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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.

Familiar sounds

There's an article in the Telegraph (found via GreenCine Daily) about the current state of the anime industry in Japan. Despite Miyazaki's successes, things are not looking well.

The creative and commercial success enjoyed by Ghibli, with a run of films going back to My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, has afforded it a unique breathing space. For other studios, however, commercial pressures force work to be done at breakneck speed and on shoestring budgets. Veterans of the industry say quality has been sacrificed as television cartoon episodes are made for as little as £10,000.

For the animator, starting pay can be as low as £300 a month without benefits. They are often paid a pound per page, a rate that has not risen in 20 years. Producing 15 pages a day is no easy feat for a beginner, meaning 12-hour days and six-day weeks are the norm.

Many young animators rely on parental support to put them through animation schools and continue to need financial help just to afford to work in Tokyo, the world's most expensive city. Yet, remarkably, anime has little problem attracting recruits. At the Nippon Engineering College in Tokyo, dozens of students pore over desks painstakingly producing page after page of drawings. Most say they are aware that pay is low but desperately want to work in the industry they fell in love with as children through cartoons such as Doraemon, the blue talking cat, and Battle of the Planets, which was shown in the UK in the late 1970s.

Masataka Kawai, a teacher at the school, worked for eight years at one of Japan's best-known studios. He says that he often slept under his desk for up to three weeks, not noticing the changing of the seasons until his latest deadline had passed.

"Students need good powers of observation and have to be good drawers. But they also must have passion," says Kawai. "To stick it out in anime, you can't just like drawing. You have to love it."

But reality often bites as animators reach their thirties, by which time they typically earn around a third of the average pay for Japanese their age and at lower hourly rates than supermarket clerks.

Yoshitaka Ogata of the Anime Union, which campaigns for better working conditions, says: "However keen they are when they come in, the reality is that they cannot live on the pay. There are animators with 10 years' experience on less than £11,000 a year. In the end, they have to quit."

More and more animation work is now outsourced to cheaper countries such as South Korea, China and India. This has led to a hollowing out of talent in Japan and the end of the in-house production system, where people mastered each element of the process as they worked their way up from the bottom.

Sounds familiar?

What I like about Katamari Damacy

I just finished Katamari Damacy. I started playing Monday night, now it's Wednesday night. I guess I played about 8-12 hours in total. Here's what I liked about the game:

  • The save game selection screen
  • Looking up in the tutorial level
  • Looking down in the constellation screen
  • The TV in the living room
  • The King of All Cosmos and his parenting skills (and his diary)
  • The Prince
  • What you see when a level is loaded
  • Starting with a 1m katamari and going all the way to 300m in one level
  • Wiggling creatures and screaming people attached to my katamari
  • Despite the fact that aforementioned creatures and people get collapsed into flaming balls of gas, it's a non-violent game
  • What happens when you lose a level (somehow I saw this a lot on star 7)
  • The music
  • The fact that it's a short game, but there seems to be genuinely cool hidden stuff
  • The very satisfying ending (I didn't even get the 'UN mode' even though I'd seen it at GDC...)
  • Easy access to everything you've seen or unlocked
  • The visual style and general upbeat wackiness
  • "Oh! I feel it! I feel the cosmos!"

Update: Fixed stupid typos.

Katamari Damacy and the Game of the Year lists

Good news: I am now finally able to play Katamari Damacy at home. Also, I am playing the US version instead of the Japanese version, and that makes things a lot easier to understand. And the quirkiness made it across for once.

So what did other people think of Katamari Damacy?

In GameSpy's 2004 Top 10 Games of the Year, it came in at number 10:

I know that this year everybody's all hyped up about the Half-Life and Halo and GTA and Metal Gear and blah blah blah how many times have I played games like that? Yes, I know that all of those games are fantastic, but for my money there's no greater game this year that Namco's wonderfully, joyously bizarre Katamari Damacy.

I can't remember the last time that I played a game just makes me feel as, well, happy, as Katamari does. The surreal box art, the whacked-out intro (which I still have to watch every time I play), the cute and addictive (and subtly dark) gameplay, and perhaps most importantly, the indescribably wonderful soundtrack -- everything about this game puts a big, dopey smile on my face.

Gamespot says it has the Best Original Music of all game in 2004:

But there's more to the music in Katamari Damacy than just one melody, and the rest of the music on the soundtrack is consistent only in how different one piece is from the next. The menus are at first accompanied by the filtered pluckings of an acoustic guitar, and then by what can best be described as a marching band composed of very small robots. The pipe-organ-laced synthesized vocal chorus that plays as you're briefed by the King of All Cosmos helps set such a surreal tone that it doesn't seem inappropriate that his voice sounds like DJ scratches. During the actual gameplay, you'll hear big swing-music sounds, an achingly sweet J-pop song, and some intensely bizarre electronic compositions that work hard to defy description. The quality of the soundtrack is high enough that it stands on its own as a catchy, quirky collection of music, though within the context of Namco's surrealist ball-rolling game, it is an integral part of the experience.

As well as a nomination for Best New Character:

Words can't really do justice to The King of All Cosmos, so we'll simply remind you that his "voice" sounds just like turntable scratching.

As well as for Funniest Game:

It may be a touch morbid, but hearing the screams of the maniacally wiggling humans when you scoop them up into your garbage ball is always hilarious. The King of All Cosmos also delivers some awesomely weird lines to round it all out.

Finally, they call it the Most Original Game of 2004:

There has truly never been a game quite like the strange and wonderful Katamari Damacy. To merely say that the game's design is "original" seems an understatement of epic proportions--every aspect of this delightfully oddball title is saturated with surreal style.

Finally, Voodoo Extreme lists Katamari Damacy as the number 1 PS2 game of 2004:

It's stupid, it features crazy physics, it's insane, it features addictive pick up 'n' play gameplay that even your girlfriend or kid can master without ever touching a game pad before, it's hilarious, it makes you go back for more and more, wanting to increase the size of your ball more than you did before, and then you discover the possibilities: internet ranking boards, take-turns get togethers with alcohol consumed upon failure of a level, and so on. A truly wonderful game.


Update: I found out through Kotaku that Geek On Stun has given Katamari Damacy a ton of awards: Best Sound, Most Innovative Title, Best Chopsticks Wrappers Based On A Video Game and Best Budget Title. For some reason, it didn't pick up Best Exploding Barrels. Meh.

Industry size

Ron Gilbert is being grumpy about the "games biz > Hollywood" stories one occasionally sees (like this one). He actually looks at the figures. When I am annoyed by overblown statements regarding industry size, I usually just point out that the porn industry also likes to claim it's bigger than Hollywood. But then, I'm lazy.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting milestones this year. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, Halo 2 and GTA: San Andreas set records for the amount of generated revenue for an entertainment product in a given period. The Economist wrote something about Halo 2 recently ("The Halo effect", Nov 11th 2004). They think games are not comparable to movies because the high revenue is caused by the high price ($50 versus $7). However, my boss made the good point that spending $50 is a bigger decision than spending $7. And you get more hours of entertainment - many more, in the case of GTA: San Andreas.

In the end, it all boils down to ego, shame, redemption, politics - a tool in an attempt to increase stature and power. It's cool that my job is easier to explain to my parents, that I don't need to hesitate before telling someone in a bar what I do for a living. But it doesn't make my work any easier.