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Buster Keaton vs the wheels of industry

Robin draws parallels between the career of Buster Keaton and the current state of the games industry.

At the height of his career - after making many popular, independent films, Keaton moved to MGM studios - the largest and wealthiest production house in Hollywood. It was a strange move - considering that MGM had made a name for itself by establishing rigid production guidelines - formalizing process and cranking out reel after reel. Like many actors at the time, Keaton went to MGM for the money… but he worried about fitting in.

Sure enough, MGM’s tight control over production began to strangle him - almost immediately. They demanded that every aspect of a film be supervised, properly scripted and set down in writing. Instead of working with Keaton to amplify and flatter his trademark physical slapstick - they pushed him further and further towards stock gags and (with the successful integration of sound) one-liners.

As consolidation spreads, and “organic” process is exchanged for streamlined, predictable production models, it’s hard not to see parallels between the bohemoth film studios of yesteryear and today’s larger game studios. Buster never quite found a happy medium - in the end, he spent the majority of his time on home-made mechanical toys and gagets (machines are a recurring theme in his work). Sadly, I know a lot of experienced, multitalented developers who’ve also tuned out, working on small projects, consulting… searching for a home.

Hear, hear. I also know developers who are no longer in the same position inside the industry as 10 or 20 years ago. They are as talented as ever, but now they're in management, or making games for platforms that do not require huge teams, or consulting. Or out of work, or gone from the industry.

Sometimes these changes happen because of the way the industry has developed in terms of size and organization, as Robin describes. Sometimes it's because of the pay and the working conditions - see the current stories surrounding EA, as well as my previous blog entry.

In a way this is a challenge I face myself on a regular basis. I've worked in programming, game design, QA and management. My strength is organizing, solving problems and communicating across disciplines, and I like the variety of doing multi- and inter-disciplinary work. But choosing a career path would have been a lot easier if I'd just been a programmer the whole time.

I've never liked complaining about how much better the good old days were, preferring instead to work with the current situation. But that doesn't mean the old days weren't good.