Sunday, September 14, 2008

Open Letter to Zero Punctuation

Yahtzee, your review of Silicon Knights' Too Human was pretty fun, except for one thing.

You said it "stinks of the auteur".

Please do a little research. There are parties out there who are actually trying to shift power in the industry out of the hands of the suits to those of the creators. Flippant remarks like yours damage our work.

If you did your research you'd realize that Silicon Knights is the antithesis of a place in which the "auteur" is supported. It is very much a groupthink company. That makes far more sense in hindsight. Only in a groupthink environment would nobody object to that crazy valkryie death sequence. After all, to criticize - to say "I don't think this works" - would inject dis-resolution and untidiness - those classic elements that groupthink environments cannot stand but creators thrive on. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. No one wants to get hammered down - so for me to not get hammered down I'm not going to mention that this Valkyrie sequence is just fucking stoooopid, I'm sorry!!!

A real auteur wants criticism. Not tolerates it - wants it. Wants good feedback. Wants to serve the project he's working on. Wants to look at things hard and is hard on himself. I think you're using the term "auteur" in its common connotation - that of somebody who wants attention in a pretentious manner. But that connotation is just a piece of emotional baggage. It's not reality. How do I know? All I have to do is show one good auteur and it collapses. I'm sure you can fill in that blank.

But here's the most telling sign it isn't an auteur game: Who's the auteur? D'uh... If it "stinks of the auteur" where is this auteur's name?

At the end of the day Too Human was a bad game. That's it.

There have been some good games made in the auteur manner. For example, Civilization and The Sims.

But the final irony, Yahtzee. You're an auteur.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Blasphemy

Putting some more of my comments on Gamasutra up here before they get deleted. These ones on the tension between group and individual in game development...


On a recent opinion by Raph Koster I said...

The thing I can't stand about Koster is his insistence on unifying the game industry into one giant homogenous monolithic singularity.

"We're building a lot of our worlds looking backward instead of looking at the world now."

"We have to change our definition of..."

"If you’re still reading 'Snow Crash,' you’re going in the wrong direction, because it's not 1992 anymore..."

What *we* need to do is shut the hell up and let individual designers free to do whatever it is they please. Leave the megalithic corporate-think to Microsoft or whatever. Game design is an art form, and it is the *Kiss of Death* to impose external criteria as if they are god-given-truth on creators.

On Gamasutra's recent list of 20 "developers" to watch - in which they didn't name the creators, only the companies, I said...
Who are the actual developers - the human beings - who are worth watching? Where's the detective work on this? We need to be interested in this game designer, that programmer or this artist far more than this or that company. Companies are just shells that own stuff. Games are made by people. Who are the people?
Then I followed with another comment...
From what I can tell the list reads something like this...

1.) Kyle Gabler
2.) Joseph M. Tringali, Jeremiah Slaczka
3.) Frank Lantz
4.) Katsura Hashino, Shigenori Soejima
5.) Tom Fulp, John Baez, Dan Paladin
6.) Max Hoberman
7.) Tim Schafer
8.) Goichi Suda
9.) Randy Pitchford
10.) Vlad Ceraldi, Joel DeYoung, Ron Gilbert
11.) Steve Fawkner
12.) Akihiro Hino
13.) Mark Healey, Alex Evans
14.) Mare Sheppard, Raigan Burns
15.) Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba
16.) Dylan Cuthbert, Kenkichi Shimooka
17.) Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago
18.) Masato Maegawa
19.) Michael Booth
20.) Dave Gilbert
Chris Remo rebutted, telling me that game development is collaborative, and that it's too hard to pick out who these individual creators are. To this I responded...

Also, a football team is made up of a lot of people - however, that doesn't stop us from learning and talking about star players like Bret Favre, Joe Montana, etc.

Also, a film is made by many people - however, that doesn't stop us learning about key creators like William Golding, Steven Spielberg, Francois Truffaut, Roman Polanski, etc.

Also, many people are needed to construct a building - however that doesn't stop us giving recognition to key designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Libskind, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, etc.

(Shall I continue...?)

There is no excuse for the game industry to obstinately refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the talent of those individuals who have exceptional talent.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Watching the Game Industry Come To Its Senses

I commented on a story about outsourcing on Gamasutra. Basically, some big companies are starting to wake up to the fact that outsourcing makes sense. And not just for the sake of efficiency - for the sake of effectiveness.

My comment?:

Needless to say I've been hammering this message a long time.

Outsourcing is the rule - not the exception. You would never consider having a doctor on staff in case your employees got sick; or a lawyer for all your legal needs; or a plumber if your building broke down.

The most important thing about outsourcing is that the focus shifts from production to creative - as it should. We have to stop letting production questions get in the way of trying out new creative ideas. The attitude should be we can always "crew up" to make it - no matter how risky the new design seems.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quick Post, Before They Delete It...

I posted a response to a story hailing the Utopian future of "scientific" game design. This kind of stuff makes my guts churn.

Posting my comment here before it gets deleted:

"Video game design is evolving from a barely understood activity done by genius designers driven by their gut feelings, to a craft with shared techniques and methodologies."

Yes... This is the very reason why we are in the midst of a creative crisis in games - why games are rehashed, commoditized and "deadly" (qv. "deadly theater"). Because of this drive to exclude the individual and at times irrational creative genius element in favor of something systematized, "scientific" and rational - but also ultimately lifeless.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hammering the Effectiveness Message, Again

Effectiveness is more important than efficiency in the entertainment industry.

Take Apocalypse Now. Its making was a chaotic mess. But what they made was a good film.

True the aesthetic delivery needs to have efficiency. Apocalypse Now had tight cutting and dialog when it needed it. In a game, you need a certain framerate and so forth. But that's a different thing. That too ultimately falls under the category of effectivness - a quality of the final product. How we get to that effective destination need not be efficient - and should not be, if we sacrifice effectiveness to get there more efficiently. The whole raison d'etre of prototyping is to embrace the mess. To experiment. To try things out. To go by circuitous routes. In order to reach a destination: to build a better product.

I reinforced this at a recent comment on a story on Gamasutra about the Agile Methodology (which I've worked within)... Remember that what you're making is more important than the process by which you make it. If you arrive at a place where, for whatever reason, some people are doing nothing or waiting for others, you may very well need to be there.

Again, game development needs to be treated as an entertainment industry devoted to creating projects - not as a conventional operating business, focused on maximizing efficiency. Efficiency isn't the aim - effectiveness is. You can efficiently make a piece of garbage (it happens all the time).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Load Tubes One and Two!

Okay, I've had enough of this silence bit. So many people complained that I was all talk, so I put away the black hat and put out a real first-stab at a real high-level business design. I've gotten some real, serious feedback, some offline interest, and a few of us are mucking about on our own time looking at that.

Then I shut up.

But my blog seems to have gone blahhh...

So let's light up some targets again!

Here are a couple comments I made on Gamasutra recently...

On Simon Parkin's examination of numeric rating systems for game reviews:

Think of all those great works in other media - films, novels, music, etc - that were trashed, ignored or otherwise misunderstood when first released but, after time, were "rediscovered" and then went on to become masterpieces and extreme commercial success.

Once again, I have to say we need to pry the reins of creative-decision-making in game development out of the hands of the short-sighted beancounters.

(Note: Somebody later commented against me, mistakenly believing I was criticizing the author. Actually Parkin and I were in agreement.)

On Will Wright's optimistic view of games being accepted as a form of expression:

"We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Yeah right... Kind've like the Civilization model of R&D: just keep pumping "research points" into a new tech (which, somehow you know is coming even before it's been invented), passively, and sooner or later the new tech just pops out of nowhere.

Guess what?: in the real world radical discoveries don't happen that way. They are far from inevitable... They come from unexpected directions, by people often looking for totally different things. They meet great resistance.

The reality is new advancements don't just magically happen. Anymore than in cinema the auteur system - and with it respect for the medium of film - appeared. The auteur system which brought respect to film occurred because of an act of government to break the monopoly of film studios. Similar accomplishments require great work.

I wonder if Mr Wright would speak so free and easy if he were a just-starting-out designer today. Without the immense power his name carries. Let's say Sim City had never been invented - and thus the entire genre of Sim-like games didn't exist. And he went as a lone designer (much as he did back in the late 80s) with the proposal for such a radically new design. If he didn't have all the firepower of a working 3D demo behind him - which is de rigeur today - would he have gotten anywhere? Or would some suit at a publisher say "How quaint? However, we're trying to fill out our roster of military shooters, so we'll take a pass..."

One wonders.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Clarifications On The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company

After discussions over on Sirlin's site over the Lottery Ticket Videogame Company, here are some clarifications and comments on LGC...

What Is Prototyping in LGC-Terms?
There was confusion over this. Prototyping may be done on electronic, tabletop or another form. It depends on the projected game. The reason why I mention tabletop a lot is because it is a way to rapidly test radically new ideas with little expense. If your game depends on a new type of sandbox play, then a fast tabletop makes sense. If your game depends on narrative design and character development, then good ol' roleplaying makes sense. If you're game revolves around a new kind of UI or physics modelling, then some kind of electronic prototype makes sense. Again, LGC is about cultivation, not control - so what matters is what the talent thinks the prototype needs to be for the specific project.

Admission of my "Talky" Manner
Some are bothered by my talky manner. Okay, I don't speak like a suit. However, I will remind you that the game industry is an entertainment industry. We ain't making business apps here - we're making compelling experiences. We're making fun. Fun is a human language.

Finally, the Meat: Just What The Hell LGC Is...
This question is what has dogged me this past few weeks. People kept asking what is the LGC? Is it a publisher?, is it a game developer?, is it a studio?

Yesterday, it hit me what it was. The problem is, we're looking at LGC in status quo terms. That's the wrong way to look at it.

What I know now is this: I don't know exactly what LGC is!

But I do know it will be unlike anything there is right now!

I know it is close to an agency - in that it directly looks for and cultivates talent - but I also know that unlike a traditional game industry agency, it doesn't kowtow to the mammoth publishers. So it could be an agency-distributor, or a packaging agency - depending on a new wave of digital distribution (Steam would be perfect) while simultaneously cultivating talent and marketing its new releases. You are free to jump in here as well. That's the cool thing about doing things that are new. They're new!

I think LGC could be a game-version of United Artists. In game-equivalent terms that would make it a publisher that maintains a low overhead, focuses on building a libray (see below), and gives a great deal of creative latitude to its talent.

The United Artist's analogy might not bode well for some movie industry vets because UA became a shell after Heaven's Gate. However, UA still developed a huge library - including the James Bond and Rocky franchises. (Besides, Heaven's Gate was more a perceived disaster than an actual one. According to a studio exec at UA they were capable of absorbing its losses, but Transamerica looked at Heaven's Gate as an excuse to dump the whole adventure of giving artists creative control.) Anyway, the "pendulum" is a myth - in life things never just repeat because time moves forward and we learn from the past; and the lesson of Heaven's Gate is exactly why LGC focuses on low-burn prototyping - to minimize risk. What we do know is that here and now in the game industry, designers are crying to get their A-material out of the closet!

Finally, LGC depends on something very important: it's library. Libraries are not things that game publishers care to develop - after a few years (if not a few months) they put their games into the bargain bin. I can understand this if games are valued mainly as technology - and the period of 1990 to about 2004 saw huge leaps of tech. But I don't get why they would do that anymore.

If you decide the value of games comes from their intangible gameplay, narrative design, emotional experience, or something other than their polygon count, you would never undercut the development of a long-term library by dropping older titles in the bargain bin. This is especially true now that high quality graphics are starting to be commonplace.

To put it simply: the LGC believes that the intangible creative design factor is going to make the difference, which is why it will invest in unusual ideas and unorthodox talent. Now, given this, we know that unusual concepts and creators in other art forms often take time to mature. There are many examples of things which, at the time of their release, didn't do that well, but years later went on to be huge hits. David Bowie's song "Heroes", Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Orson Wells' Citizen Kane. All cult-classics. The Herman Miller office chair, in a totally different field, is another example - a product every focus group said was ugly, yet went on to - eventually - become a huge seller (the Herman Miller company decided to ignore the focus groups - see Malcolm Gladwell's Blink for the story).

It's the same thing with games. We need to hold out for the cult-classic. We need to develop a library and not undercut it, holding on to titles that, perhaps misunderstood when first released, can eventually go on to be understood (when the audience catches up) and sell very well in later years. Yes, two years is a long time (to some) in the game industry - but to the larger scope of humanity, to the mainstream audience, two years is nothing. Certainly you have rented movies more than two years old. Think about it.

Anyway, the timing is ripe for a venture like LGC to happen. The creative impulse of unique designers in the game industry is simply too strong to be held to a strictly corporate mindset any longer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Way Forward For The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company

I got a strong reaction to my most recent post here. It was over the "Lottery Ticket Game Company" (LGC). People like Sirlin asked me to sign them up. Others wondered what we could do to make LGC a reality.

I have taken the last few days to think this over. Hence this entry...

First let me acknowledge now is the time to take off the black hat I normally wear and put on my green hat - and scour the edge from my voice.

Here are some core elements I see over how to make the LGC come true. This is not meant to be definitive - I am only one person and have a design-bias, I acknowledge a broader understanding is needed. Anyway, let's get going...

Passionate Advocacy, Not Methodical Balance

Balance is something we do a lot of in game design. We act like the investigators that exist in Civil Law in our search for truthful design. When we determine the capabilities of, say, a unit, we methodically look at both sides, analyze, then make a judgement based on what we believe is the truth for our game design Obviously, we do this to make a game playable, and it is comfortable and familiar for us to do this when we consider how to move forward, creatively, in the game industry. However that practice cannot be used if the LGC is to succeed. We have to become passionate advocates, as in the search for truth used in Common Law.

Nobody knows the truth. With a methodical, balance-oriented perspective, we will always undermine good suggestions of a way forward because nothing anybody can suggest can be proven definitively right. Honestly, we should do some good old-fashioned *tabletop* roleplaying game sessions, because there we have to make a decision based on imperfect understanding. Put it this way: if the game industry is a band of adventurers stuck in a dungeon with dreary uninspiring games as its monster denizens, then we can argue forever about which door to take, and somebody will alway have a reason why we shouldn't go down this or that hallway, but it's only by taking a door that we'll get out of here.

Emphasis on Communicating ,Then Doing

Now, this said we come to the opposite extreme which is to not discuss process, just shut up and do. In disaster response they have a saying: a plan without action is a daydream, but action without a plan is a nightmare. One of the reasons we got stuck in our present creative crisis is because we painted ourselves in a corner - we didn't consciously choose a way to create games, we just passively let it evolve (i.e. started with the tiny dev team, then as requirements got larger simply tacked on more people until we wound up with lethargically huge teams, having giant supply tails and no agility to afford to do anything risky [lest the whole thing crash]).

Put it another way, we can't say "shut up and make your game demo". We don't want to shut up, we want to talk it out first. Every original game begins as a dialog in its early design doc and prototype phase. It's the most important part of making a new game, and we don't want to rush past it just to implement something in order to make it "look good" for people who know graphics but not gameplay.

(You could say, the above two points are an attempt to re-establish a balance between doing and contemplating.)

Using Imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge. --- Albert Einstein

Communication leads to this: a visualization of a new game - not an actual game. It's more important we imagine a new game, early on, than build one. This is why I espouse the design document so much - because it forces people to consider the game in an unrealized state; floating around in stasis. It's a plan and like Eisenhower said, plans are worthless but planning is invaluable. The design doc isn't, unto itself, what we want - it's the imagination and formalized thought about the game that the design document and early prototypes provide a framework for. Working the game out in a fluid state will help us realize it better. But we don't sacrifice this imaginative work for the sake of getting something built in that shortsighted drive to just build something, anything, even if it's crap.

Actively Searching For Good Ideas

We abandon the way new games are currently found: publishers passively waiting for indie teams to come up with vertical slices, then just stage-gating them; or company heads sending down an order to a design team to make a "visionary new game". That will never produce anything other than a new version of an existing game, with maybe one or two gimmicks added. (You cannot order people to be visionary. If you believe so your view sits opposite thousands of years of historical evidence.)

The active part means we go out and engage prospects, cultivate talent and fund design and prototyping. Read on...

Suspension of Judgment & Iteration

In his book The Educated Imagination, the famous English prof Northrop Frye points out the mark of advanced intelligence is the ability to suspend judgment.

This means outside individuals or small teams will send in design documents or prototypes, and we will have evaluators who actively read or play them. We roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty considering raw ideas, even on paper. Yes, we will get a flood of design proposals (and honestly, we will probably be able to judge the typical one in just a few minutes), but there will be some that hit us as being worth going to a next stage.

Okay, yes, we are stage-gating here - but we are doing so on far different terms. We are stage-gating more on the criteria of creative development, and less on whether we see raw production getting done.

This also means we prototype in a spiral manner. We fund a "next draft" or a first prototype. At first we suspend judgment as much as possible, but as we go forward through each iteration we let ourselves judge more and more. The urge most of us have is to judge - it's easy to say "That sucks man!" Judging isn't the hard part - it's not judging that's really difficult, or balancing judgment with perceptive knowing (judging and perceiving are opposites). There's another term for this: thinking outside the box (though that phrase has lost its native power).

The Company Model

LGC is either a publisher or an intermediary between a studio/game designer and a publisher/distributor. It isn't a studio. What it does is package games and foster their development and production. This means a close relationship between free agent companies and publishers.

To get the product sold might mean doing digital distribution, but at this point that is a secondary concern. The company must take the "if you build it, they will come" attitude. The single most important thing it has to sell is refreshingly good games - which is to say that cutting the LGC idea down because it doesn't have the retailer or publisher relationships right now is an unfair criticism. Ultimately, LGC is an experiment.

I propose the following:
Each game is its own company.
Each game/company gets sold outright to the marketing entity (typically the publisher). This, I believe, is the basis for a clean deal, which makes the marketing entity comfortable (but see below).
The company is built from a group of core developers brought together for the life of the game. The idea originator is one of the core developers.
Typical core developers are: a lead game designer, a lead artist/art director, a lead engineer, a lead writer, a lead sound designer, a lead producer (etc), plus LGC itself.
Who builds the game?: A group of outsourcer/free agent companies. The relationship of these entities to the core developers varies. For example, it may be that a lead engineer is also the principal of his (or her) own game programming company - in which case the entire game programming company might be part of the core developer team, scaling up as necessary to get work done. It depends on how the core developers want to run their own shows.
LGC, having a design-intensive focus, would probably not try to push the technical boundaries as much - but this depends on the game design requirements. A design-driven project that can use a slightly older engine would be preferred over a technology-driven project.
During early development, the core developers can work from their homes, coming into LGC's office a little later on to do early prototyping. When production starts, the core developers come to a temporary facility, set up for the duration of production. (If this means LGC buys one of those abandoned mining towns and transports everyone there for six months of hothouse creativity, hey, why not?)
Compensation: LGC arranges the core developers to get a fee and a percent of gross. It doesn't get entangled with the subjective question of whether there is a net profit or not. We are here to make games, not game companies. The size of these compensations varies depending on the experience and clout of the core team member: a first-time game designer would probably get peanuts in a fee, but would have the hope of the gross return.

During prototyping, the fee paid to developers would typically be in lump-sums: 50% up front, 50% on delivery of the iteration. This removes time pressure from LGC as a funder: hey, if you want to take 3 years doing an iteration, do it - just remember, we aren't paying you by the hour.
Content IP Ownership: The game company owns the content IP of the game, which means the marketing entity will ultimately own it (since each project is its own company and, as noted above, this project/company gets sold outright to the marketing entity). Remember though, you will get compensated in a clean fashion for success.

Furthemore, if the marketing entity spins this project off in any way (sequels, novelization, movie version, TV series, etc), a fee (in the form of a piece of the spin-off's budget, or an upfront amount), and possibly a percent of gross on said spin-off, is paid to the core developers. You (core developer) don't own the IP, but so what? You still get rewarded if it turns into a success, plus the spin-off deal is with *you*, not with some company that you may have been forced out of (or something like that). Plus you don't get bogged down in administering a company. (Now, again, nothing is to prevent you coming into the deal as a corporation rather than an individual, but that is your business. You might do business as yourself, but get paid through a numbered company.)
Technology IP Ownership: Since we'll likely use a lot of middleware, tech IP ownership is less of an issue. What tech IP that is developed I believe should be owned by the engineering core-team member (which would probably be an independent company).
Creative Control: As of this writing I would say that moral rights over the game developed through LGC should be retained by the core team. So even if the final game content is owned by the marketing entity, the game still only gets released in the version the core team wants it to be released in. In other words, I believe the core team should get"creative control" over the game project. (Of course, the marketing entity may want creative control - which would mean the core team-members waive their moral rights - so this depends on the individual deal and the clout of the core-team members.)
Once the game is over, you take a break until the next one.

Active, Not Passive, Approach To Teams

Conventional gamedev wisdom today has a passive approach to "the team" that underlies any game company. First, the team is extremely important when deciding to buy into, or fund, a game company. Second, each company will have more or less the same team over its life (or I should say, team members are expected to stay there for years).

This is a passive view of team-building.

From a skill- and talent-based view, conventional gamedev is passive in that it lacks a casting element. It lacks that idea that each game should be built by people who are hand-picked because their skills and talents, their aesthetic sensibilities, their outlook and interests are what is needed. Instead, it just recycles the same people to do whatever games are in the pipeline. But the guy who did last year's horror game shooter might not be best suited for this year's WWII RTS title.

From an interpersonal standpoint conventional gamedev is passive because it does not look into these issues. People either get along together or they don't. If they don't get along some discussions will be had, but pretty much there ain't nothin' can be done about it, so ain't no point in investing in it.

We reject this notion. LGC will take a different approach to team-building: an active one.

Casting: Core teams will be custom-built for the project - they will be cast. If the tabled game is a horror shooter, the game writer and art directors will have a good sense of horror; the lead engineer know shooter tech, and so on. If the designer's next project is an RTS, a totally new team will be cast.

A corollary to casting is that the tables are turned in the normal "hiring" process. When we find a good design, we go looking for valuable core-team members we think will execute it well. This is called "packaging" in the movie biz. When talented, coveted core-team development people "sign on" to a project, their mere act of doing so advances the project's cause, and builds the new package. This seems similar to the way it's done now - talented individuals jump ship to form a new company. Here, though, the difference is you sign on to a project - a specific game - not a new company (with all the associated baggage that goes along with the long-term running of a company).

Interpersonal Issues: Gamers are good judges of technology, games and so forth - but they are lousy judges of people. They tend to be more comfortable with code than emotions - so their repertoire of team-building techniques tends to be limited. However, there are many "tools" available to build teams - open communication, personal coaching methodologies, group coaching sessions, and so on. Utilization of these techniques - which are well known outside game development - represents active effort to facilitate the smooth collaboration of teams. LGC will make use of these techniques. It won't just passively let teams succeed or fail without taking active measures to help them. It also won't just walk away from a great design idea if there isn't a team in place already to build it. Again, we will build these teams.

There is no reason why mature, professional adults should not be able to work together for limited periods on projects, then go their own way and reform into different teams elsewhere on different projects. This is done all the time in other industries - it can be done in the game industry as well.

Cultivation of Core Talent, Not Control of It

If this isn't clear yet, LGC uses a cultivation model, not a control one, with regard to the core talent it works with. Our initiative will seek to benefit from the gifts of talent, not to capture these talents and bend them to our desires.

The steps above illustrate this. Each game project begins with an active search for excellent designs done by individuals or small teams. When we find one we develop it in a communication- and imagination-intensive process early on, ramping up to prototyping. Each game is officially made by its core developers: you get your name on the box and prominently in the credits. We don't shackle you to any corporate body (studio, publisher, whatever). Our value isn't in being a big corporate institution - no, it's in our relationship with you, the core developers, and doing a simple, clean deal in this game, and in the next one, and the one after that. We compensate you so that you directly benefit if your game succeeds (not indirectly, through ownership of a company [which you may have tenuous control over] that in turn owns part your game [if it does]); we permit you to work on projects you want to; we allow you to build your own name as an individual, and so on.

But the main thing is, LGC would have a sense that it is important to discover core talent for its own sake - not talent which is subservient to whatever machine (company, studio, whatever) that it has to fit into.

There are two models an organization can work with: the machine model and the garden model. In the machine model, each person is a cog in a machine. It has a focus toward efficiency. Sometimes that's necessary. But it is not well suited to innovation. In a garden model, you create an environment with all the right ingredients, then plant the seeds - the growth produced is native to the system, not driven by external parts. The occupants are nurtured, not driven to conformity.

Let me make a distinction between the way LGC does it and the way it's normally done through an analogy: diamond mining. We want to find diamonds - and not wimpy engagement ring ones; massive, beautiful ones...

In South Africa, years ago, a manager of a diamond company was standing in a mining pit when he saw a glint on the dirt wall. Using a pen knife he picked out a diamond so large he couldn't wrap his fingers around it. This incredible discovery was named the Cullinan, and eventually was cut into the Crown Jewels of the English Monarchy. It was found in a time diamonds were sought for painstakingly... by hand, with rolled-up sleeves. Today diamonds are scooped up en mass, by big machines that dump the "diamond ore" into crushers. The ore is systematically pulverized down to uniform gravel, and this is then conveyor-belted through a machine that is able to automatically extract the diamond bits from the rock. This system is very efficient at making the thousands of engagement rings that form most of the market for diamonds. However, if a once-in-a-lifetime diamond like the Cullinan goes through this process, it is destroyed.

An obsession with efficiency can damage the very prize it seeks. In game development we don't crush talent in the compulsive search for efficiency - we focus, rather, on being effective.

How To Fund This

A radically new way of doing things, such building a game in the LGC manner, usually only occurs when a situation has gotten so desperately bad it must change. But since the big publishers are already comfortably fat, the LGC would need some kind of an angel or benefactor to occur, and likely would have to be done in an experimental manner.

There might be one or two parties out there willing to fund it. We'll see.

Engagement, Not Fear

The last thing I want to mention is this: LGC is an undertaking, an experiment that requires courage.

It takes courage to "throw open the flood gates" and take in new prospects who, by the hundreds (maybe thousands) pitch you their designs. Hey, there are a lot of psychos out there, right?

It takes courage to work with a new, untested and possibly unusual talent - somebody who has not been vetted in the conventional sense. Especially if the person seems intense, possibly difficult or angry.

This courage part is critical.

All I can say is this: people very often turn out to be what we will them to be. In a strange, illogical way, they respond to it. If we treat them, however subtly, as forlorn losers or potential psychos, sometimes this fatalism has a habit of turning them into that very thing we are afraid of. If, however, we engage them directly - even if we are rejecting their submissions - with dignity and honest feedback, this has a way of resetting their expectations of life; of letting them resolve whatever crazy notions of glory they had and get on with what they can really do with their lives.

With talent that seems angry or bitter, I will also say this. We really have ourselves to blame for this creative crisis. History has shown that creative genius has an intensity, a difficulty, and often an anger: Orson Welles, Van Gough, Picasso, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Einstein, the Sex Pistols... I could go on and on. Rollo May, in his landmark study on creativity, The Courage To Create, gave a word to the central driving force of an artist's creativity: rage. Not inquisitiveness; not friendly upbeatness; not sociability; not cooperativeness; not outgoing personality; not charm; not professionalism. Rage. Now, he meant it not so much in a conventional sense, but as a creative fire. There is a direct connection between intense passion and creative brilliance. William Faulkner said, "The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him..." As much as we decry that kind of unbridled fire, you need it if you want to be a first-rate creative power. Think of the seventh samurai (played by Toshiro Mifune), in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. He symbolizes that unbridled - and yes, a little arrogant and foolish - drive to win. He does learn humility at the end - but, the lesson is the venture needs that degree of fire. In today's corporatized, sterilized game industry those types are shunned. But we want that fire. Those are the kind of designers we're looking for.

There are some who reject this idea that intense creativity is accompanied by intense feeling, but they do so for selfish reasons. They want the innovative new things to appear, but they don't want to have to weather the creators of these new things (or recognize them as such - which would also mean compensating them accordingly). They believe, wishfully, that innovation can also come from mild-mannered, nice and mellow people - people, perhaps, who are content to just be employees; people whom they can send a memo to (Memo: Innovate new ideas; have them on my desk by Monday), and have this problem magically fixed. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. Unfortunately, history simply doesn't bear this out. Creative people and the truly creative process are marked by intensity.

What we wind up with, oftentimes, is watered-down innovation. We live in a world where every movie, TV show, rock band, videogame and so forth looks like every other of the same genre. We have let the standard slip that far - partly because we are afraid to engage those scary, intense, creative people. That's natural; after all, intense passionate people are scary - as is the stuff they make. It demands a lot. Roger Ebert recounts routinely recommending people go see this or that beautiful, artful, brilliant film, but that the crowds generally didn't - that in the end, many ordinary people are more comfortable eating burgers and fries than French cuisine. This seems to have lead to our world now: a place where the core chefs are only skilled in how to make burgers and fries (metaphorically speaking). So if you want to know, ultimately why we are in a creative crisis in the game industry, it's partly because we are so damned scared of our creators.

Of course, that said there has to be realism; there has to be balance. And there sure has hell has to be a respect for the payer of the bills.

The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company will engage these folks. It won't just play doormat to them, mind you... but it will engage them with clear eyes and a clean, firm demeanour. Why? Because it wants what they have: the best damn game design ideas on the planet.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Some Posts About My Posts

There has been some talk about posts I did you might find interesting...

A Debate on the Future of Game Dev...

Most recently, Sirlin seems to have discovered my blog and did a post about it. In the comments, they get into an interesting debate about this stuff. After getting hammered routinely on IGDA's board it's refreshing to hear this.

Programming: Does It Help or Hinder Design

I made a comment on programming versus design over at an AI site, and the blogmaster spun it out into a full blog entry. Read it here...

The Vaunted Game Design Job "Description"

Someone a while ago did a posting on one of my earlier entries. Check it out here...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Stifling Atmosphere of Game Development

My latest comment on Gamasutra - in response to responses where there is the view promoting the typical notion that all things in game development should be standardized (what a mouthful...).

I got an idea. How about trying to make the game industry less like a bureaucracy and more like an entertainment industry? One of the first things to do is stop being afraid that a person might not be a cog in your machine - looking, walking, talking and thinking like everyone else - and start being willing to look at their quality as a potential creator and take some chances on the unusual.

You want to know why all games look, smell, act, feel the same? Partly its because of the cult-like nature of game companies - with their focus on homogenized sameness.

Of course, if we did let go of the homogeneity thing, that would probably mean that (gasp) the game designers would demand their individual contributions be recognized - complete with their name on the box, a demand of a more substantial compensation, the ability to move from project to project as they (as opposed to their corporate masters) saw fit, and so forth.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Lottery Ticket Videogame Company

I win the lottery and get to finance a videogame?

The first thing I do is take the "defined IP" and throw it in the garbage. It is bass-ackwards for the money man to start with the concept and then hire the people to fit the concept. That's like top-down command - the generals in their pyjamas and slippers in the chateaus, separated from reality, while the grunts are in the trenches on the frontlines. The best you'll get is mediocre shit that only knows how to play the game of game dev. (Hey, Thomas Edison, I want to hire you to be the inventor. What's that, you wanna make some thing called a "light bulb". Who the hell wants that? Put it away because I've already got some defined IP here.)

The next thing I do is throw it open. Do a game *project*. Pitch me baby! Whaddaygot that's worth doin'?

No don't like it. Got anything else?

No, don't like it. Got anything else?

Yah, okay that's it. Let's take a look at that one.

This way I haven't hired some mediocre fuck who just looks at game dev as if it's a job - like engineering or accounting. I have his whole body, mind and soul. He's a true believer. It's *his* game we're making.

Now, since it's *his* game we're making, I'm gonna make a deal to reflect that. (Why? Simple. I want to make money. You don't make money making shit. You get what you pay for.)

First off, this game is its own company. The actual games is going to be sold by a separate marketing company (the marketing entity - let's call it the publisher), but it (the game) lives and dies as its own company. It's own venture.

Next, we talk and make a good deal, one that he feels is fair - not one I'm going to put on the table, take-it-or-leave-it. Why? Because I don't want the bullshit you might give me just to work-to-rule. I want your [b]best stuff[/b]. I want your A-game! I never spout bullshit like "Wanted: A designer with passion to take games to the next level; compensation = a fucking salary"! That's horseshit, we all know it. Only mediocre designers like that kind of deal (because they suck). The only way the powers-that-be get away with it is because game designers, for all their talent, have no guts to stand up for themselves and take what is theirs. So the good ones sneak around and hide. I know that. And it's true for you, too. I know you have dreams tucked away in your little designers notebooks there. Dreams you sneak around in the dark with, and hope one day to get made. Dreams you know will absolutely rule, that you are saving for that day, years from now, when you think you might somehow get the energy and contacts to finally *finally* make a game company to go into production (the rigmarole of making a company being a process we both know is an incredibly inefficient hazing ritual designed by the cynical overly analytical types that crush the life out of gamedev - which is precisely why filmmakers don't waste a lot of time managing companies [they have other things to do...]). So to get at these dreams I'm going to cut to the fucking chase and allow you to jump the queue. But I know I'm gonna have to do two things to get that: 1.) listen to and be open to these concepts; 2.) compensate you for them in a way that my risk (burn rate) is minimal, but you get compensated *if* they turn out profitable.

I've already established a willingness to listen, so how do I compensate you?

First, you get average-to-low fee up front (preferably low). You wanna work in something you believe in, you have to take equity, which means taking on risk. (Well, okay... If you're a veteran, or your idea is good [or part of a franchise maybe], you get a pretty substantial fee up front.)

Now, if it sells well, you get a piece or a fee paid for anything that spins off from this concept. You get a fee piece of the budget to any sequels, if it gets turned into a film, TV show, comic book, novelization, training application. You name it. That's what you get. It's fair. So give me your A-game.

Either that, or we give you a piece of the gross sales of the game (though you'd truly need to be a veteran for that). Remember: I'm not fucking around. I'm not interested in you being yes-man to the piece of shit game we've assigned you - I'm asking what you think. It's your chance. (If you hand me anything tired - like an old genre game but with a few extra doo-dads - you're fucking gone. So be passionate and aim high.)

(Hell, if you - personally - have an agent, I'll work with them too. But just remember... Your A game!... I want it. I am not prepared to *actually believe* - like so many suits do - that my own shit smells like roses. So don't dick me around.)

Next, I have only 1 or 2 designers and we prototype. Like for maybe 6 months to a year. Wow! Think of my burn rate! Two people! Do I even need an office to do this? I doubt it. Come over to my apartment dude. Let's make this bitch. I hire high school or university students for some playtest sessions. We're talkin' small flash games or even a tabletop version. I get at the fun. The programmers and analytical types are leery of this: you can't test framerates or polys with a tabletop. Fuck it. I'm interested in the fun factor! If I capture it here, I know I'll be able to duplicate it in the electronic version.

Six months to a year later, I have a prototype, plus a fully-fleshed out design doc. Now I cast to build it.

Of course if six months to a year later we have a piece of poo - the prototype just didn't turn out - well, it gets canned. But not a huge loss since we didn't ramp fully up anyway.

I go to outsourcers to build this bugger into a real finished game. Not offshorers - outsourcers (there's a difference). Gimme your portfolio? This is the IP we have developed, what is your work like? Does your work fit this project? How does your style fit the concept? Don't worry about fuckin' job stability. If you want fucking job stability, what are you doing in the entertainment industry (that's what games are part of) - become an accountant; I don't want you here: get out of my office. I want aggressiveness and passion. If you are hot, I'm willing to cut a deal like I did with the above parties. You manage your outsourcing company, you provide me with the stuff you agree to, you take care of your own internal shit (I don't wanna see it), and get it to me more or less on time (I'm not as much of a stickler on deadlines because my burn rate is next to zilch [my whole game company runs out of a tiny little office]; and I am WAY more concerned with quality than schedules).

How do I cast these suppliers? I trust the magic new thing called - wait for it - intuition! Intuition and perception! Things that analytical types distrust (because they can't be measured with numbers) but which lead to truly amazing new discoveries (and not tediously boring shit which is what analytical types make because they are bean-counters). I don't give a shit about experience. What I want is talent.

What does my company look like? You're right: it's a fucking zoo! All the little scaredy-dweebs who just want to remake D&D or want to make efficient coding processes (instead of effective games) are scared shitless by the creative energy here; but that's okay because they are deadwood and I want them out of my eyesight. My place is a beautiful, low-burn-rate zoo. (Can't say this is what it looks like in the offices of my outsourcers. Maybe the coding outsourcer's place is a friggin' zen garden of quietude - though more likely it's the office of Epic Games, id software or some other middleware provider. But they run their show the way they want to, I run mine the way I want to.) And my zoo is just bursting with creative energy, and - working in conjunction with my outsourcers - turns out something so amazingly new and inspiring you can't help but stare at it in wonder.

When it's over, all the parties go their own way for a break. Some go on to different games - done in this manner again, moving at their (the creators') pace. (Imagine that!) Again - this isn't a gawdamn factory! It's a creative hothouse! A studio, by the actual definition of the word. But we know who we are now. We have worked with each other. I can call them up again, if I find a project that fits them. We are making a game dev community. Which is far more important than a mere company. A community! One that is open, where people feel they can continually bring their A-game out in the open. Where they can try to sell their A-game, instead of sneaking around in the shadows while they eek out a living developing stuff from unoriginal shit concepts that bean-counting executives think are cool but really are garbage.

My marketing company sells the output of this one-project-game-company. And I then the time comes for me to say, "I'm lookin' to do another game! Hey world, show me what ya got!"

And that's how I do it if I win the lottery ticket.

...Or meet a visionary.