Who Hunts the Whale

By Laura Kate Dale and Jane Aerith Magnet

A satirical novel set in the exploitative world of big-budget game development

January 3rd

It’s early January, and I’m finally starting my new job as a Personal Assistant for the executive team at Supremacy Software, my all-time favourite video game developer. I grew up playing their annual video game releases, dreaming of the day I could in some small way be a part of helping bring their video games into the world.

According to the laminated job bible I was handed when I got to the office today, I'm to take extensive notes on Executive meetings and to always ensure that the drinks order chart is kept up to date.

Hell of a first day greeting: "Welcome aboard, here's your little office, read the manual, don't mess up, don't ask questions". Luckily, the manual is incredibly thorough. There's even a section for what to do if there are body fluids on the boardroom carpet. The reason for which I do not wish to have clarified.

All that aside, I'm finally starting my dream job. Ever since I was little - playing games on a console my aunt donated when she got an upgrade - I've loved Supremacy Software games. Back then, they were just Cupboard Software, but they're the best, and they acquire the best. Which means that I've been deemed good enough to be amongst the best.

I'm not a coder, I'm not an artist or a musician, but I am now part of the great Supremaqcy family. I'm part of the family that makes the games I love. Right there, in the boardroom where the big decisions get made.

I love games. Games are my life. I don't just play, I watch documentaries, I devour news articles, I follow the industry. I've even snuck into press events to get a peek at the next big release - it's amazing where you can get into with a high-visibility jacket, a homemade lanyard ID, a clip board and a confident stride. It's not enough though. I want to see the whole thing, up close, and right here I can do just that. I can see everything, warts and all. The dead ends, the exciting ideas, the process that goes into creating these huge and wonderfully immersive worlds.

I have a feeling I’m going to like it here.

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Meeting minutes - January 3rd

Drinks orders for the board:
Edwin - Green Power Juice
Rick – 4-shot latte
Chad – 3-shot latte

I've heard about Edwin, he's been here for a long time, came in from an old electronics company that made home computer kits you had to solder yourself back in the 80s. Apparently he took over the company from his father and has basically just sat on the board here until everyone else left or died. Talk about last man standing. He's only in his mid-forties, but all that sunshine and golf has really made the guy look like wealthy jerky in a suit that cost more than my university tuition. His Power Juice smells disgusting, and I genuinely can't imagine trying to put that stuff in my mouth.

Rick and Chad could be twins, apart from the hair. I had to google company images to check which was which. I just need to remember Rick has brown hair, and Chad is the Blonde. The similarity is uncanny though. Two thirty-something gamer boys who made it to the top of the heap, to the seat of power. When they talk they almost blend together, a whirlwind of high power enthusiasm, go-getting and confidence. They also wear expensive suits, but paired with t-shirts. I love that look, professional, but you know it's for a more interesting industry than the stiffs in button down collars.

When I handed out the coffees Chad seemed to bristle a little as I said what everyone had. He's changed his order for tomorrow to a five-shot latte.

NOTE TO SELF - UPDATE THE DRINKS ORDER CHART

Edwin sits quietly at one end of the table. It looks like he’s about ready to nap on the desk, although his eyes seem to sparkle a little when those huge dollar figures start being run out, and there's the faintest flicker of a smile. He seems less interested in being a part of the meeting than just physically being present. Maybe he’s just not a numbers guy, I’m sure he’s not just being paid to do nothing here, and hell, at this point, he probably doesn't even need to worry about the figures, just making the big decisions about where to steer this ship next.

Looking through the figures for the last quarter - which are huge, I've never even thought about this much money before - was regularly punctuated with in-unison cries of “Niiiice” and the odd high five. I couldn't really tell what all of the paperwork meant, but there were a lot of graphs showing massive growth, and huge numbers of dollars, each more immense than the last. Either way, Chad was happy to see “numbers go up!” with Rick chiming in that “exponential growth is the only kind of growth that matters”. He told me to write that down; very important.

I've not seen three boys act like that around paperwork since that time my cousins and I found a dirty magazine in the woods while we were out riding our bikes. Chuckling and cheering and looking so darned pleased with themselves.

At this point in the meeting, the topic of conversation moved on to bonuses. No discussion was had of overall staff bonuses for the bulk of the development team; I'm guessing that must have happened before Christmas, after the last game shipped.

Waiting for the new year’s financial results to sort their own bonuses rather than taking them when the rest of the staff did? Classy move. Apparently last year they "settled for... five mill each", but since "numbers did go up", Chad was proposing a double. The next few minutes were like watching a bizarre auction where they tried to outbid each other for their own worth. Batting numbers about that I've never even dreamed about before.

At last they agreed on $15 million because "Executive bonuses suggest company health".

$15 million.

Fifteen. Million. Dollars.

Each.

If that's what they were looking at at the top, who knows what I'll be in line for next year. Heck, even 1% of that would be life changing.

See, this is the really pumping action of inside game development you don't get in the documentaries or news articles. The only figures they really cover there are when X is the biggest selling game of the year, Y is the fastest selling game of all time. I suppose people say it's rude to talk about pay. My dad always used to say that anyway.

Note to self - ask the dev team how much they got paid last year. It's got to be pretty staggering. After all, they did all the hard work.

Next item - Chad raised the question about what should be worked on this year.

This is the good bit, the bit I've been waiting for. I'm going to know what's happening before any other human on the planet. Aaaaaaaaah! Not even the jerks on the forums will know before me. No "my uncle works at Supremacy Software and he says". I know first and, more importantly, I know accurately. In your face xXStabbyCat42069Xx, your snide gatekeeping has no more power over me. Wait, I've not been paying attention to them. Poop.

Edwin said that as the numbers are still up, this year's focus will be another first-person shooter - which he called "the shooty bang bang games". Honestly, you'd think that after working here for most of his adult life he'd have picked up some of the terminology.

There was brief consideration of a Vietnam shooter, since it's "probably long enough ago now that nobody will think too critically about it." Apparently they want to avoid doing what our rivals did by dredging up and rebuilding that Five Days In Kuwait game. That did not sit well with the press, or the survivors of that particular atrocity, even after they added some interviews with a couple of people who lived through it.

Eventually they settled on a modern fictional setting so as to avoid any offence to anyone. That said, it is set in a largely desert nation, known for rich oil fields and a non-white population.

Rick floated the idea of a single player campaign, which I was really excited about, because much as I love gaming, Gamers™ aren't always the best people to play with. I can only hear so many times about an angry, caffeinated 12-year-old's claimed exploits with my mother. Chad pointed out some figures he had from a focus test that claims the average gamer checks their Twitter every seven minutes. Therefore not only are multiplayer matches to be limited to six minutes, but the solo campaign as a whole will be under seven minutes long.

To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I knew the last few years Supremacy Software had shifted ever more towards multiplayer focused titles, but I always assumed it was some kind of complicated decision based on player feedback. To see the decision not to include a single player campaign, or to try something new, boil so clearly down to a thoughtless passing mention was a bit of a let down.

I always sort of knew video game companies existed first and foremost to make a profit, but the fact that nobody in the room was concerned with what would make the best end product from a player perspective was a bit of a wake-up call.

The rest of the meeting was a bit of a blur. There was a PowerPoint being shown with graphs about player retention and user spending conversion, and before I knew it, things were wrapping up. Lots of figures that completely flew by me. They seemed happy though.

End of meeting. Minutes to be typed, printed and filed (the amount of hard copy in this office is frankly surprising for a company that is so outwardly incredibly modern).

Chad has requested I head down to HR and sit in on some of the interviews for new development staff this afternoon. Apparently he's off for a game of squash after lunch, but wants someone from the top keeping an eye on things, "keep them on their toes".

It wasn't until I was back in my little office that I realised that not one person asked me my name, or even, for the most part, acknowledged my existence. Still, they're very busy. Lots of figures to consider and big decisions to make. As the job bible says, I'm "there to help, not get involved".

My first meeting with the executives hadn't gone great, but honestly, I wasn't too worried. It was probably just new-year routine. I was sure, at the very least, that walking through the development hall would get me back on track and energised. These were the people actually making the games. If anyone here was going to be passionate about game development, it was going to be them.

Lunch

I went to the canteen and boy, that place is fancy. Like, obscene fancy. I got a slice of organic banana bread, but that's basically my lunch budget for the week gone. It's sandwiches from home for me for a while. At least until I get my bonus.

PM - Interviews

Meeting with Hannah in HR who will be doing the actual talking.

I had to walk through the development floor to get to HR and the place was deserted. Like the whole floor looked abandoned. Less than half the lights were on and I could hear the sound of crickets chirping... and then a freaking wolf howling.

I must have squeaked because the janitor (Clark) started chuckling. Apparently he just listens to Sounds Of Nature while he's working.

I asked where all the dev staff were and he told me they all got let go after the last game wrapped up. He says they do it every year, as soon as the new game is released the old team departs and a fresh-faced team comes along to fill things out come the new cycle. The only permanent fixtures of development in the building are Candace and Jennette who are the mobile gaming department. I'm sure I'll meet them soon enough.

Honestly, I was pretty shocked. Supremacy Software is always swallowing up smaller dev studios; I assumed it was because they were picking up the best talent from those companies and adding them to the Great Supremacy Software Family. Right now, that family is just myself, three uncles in suits and the guy hired to clean the floors, as far as I can tell. Where does all that talent go?

Still, Clark tells me this floor will be "bustling with energy drink-fuelled university graduates by the end of the week". It wasn't until then that I noticed a soda machine every thirty feet along the walls on this floor. I guess devs are a breed unto themselves.

Trying not to think too much about the staff who presumably left us not long ago, I usher myself over to the HR office, where I am met by Hannah. Her office is a little more grand than mine - for a start it has a window - and hanging on the wall behind her desk is an old-looking hockey stick that looks to have been re-varnished at some point. Apparently she was captain of her college team. Go Royals… apparently. Just like at my interview, I have to avoid accidentally calling her Karen, as she has the sharpest short bob cut I’ve ever seen.

We headed over to the interview room where candidate after candidate was marched through to be processed, as if on a conveyor. Resumes scanned as Hannah loudly clicked her tongue, portfolios presented at a rush in their five-minute slots, set questions asked, each given a mark out of ten, and finally the hopefuls were passed on to the next area, where they would be sat in a room with a computer to complete a skill test.

For Hannah, it all seemed very much a process to be followed with a stony, poker face. I was really enjoying a glimpse of what I'd been hoping to see all day: people excited about the art of making games. Their portfolios were full of indie games, game jam prototypes, design sheets, concept art, stunning backgrounds, sprite sheets for pixel art games. These kids reminded me of how I had felt just this morning, optimistic about getting to be a part of making things they love. They were desperate for their break into the industry, and ready to commit themselves wholeheartedly to making the best video games they could.

Coders came through, talking about how they'd turned down corporate web development jobs with much higher paycheques to follow the dream of doing something they really loved as a career. Incredible 3D artists spoke of walking away from movie studios for their shot here with us. A few showed off tattoos I recognised from some of the company’s biggest titles of yesteryear. It was a parade of youngsters eager to be a part of the magic. Part of the family.

However, there's one interview that stood out to me above all the others. It was late in the day, Hannah was clearly a bit done with the whole process, ready to head home and unwind from this intense parade. A young woman came in, determination on her face rather than excitement. She laid out her resume, years of experience across multiple studios and a track record of solid results. I’ve played a good chunk of these games myself.

Before HR can so much as suggest a starting salary, she chimes in "I know your starting salary is below industry standards. Here's what you should be paying a new starter, much less someone with my experience in the industry". Bold.

Hanna responds, “That's not what we pay here. Don't you want to be a part of making the greatest games in the world?"

"Not if you don't plan to pay me properly."

"If you really lived games, you'd be willing to work based on your own passion, we don't want anyone who's just here for a paycheque."

"Tell that to the CEOs, I bet they're not working for minimum wage, for the love of the games." Honestly, I was feeling massive respect for this woman. She knows what she’s worth and she’s ready to demand it.

Our head of HR, however, was clearly not as awed as I, since she just responded that “we aren’t hiring for CEOs” and that “excitable kids have been banging down our doors for a chance to be part of our family.” Which certainly seems to have been the case.

With that the interviewee thanked us, stood up and left. Head held high. I think that woman’s my new hero. I’ve never seen such confidence in the face of a decent pay cheque.

Very few others even mentioned money, they were mostly just excited to be in the building. One especially so; he had no qualifications, nothing in his portfolio, just a clean shirt and a tie with a Sigil of Seven pattern, from the game Ex Diabolica. He just kept saying how he’d be happy with any role, as long as he could be part of the team making his favourite titles. His enthusiasm certainly was contagious. Well, not to Hannah: she sat as impassive as always just reading out the set questions and marking a score. Though I noticed he wasn’t passed through to sit the exam part of the interview.

I saw a lot of excited faces today. Lots of young people eager to live the dream, be part of the family. I really hope to see them on the development floor soon. This place could do with that level of enthusiasm about the games rather than just the bonuses.

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