Volume #1 Issue 7 March 1988

My last editorial focussed on amateurism among game developers. This time I set my sights on the foibles of software publishers.

The greatest failure of entertainment software publishers lies in the flakiness of their decision-making processes. There are three constituents to this flakiness: irrationality, inconsistency, and slowness.

Irrationality is a strong term to use, but I think that this shoe fits. Rare is the staff member who carefully thinks through his or her decisions. My experiences with software publishers makes me feel like Alice in a high-tech Wonderland, encountering exotic characters jabbering strange thoughts at me. "We want it to be just like last year’s hit, only unique," one fellow told me. Huh?

The problem seems to stem from a belief that games are so childishly simple that anybody can design a game. Since everybody thinks himself qualified to design games, the decision-making process degenerates into a random series of collisions between opinions. Nobody is willing to compromise because, after all, "My opinion is just as valid as your opinion." The notion that you can sort things out by appealing to experience and careful thinking seems lost on most publishers.

The arbitrariness of the decision-making process leads to frequent changes of position. They want it done one way this month and another way next month. A contract is issued in January and cancelled in June. The producer with whom you dealt is replaced, and the new producer has different ideas. What with all the zigging and zagging, it’s a wonder anything gets done. The software department at Atari went two years without getting a single product out the door. Thirty programmers kept busy writing lots of great programs that kept getting killed, resurrected, restructured, back-burnered, front-burnered everything but published. One of the reasons why the industry has turned to freelancers instead of in-house design staffs is that the freelancers are harder to jerk around (by virtue of their geographic remoteness), so they actually get something done.

The randomness and inconsistency that so many publishers exhibit is compounded by the near-universal inability to make up their minds. Most publishers take at least three months to decide whether to accept a game proposal. What happens during those three months? Do the publisher’s people really spend three months agonizing over the decision? I doubt it. My impression is that the decision-making process is so flaky that they need three months to get a week’s worth of deciding done.

The other big screwup at most publishers lies in the QA department. From what I hear, QA at most publishers is either nonexistent or nonfunctioning. Some publishers have a single assistant producer beat on the program for a week, scribbling down problems as they occur. The better publishers have proper QA departments with professional testing and reporting, but these departments seem to have turnaround times measured in months. When deadlines are bearing down on everyone, this can lead to bizarre situations. I’ve heard a story of a determined CEO who barged past his VP/software and physically seized the disk from the drive, even though the program was still buggy. They shipped it that way. And this was not some garage-shop publisher, but one of the biggest companies in the industry!

Obviously, publishers must be doing something right, or they wouldn’t be able to stay in business. Remember, though, that the games marketplace is not a particularly competitive one, not by the standard ways of measuring competitiveness. I wonder if any of the existing publishers could compete against a truly competent organization.