Tired of your 9 to 5 job? Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired? Are you looking for a career change? Or maybe you’re stuck in your mom’s basement addicted to video games and porn?
How about manning up son? I’ve got just the thing for your skillset. Don’t worry, you’ll still get to play video games. How about an exciting career as a game designer in the fast-paced video game industry?
It’s time to reveal some dirty little secrets that the video game industry doesn’t want you to know. Buckle up, because I’m going to take you on a journey deep down into sleazy, sordid rabbit hole of video game development where corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and incompetence are not only rampant but richly rewarded.
If you stick around long enough I will show you how you can begin a glorious career as a video game designer using three simple weird tricks.
Weird Trick 1: Anyone Can be a Video Game Designer
Let’s start with a shocker:
Anyone can be a video game designer.
When the video game industry came into being, there were no courses on video game design. The coin-op arcade games and home gaming consoles that were all the rage back in the 1970s were designed by computer programmers. They didn’t have any particular affinity for design, they just happened to be available. Many people became video game designers out of sheer necessity.
Computer programmers (now called “coders”) and animators/artists have to be credentialed, talented and demonstrate they are capable. Game designers do not. Everyone thinks that they know what makes a good video game. All you need is an opinion and a strong belief in yourself — this is America after all — and you’re on your way!
As the video game landscape changed and MMORPGs became popular, there was a need for more people to fill these vacancies. Anyone with any sort of gaming experience whether it be table-top games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering or video games could consider themselves adequate applicants for a job in the video game industry.
BONUS WEIRD LEGIT TRICK: Some of my colleagues in the industry are pen and paper D&D dungeon masters who created their own D&D campaigns for their friends. Those skills translate exceptionally well into MMO design. If you see a person who has D&D DM experience on their resume, that’s a good sign that they are highly creative and understand what makes for a good player experience.
Quest Design: 100
It takes zero skill to be a quest designer in your typical MMO these days. No special aptitude, skill or passion is required. It’s not that hard to create a kill 10 boars quest, a FexEx quest, an escort quest or a kill the boss quest. Anyone who’s played an hour of World of Warcraft is qualified enough to copy and paste most of the quest types they’ve encountered in Azeroth into any MMO.
Boss Design: 100
So you think making a MMO boss encounter is hard? Nope.
Find an existing NPC model, increase its size and choose a different skin if available. Create the name, stats of the boss, give him obscenely high health points and regen rate, give him a few AOE spells and don’t forget to make him immune to just about everything (a cheap time-saving trick used by lazy designers to this day). Put some loot on him and make sure to give warrior loot useless stats like wisdom and caster loot equally useless stats like strength — just because you like messing with players. Give him a few text-emotes and a death rattle text. Plop him down at the end of the dungeon.
Don’t have time to test the encounter? Who cares. Let the players (unpaid workers) test it because you’ve got a company event at a local microbrewery to attend tonight. Presto, you just made a high-level raid boss for EverQuest. Easy peasy!
Weird Trick 2: Friends and Family are your Golden Ticket into the Industry
The absolute quickest way to break into the video game industry is to have a friend or family member currently working at a studio who’s got some influence get you in.
Have your friend/family member employed in the industry contact one of their buddies in management. Then they create a phony “community manager” position which just about anyone who knows how to type can qualify for. Then with a good word from their studio benefactor, the person gets magically hired. Once you are in the company you are golden and get the first crack at associate designer jobs. Within a few years, you can be a senior game designer and eventually a creative director!
Look at the resumes of some of today’s MMO designers and you’ll notice that a substantial number started off as community managers. Community managers are discussion forum admins/ who police forums and lock threads. Of course, their real job is to be a company spin-doctor and police the forums by locking threads, deleting posts and quashing player dissent.
PRO TIP: Being a female or minority really helps because then the studio can check off the trendy diversity/inclusion box. If you’ve ever wanted to become a man or a woman or non-binary this is the time to do it and jump on the rewarding victimhood bandwagon!
Since companies like to hire within, today’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed community manager will be an associate designer in a year provided that they don’t knock the apple cart and play their cards right. Once community managers are promoted, they get new forum names so that the player community will have no idea what happened. Clever sleight of hand!
Now if you don’t have any friends or family in the industry, no problem! Figure out the hobbies of current developers, hang out with them and befriend them. Sycophancy works! Strike up a conversation, talk about gaming and tell them what a hardcore gamer you are. Drop as many names as possible. Tell them you were a badass raider and raided with Fires of Heaven, Legacy of Steel, Afterlife or Elitist Jerks. Lie if you have to.
If that fails, you can suck up to them on MMORPG discussion forums and Twitter. Eventually, if you level up your pandering skills, you might get offered a job. Many people in the industry got their first entry-level jobs this way.
Weird Trick 3: Get Paid to Play Video Games
Another way to get an entry-level job in the industry is to go the quality assurance route. Basically, you get paid to test video games. Unlike the community manager role, this is not a bogus job and in fact very necessary and legit. Without good testers, your video game or MMO is doomed. Video game companies are always looking for testers. Membership in a hardcore MMO raiding guild a useful pedigree for this job.
Incompetence, Cronyism and Nepotism: The Crooked Three-Legged Stool of the Video Game Industry
Okay, I’ve had a bit of fun. So let’s get serious. If I were to give someone one bit of advice for surviving in the video game and MMO industry it would be this:
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
This is a universal truth in every industry and the video game industry — especially the southern California based MMO industry — is no exception as it’s rife with incompetence, cronyism, and nepotism.
As in the real world, the PETER Principle applies to both industries. This principle states that in most companies and organizations, people are generally promoted to the level of their incompetence. Unfortunately, people’s skill and aptitude to not always commensurate with their current job title. This explains why there are many mediocre game designers currently occupying senior designer roles in the industry. Mediocre devs equals mediocre games that you the customer ends up paying for.
Nepotism is a cancer in the video game industry. To my knowledge, there are at least two Blizzard executives that got their girlfriends jobs at Blizzard and probably more that I’m not aware of. Nepotism is not a victimless practice as there are only so many positions in the industry. Every time someone gets hired because of nepotism, a talented person who should have got the job is bypassed. Every time a bogus job is created in the industry for the purposes of cronyism and nepotism, there are fewer resources for legitimate jobs with the end result being the quality of the video game suffers.
BONUS WEIRD TRICKS: The real skill you need to develop in the industry is figuring out how to navigate office politics. You do this by becoming an ass-kissing, brown-nosing corporate hack. The longer you stay employed and level-up these skills, the bigger your network of allies in the company becomes. Eventually, when you know the right people, it’s impossible for you to get fired. Possessing authentic talent is optional and can even be a detriment as you don’t want to make others look bad. Having the right political and social beliefs also helps. The ability to virtue-signal is also a plus! So make sure you dye your hair pink, become a hipster, get a nose ring and some edgy tattoos, wear a Bernie 2020 t-shirt and by all means wear a Pride pin at all times and be sure to virtue signal on Twitter about hating Trump, loving social justice and warning everyone about the impending doom of climate change. Got all that?
As hinted earlier, cronyism is rampant too. Some devs get hired because they share similar hobbies like dirt-bike racing or working in a comic book store or they praised the CEO on Twitter. I’m not making this stuff up folks. No real skill is required.
Something The Music Industry and the Video Game Industry have in Common
I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating: years ago in an interview, The Police’s guitarist Andy Summers made an insightful comment that stuck with me all my life. He said that “the music industry has a high asshole quotient.” I’ve studied music and spent time in the music industry so I can vouch for his assessment that the music industry is a magnet for sleazy people. These odious people are attracted to the industry not for artistic reasons but for all the wrong reasons: the babes, the glamor and the glitz.
We live in a time where video games are ubiquitous and an integral part of the zeitgeist. As a result, video game design courses are popping up all over at local community colleges. Many gamers believe that they can be video game designers and thanks to their unwavering self-esteem and ambition we have many unqualified, unsavory people desperate to become a part of the industry.
Don’t Believe Me, Believe Glassdoor
Maybe you think that I’m full of it. After all, according to some, I’m just an unhinged, entitled, hobbyist blogger who has no idea how the video game industry works. Maybe I’m just over-exaggerating things. This is the Internet after all. Well don’t take my word for it, take the word of current and ex-developers.
One company, in particular, the now-defunct Sony Online Entertainment — the studio that created EverQuest — had a checkered history of dysfunction. They were infamous for hiring just about anyone and that includes brothers, sisters, wives and of course friends.
Glassdoor is like Yelp but instead of reviewing restaurants, employees can review companies. What follows is a litany of choice quotes from Glassdoor.com about SOE, their management and their culture:
Nice People Who Are Too Accepting of Mediocrity and Nepotism
Game team leadership has an abundance of arrogance and elitism. Game teams hire their friends and ignore talent from other departments. Compensation is well below market. No stock options or grants. No opportunity for advancement (no one is let go for poor performance). It’s easy to pick up bad habits as management resists change. With little to no coding standards, the game code is a mess. The company is continuing to downsize as players leave EQ and EQII. Significant use of contractors.
–Current Employee – Senior Software Engineer in San Diego, CA
Terrible management, lack of professionalism, no accountability.
Terrible management, top-heavy management style. More management than was needed by far. The hours were terrible and mandatory overtime that was made to seem not “mandatory.”
–Former Employee – Anonymous Employee
There is an insider’s club of the original founders and development team that receive funding and support for their projects even past the viability of the game.
— Former Employee – Anonymous Employee
Head in the Clouds, Feet on a Hoverboard
Senior management likes to “play designer” and will frequently counter design decisions. Luckily this is usually reserved for the most recent title in development. Working on hardware that is consistently out of date Development tools (software) is atrocious and infrequently updated. Typically more productive to work directly out of the design database. Contract employees receive meager pay on the promise of Soon(tm) being hired on full time. Soon is supposed to be ~3 months, but was closer to 3 years for me.
–Former Employee – Game Designer in San Diego, CA
Get out as soon as you get on a development team
Complete incompetence of management. The people steering the ship have no idea what they’re doing. Nobody in charge has made a successful game this century. They also refuse to listen to the few experienced individuals who they have managed to hire.
Since there is such a prevalence of individuals that have been promoted out of QA/CS/the street, the vast majority of people have only ever worked in game development at SOE. In several areas (particularly production) it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Nobody receives the training necessary to KNOW how to do their job properly.
Low turnover. The ratio of useful employees to useless ones skews heavily toward the latter. In addition to being plagued with inexperienced staff, most development teams have staff that either doesn’t actually work, or are just straight-up bad at their job. There is no personal responsibility or discipline taken against employees who continually fail to deliver. Bad employees are never let go as Smedley (and therefore all of upper management) sees the company not as a business, but as a family. Having a family is great, but this one is full of siblings you wish you could disown.
Too much value placed on programmers. In reality, they’re the easiest to replace as most positions in this discipline can be recruited from outside the games industry. In every round of layoffs that the company has had, the programming department is always the least affected (often not at all affected), leading to an abundance of programmers who have no reason to fear losing their jobs and continue to underperform.
Unclear pipelines & muddy communication
The flow of information between disciplines is terrible. This is mostly due to inexperienced production staff, but is also affected by middle management never having been exposed to a functional work environment.
It should go without saying, but all of the above is what contributes to the overall fact that the quality of games being created by SOE is terrible. The budgets are AAA, but the results are worse than most dedicated hobbyists could pull off. The structure that supports SOE allows it to create MMOs, which is the only thing that makes this company unique. This genre is dying and in need of some large changes to revitalize it, unfortunately I don’t think the current incarnation of SOE is capable of doing that.
–Current Employee – Senior Game Designer in San Diego, CA
Most employees are temps, even after years of working there. Salaries are way below industry standards. There is no job security. I was laid off twice in 3 years. Management is really bad and mostly apathetic. You are encouraged to “stay in your place.” There is almost no chance for advancement. The game ideas and general direction of the company were decided by incompetent fools, at best.
–Current Employee – QA Tester in San Diego, CA
Layoffs were always looming over our heads
Leadership was questionable. I felt like they were more there to babysit us and were delegating projects and going to meetings than giving us decent project direction. Layoffs were ALWAYS something we knew were inevitable. You can tell by the business structure that the company is run by a small group in Marketing who are completely out of touch with the demographic SOE’s games catered to.
Stop with the nepotism. Actually look at a manager or department leads contributions or skills. Also, when you’re doing a layoff actually LOOK at the people you’re laying off because they’ve had to hire back essential staff a day or two later simply because their layoff gated an entire team!
–Former Employee – Anonymous Employee in San Diego, CA
I wanted to make a career here, but…
Many I met during my time at the company were truly dedicated to making an impact on the game, but when you know you’re going to be stuck in the same place forever unless you manage to befriend the right people, the enthusiasm goes down the drain and everything suffers because of it.
–Former Employee – Anonymous Employee in San Diego, CA
Good people, poor management, terrible decisions
While there are a few pros there are quite some cons. Expect to be overworked. Most people (while nice) have no idea what they are doing Upper management and the CEO are all part of the same “boys club” and they will protect themselves above anything else. Lack of focus in production phase: teams will change priorities week in and week out, causing unfinished and broken features.
–Former Employee – Project Manager in San Diego, CA
If even half of these things are true, it’s evidence of massive and systemic dysfunction at SOE. Is it any wonder that EverQuest Next was canceled and that SOE has not been able to capitalize on the legacy of EverQuest make a successful sequel in the past 20 years?
Tales from the SOE Crypt
Now for some personal horror stories from my time as a volunteer guide that reveal more evidence of cronyism and corruption. Now seems a good time as any, to reveal them.
When I was a Senior Guide, one of my fellow guides was a friend of someone in middle-management. This guide revealed to me some shocking things about this person. Let’s call this guy Smeagol. Smeagol was an arrogant bully and universally despised by the volunteer guides who had the misfortune to encounter him. He was an ass-kissing protege one of the VPs at SOE. So being the obnoxious empire-building jerk that he was, Smeagol managed to orchestrate the hiring of many of his buddies as gamemasters for EverQuest. Nevermind the fact that they had no experience or aptitude for the role.
This Jedi Master of cronyism would guarantee his friends a job at SOE. So he’d pack up his van and drive from San Diego to move his buddies from cities along the pacific coast and back to San Diego. This guy had so much juice at SOE that his friends would be hired upon arrival — even if they had no official job offer from SOE. Eventually, Smeagol’s shenanigans got the best of him and his antics became too much for even SOE and he was let go because of inappropriate behavior with a junior employee. True story.
As a volunteer Senior Guide for EverQuest, I worked with many SOE GM employees processing thousands of petitions and conducting investigations. I could write a full-length book on what it was like. Despite the appalling working conditions in SOE’s infamous sweaty “GM pit”, most were pretty good and very passionate. As time passed, I got to know many of them and soon learned that working in the industry was more than a paycheck, they actually gave a damn about us as guides and EverQuest.
These were the days that developers like Brad McQuaid AKA Aradune cared enough to show up in Norrath in character. Unlike many current and ex- EQ devs who’ve never run a live quest, couldn’t role-play their way out of a paper bag and have no appreciation or aptitude for of any of that, these devs and GMs actually enjoyed doing live quests/events and often even interacted with players role-playing as deities and running invasions.
During the early years of EQ before raiding culture completely dominated the attention of the devs and sucked all of the oxygen out of the room, SOE was 100% committed to the concept of live, dynamic quests and events. Live GM events and invasions happened almost every day in the first few years of EverQuest. Along with GMs, there were dedicated guide teams called The Quest Troupe and the Norrathian Dramatic & Comedic Society who would briefly transform Norrath a magical and wonderous living and breathing virtual world. This was before GMs were outsourced to local temp agencies and eventually to offshore places like India which incidentally was another atrociously stupid scheme concocted by the ambitious ladder climber Smeagol.
It gets worse. One GM, protected by his benefactor — you guessed it — Smeagol, was such a cretin that he sent naked pictures of himself to a female Senior Guide. He was never fired for this. Nope. He was such a screw-up as a GM that eventually SOE transferred him to the tester (QA Dept.). This individual went on to become a game designer. True story.
What I just told you is just a mere fraction of the shenanigans that went on when I was a volunteer Senior Guide for EverQuest.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Verant and SOE for having the vision to have a volunteer guide program. Guiding was a labor of love. The experience I got from being a guide and writing quests and events for EverQuest helped land me my first job in the video game industry.
Guides came from all walks of life and to be honest most were of higher caliber with regard to intellect and creativity than the junior SOE employees tasked with supervising us. Guiding was hard work for but we did it because we believed in Norrath and in the vision of the founders of EQ.
Parting Thoughts and Parting Shots
I fully expect certain people to dispute the veracity of my recollections of my experiences at SOE. I know some will disagree with my harsh assessment of the industry but I feel it’s important to speak out. Over the 14+ years I have been publishing articles on this website, it has been my contention that MMO players have been cheated by complacent studios who promised us a living breathing virtual world but never delivered. The MMO industry has been afflicted with an impervious status quo of creative cowardice and endemic laziness.
Beware of ex-developers who skulk around various hardcore MMO discussion forums waiting for an opportunity to crawl out of the woodwork to whitewash their dubious legacies and justify the mediocrity of their buddies still employed in the industry. These people are shameless apologists for some of the worst MMO design decisions ever made that happened on their watch. For some reason, they crave validation from players for their years of nominal attendance in the industry. Maybe we should start a Gofundme for them so we can buy them a stuffed animal or a gold watch.
You can choose not to believe me but you can’t dismiss what others have to say so easily and this is where Glassdoor comes into play. Glassdoor provides anonymous current and former employees a safe environment where they can tell the truth free from retaliation and corporate spin. If it wasn’t for Glassdoor, you would rarely, if ever, hear the accounts of what really went on at Sony Online Entertainment and other studios. Their testimonials are a damning and devasting historical indictment of a sleazy part of the video game industry that is a wretched hive of scum and villainy that chews good people up and spits them out while creating featherbeds for the talentless zombies in the old boys club who wallow in the pigsty of incompetence and complacency.
Why is it that you rarely see news articles about what’s really going on in the video game industry?
Answer: the video game press who has a symbiotic relationship with game studies is dependent on exclusive access to developers and all-expense-paid press junkets, is predictably nowhere to be found on this issue. They have largely abdicated any pretense of doing honest journalism as they publish puff pieces and thinly disguised press releases and look for any excuse to pick the low hanging fruits of promoting diversity/inclusion propaganda to their readers. They are blissfully ignorant and conveniently incurious but serve a greater purpose as useful cogs in the video game sausage machine. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back. Don’t rock the boat. The spice must flow!
So the next time a developer tries to be the smartest guy in the room and attempts to bamboozle you, take their insights with 10 pound block of Himalayan salt because now you know a bit more about what really went on and you also now know that just about anyone with the right friends, a pulse, the IQ of a chimpanzee and the creative aptitude of an ashtray can be a MMO designer.
Regrettably, some of these imposters — who don’t even play MMOs anymore let alone the ones they allegedly work on — are still employed and going through the motions churning out predictable, uninspired cookie-cutter content. Like stubborn barnacles that tenaciously cling to a ship’s hull, these crafty self-preservationists are almost impossible to get rid of. They are the MMO industry’s version of the tenured professors. This situation has created a paucity of serious talent which is precisely why many MMOs suck and keep on sucking. It is for this reason and the sad reality that over the years, many devs lost their passion and simply stopped caring, that the MMO industry has stagnated and is going nowhere fast at light speed.
Are there some exceptionally talented, passionate and legit people working as game designers in the MMO genre? Of course and thank the pantheon of gods of Azeroth and Norrath for them! Somehow they managed to survive the scourge of office politics with their integrity intact and to this day, are doing their best to keep the MMORPG torch burning. But to assume all are equally as noble is naive.
Remember, the video game industry needs a steady supply of saints, heroes, and rockstars who will work 16 hour days and weekends, and don’t mind eating free barely warm takeout and have no desire to spend quality time with their loved ones. Perhaps this is why precisely why many creative people don’t last very long in this industry and seek meaningful legitimate careers elsewhere.
Are all video game studios as dysfunctional as was SOE? Thankfully, no. But the industry is still relatively new and there are a host of problems that need to be addressed. These include what I mentioned here and issues like mandatory crunch time and work/life balance.
Even if we could fix all these problems we’d still be left with an industry that has abandoned any semblance of integrity and sold its soul for profits. These days, video game designers are more concerned about devising addictive Skinner box monetization schemes than they are creating great games. Game designers are like drug dealers who offer their clientele an assortment of narcotics such as loot boxes, pay to win and micro-transactions. Video games are now thinly disguised slot machines. Viva Las Vegas!
If we want better video games, we need a better industry. Garbage in, garbage out.