Entertainment or Software? (Or a False Dichotomy?)

by Darius Kazemi on January 30, 2007

in management

There’s a good interview available with Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software, who is one of my management heroes. In part of the interview, he discusses his experience working for Viacom, the giant media conglomerate that owns MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, and other such networks.

And if you need to make some interactive websites or MTV needs a web server or whatever the thing is, then you don’t even hire programmers; you hire some people who know some people who might know something about the technology [...]

A company that is not designed to create high-tech products is very unlikely to have the culture or the DNA that it takes to create high-tech products. It’s very unlikely that the kind of people who would be successful in an entertainment company would even understand what programmers do that makes them more than typists.

Hmm. Look at that last sentence in the light of video game companies. This gets down to the crucial question that has never been really answered about video game companies: are we entertainment companies, or are we software companies?

I happen to believe the latter, but that’s mostly because the companies that approach game development from the software development angle tend to produce better games. On the other hand, the companies that approach things from the entertainment company angle tend to sell more games. Maybe the ideal game company is a combination of both. I’m not sure.


A January 30, 2007 at 11:20 pm

Both are necessary. Taken from a different tack, look at the difference between the literati mafia and the sci-fi publishers. The literati push the boundaries of what is possible (often unsellable and hard to understand, c.f. “Ulysses,” etc.), while the sci-fi folks write things that are quite clearly enjoyable and sell.

Both are interesting. Both produce good writing. And both are clearly different realms. But so fiercely separating the two realms — as industry often does to any sort of false dichotomy — only leads to equally false and stifling boundaries. Really great writing comes in the form of what pushes the boundaries of possibility in both a content and formal sense, and both arenas make it possible. However, the fierce exclusivity makes it nigh impossible for someone straddling those realms to be successful in either one.

This analogy will hold true for the games industry, I think — as does the oft-mentioned but hardly-heeded adage of keeping your audience in mind when developing a product.

Darius Kazemi January 31, 2007 at 12:53 am

You seem to be talking more about the works in question, the end products. I’m not talking about the games, I’m talking about the process. I’ve seen great, innovative products come from software-style companies and entertainment-style companies.

When I say entertainment-style management, I don’t mean “a company that makes games to entertain.” I mean “a company that is run like a media company,” which may or may put entertainment first.

A January 31, 2007 at 1:32 am

Then, it seems equally obvious to me that the software-development model will win out. It’s more disciplined, from what I understand.

I think the same discussion I already posted still applies. An media-model is way more focused on the end-user than a software-development-model, which focuses more on the product (which, of course, does not imply exclusivity of focus, just prioritization). Those priorities will obviously effect development. And I still think both are necessary for a healthy industry.

Then again, I’m hardly an expert on management technique variation from industry to industry. I’m probably missing some glaringly obvious subtlety.

Patrick January 31, 2007 at 1:32 am

What is your criteria for “better”? What are some examples of software-oriented companies making better games? What, in your opinion, are the predominant characteristics of a Media-oriented company vs. a software oriented company.

A company that focuses on using rapid prototyping and procedural content experiments to hone in on the core play, and then turns that model out onto a production pipeline of assets and supporting media would seem to be a desirable hybrid.

If I can parse your subtext, you’re equating “media” with waterfall and software with “explores the procedurality of the game in a flexible way” or if you prefer, “agile”.

Darius Kazemi January 31, 2007 at 1:57 am

Patrick: Here’s a pithy response for ya.

Media = concentration on IP (particularly existing IP), focus groups, shipping in time for Christmas

Software = concenration on technology, usability testing, shipping on spec and with low bug count

Ian Schreiber January 31, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Media = concentration on IP (particularly existing IP), focus groups, shipping in time for Christmas

Software = concenration on technology, usability testing, shipping on spec and with low bug count

That’s a lot of unrelated stuff. Sounds more like a hexchotomy than a dichotomy.

A game company that focuses on technology will come out with a game that’s a tech marvel that’s simply not fun. Bzzt.

Focus groups and usability tests are two sides of the same coin. You can do both at once (and probably should).

Shipping on spec and shipping on time aren’t diametrically opposed. I’ve seen plenty of projects that manage to do both. Or neither.

Focus on IP is that whole Costikyan-vs-Spector debate, but it’s something that can happen WITHIN the entertainment camp: you’re a New Media company, do you expand a hot license or try to create your own? That very decision is Entertainment-ish; to a software company, the distinction is irrelevant, you’re still building software no matter what IP you slap on the loading screen.

I’d also say further that “which mindset is better” depends on the product you’re trying to build. An entertainment-focused company that tries to build a risky, complicated game like a Sim is going to be in for a world of pain. So is a software-focused company that tries to build a low-risk expansion set or direct sequel.

Darius Kazemi January 31, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Ian: Your last point is dead-on.

My problem with most companies is that they do try to be a hybrid of the two management models, which is the right thing to do. However, they implement it like so: the upper management runs things like a media company, and the middle management on down tries to run things like a software company. The friction you get at those middle management levels is frankly insane.

Ian Schreiber February 1, 2007 at 5:19 pm

Hmm. Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but can this dichotomy be reframed into “Waterfall vs Iterative”?

That would explain why some companies are great at high-risk innovation (Iterative) and others at low-risk sequels and ports (Waterfall), and also why a hybrid between the two creates so much friction (upper management wanting to know “what percent complete is the current project” with middle management saying “I can’t tell you because we just changed everything yesterday”).

Patrick February 2, 2007 at 8:47 am

“The friction you get at those middle management levels is frankly insane.”

Craig can tell you that sort of friction is possible even with two people. :P

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