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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