“Videogames are a young medium.” It’s something we hear constantly, but rarely understand what it means. Game developers, players, journalists, all of us are young. Even veterans like Ken Levine and Tim Schafer are in their sprightly 40s. The industry is so new that we have literally never seen someone spend their whole career making games- the current crop of game developers will be the first. That gives the medium an incredible vitality, but it also means that the game industry as a whole is going to change significantly as developers age and death becomes a more regular occurrence.
Hiroshi Yamauchi passed away last week. As president of Nintendo, Yamauchi transformed his family’s card-making factory into an international tech juggernaut and symbol of national pride. He was also, at 85, possibly the oldest figure in the videogame industry. The industry’s reaction seems largely one of shock, since the game community is more used to gaining faces than losing them. Though Yamauchi was the industry’s elder statesman, there seems to be a sort of surprise that someone so intimately connected to games would die at all. That’s understandable when you consider that the average age of a game developer is 31, with their whole life ahead of them. As a sector ruled over by the young, death is not only rare, but often out of sight entirely. The VGAs don’t have In Memoriam segments like the Oscars and Emmys. It’s normal to see game credits scroll through the babies born during development, but it’s unusual to see a memorial. Game journalists are only now learning how to write proper obituaries. However, it feels like we crossed some sort of Rubicon in 2013 – if only symbolically. In addition to Mr. Yamauchi, we lost Oculus Rift co-founder Andrew Scott Reisse in a hit and run earlier this year, and award-winning Heavy Rain composer Normand Corbeil to pancreatic cancer. And while this article focuses on developers rather than games media, it would be wrong not to also mention the tragic passing of Ryan Davis, Matt Hughes and David Dreger. It’s both sad and inevitable, a reminder that as our industry grows more mature it will have to start dealing with its luminaries growing older and eventually leaving, and that creates challenges our medium has never had to face before.
How will the game industry react to the increased risk or death or medical disability among aging leadership? On one hand, their vast experience makes older project heads an extremely valuable commodity to a company, but that also comes with a certain amount of risk – namely, that they will not be able to complete the project due to a serious medical condition. While the game industry is certainly less personality-driven than film production, it’s undeniable that certain titles rest their bankability on the involvement of a famous creative director. BioShock Infinite, for example, would’ve suffered if – God forbid – Ken Levine spontaneously combusted halfway through development. Likewise, Konami might not be willing to provide as much financial backing for Metal Gear Solid games were Hideo Kojima suddenly unable to oversee them. Smaller studios like Double Fine and thatgamecompany might be in danger of breaking up were senior leadership figures no longer present. And while death or disability is a worst-case scenario, development delays due to illness have a cost too. Any sort of inertia in the development cycle has a tendency to run away with your budget, ultimately causing the team to cut features and wind up with a less salable game. Considering that AAA budgets are spiraling ever upward, it would be understandable for investors to become nervous about so much money riding on one human life. Luckily, game producers can mitigate this risk by borrowing a solution from Hollywood – because the fact is: You can get insurance for that.
The film industry has been insuring actors and directors since the silent movie era. Policies were originally something actors bought for themselves in order to protect their income, but in reality they were often publicity stunts. (Betty Grable famously took out a million-dollar policy on her shapely legs.) However these days producers will buy policies for actors, sets, or even live events – it’s basically the only protection a studio has against a director dying during production, an actress missing shooting days because of DUI or a pop star losing his voice the night before a concert. Premiums depend on various factors including an actor or director’s medical history, personal habits, whether they’ll be doing any stunts, and what dangers they’ll be exposed to on set. It can add up to a big stack of cash, too. Action movies typically spend about 4% of their budget on insurance, but the benefits outweigh the investment.
When John Candy died during the filming of Wagons, East! the studio collected $15 million on the policy on his life – three times the film’s terrible box office. That’s exactly the insurance coverage game studios are going to need on their creative leads, and there’s already a company that’s willing to sell it to them. Fireman’s Fund, which is the largest insurer to Hollywood, rolled out a new policy for video game producers back in 2007 that includes protecting high-value employees. “We have key person coverage,” said spokesperson Janet Ruiz in an interview with Gamasutra. “If a key person is injured or ill or unavailable it will stop the [games’] production, which will cost money.”
To clarify the role of the key person, or “keyman” policies, I contacted Euan McKenzie, of Central Insurance Services, Ltd. Mr. McKenzie has helped game devs with business and professional indemnity insurance since 2001. “The money can then be used to help with any financial loss/recovery time … or to recruit a replacement,” says McKenzie, but the object might also be ensuring company control stays in the right hands. “Some policies are there specifically to fund the purchase of the shares of a deceased individual from his or her family/estate.” That sort of coverage is specialized, he adds, not part of the normal business insurance. “Many of the enquiries for this type of cover are driven by the insistence of investors/advisors, during the due diligence process of [mergers and acquisitions or] investment activity.”
In other words, it keeps the money men from getting nervous – but games aren’t just about business risk, they’re also art. And the introduction of mortality might change developer’s artistic sensibilities too.
Games change with their creators, and as game developers grew older their material ages with them. Recently, as developers started entering their late 30s and 40s we’ve seen an explosion of games exploring parenthood – Heavy Rain explored what it’s like to fail as a parent, The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite cast the player as a protective father-figure, and even Grand Theft Auto V dropped you into a dysfunctional family. In other words, as developers increasingly have children they’re more drawn to hopes, fears and narratives about family life. I think it’s only a matter of time – maybe a decade – before we see a similar shift toward stories about the end of life. It’s an exciting thought, the idea that the greatest minds in game development may turn toward creating interactive experiences that don’t just ask big questions, but The Big Questions: What is the purpose of life? What happens after our last breath goes? Are we random collections of evolutionary miracles, or something else entirely? When you look back at the end your life, what do you see? The concept intrigues me, because I know that two people will never come to the same answer. I would love to see Jenova Chen, Ken Levine or even Shigeru Miyamoto tackle the philosophy of death, especially at the height of their powers with the full experience of a life well lived. In some ways, I can’t wait to see what their last games will be like – the ones they keep inside, not telling anyone about because they’re too personal, too strange or too risky. I want to see the passion projects these luminaries create when it’s time to cash in their chips and call in favors for one last project. No one lives forever, and that knowledge can spur extraordinary people to stop holding back and do something amazing and unexpected.
Death is coming to the game industry, as it comes to everyone. Insurance men will do risk calculations and companies will plan successions. Young people will replace their mentors. We will start to lose our venerable pioneers – slowly at first, then more quickly, ushering them away with applause over a memorial slideshow. But before that happens- indeed, because it is happening- our first great class of game developers may treat us to something extraordinary.
Recently games have started asking what it means to kill.
It will be even more fascinating when they start asking what it means to die.