Monday, January 26, 2004

Autocracy for All

As I wrote in a previous post, I am of the belief that too much effort is expended by the creative folks in the games industry on trying to reinvent that which does not need reinvention (gameplay) while summarily ignoring that which does (depictive aesthetics).

It occurred to me, when writing that piece, that the best way to focus away from current obsessions would be to look at the way that other media do it. In game development there are development methods that are applied to projects to get them done. But there is rarely any focus on concept development and the stages that ideas must go through to achieve the same level of polish as the rest of the game. Many games have been produced over the years which look great and play great, but with very little consistency. Almost no games have any abiding vision that guides them.

There are many ways that ideas can be developed, of course. Yet in most forms, there is usually at least one person that is the origin, and guardian of the soul of the project. The writer, for example, and his books. The director and his play. The songwriter. These are the people that point the direction, develop the idea and essentially put everyone else involved through the ringer in search of the vision.

Now some of you might say that this is what a game designer does. Actually, you'd be wrong.

Wrong in a sense, anyway. There are some designers that have amassed a personal reputation that permits them some power to do what they want, but in actuality the formal description of a designer's powers in the game development world are usually on a par with all the other creative staff. Regular non-Meiers and non-Ancels like me don't have a controlling voice in the games that we create. We are not usually trodden on completely (although this is not unknown), but we are usually accorded the same level of influence as everyone else. Though a designer may in fact know all the ins and outs of the game far more than anyone else, he has no power to actually MAKE people do what he wants, unless he's American McGee.

Is this a bad thing? Videogames have traditionally had a sort of group development environment anyway, right? And who are these airy fairy nitwits with their boring documents and no sense of how things are made? What do they know?

Yes, it's a bad thing.

It's bad because it inevitably leads to fragmented decisions. A designer may be at odds with a producer over a crucial aspect of his game design because an artist has chosen to make a world all gothic, when the intent of the world is supposed to be brightly futuristic. Is a producer going to listen to a designer and make the artist do all the work again? If he's a very very good producer, yes he is. Mostly, however, he won't. Even in the case of the producer who does, the next time there's a fracas between the designer and someone else, say a programmer, then another neutral-decision will be made, maybe this time against the designer's vision. This may sound like good team management (it probably is), but it can also be the sort of decision that weakens a game.

Every decision impacts gameplay, but it also impacts aesthetics and the overall impact of the game. Aesthetic decisions can have seemingly inconsequential effects to the mechanics of a game, but they can create the greatest turn-offs for the players. For example, Warhammer: Fire Warrior was recently released. It is based on the WH40K universe, which is the ultimate in gothic future fantasy. Fire Warrior is a first person shooter, which should fit well into the Warhammer ideal. But only if the game captures the mythic sense. It does a mostly good job with the backgrounds. But two things detract massively from the aesthetic impact. The first is the bright blue Halo-copied UI, which doesn't fit. (Why are all FPS's suddenly using bright blue interfaces?) The second is the US military-style language that you get to point you to objectives and so on. Again, this is a poor decision, also inspired by Halo, which undermines the sense of the game, and which wouldn't have happened if someone on the project was faithful to the idea of the game, with the power to enforce that faith.

This may sound like this is an argument for allowing designers and their petulant ego's to cry havoc over the game industry. It is. Ego can be a major pain to deal with (look at film directors, theatre directors, stories of petulant authors and bands), but there is another side to ego that is very important. Ego and passion go hand in hand. Ego and belief go hand in hand also. As does confidence. And power. And vision. And, ultimately, successful creativity in a financial and artistic sense. It's all about power. If there is one lesson that the other entertainment media have to teach, a lesson that needs to badly be learned by the games industry, it is: Creative endeavours only work best when they are autocratic, not democratic. Such autocracies can be benign or otherwise, but the lesson is that creation needs a central creator who lays down the law, however painful it may sound.

It's amazing how this idea of a central creator is taken for granted in the reputable ends of other entertainment formats. The rights of the book author, for example, and the author/editor relationship. The film director mostly rules his films on set, though he may have to answer to money men off-set. The chief writer in US television drama is an important person not to be messed with. The musician likewise. Or the comic writer. Yet in the disreputable end of each of the above, none of this applies and only one person is left in charge: The producer.

Producers are important people, and I don't mean by virtue of their assigned rank. I mean by virtue of what they do. A producer friend of mine once described producing to be a dark art, whose function was to mysteriously keep everything together. They are vital. Producers are the people on any creative team (in any medium) who are the skilled negotiators. The best producers are experts in managing time, diffusing staff conflicts, providing feedback, negotiating with upper management, and essentially compromising. Autocratic director-types, on the other hand, are often quite poor in this regard.

It is through the dynamic between a great diplomatic producer and a great autocratic director that some of the twentieth century's greatest films have been born. Likewise, the relationship between an author and an editor (the equivalent of a producer for books) has borne some of the greatest books.

Yet what happens when a producer is put in complete dominance is mush.

Producers are, by virtue of their compromising deal-making nature, not used to the kind of obsessive thinking that great creativity requires. They are not used to thinking in terms of the vision alone, and the necessary autocratic thinking that it requires. They don't do demands. Whenever films or books or music are producer-derived (or executive producer-derived), the results are usually entirely bland and compromising affairs. I'm not saying that producers lack passion. They don't. But they have to deal with the real world too often to bring a creative passion out. Creative passion is essential for great games, but all too often the producer-driven model that the industry has adopted denies creative passion any outlet. The power dynamic is all wrong. What we need are Game Directors.

There have been one or two people called game directors already. Hideo Kojima is probably the most famous example. But I think that these people have been named as such as more of a marketing exercise than anything else. It is useful for Konami to have a face that they can stick in front of the magazines and go 'look at our in-house genius!'. This is the sort of thing that impresses journalists. In actual fact, most of the industry's major celebrities (and I use that term loosely) are of the same stock. Miyamoto, Molyneuax, McGee and Meier (all the Ms) are all hailed as directors/auteurs or some other label, but in most of these cases these are PR labels attached to them to sell more games and wow more fans.

Within the industry, the role of what a director actually is and what they do is not well-defined at all.

Taking theatre as an analogy, a theatre director is essentially responsible for taking a play and putting it on in a venue. He or she is in charge. Directors have or develop a vision, and they know what they want. So they direct the sound people. They direct the actors. They direct the lighting. They direct the stage management. And the reason that all these people are responsible to this one person (and his assistants if the show is large enough) is that the whole operation is working to a vision that he has. Without that central figure, you get anarchy and confusion. Even if that figure is not strong as a person, you get ego anarchy and strife. Directors must lead. They are Caesar. They do not have to know how everything is put together, such as what kind of lights and wiring are necessary. They just need to make the lighting guy give them what they want.

Back to games. A game director should be in the same position. They are essentially responsible for taking the game design material (see all about the Y model etc below) and translating it into the screen. Game directors should have a vision. They should direct everyone. INCLUDING the coders. Once again, the whole point of having a central Caesar is control in a firm direction. They do not have to know how a game engine does what it does. They simply have to make the code guy give them what they want.

Most importantly, game directors must have the power. The producer works with them, not above them. The producer handles administration, does the diplomatic representation for the project, and all the rest of the dark art's requirements, but they do not make creative decisions. Producers support directors to the hilt. That's simply how it works, and how it must work in the future if the videogame is to ever have a reputable end. It is the industry's current method of working that keeps it producing producer-driven content, which is slowly marginalising the possibility of ever appealing to anyone other than children.

Time for change, methinks.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

New Year Sentiments

Let’s talk about narrative. Better yet, let’s talk about ludology and aspects of interactivity. Let’s ditch that and talk about the role of the player and character identification on screen. Let’s theorise about design documents and schema for design. Let’s disagree wildly on the subject of whether to include genres in our game designs. Let’s redefine gameplay in ever increasing circles to amuse ourselves. Let’s write great tomes all about the subject of game design, and outline in detail why only the most dedicated and multi-faceted individuals should even attempt such a feat. Let’s talk about art, about entertainment, about why games can never be one or the other. Let’s talk about psychology, about trying to apply systemic design techniques to game design. Let’s classify everything. Let’s try and paint up a past for videogames that makes us look like serious people. Let’s bitch. Let’s bitch about the state of the industry and the finer points of all that jazz. Let’s console ourselves that they simply do not understand. Let’s argue over the meaning of a true designer. Let’s forget all about level design and quietly ignore that it is 80% of all meaningful design work. Let’s construct fortresses of solitude. Let’s wait for the new tech. Let’s talk about markets and marketing, and let’s pretend that we know what we’re talking about when we speak on those subjects. Let’s be arch to everyone that is not a game designer and sage to everyone that is. Let’s dance badly. Let’s despair about Christmas. Let’s tell ourselves once again that using a scriptwriter for dialogue is useless unless we integrate it properly into the process. Let’s all fantasise about the Hollywood of gaming. Let’s perpetuate the joke about the games industry being bigger than the film industry. Let’s remain anonymous. Let’s remain unfulfilled. Let’s tell everyone what a hard job we do.

A belated Happy New Year then.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.