The Video Game Industry is Going Through Very Awkward Growing Pains

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I’m pretty hard on the games industry as a whole. Since 2009, I’ve used this space to criticize how games are designed, how they’re funded, how they’re written, how they’re marketed, how they’re sold, how they’re criticized, how their communities are run, and how the publishers make decisions and govern themselves. So after heaping shame on just about everyone who has ever had the audacity to try to entertain me, I’m going to take a step back and admit that the AAA games space has been going through some ridiculous growing pains and it’s a testament to the skill and tenacity of the creative people in the industry today that anyone manages to produce any games at all. This whole thing is a circus of unrelenting chaos where few leaders know what they’re doing and nobody has any idea what’s going to happen next.

According to Wikipedia, you can place the birth of the U.S. film industry anywhere from 1894 (the first exhibition of a commercial film) to 1913 (the point where filmmakers began congregating in Hollywood) depending on whether you think the technology or the business is the more important driving force in modern cinema. I’m not knowledgeable enough to defend either point, so for the sake of argument let’s just agree that cinema is about 100 years old. In that century we’ve gone through four really distinct generations of filmmaking: The pre-1930 silent era, the classical era of big-budget hollywood epics in the 1950s, the gritty subversive tone of New Hollywood in the 1970s, and the CGI-laden world of the high-spectacle megabudget nostalgia harvest we have now. Each generation marks a point where old filmmakers have passed on and the industry has been changed or revitalized by young blood with new ideas.

But in video games? The video game industry is somewhere between 30 and 40 years old. (Again, there’s lots of room to quibble about this depending on whether you’re talking about business, technology, or consumer habits.) And in those few decades we’ve gone through more and bigger revolutions than cinema. It took 10 years for talkies to replace silent films, but when a new console generation comes along everyone in the AAA space is expected to make the jump in just a couple of years. It took the better part of a lifetime for us to go from films made by a group of a dozen people to films made by hundreds. Video games made that transition in about a decade.

Hollywood made a big deal about the transition from photochemical film to digital. And it was. But video games go through that kind of shift every time we have a new console generation, and they have a lot less leeway in when and how they make the jump. When there’s a change in film, the old techniques are still good. When there’s a change in graphics technology, you adapt or die. If you hand someone camera equipment from 1970, they can still point the cameras at actors and make a movie with it. (Although buying and developing the film might be a little challenging.) But the greatest game programmer of 1985 would be completely worthless today without a complete re-education. None of their existing knowledge would be useful. Heck, someone from 2005 would have some catching up to do before they could really contribute to a modern team. Tools and techniques are going extinct as fast as new ones are invented, which means everyone needs to be constantly learning just to retain their current level of competence.

Technologically speaking, there has never been a safe place to stand. At any moment the public might run off in pursuit of a new device, new type of controller, new way of doing graphics, or a new kind of gameplay.

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If you’re a producer, then you’ve had to go from managing teams of 15 people to managing teams of 200. And working on a 200-person team isn’t just new to you, it’s also new to all of the 200 other people. We haven’t had time to raise a generation of proper video game executives and moguls, so the big companies end up run by guys with no special expertise in the field.

So video games have changed more often, the change has been more abrupt and less forgiving, and it’s all happened in a much shorter period of time. These shifts happened several times to a single generation of people, instead of working their way gradually through the industry as each new generation supplanted the previous one. The result is an industry that doesn’t know how to do its job. And I think this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see today.

Who is in charge? Who makes the creative decisions? How much leeway do they have? What kinds of stories can they tell? How do we manage communication in teams this large? These are things studios are still trying to figure out, and they’re doing so while the technology is shifting under them at a pace Hollywood never had to cope with. Games keep getting more expensive to produce, so this constant change can probably seem pretty scary.

If this isn’t enough chaos, the audience is changing too. The idea of “Mario for boys, Doom for men” was always overly reductive, but at least it had some grounding in the public’s buying habits. But now the demographics are scattered all over the place. Adults play Mario, young people play Call of Duty, the Wii brought in a huge influx of older players, everyone plays mobile games and women are a major part of the market. But this all happened very fast by the standards of large corporations, which probably explains why so many companies seem so stuck on marketing to young males.

None of this is intended to excuse the big publishers for their lapses of judgement, failure of vision, lack of planning, or adherence to tradition. We have industry leaders who don’t know a good game from a bad one, and so their only plan is to copy what has already worked. We can’t get the technology to hold still, but we’re pretty sure violent power fantasies about white dudes doing heroic things are still a safe bet. (And to be fair, they are. Mostly.)

I’m not suggesting we “Leave video game execs alone!” Far from it. I think in an industry where almost nobody understands what’s going on (I include myself in this) we need to keep talking about what works and what doesn’t. The Unity backlash probably won’t make fundamental changes to Assassins Creed: Unity, but it will certainly leave an impression on the higher-ups when they sit down to plan the next game. And I predict we’ll have ubiquitous female protagonists before execs finally figure out that DRM and pointless graphical spectacle are self-destructive. They won’t know what matters to us unless we tell them, and they can’t change course if they don’t know they’re going the wrong way. Someday the video game industry will stabilize (at least, by Hollywood standards of “stability”) but until then it’s going to be a lot of chaos.

Here’s hoping we can at least get Half-Life 3 before the entire genre of single-player silent protagonist first-person shooters goes the way of silent films.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, and Spoiler Warning.

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