Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

5 Years Is A Long Time

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 21, 2010

5 Years and 1 month ago I entered the gaming industry. Right out of college Cryptic Studios took a huge chance and hired me. Luckily it worked out, and Cryptic has always been a great place to get started in the industry. I had some awesome mentors during my first year there, and the working conditions were uniformly excellent throughout. For the first few years I had an absolutely perfect job. But after 5 years my passion for the job has completely faded and for my own happiness it’s time to move on. Officially as of last Friday, I have resigned from my position as a Lead Programmer at Cryptic Studios. I am doing this largely for personal reasons. Cryptic is still an awesome studio to work for and has many exciting projects in the works, but it is no longer the studio for me. I am currently taking a few months off to focus on my personal life (travelling to mainland Europe for the first time) and evaluate all of my future career options. I did not make this choice lightly, but I feel strongly that it is the right one at this point in time.

Reading the thoughts of Manveer Heir and Clint Hocking has helped me to clarify my own. If I was personally motivated by financial interests or quality of working conditions I would have absolutely no reason to quit, as Cryptic has treated me very well. But I am motivated by 2 things: the opportunity to solve interesting problems, and the satisfaction of seeing my work appreciated and enjoyed by others. If I can’t get those out of my life, I am objectively not a happy person.

Halcyon Days Gone By

During my first year I was dropped directly into the fire, working hard to get City of Villains shipped on time. For a kid right out of college this was an exhilarating thrill, and I was more than happy to work some overtime to help craft a great game. The final product had a few issues, but overall I was very proud of what we had accomplished in a short period of time. During this time I volunteered to fix a few tricky database corruption issues and I somehow got stuck with maintaining the database despite not having any official training. But hey, it was a new challenge and I took to it, reading up on the intricacies of MSSQL and database transaction theory. Despite being hired as a gameplay programmer, I started diving into the deeply technical infrastructure systems and learned more by the minute. Problems to solve abounded, and I could check the forums every day to see the real improvements I was bringing to players.

Going into my second year, the software team had some high ambitions. Coming off the largely successful launch of City of Villains the focus turned towards future projects, and that meant some extensive changes to the server infrastructure. The server team as a whole decided that a new system based on an Object Database would make the most sense, and because I was too inexperienced to know how hard it was I signed up to construct a database from scratch. It turns out it actually IS possible to construct a database from scratch, and I spent the next year and a half doing exactly that. Here was my chance to really make an impact, and build a critical component that would be at the center of an entire community of users. Despite the naysayers I can report that the Object Database has held up just fine under load from tens of thousands of active players at once. I was solving a deeply interesting technical problem, and I knew my work would enable new experiences (dealing with larger per-shard concurrency) that were otherwise impossible.

Heading into year 3 I started to get tired of the whole database thing. I hadn’t entered the games industry to write game-agnostic infrastructure code. I could have worked at Oracle for better pay and less satisfaction if I was going to do that! My interest in game design is after all why this site exists in the first place. By this time I’d proven my technical chops so I was able to spend half of my time being the principal gameplay programming on a new project. This was REALLY what I wanted to do! Work directly with designers to make a truly great game! It was a stressful but rewarding experience, trying out new gameplay prototypes, learning to manage the expectations of your teammates and superiors, and dealing with horrible game-destroying fires whenever they came up. I was learning how to actually design a game, and I could see the fruits of my labor every week during our playtests.

Sorry, That Was Pretentious

But then things started to go wrong. A newly acquired project delayed my project’s release window. The project’s thematic vision shifted while maintaining most of the same personnel. And then it shifted a second time, with commensurate delays. Eventually I was the only team member left from the original incarnation, and I had spent 3 straight years working on the “third unannounced project”. During those 3 years I had implemented several different combat systems from scratch, sat through hundreds of meetings, and fixed thousands of issues created by the rest of the company forgetting my project existed. This is all while I was spending the other half of my time maintaining and optimizing back end functionality that was about to ship in 2 commercial titles. I was spending more time fixing the same broken sink over and over than solving interesting problems, and I was increasingly skeptical of my gameplay work ever seeing the light of day. I wasn’t happy but I figured that was because I was so stressed out all the time.

Over the last year I made a conscious effort to try and achieve a better work-life balance, and I did a better job of delegating to some of the newer, very talented programmers. I worked hard at my collaboration skills and really focused on my primary game project. But over time something curious happened: as the adrenaline high wore off I realized I hadn’t actually enjoyed work for the last 2 years. What kept me going through the day was the sense of obligation I felt to the company, and my refusal to slack off and release poor quality work. But a huge chunk of my high-quality work had been completely trashed due to company reorganizations and personnel switches, and there were no interesting technical problems left to solve within the the constraints of the organization. As ties of obligation loosened I realized that the structure of the company itself was keeping me from doing my best quality work. Issues that were minor and ignorable 5 years ago were now highly irritating and galling. After spending copious time attempting and failing to “fix” the company’s issues, It was time for me to “fix” my own personal issue of working a job I hated.

Creative Differences

5 years is a long time for any creative collaboration. I consider myself to be a creative person, and I also consider myself to be a slightly odd person. It turns out these are very related, and every truly creative person I’ve worked with has had a variety of personality quirks that can either be interpreted as endearing or highly irritating. The Beatles managed to go a whole decade, but only by constantly switching up the dynamics through reinvention. Hollywood movies are made on a contract basis over 2-3 years, which I think has more to do with the creative process than it does labor politics. Some of the best game ideas I have been involved with have come directly from spirited and slightly emotional arguments. Eventually the emotional weight of those arguments adds up. When a band breaks up over “creative differences” you can bet they’ve had those same creative differences for years. What has changed is that the level of resentment and anger over those differences has finally boiled over.

So I guess what I’m saying is: it’s time for me to leave the band. You guys can probably find a bass player who fits in a bit better and I want to explore a few more exotic styles of music. But thanks for the years of great memories and maybe down the line we can get together for a reunion tour. Until then I’m really looking forward to hearing that new CD you guys are working on, although I kinda wonder how much of my bass part will be in the mix by the time it comes out. I’m proud of what I put together, and you guys are welcome over any time to share a few beers.

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2 Responses to “5 Years Is A Long Time”

  1. Matt Woomer said

    Good luck, Ben! Leaving a job that you’ve been so dedicated to creates a great feeling of possibility and reinvention.

  2. Darius K. said

    Exciting news, Ben! I’m about to hit my 5-year mark in October, and I’ve been undergoing a similar career shift (doing a lot of teaching now, for starters). Can’t wait to catch up with you at the next conference.

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