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THE MISSING FOUNDATION OF THE GAMES INDUSTRY

13 Jun 2013

Today Tom Bissell wrote a very thoughtful review of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. You should go read it: I’ll wait.

No, seriously. Don’t just skip ahead. Go read it. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Done? Okay, now here’s the bit I want to talk about:

“Here's a dangerously calcified game-industry assumption: For a single-player narrative game to be purchased by all 6 million members of its console's target audience — to become a "must-have" title — it needs to hit a Metacritic rating no lower than the low 90s. To achieve a Metacritic rating in the low 90s, you must make a game that impresses critics, who by their nature crave novelty, which is the very thing that scares away gamers who buy only three to six games a year, and who are, by far, the largest constituency in the game-buying audience. To impress these critics, you often have to invest in the hardest, most difficult-to-engineer elements of game design and work your employees half to death. All of which means that game companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to impress people whose taste is unrepresentative of the wider game-playing audience and whose power to create an impression of "must-have" titles is still largely unproven. If you're wondering how any of this is sustainable either economically or creatively in the long run, so am I. So is everyone.”

That’s a pretty hard-hitting paragraph, and it gets at a really insidious and not-altogether-obvious issue in the AAA industry: publishers and developers often seem confused about who they’re actually making games for.

Let’s consider my own recent experience, as a AAA game developer in a lead position. We had a target Metacritic rating (like most devs and publishers these days). We weren’t explicitly designing to critics’ tastes, though: we were designing to the tastes of our existing fans and those of our target demographic, 18- to 35-year-old males (or at least our best idea thereof). In fact, there were plenty of times when our designs started tending toward more critical tastes and we had to rein them in because they’d strayed too far away from the target demo.

Beyond my own experience, consider the degree to which lots of prominent critics have railed against the proliferation of cinematic bro-shooters over the last couple years. Remember the backlash against the hyper-violence on display at last year’s E3? How about the general critical consensus that this year’s Indie Games Festival was orders of magnitude more important than the immediately-following Game Developers’ Choice Awards? Or for that matter, the fact that Journey — an indie game! — took home* six* of said awards, the judges for which included several of today’s best critics; they all judged an indie game superior in six categories to an otherwise-impressive slate of AAA offerings. Games critics have made their tastes clear, and yet the AAA industry continues to double-down on cinematic bro-shooters, ignorant of critics’ tastes (willfully or otherwise) while simultaneously pursuing the almighty Metacritic score.

So this all agrees with Tom’s assertion about the divide between critics’ tastes and gamers’ tastes, but it also disagrees with his assertion that pubs and devs actually tailor their games to critics… and yet I think he’s pretty much spot-on in his assessment of the problem of economic and creative sustainability now facing this industry.

Whatever to make of all that?

I think here we need to consider the functional role of the critic in today’s industry, and in my opinion that role is this: to validate new intellectual properties. That’s it, and while I’m quite sure the many esteemed critics and games writers out there aspire to more (and, frankly, deserve more), when I think about their actual market impact — that is, the extent to which they influence the economic and creative state of the industry — validation of new IP is all I’m really seeing.

(Quick aside: This is most assuredly not a critique of critics! If anything, it’s a critique of the industry, and a consequence of the hole it seems hell-bent on digging itself into.)

What do I mean by “validation of new IP”? Consider the division between established franchises and completely new titles. More specifically, consider it from the perspective of Tom’s “gamers who buy only three to six games a year, and who are, by far, the largest constituency in the game-buying audience”. (This is real.) Given the choice between the next entry in a franchise you know and love, and a completely new title that there’s no guarantee you’ll enjoy, and the assumption that you’re only going to buy one because games are still sixty fucking United States dollars, which are you most likely to go with? …the franchise, clearly. More importantly: what could sway your opinion the other way? Previews, reviews, maybe some in-depth critical games writing?

That is what I mean by “validation of new IP”. In effect, franchises can live off their own momentum almost regardless of what critics say (compare the ongoing critical frustration toward the endless cycle of Call of Duty with the reliably-blockbusting sales of same), while new IPs are doomed to die without critical validation, without somebody of note — maybe enough somebodies — vouching for their worth.

Unfortunately the AAA industry is, as previously mentioned, quite bad at designing to critics’ tastes. Instead we’ve constructed these mythical “ideal gamers” that represent our “target demo” and are more often than not just thinly-veiled pastiches of ourselves and our teams. Until this changes, expect lots more bro-shooters and all the rest. It’s just Standard Operating Procedure in the AAA sphere, with few exceptions.

Ah, but what accounts for those exceptions? Well, that’s the fact that our teams are usually made up of lots of highly creative people, and if there’s one thing highly creative people have limitless energy for, it’s fighting through every obstacle placed between them and the expression of their vision. Lots of those highly creative people follow influential games critics, pay attention to their words, and fundamentally agree with them. Some of those highly creative people find themselves in positions of influence, or they form their own studios, or they go indie, and they execute designs that actually are then, in effect, tailored to critics’ tastes — by virtue of being tailored to their own, compatible ones.

There’s a problem with having all these highly creative people in the industry, though: they’re expensive. This gets at Tom’s very valid, very scary concern about the economic feasibility of this system. We all know game budgets continue to grow: they grew by an order of magnitude from the Xbox/PS2 generation to the 360/PS3 generation, and while the growth isn’t projected to be nearly that severe across the Xbone/PS4 transition, we all know it’s not going to flatten out. If this week’s E3 is any indication, the order of the day is “more scope and more fidelity”, and that means more content, bigger teams, and more cash.

It’s instructive to consider the mechanism by which this occurs.

An important shift happened in the industry during the course of the 360/PS3 generation: we went from games made entirely by a single dev team and its publisher, to games made by a combination of a dev team and a lot of outsourced content partners. This is actually quite striking, and it’s easy to see for yourself: just look at the credits for some major AAA titles from various times between 2002 or so, and today. Look at the end of the credits for the outsourcing partners’ sections, and count how many sections (not people) are listed. Here are a few examples I just have laying around in my office right now:

  • Halo 2 (2004) - Bungie, Microsoft (2 contributors)
  • Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) - Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment, Technicolor Interactive Studios (3 contributors)
  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) - Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment, Technicolor, XPEC Entertainment Inc., Virtuos Ltd., Exigent Computer Software (Shanghai) Inc., Ladyluck Digital Media, Original Force Ltd., Secret 6 Inc., Enzyme Testing Lab Inc. (10 contributors)
  • Halo 4 (2012) - 343 Industries, Microsoft, Certain Affinity, Digital Extremes, Axis Animation, Cynergy Systems Inc., Digic Pictures, Giant Studios, Liquid Development, Pearl Digital Entertainment, The Sequence Group, Technicolor Game-Sound Services (12 contributors)

We went from the first Uncharted, and Halo 2, being made solely by their original dev teams with some publisher support, to Uncharted 3 and Halo 4 requiring a total of 10 and 12 contributing companies, respectively.

Ten to twelve companies.

What’s happening here?

Of course it’s the explosion in content scope and fidelity that requires all this outsourcing. But why are we outsourcing instead of simply growing our studios at home? That answer, too, is obvious — low-cost labor — but it bears slightly deeper consideration.

In the Xbox/PS2 era and earlier, you could usually expect that every member of a dev team had a reasonably creative role to fill. That is to say, most everyone probably wore more than one hat, and to some extent contributed directly to the creative direction of the game.

In the 360/PS3 era, scope and fidelity grew so much that extreme specialization became necessary. Now, you can usually expect that most members of a dev team do not contribute directly to the creative direction of the game. Now we have, for example, artists who simply paint textures, all day, every day, for three or four years, exactly as they’re told and with virtually no creative latitude. We have programmers who write and maintain entire code systems without any real idea of how those systems fit into the overall game, and no creative input into what those systems get used for. We even have some game designers — game designers! — whose sole job is to operate a game data editor or write event scripts to the exacting specification of a director, and give no argument regarding the direction.

These are patently uncreative *jobs, and yet we still hire *highly creative people into them. The conventional wisdom is still — even with today’s massive studios — that we should staff our teams with creative people and give them all a slice of ownership in the vision of the game. We rarely follow through with this promise, and many, many highly creative people end up stagnating in thoroughly uncreative positions.

As I said earlier, creative people are expensive: they usually command large professional salaries due to their creativity, skill, and motivation. Now consider this from the perspective of a business guy at the top of the food chain: you’re paying a premium for highly creative people to do* uncreative work.* In terms of pure economic efficiency, this arrangement is madness!

And so, outsourcing. The business relationship between a dev and an outsourcing partner is very clear about the fact that the partner does not have creative input: they do the work they’re assigned, deliver it to spec, fix whatever the dev complains about, and get paid. End of story. And since they’re usually in India or China or somewhere, they tend to cost a hell of a lot less, too. From an efficiency perspective it’s a win-win: costs go down, and we stop wasting highly creative talent on uncreative work.

But now the problem is obvious: a bunch of highly creative talent just lost their (admittedly uncreative) jobs. Where are they to go?

I’m going to make a prediction: we’re only going to see more outsourcing in the next generation. Development costs might only increase marginally this time around, but the *talent *cost is going to be significant. I predict we’ll see more layoffs in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and a corresponding increase in the number of foreign outsourcing partners listed in the credits of Xbone/PS4 games over the next few years. Studios’ creative talent will shrink and consolidate toward the top, and AAA will evolve out of the “everyone shares ownership” mentality toward a “directors and outsourcers” mindset. This will probably be very efficient, once it all settles, and I don’t doubt that some really stunning games are going to come out of it.

But if I’m right, there’s going to be all this creative talent here at home just… kinda floating around. They’ll have been laid off from an industry that no longer has room for them, because they’re not influential enough to run the studios and they’re too expensive to do the grunt work. A minority of those people will form their own studios, but only a few will have the business acumen and the desire to do so. Another minority will go indie — and I mean fully grassroots indie, like two-man partnerships working remotely out of their apartments — but only some will have the fortitude and self-discipline to do so. The rest, without any other options, will simply churn out of the industry and end up selling insurance or something.

*The loss of so much talent could have a devastating long-term impact on the cultural relevance of our industry. *I want a solution for that majority of disenfranchised creatives, another option so they *don’t *churn out. And the way I see it, that solution is tools.

Yes, tools.

Tools are un-sexy. Very few people like to talk about tools; fewer still are willing to invest heavily in them. But if I may make another prediction: serious investment in tools will be the salvation of this industry. And I’m not just talking about improving Maya or whatever; I’m thinking very ambitiously: I want tools that allow small teams — 10-12 individuals at most, with no external support of any kind — to make games with the scope and fidelity of today’s mega-budget AAA blockbusters, in a matter of months, not years.

I don’t yet know what those tools will have to look like, but I do know we have some good starting points: Unity, Allegorithmic, Mecanim, and Mixamo, among others.

We need to reach the point where a single developer can concept, model, texture, rig, and animate a character to shipping quality, all by himself, in a single afternoon. Sadly, the most robust technology for this currently appears to be certain in-game character creators (Saint’s Row says hi), with nothing competitive outside of a video game intended for any kind of professional use.

We need for a single developer to be able to lay out a terrain, texture it in a naturally-plausible way, populate it with natural props and scenery, light it, nav-mesh it (and we’ll probably need to have moved beyond nav-meshes, incidentally), and stitch it seamlessly into a streaming world, again all by himself and in a single afternoon.

We need robust, socially-aware AI that can take the place of cinematic scripting without sacrificing the cinematic flair (we *could *stand to lose the near-absence of player interaction, but that’s another topic entirely). This, to eliminate the time spent tediously writing and tweaking hundreds of scripts across tens of hours of gameplay.

We need vastly improved text-to-speech algorithms so we don’t have to spend weeks or months signing voice actors, recording lines, post-processing, and managing hellish VO spreadsheets… and so we can finally build our VO on generative text, instead of a static script, making our worlds reactive in meaningful and unscripted ways that still feel cinematic and believable.

I’m sure at this point you’re rolling your eyes so hard you’ve given yourself a headache. These are clearly ridiculous, unachievable, unreasonable goals… right? But even if they are, they’re a direction we need to move, and it’s a much better direction than the “nothing” we’re doing right now.

We’re coming up with all these neat technologies for making things look pretty, but if we were doing our jobs properly, those advances would not come with a corresponding massive increase in dev time and cost. And if we were doing our jobs* really* well, we’d make those advances while actually reducing time and cost.

What do we gain from having such tools? Well, for one, we pretty much eliminate the need for outsourcing partners and we get back to small teams of highly creative people who are all meaningfully contributing to the vision. That brings high-paying, highly creative game industry jobs back home, so we don’t have to send all our great talent to stagnate at insurance companies.

Also, the better the tools are, the lower the barriers to pure creative expression get. It gets easier — read, less risky — to try new ideas, to develop new IPs. More efficient tools, shorter schedules, and smaller teams lead to dramatically lower dev budgets, and those savings can be passed on to consumers to finally bring game prices down toward the impulse-buy range.

We actually have a working example of this kind of business model right now: the phenomenally-successful iOS App Store, with its sea of cheap, small-scope games priced anywhere from a few bucks down to free. Imagine if we could create a marketplace like that, where *anything *can executed to the scope and fidelity of today’s biggest AAA blockbusters, if it wants to be.

We’re a long, long way from where we need to be as an industry right now. We finally figured out how to mainstream video games, but we’re screwing it up by ignoring the critical (admittedly un-sexy) investments that would’ve formed a stable foundation for all this growth. Consequently, we’re disenfranchising our best talent and ghettoizing our own culture while we drown ourselves with self-imposed costs and waste.

Tom Bissell wonders if “any of this is sustainable either economically or creatively in the long run”, and I share his concern. And I believe that a significant, industry-wide investment in tools is the solution. The question now is, how to make that actually happen?

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business video-games