?

Games. Games. Get ready.

It’s really nice out. Sunny. Unusual for Seattle in general, but spring has sprung. It’s too bad he won’t get to enjoy much of it. People demand their entertainment, and he must entertain them. He was never good on stage. He was always a terrible actor. The one thing he is good at, is designing some of the most popular video games known to mankind. He gives his life to entertain.

However, the project isn’t where it needs to be. It’s doing well, but not well enough. People need to work longer hours. “… now … this won’t be policed,” but he knows the drill. He’s been there before. It now becomes a game of peer pressure and us versus them – The People Who Stay Late vs. The People Who Don’t. Tribal lines are drawn.

“Oh, did you hear they weren’t here last night? I was here until midnight!”

And there’s the competition as well. The Late Night Leaderboards.

“They are the hardest working team we have. They stay late every night!”

“I was here until 2, but he was only here until 11!”

And so on. The cycle never break itself. Video games, forever to be made by people working 12-16 hour weeks for months at a time. And most people gladly do it because they take pride in their work and they want to keep their awesome job.

He sees a few other people going to his building. He waves, says “Hi,” the usual friendly co-worker business. Some people he ignores because they don’t know who he is, and he doesn’t know who they are. It’s a big studio. Neither party minds. They both have a lot on their mind.

It always smells clean when he comes in. Like plastic and electricity. He stops and looks around. No one sees or notices him. Every is moving around. Some in the kitchen. Some walking around. Some staring at their monitors with their headphones on. Lots of 3d models moving around on screens, some people with controllers in their hands. Some people watching videos, reading news sites, or checking up on their choice social media.

The daily routine. Milk, cereal, earl gray tea. Breakfast is important for so many reasons, and making a simple breakfast routine is one of the best lessons he’s learned in life. Keep it healthy and light. Get the metabolism going and blood sugar regulated. One more reason he doesn’t freak out. Chemistry was one of his favorite classes in high school. And psychology.

As he prepares his breakfast, he thinks about the night before. A few designers that report to him decided to take it upon themselves to make some changes to some weapons. These weapon change made their encounters in their levels better. The problem is, changing those weapons falls under a different teams constructionist. Still, they were only changes on their computer. Local changes. These simple prototypes are proof that they can make the game better. He thinks about how gingerly he has to treat this situation and laments the fact he has to treat this gingerly at all.

Politics.

Back at his desk, he’s checking his email, flagging things to follow up on. Hundreds of email come in, but he has it down to a science. Filters are set up to track mail from people or groups who often have important things to say on a daily basis. Some are not so important. He checks his meeting schedule. All day, meetings. A half hour here and half hour there with no meetings. The schedule looks like a hard drive that needs to be de-fragmented. He wishes he could optimize his meeting schedule so he could get a few hours in a block where he can do “Actual work,” as it’s often called. As though meetings aren’t really that important to anyone.

He thinks by-and-large, that meetings aren’t that important. The game getting made by people’s own hands? That is what’s important. More hands-on is what he’d like to be doing more of. Unfortunately, behind closed doors, while people type away just beyond the wall, is where the decisions are made. Behind closed doors and people arguing at length, for hours on end about where to go next or who will be doing “Actual work” is what his day is mostly comprised of. Being a decider turns out to be very important too.

He wanders over to his designers that made the weapons changes.

He plays with the changes.

He likes the changes.

He and his designers agree that this is better for the game. However, his designers are scared. Scared of what might happen if they dare bring up that they took it upon themselves to change a gun without the team that is usually responsible for this type of work knowing about this change.

“Well, let me handle it. I’ll go talk to them, wait here,” he says.

He gathers his thoughts and enters the area where the weapon designers sit. He prepares to be as nice and apologetic as possible. He knows how territorial they get sometimes, and the thought of another designer from another department, having the gall to change their part of the game…

He cuts to the chase.

“Hey. So you may not like this. But I’d like if we all kept an open mind… one of the level designers altered one of the guns locally and says he really likes it. It’s making the level a lot more fun, and we’d like you just to come try it out and see what you think.”

Brace for impact.

“We can’t work like this… WE CAN’T WORK LIKE THIS!”

Fists pound the desk. Let the yelling begin.

He’s taken back a bit by how strongly the weapon designer is reacting. And right out of the gate too. He hasn’t seen this in a while from anyone on the team, and in his mind, there’s really no reason to freak out. All he wants is some people to talk about making the game better.

Politics.

“How would you feel if people came into YOUR levels and made a BUNCH OF CHANGES?”

Luckily, he knows how to keep calm. The problem is, he takes these arguments at face value, even if they are emotionally charged or meant to be hypothetical. Something he needs to work on.

“Well… would you have checked in those changes?”

“No…”

He actually thinks about this for a moment. He’s seriously asking, if someone had checked out a level he was working on in his spare time, and improved it, then wanted to show it to him, how would he react?

“Then I’d want to talk about it, and if it was better I’d want to take those changes,” he says with complete seriousness and honesty.

Not the answer the weapons designer wants to hear. He’s spoiling for a fight and he wants emotion impact, not honesty.

“No! No you wouldn’t! You’d be flipping out…”

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. It’s the sound he hears when people start going off on rants. They basically just repeat their same, angry points over and over again. He’s waiting for them to finish so he move the conversation forward.

“You realize we can’t work like this” is the repeated phrase of the morning.

What does he want him to say? It’s in every good designers nature to try to improve the game. There’s nothing to apologize for.

“Sure. But the fact remains we have something we’d like you see that potentially makes the game better. Will you come look at it?”

Pause. The weapon designer isn’t going to look at these changes seriously and he already knows this. His mind is made up.

“I want to know what the exact problems are? Why is anyone doing this?”

He thinks for a moment. For months he’s used this particular weapon and there have been no changes to it’s effectiveness. On the spot, he knows it shoots slowly, or at least feels like it does. It’s inaccurate, and generally doesn’t kill anything.

“It shoots pretty slowly…”

He’s cut-off before he can finish the sentence.

“See! I fundamentally disagree! That particular gun shoots 12 rounds per second and is the fastest shooting gun in the game. The firing rate…”

eeeeeeeeeeeee. He knows how the gun feels, regardless of it’s properties in a data table somewhere. Before the gun was terrible to use, now it’s fun.

He’s wasting his time. He does the cutting-off this time. He’s had enough.

“Look, the fact of the matter is, the gun feels better on the level designer’s machine right now. You should check it out, it would mean a lot to the designer who took the time to make the changes and it could potentially improve the game. Don’t get territorial about this or let ego get in the way.”

He spins on his heels and walks away. The closest he’s going to get to “Freaking out.” If it’s one thing he hates is lack of collaboration coupled with ego and ignorance.

Back at his desk, predictably, the stream of instant messages comes in. A producer within earshot of the situation is trying to remedy the situation.

The fact of the matter is, he’s not mad. He’s disappointed.

“How would you feel if someone changed your level?” The words swim around in his brain.

It’s a major philosophical difference. He wants the game to be as good as possible, and it doesn’t matter to him how it gets done or who does the work. People all work differently but work is pointless if you have nothing to show for it.

The next hour is wasted on a series of instant message arguments. He cancels meetings to continue this argument at his desk.

Lunchtime!

Feeling morose which he must hide. He can’t voice his concerns to the people he’s eating lunch with. It’s not good for morale.

He’s quiet at lunch. He can only think about his earlier interaction with the weapon designer.

Two of his designers are talking about game they are playing. He breaks his silence only to ask them a question.

“Hey. So, say that one of the weapon designers checked out your level. The he made some changes that improved your level. Just some local changes. He want’s you to see these changes. How would you guys feel?”

They stop and their eyes widen.

“Did they do that?”

“Let’s just say they did.”

His designers begin to crack huge, happy smiles.

“Can we see them?! That is awesome! There’s a couple things I want to improve there and…”

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. This time a positive eeeeeeeeeee.

It’s what he wanted to hear. His team would gladly love these changes and for people to improve the game, even if someone changed their work. He’s either taught them well, or they all knew this already.

Another part of the team? Burn in a fiery pit of hell if you so much as think of changing anything we touch. Die a thousand times, die.

Philosophical differences.



Lots of emails are answered. People are directed to one another to enable communication. He debugs some things and helps some other designers implementing whatever they are working on at the moment.

The day passes quickly. He doesn’t have a concept of time anymore. The day goes by and suddenly it’s time for dinner, around 7 pm.

He helps set up plates and arrange the food. There’s something simple and rewarding about helping set the table for people to eat from, even if they don’t care or you you helped set it up. Maybe its an exercise in anonymity. He knows people will be happy as a result of some of his simple effort and time.

Since he was able to catch the food as it came in and he helped getting it ready, he’s one of the first in line. Grabbing a plate of catered protein, carbohydrates and roughage, he stores his plate in the fridge. This food is not for immediate consumption. It’s still light outside, which means he can get a run in before it gets too dark.

Luckily, the studio has a shower. He goes into the changing room, gears up and heads out the door, passing the growing line for food. A few people stare at him on the way out. Wearing a neon green tank top, bright orange running shoes, running shorts an arm band that holds his phone, he looks completely out of the place amongst everyone wearing hoodies, huddled behind PCs.

Outside, he begins stretching and setting his music playlist for the run. A few co-workers come outside and start smoking. He nods at them and takes off through the parking lot and down the sidewalk.

He likes to run around five miles or so, and he’s found a good loop to run along. It’s an interesting run; a lot different than when he runs at home. He’s used to running in the suburbs, with long, curving roads and almost no reason to stop, except to turn around and go home. Near work is a busy, yet small city. Lots of cross walks and stop lights, couples that are too self absorbed to hear someone running up behind them, other runners he has to pass, the elderly he must avoid.

He always looks forward to this time of the day. It clears his mind. All of the day’s troubles and pressure seem to evaporate. Since today is sunny out, there’s way more people, but the views are incredible. Past the bars and restaurants, he’s past most of the places he has to stop and the people he has to avoid.  He looks to his right and see the sun setting over Lake Washington, one of the most picturesque settings imaginable. He sees this view nearly daily now, and it never gets old. No matter how bad things might be at work, no matter now badly he’s being treated by others, no matter how unappreciated he feels, he can run past that lake on a sunny day and feel good about being alive.

Eventually, the lake is long gone, but so is everyone else. Now he can be alone, running beyond where other runners dare go. Up some hills and near the freeway. Down a lonely side-street that vehicles rarely travel along.

Then he turns around and heads back.

He makes sure to stay on the lakeside of the street again. It’s darker now, the light nearly gone. Not quite dark enough for a headlamp, which he brings with him every day, just in case, but avoids having to use it.

The restaurants and bars are busier now, but the streets are mainly clear. He runs up the final hill, and into the parking lot where he works. Five miles in around 40 minutes. Good for the mind and the body.

On any other day, he’d grab his food from the refrigerator, heat it up, sit at his desk, answer some emails, think about some problems, talk to a few folks, go shower, then have some time to just sit at his desk without any interruptions. Uninterrupted work time is a rarity during the day and he treats it like gold.

However, today isn’t like every other day. He’s called over to a meeting that was delayed. Still breathing heavily from his run and getting his music to stop playing, he’s immediately thrust into answering design questions about a particular piece of gameplay.

*pant* *pant* *pant* Weapons or AI? The level design needs a bit of work, sure, but the core mechanics are…

He’s cut off. The same weapon designer who wasn’t willing to allow other designers to work on his weapons are now calling out problems with level design gameplay.

Must have struck a nerve.

He admits there are some issues, but he stresses that this area has been tested with focus groups and is consistently high scoring. He also brings up that this level has many other issues and that focusing on an area that is high scoring is bad use of the level designers time. There are more pressing issues that need to be resolved first.

There’s a lot of back and fourth. Both of their bosses are also here, interjecting what they think should be done next. Suddenly, it’s open season on the level design, which he must now defend, but his boss and the weapons designer aren’t having it.

“In the previous game, the level design would have handled this! And I know how easy it is to change this…”

eeeeeeeeee.  More highly charged emotional arguments attempting to assault a perfectly reasonable and logical response. They heard him as saying “I don’t want to do this,” when what he plainly said was “Doing this is a poor use of time and inefficient based on my many years of experience doing this very thing.”

The other designers smell blood in the water. The emotional echoes carry forward into more discussions, each designer ready to jump in and start punching and kicking with fists and feet of design theory and “On the last game I worked on…”

He’s having none of it. It’s no use. He simply listens to everyone and waits for them to cool down. He knows that most of what is being said can’t be addressed anyway. He answers with terse responses, as anything more is liable to open up in long winded discussions where other, apparently more experienced designers tell him he hasn’t a clue on what he’s talking about.

He thinks about the lake he ran past not more than a half hour ago. He thinks about all the games he’s made that have sold more than this one, and that were more popular. He wonders why people don’t listen as much as they should.

Politics and money.



He goes back to work and finishes out the day at his desk, well past midnight. As a fun diversion and to maintain sanity, he spends an hour or so working on a system that decides where the design team will go to lunch. It’s done purely for fun and as a creative exercise. Something to change things up a bit.

He imagines people on forums taking this out of context and hating him for creating his lunch picker but he knows others will appreciate the lighthearted intention. He decides to post online about it and never look back. He only cares about the people who see the fun in it, not the people that will always and inevitably attempt to paint others in a negative light. Or “Haters” as they are often called.

He makes his way back to his hybrid car. On the way, he looks into the dingy, florescent lit offices of nearby buildings, but now the lights are off and all signs of life are gone. The workers there left close to 8 hours ago. He realizes why people take jobs in those offices now. He imagines them sleeping at home, or watching TV with their wives and husbands while their kids are in bed, and after they’ve eaten dinner together.

The drive home takes considerably less time as the roads are empty and the lights are all green.

He backs into the drive way, opens the front door, strips down, flips on his eBook, reads for maybe 15 minutes before he can barely keep he eyes open. His wife, fast asleep right next to him is warm. She hasn’t moved and doesn’t even know he’s back home.

He checks his alarm and closes his eyes, ready to live the dream once more.

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