Doom and gloom – response

Well, Greg seems to have touched a nerve. Warren Spector has replied, and Greg has counter-replied in the blog itself. Erik Simon, Raph Koster, Evan Robinson, Jeff Tunnell, Geoff Howland, Tobe Mayr, myself and many others have opined in the Comments. And Greg’s entry has been slashdotted. And while I, for no good reason, have been taking entirely too much time to write this blog entry, the discussion has continued.

Before I get to my reply to Greg’s original blog entry, here are some conclusions or remarks that I found interesting:

  • There is an indie scene, it’s just not very visible. What seems to be missing is a web zine or blog covering it. Hint, hint! (If one exists, kindly point me towards it.)

  • There is a lot of innovation coming from Japan. I argued this a while ago on the DiGRA list: I will regurgitate that here at some time in the future.
  • Hard-core gamers are taste leaders or trendsetters. Ever since the success of Half-Life in 1998, I knew this as a kind of industry assumption – Raph Koster explains the why and how in his comment on Greg’s original blog entry. I think that in the long term this will dilute. Slowly but surely we should be able to reach other people directly.

But anyway. Greg seems to be saying that because of the structure of the games industry (a small amount of risk-averse publishers who control the means of production), creativity is constrained to the point of suffocation, and therefore the industry is doomed.

My initial reaction was: so what’s new? We’ve been hearing that fewer games make more money for some time now. Has it crossed some line where there is a qualitative difference? Or even a point of no return? Did Greg see the same thing Chris Crawford did in 1996?

I don’t know if I share Greg’s estimation. I don’t know if it has gotten harder to pitch games to publishers because I have never pitched games to publishers, and I can’t remember a time when people told me it was easy. I did not get the feeling at the GDC that he did. It felt different than other GDCs, but in my opinion that was because no big company was announcing new hardware this year. Ever since the end of the PlayStation 1 era, things have been getting tougher, but there was always new hardware to keep developers optimistic.

What is clear to me is that a fair number of companies have grown too quickly between 1998 and 2000. They hired too many people and acquired too many other companies too quickly. Now, post dot-com meltdown, they are feeling the pain. 2002 was the best year ever for the industry – why are so many of my friends out of a job? I am only slightly exagerrating when I tell people that I’m surprised if a week goes by without a company in the German games industry going bust. In France, the situation is not much better (30 studios went bust in 18 months). I used to work at Kalisto. We had 300 developers in France, now the company is bust. Let me tell you, those 300 developers haven’t all found new jobs. If less games are making more money, doesn’t that mean that the industry, in terms of the number of people working in it, is shrinking? The dot-com meltdown may not have hurt demand, but nevertheless it wasn’t good for business. One top publisher, Vivendi Universal, was directly affected. Investors generally became more risk averse. Capital was harder to come by. Friends of mine in Paris told me Kalisto’s collapse chilled investors’ interest towards the whole game industry. (For an impressively long time, Kalisto was more often mentioned in financial magazines as the star of the nouvelle economie than in games magazines.)

Wouldn’t this explain a feeling of desperation? I know it explains the absence of many of my friends at the GDC. (ExtremeTech seems to be more optimistic.)

What does Greg want? I’m not entirely sure.

William Huber wrote the following in the comments:

For some people it doesn’t need to be noted, but for others, it needs to be stated: there’s a difference between independent and experimental (as demonstrated by the different workshops at GDC.) “Independent” is about the relationship with the rest of the industry; “experimental” is about the relationship with the rest of practice (again, for most of you, this is really obvious, but you’d be surprised how often the two are mistakenly conflated.)

I agree very much. Combine this with Greg’s comment on games distributed over the Internet:

Now most of this stuff is drivel, although some of it is highly addictive puzzled games like Bejeweled that can’t find a place at retail today, and bully for them that they’ve found a marketing venue that works. And in all likelihood, this marketing channel has its own strong forces that prevent any real creativity–instant-pickup games with no real depth.

I tend to agree – at least concerning the games I have seen, enjoyable as they might be.

I have not seen significantly more innovation and creativity in Internet games or indie games than in mainstream games. I’m sorry to say this because I know a fair amount of people in the indie scene. (Remember I do not claim to know every indie game out there: feel free to let me know about games that are innovative and creative. Yes, I did look at the Independent Games Festival.)

I do see a lot of quality games in the mainstream. Since the inception of the E3, when I ask people about their general impression of what they saw there, they tell me that they didn’t see any exceptional games, but the overall level went up. Every year. Well, except that one time they couldn’t stop talking about Metal Gear Solid 2. But still. Over the years, the pressure to pay attention to game design and writing, to think about the customer, to not focus exclusively on the hard-core gamer, to use sensible processes, in short: the pressure to make quality games has been growing – because the people who do all this are becoming more and more successful, both critically and financially. As Erik Simon said to me a while ago, all the companies that don’t use design documents are out of business. Remember when that wasn’t common sense? Nowadays the developers I know tend to spend more time discussing which process to use, not whether one should use a process. As far as I can tell, Game Architecture and Design, released in 1999, is still the most-read book on game development.

Of course things could go faster, and some people are successful while not doing all this, and potentially good games are screwed up because, say, someone on the team thought he could write dialogue, but still, I am quietly optimistic.

I have started writing more on innovation and limitations of current games – areas where I might agree with Greg. Mainly I have been thinking about how, if independent games are not significantly more creative or innovative than, ah, dependent games, how can the structure of the industry be the source of the problem? Where could we innovate? What are our limitations?

But this entry has been taking so much time I’m going to save that for later.