Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spiritual Gaming

The Guardian website printed a really interesting article on the subject of inspiration, talking specifically about the uncontrollable nature of it, the associations that it was with religion, and how we can set the right conditions for it (for instance, through ritual or habit or self discipline), but that its appearance is arbitrary and often apparently easy. Which vaguely brings me onto the topics of products, spirit, religion, creativity and video games, roughly in that order.

I first ran across the idea of using the methods of product design via Daniel Cook's blog, Lost Garden. Dan is exploring the idea that games can be viewed as products, and so there is a lot of use to be had from the techniques of product design. Dan's not just talking about just marketing surveys etc, but rather a far more complex and in-depth field that seeks to determine what it is that customers really want, and understanding what kinds of products appeal to what kinds of customers through various focused exercises. He talks a lot in terms of value propositions (what it is that the game is offering the prospective customer), and warding the would-be game developer against committing the sins of weak product design, half-way house innovation, and opting for the cheap gimmick that appears to offer good answers for products, but which, in fact, don't (like always opting for visceral feedback).

His is what I call a "positive-capitalist" approach. What that means is that he's trying to explain a means of resolving the desire to do good work versus the desire of the market by teaching the would-be creators about the real world, but in a positive re-enforcement sort of way. Make that world war one strategy game, he might say, but make it in a way that people might actually find appealing. In this respect, he reminds me of Joel Spolsky.

However, I'm not convinced of the central thesis that games are in fact a product.

Products are all about love. People love their ipods. They love Google. They love their Thinkpads. They love Paul Newman's range of pasta sauces. They love Coca Cola. They even love Big Macs. In every case, the successful product inspires devotion. The kind of love that products inspire is one of reliability, security and in some cases a sense of wonder. You always know that a can of Coke will give you a certain buzz, that your ipod and Itunes will not let you down, that Google will help you find what you want and that Wikipedia will open up a whole world of knowledge to you.

Entertainment media have never enjoyed this sort of relationship to any great satisfaction, and they have always had a difficult time fitting into the product mould (much to the irritation of their owners). News media has, magazines are usually fairly easily identified as products, but after that it gets murky.

Television, for instance, is often the best example of attempts at product-centric entertainment. Shows are regularly syndicated and run for years, becoming very reliable brands in the process (Friends, ER, The Simpsons). Audiences are profiled, rated, dissected on the basis of advertising slots, and so TV executives are always asking themselves what it is that people want to watch, and then trying to fill that gap.

Yet the television industry has found no better means of finding new hits in all its years of operation other than showing a shed load of pilots across a blizzard period from September through November, and keeping the few shows that make ratings gravy. Every year, more than a hundred new shows broadcast all across the American airwaves, and - if they're very lucky - 3 or 4 strike it rich, most of the rest get cancelled, and a few remain on the bubble. The TV industry spends a lot of money on audience research, yet at the end of the day its still a craps-shoot.

The film industry was a similar story until DVD effectively raised the profitability of pretty much every release. Until a few years ago, studios would regularly field over a dozen big-budget films every year in the forlorn hope that one of them might strike some sort of note with the public and be enough to carry the rest of the loss-making ones. DVD changed that to an extent (secondary income streams, as did packaged deals with satellite broadcasters etc) so that many more films now make their money back, but at the same time cinema attendance is down, there haven't been any huge hits in a couple of years, and the economic bubble of DVD is slowly readjusting.

Book publishing is a venerable industry that has thrived for hundreds of years safe in the knowledge that the public are more or less unpredictable when it comes to its reading tastes. There are some reliable imprints like Mills and Boon or Dragonlance fantasy novels, but these always do fairly minor business compared to a Helen Fielding, Iain Banks, Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov or whoever. Thousands of agents, publishers and editors are always on the hunt for new talent, but once again the best method that they have found of securing new books is the slush pile. And again, this is not for the want of research on the part of Random House etc.

What does work in entertainment is branding. Authors, movie stars, musicians and TV Shows are brands, and the successful ones carry enormous power. Tom Cruise, JK Rowling and the Rolling Stones have crossed over the threshold into the public consciousness and they are now reliable. The problem is that these brands all come about by seeming chance. There are a thousand other children's fantasy authors out there, so why is it JK Rowling's work which gets picked up and not the others?

What also works in entertainment (to an extent) is cloneware. Once JK Rowling broke through, the various publishers scrambled over each other to find children's writing, with some success. When a TV show like the X-Files blasts a hole in the ratings, the other networks move to create their own mystery shows. Sometimes a cloneware piece of entertainment manages to carve enough of a distinction niche to stick around (the Monkees cloning the Beatles, for example), but that doesn't mean that the publishers are able to go out and create a new "product" with any great ease.

Where product design *appears* to work in entertainment media is when limited distribution becomes a factor. Tightly controlled access to only a few channels creates a sort of splash effect where either/or choices effectively create support for one product or another. However, this is rather like saying that the Republicans and Democrats are fully serving the needs of their customers (i.e. their voters). They're not. The electoral system generates a landscape such that often there are no other credible choices, and so electorate apathy is the result.

Restricted-access media paint the same story. When there are only thirty singles paid for and played on the radio from a mixture of new and old groups, MTV and so on, then somebody will buy them. It's not a function of the product at that stage, it's a function of limited choice.

The restricted-access system also seems to serve particularly well when targeting younger customers. The reason why the advertising industry so heavily goes after the 18-year old market is that they find them easily swayed. Similarly, the reason that the music industry is always on the hunt for teenagers is that they know full well that although mature adults listen to plenty of music, their tastes are diverse and difficult to render into products.

In an open forum, restricted access vanishes and predictability goes out the window. To nick the famous quote from William Goldman, "Nobody Knows Anything".

Love Affairs
So why does entertainment have such a hard time of it in the product-design universe? The answer is that while entertainment does inspire a love relationship, that love is founded on something other than security and reliability. Like traditional products, part of entertainment's allure is based on wonder, but the other half is based on surprise. We watch X-Files, read Harry Potter and listen to Queen because we find them pleasing, but also because we find them surprising. New.

Product-based love is like the love of family. It is the stuff of bedrocks, of centering, of security. Entertainment-based love, on the other hand, is like steamy passion. It comes from somewhere inexplicable, it leaves us feeling confused as to why exactly we love it, and when it disappoints us (like when a favored band produces a duff album) we are full of denial and devastation. Entertainment is inextricably tied up with risk on the one hand, and inspiration on the other.

What then is inspiration?

Well, if you read that article that I linked at the top of this one, the answer seems to be that nobody really knows. Its existence is real enough, yet it seems to be completely outside of our control. Two equally talented artists can work on the same sets of paintings for years, training their minds, and yet one may become inspired but the other does not. Inspiration is also difficult to explain without veering into the realms of the spiritual and the religious. So let's veer into them.

The word inspiration literally comes from 'in-spirited', a spirit of some kind coming from quarters unknown unbidden into the mind and fills it with a sense of energy. Many artists and writers speak vaguely on the subject, effectively saying that they don't really know where they get their ideas from. They can work at them, but sometimes they don't come. And then at other times they're sitting on the bus and suddenly a whole novel pops into their heads whole and complete (JK Rowling famously says that she had the idea for Harry Potter while on a train, and the whole thing came to her in one jolt).

When people talk about 'spirit' in this context, they aren't necessarily talking about ghosts or the Holy Spirit. They could be talking about a spirit of adventure, for instance. But they aren't ruling out the notion of the other-worldly, the invisible and the Mystery either. Creativity and the spiritual sense are closely linked, which is why many artists and entertainers - even in the age of post-modern deconstruction - struggle with God (or Gods) in some shape or form, often seeing themselves as conduits rather than innovators. Some, like the writer Julia Cameron, see this relationship as overtly divine. Some regard it as a function of their unconscious minds. Most aren't entirely sure one way or the other.

Either way, the result is the same. Certain people operating in certain creative fields become inspired in the course of their work. Some of them work very hard, others seem to have a light touch and a ton of talent, and the result is that they produce entertainment which the public seem to enjoy. And then everybody else piles in after them hoping to exploit whatever new trend the inspired person seemed to have hit. There may be a better way to do it, but a lot of people have tried and nobody seems to have figured out how yet.

So what about games?
Of course, it goes without saying that the hardware devices that power these games are all products much as televisions are products. Which is as it should be, but the big question is whether the video games themselves are a form of classical product, or of entertainment. It depends on their type.

I recently wrote an article positing that there are four very different video game types, each very different from the next in terms of the role of abstract gameplay versus fictional elements.

Type 1 games are abstract contests within a defined area.
Type 2 games use fiction as a window on a world, often in a quasi-narrative way.
Type 3 games are care and creativity-oriented games, toy sets for the imaginative.
Type 4 games are virtual worlds.

Understanding whether each of these types conforms more to the product model or the entertainment model is dependent on the surprise vs security value inherent in each.

Type 1 games are more easily regarded as products. A type 1 game sets up a situation of player vs player or player vs environment using a defined scenario (like shooting the bugs, arrange the blocks, terrorist vs counter-terrorist), so in a Type 1 game the rules and the mechanics are open and transparent. Usability is important, innovation of mechanics are important, but most important is the emergent effect of gameplay.

For this to exist, the player must come to really know the game, and therefore to love it as is. That is the kind of love associated with products. Counter-strike would be no fun if the rules kept changing, and Tetris would likely just piss people off if it did likewise. Surprise of an entertainment variety is generally not liked in this game, and often equated with cheating either from an opponent or from the game itself. Type 1 games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer compete with each other on the question of which is the better football game, and this is no different from car manufacturers competing over their sports car models.

Type 2 games are almost completely the opposite. The most frustrating kind of type 2 game is one where the fiction is blase, because they often as not feel like one is going through the motions. A really good example of this is FEAR, a game which has a very accomplished engine, physics effects and good set of weapons etc, interesting use of bullet-time mechanics etc, and yet is pretty dull to play through if you're looking for more than just visceral kicks.

Interesting discovery is at the heart of the type 2 game. It should feel that there is a reason to go on through the game, but the problem with that is that familiarity breeds contempt. This means that the game's developer is more less placed on a path of trying to developing something that is, in and of itself, surprising like any other piece of entertainment, which requires inspiration rather than pure product testing. It is unlikely in the extreme that Shadow of the Colossus came out of a series of Sony marketing exercises. Somebody somewhere woke up in the middle of the night and said to themselves "What about a guy, a horse, and a hundred-foot tall giant?"

Type 3 games function more in a product mindset than the inspirational one, although from an entirely different kind of value proposition than a competitive type 1 game. The type 3 game is really at root about providing the player with a garden that they shape to be their own. So you give them some azaleas, some rose bushes, some tools, a pair of wellies, show them how to plant seeds and send them on their way. Or, if you're Will Wright, you give them a whole clanking universe.

Key to this type of game is the notion of enchantment through enablement, teaching the player how to do something that they've wanted to do, and showing them how to be the best painter/dog handler/movie director/doll's house owner that they can. There is also some enjoyment to be had in discovering little secrets in the game (like watching their Sims dance and sing etc), and no doubt some of these have an inspired quality much as some of the features of an Apple Mac have an inspired quality, but overall the objective here is to get the player to entertain themselves. A type 3 game enables you to much as an ipod enables you.

Type 4 is really the hardest of the four to pin down, possibly because they are still so new that the real traits of the form are still only emerging. Certainly on the surface, they are more like products than vehicles of inspiration, encouraging players to come together and play together in the kinds of worlds that they have always dreamed of.

But they also have the potential to be inspiration-based as much of the fun in these kinds of games lies in discovering the new and unexpected, whether created via the developers (like WoW) or the community (like Second Life or EVE). The real question for the type 4 game, and it is an open question, is what value the players find in the world itself and therefore what kind of relationship they have to the fiction. If they purely regard it as a skin covering a series of stats that they use to communicate with each other, then the product design method is probably of great use to them.

On the other hand, if they're playing it because of the fiction, because their actions are driven as much by the desire to explore and find out the mysteries of the game as purely by the mechanics, then inspiration must play a part in that.

Settling on the best methods of creating games is a difficult task. We have so much to learn still, as much about ourselves as creators and designers, inspiration seekers and methodical analysts. With so many kinds of game and so many kinds of game player out there, it frequently happens that any method or classification system that emerges is usually incomplete.

What can be said with certainty is that anyone who rejects the ideas of product design as they apply to games is going to look foolish. Whether you are creating a small shooter or a multi-tiered on-line world, it pays to know whether your game is about discovery or competition, whether your goal is to enable the player to entertain themselves, or whether you see yourself as the entertainer.

Neither is correct, nor the right answer. Each is an expression of the different forms that this video game medium (or meta-medium) can take, with very different design goals and passions driving them. It's my belief that a bit further down the road the separation of the different types of game will become more and more real as time goes on, and we will see a clearer understanding of the right method to use in the right situation.

So whether you are one of those who believes in the spirit from beyond, or one who believes in looking to the people for guidance, the future is surely bright.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun."

That was the closing line at Nintendo's GDC presentation, according to Gamasutra. The presentation was one all about the company's resurgent success on the back of 'disruptive' business practices. Through their long standing innovation strategy, Nintendo are all about making the industry less black and white, and they should be lauded for getting in there and mixing it up.

But "Video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun." can be read in one of two ways. Either it can mean that "Video games are capable of anything and everything, for they are liberated. Their only constraint is fun". Or it means "Video games are just meant to be fun, they have no other purpose".

The key word for me here is not 'Fun'. The concept of fun is well understood, I should think, after many years of games and many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of releases. There are theories of fun, analyses of fun, examinations of the fun of one aspect of a game or another, and whole schema devoted to separating out different kinds of fun.

No, the key word for me here is 'meant'. Meaning is an interesting concept, in both positive and negative, because it suggests purpose or exclusion. Saying that a product is meant to be a certain way can implicitly imply that it is not meant to be another way. Big Macs are meant to be tasty pleasures, they are not meant to be nutrition supplements, for example. They are designed with that intent.

What I'm driving at here is a kind of pre-judgment, and video games are unique as a medium (that I'm aware of) in that the greater majority of its creators, designers and producers otherwise actively pre-judge themselves and their work according to a 'fun' standard not as a key trait of enablement, but as the end goal in and of itself. I have always found this to be a very strange sort of ideology, and yet it persists with great tenacity. Most developers and designers that I've worked, discussed and otherwise engaged with hold the view that the goal of the video game, its meaning if you like, is fun.

To me, it's like saying that the goal of music is harmony. "Music is meant to be just one thing: Harmonious". And the development community often extrapolates that to also mean that video games are actively not meant to be, say, tragic, or serious, or reflective on the real world. Video games are meant to be fun. Only. Period. Take yer high-fallutin ideas of idea expression and concept vehicles and shove 'em. Fun is the Alpha and the Omega.

Film-makers think that most films should probably have a story, and that they need to engage an audience for however long the film is on. This doesn't mean that they think that films are meant to entertain, however. They need to engage, but the 'meaning' of that engagement is left open to question.

Novels need to be readable. Their basic craft requires that readers are invited to keep turning the pages until they get to the end. But what are novels 'meant' to be? Nothing. They're meant to be whatever the author intends for them to be. Ditto music, ditto poetry, ditto television, sculpture, comics and so on. In all these forms, the basis of aesthetics or pace or whatever are regarded as the core necessity.

Video games are not meant to be fun. They need to be fun.
If they are not fun then they are by definition boring.

They need it in order for the player to keep going, keep discovering new areas, levels, bits of the story, whatever. Fun is the baseline, not the end point. As with the novelist who needs his reader to keep turning the page, the experience has to be interesting, enlightening, educational and emotional. It has to be fun or they won't play.

A novel that is purely based on page-turning is usually not a particularly good novel. Such novels are the barnstormers, the airport books and thrillers and erotica that regularly pile up the shelves of stores. You can read them, you might even find them enjoyable. But they are not the best that books can be, and they are also not the best that the book business can be either. Rent-an-action movies are likewise. They can tick all the boxes, as they say, for action, one-liners, special effects and so on, but they ultimately are not very memorable and likely not very profitable in the long run when cost effectiveness is taken into account.

By focusing only on the core necessities, a piece of entertainment runs into several problems:

  1. It's competing in the same space as a lot of other, similar pieces. The action movie and the bonkbuster novel are heavily over-subscribed genres which have a couple of well-established key names that dominate while everyone else becomes a bottom feeder. Bottom feeding is rarely a worthwhile business activity.
  2. It encourages audience self-selection, meaning that you get stuck with servicing a clump of the audience rather than the whole group.
  3. That then doesn't offer a lot of room for different ideas. There's a reason why almost all action movies from the 80s basically take their cue from Rambo, and the ever-increasing sense of weariness that pervades the genre as it progressed into the likes Stephen Segal etc doesn't seem to let up. A similar thing happens in games, in that developers are very very prone to cloning one another.
Or, more simply, the problem is that there are only so many ways of focusing on the same thing before it gets dull. A romantic thriller focusing only on its core necessities is going to be like every other romantic thriller focusing only on its core necessities. For Nintendo, this is not a problem. They keep changing the format of the fun every few years, which gives off the appearance of change, but quickly thereafter the basic forms of fun will all have been mapped out in the Rev (probably to Nintendo's great profit) and then it's back to cloning again. As long as Nintendo can keep changing the field of core necessities, they are safe.

But for everyone else, this means a continuance of bottom feeding in the long run. What the games industry needs is designers who are looking to innovate beyond fun.

In entertainment, what really changes things is depth. A comedian can stand up on stage and do one of three things. He can make you laugh. He can rant and make you bored. Or he can make you laugh and think at the same time. The first comedian is the type who stands up and tells good jokes, funny little stories and so on, but you won't remember his name a week later. The second comedian is just the tedious type who wants to use the stage as some sort of venting platform, and you probably won't even stay til the end of the show.

The third comedian is Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, and so on. What these entertainers do/did is mix their natural talent for making people laugh with funny stories and combine them with stories and perceptions that resonate. Comedy needs to be funny, but it's not meant to be only one thing: funny.

Resonance is a trait in entertainment whereby the audience recognises or identifies something of themselves. Resonance is a recognition of truth, and truth is sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes both. Resonance is often easier to achieve by using real-world settings and ideas, but it applies to any kind of fiction that you care to mention. The best entertainment is truthful, and it is innovative in so doing.

So when I say that the industry needs designers who are looking to innovate beyond fun, what I'm really saying is that the industry needs designers who are looking to show the truth. Fun is an enabling quality in our medium, but by itself it is just escapism. Escapism is amusing, but without some element of depth and resonance, it becomes very bland very quickly, necessitating the developer to spend a whole hell of a lot of money making their game pretty to compensate. Nintendo's business strategy derives from wanting to stay ahead of the innovation curve, and so should every good game designer who wants to do good work.

However, for game designers this means innovating away from the idea of just another round of escapism. Escapism has become boring. It's time for engagism. But it must be fun. Bill Hicks without a wicked sense of humor is just an angry addled drug addict ranting about how he hates the world. Who needs to hear that? Without the humor, there is no comedy, no show and no engagement.

There's a lot out there in the world to engage with. There's political struggles, terrorism, vast opportunities for satire coming out of the White House. There's little stories of peoples' lives, hopes and ambitions. There's the state of the economy, there's crime, drugs, occasional wars. Why aren't we making fun games based on these? Why aren't we lampooning famous people in our medium like they do on South Park? Why aren't we making sarcastic games about modern combat rather than the usual round of gun porn like Battlefield 2? There are goldmines of opportunity for fun in the world around us. Why are we cloning Zuma instead?

As I see it, the reason why the mainstream games industry is not doing this is obvious. Costs, lack of proven markets and so on are perfectly reasonable grounds to not want to rock the boat heavily. This is common in all other media as well. What these media do is turn to their independent sector for fresh ideas and direction. As should we.

But a lot of indie developers don't want to hear that. To them, innovation means Spore. It means millions of dollars spent researching complicated interaction models and in-depth procedural animation technologies. It means crafting complicated AIs, years of work overcoming technical hurdles, and so on and so forth. And of course they can't afford that, so their instinct is to go back to match-three games and the so-called 'casual' market.

But technology is not the only kind of innovation. There's social innovation, meaning using the structure of a game environment to create situations. There's fictional innovation, such as creating a roleplaying game where the hero is gay. There's opportunities for humor, such as making a 2-d top-down game of the battle for Fallujah where the opposing sides are represent by Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. There's lots and lots of room for innovation of ideas through engagement.

Video games need to be fun, but they are not meant to be fun. They can be engaging or escapist, basic or artistic, simple or incredibly complicated, tragic, comic, and so on, but the independent sector needs to lead the way. The mainstream industry can't do it because it needs to pay a lot of pay-cheques, and Nintendo can only offer different models to create new genres which will, ultimately, go to seed quickly. What's needed is for the people who don't have to spend a lot of money and don't have to spend years figuring out in-depth models to stand up and take a look around in the world.

This medium, like all media, is about entertainment above all else, and the best entertainment is about resonance. Stop escaping. Engage.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, March 17, 2006


The Escapist has a nice little article in its current issue about the old ludology/narratology debate, essentially a mini-interview on the state of the debate. What's interesting is that the likes of Frasca and Juul are now all saying the debate was always meaningless. Huzzah, I say. It's always been silly to try and argue an either/or dichotomy in any artform, and games are no exception.

In other news, the latest Consolevania is out.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

So I've been asked a few times in the last two days. 'Oi Tadhg,' goes the mail, 'Are you on that Lionhead consultation period list?'

And the answer is, sadly, yes.

Over a specific period of time in the next few weeks, a period of consultation will determine who can best be kept on and placed in one of several studios, and I shall not publicly speculate on what I may be eligible for, how many positions there are exactly, nor the fate of myself or my colleagues. This is post is not about that (though I will give credit to Lionhead in the manner in which they are handling what is a difficult situation), I'm merely using the news as a jumping off point. Which is to talk about the job culture in the industry in general.

I was down the pub with two developer friends of mine on Friday (after the bad news), having what we like to call a 'swift half' (which became a swift three) and we were talking about what a difficult place the industry is to work in. It's perrennially uncertain, but also caught half way between two problematic poles.

They are the need to have staff resources close to hand while at the same time not being able to maintain them. It's a problem that affects the whole industry once it goes beyond the 4 or 5-man team level, and the reason for the problem is that game development is basically one big game of pass the parcel.

Suppose you figure that to make a big 3D space arcade game, you're going to need 40-ish people. Those people will, very roughly, consist of 15 audiovisual people (artists, animators), 15 technical people (code, tools, scripting) and 10 design and production people (producers, lead designer/game director, designers, mission-level designers) plus maybe 1 sound guy and an indeterminate number of testers.

It stands to reason that the animators will not be busy during the early days of the project, and the engine coders will really be down to the level of fixing occasional annoying bugs toward the end. So the solution is to hire people onto the team gradually, which is what most teams do. So the teams grow slowly over time, sometimes more quickly than others depending on the production management and financial concerns, but the upshot is that at the end of the project there's usually quite a few people who've been hanging around.

In fact, my theory is that even under the most optimum conditions, no development team is operating at more that 40% busy at any one time. What is happening is that individual departments grow more busy, followed by less busy ('polish', if you like), and so the aggregate of being busy is about 40%. Which leaves a lot of people essentially hanging around.

But why have them hang around?
Why not hire them contract and let them go when they're not needed any more?
Because hiring people is actually difficult.

Suppose you are an animator being offered a six month contract at a studio in Leamington Spa through a recruiter. This involves several factors for you, the most pressing of which is that the company is asking you to move your life for a six month period. To Leamington Spa. How likely are you to do it?

You're likely to do it only in one of three conditions.

1. The first is if they offer you a LOT of money, plus moving costs and various other benefits thrown in. This makes you and your recruiter very happy.

2. The second reason is if you are green in the industry and therefore looking to cut your teeth. There are a lot more green people in the industry than veterans because of this, because veterans decide that they don't want to move house unless its for a ton of money, and developers think that maybe two students can do the same job as one veteran.

3. The third, and pretty remote, reason is if the project itself is something that the animator is genuinely passionately interested in, they may make the move. Although it has to be said that this is a pretty rare occurence.

So it would seem that the solution for the company is therefore not to make itself so difficult because of location in the first place. Actually, not so. Given that teams tend to swell as games develop and projects try to complete, the problem that developers have is facilities. The rent in an office in Leamington Spa is considerably cheaper per square foot than it is in central London, and games being as they are longer-term projects than your average piece of post-production work or TV ads, the economics come down on the wrong side for a development company. Centrally located developers tend not to last because they can't pay the rent.

The upshot is that a lot of companies big and small end up trying to hire people permanently, or on a rolling contract at the very least. Be they big publishers, or mid-size developers, the juggle between people hiring and rent keeps them in an awkward middle ground of pass-the-parcel either within teams, or between teams. It's the middle way.

The problem with the middle way is that it is not flexible. When your company is permanently committed to having a staff and possibly a tools division, requisite administration staff, and so on, it becomes a lot less flexible again. Companies of that size have to become much more formalised affairs, but at the same time the atmosphere in these companies can become like silos, as I mentioned in my last article.

There are several potential solutions to this problem, though each is not without its downside.

The first is Don't Grow. Develop a working structure that means you simply refuse to hire new staff for almost any reason. Some jobs (like audio, or dialogue) can be contracted out ad hoc as needs be anyway, so you do that, but in the main you keep a fixed number of artists, programmers, designers and so on plus or minus the odd guy. What a company that does this is doing is creating a family environment where everyone is in it for the long haul, and such companies adopt the 'It's done when we say it's done' approach. 3D Realms, for instance, would appear to be pursuing this strategy - but it does mean Duke Nukem Forever may take an Ice Age to turn up.

The second solution is Find a Steady Income. Game development is not, by nature, a steady income business. It's a pulse-driven business, where large cash injections cover long periods of losses (if all goes well) and therefore difficult. Steady incomes do exist, however, and they are called 'subscriptions' and 'pay-to-play'. Subscription-based gaming is becoming a more and more interesting proposition as time goes on, catering as it does to loyal long-term customers and focussing on a gradual but steady wad of cash coming in the company doors. MMOGs are one example, but so too are the huge rise in the likes of poker sites, niche games like Puzzle Pirates, and accessing another world in Second Life.

The third solution is Grow Like All Crazy. Rather than remaining modest, in this strategy you hoover up investor cash, Wall Street cash, whatever you can and you create twenty teams, each passing around common resources like animators. This strategy basically demands that the developer find a usable product line that can fund such an expansion (A GTA or a FIFA), and then pour the cash into opening offices world-wide, creating large teams etc, and becoming a publisher. EA do this. Take Two have taken to doing this since they struck it lucky. Unfortunately this isn't a solution that many have the opportunity to use, but it is a solution for the lucky few. Whether it works or not is another question, as such growth tends to mean importing full corporate structure and a whole management class pretty darn quickly, and that can have devastating effects.

The fourth solution is Look To India. Outsourcing, basically, in one form or another involves trying to defray the costs of all this by getting cheapo lackeys to do it overseas where everything costs so much less and they are increasingly very well educated. It's a solution that several companies are pursuing vigorously, and one that they are also discovering is not as easy as it first looks. Outsourcing typically requires a lot of hand-holding and a heavily focussed management, and even at that is questionably reliable at best.

The fifth solution is Pay For Work, Not For Time. In this scenario, the development company stays very small, focussed on production and design and core technical staff only, and everything else is sought elsewhere. However, rather than the typical 6-month-contract staff approach, the company contacts individuals (or vice versa) and contracts them for individual pieces of work based on flat fees. Rates are negotiated as in business, and payment on completion according to strict criteria ensures work quality. This is the Stubbs the Zombie method, basically, and though Stubbs itself didn't really fly as a game, the method itself has strong potential, as it doesn't need large offices or facilities. Most everyone in game development has a home PC of their own, after all, but why oh why game development companies aren't taking advantage of that fact is a mystery.

The sixth solution is Devolution. This relatively new piece of thinking has it that the traditional silo-structure of companies doesn't really match up with the far more flexible knowledge worker of today and tomorrow. Rather than having teams where 60% of the staff are relatively idle (as an aggregate), what the development company does is split itself into several companies along discipline lines rather than project lines. So you have an audiovisual company (art and animation), a tools company, an engine company, a design company, a sound engineering company, and all these companies maintain a high degree of autonomy, though still connected to the whole through a central administration and production company. The different companies are responsible for their own profit and loss, and this means that they go out and look for work. So when the audiovisual company is not particularly busy working on the company's internal project, it can be busy working as a for-hire anim studio. Designers can consult, tools companies can make software and sell licenses to other studios, and so every discipline becomes a part of the value chain in and of itself.

The seventh solution is Game City, where the development and publishing industry centralises to the point that there is no one single developer any more. This solution is esentially like 'what would happen if al the companies devolved in the London area at once'. What would happen is that all the separate companies would become so nimble among each other that the industry would become completely broken down into sub-blocks freely moving among one another, and this is possibly what will happen by default in the long run.

Either way, I don't envy development companies one bit as things currently stand because the current way that pressures work serve to eventually drive the best and brightest out of the industry into IT, film, and any other industry where security, compensation and other factors are far better and more sensibly organised. It's a tough road ahead for many.

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