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People Make Games, Not Development Studios

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I hadn’t heard that Grin (the developer) went down. I only found out when I was researching the new Strider, because there was something unquantifiably familiar around Strider that made me think of Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Grin’s 2D remake-in-the-traditional-sense of Bionic Commando, which preceded its utterly retarded triple-A gritty installment. As it turns out, Grin was working on a Strider reboot before it went down. I can’t seem to find any confirmed connection between that and Double Helix’s Strider, I don’t know if it picked up any bits and pieces of Grin’s version or if the projects had individual talents in common, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

And the other big news lately was that Irrational went down, developers of BioShock Infinite, and while a lot of Grin’s games I could take or leave, BioShock Infinite was my 2013 game of the year. It was a slightly controversial choice among people with no taste or sense of fun. The point is, we have for some time now been at the stage that not even putting out a solid game or a hugely popular one is enough to stop the company from going down. As a consequence of development getting increasingly bloated, expensive and unsustainable.

But it’s misleading to talk in terms of studios ‘dying’ or ‘going down’. Because a company is, by definition, a collection of individuals, and it’s not like the individuals are being lined up in the car park and shot by a Square Enix execution squad. Not currently, anyway. I have many friends in the local game dev community here in Brisbane, and we’ve had a whole bunch of big studios go down. Krome, SEGA, THQ, Pandemic, they all had studios based here, and all of them have closed their doors. But all the people who worked there didn’t just vanish into smoke. Most of them have formed indie teams and are doing perfectly well in smaller-scale development, free of the sticky suffocating mass that triple-A development has become. Halfbrick, of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride fame, are the new local behemoth, but Defiant is going places, too.

So a studio going down isn’t that big a deal because a studio is not its talent. But that being the case, what use is branding a game with the studio’s logo, as an indicator of quality? Or the publisher’s. It reminds me of how for a while every single animated movie that came out of Dreamworks was labelled “FROM THE PRODUCERS OF SHREK!” Well, what the fuck has that got to do with the quality of this film? They’re also the producers of Shark Tale, and that was made AFTER Shrek, so the only thing that proves is that they aren’t getting any better with practice.

But it is a lingering issue, standing in the way of games being taken seriously as art and culture, that they aren’t generally considered to be auteur projects with names behind them. In Japan, someone is credited as Director, like Hideo Kojima, and that’s a practice we badly need to adopt in the west. It may not be true that this person is micro-managing every aspect of the experience (as it tends not to be true in the film industry), but at least there’s a name attached. And knowing what individual creators are responsible tends to give me a far better idea of the game’s potential quality, or how it will play, or what themes the plot will explore, than the name of the franchise or the name of the developer.

Batman: Arkham Origins

There were names in games in the past, and you could make informed decisions, then. Oh, here’s a new adventure game by Tim Schafer – probably be good, then. Nowadays, with development so bloated and responsibility so heavily divided, assumption of quality in the west is sold on franchise first, developer name second, and the actual names of the people involved a distant third, if they even make the top three. But that’s the very reverse of how it should work.

First case study: Batman: Arkham Origins. I am willing to bet that the majority of the people who had any interest in that game before it came out were basing that interest on the fact that it was another Batman Arkham game. None of the questions that might be asked of a film were asked, such as “Who’s directing it? Joel Schumacher? Fuck that noise.” It barely registered on anyone’s radar that it wasn’t being developed by Rocksteady like the prior two. I myself didn’t know going into it, owing to my policy of hype avoidance, but when I did find out, it explained a lot. While on the surface the gameplay is the same, there’s a feel to Arkham Origins that is distinctly different to that of Asylum and City.

There’s a colorful grunge to the Rocksteady-developed ones that reminds me faintly of a sinister European claymation film. Origins, by comparison, feels unquantifiably ‘cleaner’, and is much less fantastical and exaggerated. The Joker comes across as a more sinister, charismatic, in-control figure, while Asylum/City Joker is more chaotic, more flustered, and I’d argue quite a bit funnier. It’s almost like back when he was voiced by Mark Hamill he was more reminiscent of Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, while in Origins he owes a little more to the darker Heath Ledger force-of-nature I’m-not-a-schemer-oh-wait-I-totally-am version.

Second case study: the Silent Hill series. Even before the franchise made the big catastrophic move to Western developers, one could sense a difference in tone between Silent Hills 1-4, even though all of them were ostensibly developed by ‘Team Silent’. The fact is, the individual members of the team were chopped and changed for each one. Number 2 had more talent in common with number 4 than it had with number 3, I seem to recall, and personally I think 3 is terribly over-rated.

My point is, this isn’t fair. Audiences may have bought Silent Hill 3 because it had the same developer, not realizing that the developer was a fluid entity and that individuals with different ability and personal tastes were actually making the game, tastes that might not correspond with yours. Ken Levine worked as part of Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games, and every game he’s worked on has worn some of his auteur influence, regardless of the developer logo at the start.

So in summary we need to think more in terms of names than studios. Not that I’m any better, since I referred to Strider as ‘Double Helix’s Strider‘ in the first paragraph of this article. Well, let’s fix that. Strider was produced by (alt-tab Google Google alt-tab) Andrew Szymanski. And it was alright. So, yeah. Play the next game Andrew Szymanski makes as well, regardless of whose banner he’s working under.

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