Why does having a programmer in charge of your company make such a big difference?
I’ve been at a number of companies over the years, and there’s always a marked difference between the companies run and founded by programmers and those that aren’t. I hear it from other programmers too. I’m not sure why, but at a programmer-led company programming tends to seem, well, better grounded. Relaxed. Expected, maybe. Every time we compare process notes, it shares one common thread. Not Agile. Not size. Programmers who made the ultimate call.
You see this translate to the marketplace too. Will Wright? Programmer. Valve? Gabe was a programmer. Blizzard? Yep, programmers. Looking Glass? The whole company only believed in programmers. EA and Activision? Early years – founded by programmers. Bioware, Firaxis, programmers, programmers. These people who run companies, they all share a common hands-on background. Even Scrum – comes from programmers. When you take a step back, the list is staggering. Sure, many of these people have also become designers – something I haven’t missed, trust me. But their starting place seems too remarkable to go uncommented. It’s not complete – there are large teams in particular who have had success, usually led by producers with a tight team of leads. But the commercial industry seems dominated by either small-ish teams of the former or ginormous money-sucking teams of the latter.
I’m not implying causation, just correlation here. Trying to guess, having a programmer in charge means there’s no black box. Video games are software first, game second. Programmers have to understand that at their core. It’s this hard truth that has so far made design so difficult. If you can understand what the software takes, if you can get hands on in what you have, if you’ve done it yourself in the same code base, there’s a level of understanding that comes with that. If you can’t, it seems more likely you’ll focus on the game part first – usually the design. You can end up underappreciating that whole engine part, relying on others to just meet your design goals. I wish it was always that simple though. At some point, risk or difficulty becomes high, hard choices have to be made, priorities have to be set. And it seems like in those times history seems to show the programmer-leaders react better. They’re better informed or better prepared. Software first means things about priorities, means things about workflow, ultimately means things about culture, that even today it seems you need to understand making software to truly understand the craft of making games.
Of course, I’m probably biased.