Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Gamecock and Other Schemes

Maybe you've heard about Gamecock - the new publisher that is going to focus on an unmet need - getting indie games out there. Their entry into the world of game publishing is sorely needed. Well...

I appreciate Gamecock's entry into this business but, you know what, in a way they are still playing yesterday's game. They say we all need to lighten up. I say we need to grow up. I laud their courage to jump into the fray, but I don't need to be talked to like a teenage kid who needs sugar pops to convince him to eat his vegetables. I am a game designer who just wants a square deal. Talk to me straight. All this jumping around says to me you aren't entirely convinced of what you're doing. If you're self-confident you don't need a chicken suit.

The main question I want to ask is this: How is this Gamecock business model coming to terms with the reality of outsourcing and the complexity of game development and production today? You honestly think an indie game developer can do all and be all like it could in the 8-bit days? You need to come to terms with the reality on the ground now; and that is outsourcing.

People don't understand outsourcing. They think it's primarily about sending work to China to get it done cheaper. Wrong! It's about growing up. It's about being professional. It's about deepening your view of design, and that means going off and pursuing a thing to its farthest ends, even if that means we must leave others behind. When we were kids we built tree forts and played the Three Musketeers and swore we would never leave each other and that we would live in the same neighbourhood and go to the same school forever. And we made games like that - as if we were really playing in a playground. (That's understandable. They're games after all...)

Well, reality check. Games are too complex now, the game audience too sophisticated, the possibilities of the medium fracturing into too many complex offshoots. Design needs to follow suit. (Why do you think they complain about how dreary games have become?) People who make games need to specialize because the challenge of making the individual parts simply requires too much expertise. And the challenge of doing something new needs the fire, dedication and evangelizing that only individuals can bring. That's what outsourcing is about. I mean do you honestly think you can support both game developer stability and innovation. Come on? Innovation has always been financially risky. If you want to be part of a company that is stable and lives forever make a service company and hire yourself out to others. If you want to design innovative new games, design them - but don't expect a smooth ride of it. Any team will always want stability. If you want to explore, you have to strike out for the wilderness - in very small, agile groups, or even on your own. That is what the next generation of designers must be prepared to do.

Maybe you watched the TV show "America's Got Talent". If so you would remember a telling moment when one of the judges told one musician that he was brilliant, but his musical partner (who was his brother) was medium-good at best and if he wanted to be serious about his career he needed to strike out on his own. Naturally, the musician didn't want to hear that - he loved his brother. But do you understand the need to sacrifice? This is what people need to do if they want to bring something to its fullest, strongest potential. They need to sacrifice, including the collective mentality. Frank Capra said he knew of no great work of art created by committee. Michael Caine expressed the idea that the more decision-makers there are on a team, the higher the chance of something getting messed up. Any coder or engineer can tell you - the more working parts that need to interact, the higher the chance the design will be flawed. It's the same thing with game design. If a talented designer drafts a breathtakingly original design, the more people he has to sell (including teammembers in today's finance-prototyping-out-of-your-own-pocket indie dev model), the more likely it will go wrong, or not get off the ground to begin with.

I specialized. I am a game designer now. That's all I do. I write design docs and I work on improving design for other companies. I contribute to games what they need. I see that the teams I often work with are all very insular, very "group-think" and collectivist - but I am not constrained to this. This means when everyone in the team says "yes yes yes" to a stupid idea just to follow suit - just to not get in the bad books of the others - I will be the lone guy who says "no, this sucks". Because I can be the bad guy. But that's okay. I'm not paid to be liked, I'm paid to do quality work. I specialize in certain types of games. I work for different companies. I move from game to game. Because I am professional. I follow the games, not the companies. Some companies do different kinds of games with the same team. I do different companies and teams but focussing on certain types of games. People talk about hiring me and the first thing I ask is "what is the game we are talking about". They find it an alien question, but to me it's the 600-pound gorilla in the room they never manage to talk about. When you want to hire designers, that should be the first thing to ask: Does this game fit this designer? People talk about design as if it is a factory position; as if it's one-size-fits-all. It has become that way in the big studios. And you wonder why so much dreck is produced. When I talk to recruiting game companies today they say they want to hire you to work for a company permanently. I reply that if anyone claims they are a really good game designer, why would they sign up to work for one company permanently? Such a designer will not cares what game title comes down the pipe, they will always see it as churning out pulp by formula.

I say if you are looking for a hot game designer why do you think this person would tolerate sitting still and sacrificing their vision to stay as part of a team? Static with whatever the team could consensually agree on. I means its nice to have friends but why wouldn't that person follow their vision wherever it took them?

I say that you have two issues here: production company quality and game design quality. A good production company IS a team. But a good designer is fundamentally an individual voice. Has to be. The two are mutually exclusive. The needs of the production company versus the needs of the design. Why? Because its plain conflict of interest. Because there will be a moment of disagreement between these elements, as there is between the needs of a building's architect and the needs of the construction company. At that moment, the team player will sacrifice their vision (which means it never was a vision in the true sense of the word) to go with the flow; the dedicated professional will uphold the fidelity of their vision (this also includes facing financiers who are rigidly married to deadlines, even at the expense of good work and burning out the production team). Mature professionals understand this, and can work around it. They negotiate. Immature people act like high school students and gossip destructively when someone isolates themselves.

To be honest, I don't give a good gawdamn about making a game company with a static roster of members and a static roster of games in the pipeline (say, 10 titles, all basically the same...). On the other hand, I care totally about making good games. A good game can live forever. Game companies, on the other hand, come and go. Again: growing up and facing the coffee. You either focus on making games or a game company. Today, if you want to be in a solid stable company, make one that provides services. Or become a marketing hub for various games external to you (which is what a publisher is; and, hate it as you may, they are a lot more stable than the developers). If you want to make games, though, welcome to the frontlines. Here's a helmet, keep your head down. There's no stability in it. At the indie level each game is effectively its own company. That's the reality. Even if the team bullheadedly says, "No. *This time* we'll make the awesome new game AND achieve financial stability." I don't think so. You're in a dream world.

Here's another idol to slay. Don't tell me that your game development company is full of people who have good ideas for games. So what? You can walk onto any film set, walk up to the microphone operator or the lighting person and ask them if they have a good idea for a movie. Odds are they'll say yes. So what are you doing being a factory worker? Why are you working on other people's product if you have such a shit hot idea? They'll say to pay the bills, but if you push them I sure you'll agree that hot idea has languished on their hard drive for years, collecting cobwebs. I could ask this of anybody in a game development company with a proverbial "great idea for a game". Why aren't you pursuing your great game idea? Either you really, deep deep deep down, don't believe in your idea, or you're just in it for the money and the steady gig. Or both. There's nothing wrong with wanting a steady gig, but realize that's what you want. If you have vision and passion, you will do what passionate visionaries do: lay it on the line. Risk failure. As GK Chesterton said, if you don't want to risk failure - if you absolutely have to succeed - you have to come late for the battle, once its half over, so you can be on the winning side. If you want to be a visionary, you have to be prepared to fight for seemingly unwinnable causes. Such as that new design everyone says won't work.

Gamecock this is what I think you should do. Package game projects. Focus on incubating game designs, not fledgling game companies. Take in the individual designs at the early level with the fewest number of people attached to them. The fewer the better. Stripped down small teams, like special forces units advancing far into hostile and dangerous territory. Let someone or a few people come to you with a design. Like they say in the film biz, focus on the script first. You can make a bad film from a good script, but you can't make a good film from a bad script. Same with design. Then develop the design with that tiny two or three person team, until it works. Let him/her/them make a tiny little prototype for you - even if its just a small flash game, or a pen-and-paper/board game you can play out on a table in your boardroom; just to test out core ideas - and work on the design design design! You'd be surprised at how much design bang you can get out of this, for absolutely miniscule buck. And if you get a design you like, but can't produce it now, nothing is lost. Put it into storage. Patience, young Jedi.

But if the design flies, package it! Attach a good technology solution: a programming company and a good engine license. Attach a good art production company; and a good QA company. These external players will all contribute to the design of course (in fact, they now hold significant creative power in their decision to endorse or not endorse a given project); but they will also have the stability that comes from being external and focussed on the work they do best, and on their own prosperity (their survival not tied to any particular game concept that may or may not fly). And on the other side, now the design is not constrained to an internal one-size-fits-all technology or art solution the way it must when you are game-company- rather than game-design-focussed. Alfred Hitchcock knew that 75% of his work as a director wasn't in the work he did on the set: it was in casting. Same here. It amazes me that game companies actually think that the art director who worked out so well on their horror game will have the same feel for their upcoming military game. Hey! Pay attention to casting! A technology or art person or solution that was good for a horror shooter is not necessarily good for a military RTS or what have you. It might be a tiny little difference, but professionals focus on tiny little differences (as they all add up). Let the designer focus on what they are good at: developing an original game concept, writing it up as a design document, and then working with the team for the duration of the game as an individual, professional voice.

When production is over, let everyone exit, but in a way that they gain from the benefits of the IP that is created. This means, as before, let the game be its own company. You can negotiate residuals, license fees and so forth from there. But don't tie me to this team or this company. Again, I am design-focussed, not game-company focussed. I have 5 or 10 other game designs I am working on, and though, yes I like the guys in this team, I'm sorry but I also need to advance my designs, and these guys might not be right for this other design ("not right" is NOT to say that they aren't good; it's just that this other design might require a different feel or approach). That's the real nature of creative vision. It can't be - or shouldn't be - caged. Come to terms with that. The revolutionary things in life always broke the mould.

The focus of true game design is not fitting into a genre. That is formula design. Rather it is in creating new genres. That is a mysterious and risky thing. You claim to want to make these original games. Well, let's make them then.

Time To Roll Initiative...

My name is Grassroots Gamemaster. I work as a professional game designer. I have worked as a lone freelancer, with small teams I put together and managed, and on the staff of larger developers.

I call myself Grassroots Gamemaster for three reasons.

First, I need anonymity. I am here to speak candidly about this field, game development, and so need to protect myself. I am here to write honestly. I won’t speak in a diatribe tone, but I also wish to say that what follows won’t exactly be a rant. To call it a rant would be kind. I am here to eviscerate the mutant thing that has become game design. If a rant is a hand grenade then I am here to deliver a fucking thermonuclear explosion.

Yet no one shatters the foundations of anything in written form by screaming at the reader. The power to smash it to its very core, to drag the abomination kicking and screaming into the light of day, where it can whither and die – and also then let us heal from its harms – is something I intend to earn through good writing and a reasoned, passionate tone.

Next, the name elicits my roots – the heart I followed that brought me into game design. It invokes a spirit of gaming that I find sadly gone today. In my own life, yes, but also I think in our industry.

But before I get into those reasons, the remaining one is literal: I was a gamemaster in a small town. I was a grassroots gamemaster.

Think back to the 1980s (if you can). It is a day when gaming was rich and alive; on the fringes. I would dream up, write down and moderate – i.e. gamemaster – gaming adventures for all my friends. Our board games, wargames and roleplaying games were a springboard to tinkering and modding in all sorts of ways that let us follow our imaginations and dreams. I would devise homebrew rules and game systems and scenarios. We also had a lot of crazy adventures outdoors as well – insane live-action escapades that, today, would go by the tepidly dry, but comfortable and pigeon-holeable term “alternate reality” games. (I never tried our escapades in the city – when I moved there – because I was afraid of getting a SWAT team called after me.) Hey, it was a small town out in the wilderness.

There’s a difference between being a gamemaster in a small town and a city. I’ve done both. In my small town when I was young, before the Internet, there are so few hardcore gamers that you were forced to get along with those you could find. You were all each other had. In a big city, there are so many people with similar interests – no matter how obscure – you can afford to excise others out of your life and just focus on those few with the same narrow views as yours. It has the effect of reinforcing the eclectic – sometimes to the point of weirdness. There’s a monoculture to it – a retreat into self-insulating cliques, where gaming culture is not only creative but also a reinforcement of your fears and prejudices. It becomes sad, and is probably why many who were not gamers then looked down on these isolated souls with distaste.

But in my small town, my friends came from all walks of life. Their parents were professionals, moved here from all over – teachers, managers, engineers, et cetera. There was government, tourism and natural resources to manage, and so on. Their children, my friends and I, were the only ones into this new thing called gaming. Fantasy, sci-fi, military and spy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Recon, Twilight 2000 and Top Secret. Wargames like Squad Leader, from Avalon Hill and SPI. Tabletop miniatures like Striker and Warhammer. And, yes, Commodore 64 and video arcade games. We were the only ones who played, so we took pains to seek each other out; and then we had to get along, despite our differences, so we could game. We were different. Different backgrounds, different views. One of our gamers was the captain of the high school basketball team, popular right in the school mainstream (my sister would go ga-ga when he came over for a game session). Another, a joker. A few of us teachers’ sons. We came from all walks. Yes, we were nerdish, but not overly. I recall us being more “normal” than the stereotypical nerds of popular culture. What held us together was the glue of gaming – the love of the magic of it. And the one who took up the torch to make the adventures, to spin the worlds and devise the structures that made those worlds run, more often than not was me.

But now I find I have come to a place in my life where I ask hard questions about games and game design. I don’t like the answers that come back. I wonder where games fit into the larger human story. I look at the tremendous fun and adventure of those days way back when (which, really, I continued right on up through the 1990s), and they seem long gone. My gaming heart taken with them. What’s left? Gaming as an industry. As a way to make money. But dead. Dead inside.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. A friend of mine, a veteran designer working with a large company, reflected with me on games. What they have become. “Junk food for the mind” is how he so aptly put it. How did I arrive here? How did we arrive here?

I call myself Grassroots Gamemaster because that is the part of me that holds game design as a vocation. Today, in the outer worldgame design is treated exclusively as a profession. That is partly why it is so empty and hollow.

When I play a game – yes, a major first person shooter, for instance – there are vast questions that I find myself wanting to ask about the design and designers. Who are these people? Why did they design this? What does it mean? What is the thinking behind this design? What was there reasoning? Who wrote this? What is the feeling behind it? The industry looks back at me with a mute opacity. Something caused by that view that design is a profession not a vocation. That games are chiefly of a feat of technology and not of human imagination.

You know the difference between a vocation and a profession? One is done for the love of it; the other for money. That made by the other may be damn good, but no matter how good it looks, no matter how expertly executed, no matter how many external criteria are met, to the person with a beating heart and insight there is something dull, something dead in it. The former may have pennies (if that) for a budget, may result in 8-bit pixels or pencil sketches instead of elaborate 3D graphics, but there is something far more alive in it than everything a multi-million dollar mediocrity could ever hope to deliver.

A grassroots gamemaster designs games because he loves them. He doesn’t need the fancy technology because the reward comes from the look in the eyes of the players; the excitement in their voices. (If he can use his talent and experience to make good electronic games, so much the better – but that is not a primary motivator.) He plays them with his friends – in the same place, the same room – as a way to spin an adventure in the here and now; a spontaneous unplanned adventure that emerges out of the dialogue, the relationship, of the creator to the players. The game, indeed, serves as a catalyst to foster a larger relationship – one that goes beyond the mere confine of games. His passion for what he does is infectious. He just needs some room and a little time to weave this magic, and his friends are sure to join. He is a poet. He hasn’t forgotten what makes the best things tick.