It’s time to stop feeling bad for mainstream game developers
Raphael van Lierop has been a part of the industry for over 12 years, and he has held creative and production leadership roles on multiple million-selling, award-winning entertainment franchises including Company of Heroes, Space Marine, Dawn of War, and Far Cry. We began a friendly relationship over Twitter, and he's since sent me a few frustrated messages about how game development is written about and perceived in the press. It became clear he had something to say, and when someone with that much experience wants to talk to your audience about their art, I'm inclined to let them. After reading his piece, I'm glad I did. Enjoy! -Ben A lot of ink (pixels?) has been spilled lately, in discussing how horribly broken the games industry is. With all the turmoil around new business models, the painstaking transition between console generations, the looming question of whether or not casual/social games are overtaking traditional “core” games in industry prevalence, concerns about where free-to-play is really taking us as an industry, etc. – it’s hard to argue we aren’t experiencing some kind of major sea change, the effects of which will likely resonate for years. The recent thermonuclear implosion of Curt Schilling’s troubled Rhode Island developer, 38 Studios, has provided a wonderful case study on the industry gone wrong. I won’t retread the events of that spectacular clusterfuck here, except to say that it’s shone a very bright light on a chronic issue in the games industry – one of the gross mismanagement of financial resources, and of employees. Unfortunately, the trials experienced by abandoned 38 Studios workers (who, frankly, seem to have been generally discarded by the company like trash), are not as rare in our industry as we hope they would be, or as rare as they well should be. I’m not sure why the particular case of 38 Studios raised the ire of so many games journos, but for some reason it inspired a deep pathos I’ve not seen before. Maybe it’s because Schilling, as a former baseball superstar, really had no business being in the games industry and makes an easy target. Maybe it’s because the meltdown has been uncharacteristically visible, due to the involvement of public, government funding that has exposed details about studio finances and business that people outside the industry are rarely privy to. Oddly, the language I’ve seen being used to discuss the aftermath of the situation is reminiscent of how people speak of exploited mine workers, ship-breakers, or Victorian-era child laborers; as though we should actually be pitied for our choice of careers. “Oh those poor game developers. So exploited. What a shameful industry. If only they could find a more reasonable line of work…”
There's a reason people want to do this
This sense of pity from the “outside” really irks me. Sure, we’ve all suffered under the yoke of publisher stupidity, reeled from the fickle tastes of gamers, major and minor shifts in business models or player tastes that have suddenly rendered projects completely redundant, etc. But, to see our choice of profession and medium viewed through the lens of public pity…it’s just too much for me.Look, making games is really damn hard. Much harder than you’d think it would be when you’ve only ever experienced the end result. There are about a bazillion things that can go wrong and not too many ways things can go right. In the end you can pour your heart and soul into a game that as many people hate as love, that for whatever series of reasons never reaches its full potential and never really resonates as strongly with its audience as it might have had everything gone right. And yes, it’s frustrating because so many of these things are out of your hands. The only thing you can control, to some extent, is the way in which you are able to contribute to moving the game forward. You often get so close to your work that you can’t see it objectively anymore, and yet you have to find a way to trust your instincts because frankly, that’s the work. Beyond that, you face the mercy of luck, serendipity, and pray your publisher knows what they are doing. That’s the business. It can feel really shitty and unfair sometimes, and I’m sure anyone who has shipped something, anything at all, has had at least a hundred moments where they had to stop and ask themselves, “damn…what the hell am I doing here, anyway?” For me, it’s happened after every single game I’ve shipped. It’s like you go through some kind of strange developer-equivalent of post-partum depression. You’ve slaved over something that you care a hell of a lot about, potentially for years, and God forbid you were actually trying to express some modicum of your own worldview through the game, and feel that it is in some way a tiny reflection of something important that you feel the need to say to people, and you just want people to like it enough to buy it and not rent it from Blockbuster for $2 a day and finish it on a weekend for the price of a Happy Meal because your publisher won’t see any money from that rental and so neither will you. That's the thing you slaved over for years and poured your heart and soul into, remember? People will finish it in a matter of days, and then it’s immortalized in a few misspelled forum posts, you get some pats on the back, maybe a plaque for your wall to add to the others, and then it’s over.
But if we can reach so many people, even at our worst, imagine what we can do when we’re at our best. We get to create experiences that can change people’s lives. And that’s a powerful thing.
You look at the body of work of games you’ve actually been able to get into a box, which is likely a much smaller number than all the games you’ve worked on in your life, because let’s be honest, a hell of a lot of them were cancelled along the way, and you think to yourself, holy shit, where has the time gone and is that how many games I have my name on and wow, that’s really not a lot of games is it? At that rate how many games will I be able to finish before I’m too old to do this work anymore? Or until the industry changes so dramatically that all the things I know become irrelevant? How long before what I want to say through my games, doesn’t matter?
It's hard not to get discouraged
Sometimes when I get to that dark place, I think about leaving the industry. I think about all the things I could be doing with my time, my energy. I think about the ways in which I could be making the world a better place. I could be trying to help people, rather than dedicate my life to a pursuit that most people discount as thoughtless and pointless. You know that glazed-over look or barely disguised intake of breath indicating the shock and disbelief of someone who just can’t conceive of you being part of such a gratuitous industry that does nothing to advance humanity in any meaningful way whatsoever. I look at my wife and my children and I I want to be able to look them straight in the eyes and feel some pride about what I do, and I hope that when my kids look at me they think what I do matters to the world and makes it a better place. The people at parties who snort disdainfully are, in many ways, right. We have squandered so much of the potential we have right at our fingertips. We have chased our tails endlessly, a digital Ouroboros, to pursue delivering the same shallow “little boy fantasies” over and over to our players. Or we employ clever parlor tricks to extract a couple of dollars. Or we chase yet another established blockbuster in a vain attempt to convince players that we have something worth their time because hey, this game is an awful lot like that other game that sold a hell of a lot of copies and you know, you keep telling us (through your spending habits) that you don’t really want anything new or original, you just want the same thing only different. Haven’t we somehow managed to wring much of the life out of this industry, to the point where our experiences and our audiences are so fragmented now that, if we’re honest, nobody really knows who the hell we’re making these games for anyway? You might wonder if this is going to be just a bunch of words to tell us how terribly dire the whole thing has become; because we’ve already heard all that stuff before, and we need to hear something new. There is a lot of stuff that is truly messed up about our industry. It’s not really what I thought it would be when I took the plunge and decided, like so many others, that I would abandon my previous career and dedicate myself to doing something “more creatively fulfilling” with my life. Many developers feel that that now that they’ve invested years into their games careers, they think that it’s not really the way it used to be, or should be, or they wish it would be, and they choose to leave for greener pastures in tech or academia or the military or wherever. So why do we do it? Despite all of the above – why do we dedicate our lives to the creation of video games?
Well the answer is simple, really. It’s the best goddamn job in the world.
We stand at the confluence of art and technology and get to express ourselves through a creative medium that is evolving more quickly than any other in history. The things we create are enjoyed by millions. We create worlds. We evoke emotions. We provide hours of escapist entertainment for people, some of which is purely mindless, some of which is transcendent. We get to work with some of the smartest people in the world, on some of the most creatively fulfilling (at times), technologically complex (often), organizationally challenging (always) endeavors around. Our games can allow players to have meaningful interactions with other human beings. To connect with them in a way that matters. We can bring such happiness to our fans, that we become something to them. And, we have fans! And even detractors. People care enough about the games we make to bother expressing an opinion about them.I know I said above that we’ve been wasteful about our potential, and I genuinely mean that. But if we can reach so many people, even at our worst, imagine what we can do when we’re at our best. We get to create experiences that can change people’s lives. And that’s a powerful thing. One day many years ago, I played a game that made me want to change the direction of my life, to abandon what I was doing and dedicate my life to the creation of video games, so that I could someday create an experience that profound, for someone else. Maybe even profound enough to make that person want to change the direction of their life, as I had done. And that experience was life-changing because unlike with a movie or a book, two mediums I have a great deal of love for, I was the one in the driver’s seat. I was the one tapping into the potential the developers had put into my hands in the form of their game – technology, content, systems, and game play – that I manipulated using my own thoughts and ingenuity, to have a meaningful experience that unleashed a form of self-expression. For a moment, I saw the true transformative potential that games possess. I’ve spent the last years trying to help others see and experience that potential as well. I've failed more often than I've succeeded, I’m constantly driven to find new ways to move that work forward. To find the meaning. To make it matter. My work is the work of self-actualization and I get to do it using the most powerful tools of creation ever conceived: Your imagination. In his beautiful song “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen’s poetic lyrics sum up the industry wonderfully: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.” Don’t feel sorry for us game developers. For many of us, this isn’t work—it’s a calling. And while we may not always get it right, and while a lot about what we do is broken, and damn it a lot about the way the industry works defies logic and decency and surely makes our lives more difficult—in the end, the feeling of being able to influence someone and touch them in a way that matters to them… well, that makes the failures worthwhile, despite how tortuous the journey can often be. We’re forging modern mythology here. Nobody said it was going to be easy. And yes, there are a lot of cracks. Just remember, there’s also a lot of light shining through what we do.