I generally don’t have enough time to write my incoherent rants down, which is a good thing for everyone, but this article has prompted me to do it. Its an interesting, well written and intelligent article about the relationship between game writers and game developers, but like many other game journalists, the writer (Leigh Alexander who I should point out I generally respect and find to be usually on the money) fails to take into account the amount of control people outside the dev team have over a game.
I’ve frequently been incensed by reviews which start “for some inexplicable reason, the game designers decided to (insert rubbish feature here)”. Let me explain that inexplicability – developers, especially those working on big console titles, for a publisher, or in fact in any kind of game outside of bedroom indie dev, very rarely have carte blanche to do whatever they like. In 15 years of being a designer, I’ve never, ever been told “Anna, you’re the designer – go ahead and make the game you want”. It’s more like “Anna, you’re the designer, please make this big hash of ill matching features, vague story ideas, and random other stuff that we thought of on the bog this morning work as a game. Oh yes, and please ship it for Thanksgiving” (I’d never heard of Thanksgiving until I started working in the games industry (I’m British). I now hate it with a passion).
If your game doesn’t have feature X of the Latest Big Game, you’re going to get canned. If your game is too close to Latest Big Game, you’re going to get canned. If you’re not innovative enough, you’re going to get canned. If you’re too risky, you’re going to get canned. Pretty much anyway you look at it, you’re going to be working hard to not get canned.
OK, that may be a worst-case scenario, but in my experience, and I’m sure in the experience of many other devs, its not the team themselves making the big decisions about the game they’re working on – which includes the meshing between narrative and gameplay. It’ll be a cabal of management, brand, sales, marketing and other such luminaries, often from the publisher (I don’t want to whitewash my time working as part of that publishing cabal by the way, hands up, that has on occasion been me). What the devs get to do is join the dots and try to make the best game possible under the constraints applied.
I’m not having a go at the people making the decisions – I have worked with many excellent, knowledgeable, game loving people in brand, sales and marketing in my time (as well as a fair few tossers, but hey, they get in every walk of life, let’s not dwell on them). I’m not even having a go at the Publishing ethos that dictates those decisions. Games have big budgets, risks can’t be taken, dates must be stuck to and shareholders made happy. But still, if the end result is less than stellar, it’s often the team who get the flak. Some people might tell me to stop whining and get on with it – and after all, it is usually possible to find some place to innovate and make great gameplay inside even the harshest set of constraints. I even did a talk on it once.
But personally I’ve had enough. In my career I’ve worked on two bloody amazing projects where the narrative, game design, art and tech all came together to make what promised to be a frikkin phenomenal game – both were canned “for brand reasons”. This is a big motivator for me to make a game independently, and I’m not alone – my collegues at Lady Shotgun who left well paid game dev jobs to work freelance and indie didn’t do it for the money, that’s for sure. Everyday there are stories about experienced devs leaving big name companies to set up as independents. And we’ve all seen how Double Fine, Serrallan and inExile took to Kickstarter to be free to make games in their own vision, not for the milestone payments.
Leigh Alexander thinks game writers end up carrying the can for a poor narrative experience created by the development team. I think developers, writers and especially designers end up carrying the can for a decision making process based on making profit, not making great games. I hope all the indies out there go ahead and make some bloody amazing games (with some bloody amazing game stories) to prove the system wrong.
And I also adore working with Katharine Neil our writer, who makes me laugh more than a sensible person should