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.


Anonymous said...

Your analogy with The Cullinan is an interesting way of describing the current state of the industry. LGC has some challenges ahead of it, though. One of its biggest strengths is also potentially one of its biggest weakness: the speculative nature of LGC's business model could make it difficult to recognize failings in the lottery's screening processes. Everything about LGC's success hinges on its competency to pick winners. The evolution away from mining diamonds by hand was a major leap, not an accident.

Keeping that in mind, LGC is an amazing, truly revolutionary idea. It has the potential to blow other companies out of the water in the early game with its ability to initiate development at the design stage and its promise of fair compensation. If LGC can ramp the compensation up enough to pull in the locals who've been mining for Cullinans on their own (indie teams who offer vertical slices to publishers), the mid-game is theirs too.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Thanks "nobody". I truly appreciate your input.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to leave a quick note expressing my appreciation for your "change of hats." While your previous posts have all been interesting, providing something a bit more tangible like you did here is much more valuable. I hope the community responds well to your ideas :)

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Thanks Bryant.

Anonymous said...

You’d really have to win the lottery to do something like this. Nobody is gonna fund it.

And if someone funded it, it would cost more and/or sell less than another Halo sequel.

We can talk about how much we need innovative new gameplay, and how much the current game industry sucks balls. Some of us have even worked there and have the scars to show for it. But even if you think the game industry has gotten worse at making games, you’d have to concede they’re doing a great job of making money.

People are suckers for any old FPS or RTS if you sell it with the right combination of graphics, cinematics, story, and setting.

I admire your vision for this company -- whether you phrase it in idealistic terms or with a little humorous belligerence. I’d probably want to work at your company. Your game would probably be far more interesting than most of the crap I’ve played in the past few years. But I’m not the average consumer.

We measure success in dollars. By that measure, Nintendo Wii is the revolution we’ve been waiting for. Smaller games with smaller budgets, and bigger sales. Game design driven by mass marketing, rather than game design driven by an elite group of “really smart” people.

I honestly would sign right up for everything you're talking about. It's an exciting and logical proposal. But while you're solving the "let's make a great game" problem, you're ignoring the "let's maximize profits" problem. Hate it or love it, your financers only care about the second problem.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

You identify some of the problem.

However, people do invest in things for reasons other than pure montary return. There are prestige projects. There are angel investors, for example, who do projects for the love of them. Sooner or later, the rich guys realize that having all this money really doesn't satisfy the need to have a sense of accomplishment - so maybe just producing fast food all the time gets tedious after awhile.

A further issue is that the pure focus on monetary return is cynical. Somebody might invest in an unusual project and because it's so fresh, it actually *does* do extremely well in terms of monetary return.

I guess we also need to develop the idea that the success of a game should not be purely measured in dollar figures. Other "entertainment" industries have developed that. Pulitzer's, Oscars, Grammies, you name it.

This also means we have to cultivate the idea of developing game libraries - getting away from abandonware. Now, with graphic standards plateauing, it would seem plausible that a well-made game could still attract sales years from its first release. Hopefully, services like Steam can address that (to tackle piracy).

Anonymous said...

I think you've identified a deeper root problem. I mean, most of our society is profit driven. But video games even more so. A lot of movie studios will take a loss or break even on projects that are just exciting. Actors will sign up to work on them because the role in the film is just that interesting.

I think there's that work ethic in games -- people who want to make something truly great. But not among the people who control distribution channels, and not among marketers.

I also think game budgets are pretty huge now. A small indy team could make the next Tetris, or even the next Counter-Strike. But they couldn't make something that requires a deeper investment, like a Zelda, Metal Gear, or Grand Theft Auto.

The problem isn't so much that nobody wants to try it... the problem is systemic. There's just no way, logistically, to do it.

Distribution channels might change, though.

And if new graphic technology stops driving games, creativity take a much more active role.

I'm thinking out loud. Like I said, I think you have great ideas, even if a lot of people have screamed out for them before. The question is why nobody has done it yet.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to say I appreciate the green hat. When Sirlin first introduced me to your ideas through his blog, I couldn't help but be scared away by all the negativity. If you want to make something happen, you usually have to get people behind you. To do that, a diplomatic attitude is generally the best option. If you're an artist, or a revolutionary, and you want to get some return on your vision before you're dead, it's a good idea to either make a public face for yourself that's amiable to the ordinary person, or get someone to do it for you.

Also, a nit-picky suggestion: for a long post like this one, it helps the reader if it's seperated into a couple pages or extra posts. I honestly got a little weary reading it as is.

All the best.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Sirlin's sudden and supportive appearance has calmed me down - inspired me to put on the green hat.

Your points are noted Michael B.

(Hey, if you happen to be Michael Bay, and have a few bucks to drop on this to get it rolling, that would be greatly appreciated... :O) However, I can't guarantee all the games produced will have tons of explosions.)

Anonymous said...

An excellent and thought provoking article. Sounds like a great idea. As with so many things it's the getting started that seems the hardest part, good luck!

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

I've updated the LGC concept somewhat: http://grassrootsgamemaster.blogspot.com/2008/04/clarifications-on-lottery-ticket.html

Anonymous said...

If im in the situation of the owner of this blog. I dont know how to post this kind of topic. he has a nice idea.