Dave Lang is founder of Iron Galaxy Studios, known for Killer Instinct, Extinction, Divekick, and world class ports of games like Skyrim, Overwatch, and the venerable Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition.
Lang has a storied past in game development and shares his learnings about how to make a studio that's built to last, his take on quality of life in game development, and much more (including addressing rumors about a mafia-run Midway Games, how the 2008 recession totally worked out for him, and all that Windjammers stuff).
GDC Podcast music by Mike Meehan.
Dave on staying in business
"Basically the reason Iron Galaxy exists…is because I'd been at so many companies that closed overnight on me. Sculptured [Software] kicked out the management, it wasn't the company I loved anymore, Kodiak [Interactive] literally closed overnight on me, Microsoft, a company with like 10 billion in the bank told me I'm not welcome there anymore essentially, I need to find a new job. Midway disintegrated around me. It's like no place is safe and I just wanted to build a game developer where I could work with my friends until I was done making games, right? I want to build a place that you can retire from if you wanna retire from.
"So stability is the thing we care about most in the world, and as such we tend to work on a bunch of projects at once, and a bunch of varieties of projects at once. And so we started off doing just tech consulting, firefighting stuff. Then we branched into doing ports, then we branched into doing original development and kind of our portfolio now, ideally, we've got one really big creative project in the works, whether it's Killer Instinct or Extinction or whatever is next for us which we can't talk about quite yet.
"We're doing some ports—we helped Blizzard do Overwatch, Diablo III, we helped with Skyrim on the Switch port with Bethesda, and we still are doing a lot of co-development. We have people embedded on teams at Bethesda and Blizzard and other places I can't mention yet.
"We do all this different work and we do 10-12 different things at once. We don't do it because it's easy, we do it because if one of [the projects] goes away, no one has to lose their job. There's plenty of work to go around for everyone else.
"When people start at IG, what I tell them is 'Ok, if you're coming here and you have a game in your head that needs to get out, this is probably not the best place for you to be. Because we're not saying we're not gonna make it, I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm saying it's not a priority. What's important here is making sure this company is built to last and we're going to make robust decisions around ensuring that other peoples' bad decisions or games' bad performances don't affect us in any way, shape, or form."
Dave answers: Is quality of life in game dev much better than it was 15 years ago?
Oh it's definitely better. [It] couldn't be any worse than it was when I started. And I do want to clarify something—I do tend to get asked about this a lot. One thing I universally do a bad job at explaining [is] Iron Galaxy has not always been this place where we don't crunch. In the beginning I'd say the first three or four years or whatever, we all worked our asses off.
And then at some point, I just kind of decided, 'You know what, if this is the way it has to be, then it's kind of not worth doing.' It wasn't overnight, but we slowly built a culture of no crunching and zero tolerance of that sort of thing. Some people still work hard and put in extra hours because they're passionate about stuff but it's something we try to monitor and the company will never ever ask anybody to work for more than 40 a week…As long as you're giving me your best 40, that's all I care about. It's something I feel pretty strongly about now and I think we've proven you can do it.
The hard part with creative project and no-crunch policy…a game can always, always be better…And developers know what can be better. We're not blind—we play the game and we see these problems. So having the discipline to walk that line and to take care of yourself while you feel like you're doing your best work is very challenging on creative projects. I think the industry still sucks at it, but through the lens of 'wow that's a really hard problem.' I'm not sure what the solution long-term is.