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.