Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In Praise of the Code Jockey

I don't talk about my work at all on this blog for obvious reasons*, but at one time in the (now distant) past I worked for a software development house. Sorry, the software involved was CAD/CAM/CAE --the design software companies use to create new products-- so it's not like I worked for Microprose or something.

While I wasn't a Dev myself, I worked on the Software QA end of things. I was one of the people who designed and built the testcases, maintained and expanded our own testing software, and helped debugging the thorny problems by quickly zeroing in on which software code change was the likely culprit. It was tough work, particularly for a guy who came from a science background who puttered around coding in his spare time, but it taught me a lot about how to code, how to design software, and how to handle group dynamics**.

There were projects I was assigned to that pushed me to the limit --physically and mentally-- and I will be forever grateful to my wife for tolerating me during those insane hours. But no matter how hard or long I worked, the Devs worked even harder. When I was pulling 80 hour work weeks, they were hitting 90. I would frequently get to work at 4 AM so I could make progress without having people drop by, and there would always be about 3-5 Devs in the building, coding away.***

You'd think that the hours and demands would keep me from wanting to make the jump from QA to Developer, but you'd be wrong. I looked up to those people, because I admired their coding skill and their drive. They were creative, they were fun, and yet they were serious about getting the work finished. It irked them when we had to release the software when they knew there were bugs in the system, but the decision was never theirs.****

So you can imagine the smile on my face when I read Ravanel Griffon's post at Ravalation about Developer Appreciation Week.


The idea is a simple one --to acknowledge the devs in the game industry-- and give them a big thumbs up. Give a shout out to the dev team (or teams) that you admire the most and why you like them. Basically, make them feel welcome.

And believe me, I can do that.

When I criticize a game, I make a clear distinction between the game and the dev staff itself. The dev staff almost never control the release schedule, they're on a tight timeline, and they're chronically underpaid for the amount of hours they put in. I knew a guy who used to work for a dev team that put together Betrayal at Krondor, and I heard stories about how they had to do it for the love of coding and designing games, as the money was definitely not the same for the game devs as it was for other software developers. They have to work with tradeoffs and limitations of the hardware, they recognize that people will find weaknesses that they never envisioned, and that meeting expectations is often a fool's errand.

We gamers don't exactly help our cause either, as we are frequently cranky, overly nitpicky, and demanding of a standard that nobody could ever hope to achieve. And if the devs ever do catch lightning in a bottle, they set themselves up for an impossible standard that gamers will try to force them to meet.

But here's a shout out to all the devs out there, trying their best to make gaming fun and meaningful.


Oh, you wanted some specific dev team?

Well, I think I'd have to go with giving some love to the original SWTOR development team. You know, the ones who had to deal with he inflated expectations that accompany the Bioware name, the KOTOR brand, the Star Wars Galaxies loyalists, the amount of money EA spent on development, and EA's own promotion that SWTOR was going to be a WoW killer. With a expectations like that, nothing less than WoW-like numbers and subscriptions would mean success.

And as we know, SWTOR did not reach those numbers.

Was that the fault of the devs? No. They made an MMO that was essentially "WoW in space", but with specific class stories with light or dark side endings. The technical challenges of the MMO genre meant that SWTOR couldn't expand the Star Wars universe and provide persistent changes based on your choices (such as with other Bioware titles such as KOTOR, Mass Effect, or Dragon Age) without massive use of phasing like WoW used. The devs felt that in SWTOR the journey and the ability to play around in the Star Wars universe was the important part of the MMO*****, while the semi-transient MMO community believes "the game begins at max level."

In spite of all of those expectations and challenges and misreading of tea leaves, the original SWTOR devs produced a very solid MMO that continues to hold its own over the years. I still love the classic game (L1-50), and based on how the mini-Reds have reacted to the class stories, those stories still hold up well several years on.

SWTOR had to change in order to survive with a steady stream of updates, end game content, and switching to F2P to stem the bleeding. To compare with another heavily hyped AAA title, I'm actually surprised that Wildstar is still around because I thought they'd waited too long to convert to F2P. SWTOR has not only survived but gotten mentions on the E3 presentations from EA, and it would have been all for naught if those first devs hadn't decided to change the game rather than simply circle the wagons.

So here's to the original SWTOR dev team, who hoped to catch lightning in a bottle but ended up having to change the game's entire focus to survive. It was no small task, but they met the challenge and left us a legacy.

*I mean, really. I've no idea why some people natter on about their jobs on blogs, because you're just simply begging for trouble. When I was hired at all of my jobs, one of the requirements for the gig was to sign non-disclosure agreements, and I've seen people fired from their jobs for what I'd term innocent discussions on social media. So why risk it?

**Also known as "how to run meetings and keep from going nuts when people don't listen to you."

***There was once an April Fools Day prank played on the entire development staff where every time you opened a new window on the SGI workstations from 3 AM through Noon the machine would play a little jingle and make a weird laugh. The first person to discover it loved to come in at 2 AM to work on his graphics coding when nobody else was around, and so he opened a new window at around 3 AM and he nearly fainted. I heard later that for a few short moments he thought his workstation was possessed.

****I and several other QA people were also on the release team, and we frequently argued for more time to fix the bugs, because we could see the impending train wreck a bad release would make. The release manager would also agree, but we were overruled by senior management who had their own agendas.

*****My evidence for that is the MMO itself. WoW is designed to get you to max level as quickly as possible, Wildstar went totally old school and recreated the attunement quests to even begin to raid, and LOTRO is designed to immerse yourself in Middle-earth. If the journey wasn't as important to SWTOR, we wouldn't have had 8 separate class stories and plenty of group quests per planet.


  1. I never understood what's with everyone's obsession with WoW and why it keeps getting brought up as a benchmark. I've played that game for a few hours with the trial and got bored of it, it felt like just another MMO to me, so everytime I read these "it's like WoW" comparisons I never really get the idea.

    But SWTOR is a game I'd probably like to try sometime, reading Ravanel often gets me to wanna download the game and try it. I do like the Star Wars universe a lot, but I'd have great expectations of the game and it's the only thing keeping me from playing it, I'm afraid of being disappointed.

    1. People continue to compare other MMOs to WoW because WoW is the 800 lbs gorilla in the MMO world. It's more due to Blizzard catching lightning in a bottle, as I alluded to in the post, than anything compelling in the story. But Blizz does do one thing right: they very rarely release a buggy product. It's not unheard of, but it doesn't happen to the extent that other development houses do.

      As for SWTOR, it got a bad rep from primarily two areas: the EA haters and the people who wanted Knights of the Old Republic III. That the EA CEO was boasting about how SWTOR was going to be a WoW-killer didn't exactly help, either. As long as people recognize the limitations of the MMO genre in terms of storytelling, I think you'll enjoy the class stories.

      I do know that some people don't like the limitations imposed by the F2P situation, as a brand new player has fewer options than someone who is in the mid-tier (who maybe bought some coins or is an ex-subscriber), but the class stories remain the same. I'm personally biased in favor of the Smuggler's story, but I know others who like the Agent's and Knight's story the best.

    2. When I started playing SWTOR I hadn't read much about it, so I went in pretty unexpecting - and then I was absolutely blown away by the cutscenes and the storytelling! I'm honestly spoiled at this point. For instance, I really cringe at GW2's stories when I started to play that MMO and basically ignored them in order to enjoy it (what I do love in GW2 is the exploration and quests).

      I love the smuggler's story for its lightheartedness, but the agent's one has more depth and choices. Everyone always hates the consular's story, but as a scientist in training, I always thought it was fitting for the class. So I would just go with whatever class lures you in if you do decide to start playing.

      For level 1-50 there are stories specific to your class (next to planetary stories and random quests); after that there are expansion stories that are roughly the same for all with sometimes exceptions for factions (Republic or Imperial) or classes.

    3. I personally love the Consular's story, but I was the kid who also liked Model UN as a hobby.

  2. It is actually really shameful that I haven't written a reply to this post before, because I honestly thought it was really, really good. Especially your experiences from the industry (even if it wasn't gaming specifically) are really insightful and I'll probably refer to them in my future blogging. Thanks for participating, Redbeard!