20 years and going - What makes the games industry SPECIAL?
In this special feature, we spoke with Stefan Baier, COO at Streamline Media Group, to discuss what makes the games industry special to him and be in this industry for a long time.
It was a beautiful summer night in Seattle, WA in 2000. 2am in the morning and we had dinner at WENDY’s after another long Saturday at the office. Valve Software, our benefactors who took us in for finishing our first game, forbade us to work on weekends but we came in anyways. After all, Gabe Newell made the stakes clear. After taking us into their incubator program and challenging us to make ‘Game of The Year’ with our first game title, he announced during a company dinner: “Those are the Gunman guys, and they’re f**cked.” That’s our industry but we took it in stride.
At least things were improving. When we first got here, our hotels were booked wrong so I stayed overnight in Valve’s office, sleeping in a cardboard box. That was before I blew up their microwave and found out that my levels made their testers so nauseous they had to throw up. At least, we were told, our game is already better than Daikatana. They had robot frogs, we had cowboys and dinosaurs – in space. The only way out was up.
In the end, we brought this upon ourselves. We wanted to be here, loved every moment. A bunch of teenagers from around the world, using a popular game engine to make their dream game. Back then it wasn’t Unreal Engine but Source Engine, but same difference. Back then or today, it takes a certain kind of individual to thrive in video games – the ones that thrive in adversity and uncertainty but also those that are relentlessly creative and collaborative. For I don't know any other modern industry with this potential for companionship and teamwork.
Why endure it? I think there is an inherent mystery in creating something from scratch, building it out of pure imagination to come to life. This is what bring people into the industry. Yes, everything is digital and our whole team’s life’s work will fit on a USB drive, but nobody thinks like that. It doesn't matter it’s digital. Because what makes you –stay- in the industry is something else: What drives us is the innate desire in people to build together.
The other part is the technology that drives the industry. It’s incredibly complex software that requires high performance computation, yet the utility of our software is measured by how much of human attention it can hold – how well it entertains. It makes every game developer part-time psychologists, which reintroduces the human element on the other side of the technology barrier. What a strange unique mix of technology and human understanding.
From here, everything begins to fall into place. We group together with like-minded people, not driven by creed or birthplace, but by values and a shared passion in technology and collaboration. In building our virtual towns, we unite creatives across the world. The games industry operates without limits and takes us from workshops in King’s Landing (Dubrovnik) to playgrounds of Akihabara (Tokyo), to LARPing in Sweden and Burning Man. We get to see famous actors in silly mocap suits, drunk vloggers in Bali, famous franchises crater years before it happens, and see student upstarts change the status quo. What other industry combines so effortlessly the ludicrous and profitable.
It really shouldn't be so appealing. Rampant egos and wasted budgets, Industry hype and tribalism, poor planning, prejudice and protectionism run rampant in videogames. Mix this with a relentless drive for machine-automation, globalization, billions of revenues, and the best & worst of the movie industry – and here we go. It’s confusing, frustrating and infuriating.
And yet for me it has become a way of life. For many of us, it’s not so much about the end result of a product, but the journey. We are tinkerers, team players, fighters. We are on the frontlines of IT and software technology, we are deeply embedded in pop culture and entertainment, we deal with a globalized world. We are the creators and the victims of relentless change in a world that’s driven by the marketplace of ideas. The push and pull is intoxicating.
It’s hard to explain to outsiders how much under siege you can feel when a milestone deadline is approaching. What’s the big deal with sending some files? For many studios it’s life and death. Trying to get a piece of technology, software and hardware to behave in a way it becomes entertaining is hard work. It’s a battle and a competition. And yet here were are at midnight in the office, mostly sitting, staring and waving at computer screens or people, solving problems, trying to make something fun come out of the screen.
Maybe more than any other industry. Games is made by people. Studio culture is essential to success but is also notoriously difficult to cultivate. Things change so fast, people have to change with them, and with that evolves the culture. Sometimes a slower pace would be nice, but then it wouldn't the maddening, infuriating, exhilarating and rewarding ride it’s been.
You get through it as a team. The only way out is up, together.