When I began writing about videogames a decade ago, I was like any other videogame fan. I was excited about the idea of working in this space and perhaps someday getting to talk to some famous developer and finding out what color his Ferrari is. Games were some unknowable construct built from the genius of men who could wield math and logic into a kind of magical amalgam that entertained me endlessly. I was innocent and naïve.
Now, I count a few of those “names” as friends, and I have seen behind the curtain to find out that the conjurers who I imagined calling forth titanic and arcane magiks to create the games I play turn out to just be guys who work really hard to be a part of an industry they love. Even those who are doomed to struggle every day for years to create some product that may only manage a meager 75 on the metacritic scale have invested themselves into work with the passion and determination of any craftsman.
As I close the book on Press Released, and step further back from writing about games professionally, I wish to leave you with this reminder: This is an industry built on the backs of real people.
To actually sit down and talk to a developer, programmer, producer or artist who poured themselves into four years of production that was poorly received at launch, regardless of legitimacy of the criticism, is an exploration in the human side of this equation. What I have learned and grown to respect over 10 years is how much these professionals invest of themselves in their project.
I am reminded of a story I once wrote for a magazine about the doomed MMOG Vanguard. While I had been as scathing as any other critic about the game, I was fascinated about the struggles that had faced the team, and I pursued people at all levels involved in the process. There came from that two stories: the one I could actually write in which I had quotes and on-the-record comments from credible sources. Then, there was the one that no one would confirm but about which everyone in the know agreed that spoke of unending disappointment, discouragement and at times outright betrayal. The people who worked on that game were endlessly talented, regardless of the shambles which represented the final product, and if you think you were disappointed with the results as a player, get one of those guys in a bar, sit down and have a few drinks to find out what real disappointment looks like.
As I read the recent Wired article about the final days of Duke Nukem Forever and looked at the picture of the team gathered for their one final moment of glory before the lights went dim, I understood again the human toll of such public failure. Yes, it’s been fun to make Duke the butt of endless jokes, but imagine for a moment spending 12 years, day after day, struggling to build something monumental only to fall far short with nothing to show for it. For us, Duke Nukem will be an anecdote. For those involved, it may certainly be a cornerstone of their life.
I’m not asking for sympathy for the “poor developers” because they have a job and talent that most would kill for. I’m not saying that a bad game doesn’t deserve the criticism it receives or that reviewers should let up on the whip when some public lashing is deserved. I’m just saying, the thing that seems most to be missing from the mainstream game space and journalism is the idea that this is a business made from people exactly like us.
There is an unexplored human element to the gaming industry, and it should be the most interesting part of the whole damned thing.
I think that we – and by “we” I’m not sure if I mean gamers or the writers who perhaps mistakenly think they have the pulse of gamers nailed down – are fascinated by the unrestrained discussion of concepts. It’s very easy to talk about a product, whether that product is a single game such as Modern Warfare 2, a franchise such as Guitar Hero or the industry as a whole, if you examine it not as a real world thing built by people but something that exists independently as an idea. It may even be true that most of the time this is a pretty good way to get to some conclusion.
The problem with dehumanizing the world is that what we are left with is clinical, dispassionate and perhaps meaningless. It becomes easy to forget that there are real consequences in the lives of real people. We so rarely get to see that.
I understand that gaming blogs and journalism is supposed to be all about the reader and the consumer with a nice “fight the system” anarchist kind of vibe going on. As you may or may not have detected, I’ve grown tired of the endless protest, the undercurrent of entitlement and the sense that there are no consequences to our attitude and actions as gaming consumers. I have been accused of being some kind of industry sympathizer, but that’s not true.
The industry is just another one of those convenient terms we use to reduce an impossibly complex thing into a nicely digestible context. What I may have become is sympathetic to the quiet plight of the people actually sitting at desks doing the work day after day. I don’t know that they need a champion, and God help them if I’m the best they get, but they are too often invisible and underappreciated.
So, as I conclude this final Press Released I choose to do so with this last thought. Try to remember, that the game you are playing, good or bad, are the passion of dozens and possibly hundreds. It is the culmination of a monumental effort that may or may not have succeeded. It is a thing for which real people with their own immeasurable dreams will have sacrificed. Perhaps they were paid well for their work; perhaps not. Perhaps they will be recognized for their talent and perhaps they have languished doomed forever to obscurity.
The decisions you make, the words you choose, the actions you take – they all echo beyond your door. It is up to you to decide if that means anything.
And with that, farewell.
Sean Sands is a father, gamer and writer. He extends a heartfelt thanks to the editors, colleagues and readers who have put up with him for the better part of a decade.