Microsoft has a term they like to throw around: a Career-Limiting Move (CLM). Refuse to take point on a major project from your manager? You’ve just committed a CLM. Accidentally send that witty, opinionated email to a wide audience that includes your Group Manager? CLM. Stand up and throw an iPad at Steve Ballmer at the annual Company Meeting? CLM!
Just maybe, what I’m about to say is a Career-Limiting Move of its own. Maybe it’s a convenient, portable, travel-sized way of ensuring I never get a job again in the industry I love, the industry I threw away every other opportunity (including the chance at a respectable four-year degree) to join, the industry that represents the fastest growing revenue segment of every digital platform ever developed - but screw it, I’ve been in the business a full, stormy, self-doubting decade and the world can hear me loud and clear:
I will never work on a first-person shooter game, ever again. Period.
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Prosletyzing from a youthful cad with visions of superiority!
Mass hysteria (it’s going around this season, you know)!
Action games of all stripes make up about 20% of worldwide sales - run n’ gun games made up 3 of the top 10 grossing games of 2011. Over 20M copies sold of Call of Duty: MW3. 10M for Battlefield 3. Those two games alone made up $1.5 billion at retail in 2011. Even if the publisher only nets $20 per copy, and a wild pessimistic guess at $100M for production costs (2x what it cost to make MW2) MW3 alone pulled in $350M in pure profit on that one title in launch year alone.
The amount of cash up for grabs in the business of Shooting People in the Face is simply staggering.
I understand. It’s not just the money. There’s a magnetic, almost shamanic aura that pervades our favorite shoot-em-up games. We’ll wait in line at 2AM to buy the new consoles that feel like they were built for these games. We’ll eagerly plunk down hundreds of dollars for deluxe editions with extra digital uniforms, special guns, or plastic tchotkes that bring the game closer to an idyllic reflection of ourselves - truly, our own lives, own hopes and dreams are wound up in these experiences - the fact that thirty million other people believe and contribute to this shared vision only adds to the intoxication we feel.
Perhaps as an expression of just how embedded I’ve found myself in this world over the last decade, six of the eight professional titles I’ve contributed to are first-person shooter games. I wish the percentages were different, but money follows money. Corporations and people both are caught in the whirlwind. Even when I toiled away in my education at Digipen at the turn of the millennium, I had half-drawn designs of shooter games; building them represented then the absolute apex of my career. If I could get the money, I thought, this would be my dream.
I'm not alone in this new world, fuller than ever of nascent game developers, would-be professionals, clawing at the walls to make a name, a life, a career full of shipped titles and rabid fans screaming for more. First-person shooter development packs and helper classes are among the most popular - and highest priced - items in the Unity Asset Store.
I’m not here to say there’s no room for innovation in this space, especially from its fans and enthusiasts. For a great understanding of how non-developer involvement has grown and changed in the space, see the excellent post from Rock Paper Shotgun - A People's History of the FPS.
The problem here is that money isn’t an acceptable stand-in for ethical behavior. Just as legality doesn’t equal morality (seriously, it doesn't, spread the word), so too does profit fail to imply ethical superiority. Great, we’re all making these games. Should we? Did we ever ask?
I had an experience that forced my hand - I haven’t stopped asking since.
It was a blustery pre-winter at Studio Q. (Call it whatever you want, I’m holding onto at least some plausible deniability here.) Another day, another paycheck, another generic shooter project for the ten-foot experience on a high-def console.
I spent a lot of time building communication channels among engineering, art, and design, disciplines that have often stormy relationships with one another. Putting coalitions together to fix the most critical issues and build up new game features was my self-selected job at the company; playing peacemaker comes naturally when you grow up in a divorced household.
The wide reach meant opportunities to survey dozens of my fellow game developers informally, and ten years in the business hit me all at once. I found many who were excited to work on anything at all. Glad to be in the industry. Maybe I’m supposed to be one of those still, if I know what’s good for me. Many who knew no better or no different. And still others who wished, who hoped against hope we’d make something different one day.
And there were those who were resigned to the mechanism of the industry - who knew that they’d work on whatever was profitable, and that meant, at least for the forseeable future, a lifetime of making shooter games. And they’d worked out their own coping mechanisms.
The man I remember most, Superdad, was an engineer with a young daughter. Like many of us in the business he had to work long hours, during many of the weekends where he’d spend time with his little girl. To try to please both sides, he brought his daughter, probably only 5 or 6 years old, into work and had her play with her toys in his office while he did his coding. He had no choice, really - this industry works people overlong and threatens them with excommunication if they complain, knowing full well that enthusiastic young talent will gladly come fill in at a lower wage.
Superdad was one of the old guard. A bandolier of shipped titles slung across his chest, he had survived layoffs, buyouts, new console launches, mobile versions of games; all manner of weather sprayed across the decks of the sailing ship Development. And he’d had enough time, consideration, and that true engineer thoroughness to come up with a unique solution to a problem that faced him every other weekend: explaining to his young daughter what it was he did for a living.
It was inevitable. His daughter would look up at the screen during a debugging session, see bad guys jumping to and fro from cover points, sneaking through the bush, guns trained dead-on at the eye-point of the player, and she’d be curious. She’d say “Daddy? What are those men doing?”
It’d be a lot harder to explain if the guns were firing, bullets were flying, blood was spurting from flayed carotids and torn femorals - but they weren’t. Not a shot. No gunpowder, no blood.
Superdad had programmed in a hardware switch that stanched all gunfire, instantly. He smiled, and with a gentle voice, he leaned over to his daughter and explained:
“They’re just playing hide and seek, honey.”
I’ll admit it: I’m terrified of children.
My fictional maybe-ones that I may or may not have some day, and the children of my friends and colleagues. I don’t know how I’d have the courage to do what it took to protect my child from the visible, media-ready horrors we know plague us as humanity every second - and the more insidious, invisible ones like my industry friends experience every day: the fact that deep down inside, we love to shoot people on these giant screens and watch them fall into the dirt.
That fear may have something to do with why I feel an overwhelming sense of awe in remembering Superdad's actions. The man is a hero to me, plain and simple. Caught only a worker in the great industrial revolution of digital violence, the Great Blood Gold Rush, he did what he had to in order to feed his family while protecting the delicate hope and optimism of his child, to give her a chance to see the world as it might better be seen, than as it is.
It’s not his response to the situation that I take issue with. It’s that there’s even a situation like this that he feels compelled to respond to - that’s the shame, the ugliness of it.
And this drama - this tightrope walk between building virtual violence while fashioning a safe space for the next generation - was forced to live in the same building that received countless letters, forum posts, YouTube videos, and more from angry gamers that threatened us - and our families - if we didn’t deliver them the bloodthirsty experience they wanted, the one they demanded. The pressure in these pipes does not let up, not from any source. Experience it, and you can begin to see why executives feel they have no choice but to ride these rapids to the hazard of all.
It’s entirely reasonable to tell me that the story is the same whereever you go. Whenever you’re addressing a crowd of millions, you might say, you’ll get hate mail. You’ll accumulate moral debt. You’ll get a crisis of conscience. Just a cost of doing business.
Well, sorry; that’s a cheap escape hatch, and I’m not using it anymore.
If I blame anyone for Superdad’s situation - it’s not him, it’s all of us. What we buy, what we line up for, what we clamor for in great digital mobs drives our next generation of production, fuels the generators and oils the wheels of capital that drive our next wave of industry.
The sad truth for me is that I am just as drawn to shooters as I’ve ever been. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever shake the response I’ve developed to the bursts of adrenaline, the short-circuited route to endorphins triggered by lining up a 32x32 pixel crosshair over a collection of triangles, now acid-etched into my brain as if it were its own printed board of chips and gold-coated bus lines.
But I am drawing the one line I can draw, starting now, for a few good reasons.
First, for the other Superdads out there, I want to be able to look them honestly in the face, not to give them some bullshit line about the fascinating duplicity of mankind, and say that I’m honestly working to try to make the world that their children will inhabit a better one.
Second, my new company, 4gency, built after plenty of time in an industry I couldn’t change, now has the opportunity to pick and choose the games it builds, and the ethical stances those games exhibit. If there’s any time along the singular diode path of my life to take a stand for something, anything, this is it.
So I’ll say it again: I will never work on a first-person shooter game, ever again. Period.
Not with my company. Not with any company.
I’ve been inspired by a variety of titles, including those in the much-hated “casual” space. I don’t think there’s a need for more Cowclicker 3000’s, but as a glimmer of hope, a shining did-you-know: strategy games made up 28% of the PC game market - the highest grossing genre for that platform. Of course you did; that fact alone does not a lifetime of riches make - but I see more, and better, ahead of us.
There’s an amazing amount of innovation just waiting under the surface for us to tackle - and yes, perhaps violence will be some part of it; we are no simple beings. But we as a self-aware species of gamer - and game developer - can evolve to a more varied diet as a start; a one-course feast of blood and shell casings can perhaps sing its last with this generation and never return, a relic, discarded as the cyanide trappings of our adolescent industry and its hopefully brief era of strip mining for the social soul.
We are ready to do better, and I'm prepared to do my part. No more first-person shooters will come from me.
I've said it. Have I destroyed my career?
Am I just minutes away from receiving the famed “you’ll never work in this town again” email from the Gaming Illuminati?
Have I invited a hundred million gamers to tell me I’m going to hell for not capitulating to their demands for a life filled with entertainment that leads with the gun and leaves all else to ruin?
Charles N. Cox has worked on games for Sierra Studios, Microsoft, and Sony. He is now the Developer Education Manager at Xbox, and runs his own mobile/tablet game company, 4gency. Charles blogs at http://www.charlesncox.com.