Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Game By...

It is an accepted wisdom in the games industry that franchises are what matter. A franchise, in case you don't know, is a line of games which are held together by a common brand. Usually that brand is either a name or an identifying character, or both. Some great examples are games like the FIFA series, the various games that Nintendo have attached Mario to, the Championship Manager series and so on.

And of course, it works. When people in the industry talk about the need to control and own Intellectual Property (IP) and how the business is an IP-centric business, it's brands and franchises that they're talking about. Licenses are an extension of this, where a brand from another medium (usually a movie) is borrowed to fill the gap, create customer recognition and so on. Customer recognition is key to the whole franchise idea.

However entertainment franchises are only at their most effective in younger markets, most especially the teenage and early twenties market (the "immature market"). The immature are especially open to the kind of unreasoned love that franchises thrive in, possibly because young minds haven't developed critical faculties to the extent that a fully grown adult has (somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30).

As a result, the more widely broadcast a franchise is, the greater the chance of its success, because the core customer, doesn't really know any better. They have disposable income and they are far more likely to herd around what they are told has quality rather than what they determine for themselves has quality. The franchise business therefore works best for larger companies rather than smaller ones because they have deeper pockets.

Pop music is an excellent example of this. As is the wargame market and Games Workshop's near total domination of it in Britain. As is EA's strategy, and that of the comics industry. The strategy of these companies is pretty simple:

1. Create a core brand and branch products off it.
2. Promote the hell out of those products.
3. Don't worry about the long life of those products or the physical quality of them (as opposed to the perceived quality).
4. Realise that your customer will grow out of your product, so don't try to retain them more than a few key years.
5. Instead, focus on recycling the product for a new generation, because there is always a new generation.

The franchise entertainment business is built on the idea that there are always new customers and that it is far more important to capture new customers than to retain old ones. Old customers mature and move on. They always do. 98%* of Games Workshop customers don't play Warhammer after they turn 21. A lot of people grow out of eating fast food by their mid-twenties (or at least of relishing the prospect).

(*educated guess)

The result of the franchise business is that the products themselves stand still. FIFA has been the same game for years. Marvel Comics are never going to let Spiderman permanently die. The Big Mac is immortal. Pop groups may die, but the formula remains intact (and the songs recycle).

So what? You may regard it as evil or bad or whatever, but it's simply a reality. You sell to the young, you do it with recycling unchanging franchises. That's what works.

The problem lies for those of us who don't want to make games for the immature. If you're interested at all in evolving the medium of games, if you're interested in getting the hell away from an eternal cycle of sweaty teenagers and increasingly dreary E3 graphics-athons, tediously 'exciting' console releases and more 10/10 reviews than you can shake a stick at, what do you do? Hell, even if you're just interested in opening up a new market, what do you do?

I believe that the answer is authors.
Or, to put it another way, people.
Or, to put it another way, the phrase "a game by"

You see, as the immature market responds to franchises (and the small amount of adult gamers who can live with them), the mature market sees through them very quickly. As a quick example, how may cynical thirty-something gamers do you know? Mature adults value film directors, they value novelists and they value musicians. They are far more interested in who wrote, directed or composed a piece rather than what its name is. Why?

The mature entertainment consumer is wise enough to know when they're seeing the same thing repeated. They have perspective, and look for genuinely new ideas. They start to search out who or what is behind the brand. When you get to a certain age, you start to look for signs of intelligence out there. You start to look for art and soul, and you come to realise that you find that by following the artist. It's more 'real'.

But who is the artist of a videogame? That is the industry's real problem, as it applies to addressing the mature market. (For the immature market it doesn't really matter).

It used to be the case ten or fifteen years ago, before money became seriously involved, that some development teams were distinctive. As a music band can be identified as having an artistic voice (Pink Floyd, for example), so too you could really derive a sense of individuality about a developer's output. You knew a Sensible game or a Bullfrog game or an id game when you saw it. However, unlike a band, the actual members of the developer often went anonymous bar one or two figures. A band performs on stage. They can be seen. A game development team, on the other hand, is essentially an anonymous company.

This meant that development teams were vulnerable. They could be bought. They could be dismembered. Members of the teams could be fired without the public ever knowing, and figureheads could arise who may or may not have been worth such celebrity. As the game media found out, it was increasingly difficult to pinpoint what the celebrities did exactly, and so
you got a profusion of ludicrous claims, outright lies and increasingly non-specific 'rockstar designers'.

The teams also grew. The bands went from being four guys with guitars and a drum to ten guys with guitars and a drum, to twenty guys with guitars, drums, violins and sound board. Now it's a hundred guys with a variety of instruments, organised into departments with contract arrangements, and management committees. The scenario is well-understood, but the upshot of it is that greater numbers lead to a diffusion of distinctiveness, and everything becomes faceless. Modern developers are essentially mini-corporations. Rather than bands, they have become orchestras.

The real survivors in the indsutry are and continue to be personalities. In Britain alone you have Peter Molyneux, Archer Maclean, David Braben, Jeff Minter. In the US you have Will Wright, Warren Spector, John Carmack etc. In Japan you have Miyamoto, Kojima, Suzuki etc. What these people have managed to do is become individuals who are recognised. They are the ones who have been able, as a result, to pull teams together, to collect long-term fans, to give consistent interviews over a number of years and, essentially, to build public trust around them as, for the want of a better word, authors. Whether they count as conductors in the modern world is another issue, but the key point here is that they have a durable presence and that is worth far more to their respective companies than just an IP.

It's very easy to think that a game designer is the natural person to turn to as the 'artist' of the game, but I think that this is misleading unless that person is also the one that drives the project to completion. Often, game designers do no such thing. They do a lot of document writing, they do a lot of preparation and figuring-out, but often it stops at the documents. They are often involved also in the testing and implementation supervision, but at an equal level with folks from other departments. Game designers, like scriptwriters, are often imagining and designing based on the briefs of others, and they usually do not have overall control. Many of them lack the personal skills necessary to lead a team anyway.

This is where the notion of a game director comes in. This is seen more in Japan than in the West, at the moment, as western studios are often as not wary of putting someone creative in charge of everything. I think this has much to do with a fear of egotism, a lack of respect for ideas, and an assumption that a director is essentially just going to be some bossy fellow who teaches everyone how to suck eggs. Not so.

A game director, like a film director or a stage director or a chief archictect, directs people. It's cheap and easy to say "they look after the vision" like some monk in a cell, but in reality what this means is mastering an understanding of all the disciplines involved in a modern game, understanding how the game is going to be put together, and then figuring out what to get people to do and how to do it. It's an incredibly responsible and time-consuming position, and an absolutely vital one.

Someone who sits in their office all day long and holds the odd meeting with team leads to see how things are going is not a game director. Someone who is up and about with the team all the time, always watching what is being done, always keeping people focussed, directing teams as to what he wants to see in detail and providing feedback and real decisions is a game director. It's a very demanding job, but an absolutely vital one.

In film, direction is everything. You need a great script, but a script is just words on a page without someone to bring it to life. In games, you need a great design, but you need someone to steward it into a brilliant prototype, to bring that through pre-production and production, and to be involved every step of the way. Not a producer, a director.

The director is the artist of the videogame. We should have no shame in pushing this, as by doing so, we push our creativity out there. The old argument goes that the game development process is reliant on so many people that it is unfair to single out one person as the creator, but this is both unrealistic and a straw man. You never hear who the editor of the Harry Potter books is, you never find out who the studio producers of Sting's latest album are. You never really pay attention to million-and-one people that go into making a Spielberg film happen. You don't know how many people make John Rocca's outfits.

Yet in all these media we have no problem identifying the creative force. In games, we do, but purely because of old habits which died hard. This used to be a medium for bands. It isn't any more. It's time to recognise that.

There is no issue with the continuation of the immature franchises. They are what keep the industry going. But if the medium is to broaden both commercially and creatively, it's going to take some vision on the part of a publisher or a developer to realise that the mature market is different. If you want find a new business angle, then you have to innovate in business.

The comics industry moguls did not realise this and as a result its franchises were the very thing that marginalised them. Games Workshop nows exists largely as a marginalised hobby and company, where they turn a profit but they have run out of avenues for true growth.

The same could very easily happen to video games unless a second front is opened. Keep the franchises coming boys, but we need to be looking outward as well. Artists, unlike franchises, have the capacity for change. They have the capacity for real reinvention. Artists have the capacity to generate real penetration in a way that no franchise can. You could never see the Master Chief on Letterman, but you could see a game director there. A game director has the possibility of turning a customer for life. No franchise can ever hope to do that.

A Post By Tadhg Kelly

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