If I Told You I'd Have to Kill You

I was conversing with one Mr. Alex Dodd today via the InterMcNetxxorz. We were discussing my new job position. Sort of. We couldn't really discuss much because, well, I'm not allowed.

There's a thing in the game industry called an NDA that prevents us from talking about the games we work on. For those that don't know, NDA stands for Non-Disclosure Agreement. When friends hear about this they all laugh and comment that they think all the secrecy is really funny. But the NDA exists for a few very good reasons.

The idea behind it is that we work in a very competitive entertainment industry. The powers that be don't want information leaked to their competition about what they're doing, so they require that everybody at the company keep their lips sealed. Because if the competition hears what you're doing, they're bound to try and outdo your company. That's how we make money.

I believe that, secondary to this, the NDA exists for reasons relating to corporate image. Information leaks have the potential to lead to bad press, and bad press is bad for company image.

You see, gamers are a very fickle crowd. One rumour or bad review spread around the internet too early in development of a game can spell doom for a project. Especially when working in QA (which is what I do), if word about possible technical issues got out into the public space, sales would certainly be affected. Nobody wants to buy a product that might be flawed. Sure that problem you read about is probably fixed long before the game hits the shelf, but the possibility alone could be enough to hurts sales.

And unfortunately in games you don't start making game with money you already have. Most companies are paid retroactively by a game publisher after they have recieved bits and pieces of the final product. By the end of a project, if we've done our jobs right, we've been paid for the project in full and it gets published. Any sales profits are usually used to recoup costs incurred during the development cycle. And of course the publisher takes their (larger) percentage. So any hit in sales is bad business for a game developer since your ROI is typically very low. If the game does poorly, the publisher won't front any money for another game, and suddenly you're out of business.

And so we have NDAs. It's just easier and safer not to tell anybody anything at all about what's going on behind studio doors.

But the general gaming community (and especially the hard-core elite) seem to hold a love-hate relationship with game developers. As long as the game is of high quality, they're happy. But if the developer makes a tiny single mistake and the gamers hear about it, molehills become mountains and the community comes marching with torches and pitchforks in hand. And just as they're about to burn the keep to ground, the peddler across the street yells "Wait! Look what I'm selling! Mine does what theirs does, but better, and without the problems you've heard about".

Let's face it: no game is ever perfect. Every single piece of software you ever buy in your lifetime will be full of troublesome technical issues. The question is simply whether or not you actually notice them enough that they change your perspective of the product, and subsequently about the company as a whole.

My job as a Quality Assurance Tester is to ensure that as many technical issues are found and fixed before the game is released to the public. And believe me, if you as a consumer of video games saw some of the things I get to see in the studios, you might never buy another video game again from those companies.

(And in some cases you might be better off not too, but that's a whole different ball of wax which is based on some biased personal opinion.)

So it's really better that I abide by the terms of my NDA. I don't keep secrets about my job for the sake of secrets, or to drive you crazy. Ultimately we as developers are keeping secrets for your benefit as a gamer.

(Well okay, that and if anybody found out I talked I'd probably lose my job.)


Sarah said...

Non-disclosure agreements make us sound soooo grown up. I was giggling about this with a friend over beers, while he was explaining this super top secret project he was doing animation and 3D modeling for. When people like us use the term non-disclosure agreements it makes me think, "Damn, we've all sold out to the man."

KrisB said...

I like to think of that as "keeping ones job" not "selling out to the man." But really, anything to keep the job right? We have that crap in airplane industry to but it's mostly about costs and how cheaply can you out bid your competitor for the same amount of work. I'm also bound to a Non-Disclosure agreement about product costs and drawings.