Prestige Games: A Red Herring by Any Other Name?

Prestige Games: A Red Herring by Any Other Name?

imageImagine having to invent a new camera just to make a film. Or, if you wanted to write a book, having to first learn how to make a printing press, then learning bindery. Or mixing paint from elemental minerals before putting brush to canvas. This sounds far-fetched now, but at one time in the life span of each art form, it wasn't. I still know people who make their own paint, actually, and it's a time-consuming, smelly and potentially hazardous process. A lot like designing a game, in fact.

Look at the credits for your current favorite game. Chances are you'll see a lot of programmers on that list, and they aren't just hired to rearrange things. The technology for most games (from the minutia of programming the game enemies' Artificial Intelligence, to the foundation of how each pixel of art is displayed) is built entirely from the ground up; often a years-long process. If you think this is wasteful and unnecessary, you're not alone, but just try and convince designers that they're wasting their time (and yours) reinventing the wheel with each and every game. Go ahead, I'll wait.

One of the game industry's favorite punching bags fought that fight over 10 years ago - twice - and lost. Famously. John Romero literally ran himself out of the company he helped found by arguing with his co-founder, John Carmack, that the technology of a game wasn't nearly as important as its design. Carmack, the company's head technology architect, disagreed, and the company's co-owners sided with him over Romero; technology over design. Romero was let go to try his funky philosophies out somewhere else, where they also failed and his former company, id Software, went on to become one of the most successful game companies on the planet.

This would seem to have been a slam-dunk for the Technology First crowd, except for one thing: most of id's games suck. Companies like Raven have been taking their technology and making fun game experiences out of them for years, but id's latest big-budget PC title, Doom 3, is fun for about ten minutes, after which it becomes painfully apparent that the game was designed as a tech demo for the company's outrageously advanced game engine. (Like Gears of War.)

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that constantly-evolving technology is necessarily a bad thing. I think the fact that the games being released this year are stunningly more beautiful than games made even a year ago is a great thing, but I still go back and play the fun games no matter when they were made, nor how they look.

Similarly, I think there is a place for adrenaline-fueled blast fests, but they aren't what I would call great games. Just like a Bruckheimer film isn't exactly "high cinema" although I own several of his films and enjoy them immensely. But the relentless drive for bigger, faster, better technology doesn't always translate to better game experiences and if the only movies in theaters were Bruckheimer films, we'd be missing out on a lot of what Hollywood has to offer.

Worsening the situation on the ground is the fact that making analogies between fuilm and games (in spite of the fact that I've already made several) is pointless, in spite of the current trend among prolific auteurs and inveterate bloggers toward doing just that. The latest is the suggestion that the game industry would be better off if it adhered more closely to the film model, assigning certain titles the "prestige" classification, freeing them from reliance on such arcane notions as "profitability."

"Prestige films," says Man!festo's Greg Costikyan, "are typically made at somewhat lower budgets, and actors who wish to be involved in a prestige film are often asked to accept lower rates of pay than they would for most of the projects on which they work--and actors are typically willing to do so, as prestige films often redound to the benefit of their own reputation as actors. Prestige films often dominate the awards, and studios often trumpet their association with prestige films as a means of ensuring that reviewers, and industry talent, are more eager to engage with the studio in future.

"In other words, prestige films get made, and get attention, even though they are often economically marginal or even "failures" (in a pure ROI sense), because studios understand that there are real (if intangible) benefits from being associated with prestige films."

Costikyan cites Doublefine's Psychonauts as a prime candidate for "prestige" classification, owing to its overwhelming critical success in the face of disappointing sales. Although it is hard to deny the part about it being a commercial flop, that's exactly where the analogy between game development and movie making falls apart in this instance: even prestige films make money. Not as much as their Bruckheimer-born cousins, to be sure, but they rarely fail to turn a profit.

Games also, when considering the possibility of having "prestige" titles, suffer from the "hidden developer" syndrome. Aside from a sparse handful of well-recognized game developers, most people who make games don't get their names spread around the way people in film do. And you can forget about the possibility of game developers accepting a reduced fee in exchange for the privilege of working on a prestige title; most are already working at the bottom of the software industry salary scale, having sacrificed dreams of big, fat paychecks for the bohemian ideals of working in a creative field.

We can blame Mr. Romero, I suppose, for muddying the waters around big-name game producers, making it difficult if not impossible for another such rising star to sway the money men into buying the dream of "design first" game production, but the fact remains that there's not a lot of money being earmarked for "men with visions" right now. Games are big-budget investments and right now the publishers are calling the shots. No distribution deal, no game. End of story. That part, at least, is like the film business after all.

Behind all of the blogs, commentary, forum posts and well-planned articles, the indie, scratchware and now "prestige" movements have all been great ideas aimed at angling more actual design talent at the business of creating games. At the moment, however, the proponents of these movements (if indeed they are separate animals) have the appearance of beggars at the ball. Whether their ideas will ever be more than just that remains to be seen. I hope they succeed, but I'm a selfish man. I just want more fun games to play.

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At this point I'd say that prestige games are the flagship titles (not even just franchises) - Zelda, Final Fantasy, Gears of War, Metal Gear Solid, Warcraft, Halo, Metroid, and the rest. These are the ones that surround the names of everyone involved with auras of marketability, the ones that win all the awards, and the ones that only top the sales charts because gamers who know that movie tie-in games tend to be terrible still constitute a significant portion of the market. Not only do we already have prestige games, but we have a situation where the industry is relying too much on the prestige games.

I remember the days when games had limited budgets and were economical with their engines and designs. Now we see a situation of huge budgets, but the money comes from publishers that have more interest in games as a marketing tool than an actual form of creative expression. Unfortunately, this reality has forced all development to follow suit. A game only has 3-6 months to sell or it's a failure... so it has to have stuff to interest gamers that has nothing to do with how well a game's functionality is designed, like reflective surfaces that reflect reflections. Good grief.

In thinking about this problem of reinventing the wheel with game development, I looked to my past experience with authoring tools. Flash, Director, mTropolis, Apple Media Tool... all these applications allowed for rapid development of interactive media. You didn't have to be a hardcore programmer to build really cool stuff. In some cases, you didn't even need to program at all.

Because this week's articles have every to do with Microsoft, I was going to suggest that Microsoft invest in building a game authoring suite... in my game development ignorance, I googled Microsoft game development applications and it turns out Microsoft's XNA Game Studio Express is going to be released soon. Though I don't know all the details, it sounds like novice programmers can build some interesting stuff (in an authoring, drag n' drop environment) and expert programmers can go at it without any limitations. It seems like XNA Game Studio Express is a step in the right direction for making commercial game development accessible... and affordable.

Does anybody have an opinion on Microsoft's new offering? I think it addresses this Lounge Article's concerns. I suppose time will tell.

XNA looks really promising. Basically, it's a stripped-down Visual C++ (one of the best IDEs out there, really), evidently with DirectX built in (much as I'd like to see more OpenGL for maximum portability, it really is the better tool), and some graphics editors and a few more game-specific wizards than a general application development IDE would give you. Wondering presently if they're going to try to give it a slightly friendlier, less-optimized language as well (.NET is possibly a bit inappropriate for games, what with the overhead and the garbage collector, but who knows? Maybe they will put C# in it), to make it easier to deal with. But the thing I like about it is that it can also compile programs for the 360 (if you subscribe to it... and don't mind that only other subscribers can see your 360 games). Opening up console development to the relatively unlicensed masses is one of the next big steps games can take to get to more people.

As a programmer myself, I'm not sure about being tied to Windows, but then again I can certainly make do without the bells and whistles when I'm committed to giving my games away or selling them to Mac gamers (as likely they'll be simple enough that I won't need them), and Windows/DirectX is the biggest target platform for games.

 

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