Making Games: Programmers

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.

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5 thoughts on “Making Games: Programmers

  1. You can make the same observations about sports teams. Not ALL managers/coaches were once players… but it sure makes it easier to perceive and communicate the “whats” and “hows” when you have done it yourself.

  2. I’m not going to dispute you on this one bit. The analytical, thinking-at-many-levels-of-complexity mindset that programming requires is as useful in team leadership and project management as it is in the nuts and bolts of software creation.

  3. To play devil’s advocate I thought I’d post my experiences: The first game studio I worked at was run by a (relatively famous) programmer, and although they were and still are successful, working conditions were poor and the general project management was a let-down.

    However a few companies later I find myself working under a producer who is an ex-tester at a venture-capitalist-owned company, and he is one of the most competent managers I have ever worked with.

    @Dave Mark: games companies aren’t just programmers. If you can only effectively communicate when you’ve done the job, how would programmer-led companies get any art or sound work done at all?

    Project management – including the skill of listening to those outside your area of expertise – is a discipline all by itself, and if we look only to those programmers who show a disposition for it we miss out a whole slew of prospective candidates.

  4. Hmm, provocative.

    In a day where content is king, technology is driving many studios to the ground and we build tools so that programmers don’t need to be involved in many tasks like scripting or asset creation, you go and ask to put programmers in charge 🙂

    I suppose it’s frustrating to me that I agree with you. (With one caveat: you need programmers with “design or artistic sensibilities”, otherwise you end up with a shiny and useless tech demo. The pure-programmer-driven game I was in was also over-engineered to the death.) Without strong programming direction games often transform into endless death marches, leading who knows where. And that’s the frustrating part. Why can’t designers or artists with no programming background understand the stakes? The cynical part in me has a saying: “everything is easy if someone else has to do it.”

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