Piecework game development

As we found out a few hours ago in a blue post cited by MMO-C, Russell Brower is leaving Blizzard. RB has given us some of the most compelling, iconic music in the game, and I think WoW will be worse for his departure. In fact, the haunting, beautiful strains of zone music were one of the main reasons I was so drawn to this game in the beginning. It was a dark time in my life when I first began to play, and I can’t begin to count the number of evenings I would log on and just let myself be carried away by the music experience that seemed to enhance the entire fantasy world I was entering. It was one of the things that helped me through, and I hope RB understands the impact his work has had on many people.

I do not know why he is leaving, although it seems it was not his choice to do so. It may have ultimately come down to money, or artistic differences, or most likely some combination of factors. The one thing he said in his post that caught my attention was this:

With the success of a “sound de-centralization” initiative, my current position of overall Sr. Audio Director/Composer is no longer relevant and is being eliminated.

I honestly do not know what “a ‘sound de-centralization’ initiative”  is, but it sure smacks of “music by committee”. It seems to indicate Blizz is going the route of contracting out piecework for this aspect of the game, an approach that is undoubtedly cheaper in the long run than keeping musicians and composers on staff. If true — and I am just speculating — I think it has more downsides than upsides for the quality of the game going forward.

The main upside, of course, is cost saving. If you contract out piecework, corporate does not have to shell out all the administrative costs incurred by employing someone — from taxes to health care to 401K to office space to lost time because of office parties to employee-of-the-month overhead. It’s simpler, neater, and — as the Federal Government has long ago discovered — cheaper in the long run no matter how high the piecework costs may seem in the short term. There are other upsides, of course — for example there is no need to lay off people or do a hiring blitz when the workload contracts or expands — but it all comes down to cost savings in the end.

But the big downside I see is that WoW loses a sense of theme or identity. Piecework is just that — discrete work products bought and paid for. Need three widgets, go buy three widgets, plug them in and move on. Absent a strong theme manager — someone to enforce a whole-project vision — you end up with just a jumble of individual items. Each one may be high quality, but they are standalones, not part of a cohesive whole.

I see this as a thread in WoW development trends. I think about the wholesale changes to the hunter class since WoD, and what I see is class development by piecework. Need a weapon for BM hunters? Farm it out to the weapon development department. Need a class hall for them? Give it to the art department. Talents and abilities — give it to the sub-department that handles these things for all classes and specs. And what you end up with is exactly what we got at the start of Legion — a hunter class that had lost its soul, that was merely a collection of items that filled in boxes in some departmental matrix. No one was providing a central hunter vision, a picture of what “hunterness” should be.

In similar vein, I am seeing a trend towards piecemealing the next major Legion patch. No real sense of geographical continuity, just a bunch of disconnected scenario-like areas reached by magical portal, not by exploring and traveling there.

There may be other examples, but here’s my point: I see WoW moving to an assembly line type of production from a total craftsman one. It’s the difference between a Ford and a Duesenberg. Fords seem to be practical, serviceable vehicles, (when they are not being recalled), but somehow I feel like the world is diminished when theirs is the production model that emerged victorious. It was inevitable, it makes business sense, but still…

WoW, I feel, has become practical and serviceable. It’s not awful, and once in a while there are flashes of great quality. I don’t blame Blizz for moving in this direction, it makes perfect sense in terms of efficiency and flexibility, and in truth it may be the only viable way to maintain the WoW franchise. But I miss the Duesenberg it used to be.

Master craftsmen like Russell Brower become collateral damage.

With that, it is time for a weekend. I think I may go listen to some music.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

One Response to Piecework game development

  1. Alunaria says:

    Brilliant post, so well written; thank you for expanding the way I think about things.

    These are sad news, for me too, if all music more or less ends up being “auto-made” in WoW in the future.

    That blue post sound so odd. Quantity seems to beat quality now? Not for me, anyway. I guess quality costs more. But somewhere down the line, the loss become too great, in my oppinion; if one is so focused on quantity alone. Risky game to play.

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