Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Video Game Industry is Going Through Very Awkward Growing Pains

Shamus Young | 8 Jul 2014 19:00
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I'm pretty hard on the games industry as a whole. Since 2009, I've used this space to criticize how games are designed, how they're funded, how they're written, how they're marketed, how they're sold, how they're criticized, how their communities are run, and how the publishers make decisions and govern themselves. So after heaping shame on just about everyone who has ever had the audacity to try to entertain me, I'm going to take a step back and admit that the AAA games space has been going through some ridiculous growing pains and it's a testament to the skill and tenacity of the creative people in the industry today that anyone manages to produce any games at all. This whole thing is a circus of unrelenting chaos where few leaders know what they're doing and nobody has any idea what's going to happen next.

According to Wikipedia, you can place the birth of the U.S. film industry anywhere from 1894 (the first exhibition of a commercial film) to 1913 (the point where filmmakers began congregating in Hollywood) depending on whether you think the technology or the business is the more important driving force in modern cinema. I'm not knowledgeable enough to defend either point, so for the sake of argument let's just agree that cinema is about 100 years old. In that century we've gone through four really distinct generations of filmmaking: The pre-1930 silent era, the classical era of big-budget hollywood epics in the 1950s, the gritty subversive tone of New Hollywood in the 1970s, and the CGI-laden world of the high-spectacle megabudget nostalgia harvest we have now. Each generation marks a point where old filmmakers have passed on and the industry has been changed or revitalized by young blood with new ideas.

But in video games? The video game industry is somewhere between 30 and 40 years old. (Again, there's lots of room to quibble about this depending on whether you're talking about business, technology, or consumer habits.) And in those few decades we've gone through more and bigger revolutions than cinema. It took 10 years for talkies to replace silent films, but when a new console generation comes along everyone in the AAA space is expected to make the jump in just a couple of years. It took the better part of a lifetime for us to go from films made by a group of a dozen people to films made by hundreds. Video games made that transition in about a decade.

Hollywood made a big deal about the transition from photochemical film to digital. And it was. But video games go through that kind of shift every time we have a new console generation, and they have a lot less leeway in when and how they make the jump. When there's a change in film, the old techniques are still good. When there's a change in graphics technology, you adapt or die. If you hand someone camera equipment from 1970, they can still point the cameras at actors and make a movie with it. (Although buying and developing the film might be a little challenging.) But the greatest game programmer of 1985 would be completely worthless today without a complete re-education. None of their existing knowledge would be useful. Heck, someone from 2005 would have some catching up to do before they could really contribute to a modern team. Tools and techniques are going extinct as fast as new ones are invented, which means everyone needs to be constantly learning just to retain their current level of competence.

Technologically speaking, there has never been a safe place to stand. At any moment the public might run off in pursuit of a new device, new type of controller, new way of doing graphics, or a new kind of gameplay.

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