A week ago I mentioned I’ve been reading Significant Zero by Walt Williams, the lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line. It’s the story of how he basically blundered his way into game development at 2k Games, bullied his way into the writer’s room, and burned off a couple of years of his life in self-imposed perma-crunch. Along the way he got to work on games like BioShock 2, Prey 2006, The Darkness, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, and a bunch of other stuff.
I’ve since finished the book, and it’s been eating at me. It was at various times educational, humorous, frustrating, and sad. I want to talk about this book, but not in a “book review” sense. I really just want to respond to some of the events, but I can’t do that without spoiling a few bits of it. So that’s what we’re going to do.
I read a lot, but I don’t read a lot of books. I have no idea how typical this book is in terms of autobiographical post-industry confessions. The last book I read on this topic was Masters of Doom, which is a really different sort of work. MoD is an almost fawning look at a couple of industry veterans, written a few years after the events in question. Significant Zero is alternately self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing, covers the recent past, and is centered on the author.
This is the account of one person and their journey through this meat-grinder of an industry. Obviously there are at least two sides to every story and this book only gives us one of them. When you’re condensing a decade-long adventure down to under 300 pages you’re going to have to make some pretty drastic edits. It’s entirely possible that, consciously or not, the author made selective edits or embellishments that will bruise the truth. There’s no way to know if this is the case, but I’m not going to cover the following paragraphs in qualifying asterisks saying “allegedly” and “according to the author”. So for the purposes of this article, we’re going to take everything the author says at face value.
I don’t want this to come off like I’m judging poor Mr. Williams. I’m not trying to shame him. I’ve never met Walt Williams and even after reading this incredibly candid book he still feels like a mystery to me. I’m just using his anecdotes as a jumping-off point for talking about how messy small-scale interpersonal drama can directly influence the large-scale technology products we build.
Here are some of the emotions I was feeling as I read:
Shock (And also maybe a bit of envy.)
Williams walked into a job interview unprepared. He hadn’t done any serious gaming in years. He knew nothing about the technology, the business, or the product. And yet his boss “The Fox” hired him because… well, it’s not totally clear why. I think he liked William’s blunt honesty. Williams was then given the job of Game Analyst. It was his job to represent the publisher to the developer. He was to go in, look at how production was going, and inform the publisher. How does the game look? Are they going to ship on time? Is the game going to be fun? Are they meeting their obligations with regards to content? Any problems we should know about?
This is obviously a position with tremendous responsibility. If the team is getting lost in the weeds with technology problems or feature creep while neglecting the multiplayer mode they promised to make, then the sooner the publisher knows about this the less damage it will do. On one hand, I can understand why senior personnel don’t want this job. It requires almost constant travel and is not a job for anyone with a family. On the other hand, it seems absurd to give this job to a guy fresh out of college who has no relevant experience or knowledge.
If there’s a villain in this book, it’s The Fox. He wasn’t a villain to Williams, but I disagreed with just about every call he made. As unqualified as Williams was, I don’t blame him for taking this job. I do blame The Fox for hiring him and unleashing him on all these poor developers.
The Fox is a believer in the idea that that the best way to settle a disagreement was to pit people against each other and let them fight it out. I can’t disagree with this strongly enough. I find this management style abhorrent. I firmly believe that if you let people fight then the victory will go to the person with the most forceful personality, not the person with the best ideas. Moreover, letting fights run wild like this will breed toxicity and bad blood. It takes an already stressful job and makes it that much worse. The gentle creators will leave, the bullies will thrive, and you’ll end up with a pack of belligerent creatives who don’t know how to cooperate. Given the size of development teams these days, that sounds like a terrible idea.
Even in his own book, Williams is not shy about revealing how combative and toxic he was around the office. One of the other characters in the book even goes out of her way to tell him he’s “being super cancer today”. I guess it’s good that he knows this and recognizes it as a character flaw. On the other hand, it’s a character flaw he never really overcomes. (At least, not in the book.)
Sometimes his combative nature was a force for good. At one point he was sent in to look at a game during pre-production. The way Williams tells it, the writer on the project was both a hack and a prima donna. His concept for the game was this brute-force sledgehammer sermon on climate change that would have made the Mankind Divided racism metaphor look positively subtle by comparison. It was obvious, heavy-handed, and self-indulgent. The writer wasn’t trying to entertain. Instead, he had decided to use this multi-million dollar game as a platform for HIS MESSAGE. Williams and this guy were at odds over this, and it sounds like Williams was in the right.
At another point Williams badmouthed the writing of a developer to The Fox, simply because he wanted to insert himself into the writer’s room and get some creative control. That’s… that’s horrible. And Williams seemed to be aware of this as he wrote the book. On the other hand, it does seem like he did good work once he got there.
I know I keep talking about “tone at the top” as an explanation for why some companies are dysfunctional, but this book provides a pretty good illustration of the effect in action. Someone hired The Fox and The Fox hired Walt Williams and the result was a lot of confrontational meetings. Knowingly or not, those people at the top were impacting the corporate culture of everything under the 2k Games umbrella. Company values percolate down, and a cutthroat managerial mindset results in cutthroat behavior all the way at the bottom of the org chart.
Towards the end of the book, Williams finds himself in another meeting with a team in the early stages of production. They think they’re designing an introduction that will make the player feel empowered, but the whole thing is scripted so the player must run away from the bad guy. Williams realizes this is a self-defeating design and it won’t work the way the designers intend. At the same time, he doesn’t want to spend weeks battling these people to disabuse them of this wrongheaded notion. He doesn’t have the energy for the fight, so he stays quiet during the meeting and checks out.
At this point I am reminded of an old post from 2013 talking about how to offer advice or guidance, and how some people seem to think their only two options are:
A: Give bad advice.
B: Be a dick.
When I originally wrote that post, I thought this was just the result of someone who hadn’t yet learned how to offer encouraging advice. I thought that, if given enough information, these types of people could self-correct. Five years later, I’m suspecting that this problem goes deeper. There seems to be this entire… I dunno… genre of people who really have no idea how to correct others, and it seems to cut right to the heart of their personality. As far as I can tell most of these folks wind up in the various engineering disciplines, but you can find them all over.
The thinking seems to be that as long as you’re saying things that are true then you’re doing a good job at communicating, and the burden of understanding and acceptance is entirely on the listener. If someone is being stupid, then you need to be really rude so they realize how stupid they’re being.
I see this as deeply misguided. Backwards, actually. The more divergent your opinions are, the more care and tact you’ll need to get them to listen to your viewpoint with an open mind. Wrong people don’t know they’re wrong, so from their point of view, you’re completely wrong. If you’re rude, then they won’t question their own position, they’ll just assume you’re both wrong and rude. Thinking you need to be rude because the other person is obviously wrong is like thinking that the more serious a programming bug is, the more important it is to type with YOUR FISTS.
I know I said it above, but I really don’t want this to come off as judge-y towards Williams. Yes, I disagree with how he handled disputes, but there are a lot of people who do things this way in the business world. It’s just that most of those other folks haven’t written books. I don’t know the guy and aside from a slight bit of unhealthy envy on my part that he landed such a cool job, I bear him no ill will. I honestly have no idea how you’re supposed to discuss an autobiographical work without coming off like you’re talking about someone behind their back. Sorry for any rudeness on my part.
It’s a fascinating book. I recommend it for anyone who wants a peek inside the sausage factory. It’s a great reminder that while these are digital products, the process we use to make them is messy and inescapably analog.
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