Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The House Can't Burn Down When All You People Do Is Cry

I've been thinking about the "Burning Down the House--Game Developers Rant" session at the IGDA that's been given so much publicity.

Here's a link to a transcript, by the way:

This session has gotten everyone up in arms and the villagers are storming Frankenstein's castle.

Blah, blah, blah, blah. Cry me a river. What an assortment of whiny little babies.

Now every single one of these people might be totally nice, kind human beings, but as far as this transcript reads, they're a bunch of whiny little babies.

First up, Warren Spector. A gaming legend. The series he's been involved with are legendary: Wing Commander, Ultima, Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief. What an incredible series of titles. Oh, and Deus Ex.

Here's his opening salvo:
I want to say how this business is hopelessly broken. Haha. We’re doing pretty much everything wrong. This is at the root of much of what you’re gonna hear today. Games cost too much. They take too long to make.

Sure, to some degree. But the real problem is that after costing too much and taking too long to make, many of them, like Deus Ex: Invisible War, are still shitty.

I mean, come on. That was one of the most severely compromised game designs I've ever seen. It was barely a beta when it was released on the PC. And here's a theme that's going to wind through this entire transcript: these people are going to whine about everything related to them, but is anyone going to mention that many of these people aren't actually FINISHING the games? Is anyone going to mention that developers are responsible for delivering finished products to consumers? Are any of them going to say that many of them are failing the consumer?

Don't hold your breath.

Here's more:
We’re the only medium that lacks an alternate distribution system. All we have is boxed games sold at retail. This is changing a little. But think about our competition for your entertainment dollar. First run, broadcast, reruns, DVDs.. you name it. Hardback, paperback, e-book. Theatre release, pay-per-view, video, DVD.

Sure. But all those alternative distribution mechanisms for films took decades to evolve. And there's already a hardback/paperback system--games get re-released all the time at a lower price point after their initial run.

Now he does go on to talk about divorcing funding from distribution, and I think that's a very interesting discussion, particularly his reference to the studio system with films. Primarily, he says that if the people who funded games and the people who distributed games were different, that we would have more diverse content. A thoughtful moment. Briefly.

Here's the last bit from Spector:
At the very worst we need publishers to ask more than that one question: is this going to generate max profit? For most games this is NOT THE RIGHT QUESTION.

That cracks me up. Let me get this straight. That's EXACTLY what happened to Deus Ex: Invisible War. They dumbed down the gameplay to sell more copies. And they crippled the PC version because they wanted to make a console version to, drum roll, sell more copies.

And they did, I'm sure. And Warren Spector cashed the checks. All of them. So he's been enriched (far beyond what he could have ever expected a decade ago) by the same system he's so righteously torching. And again, did he mention us? Did he mention that DX:IW wasn't "finished" in any reasonable sense of the word? Of course not.

Next is Jason Della Rocca, and here's his bio page from Moby Games
( He says two things that are very true: one, that the gaming industry is zenophobic in terms of learning from other businesses and industries in terms of optimizing development, and that gaming journalism is broken. Nothing revolutionary, but still interesting. And he doesn’t really say anything stupid, which should get him some kind of award in this panel.

Then there's Greg Costikyan. Here's a list of games he's designed from his very self-flattering website ( He does not appear in Moby Games. Here's one of his blasts:
As recently as 1992: games cost 200K. Next generation games will cost 20m. Publishers are becoming increasingly risk averse. Today you cannot get an innovative title published unless your last name is Wright or Miyamoto. Who was at the Microsoft keynote? I don’t know about you but it made my flesh crawl. [laughter] The HD era? Bigger, louder? Big bucks to be made! Well not by you and me of course. Those budgets and teams ensure the death of innovation.

Well, to start with, making a blanket statement that next-generation games will cost 20M basically means he pulled a number out of his ass. Nobody really knows how much next-generation games will cost yet, and there are so many different types of games that trying to apply a single figure to development costs is useless. Yes, games are continually getting more expensive to make, but the market of consumers who buy games has exploded in the last five years.

Can't get innovative titles published? Big budgets and teams "ensure" the death of innovation? Look, there are people who innovate, and there are people who can't and cry about it. Katamari Damancy was wonderfully innovative. Darwinia is absolutely sensational. There are just as many innovative games, or more, than there were back in the 1980's-1990's. It's a smaller percentage of total games, sure, but there are many more games out there now. And there's not as much uncharted territory left, either.

And it's a lot of self-righteous complaining from a guy who's never, as far as I can tell from his website, had anything to do with an innovative PC game. Ever.

People who can innovate will innovate. That is the nature of innovation.

And again, any words about games getting released in late alpha or early beta condition and never patched to completion? Funny, total silence on that issue.

Here's his last assault:
Then there was the Nintendo keynote. This was the company who established the business model that has crucified the industry today. Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer, and my question is what poor bastard’s chest did he carve it from?

It's pretty funny to complain about Nintendo when you've designed such "innovative" titles as "Manhattan Address Locator."

Oh, all right. That was a low blow. I just thought it was funny. And he deserved it after that “heart carving” comment, which was just as low. I get as tired as anyone else of Nintendo putting out systems where people breathe into magic blowholes to move characters onscreen, and games where magic mushrooms try to save the diseased giraffe, but sometimes they do innovate, and brilliantly.

The new consoles aren't the end of the gaming industry. Games are always going to use the most powerful technology that can be used within price constraints. If that's just too much for you, then go design some CGA games and I'm sure millions of people will rush to download them.

Brenda Laurel spoke next and here's what she said:
My thesis is that we are contributing to the damage that the spectacle does to human beings by suggesting the interactivity of a joystick is real agency.

What the?

Here's more:
Games keep essential social myths in place. So we have tropes in our business. Criminals are cool. The commercial game business is a non-consensual relationship between middle aged men and young boys. It’s worse than the Catholic Church.

Really? Is that why GTA sells millions of copies on the first day of release? Because it's non-consensual? Because it sounds pretty damn consensual to me. I have many issues with the GTA series and the losers who put in gameplay "features" like beating hookers to death, then refuse to answer questions about why or assume any accountability for what they've created. But it's no different for the makers of violent films or television shows. I don't like that our culture is so violent, but it is what it is. And it's definitely consensual.

FREE MARKETS EXIST TO SATISFY DEMAND. America is a very market driven country, probably one of the most market-driven in the entire world. And those games get made because people buy them. And they'll keep getting made. And there is an entirely legitimate discussion to be had about the consequences of near-absolute Constitutional freedom when creating content of any kind, but there are other, possibly far darker consequences of restricting it.

Oh, and by the way. It was particularly brilliant to compare priests molesting children to people going out and paying money for a game. Outstanding clarity of thought there. After that keen insight, my thesis is that you should never speak in front of any group larger than a dinner party again.

On the positive side, though, "trope" is a very nice word.

And yet again, is there any mention of how many games are released unfinished? Absolutely not! What do we matter, anyway?

Now I know this was an industry bitch session, and usually those things devolve into ranting, anyway. But the amount of positive publicity this session and these comments have gotten is just ludicrous.

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