Despair Over GDC: Warren Spector vs. Greg Costikyan

Greg Costikyan posted a Blog a couple days ago about the feeling of doom and gloom at this year's GDC thanks to developers being forced to work on license games and sequels instead of new and creative projects. With independent developers slowly dwindling it's very possible he was right on the mark.

Things really get interesting when Warren Spector replies to his initial rant..

Here is what Greg had to say about Warren at one point in his article:

Mene mene takel upharsin. The writing is on the wall. And here we have my high-school buddy Warren Spector to confirm it: There in his keynote speech, telling us not to worry, just be happy. Drink the cool aid. Go to work for an in-house studio. Develop a licensed product. By God, Warren would be glad to do a Harry Potter game. What a lovely universe to work in. It's the future. It's the way things are. And it's not so bad.

Trust the Computer. The Computer is your Friend. Honest.
Desperation breeds--sometimes despair, but at least as often, desperate innovation.

Warren emailed Greg a pretty lengthy response to this, here's a small bit of it:

 First, I tried to be explicit about the fact that I wasn't going to get into the DESIRABILITY of making sequels and licensed games. I wanted to address the commonly held and, I thought, unexamined notion that such games were, a priori, a bad thing, from a design and/or creative standpoint. (Remember, I was giving a design keynote...)

Second, while I acknowledge the dominance of licenses and sequels, I really, truly, don't see how setting/character/context -- a license or previous game, in other words -- significantly limits a GAME developer's ability to introduce original GAMEPLAY elements into his or her work. Adaptation from one linear medium to another (e.g., movies adapted from books) run far more risk of creative bankruptcy than works making the transition from a linear medium to an interactive one.

It ends with Greg's response, which is also a long piece of writing.

 What you're speech was fundamentally saying was: Okay, you're stuck doing a sequel or a licensed product, stop whining, make the best of it, it's still possible to do good work.

That's true. And it's worth stating. But it misses two points: First, it may be possible to do good work on a sequel, or a licensed product, but the odds are stacked against you. And the pussilanimity of the industry, which will now fund virtually nothing but sequels and licensed products, is threatening the very survival of our field.

To address the first (and I think weaker) point: Why are the odds stacked against you?

Let's take the case of a sequel. Sure, yeah, it's possible to do a good job. Who remembers GTA II? GTA III is head and shoulders a better game. But you start with the expectation that the game will essentially be an updated version of the original, with slightly better use of media but the same basic experience. The members of your team who want to do cool stuff are not going to be enthused, and may well depart for greener pastures. You're left with second raters. You may be able to sustain it for a while (Heroes of Might & Magic II > III), but ultimately, you're left with a souless piece of crap that hs nothing of the vigor or spirit of the original (Heroes IV....) Sure, it's worth rabble rousing, and saying "By god, try to do a good job, you're professionals"... but fundamentally, who can get excited about this? In version II, you fix the problems with version I. In version III, you polish. By the time you reach IV... it's bullsh*t.

You can read the whole thing here. Just scroll to the bottom of the page and work your way up.

This reminds me of a time when I would clean some local offices at night. I would complain and my dad would say that you should find joy in everything that you do, be it playing games or cleaning toilets. While I find this to be true on a intellectual and spiritual level in practice it's very difficult for most people to manage.

Many developers seem to be stuck scrubbing toilets right now, should they find happiness in what they're doing or rage against the machine?

- Certis

Comments

"While I find this to be true on a intellectual and spiritual level in practice it's very difficult for most people to manage."

 

Yes, as my father (like my favourite comic book character calvins dad says) it builds character. How come it's always the bad stuff that bulds character? I'd love to be able to find joy in my job every day. However a lot of the time I find my job"character building"

How many out of work developers are yearning to scrub toilets?  That is the real question.

There have been so many layoffs/closures in the last 3-4 months its unnerving.

Maybe EA will get so big that the government will step in and break them up ala Ma Bell.  They dont have the muscle like Microsoft.  They couldnt withstand congressional hearings.

EA is looking to hire a "brand manager" for the Battlefield "series".  How does that rub you?

How many times has EA closed down a dev studio upon completion of a project in the last 6 months?

Not to sound too much like a wuss, but I think they both agree with each other, theyre just talking about different subjects.

Greg is talking about the state of the industry, and how it needs to change.

Warren is talking about how to take advantage of the currernt state of the industry to do good work.

They're both making excellent points. I particuarly appreciate Greg's diatribe, as its very angry and therefore entertaining

Like I said in the forums, I think whats happening to the gaming industry is happening to all the entertainment industries, and its larger than any one of them. However, I also think gaming is in the best position to get out of this slump, and get back to pleasing thier customers.

Like Pyroman I feel that Warren and Greg are talking apples and... well, green apples. Same subject, different material.

I think that in order for things to get better before they get worse (which isn't likely) the real change needs to take place at the management level in the publishing houses. All you gamers out there aspiring to go to (or actually attending) college and whatnot, for goodness sakes, some of you please don't do CS: do business majors, but hold onto dear life to the concept that original = better. It sounds hard if you say "We need publishers to understand that originality is better than licensed, regurgitated crap." But it sounds a lot easier if you say "We need to get just a few savvy people to understand." Seriously. If you can convince three or four people per company in game publishing management you'll see a lot of change.

And ya know what, Eidos is actually the one (American) company that I think understands this the most. I just went over a list of everything they've done, and they've made exactly three licensed products. A Disney's Magical Adventures Kart Racing game, Chicken Run, and Braveheart. Now, I know what you're going to say: Tomb Raider. Not so fast... Tomb Raider was an original idea. Yes they've made a load of horrible and unimaginative sequels for that IP, but Greg himself admits he would do the same, but at the same time take chances. Eidos has done that. They certainly haven't all panned out. For every Thief and Deus Ex there's two other Mad Dashes or Dungeon Deathtraps, but they've consistently tried to publish new stuff, and even when it wasn't the best thing out there you have to give 'em credit for trying. They actually own more original IP (not derivative from books or movies) than you probably think: Hitman, Timesplitters, Legacy of Kain, Omikron, Commandos, IGI, Fear Effect, Gangsters, and Startopia are all Eidos properties (including any sequels). On top of it, they've done and are doing some off the wall stuff. Stuff like Mad Maestro and Mr. Mosquito. They did Unholy War for the Playstation. Now, obviously a lot of these games had their flaws, sometimes big ones. That's a reality of making games, but no other publisher (besides Nintendo) has that kind of portfolio of original, semi-succesul titles. I haven't even mentioned the ones that didn't do well such as everything else by Ion Storm and Urban Chaos, among others.

You might also be itching to point out that most of these games while being original IP haven't really broken any standards in terms of inventing new gameplay. Well, you'd have to exclude Thief and Deus Ex to make that a true statement, and in my mind that's a big exclusion: two of recent gaming's most innovative games both out of the same publisher. But let's just put them aside for the sake of the argument. I'll admit that some of those don't get too experimental with gameplay, but folks, Eidos is halfway there with all those original IPs. And as I mentioned, they have done their share of interesting things, even among the ones I mentioned. Gangsters 1 and 2 had some really cool concepts, as did the original Kain and Soul Reaver games (did any game let you play as a vampire and suck blood before that?). Startopia was Dungeon Keeper in space, but I think we can all agree exploring that genre is a good thing. Even Mad Dash was an interesting (if failed) take on the racing genre.

I guess all this circles back to my original point: somewhere in Eidos there are a few publishing managers that get it. They understand that original IP is the most interesting and fun IP. That original IP gives developers the freedom to make better games that aren't bogged down with the constraints of the licensors. And all it takes are those few people. Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I think all we have to do is sneak a few more of those people into the industry, say at EA or at Activision, or wherever, and things could change almost overnight.

Damn... forgot to login... the above post was mine