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The Blues

Written By mista sense on Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 12:00 PM

There's no empirical way to quantify the rates of depression among those who work in the game industry, but talking to some friends lately, I'd hazard a guess they're quite high.

The problem with actually researching this in any constructive way is largely the tight-lipped nature of the industry on a whole. We have a hard enough time getting through to game companies to talk to them on the record about things they've already publicly announced; I've shared my frustrations lately with the pre-scripted approach to interviews, generally a rule.

Besides, I doubt if you talked to the executives -- certain directorial boards who earn $208,333 a month, for example -- they'd be the ones feeling bummed. I'm talking the people who often fall through the cracks. Not the star designers whose names you always read about, but the individuals part of huge development teams working sixty hours a week on something they probably never would have elected to make.

Of course, not all execs have it easy -- imagine being Midway interim president and CEO Matt Booty, who after working his way through the company for some 15 years, has to get in front of investors and sound cheerful and upbeat in the face of a $34 million loss.

As with any industry, money has a fist around the games biz, and those companies' leadership have a primary responsibility to their investors, even before their employees and their customers. But as gaming fights for legitimacy in a broadening audience, battles big-studio stagnation, and struggles to defend its spirit in a world where the big must consolidate the small just to remain competitive with one another, a broad gulf seems to be opening between the leadership of the games industry and its numerous employees, its still more numerous consumers and devotees.

Sequels, licensing deals, kid-friendly and budget casual products, more sequels and more licenses -- this is what the companies that aren't the market leaders must do to stay afloat. Why? The almighty investor doesn't always understand games. They understand sales figures and the properties that garner them. They understand that Spider-Man makes money, ergo any game with Spider-Man is a good bet -- period.

And these companies that aren't Activision and EA don't have the latitude to do what we'd all like to see the game industry do: invest in independent designers, new game concepts, creativity and innovation. When their stock is suffering, investors don't want to hear, "we're trying something new." Investors want to hear, "You know that Grand Theft Auto IV game that's so popular? We're making something else that's just like it."

Doesn't matter that struggling studios might not have either the budget or the talent on staff to make something that could compete with the market leader. If copying the winner poorly could get them just a percentage of those sales, the suits are happy. And if the suits aren't happy, struggling studios have no development budget at all. Then they've got to lay lots of people off to prove they're fiscally responsible. That's the beginning of the end for a company.

Even the market leaders, who are often on record talking about how happy their studios are, can rarely afford to rattle investor nerves with a few risks; that's why innovation comes so slowly. Nobody's got any mobility.

If you were to go into game development, think of why you'd want to do it. You'd want to design interesting, beautiful experiences for gamers like yourself, perhaps. Maybe you've got a prodigious technical skill you're just itching to apply to raise the quality bar across the board. You want to be creative, proficient, you want to change the paradigm.

Probably, probably, though, you'll end up making budget DS titles for girls, poor knockoffs of television shows and corny movies, because someone is holding a balance sheet in front of of you that says that's what's guaranteed to sell. And your development schedule and budget is ultimately in the hands of the board, not the people at work on the floor. And then when your game comes out, a legion of bloggers make it the butt of flippant jokes for months. Three hundred commenters and forum posters mock the company you work for. Your company's stock drops, your friends get fired. Then you've got to hang in there and do it again.

The games press is surly, too, of course. They're tired of crap; they're tired of writing the same kinds of stories on the same kinds of games for years and years. And they're tired of the same flippant, angry audience -- whose anger is justified and forgivable, as devoted enthusiasts who've been let down too many times. In my opinion, a vocal minority of the audience correlates the games press with the games industry, as if we were its mouthpiece -- and for other tricky reasons, sometimes some of us end up feeling like we're forced to be exactly that.

The majority of the industry, I'd gather, either distrusts or outright resents the games press -- some of us have earned that distrust and resentment, it's true. But that standoff makes it hard for journalists to get the access they need to do work that goes beyond hyped previews and easy, traffic-earning sensationalism, the very stuff that the industry criticizes in us whenever there are "meet the press"-type panels at GDC. So the resentment, at times, definitely becomes mutual. I'm not of the opinion that journalism should "serve" the industry, but without us working together better, neither the industry nor us will wholly serve a broader audience. More limited mobility.

This is why that IGN video scandal infuriated me -- why embrace the worst aspects of that fundamental miscommunication? I wondered, how does Rockstar feel when they see something they worked on for some two years distilled in this way, for this purpose?

I often wonder why the gaming community is so reactive, so passionate, so alarmingly volatile, and often so pervasively negative, and why so few members of the press tend to be patient and positive. Now, the more I talk to people (none of whom will go on the record, of course, and risk violating terror-inducing nondisclosure agreements that only allow them to make pre-approved statements) the more I realize that the people who make games have the toughest pill to swallow.

As long as this massive gap, this fundamental disconnect between the industry's leadership and its audience continues to exist, the industry's creative talent, its backbone, its workers continue to be in danger of slipping into the crevasse.

Certainly I don't imply that everyone who works in games is miserable; as I said, it's something that's impossible to really quantify. But it's worth wondering at the immense challenges all involved are facing, in the context of the undertone of negativity and hostility we see everywhere online -- something I really, really wish there were something I could do about.

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