Lights, Camera, Action

The one downside of exposing your opinions to the internet in this day and age, is the almost partisan framing of any discussion to one extreme or the other. This rankles with my inner Devil's Advocate in all kind of mind twisting ways. Now, I have long adapted to not being angered, upset, or disillusioned by internet commentary (Wait ... people disagree?? Who knew! The horror of it all!). It's more that, as I have mentioned before, I am an oddly optimistic pragmatic cynic. So I question, I acknowledge the middle ground, give a firm nod to the challenges involved, note their proverbial size and dimensions, but invariably have an ill-defined but fundamental faith that we can evolve in positive directions.

That means whenever I read all the comments that come off the back of an interview on popular sites, it makes me want to talk some more It brings more words to the boil in the proverbial kettle of my mind and they must pout forth onto the blog ... it's just how it works. Not because I want to defend my position, or elaborate to educate those who 'didn't get it', but more because I am delighted it has sparked conversation. The debate happening is important, it's really why we say stuff at all, we want to spark thoughts in people's mind and hear their opinions. I've talked about this before, but since the subject is once again topical, lets take a look at another angle on it.

So while we are on the subject of where the games industry, and our genre in particular, actually is, and where it could go it's interesting to note one of the opinions that emerges from the debate that I was, in some way, advocating failure. That misses the point a little. It's not a binary thing, and we have these discussion we usually aren't just talking specifically about one game, more about the future of games.

It's not about being allowed to make a failure ... no one wants that! It's about having an industry environment that could foster smaller projects, with different expectations, and budgets, which could in turn allow for more experimentation and innovation. A situation where designers would be allowed to design for a smaller demographic than 'all gamers with a pulse and an internet connection'.

Right now it feels like the traditional games industry is stuck in a space where it isn't sure how to handle something that doesn't fall easily into one of two categories. The blockbuster or the indie.

This situation, with success at either end of the spectrum, and a perception that there is little in-between draws forth a comparison to the movie industry for me.

Hollywood in theory has a similar dynamic, but allows for a much wider range of budgets and ambitions to be viable business propositions.

Once again it's not about accepting failure. Not every blockbuster is successful, for every Avengers or Dark Knight there is a Green Lantern or this summers Total Recall remake. If you aim to compete and fail I don't think anyone involved genuinely minds being called out on it. That's the risk vs reward calculation on any project.

If a game or movie can find an audience of the size it was intending to reach, and be profitable, then, at least to me, I don't believe it should be stigmatized as a failure. We need to find a way for the games industry, and in particular our genre, to be able to cost effectively allow a game to try and reach an appropriate audience level. That doesn't mean 'cheap' games. The movie equivalent in recent memory may be titles like Chronicle, Looper, or Hanna. All mostly well received, profitable and all reportedly in the 15-30m budget range. So still considerable investments that have to layer their ambitions appropriately, but all viable financial returns. You could even extend it to a movie with a larger budget, say the action vet extravaganza that was The Expendables. Much more expensive at somewhere in the region of 80m USD, but also found its returns and was profitable. The point is that all of the above were still considerable investments for someone to make, yet none of the above were aiming to be an Avengers, Avatar, Lord of the Rings or Titanic.

One of the key differences of course is that movie industry is also a mature one. With generations of box office hits and flops behind us that have shaped expectations and schedules.

Likewise the Hollywood studio system has also adapted over the years. For the last few decades the major studios have all fostered specific studios tasked with bringing viable indie cross-overs to market, or giving maverick and more indie minded directors larger budgets than they would get in a purely indie setting. Fox Searchlight and Focus Feature type set-ups were created specifically because that industry realized that it needed a way to interact with creators in addition to the established traditional studio means.

Not some movie insiders may laugh manically at the notion that their industry has 'solved' this dilemma  but they have at least implemented as good a solution as their industry currently supports. It may not be perfect, but those hybrid studios are allowing films to be made, and find an audience, that might otherwise have failed to make it to market. 

That is the kind of first step we need to be looking at as an industry ... 

... and really it has already started, kind of ... look at XBLA and PSN, you could easily argue they fit some of the same criteria as I'm arguing for. They just need to expand from the small studios and true indies to also cost effectively include the medium sized studios as well. The smaller indie developers are starting to find a voice, a market, and more avenues for publishing. Between Steam greenlight and Kickstarter style initiatives there are more games getting made. 

Our industry has talked about this for a while, but little real progress has been made beyond an embracing of the true indie scene. The folks at Extra Credits have talked about it in relation to how studios might think of incorporating indie developers, and even started their own indie publishing project.

The next step is how to do you go beyond indie budgets without having to go into the stratosphere of the major AAA space? That is really the interesting discussion. Maybe there ultimately isn't a large market for that outside of some very well established niche's (like say the strategy games that Paradox Entertainment produce), but I have to believe that if the publishing systems we will be using in the future can be adapted,  particularly with the soon to be ubiquitous nature of digital distribution, to support great games being made that don't need to shift millions of units to be a considered successful projects. There must be space for something beyond indie gaming that isn't a hundred people for several years and a marketing budget in the tens of millions of dollars.

There will be great games that go unmade, and fantastic stories that go unmade, unless we, as an industry, try to figure out how we can change things up to better support projects that would fall into this middle ground.

We would, in theory, be able to innovate more while providing better quality, unique, experiences to audiences. That in turn would energize and motivate a wider range of game developers and create more opportunities for the next generation of great design teams and creators to appear.


Waldgeist said…
I heartily agree with all of the above and would like to add, that in the dance for change, no only do publishers, developers and players have a responsibility to embrace change, but the press has to adapt too. So many press outlets still cling to the old ways, the old mechanics, structures and judgemental and comparative tests.

When I was following the release of Torchlight II, for example, I noticed, that practically all press outlets were viewing the game through a "Diablo 3" equipped lens. I understand, that there is a strong connection between the two games, but they play in a completely different ballpark and if you look at the finished products, even have vastly different goals in terms of what kind of game they want to be.

The press though wanted something to compare Torchlight II to, so they went to the blueprint of Diablo 3 and more than often judged a game negatively for something, it wasn't even trying to be, spawning all the wrong kinds of expectations in the minds of their readers.

Whenever a game falls out of that "it's like this" box-thinking, many outlets fall into the oh-this-must-be-a-niche-game-then trap. It happened to Bastion and many other brilliant Indie games (of course they also got their share of praise). I imagine the sales numbers would be a lot higher, if the press would stop comparing and start judging games based on their own regard.

But the future is bright. There are many great new games to come, new ways to fund and distribute, that I am sure will open doors and windows in some cases, to bring some much needed fresh new wind in the dusty old halls of the gaming industry, a comparably very young industry, that recently had started to show real signs of rapid ageing.
Anonymous said…
A nice read as allways Sil.

And a "Hi There" to Waldgeist also.

The market shifts and with the recent announcements it will need a quick reaction with a good plan and execution or the "Claims" be taken and the window of oportunity to grab a fair share of the "sandbox" niche is closing fast.

Reviewers - people that be paid to "test" games they may or may not like and write about it for their target audience under pressure of time.
Who expects a fair or thougthfull review under that circumstances?

There is no ideal world in reality...