Hugi Magazine #33: MP3 Power

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Why I don't wanna be a game designer / Another view from the other side Written by rand0m

1. Instead of a foreword

People play games. People like games. People want to make games. Any kind of games on PC, consoles and mobile devices. People that are working in the industry are supposed to love their work, otherwise they couldn't invest their talents and ideas to their work properly.

However, nowadays, game-development is more a money-making machine rather than something that people like to do.

I love games, I'm really interested in game development; however, I don't like the current state of the industry at all. And I think there are other people who probably agree with me.

This article is inspired by some of my own thoughts and talks on gamedev forums and it doesn't pretend to be the truth in the last instance.

2. Who?

Usually, a game is made by many people, including designers, programmers, sound editors, and even managers and producers. The final birth pangs of a game are made within a publisher. Among those people the most important role in this process play game designers.

So, who is a game designer? There are many wordings concerning this question, and most of them are more or less correct, however, they don't meet each other in many senses. Every studio has its own requirements concerning what is a good game designer. The usual list of requirements includes: a minimal sequence of duties that are - writing good scenarios, ability to offer a good concept, and even creation of the whole game world with all the characters / monsters / objects / environment etc. And the most important duty of a game designer is to imagine the game process and keep it distinct till the end of the development. It is even possible to say that the game designer is the most creative role in a gamedev studio. Everything says that the work of a game designer is a flight of fancy influence of inspiration and hunger for creating something really cool and exciting.

But is it really so?

Do game designers do what they really want to do? In fact, they don't.

3. Why?

What is happening in real life? Let's take a look at the example - there is a gamedev studio and a publisher which publishes games coming from the studio. In this case you can forget about flight of fancy and imagination, you'll be working within strict bounds that are set by the publisher. The publisher drops "hints" where to direct the wild imagination of the game designer; however, this means that the game designer should strictly follow these requirements and he isn't allowed to do any step off the road. This happens because from the point of view of money-making there is nothing more awful than invest money into somethings that isn't confirmed by years / people / experience, into something that isn't a clone of what we have already seen.

The work of a game designer in these conditions is the way of compromises, internal struggles and fights with producers. In the beginning you create, but further you just "do". The inspiration leaves, the challenge becomes a torture and the work goes painful.

From year to year tons of so-called "casual" games are published. They can't catch the player for more than 3-4 hours. Sometimes they can't even hook the player at all. Sometimes it is even hard to name them "games", they are more trinkets. Most of them are straight clones of each other, seldomly some of them just present some new technology.

Ok, let's stop and think - when was the last time when you saw a really original game? I suppose you will say that it was a long time ago in the childhood. :)

Actually, there have been a few great games recently, but exceptions only verify the rule. There are successful games as well, but they are just successful and nothing more. They don't make any conceptual revolution in game development like many games did 7-8 years ago. Most of the publishers want sweety graphics and good commercial genres, and nothing unusual and weird. It happens quite rarely that a publisher would publish an invention-game. Of course, there are many indy gamedevelopers that are making some nice games; however, usually they don't have enough skills or resources to be acknowledged.

But the aim of this article is not to show how the industry kills fun and creativity in gamedev, this article talks about the destiny of a game designer in the industry.

4. How?

How does it come to this? If a game designer loves his (her) work then the process of creation always includes fights and struggles with producers, and it may be even successful until the publisher keeps silence. But the publisher always has its own point of view, which isn't even nearly the same. In this case the point of view of the game designer breaks of the iceberg of the publisher's finances. Of course, it can also happen in another way, but this time ended about a decade ago. A game designer won't be able to create a game if he thinks that this game won't be interesting.

Many game designers may come across the fear of losing creativity, individuality and uniqueness of their games in constant struggle with marketing researches or focus groups or whatever else. The worst thing here is that game designer becomes just a gear in the machine that works only within a set of strict rules. Instead of a creative approach to development, they care about the popularity of genres calculating expenses for creating the next casual clone. Because this is just wallowing in money-making, and most of game designers are under this press. Nobody will do things that won't bring money, that is the philosophy of marketing, that is the philosophy of modern game development, and because of this, no indy development can survive on the market. That's why we don't see new cool and great games that have brand new ideas and exciting gameplay, that is why we probably won't see them in the nearest future.

Probably some studios and teams are exceptions, because they need to make casual games to survive among the giants of industry and they can't take the risk developing a wrong product; however, it doesn't excuse them. Usually they are just afraid of taking the wrong way.

The other reason why modern games aren't so interesting is maybe because they are coming to more movie-like-style. A movie can be seen only once in a period of time. Of course you would like to watch this movie once again in the future, but the feeling won't be the same, and it would not be so interesting as in the first time. That is why most of the modern games are just one-time-toys.

The idea behind the words above is that "marketing kills creativity". It is really so, and definitely, you can't argue with it.

5. What?

What can we do to change the situation? A particular person can't do anything. Industial giants won't do anything, because they get their money making shitloads of clones.

However, it is possible to change the situation. It won't be easy but it is possible. Everything is possible and there are examples.

One great example is the ExperimentalGameplay project. There is no any commerce at all, and everythings holds on inspiration. It gained a lot of the attention from gaming magazines, industry professionals and academics during this year, and probably it is one of the most interesting recent projects.

There are many other examples as well. I know you will say: they are not commercial, so, they can't get popularity without a good marketing and approvement by masses. There is a very good example that is a great counter-argument to that opinion. This example is the organisation of Art. Lebedev studio; the studio doesn't consider marketing necessary and the internal structure of the studio doesn't have at least one manager and it doesn't have class hierarchy (see the constitution). However, it is the leading design studio in Russia and it is well-known and accepted as really creative and professional worldwide. The reason why the marketing and other things of this kind are useless Artemiy Lebedev himself describes in his book "(Com)Mandership", in paragraphs §115 and §126. Moreover the studio doesn't stick to "commercially proved" design, it uses its own strong concepts and ideas and that is why it became a leader.

As you can see the prejudices that it is impossible (for an independent game designer of studio) to survive on the market with something not usual and weird are really misleading. Everything is possible; however, we still don't know when producers and publishers will understand this, and we will see a lot of new cool games which we haven't seen before!

P.S.: Maxis' most successful series to date is The Sims (2000). Released despite concern from Electronic Arts that it would be a commercial failure, it has gone on to become the most successful computer game in history... (Wikipedia)