Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment


The stu­dio is buzzing. For some rea­son, ev­ery­one is crowd­ing around some­one’s desk, look­ing and talk­ing ex­cit­edly. Valu­able man-hours are be­ing lost be­cause there’s some­thing worth see­ing. But what could it be? Surely noth­ing as sim­ple as a new fe­male French an­i­ma­tor? No, the cor­rect com­pa­ny­wide ap­proach is to ig­nore Claudette point­edly while men­tion­ing to oth­ers how great you are at paint­ball. This is some­thing on a screen.

Even the boss has come out of a ‘meet­ing’ to see what the fuss is about. As he joins the throng, it’s clear why he’s the boss: he has no idea what he’s look­ing at. But he’s as­sum­ing a judg­men­tal frown, be­cause, as the boss, it’s his job to un­der­stand ev­ery­thing the team is cre­at­ing and to be able to cre­ate it bet­ter and faster. If, of course, he wasn’t busy be­ing the boss and us­ing work time to get his car riced up.

We must rise and shuf­fle over to see what this dig­i­tal mag­nif­i­cence is. Not that it’s im­por­tant, but should we re­main in our seat we would look like un­in­ter­ested drones who don’t get the core cul­ture of game de­sign and who don’t de­light in the cre­ation of some­thing truly ground­break­ing in our midst. Peer­ing over the sea of T-shirted shoul­ders, we fi­nally see the pix­elly holy grail. It looks like a group of Lego men bounc­ing around, play­ing foot­ball to a pri­mary school level.

We dare not com­ment. The stub­bly fel­lows clus­tered here are not mock­ing. Nor are they rem­i­nisc­ing about their pri­mary school days, spent learn­ing C++ at lunch and look­ing out of the win­dow at their healthy, foot­ball-play­ing class­mates. No. We hold our peace.

“Ad­just the co­he­sion,” says a coder. It’s the first time he’s spo­ken since he joined in 2009. He has a north­ern ac­cent, which no­body sus­pected. The co­he­sion is ad­justed.

Over the weeks and months to fol­low, we re­alise that what the screen showed was an en­tirely new and marginally more ef­fi­cient way of pro­gram­ming flock­ing be­hav­iour. And it doesn’t mat­ter that the game we all stopped work­ing on for 20 min­utes is a plat­form-based sidescroller. That wasted time is in­signif­i­cant

“Ad­just the co­he­sion,” says a coder. It’s the first time he’s spo­ken since join­ing in 2009. The co­he­sion is ad­justed

be­cause ev­ery­one will be in at the weekend, pre­tend­ing to crunch to get it fin­ished on time. No, what we saw was the com­ing of age of the pro­gram­mer who cre­ated the flock­ing rou­tine. It’s his first kill. It’s proof he’s push­ing en­velopes, bound­aries and lim­its. Up un­til now, he’s demon­strated the bare min­i­mum of what ev­ery game de­vel­oper must – the abil­ity to type very fast, with quite a lot of rapid backspac­ing to cor­rect his man­i­fold typ­ing er­rors.

All this sounds con­de­scend­ing, but that is be­cause I am. And if you’re an­noyed by this, well done for know­ing what con­de­scend­ing means. How­ever, it high­lights some­thing ex­cel­lent. Bri­tain is truly great at mak­ing games be­cause it’s held on to the Bletch­ley Park idea that if you as­sem­ble the talent, won­der­ful things will oc­cur. In games-mak­ing, there’s al­ways a war on. Mile­stones loom, al­pha dates close in like U-boat wolf packs, and the money is run­ning out. But by let­ting people not do their jobs all the time, but do some­thing bet­ter, we’ll win through ran­dom clev­er­ness and it’ll all be over by Christ­mas. My his­tory is shaky, but the In­ter­net con­firms that when Tur­ing in­vented the Enigma ma­chine, he knew it’d un­lock the atomic se­cret that would end the Nazis’ stran­gle­hold with two small but marginally more ef­fi­cient bombs. (Ci­ta­tion needed.) He was al­lowed to do so, de­spite us­ing the tech solely to solve the Daily Tele­graph crossword for years, be­cause he was trusted to even­tu­ally get the job in hand done.

Hav­ing worked along­side very tal­ented de­vel­op­ers in Amer­ica, I sug­gest that their drive and skill matches ours, but their fo­cus is, well, fo­cused. “Let’s fin­ish this game,” they say, “and un­err­ingly slick high fives, mas­sive cof­fees and per­haps a sin­gle small glass of beer will be our re­ward.” So they do it for the team, and as a team. But we do it the hard way. We hire the pro­gram­mer who lives 25-hour days be­cause he read once it’s more ‘nat­u­ral’, and spends half his life cod­ing (and eat­ing break­fast) in the small hours. Boe­ing may turn out ranks of milled-to-per­fec­tion air­lin­ers, but it took an English bloke in a shed with a chewed Helix pro­trac­tor to cre­ate Con­corde.

Money, though. That’s the prob­lem. Who can jus­tify flock­ing boy’s lone ge­nius when the re­sult’s not go­ing to be used this fi­nan­cial year? The econ­omy has spo­ken in a whiny voice and way­ward ge­nius be­comes a rapidly dis­carded lux­ury. We’re all in it to­gether, al­though Claudette has col­lected up her Dragonball Z fig­ures and gone to a bet­ter job in Canada. My so­lu­tion is bold yet sim­ple: mas­sive tax eva­sion per­pe­trated by all UK game stu­dios. Let’s make Bri­tain’s games great again.

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