Gaming at the Margins, Part 4

How do we break out of our best of times/worst of times situation and chart a course for the Promised Land that’s clearly out there for us?

I’ve talked about some of the choices we might make, some possible outcomes associated with those choices. But is there some overarching thing that has to happen to increase the odds that we’ll head in the right direction?

My answer to a lot of our current problems is hinted at in the title of this article: I called my Montreal talk, and this article, “Gaming at the Margins” not only because of the status we used to – and could again – be accorded in society. There’s another aspect of “marginalization” I find intriguing.

To my mind, it often seems the most interesting and influential work is done at the “margins,” rather than at the meaty center of a medium or movement. And content, as I’ve said repeatedly in this article, is where we have to make our move if we want to reach the Promised Land.

Best-selling fiction is rarely the stuff that changes the world. The most popular movies and movie stars of years gone by are only occasionally the ones that influenced and changed subsequent thinking about what movies could be. You don’t typically see Thomas Kincade paintings in museums and rarely hear of his influence on other artists. And, to use a somewhat geekier example, it’s been 40 years since an upstart Marvel Comics changed the face of the comic industry by offering readers new kinds of heroes and conflicts – it’s now the alternative comic artists whose work comes to the attention of, and changes, the work of the mainstream publishers.

I’m kind of given to overstatement, so let me be clear that there are mainstream film-makers, writers and artists who have changed things, who have made works of lasting value. But often – even usually, I think – it’s the independents in whatever medium you choose to examine who move things forward:

  • The avant-garde artist (Renoir in his day, Rothko in his, maybe a Keith Haring or a Basquiat, more recently).
  • The low-budget and experimental film-makers (if you want to see where MTV came from, you don’t look to Hollywood, you look to the Russian avant-garde of the 20s – check out Vertov or Eisenstein or Pudovkin).
  • And in music it ain’t the work of Britney Spears that drives things creatively…

The fundamental problem the game business has is that we went from being a medium that was all “indie” development, all avant-garde experimentalism, to one that actively discourages such efforts. As a business and as a medium, we are, basically, all “mainstream this,” “big-budget that.” Our entire business model has been geared toward bigger and brassier, but not bolder or better games.

Ten years ago, when I worked for EA, an executive there told me this was coming – that the future didn’t lie in small, innovative, low-profit games, that the future was in roll-the-big-dice blockbusters. I thought he was nuts. And even though history has gone his way (for now) even though I play his game now, I still think he was nuts. We are an industry of blockbusters, but that is precisely what we have to change.

With very few exceptions, the truly innovative titles (when they make it past the corporate gatekeepers at all) rarely influence other titles in any significant way. I mean, it’s not as if Katamari Damacy unleashed a flood of similar titles. Any of you tried selling a game like that to a publisher recently? Wow. Don’t bother.

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What usually passes for innovation in the mainstream of game development and publishing is painfully conventional – usually limited to interesting use of physics, or a new lighting effect, or two pre-scripted paths instead of one!

Gaming’s “Indie” (non-)Scene
Until now, there’s only been one way to do business, if you wanted to make a living (or make a statement) making games. That has to change.

First, we have to find alternate sources of funding. I don’t care if it’s wealthy patrons, as some developers have proposed. I don’t care if it’s VCs (well, I do, but, hey, whatever works for you). I don’t care if it’s folks from the film financing community. We just have to divorce funding from distribution, find people who want profit, not ownership.

In addition, we need to find alternate forms of distribution – not replacements for traditional publishers and brick and mortar stores, but ways to augment and complement them. I already talked about Steam, the BioWare online store and others. Those are great starts.

We need to support games in what is currently a no-man’s land of $2-10 million, where games have to – but usually can’t – compete with bigger-budgeted titles.

Sundance changed Hollywood. Something similar has to happen for us. I’d be lying if I said I knew what that something might be, or when it’ll get here, but someone out there reading this is smarter than I am, has a vision of a new way of doing business, a new way of reaching players and new way of funding games. I hope…

Beginning of the End (of this article)
When I think about the choices we’ve been making recently – the choices that will determine whether we continue to live in the best of times or find ourselves slogging through the worst – it will surprise none of you to learn that I see us making a lot of wrong choices.

The state of the game business may be as good as all the positive thinkers out there say – at least for a handful of the biggest publishers and for some of the online guys, mostly. Hit games do sell big numbers and, by some measures, we are, as they say, “bigger than the movies.” Heck, if I had Madden and the NBA and the NHL and MLB and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in my portfolio, I’d probably feel pretty good about life, the universe and everything. But what’s good for the biggest players in the industry may not be good for the rest of us – and may not even be good for them in the long run. And no amount of revenue generated, no stock value, no sales report can address the deep-seated concerns I have about where we seem to be heading.

What are you playing?
Perhaps the most revealing way to look at the state of the medium is to ask the question, “What are you playing these days?” That used to be a question that started a fun, usually lengthy, often spirited discussion. Nowadays, the answer seems all too often to be either “World of Warcraft” or “There’s really nothing grabbing my interest.”

Maybe this is just a personal problem – a result of my friends and me getting older. Priorities change. Interests change. Time for games seems tougher to come by. Or maybe my values – notably a fascination with innovation, novelty and forward progress on the story and design side of things – aren’t shared by the folks who make up an increasingly international audience. Maybe it isn’t games or the game business that have changed – maybe it’s me.

I’ll cop to owning part of the problem, sure. But on reflection, I really do believe there’s a level at which games just aren’t as cool, innovative, unique or daring as they once were.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of the past. (Well, I do, but I’ll try to fight it and remain rational.) There was a lot of junk produced in the ’80s, just as there is today. But the medium was so young back then, no one knew what they were doing. So you had everybody trying stuff, just to see what worked.

Of course, everyone had his or her own idea of “what worked” (or might work). And that meant you had people doing things that were personally meaningful. And it didn’t hurt that teams were smaller, making personal style, and personal statements, much easier.

To personalize the argument, let’s turn the clock back to Origin back in the late ’80s. Most people who were there at the time remember the Richard and Chris show:

  • Richard Garriott was busy creating virtual worlds on an Apple II in the Ultima games (and 10 years later, championing the idea that became the MMOG craze).
  • Chris Roberts was trying to merge movies and games when most people were still trying to figure out how to make a PC speaker go “bwoop.”

But just to complete the old Origin picture, we had a host of guys doing some crazy stuff:

  • Paul Neurath was combining flight sims, arcade games and roleplaying games in a single package.
  • Todd Porter was trying to tell stories episodically while recreating the experience of a tabletop RPG.
  • Greg Malone was combining traditional roleplaying and arcade-style combat – with the first mocapp’ed stuff I ever saw.
  • Stuart Marks turned programming into a game, putting players in the role of AI coders, trying to create AI-driven tanks you could pit against other players’ tanks.

Elsewhere, things were just as exciting, innovative and daring: You had Sierra and Lucas creating a crazy variety of adventure games – I’m stunned they didn’t do a musical comedy game. (Actually, maybe, in Loom, they even did that!) People were inventing new genres all the time – Dune 2, SimCity, Civilization, Myst, Tetris, Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein and Doom

Games had style. Developers had style. You could tell who made a game within seconds of beginning to play. There was variety in form, technique, genre, style – you name it.

Nowadays, there are a handful of Japanese developers who take chances. And let’s all, once again, thank God for Will Wright. The rest of us struggle to innovate in even the smallest of ways. Yes, at the end of the day, I do think games are fundamentally less interesting than they were, less interesting than they need to be to survive and thrive in the future.

If we’re going to secure that future, we must:

  • Find alternative funding and distribution models that encourage innovation, that allow for “narrowcasting” to a (perhaps) smaller but highly motivated audience.
  • We have to embrace the experimental rather than squash it.
  • We have to allow more people with more varied interests to participate in game creation.
  • We have to broaden the range of acceptable game content.

If we do all that, we might just find ourselves appealing to a larger, more diverse audience than ever before. If we do all that, we just might succeed.

But, it seems to me we really do stand at a crossroads. Right now. We’re on the cusp of something. Can’t you feel it?

Not just business as usual
We all know that the old ways aren’t working. We sorta know that online and mobile games are important, from a creative standpoint, from a business standpoint, maybe even in ways we haven’t thought of yet.

We know new hardware is going to shake things up and people are probably going to want to play games on more than one platform, depending on where they are, which of their machines they have access to and how they want to interact with the game.

We know our audience is changing. We want it to change and grow and be more inclusive.

We know all of this is going to force us to rethink development methodologies.

We know boxed games sold at retail can’t be the only way we reach players.

This isn’t just a time of consolidation or business as usual. This is a time of change. And times of change, scary as they are (and if you’re a game developer or publisher and you’re not scared right now, you’re not paying attention!), are also full of potential.

Beyond that, we know nothing. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of noise, a lot of pontificating. Not a lot of facts. And just as it’s silly to tack a tidy little ending on a game, where everything turns out alright because you rescue a princess or kill a demon, I can’t quite bring myself to wrap this article up with a neat little bow that answers all questions and brings closure to all issues.

We face too many challenges for that to make sense. So, bear with me through a couple of sets of conclusions.

Endgame 1: Developers are artists
There. I said it. I used to resist even thinking that. To heck with that. I’m too old to be modest about our medium.

But gaming – like books, movies and television – is a medium that represents a coming together of art and commerce. We’re out of balance these days. Commerce always seems to win.

We can’t continue to let commerce win all of the arguments.

One key to securing our future is, I think, to make sure the discussion, the dialogue leading up to the big decisions we face, doesn’t take place exclusively in the boardrooms – that we begin to ask a wider variety of questions than typically gets asked when biz guys and marketers run the show. There has to be someone asking something other than “Will this generate maximum revenue?” or “Does this maximize shareholder value?”

There are other worthwhile questions:

  • “Does this advance the state of the art?”
  • “Does this prepare us for success when players get tired of mugging virtual old ladies?”
  • “Does this enrich our culture or debase it?”
  • “Do I want to be remembered as someone who figured out how to simulate the actual blood spray pattern caused by a shotgun blast to the head or as someone who created a virtual character people will still be talking about 50 years from now?”

Endgame 2: No one knows anything
Lots of people claim to see The Future – it’s online, it’s convergence, it’s console, it’s whatever.

It’s nonsense.

Figuring out what to do to reach the grand and glorious future we deserve is part business, part personal and, I think (despite the fact that I just spent many thousands of words writing about the future), largely foolishness.

No one knows what they’re doing, let alone how to lead us to the Promised Land. And scary as that may be to contemplate, it gives me hope, too. In some bizarre, through-the-looking-glass way, we may be approaching a time when expertise and experience count for less than they ever have, rather than more. Doors may be about to open for people with genuinely new ways of thinking about or doing things.

The traditional 800 pound gorillas of this business may have all the money and they may seem to have all the clout, but they don’t know how to address the problems of our changing world any better than anyone else. Little guys – whether independent or working inside the big development and publishing organizations – can really make a difference in a world where innovation is going to be critical to success.

Endgame 3: The world will end in six years
I have a friend, a writer named Walton “Bud” Simons, who some of you may remember as the Director of FEMA in Deus Ex. Bud’s always reminding me that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012 – because that’s when the world is going to end. Frankly, I think that’s kinda silly. But what if it were true? What would we want games to become in the last six years of their existence?

If the world were snuffed out tomorrow, would we be satisfied that our last games had cooler explosions or that we created a more compelling simulation of criminal life? Would we be proud, as the world ended, that we had convinced another half-million users to give us $15 a month to lose themselves in a fantasy world where the most compelling goal we could offer them was killing monsters so they could buy a cooler sword? How would you feel if your legacy consisted of giving people 15 minutes of meaningless color-matching and pattern recognition?

If we just carry on as we always have, I think we put ourselves at terrific risk:

  • We’ll lose our audience rather than grow it.
  • We’ll stifle our creativity instead of scaling new heights.
  • We’ll find ourselves mired in a legal/governmental morass that relegates us to irrelevance.
  • And, most tellingly for those of us of a certain age, we’ll find ourselves growing older to find there’s no place for us – as developers or players – in an industry unnecessarily geared toward kids.

None of this doom and gloom stuff is inevitable. We’re not inevitably on the highway to Hell. However, I do believe we have some big decisions to make. And let’s be clear: I’m not talking about false choices, like those in most games. I’m talking about decisions with consequences.

Pick the right direction at the crossroads and the true believers will be proved right; we’ll soar to unforeseen heights of success. Pick the wrong direction(s) and we’ll blow it and find ourselves marginalized; a niche product for a niche audience. And, as cool as games were back in Ye Olden Times, we’ve been there and don’t want to go back again.

I don’t know about you, but I want more from games. As an industry, we’re poised to make some of the most consequential decisions of our careers. Let’s pick the right paths at the crossroads and ensure ourselves the brightest of futures.

Warren Spector is the founder of Junction Point Studios. He worked previously with Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios, TSR and Steve Jackson Games.

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