Game developers expect credit where credit is due
EmptyImagine working on a blockbuster film for 2-1/2 years and then being left out of the movie's end credits. It's not likely to happen because union contracts dictate giving credit where credit is due.
Now imagine working on a hit video game for 2-1/2 years and no one -- not you, not anyone in your team of 55-plus developers -- appears in the credits.
Unfortunately, in an industry where this is not all that uncommon, where there are no unions, where there are few contracts, very little has been done to prevent it.
This coming February, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, developers will be asked for their feedback on the beta version of a "Game Crediting Guide" developed by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and designed to give game makers "accurate, complete, and fair credits."
While no statistics exist that would quantify how frequently games go uncredited, or improperly credited, according to Jason Della Rocca, the IGDA's executive director, "anecdotally I can tell you that it happens all the time. One of the most extreme examples is what happened with 'Manhunt 2' where a publisher, Rockstar Games, literally pretended that the studio that made the game never existed. It's the perfect example for why this industry needs crediting standards."
Rockstar did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Jurie Horneman was a producer at Rockstar Vienna (Austria), part of the team that reportedly created about two thirds of "Manhunt 2," a single-player survival-horror game released on Oct. 31 for the PlayStation 2, Wii, and PSP.
The following day, Horneman recalls that he was angry to find that none of his 55-plus co-workers who worked on the game for 2-1/2 years -- from January 2004 until Rockstar closed down the studio on May 11, 2006 -- were listed in the credits.
In his personal blog, Horneman recalls that he was "disappointed and outraged that Rockstar Games tried to pretend that Rockstar Vienna and the work we did on 'Manhunt 2' never happened -- the work of over 50 people who put years of their lives into the project, trying to make the best game they could."
Horneman's blog also includes posted comments from other developers. Said one:
"Thank you for posting this. It's incidents like this that reinforce the argument that developers need a union that can ensure credits are published accurately. In our industry, careers can be made or broken with the flippant change of a game's credits, usually written by a producer with their own personal axes to grind. Almost every developer I know has a story like this, and it needs to stop."
Indeed, the Rockstar Vienna incident is par for the course in an industry where it is important for developers to establish a verifiable track record, explains the IGDA's Della Rocca.
"Developers are always moving from job to job," he says, "and if you tell your hiring manager how good you are, that you were the lead programmer on Project So-And-So, and then he goes to that game and you're not credited, how does he know you're not just smooth-talking him? Developers' careers depend on accurate crediting."
But, for game publishers, creating fair and accurate credits doesn't seem to be a priority.
"There are all sorts of reasons why credits can go wrong," says John Feil, the chair of the IGDA Credit Standards Committee and a game designer at Kirkland, Wash.-based Amaze Entertainment. "Sometimes it's the distracting effect of the crunch at the end of a project when your mind is elsewhere. Sometimes it's the strong bonding effect of trying to ship the game together, and anyone who may have left the team early and isn't there at the end is felt not to deserve credit. And sometimes it's just plain sloppiness. Upper management, who typically aren't developers, may not take credits seriously."
Sometimes, says the IGDA's Della Rocca, right before shipping, "Someone will remember they forgot to do the credits; that the game contains a placeholder of 200 John Smiths. So the producer, who has a week now to pull it all together, does a draft on paper and sends it around as a memo to everyone on the team with the notation 'Hey, look at this sheet, make sure you like what you see, and if your name is spelled wrong, fix it!' If you're out that week, off it goes to the printer and onto the CD with your name missing or misspelled. It sometimes comes down to innocent situations like that."
But in some cases, publishers have reasons why they avoid giving credit. For instance, some publishers prefer to promote their own brand and don't necessarily want consumers to be aware of the development studio that created the game.
Other times, says Feil, publishers are reluctant to list developers with their job titles for fear that unscrupulous headhunters will cherry-pick the team's stars for jobs elsewhere.
"At [developer] Valve Corp., for instance, the credits on their games contain the names of everyone in the company in alphabetical order without their job titles," notes Feil. "Which means that when you go elsewhere for a job, you can't prove whether you were just a programmer or the lead programmer. But that's Valve's way of fending off aggressive headhunters."
One alternative for developers who need to substantiate their work history is the Web site MobyGames which lists game credits and is frequently used by hiring managers. But the site, which is a wholly volunteer effort, is rarely up to date. For instance, as of this writing, 'Manhunt 2' is not yet listed.
When games do list developers' credits, they can appear in the game's printed manual or in an easily accessible portion of the game disk or sometimes -- as in a movie -- at the end of the game.
"In Nintendo games, for example," says Feil, "you have to beat the game to see the credits. There's just no way an HR person is going to try and beat 'Super Mario Galaxy' in order to verify your job history."
Which is one reason why Feil and his committee at the IGDA took up the challenge four years ago to study the issue, determine its exact nature and fix it. The beta version of the standardized set of guidelines was completed in the fall, and the committee hopes to get industry feedback during a roundtable at GDC in February called "The IGDA Credits Movement: The Revolution Is Already Here."
"Basically our guidelines say that if you worked on a project, you should get proper credit for doing the work because it's all about historical record and being acknowledged for your efforts," says Feil. "We're having less success with standardizing the roles within the industry which is becoming more specialized in terms of job titles. A few years ago you might have had three programmers doing all the programming in a game; now that team has AI programmers and graphics programmers and game play programmers and UI programmers and so on."
MobyGames.com lists over 50,000 different job titles, says Feil, "and, to make matters worse, small developers will frequently make up their own funny job titles, like 'lead code monkey.' Who knows what a lead code monkey does? What kind of code does he write? Is he a manager? That sort of thing is making extremely difficult the job of coming up with a standardized list of titles for the various roles people play in developing games."
Reaction from publishers who have seen the beta is mixed, says Della Rocca.
"Those publishers that have respected the talent and have been trying their best to give proper and accurate credit see the standards as a lifesaver because they've been trying to come up with something similar on their own and have been tripping all over themselves doing so," he says. "Those companies that have been cheating their studios and hoarding the credit and the spotlight are pretty much ignoring the work we're doing."
Because the standard is a voluntary one which has no provision for enforcement, Della Rocca believes that the industry's adoption will be a slow but steady one.
"Since this is the only credit standardization out there to date, I believe that more and more companies will find it easy to just refer to it and some will just bake it into their publishing contracts," he says. "Eventually it will become the de facto standard. But how long that will take is anybody's guess."
Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.