Right then… I’m in Canada for #rebootred, so on a laptop, and this will be a simple blog post with no images, but hopefully distills a lot of careful thinking…
I am worried that western game devs, (mostly indies) are totally and utterly fucked. I am super-worried (and confident) that western indie game devs who are based in California (esp san fran area) are so hugely utterly fucked that its like a disaster movie. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, but soon. Here is why.
The mindset of many california/west coast USA indies seems ridiculously optimistic. In talks, many of them talk about game design, company culture, personal development, aesthetics, mental health, safe-spaces and how they are anti-crunch, pro-union, and want to create idealistic creative environments, but rarely touch on economics or money. All of this sounds wonderful, and positive and desirable in a happy, optimistic ‘wouldn’t it be great if star trek:TNG was real’ kind of way. The trouble is, I think its idealistic naive insanity and that historical chance is currently lulling people into thinking this is going to continue.
There are basically two points to make here. One is how exactly I think this is naive insanity (I’m trying hard to avoid the word bollocks), and the other is why nobody has seemingly noticed yet. Onwards with point one:
Its stupidly expensive, and inefficient to make video games using middle class American twenty somethings working in California or Vancouver/Seattle. If you asked me how to lose money by writing software, I guess three of my best ideas would be to hire people with as little experience as possible, ensure they were only vaguely pressured into working real hard, and also place them in the most expensive office space I could find. That should do the trick.
Newsflash: You get at better at programming with experience. You get better at art with experience. You get better at almost EVERYTHING with experience. I am vastly, hugely, hilariously better at coding now than when I was 40 (I’m 50). The code I wrote when I was 30 was embarrassing. The code I wrote when I was 20 was a joke. I started coding aged 11. I am still learning. The code in Production Line is way better than Democracy 3. If I was hiring coders now (I’m not), someones advanced age (assuming equiv experience) would be a HUGE factor in selection. Your grey hair might not be a huge boost for your prospects on tinder, but they are a boost for your prospects as a potential employee at my company. Why? Because I’m not a total idiot. People with 30+ years of experience are BETTER at stuff. How is that even up for debate.
But the average age of indie developers seems to be going down each year. Its crazy. Your first attempt at making a game is usually awful. You think its better than it is because unity superficially makes stuff look better than it really is. The western attitude of praising youth over experience is a crippling flaw. The flipside view in many asian countries makes vastly more sense. Its 2019, much work is now mental, not physical. A 20 year old laborer is more productive than a 50 year old laborer. But coders….lol no.
Modern western millenial (or zoomer???) attitudes to work are different to the boomer/genX attitudes. Thats in many ways an improvement. I am a huge workaholic. I will work myself to death in order to win. I LOVE finding myself in a situation where the person who works the most wins, because then I know I will win. This is very unhealthy, and very bad, and rightly looked down upon. Its also the predominant attitude still in a huge swathe of the world, especially the ‘developing’ world, or to put it another way: China.
California/Seattle/Vancouver are rich. The middle class kids who lightly rebel against their parents by having dyed hair, a mac book air and a copy of unity need not fear too much that they will end up in the gutter hungry. The game dev thing is their dream, but if it fucks up, they can get a job at facebook/microsoft/amazon for a high six figure salary anyway. Their parents likely own houses that have quintupled in value and will bail them out anyway. Do you think the average seattle indie dev has the same hunger to work on their game as a kid from a poor family in Shenzen who sees this as their ONE CHANCE to escape life in a factory?
Poor people have an added incentive. Harsh but true. I’m not exactly ‘from money’ (to put it mildly), so I know this. Nothing encourages you to work harder than hunger, and west-coast indie devs dont have it.
I could look up relative apartment/office rental costs in China versus Seattle/SF here, but why bother? you already know the answer. A dev in India/Russia/China/South America has a trivial office rental bill compared to you. Guess what… a $20 strategy game royalty buys a lot more *stuff* in mumbai than it does in san francisco, but the developer still earns the same $20 regardless of where they coded the game. Steam doesnt deduct income from chinese developers because they *cheat* by developing games somewhere more affordable.
So yeah… pure economics mean that western devs, in western cities, with western attitudes, and work-life balance are fucked. You cannot compete. Its over, you lost. Poverty awaits. You*are*fucked. Point one ends here.
Now point two… if this is really true, how the hell is ANYONE still in business making indie games in SF/London/Seattle?
Anyone who has witnessed triple-A devs outsource art or design or code to the developing world will say its CULTURE that *we* have an advantage on, and *they* don’t. Chinese devs cant make art that appeals to the precious artistic sensibilities of all the people buying games, which is rich westerners, hence, they might be ok to model the odd tree…but chinese devs can never compete with western ones for creating real IP, or whole games…
Yeah maybe…in the past. But thats bullshit now. Firstly, The chinese economy has been transformed, and there is now a HUGE middle class. There are a staggering number of chinese gamers, playing everything. The idea of Chinese outsourcers making content for rich westerns is seriously out of date. If anything, its now hungry western indie devs asking how they can ‘break in’ to the huge and lucrative Chinese market.
Secondly, the whole ‘cultural advantage’ thing is about to become bullshit. In the past, people had a point. Thanks to WW2, my own country (England) was economically kicked in the nuts a while ago, and became effectively subservient in economic terms to the USA. As a result, US culture invaded and dominated our own, to the extent that English people know what Hamburgers, High-School, High-School proms, Little-League, Baseball, Cheerleaders, Trick-or-treat and Pretzels are, even though none of this is English. You can make a video game in san francisco about a pretzel-munching cheerleader at the high school prom, and thats just fine, because US culture has basically conquered the world. US culture dominates, and thus people 100% immersed in it in San Francisco get an advantage over kids in rural China.
Not any more.
Some commentators suggest that ‘Gangnam Style’ was the tipping point towards Asian dominance of global culture. Maybe instead its ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Maybe it will be some movie/game from next year. Hard to tell, but everybody can see the direction of movement.
In economic terms We have ZERO defence against domination by asia of almost everything. We have got away with ignoring this for a few decades because of the cultural overhang of western (esp US) media that created a narrative of needing to get IP and art from the west if you wanted to be a success in the media. That cultural advantage is collapsing right now.
To clarify: I dont see this as a BAD thing. Or a GOOD thing. Its just a thing. Its the gears of history. Britain was good at shipbuilding and built a trading empire based on naval might that let us get away with punching above our weight culturally and economically for a while. Then the US had their turn, after WW2 basically fucked everybody else. Now its time for Asia to take both the the cultural and economic crown. Stuff changes. All I’m trying to do is spot when changes might cause me, or people I know, to have to adjust.
TL;DR: There is no safe space to protect from the economics of Chinese game development.
This is just my view. I could be totally wrong. I’ve never even been to India, China or Russia. Am I wrong?