[This is the Foreword to Surviving the Game Industry: A Wasteland Guide, a collected edition of my columns for Game Developer magazine from 2008-2013.]
I didn’t ask to be Matthew Wasteland—well, not exactly. When I first started writing the Game Developer magazine columns that became this book, I asked the magazine’s editor, Brandon Sheffield, if I could be credited as something like “Matthew from Magical Wasteland.” I believe I was thinking I could promote myself that way, since that was the time when everyone had their own blog and was plugging it. Looking back now, I can see it was a ridiculous idea: it’s too long and clumsy, and it makes no sense if you didn’t know that my blog’s name was Magical Wasteland.
Instead, Brandon dubbed me Matthew Wasteland and named the column Arrested Development. Because I was writing anonymously at the time, he picked a clipart cartoon cowboy for my face for the column portrait. It gave my missives something of a bravura personality, as though I were a gunslinger who blows into town and lampoons everyone mercilessly.
And really, was there a lot to lampoon. I wrote the original columns from 2008 to 2013—five eventful years that saw the boom-and-bust cycle of Facebook games and motion controls, the growth and solidification of the indie scene, and the saddening consolidations in the Japanese industry. During this period I mostly worked in the bowels of the business on large-scale games. Which is to say that I crunched a lot. I also had a brief stint where I tried to go indie; I spent several months working on my own projects and pitching airy, artsy, commercially unfriendly ideas to any publisher who would listen to me. Unsurprisingly, that approach didn’t yield much in the way of results, so I returned to gainful employment at more large studios. I had moved to working with educational and scientific discovery games by the time the magazine was closed in 2013.
Over time, my anonymity, which I’d initially taken very seriously due to a fear of getting in trouble with my bosses, began to erode. The video game business is a small world and my friends knew who I was; it was only a matter of time before my friends’ friends knew who I was, and so on. Besides, it was fun to be able to tell people I was the guy with the back-page column in Game Developer magazine.
That, of course, made things awkward at the office sometimes. People would tell me (good-naturedly, most of the time) that they’d seen themselves in buffoonish caricature form in one of the columns. And I would have to assure them the columns were entirely fictional and generalized from multiple experiences and not meant to indict anyone in particular.
That’s, well, mostly true. Today, I can admit that perhaps one or two columns were the direct result of my feelings of animosity toward a specific person for a specific reason. But it’s not you, I promise! You’re one of the cool ones. You’re reading this book, after all.
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It would be nice if I could say that writing these columns “kept me sane” through a difficult time, but that wasn’t really the case. I did like hearing from other developers who were in similar situations—people who wrote in to say, I was crying and laughing at the same time reading this, or even, you must work where I work because you’re describing exactly what’s going on here.
At the same time, the reality was that death-march crunching on a big project, stumbling home late at night, then working on a humor column about the situation I was in didn’t help as much as I wanted it to. Having a snarky alter-ego who pokes fun at everything he encounters was enjoyable, certainly—on the pages of the magazine I was sharing a laugh with my colleagues about how stressful and messed-up things could be in the game industry. But looking back on it now I see it was sometimes more of a laugh of desperation than a cathartic, healing laughter. There is one column in particular, about stress in the workplace and “going crazy,” which plays for comedy something that I, and the rest of the industry, really should have been taking far more seriously at the time. I wasn’t totally unaware of what stress, overwork, and participation in office drinking cultures were doing to me, but my desire to prove I could see things through to the end, live up to my teammates, and move forward in my career easily overruled the small voices of concern. Today, I wish I’d taken stronger steps to safeguard my health—both mental and physical—during this time.
I’ve always believed in the important role that humor can play in revealing the truth. Of course, for that to work, we can’t stop caring once the laughter is over. If some of the bad situations described in these columns are funny because they’re so true to life, we don’t have to shrug and say, “that’s just how the industry is.” The “industry” is nothing but a group of people with shared interests, ideas, and business practices. We can change our minds about what’s important to us. We could, for example, decide that our personal well-being is just as important as the games we make. We could take some time and think carefully about how much is enough. We could examine if we’re telling ourselves something is fine that really isn’t.
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I would like to thank Simon Carless, for initially suggesting I try doing a humor column for Game Developer magazine, and, years later, for prompting me to collect them into this book; Brandon Sheffield, for editing the columns and helping to dial back my tendency to make context-free non-jokes that require multiple pieces of obscure knowledge to understand; and Nels Anderson, for co-writing eight of the original columns with me under the name Magnus Underland toward the end, when it was getting difficult for me to come up with new ideas on my own. Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who read the column and got something out of it. A small handful of game developers are well-known, but the majority of us work in obscurity. It’s my hope that this collection recognizes that daily struggle in some small way.