March 20, 2013

Dream Jobs Reward Work and Play in the Gaming Industry

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Second in a series
Main page art by Jaime Vargas/IowaWatch

At first glance, working at a videogame studio is everything you’d expect. There’s free soda and coffee along with an office that you’re encouraged to decorate however you see fit. If you wanted, you could paint it any color or bring in a couch to make it more comfortable. Perhaps even get wooden flooring because you prefer it to carpet.

Yet possibly the best part is that your boss regularly tells you to play EverQuest, a popular massively multiplayer online fantasy game. You’d play on his favorite server where everyone knows everyone else and you’d make virtual friends. Together with your posse of wizards, warriors, clerics and Shaman, you’d cleanse the land of beasts and other nefarious foes.

Budcat MainBut it isn’t all sugar and orc slaying. The security of your workplace is insane. There’s only one way to enter and leave. Even the fire exits lead to an outdoor area fenced off from the public. A sign-in/sign-out sheet keeps track of everyone at all times. Special, difficult-to-copy “magna keys” are needed to even get in the door.

Even more surprisingly, the average employee doesn’t have access to the Internet. Everyone is connected to an internal or local area network, meaning they can communicate and send messages to each other, but not to anyone else. Programmers that need a piece of Internet-requiring code have to have it specially sent to them and it only works for the duration of their task.

All of this is done to ensure no one hacks into the network and compromises the studio’s assets. Every time an employee connects to an outside network is a liability. It’s like a dream inside a prison.

This is how Jason Andersen described working at Westwood Studios in Las Vegas.

Westwood is best known for creating the Command & Conquer series of strategy games. Andersen was hired to work on the next game in the series, Tiberium Twilight, but the project was cancelled the day he got there. A game carrying a subtitle of the same name, Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight, released in 2010, a decade after Andersen left Westwood.

“The reason I came to Westwood was gone,” Andersen said.

Coming from Tiburon

Westwood was a chance for Andersen to stretch his legs. He came from Tiburon, a studio he co-founded. Both Tiburon and Westwood were acquired by Electronic Arts, the third-largest videogame company in the world based in Redwood City, Calif. This made the switch from Tiburon to Westwood fairly easy because Andersen stayed within the parent company.

At Tiburon, Andersen primarily worked on Electronic Arts’ two main football series, Madden NFL and NCAA Football. Not wanting to work on football forever, Andersen sought out the Westwood opportunity on his own.

It wasn’t everything he’d hoped for.

“I was assigned the stuff other people on the team didn’t want to work on,” Andersen said.

Jason Andersen, at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas during a New Year's party on Dec. 31, 2011, well after Budcat closed. (Photo courtesy of Jason Andersen)

Jason Andersen, at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas during a New Year's party on Dec. 31, 2011, well after Budcat closed. (Photo courtesy of Jason Andersen)

The “other stuff” included adding extra ring effects to explosions and enabling games to play compressed animations. These were tedious tasks that quickly bored Andersen, so he decided to leave in March 2000. It wasn’t because of the people. Andersen recalls the Westwood team as a talented group.

After leaving Westwood, Andersen formed Budcat Creations later that year with Isaac Burns, a buddy from Andersen’s Tiburon days. Like Westwood, Budcat eventually was acquired by another gaming behemoth, the Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard, the second-largest gaming company in the world after Nintendo.

The stories of Westwood and Budcat are strikingly similar. Both studios were acquired because of successful work on a popular series: Command & Conquer for Westwood and Guitar Hero for Budcat. Then both were shut down by their owners, albeit for different reasons.

Continuing Closures

Westwood’s closure is a case of corporate mismanagement. According to an interview with Vegas Seven, Westwood co-founder Louis Castle said the studio flourished for a time under Electronic Arts and outgrew its Las Vegas office. Part of the team moved to a new building, but this created an “odd social dynamic” having people in multiple offices.

EdNoteWanting to fix the structure, Westwood looked to consolidate to a new location. Working with Electronic Arts and the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, Westwood eventually found a new home in Summerlin, a master-planned community within Las Vegas city limits.

Westwood was all ready to move to Summerlin, but Electronic Arts decided it wanted the studio in California instead. Employees were told they could either move or lose their jobs. With many employees not wanting to make the move, the company dissolved.

The moves were a precursor to what eventually would happen at Budcat Creations after it was created. That closure was the result of the Guitar Hero franchise fad fading, a series on which Activision had the studio work almost exclusively. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, the sixth game in the series, sold 86,000 units in five days, a paltry number compared to Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock’s 1.4 million first-week sales.

Closures like Westwood’s and Budcat’s happen all the time, with shutterings happening in increasing numbers every year. More than 20 studios closed in 2012, according to IGN.

Electronic Arts has closed 15 studios since its inception in 1982. Similarly, Activision has shuttered 10 since the company was founded in 1979.

It’s a process that Andersen knows well. Of the four studios he’s worked at, two are defunct and all were bought.

How does this happen? Why are dozens of studios closed year after year in a billion dollar industry?

A closer look at what happened to Budcat Creations can help answer that question.

WebNext:
Thursday, March 28: The day people lost their dream jobs
Thursday, April 4: Life after Budcat
Read Part One: Gone in a Flash: How the Iowa Company that Made Guitar Hero Crashed so Quickly

About this series

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore

“Gone in a Flash” is a four-part series by IowaWatch staff reporter Benjamin Moore, a 2012 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication with a keen interest in electronic gaming. His narrative is based on interviews, telephone conversations, emails and research in fall 2012 and winter 2013 with Jason Andersen, Tom Heinecke, Rob Keiser, George C. Ford, Maryanne Lataif, Brian Provinciano, The Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Iowa City Press-Citizen, EdgeDestructoid (link to another Destructoid source article), Gamespy Westwood Studios’ profile, Louis Castle interview with Vegas Seven, IGN, GamesRadar, Computer and Video Games, PC Gamer, Microsoft earnings news release, Sony press release and Joystiq.

A version of this IowaWatch series was in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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