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.

2 comments:

WM said...

Your blog gives me hope. Hope that there is a one voice that will defiantly eschew what has become the overwhelming culture of games design and hope even in myself to muster up the courage to shrug off the shackles of doubt and pursue my dream of becoming a games designer.

I hope you inspire many.

Bryant said...

It's like I've stumbled upon a pot of gold. Who are you, mysterious Grassroots Gamemaster? I'm looking forward to all of your future posts!