At first titled Developers in the Mist¸ Dr. Casey O’Donnell, professor at MSU’s department of Media and Information, was asked to change the name of his first book by the publisher. “Change it?” He said, “That’s like coming up to me and saying I need to rename my kid after five years.” It’s weird. It’s awkward. And it’s not fun. This is precisely why Dr. O’Donnell attempted to crowd source his book’s title on twitter with the hashtag #NMFB, aptly standing for “Name My F-ing Book.” But while many of the suggestions were excellent, somehow the title appeared to Dr. O’Donnell through some other, mystical means.
Developer’s Dilemma, the final title of his book, is a play on the old prisoner’s dilemma where the optimal solution is for two parties to cooperate. However, if you know the other party will cooperate, you can always throw them under the bus. Dr. O’Donnell believes a similar process occurs in the game industry, where game developers throw each other “under the bus,” so to speak.
Game developers are good at recognizing systems, but really bad at looking at their own system, Dr.O’Donnell says. The game industry needs to be more reflective, more critical, in a “Is this how we want this function?” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” In a way, Developer’s Dilemma is asking game developers to ask their own questions, about systems, culture, and the like.
“For big businesses,” Dr. Odonnell says, “anthropologists are a plus. I mean companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google. Anthropologists can watch users and look internally. Most indie companies can’t afford that, but there are plenty of researchers wishing for access.”
But what exactly does Dr. O’Donnell mean when he says some game developers “throw each other under the bus?” He explains the culture of secrecy—long lived in the game industry. No one wants anyone else to know what they’re working on in case they’ll steal it.
“Game developers are scared of having their IP stolen, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really happen. That usually comes after the games are published and out there.”
Partly due to the shroud of secrecy, many game developers are invisible, when there should be a push for transparency instead. Even though some companies, like Double Fine, have made documentaries, these are still constructed narratives. Twitch allows developer visibility, but it doesn’t capture all of them.
“Games have a huge impact,” Dr. O’Donnell says, “and yet, most companies are hesitant of having people come in from the outside.” He mentions Marvel’s latest announcement, listing all their upcoming films for the next decade or so. “The earlier you show your game,” he says, “the more excited people get. It’s two plus years of publicity, but of course, some things you keep secret.”
“There should be transparency into an industry of interesting people that should be visible.”
People like Ken Levine and Shigeru Miyamoto are the faces of their games, not the people on their teams. When asked, why transparency is so important, O’Donnell replies, “It is important in the same way that knowing what goes into any product is important. It is good for the workers and the players to know what goes into that game they’re playing. Kinda like food.” Developer’s Dilemma mostly pays attention to everybody who is invisible behind the cover of a game. O’Donnell says “Sometimes credits are not enough.” He says game developers should pay attention to the game they’re playing.
Game developers must be vocal enough. You are the industry. You make the games. Speak up.”
After all, “this isn’t anything like Grandma’s Boy.”