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The View from the Other Side: Death to the Industry?

There's a piece that's been making the rounds, Greg Costikyan's "Death to the Games Industry".  My understanding is that this started as a GDC rant, and since then he's turned it into a full presentation and is now publishing an extended version in a new online gaming magazine, The Escapist.  The gist of Costikyan's argument is that the economics of game development are out of whack and this is hampering creativity in the industry.  As development costs to stay competitive in the mainstream commercial industry skyrocket because of the need to increase the detail and scope of content, smaller developers are being squeezed out; they go out of business, get bought out, or end up in the straitjacket of producing sequels and licensed content.  The end result is that consumers get games that are unoriginal, retreads, and slight variations on existing games.  This trend cannot continue indefinitely because the rate of increase in costs of developing AAA games so far exceeds the rate of growth of the audience that sooner or later, there will be a collapse.  Costikyan is all for hastening this collapse (hence the inflammatory title), as long as it leads to a more positive re-organization: the ability for developers to get games to consumers with fewer barriers and the development of an indie aesthetic in the audience so that creativity and innovation are valued more than franchise recognizability and licenses.  This will presumably lead us to realize the potential for creative foment within this still relatively new medium rather than spiraling down into an endless cycle of repetition of the same.

As long as that description is, it's still a largely reductive treatment of the argument.  If you haven't already, I'd recommend reading the full thing (in its various versions) for yourself.  Obviously, I'm going to take exception to a number of points he makes, so don't just take my word for it.  After all, I could be putting forward just the straw-man version.

The first issue that I have here is that Costikyan paints the publisher as the one who's at fault in this dynamic. It makes sense, but only if you assume that publishers have no idea what they're doing and have survived this long only out of sheer luck.  I can't speak for anyone else, but if someone came to my company with a great, creative idea and a plan to realize it, we'd jump on it.  We know the same history everyone else does: groundbreaking games make money.  Civilization, Doom, The Sims, every game that's ever founded a genre has done huge sales numbers.  Publishers love these kinds of games.  They're easy to market because gamers love innovation; they're easy to get the critics behind, because critics even more than the gaming public is sick to death of the same old, same old, and they'll bend over backwards to give coverage and high review scores to creative games.  They're great for company prestige and identity, because they stand out from the rest of the crowd.

The problem here is two-fold.  First, the number of people who can come up with great designs is small.  I've said it many times, here and elsewhere, but ideas are easy; design is hard.  A great idea is nice, but if you can't turn it into a great game, it's worthless.  A game where you get to be the president is a great idea; turning that into a game where the player actually has meaningul interactions, has the range of choices to sell the experience of being the head of a country, the feedback to their choices is both visually and strategically interesting, the pacing of those choices is appropriate to a game, and it can handle the wide possibility space of what players might want to do with the experience, well, if it were easy, someone would have done it by now.  It's easy to recognize good game design in retrospect; after all, the game is right there in front of you, demonstrating exactly how it should be done.  Producing good, creative, innovative game design is hard.  The number of people who can do this is very, very small.  That's why people like Miyamoto and Wright and Meier are stars.  If everyone could do this, trust me, they would.

The second half is that even if you have a great design, you have to be able to execute on it.  Development is a two-way street, which is why contracts are at the heart of the developer-publisher relationship.  When developers sign a contract, they're not just promising a game idea, they're guaranteeing that they're going to be able to produce a finished product that meets the definitions of the great design on the schedule and at the budget that's laid out.  Why is it that publishers don't take meetings with individuals who have no development experience but great ideas?  It's because individuals don't make games, teams do.  Without a team to back you up, how are you going to deliver on the great idea?  Even if you have a core group together, you still have to build out the rest of the team, and as many people can attest, building a studio is a full project in itself.  If you don't have the team, how can you know what the schedule is going to be?  How can you know what budget is going to be needed to accomplish it without the team?

People come to publishers all the time with a few people, a great idea, and a plan.  And you know what, over and over again, publishers give them millions of dollars to do it.  And time and again, the development fails to take shape, or it gets delayed (and remember, time costs money), or the team can't do what they promised.  Publishers don't want to put crap games on the market.  If we had our druthers, every game would be fantastic; the fans would love us, they'd flock to the stores every time we released a new product because they'd know it would be great, our ROI would be astronomical, the shareholders would throw us huge parties because the stock price would skyrocket, and everyone would move off to live on the big rock candy mountain.  The fact that most games fail isn't because publishers aren't funding development, it's because putting together a great design with a team that can execute is hard.  The odds are simply against it.

The other piece that Costikyan leaves out is that publishers don't dictate what games sell, consumers do.  We try to influence sales, sure, that's part of what we do.  We have marketers to make people aware of what's available and why they might enjoy it.  We have producers who work to make sure that the development stays on track, that the game is actually heading towards being fun, that the great idea everyone was excited about doesn't get lost along the way.  We have sales people who try to get as much shelf space as they can for our products.  In spite of all of that, we still don't have any control over what people actually buy.  Again, common sense says that if we did, every game would be a hit and we'd never lose money.  If franchises, licenses, and sequels are what's selling, then maybe that's because this is what the people are buying.

Costikyan does have an argument on this side, that we need to try and promote an indie aesthetic in the consumers.  Frankly, I don't see it.  We already spend millions of dollars telling people what they should buy, and as far as I can tell, it doesn't work.  Could we be more effective at it, sure, but fundamentally, you are never going to get an audience on your side by telling them they want the wrong things and they should be doing something else.  You either listen to your audience or you lose money.  I'm not saying you listen to focus groups or the gaming press or the internet forumgoers or any of the other fatally flawed glimpses of limited segments of the audience that we tend to listen to.  I'm saying you listen to all of them and more, and you listen critically, to get at what's behind the trends.  For example, there's an explosion of gangster-themed games trying to cash in on the success of Grand Theft Auto; this is an example of listening to the wrong things.  What makes GTA successful is not the set dressing or the premise; it's the way the game gives you a variety of gameplay experiences with tight feedback loops between expected and resultant behaviors, a clean interface, and an incredible density of gameplay opportunities, done with humor and style against a rich backdrop of easily-understood relationships.  In fact, GTA seems to be precisely the kind of creative game that Costikyan is calling for, and it is a sequel (number three in the franchise was the first one to find widespread acceptance), funded by a major publisher.  I think the lesson here is clear and simple: if you build it, they will come.

For the indie aesthetic, there are more outlets today than there have ever been.  Not only are there more mainstream gaming platforms (three viable consoles and the PC), but you also have web-based games, mobile gaming on phones, handheld games, shareware and other forms of digital distribution, and a number of small, boutique publishers who will handle the retail and distribution for developers who have a finished product.  If we're not seeing a huge outburst of creativity through these channels, if they're not producing the next Civilization, Doom, or The Sims, maybe there's a reason beyond the cost of developing AAA commercial games.  Maybe the mainstream commercial game industry has attracted the people who are capable of doing that kind of work and they're the ones building the next God of War, the next Nintendogs, the next Spore.  Don't get me wrong; I'm sure there will be other great games that come out of the indie scene, and not just another Tetris or Bejeweled.  My point is simply that the outlets are already there for people to take advantage of.

There are a couple of things that I believe are being masked in the particular discourse that Costikyan is putting forth that are the true emotional drivers behind it.  First, there is this "Paradise Lost" myth that in the early days, gaming was better; games were more creative, more original; small teams with small budgets focused more on innovation and less on production values.  I see this in Costikyan's push for a revived indie aesthetic and his formulation that the problem with the game industry is directly related to its increasing costs and team sizes.  In many ways, Costikyan's desire is to see us go back to the golden days.  Unfortunately, those days exist only in retrospect.  There is a nostalgia factor biasing this perspective; the fact of the matter is that a lot of the games that used to be put out were crap.  We remember the good ones, because they were great experiences, so they stand out from the static of day-to-day existence, but the good ones were few and far between.  There were also plenty of franchises (Zork, anyone), sequels, and derivatives; hell, the entire adventure game genre was a series of knockoffs; same for space shooters and side-scrollers.  What made those games seem fresh and exciting was not the games themselves, it was the personal discovery of gaming, and that still exists, just not for us old fogeys.  When you've built games, lectured on games, and analyzed games for over a dozen years, as Costikyan has, the freshness hasn't gone out of the games, it's gone out of you.  Trying to get back to those glory days is impossible, because they are a figment of your imagination, an artifact of how memory works.  You truly can never go home again.

Second, there is a fantasy that outsiders are more creative and would create great games, if only they were given a chance.  This is clear in Costikyan's focus on the barriers to entry that the rising development costs represent, and again is reinforced by the call for an indie aesthetic; after all, the point of indie-ness, for lack of a better word, is that it comes from outside.  The problem here is that the people who are outside of the industry are no more capable of producing great games than the people who are inside it.  To say that they are is to ignore the vast numbers of talented, creative, and driven individuals who make up the industry, to nullify all of the creative and technical achievements that these people have made.  If you took everyone who is currently in the industry and threw them out and replaced them all with people from outside the industry, you wouldn't end up with better games.  In fact, you would end up with much worse games, because these people simply don't have the experience to go from an idea to a successful execution.  The best you could hope for would be that over time, the incompetents would get washed out, and the people who had a real aptitude would congregate, refine their processes, and put out good games.  The funny thing is, this is exactly what is happening in the industry already.  Studios rise and fall; studios going out of business is not a bad thing in itself.  If the studios have the business sense, the management capability, talented staff, and they can execute, they find success.  If they don't, they go out of business.  This is the business version of survival of the fittest, and ultimately, what results is that the good people stay and the bad people go.  Is it perfect? No.  Do good people burn out?  Sure.  Do bad people find ways to stay? Absolutely.  But on balance, the industry has gotten smarter, sharper, and more capable of producing great games.

The twin thrust of these two underlying fantasies is a true ideological formation, in the Althusserian sense.  The people who read and hear this rant from Costikyan recognize themselves in the discourse, they are made subjects by the confirmation of their desires to re-experience the awe-inspiring time of discovering the greatness that games are capable of and their belief that if given the chance, they themselves could make great games.  At the same time, Costikyan is constituted as the Subject by the discourse through his validation of the subjects and thus his authority transcends the empirical data of his argument.  It's demagoguery as pedagogy.

The problem is that it simply doesn't get us anywhere.  The games industry isn't broken; it's flourishing.  The indie scene is too.  Digital distribution, alternative financing models, innovation, all of this is happening already.  The mystification of the industry serves no one, in the end, other than Costikyan.  The audience isn't enlightened by this discourse, they're misled.  The industry wouldn't be served by acting on this, and creating pressure on it to do what Costikyan proposes ony distracts from doing what is already working, including the continual self-critique and analysis that pushes us to constantly improve our own practices.  Continuing to perpetuate the myths that underly Costikyan's argument only leads to a vicious cycle of fanatical belief that reinforces itself through its own discontent.  Fortunately, the proof is in the pudding, and as long as we can continue to make games that players enjoy and buy, no amount of soapboxing is going to actually hurt us.  Those who live and thrive on the discourse around the industry, though, should take careful note, for the dislocation of discourse through ideology will be a distorting force that will have real impacts on those who would promote more nuanced and insightful analysis.

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