Dec 8, 2009

Enough with the Gaming Industry!

Loom Lucasfilm LucasartsBefore I start ranting away, I have to come clear -or at least attempt to; the army isn't the place for productive thinking you see, and brains do tend to rot- regarding the subject of selling games. I've got nothing against it. I, instead, fiercely believe that people creating them should be able to live off their craft, provided of course they choose to do so. There is nothing unethical in selling a game one -or a group of people- has created, though admittedly that's not the case when companies enter the equation. That's when the creative minds get exploited. This later view though, demanding a rather theoretical piece mostly on the production and exploitation of surplus value, will be wisely left for another blog post. You might as well ignore it for the time being.

Now, let me move on by reminding everyone that gaming wants to be considered an art form; an art form comparable to painting, cinema, theater, music and literature; above all a sellable art form. Gaming after all, especially mainstream gaming, is an art form that shockingly tries to justify its importance by showing everyone the huge revenue it generates, and by convincing mommies and governments they have nothing to fear from it. And herein lies the problem.

Art, the way I see it, has to be thought provoking and at times dangerous (remember the beat generation?), and definitely doesn't have to be a commodity. Art, you see, simply cannot flourish when directed by market research and consumer needs, as these demands necessarily lead artists to self-censorship and, more often than not, banality. Art can be sold, but almost always at a cost.

Art simply does not need industry. I mean, look at the hundreds of late Picasso paintings and compare them to Guernica. Sad, eh?

Well, things are even sadder when it gets to gaming, where market forces were powerful from the very birth of the medium and where even some indie developers can't help but speak for and about the industry. As if the industry were one homogenous whole. As if The World of Goo and the radical games of Molleindustria have anything to do with Nintendo's WiiFit and such militaristic offerings as Gears of War. As if something is worth creating only to be sold. As if money is all an artist should care for. As if the sole yardstick for judging anything were its profitability.

Profitability is what companies care for and the force responsible for strangling myriads of brilliant ideas and even a few almost completed games. And believe me, it's gonna get worse. Perceived popularity and safe choices will get an even stronger grip on gaming and digital expression in general, just like they already did in cinema, literature and music.

Popularity of course, just like the need to be liked, appreciated and accepted is something most artists also crave (usually, that is). They always did so apparently and, admittedly, I think it's an almost noble cause, provided they remember they only have one obligation: be true to ones self and vision. And in the case of game creation, an artist or a group of artists, has only got to make something he/she/they would actually want to play. Something unique. Something interesting. Something with a modicum of passion. Not something that they could become rich from. And, well, if the money comes, so be it.

Just don't let the industry get it. Let the creative minds enjoy it and be freed to further provide us with quality games. Not that I wouldn't enjoy the struggling artist concept, mind. Passion and intense experiences can bring forth masterpieces all the money in the world wouldn't be able to buy. A Rimbaud of gaming would be truly amazing.

So, uhm, why don't you go read the Scratchware Manifesto?

Related @ Gnome's Lair:


  1. I've always seen game making to be a form of art. I mean, every form of art has it's rich and famous, but then you can find just as good artist's that can't make a dime or make very little..

    The artist working for the industry/man spends his time working on what the producer/director is looking for.. Maybe you will run into one of these guys at a convention and he will want $200 for a quick colored doodle..
    On the other hand the starving artist/game maker will create whatever he/she wants from their imagination..

    I think gaming can be considered an art form and it has the same problems as most other industries..

    Heck Gnome, I'm not even sure where I'm going with this..

    So, basically your saying, or I'm taking it that we should not buy the industries games. That would be the only way to stop it, right?

    Well I'm to the point where I won't buy a new $65 game, but I do get them used from online.. I mean their is no PS3 Scratchware games to buy for my son/me.. So, should we rid of all consoles..?

    Besides spreading the word, what is it that the Scratchware Manifesto is asking us all to do?

    I gotta post this, Gnome. It might not even make much sense.. -not much for typing thoughts, better at painting them..

    -Be back soon!

  2. Mm. I'm really ambivalent about this.

    After years of backing "indie" developers unconditionally, I've realized that it's no longer clear who I'm backing anymore. There are industrial indie developers, like the people connected with who independence but are really just an extension of the market, albeit at a much lower level. There are people like Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software who are independent and make a small living from it. There are indie hobbyists who just release their games for free. And there are indie open source people like the folks who run ScummVM. Etc etc - there is a huge heterogeneity of developers who call themselves indie.

    At the same time, I see games like Shadow of the Colossus, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and the upcoming The Last Guardian, and realize that some kinds of projects just aren't possible without a behemoth industry. No designer was able to make a game on that scale without a team of 100+ people.

    Lately I'm starting to recognize that what we need is a new metaphor for gaming, or the recovery of an old metaphor that's gotten lost. I was reading Dani Bunten's address to the GDC the other day, and I realized that this is someone who truly understood what games were about. S/he didn't create games out of some egocentric need for expressing a vision, s/he created games that welcomed other people in a common space (I'm thinking of M.U.L.E. and Modem Wars). I think that's been lost - nobody really knows how to make truly social games anymore - we just take a single player game and add multiplayer support.

    I guess what I'm saying is that the industry is not going to disappear, nor will indie developers of all kinds. But what has disappeared is a keen sense for what games are really about, why they capture our attention, why I play a different kind of game than you, why we want to play them with others, etc. I totally agree with you that designers now pre-design games based on the kind of image they want of themselves, or selling potential. But I don't think "passion" and "self-expression" are the answer alone. I think what a designer needs is some serious self-reflection and real social observation of friends and family, and other gamers. After that, they might think of a game they'd like to play with all those things in mind. Economics might still be an issue (let's not forget, Dani Bunten worked for EA!), but the kind of game produced will be driven by a metaphor that really speaks to people.

  3. Works of art don't need to be on a small, independent scale. (Some) films are works of art, and most involve, if not a huge budget, a significant investement of time and effort from often hundreds of people.

    But really good films are often the product of a single creative vision, or at least a guiding force with a very strong sense of which battles to fight with the various forces which can compromise a project (technical, production, marketing, corporate, and so on).

    Some games seem to have this as well, but perhaps it's not yet as common to treat a single person as the "director" of a game? That did seem to be the case in the beginning of the industry, which is when figures such as Peter Molyneux gained their foothold. Could that be the case, that directors in the movie industry can greater resist the pressures from others involved in the making of the work?

    I like to think that the games industry can have the big-budget productions but also the smaller, indie, games, whether on browser, Flash, console or PC. It's difficult to bring a game from the initial design to a finished product when working in a small team, so those works may seem less polished than the big-budget affairs (this is probably the opposite of visual arts such as painting, where a single person can achieve much), but they may offer a greater and more coherent vision or experience.

    There's a lot to be said for being in complete control of a game, in that you don't have to compromise your ideas, except insofar as you may not be technically able to do as much as in a studio or with a publisher. So it means lowering standards, or at least choosing achievable standards, or the final result would never be released. There's always something small that can be improved. That said, being restricted like that can actually lead to more creativity.

    Remember that there are still films worth watching, even though those with a huge marketing budget make the most noise. I hope it will be the same with games, and the Internet helps us with that goal, as word-of-mouth from friend to friend can be more powerful than any prime time TV commerical spot.

    I certainly don't think the army has made your brain rot. You've come back taking swings at a meaty subject.

    By the way, I still need to get Monkey Island (no time, even though you did persuade me) so I'll have to avoid your rss feed and tweets if you post spoilers!

  4. Excellent comments.

    Art in all its commonly known media always long been a struggle of a desire for success and a desire to express. At times, it was little more than propaganda. But the fact is that people still used it to resist, whether it was government, religion, cultural norms. So, to your idea about dangerous art, where is that in gaming? Where are games used as a calling for some type of independence, even if in some mundane way?

    @Chris: I know this isn't what you're talking about exactly, but for whatever the quality of his efforts lately, I think that Shigeru has based some of his recent game ideas on the life around him, on observations of people. The games aren't exactly artistic, even Wii Music, but I appreciate the difference between that and the impetus for yet another installment of Modern Warfare.

    Even though we have some cross pollination, it seems that game genres are so well established (and expected), new gaming metaphors are all the harder to implement. (Scott McCloud created a strip a few years back exploring different metaphors for games . . . a shame that those metaphors remain unexplored.)

    Work now forces me to end this rambling comment.

  5. First of all, let me thank you all for contributing your wisdom to this discussion, and, well, actually turning it into a discussion. Oh, and I'm really sorry for the belated answer, but, rotting brain you see...

    Now, before I go on let me point out, that I generally don't believe art in general (at least in its mainstream form) and in all its forms can change much under the current establishment. That is why I simply don't care about Hollywood, writers a la Dan Brown (bleurgh) or the music of Madonna. If something good comes out of these sources though, I'm usually shocked.

    Same thing with games. The mainstream is boring, banal and politically reactionary (bordering on the fascist at times), and good and interesting games are rare and always a shock to me.

    @ Deitrix: Quite agree with you there dear demented artist friend of mine. Though, no, I don't suggest we don't buy industry games. Nor throw away our consoles. All I suggest is that we understand what's really going on in the industry and why, and stop caring about how well the industry is doing. And if we could make our own games, that would be brilliant and a small step beyond the capitalist mode of production.

    @ Chris: Can't agree with you either dear Chris, at least not on the "new metaphor" proposition, but I do believe that it just can't simply happen, nor can an elite of enlightened few make it happen. It has to be part of a general societal and of course artistic shift, that simply can't happen without basic economic changes.

    Obviously we agree on the extreme heterogeneity of the indie scene, though I'll have to add that Uncharted isn't that good a game really. It's fun, but quite frankly silly. Just like a b-movie. Oh, and Shadow of the Colossus is indeed beautiful, though that doesn't necessarily have to do with the money thrown at it. Think Reservoir Dogs and its lack of budget...

    @ Dave: "if not a huge budget, a significant investement of time and effort from often hundreds of people." My point exactly really! Money can easily -or not that easily to be frank- be substituted by passion...

    As for the single creative vision, I'm not sure it's necessary, but at times it does admittedly work. Ideologically I do tend to prefer collective stuff...

    And I wont say anything more on ToMI beyond PLAY IT! No spoilers will come from me...

    @ guttertalk: Exactly my friend... dangerous games are -almost- nowhere to be found, and that I believe shows the decadence of things. All I can think of are a few political jokes-puzzles from Grim Fandango, Molleindustria's and a couple more examples. Of course, not all productions have to have political aspirations, but... even a few would be nice ;) Just to show that something lives outside corporate control and against the mainstream way of thinking/creating.

  6. @gnome - I just wrote several paragraphs on why I disagree with your overall political agenda, but I realized it doesn't help us get anywhere with the games discussion :) All I want to say, I think, is that I don't see any current "establishment" that makes quality game production impossible. There are risky games out there, and there are great ones out there, and there are mainstream games that formed my entire childhood.

    The real problem, in my opinion, is a lack of maturity in the designs themselves. In 95% of the games I see, the producers no longer take "care" in what they create. I'm sure there are all sorts of institutional/economic pressures involved, but that never stopped designers back in the 80s. People like Howard Scott Warshaw broke their knuckles trying to rip another 2 bytes out of their atari ROM to make it fit on a cart. In the games I see now, there is no inspired vision and no attempt to achieve excellence in any particular thing.

    Imho, that has little to do with the industry. Indie developers are even more culpable for lazy and underthought design. The exceptions to this are few (but great)... I'm thinking of Dwarf Fortress .. :)

  7. You might be shocked but I fully agree on both your points. After all, I'm not talking about an establishment that is conscious. I'm talking about a set of societal/economic forces that are sure to lead game (or anything else) development down one certain route.

    And yes, dwarf Fortress. The exact opposite of a mainstream game, that impressively demands a lot from the gamer...

    Ahh, it's so nice discussing these things...

  8. That only means that I misconstrued your original point then.. ha :) Sounds like we're on the same page - it's non-conscious, and it's unfortunately ingrained into modern subjectivity.

    And, speaking of true care put into something, have you been playing M.U.L.E online? I've played a few matches, and I'm still stunned at how imaginative and social the multiplayer is.

  9. Tried it only a couple of times, but I'm more than impressed...

  10. Personally, I think there is a large difference between game design and game art, with both of them having their own merits. Game design focuses on meeting others' expectations, while game art focuses on self-expression. While not mutually exclusive to each other, they can exist independently, and should not be chided for it.

  11. Fair point dear Zhou, and an interesting categorization this design vs art idea... Not sure if I agree though... Cheers!