*note* Long time lurker, first time poster. *note*
The most recent developer diary for Assassin's Creed just got posted and it's got yet another example of something that I've seen more and more in popular media: artistic masturbation. Congruently, Ubisoft's stock is reported to be down by almost a dollar. If these two bits of information seem disconnected, read on.
Take the Lord of the Rings as an example from the movie business. That movie had daggers with inlays of actual gold. Actual gold. Most of these creations were never on screen, and those that were did not get close enough to the camera to be distinguishable for a hunk of plastic coated with metallic paint. And yet, they decided to go with the hand-carved dagger with the illegal ivory hilt inlaid with silver and gold. The craftsmanship that goes into such a thing makes it a work of art regardless of the thoughts of designers at a movie studio. The artists on that film designed cascading floral patterns for the Elvish things, sharp right angles for the Dwarvish things, etc., and filled literally hours of extra-features content by explaining the significance of all of it. WETA Workshop spent literally tens of millions on making sure every prop was ready to be inspected by a Middle Earth Historian. (God help me, such a person probably exists.)
The argument in favor of such opulence is that while you might not ever see the elaborate scarification on the leather sheathe, the one that depicts the story of the rise and fall of some King from the character's distant lineage, you'd know if it wasn't there. They seem to claim that there is an aura of authenticity that will seep into the cellulose of the film, lying devilishly in wait until its screening, then radiate into your eyes, filling you with a deep sense of how "real" the film is. You might not ever see the five hundred thousand dollars that went into etching the tree of life into the true-steel blade of every minion-toted broadsword, but you'll feel the difference.
Games have historically been the domain of tech too primitive, and teams to small and too starvingly poor to have been party to such practices. Who, while running into the limitations of DirectX 5, would think of modeling something that no player would ever see? Who, when thankful simply for the ability to make games for a living, would tell dozens of highly paid individuals to work on designing something so subtly that it will never spark a single neuron of genuine player recognition? Nobody.
But games are big business, now. Teams are enormous, development cycles are long, and budgets are growing exponentially. The twenty million dollar game would have been unthinkable just five or six years ago, yet today it is completely acceptable for a low-risk franchise. And as teams become larger, and technology becomes more accommodating, it's perhaps only human nature that the need and ability to stand out from the crowd manifests as overzealous pushing of one's own development niche.
Altair is an eagle. Alright. They pointed the tip of his hood, and flared his cape, and now he's an eagle. Fine. Now, if Jade Raymond had not pointed that out, would anyone have noticed? Even the name Altair is a reference to birds, and flying. Then again, we all know what Darth Vader means, and people were still surprised by that bombshell. The fact is that almost nobody notices these touches, and for those that do – is their experience enriched by the knowledge? There is a trend here, one which leans away from storytelling and pursuit of simply visual beauty, and toward the nebulous thinger of abstract feeling. While nobody will see that Altair is an eagle, we will undoubtedly feel the impact of their choice in the general atmosphere exuded by the character. Just as the addition of a largely invisible whetstone to Aragorn's sheathe will add to my enjoyment of their fantasy action film. Of course.
But Ubisoft is certainly not alone. Probably the biggest leader in this shift to Hollywood-level artistic indulgence is Bungie. Arguably no company has claimed the creation of so much back-story, while putting so little into the actual product. Granted, much of this has gone into the official novelizations. But also? A lot of it hasn't. This tendency to point to some minuscule architectural detail as indicative of the larger cultural preferences of the designer race certainly doesn't come from the utilitarian roots of game development. It comes from the new school, who have never known anything but the indulgence of a booming domestic market.
And this comes at the same time as cries from the outfield that the rising cost of game development will kill design innovation, destroy the hardcore game, or perhaps scuttle the industry as a whole. The length of development cycles rise, only to be lowered by some new shattering of the all-time team size record. The industry has not yet figured itself out.
Of course, making Altair an eagle is not the real problem. If Ubi employees had not spent time tapering the front of that hood, the game would have cost an identical amount of money to make. But the overall philosophy seems odd, given the climate in bureaucrat land - trim the fat, streamline the process, focus on what's important. In this market, even the biggest companies sometimes struggle to turn a profit; perhaps if the industry wants to continue complaining about increased development costs, it should abstain from the inefficiency of Hollywood opulence.
Until our industry has the security that comes from centuries' worth of experience, the meaningless self-indulgence will be more than simply a waste of time – it will be a waste of money. Altair may be an eagle, but Ubi is down a dollar.