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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If you're a producer, then you've had to go from managing teams of 15 people to managing teams of 200. And working on a 200-person team isn't just new to you, it's also new to all of the 200 other people. We haven't had time to raise a generation of proper video game executives and moguls, so the big companies end up run by guys with no special expertise in the field.

So video games have changed more often, the change has been more abrupt and less forgiving, and it's all happened in a much shorter period of time. These shifts happened several times to a single generation of people, instead of working their way gradually through the industry as each new generation supplanted the previous one. The result is an industry that doesn't know how to do its job. And I think this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see today.

Who is in charge? Who makes the creative decisions? How much leeway do they have? What kinds of stories can they tell? How do we manage communication in teams this large? These are things studios are still trying to figure out, and they're doing so while the technology is shifting under them at a pace Hollywood never had to cope with. Games keep getting more expensive to produce, so this constant change can probably seem pretty scary.

If this isn't enough chaos, the audience is changing too. The idea of "Mario for boys, Doom for men" was always overly reductive, but at least it had some grounding in the public's buying habits. But now the demographics are scattered all over the place. Adults play Mario, young people play Call of Duty, the Wii brought in a huge influx of older players, everyone plays mobile games and women are a major part of the market. But this all happened very fast by the standards of large corporations, which probably explains why so many companies seem so stuck on marketing to young males.

None of this is intended to excuse the big publishers for their lapses of judgement, failure of vision, lack of planning, or adherence to tradition. We have industry leaders who don't know a good game from a bad one, and so their only plan is to copy what has already worked. We can't get the technology to hold still, but we're pretty sure violent power fantasies about white dudes doing heroic things are still a safe bet. (And to be fair, they are. Mostly.)

I'm not suggesting we "Leave video game execs alone!" Far from it. I think in an industry where almost nobody understands what's going on (I include myself in this) we need to keep talking about what works and what doesn't. The Unity backlash probably won't make fundamental changes to Assassins Creed: Unity, but it will certainly leave an impression on the higher-ups when they sit down to plan the next game. And I predict we'll have ubiquitous female protagonists before execs finally figure out that DRM and pointless graphical spectacle are self-destructive. They won't know what matters to us unless we tell them, and they can't change course if they don't know they're going the wrong way. Someday the video game industry will stabilize (at least, by Hollywood standards of "stability") but until then it's going to be a lot of chaos.

Here's hoping we can at least get Half-Life 3 before the entire genre of single-player silent protagonist first-person shooters goes the way of silent films.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, and Spoiler Warning.

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