Thursday, February 12, 2004


Every blog, at one stage or another, gets around to wild attempts to predict the future, and this one shall be no exception. I've kept my predictions limited to the future of the professional industry as opposed to where game design, development or technology are going. There are plenty of other predictions about those subjects available already.

Phased Projects
It has been the fashion in the industry for the last twenty years to iteratively develop a game. Inotherwords, to run the project development through a cycle of organic growth, development and builds. Iterative development is generally loosely structured at best, and so it works best for small-scale (less than twenty people) projects. A variety of methods and coding practises have built up around iterative production, so much so that it is seen as the norm.

No longer. The problem for today's studios is that there are too many people involved. Too many artists, animators and designers now rely on things like a game engine being built and ready for content to be put in. Yet in the large majority of cases, this is simply not done. Developers of today are still too used to thinking iteratively all the way to the end of production. Smart developers and publishers are beginning to realise that large scale iteration costs a lot of money and time, and so they are thinking in terms of phases of production.

The three most common categories thought up are pre-production, production and post-production, after the film industry. Actually, this perception of the film model is wrong. There is a fourth phase: Writing. In game industry terms, the four-phase production model will become the norm. The phases will basically be Design (Writing), Coding and Concept Development (Pre-Production), Assets (Production) and Editing/Fixing (Post-Production).

The primary motivator for this way of working will be money. When overall numbers of people involved in projects exceeds 100 (and it will), you just can't be iterative any more.

Freelance All The Time
Phased production will inevitably strengthen the freelance employment culture. It is likely that the whole of the development industry will go freelance within the next 3-5 years. The very idea of a continuous large stable of people working in a developer will seem ludicrous. Rather, all the talent will be pulled together directly for each game, with everybody hired on fixed term contracts. Development companies will either reduce to tiny single-office pitching affairs, or vanish altogether.

The only probable area where this will be different will be online subscription games that work on subscription basis. Then, like television, the contracts will extend indefinitely until the project is cancelled.

A constant freelance culture will mean that people will constantly be roving from one project to the next, of course, and they can therefore expect periods of high and low volumes of work. They will perhaps remain unemployed for three months of each year or more while new projects get set up, others end or get canned, or a mix of the two.

Publishers will be the one major area of permanent employment, for business people, producers, and possibly small design staff trying to develop their next killer intellectual property, in a manner not dissimilar to writers and studios in Hollywood today.

The constant need to be on the lookout for work will naturally lead to talent agents.

In the current climate, recruitment agencies are often acting as the go-between for companies and their employees, but this method of recruitment is unsatisfactory for either employer or employee in a freelance culture. The principal reason is that recruitment agencies are paid by the companies, not the people that they represent, so they are not nearly aggressive enough on an employee's behalf.

Talent agents, on the other hand, are 100% aggressive, because their paycheck is your paycheck, as it were. While it is unlikely that 100% of all development staff will want an agent (some just don't want to lose that 10% in fees), it is likely that the number who do will be significant. Agents will seek work for them, take the pain away of all that endless CV crawling and, most importantly, they will negotiate much better pay rates. You pay them, so they will want to get paid.

Agents will also serve companies much better, as they will develop more personal relationships with them rather than simply sending them rafts of CVs as is the current recruiter-led practise.

It is not unlikely that developer's unions will emerge. This already happens in most other media, and other skilled industries, where the staff band together. They form professional associations, guilds or unions (different terminology for the same thing) that provides one overriding function: They negotiate pay rates.

My guess is that these (or this) organisations will mimic the various Writers Guilds (expensive to join, but well represented). They may be led through a group like the IGDA, or independently derived.

They will also suffer great teething pains as all unions do. Expect (illegal) contracts from employers specifying conditions like 'no union membership' and the like for a while, but it will ultimately become a fact of life, as it has in every other media. Talent in every mainstream creative medium eventually realises its own worth, and demands to be paid. It is usually listened to after a general strike or two.

Pay Rates
And pay rates will therefore inevitably rise. Probably not for those just in on the ground. It is likely that any serious union organisation will be moderately discerning about who may join, requiring a certified number of years or titles before one is considered. And once that has been achieved, the pay scale will likely become quite respectable for staff at that level.

On the other hand, the lowly conditions of testers and junior coders and artists will likely remain, for there is always an endless supply of newbies waiting to fill those sorts of positions.

Indeed the games industry has become like the film industry in that there are lots of naive youngsters out there whose dream job is now to make games for a living. This will make actually getting into the games industry a lot harder. Productions will become more massive, but there are more than enough professionals currently going around to fill those gaps for many years. The games industry has not yet reached a point where there is significant retirement. The same people who were working there twenty years ago are still there today, and the people out of work today will still be there in twenty years time. Only then will retirement take people out.

All this means that newbies are going to get treated more and more like dirt. They already are in most cases, but it will get even worse, especially as the number of titles produced falls.

Less Games
Economic conditions being what they are, it is certain that the number of games produced each year will fall, as their budgets continue to rise. Retail pressure is the significant factor in this. As consumer tastes increasingly centralise and the number of publishers grows less, the natural outcome will be less titles, just as in the film industry. The film industry used to produce over 2,000 films a year for cinemas in the 50s. It now manages 240. The reason is that the sheer budgets and amount of effort in each new film make for less films overall.

The games industry is already feeling the bite of increased budgets, and it increases with each generation. That means there simply won't be as much money around to fund as many titles in the next round, nor any significant retailer pressure to do so.

We will probably see the serious evolution of B-games, a la straight-to-video movies of today. At the moment, there are a variety of budget games around the periphery, but their existence as a mainstream income avneue is almost a certainty. These games will be developed for a song using entirely existing engines and game designs and probably a lot of 'clip' art assets as well. Major publishers might sponsor these games to fill out their line, developing them on the ultra cheap. Alternatively, B-games might be published by smaller publishers under heavy license from original content owners. Or a mix of the two.

Single Format
Less numbers of A-titles mean less reason for there to be multiple formats, especially multiple console formats. I think that the next generation of consoles will probably be the last major generation of brand differences, and that the console industry particularly will settle for one format or another. After all, even today, the current generation versions are just three types of device that all do the same thing with only marginal differences in quality. If they can do it with DVDs, then the standard console format is only a matter of time. (And not before time either)

There comes a point in all media markets where it is unprofitable to have excessive manufacturer control. Multiple formats actually hinder growth above a certain ceiling. Imagine if today we had 4 different types of dvd player, for example. All doing the same thing, but each one owned by a different manufacturer, sold at a loss and charging 9 dollars licensing on each disk. Does anyone think the film industry would be doing nearly so well?

That realisation will come to the console publishers sooner or later. Rather than limit themselves under the hardware-dominated yoke, the economic pressure from both sides of the retail spectrum for less A-titles will force a common-ground arrangement (I like to call it the Console Consortium). The days of manufacturer dominance like Sony and Nintendo will therefore be numbered, altering the power spectrum some what. I expect that the primary force behind the move will come from EA, as they are now large enough to dictate terms to hardware manufacturers and can say with some sureness that they can make or break a console.

Either that or EA will commit suicide by releasing a console of their own.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Boys in the Bubble

A recent Michael Moorcock quote in the Guardian jogged my memory on an issue that I've been meaning to write about for a while. The quote goes thusly "In New Worlds (1964) Ballard said that speculative fiction would never achieve maturity until it possessed the moral authority of a literature won from experience."

'Maturity' is a dangerous word in game design circles, not to mention 'morals'. To talk about the idea that a game can be used for something more than entertainment and learning is considered heresy in some very well-meaning circles. I don't fully understand why this is the case, after all they are a creative endeavor just like any other so why not have a moral dimension. But my main theory for the lack of substantially mature work is that many of the people working in the industry are emotionally immature, who have grown up in a time where morals are a dirty word. And working in a producer-driven industry. With dodgy employment prospects. And a very license centric attitude. And too many 'On Game Design' books. And so on.

When it boils down to it, what is the point of working creatively if you don't have something to say?

Time for another quote (one of my favourites) "Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television. (Rita Mae Brown)' For the purposes of this post, substitute 'television' for 'videogames'.

What these two and many other people are essentially driving at is that without some sort of moral energy driving a piece, and it doesn't matter what form that piece takes, all the creators of said piece are doing is helping other people waste time. It's the stuff of Pop Idol, the National Lottery, superhero blockbuster movies, tabloid newspapers, Saturday morning cartoons, bonkbuster novels, hardcore porn and most videogames. What all these things have in common is that they are made-for-profit creations, tailored to a market, and usually bought up by the naive. I.e. Children and young men.

Or to put it another way, they are immature. Why so? Because there's no substance to the sauce. They might be very entertaining (and we all need our entertainment), but they're also forgettable.

One of the chief reasons that videogames do not impact on regular culture in any way other than as brands to sell Lucozade is that they are forgettable. I can think of very few games that have even attempted to present anything other than base entertainment, although Final Fantasy VII is one very notable exception. Teenage and broad-stroke as it may be, many players remember Aeris to this day, and many also remember the simple-yet-passionate pro-naturish story that drove it. Similar things could be said about Deus Ex and its collapsed-society background replete with details of a plague and lots of sick people to talk to. These are small steps, of course, but there is a vague moral authority underpinning the ideas of both.

But as I said, 'moral' is a dangerous word. Morals, specifically morality, has acquired the reputation of preaching. Morality is what the fundamentalists that want to trap us all back in God-fearing sackcloth and the like preach. We live in a permissive society. It seems many people have interpreted that to mean it's a bad thing to advocate or depict a point of view any more. If I say to a game developer that I want to make a game with moral authority because I believe in something, I guarantee 8 out of 10 of them will instantly think I mean some quasi-Christian fps where you play Jesus converting devils or some such.

I don't.

Here's an example: I suggested an idea for a game to a friend of mine recently, with a simple premise. I told him that I would like to make a stealth-style first- or third-person perspective game in which the player is a small child. The world around him looks all very big and over-impressive as a result. In levels of the game, I suggested, you would have a variety of goals to achieve. Such as trying to steal all ten of Daddy's cigarettes from around the room where he slept. If you made too much noise, the old man would get out of his chair and beat you, which would involve a lot of shaking camera movements, loud noises and the like to really create the impression of being there.

Now, in terms of gameplay, my simple concept is in no way different from the kind of action that you get in Splinter Cell, Thief or Deus Ex. My friend, a regular lover of all three of the above, was stunned. It wasn't that he thought the idea was in great or bad taste. It wasn't that he thought it was genius or madness. It wasn't that he thought it might be fun or boring. His stunnedness can be surmised in something he kept saying to me; "You can't do that!"

He didn't really mean it in terms of whether it would sell either. He just thought that such a thing was unthinkable. That such a thing cannot be done. Perhaps because the powers of on-high have decreed it? No. I think it's because it is simply what we are used to. The gamer generation seems uncomfortable with non-rational challenge. They are comfortable with rational challenge, and this is why they play games, but they seem to fear the idea of things that affect their feelings.

In otherwords, we're too fond of living in a bubble, and it keeps us very safe.

The only problem with that is that it keeps us marginalised. As a designer, developer or even a gamer, don't you hate the way that society treats you like a little kid? Don't you hate the fact that all they seem to know is Lara Croft? Doesn't it make you quietly angry to see the games industry eaten up more and more by licensing? Doesn't it drive you quietly barmy to watch token celebs give out token awards for games they don't understand? Doesn't it wreck your head that the public (such as your extended family) don't get it? Don't you hate going through the cycle of being more or less jaded?

Read most gaming forums and you'll see that these sorts of opinions are present, and sometimes prevalent. Edge magazine has likewise acquired quite the reputation for being an angry publication that complains more than it revels.

We are the downtrodden intelligent children who never grow up. The boys in the bubble. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Except that we're not just that, are we? Actually, we have much to say. We have views on the world. We have feelings. What we don't have is the maturity to trust in those feelings, nor the sense of moral authority to actually express ourselves. Fear, and market-driven concerns (aka fear again), is what keeps us in the bubble. We don't like to step outside.

The morality/maturity issue is becoming the crucial argument, not the ludology/narratology one. That argument is done and dusted, and then dusted some more. It is only by virtue of really looking at what we could achieve in the creative sphere, and not just the technical sphere, that the games industry will ever survive and prosper, both financially and creatively.

The industry stands at a precipice at the moment.

On the one hand, it can go like the toy industry. In the mainstream toy market, everything is repetition. Even the boardgames are repetition. Go into any Toys R Us and you will find the same 20 games again and again. Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, The Game of Life, Star Wars Monopoly and so on. The natural result of sequences, licenses and the like is that there will one day only be 20 games, endlessly re-issued.

On the other hand, the industry could be vital once again. It could make great new games. It could be as vital an artform and entertainment form as book publishing, or the cinema. And nobody's saying that they'd have to drop an ounce of interactivity to do it. But to manage this requires for designers to have some sort of philosophy to their work. To actually care about what they are saying, not just how it's built. To think about things in a soulful light and let their emotions pinprick their way out of the bubble and be recognised.

You have things to say. Say them.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.