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A Case Study in how Revolutionaries become The Man
by Daniel Cook on 04/14/13 03:58:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(Originally posted here



Here's what this covers: 

  1. Game development in the early 1990s 
  2. The rise of consoles 
  3. The creation of feeder schools
  4. Rebellion 

Pardon the broad sweep.

A starting point for perspective
My mental model of game developers stems from the relatively early days of game development.  No one understood what games were.  The predominant people making games were fringe dreamers. I started making games in our awkward adolescence.  Quake still wasn't out. Nor was the Sims. Nor was Ultima Online. There was no Xbox, no PlayStation, no casual games. Or for that matter, hardcore games. The term 'gamer' didn't exist. The web didn't exist. 

My heroes all pretty much had the origin story of 'crazy person with a dream made a game'.  Peter Molyneux was a madhatter inventing entire genres like Populous.  Tim Sweeney was making weird user generated content experiments with bad art.  Dani Bunten created this thing called 'online multiplayer gaming'. Will Wright was trying to build an esoteric working model of Gaia with Sim Earth. 

Consoles existed, but they were one piece of gaming pie that included a strong legacy of PC, C64, Atari and Amiga. Strange as it may seem nowadays, people still made original games in the UK. 

No one really knew what they were talking about.  Everyone was alone. The fan press didn't really talk about game development much.  We made games because the urge to put some sort of mark on the world boiled within.  I remember discussing with a very talented, very introverted fellow how he had spent his teens programming games for years in near total isolation. Literally in a room with the door closed and marginal human interaction for years. He could however talk to his one friend about games. It became an outlet, a connection, a hobby where he could shine. And that was a good thing. Because he couldn't talk about loving computers, being intensely shy or his parents' crumbling marriage. Or the darker things that I have no right to talk about. 

The game industry was started by the misfits of society.  You were some odd creature that loved art, tech, and expression and you created games because what else were you going to do with your life?  So many folks I talked with from those days would laugh and say "Well, I'm unfit for any other job." 

A key idea is that making games was 95% intrinsic motivation.  There was little culture telling us games were good.  There was no career. There was no 1950s path of school, job, love, and kids. That mid-80s Far Side about a kid getting a job making games was funny in part because no one believed that such a job could ever exist.  The date Larson lists for the clownishly impossible future? 2005. 

Games as big business and as culture
Over the next decade, there was a slow shift with the PlayStation and later the Xbox where games became big business.  The industry as measured by pointy headed suits was worth billions. 

There had been marketing of various types for years.  Nintendo and Sega had substantial campaigns targeting kids.  There's usually a 10-year old child playing a Nintendo game with cheesy special effects.  Sony and Xbox increased the volume of marketing and moved the age bracket higher.  These campaigns fed kids a commercial message; "Games are awesome."

Those kids grew up.  And they wanted to make games like the ones that so influenced their childhood.  I remember the first time I met someone who wanted to make games because he really enjoyed 2D shooters on his Turbografx 16.  It didn't really compute with me at the time.  This wasn't someone who saw games as the only possible outlet for his odd misfit skills.  This was someone who wanted to ride a cultural wave and be part of what they saw as mainstream society. 

That's a big shift.  It is a generational shift. 

The Age of Consoles
At a certain point, around the early 2000s, we started to see institutions solidifying around the game industry.  Most games were console games.  The fan press fed players carefully vetted previews and other propaganda about what to buy.  Players stopped off at GameStop and bought the latest AAA title.  The factory hummed. 

It was a bit of a monoculture. An enforced monoculture.  A lot of the misfit game developers were weeded out, sidelined or converted into suits.  People may ask "what has Peter Molyneux done for me lately?" or "Will Wright is washed up because Spore failed."  I see instead talented people trapped in corporate ecosystems streamlined for production efficiency.  Messy entrepreneurial madness, the defining attribute of early game developers, became an infection to be suppressed. 

The tone of conversation changed.  A propaganda-led monoculture clarifies a sense of identity for something that was previously organic and diffuse.  Being a 'gamer' became a thing and a positive feedback cycle was kicked off.  Players, with the honesty of a innocent child raised in a cult, proudly declared their affiliation.  Clever companies marketed and magnified that affiliation back.  If you grew up during this time, the commercial aspects of your gaming childhood are pretty much a cultural circle jerk.  Not that it was any less pleasurable or meaningful. 

I mostly left the game industry around this time. I still loved games, but by then there were other places a technical and artistic misfit could go.  From afar, I watched the transformation of our naive game developer ideals into something sleeker with a tingling sense of horror. 

An aside
I still kept thinking about games over at lostgarden.com.  A handful of early developers had gone beyond just making games to trying to figure out what made them tick at a psychological level. Everyone starts out naively creating, but you start to see unexpected connections after making a dozen games over a dozen years. Chris Crawford led the pack. Raph Koster jumped in. Nicole Lazzaro actually watched real players (and took notes.)  Such a wonderful problem!  So many things to think about and invent! I get all bubbly just writing about it.

No one paid much attention.  Each of these writers was still a misfit. They weren't particularly photogenic or marketable.  They were often labeled past their prime. But they continued writing, mostly in isolation, mostly rejected and ignored by society.  Because that feeling wasn't exactly a new thing.

Feeder Schools
Anyway, back to the grind of history. Where do you get production workers for your well oiled game making factory?

You make them from 18-22 year old gamers that want to keep riding that cultural wave.  Early on, companies started forming partnerships with schools to train new workers.  Working conditions at the retail game factories were horrendous. Weak management, long hours and poor pay.  Massive numbers of developers fled.  (See EA Spouse and quality of life surveys) 

However, those eager 'gamers' didn't know any of this.  And their faceted eyes sparkled with the thought of being part of the corporate priesthood that defined so much of their precious personal identity.  

  1. Take their money
  2. Put them in a room with a teacher that rarely (if ever) releases games. 
  3. Teach them some tools.  
  4. Give their name to a corporate recruiter.  Near 100% placement. 
  5. 50-80% fail within 5 years and are left loaded with debt, non-transferable skills and the lifelong scars of broken dreams.  

Repeat the process. "That's what I like about these high school gamers; I get older, they stay the same age."

Not all game development schools were like this.  Just the majority. Yes, there are good teachers.  Yes, there are handful of good programs. Some programs eventually branched out beyond straight production.  Film studies departments started game programs.  HCI departments began including game courses.  In part because this is where culture and technology was headed.  In part because excited young students that love games are giant bags of money.  "Oh, you want to study games?  We can make that happen."

I still find such places a little awkward and embarrassing.  I think it is better than nothing?  Though there is a cost. 

The institutionalization of game design dogma
What do you teach these eager students?  Most of the best game designers I know weren't taught.  They stumbled forward over a decade or more of personal experimentation towards a set of fuzzy tools and instincts that let them make decent games.  

There's no path.  No proven plan. Damned misfits inventing industries and artistic forms from scratch.  Barbaric. 

But right there on the course schedule. It says "Game Design 101".  These kids are spending $30k a year and you've got 2 years to make them hire-able. 

Imagine you are the harried teacher. You stumble upon the writings of the game designers on the internet.  Ooh, this guy Koster wrote a book that people seem to like. Hey, Dan Cook had an essay on mechanics that got some comments. Maybe you include some essays or textbooks written by folks in academia that dabble in games and know how to play the textbook selling game. Voila!  A reading list. 

In case you are curious, the actual authors of this material are still figuring stuff out...it is all distinctly 'wet'. But whenever someone writes me asking if they can use an essay in a class, I say "Sure!"  I have this idealistic notion that students will talk about the ideas in detail, form some mental models, disagree with some pieces and then one day contribute their own thoughts to this weird little intellectual project. Implant the eggs. 

That isn't really what happens as far as I can tell.  Instead, the student reads some random essay on "What is a game" in an introductory class and it turns into this authoritative work of dogmatic definition.  They are tested.  The system does not distinguish bad studies vs different perspectives. Both earn poor grades. I saw a test question asking a student define 'what is a game mechanic' and I cringed a little.  I don't think I could answer that correctly.

All this happens on a tight schedule with little time for variance. Everyone needs to get to 3D Modeling 210 at 3pm.  Despite the best intentions of everyone involved, tens of thousands of new workers must be birthed with minimal muss.  

Rebellion
Is it any wonder that a handful of the students poured through this system rebel?  They are the spiders in our bellies. 

Here we are in 2013. Once again, it is a new world. We've got new opportunities.  If you love games, you don't need to join EA to make them.  Pick up Flash or Game Maker or RPG Maker or Twine.  Grow into something wonderful.  Create something personal.  Put some sort of mark on the world. 

Smart young game developers see these breaks in the monoculture and they jump off the conveyor leading them into the maw of the AAA console-centric industry. 

In the often emotionally violent process of finding their own path, they reject the standard, institutional dogma. How does it feel refactoring your dreams? Pretty damned confusing. The easy, natural solution to cognitive dissonance is polarization.  Are you black or white?

Raph Koster, and Chris Crawford become The Man. Every single test in school.  Every single critical comment that incompetently referenced analytical concepts.  Every rejection because the thing you do doesn't fit the status quo. These are all labeled as tools of repression and control.  Through multiple steps and multiple contexts, the creative and intellectual works of isolated dreamers are transformed into symbols of power. 

The years will only multiply the angry cries.  So many bodies bursting forth. 

A generation is twenty years
I figure it has taken me 15 years of deep study to go from rote replication of games to some sort of journeyman level mastery of the topic.  Maybe in another 5 years of learning and 10 more substantial games, I'll be at a place where I might be comfortable teaching someone about Games 101.  I'm still not ready.

A student has a window of experience.  It stretches back to your first game played. It stretches back to the first game you made.  It stretches back to your first failure.  Your first rejection.  What is the window that defines you?

We are blind to history.  It is not something we can feel or touch or experience because we did not live it.  Instead history becomes an oppressive wall of 'what has always been.'   There have always been gamers.  There have always been consoles.  There have always been schools that teach game design. There have always been authoritative definitions of what games are allowed.

There is one reaction to this wall. Tear it down. Gorge on the pieces. Make something anew. Devote your lifetime to this holy endeavor. 

In 5 years, I will be well into my second generation of game development. My revolution does not yet feel over. Yet, I am now an old white man in a position of power. My life is for the most part a broken work in progress whose time is running short. Yet I get up each morning, make games and write essays about how they tick. Who is this all for?

All this leads to one final thought
Dear young game developers of the world. Eat me. 

(I'll let you unpack that on your own.)
Danc. 


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Comments


Benjamin Quintero
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So... whats your point? I get it Daniel angry, but what now. You bash game schools but I know high scoring graduates from prominent universities that couldn't code out of school or apply anything because the workforce wanted engineers not scientist.

I know young kids with genuinely quirky and unconventional ideas and old timers with nothing but piss and vinegar in their words because they are burnt out and dry on innovation. So again... what is your point? Your title has nothing to do with the 99% complaining about how future developers are being educated.

I feel like this post was more directed at someone specifically and not a general statement or editorial.

Pallav Nawani
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I think the point of this post was very simple: The people that are now seen as establishment (Eg, Raph Koster), were once the misfits of society, slowly working to gain knowledge of their chosen art. And they haven't actually changed so it is sad that as games went from fringe to mainstream these people are seen as the establishment by the newcomers.

And that's probably not the newcomers fault, because they don't REALLY know the history of their art.

There - I summed it up for you.

Daniel Cook
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I'm certainly not angry. :-) This post describes an arc of history that game development has gone through. Perhaps I should add a takeaways section to make the lessons more crystallized?

Benjamin Quintero
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I think the disconnect is in the tone. It's one thing to objectively cite the events of the past but this post is riddled with too many personal opinions about the past and not the facts. It's a very Fox News sort of "fair and balanced" view of gaming history.

"50-80% fail within 5 years and are left loaded with debt, non-transferable skills and the lifelong scars of broken dreams."

For example this statement; ignoring the fact that most graduates of any school don't make it in the field they studied for (kind making the need to single out trade schools irrelevant), or the fact that your average game developer doesn't last more than 6 years without moving up to become a suit or abandoning the industry all together. This could be said about an liberal arts student from a university or a math major who only seems to find job listings for software engineers or technical writers.

Anyways, I'm not going to tear apart your post line by line but you get the idea. It just reads more like an editorial with a bitter agenda than briefing of gaming's history. But who knows, maybe I'm the only one who sees it.

I agree that times have certainly changed, as I actually recently posted about myself, but I guess I'm just more concerned with what to do next and less with shaking my fist at the past.

I once taught many many years ago and I can tell you that one thing I learned back then was that it mattered less about what you know and more about how you engaged your audience. Intimate knowledge is important, don't get me wrong, but the greater skill was in how you divulged that information. You don't teach people that there is one way, you teach them that a solution exists and allow them to discover it for themselves. They will hate you for it and then shamelessly thank you many years later. 15 years is plenty of knowledge to teach because that is 15 years of living (and suffering) that someone wants to extract from your brain and put into theirs in a fraction of the time. It is how the human race evolves, at least until we solve the whole death of old age problem.

And yes, there is the anomaly, the genetic mutation of the tradition process of learning from others. There are the outliers who look at a coffee mug and are suddenly inspired to write an epic trilogy like no one has seen but most people get by with building upon the foundation of others. Nothing wrong with that; both sides can certainly live together as we always have...

Christian Nutt
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Not sure the tone is anything but ambiguous, or maybe "conflicted" if I'm reading it right. I think Dan's a bit in awe of what's going on out there in a good and bad way. He's not happy about some things, of course, but he's still hopeful for his own improvement and the creativity of others.

Daniel Cook
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I think that's about right, Christian. If I were to pick one word for how I feel about the subject, it would be 'complex'. There's awe, there's pride, there's amusement and there's a bit of eye rolling at the whole 'history repeating'. But I'm also excited to see us moving beyond the converging monoculture of the 00's.

My past articles on Lostgarden have been very pragmatic with clearer examples and take aways. This history is written in a little more personal style since the topic tends to be subjective based when and where you started making games. If you got your start at a game school a few years ago, it might be difficult imagining any other path or value structure. And there is a strong implicit economic and cultural value structure you adopt when you grow up in a specific place and time. Depending on where you start, events from a decade ago are either a blink of an eye or an eternity.

Holding both historical states in your head at once inevitably leads to complex feelings. :-)

take care,
Danc

Matthew Weise
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While I do not doubt some of the (worse) programs and schools would grade a student on a "right" answer to a question like "what is a game mechanic", a proper one would grade the student on how well they thought through the problem on their own. Good teachers know it's not about teaching you "what game design is" but the critical thinking skills to guide yourself through your own process, to become a more constructive and aware contributor to the conversation through research, practice, or both.

I've been lucky enough to be involved with people teaching game design that I've never really encountered this authoritarian approach first-hand. Again, I do not doubt it exists, but you seem to have a strong impression that it is more or less ubiquitous. I'm curious as to what institutions, teachers, programs have given you this impression, and how did you come by that information (speaking with students, grads, teachers, seeing sample tests, etc.)?

Carter Jarrett
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"There is one reaction to this wall. Tear it down. Gorge on the pieces. Make something anew. Devote your lifetime to this holy endeavor."

I think everyone's reading past what Daniel intended with this. To basically highlight the thought that those speaking as authority figures (like those programs often do state or claim) should be taken with a grain of salt. At the end, be even offers himself as one of those authority figured, making sure that even if he is or will become a stodgy old grandpa who's telling the younger generation their doing it wrong, to remember he once said eat my words of rules and mental barricading and shit out something better.

At least that's how I took the end, tied in with the quoted part :)

Daniel Cook
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That's an excellent summary.

Carter Jarrett
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And this is also why I shouldn't post from my iPhone. Ha, horrible grammar on my part. Thanks for the interesting article though! It was an entertaining read for me. Keep fighting the good fight comrade!

Ryan Watterson
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I largely agree with your perspective but ... taking it out on game design schools, I don't get what you are trying to accomplish here. It sounds personal. Learning tools, context and trying to give industry placement -- what else do schools do? And the idea that you can't teach game design -- with all due respect that's a bit silly. It's true game design is not a concrete discipline, but in a school setting the people who gravitate toward that discipline are already the people who would be inspired to try things on their own, but there's more of them, they're concentrated and there's support, and the open ability to focus on game making. Ideal settings to do exactly what you describe -- experiment and practice.

You're also basically attacking your own team. Not only the graduates, many of whom are some of the best independent developers, but also the academics in game design who are also supporting the indie scene pretty heavily in their publishing and investments. Brenda Romero designer in residence at UCSC is the co-chair of indiecade and is responsible for much of this women in games attention at IGF this year, would indie games be nearly as 'on the map' today without Jenova Chen, game design school graduate from USC? Kellee Santiago who runs indie fund is also a graduate of USC. There is a certain amount of inheritance, in-grouping, a great deal of politics to success in this industry, more than most industries, and and there are attempts by big tech wealth to pressure almost every aspect of it. But how is this different than the lessons everyone learns as an adult when they enter any industry?

I like your viewpoint but don't go overboard with frenzy and start attacking your own allies.

Randen Dunlap
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Inevitably humans tend to fear change, especially with experience and established mental models of processes or "way of doing business".

The legends and forefathers of the game industry can't be the pinnacles of design and creation forever.

Jason Cuffley
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Upon completing this article, I thought wow this guy is pissed. Then, I thought about being in his shoes and about how it might feel to be a product of early game development. In addition, looking into the spiral of the would be future and thinking what the hell is going on? It must suck knowing how hard you tried in the past and now schools just hand degree out like candy. Well, I am a student going to school for pretty much the same thing you are talking about. This made me stop and think that you are right because schools can’t teach you how to design a game. They sure can give you the tools and some knowledge of what game could have but not show the ugly truth of making games. I live fairly close to several major developers and hope one day I end up at one. But this article has a bit of discouraging qualities to it so good job on that but it will not stop me from trying my A@# off. Either, I will succeed or die trying.

William Johnson
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I don't think Cook is trying to say you shouldn't make games; just that you should think non-conventionally about game design. There are no rules to game design. Academia however thrives on rules and preconceived constructs, and Cook doesn't want you to limit your imagination.

I ran in to this problem when I was going for my BFA, I made a game that wasn't fun but my teachers told me games have to be fun. I told them that wasn't true, linked them to a few different articles written by game developers, like Brenda Romero's talks on Train. And if the god damn maker of Wizardry isn't enough to convince these people that game can be unfun, I don't know what the fuck will.

Robert Boyd
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"That mid-80s Far Side about a kid getting a job making games was funny in part because no one believed that such a job could ever exist. The date Larson lists for the clownishly impossible future? 2005."

The joke was about a kid getting a high-paying job PLAYING games, not making them.

Carlo Delallana
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League of Legends, Serious (eSports) Business.

Robert Boyd
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eSports professional position - all the job security of a pro sports position but with a tiny fraction of the salary & none of the fame.

Rob Graeber
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I think some South Korean eSports pros would disagree with you.

Jon Fox
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I feel that game school bit. I went through a year of Full Sail and they had absolutely nothing to offer that I hadn't learned after playing 20 years of games. I got this very deep vibe of "This is what the industry is doing and this is what you should do when you get out there." which is great if you're an engineer or an accountant, but the game industry has to change so rapidly to keep up with gamers' fickle demands and new technology, how can you teach that in school?

I like to recall what was said before (though by whom I forget).
"If you want to get a job in the game industry, go get a real degree like Computer Programming, Writing or Graphic Design because those skills are valuable."

Benjamin Quintero
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Jon I think you might be missing the point of formal education. Those institutions are there to present opportunities, not show you the path to success or teach you every possible skill you will ever need in life. I've been programming for a couple of decades now and have managed to dodge countless programming languages. Sure I could learn them if the job required it but I'm not yelling spiteful words at my school for never teaching me Haskell or Small Talk.

As a digital artist, knowing the tools of the trade (Maya, Max, Photoshop) is a huge part of what you will do everyday but that doesn't mean someone like Mudbox can't muscle in years after you've graduated and force you to leave your comfort zone. That's just life man, you can't know or be taught everything.

If someone is aspiring to become a designer then having a technical skill of some kind is important but that doesn't mean it will directly show you the path to making a fun game just because you got a degree of any kind from anywhere.

I don't know what you were studying at Full Sail but I can tell you this much. With most schools, you get what you put in. Many educators are there to guide you, not push you down. If you went to school for a "design" degree and not a technical degree of some kind (programming, art, writing, business, etc) then you likely knew what you were getting into. As I've said before this is the equivalent of a liberal arts degree, which holds more value to some than others. But in today's society, specialized technical degrees tend to pay back with larger dividends yes. This is why a brain surgeon makes more than a general practitioner. Specialization is highly desirable.

Randen Dunlap
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As a current student at Full Sail, I'll have to wholeheartedly disagree with you. I suppose, if I only did the minimum and then expected a golden award to be handed to me on a silver plate, along with a full time job, I'd probably be upset.

Mirroring Benjamin's comment, you get what you put into it.... that's called life. Granted, some schools will inevitably be better/worse than others but that fact will remain the same. I've professionally worked with DigiPen graduates who were weeded out of (fired) from jobs they should have been over qualified for because they couldn't do it, and DigiPen is a great school!

Maybe instead of blaming an institution for perceived inadequacies, some self reflection on your own level of motivation and contributions/effort is in order? Just a thought.

Tyler Shogren
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A little self indulgent in your own independence, Daniel. But you're not wrong. Indeed, corporate America's special blend of 50 vice presidents and project managers is especially caustic to this nascent creative industry.

Achilles de Flandres
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Sorta agree with the bit about game schools. But it's mostly the student's responsibility to make the most of their time there. The kids are just as guilty of dwaddling their time away instead of focusing on making a good portfolio. Video games is now the biggest entertainment industry, and plenty of companies need skilled people, but they won't hire a student who's reel shows off how completely lazy they were during those 4 years of study.

Most of the succesful game artists, designers, and programmers I know didn't even go to school. They simply got their hands on some software, watched Gnomon dvd's, posted their work on Concept Art for crits, and did Polycount challenges.

I don't feel sorry for people who complain about art school. I'd agree that it's probably a waste of time, because even if you are highly motivated you will get the job without spending 100K on some art institution. It takes 2 to tango. The student read the paper work and signed the student loan documents, knowing full well that there are less expensive, pratically FREE alternatives to learn the skills that game companies are looking for.

Tyler Shogren
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"The student read the paper work and signed the student loan documents, knowing full well that there are less expensive, pratically FREE alternatives to learn the skills that game companies are looking for."

It's almost like a subprime loan.

Maurício Gomes
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It is not like that unfortunately.

I for example have a stupid debt.

Not really my choice... I wanted to make games, my parents wanted me to have a degree, I did not wanted a degree, I wanted to make games!

But I had to have a degree, my parents obliged me to it...

Alright, I went to a game design degree then.

Now I am 4 years behind the most brilliant peers, and with crazy debts.

Achilles de Flandres
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I still don't feel sorry for either of you guys. Don't blame your parents for compelling you to get a degree... no one forced you to choose a bad school with a ridiculous reputation and inflated tuition. The devil didn't force your hand to sign the papers. There are plenty of inexpensive alternatives... community college, online sites, special training courses, traditional 4-year state college, etc... etc... You chose to go to a bad school, and you chose to take out the ridiculous loans. Even if you didn't know you were being ripped-off, you should have figured it out soon after starting the program.

Maurício Gomes
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Alright, what you would choose? These were my choices:

college that I went, price let's say "X"

very, very, very shitty colleges in towns near my family, with very, very, very bad reputation, price is X*0.6

some good colleges with traditional reputation, price was X*4, and way beyond what I could get as loan.

no community college.

These were the choices I had, there was no public college I could take at the time, and I could not choose to not do a college. What choice I should have taken?

Well, I COULD choose to not go to a college, but then I would have to work as supermarket bagger (yes, that was one option given to me).

So, what choice you think I should have taken? Mind you I live in Brazil, and internet back then was dial-up on my home (so no online stuff, in fact online stuff in portuguese do not even existed, and they don't give you a degree, that is what my family wanted).

Nathan McKenzie
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If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

When a finger is pointing at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.

...

It is interesting to see game development retracing the same steps and tensions that seem to wrack all other human endeavors and institutions ever.

Kelly Kleider
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I see the rise of game development schools coming from two main sources:

1) Games Industry: "We need more qualified ____", to do that focus your curriculum on game production/creation.

2) For-Profit school system: Specialized schools responding to a demand. These schools have combined the vocational model with the art school pricing. This model doesn't have the student's best interests at heart, hint, the for-profit part might suggest a different motive.

Isvar Horning
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I never understood why a student would want to visit 2). If I can see that a school has such an extreme pricing and (it often comes with that) takes everyone in if he/she can pay, I know it's not a place were I would want to learn.

I had to apply for a spot in my university - not with grades but with a portfolio and a kind of 3-months-homework. Every year about 500 are applying, and they take 40 of them. It's a state-university, so I don't have to pay anything except a small fee once per semester.
It is harder that way, but at least I know that I got the spot because I was quite good, and not because I had the money.

Curtiss Murphy
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What is the take away? The delivery is fine; the topic is interesting. And, I'm left wondering what the point was. Maybe, I would have enjoyed it more if I stopped reading at: "I'm still not ready."

Ted Brown
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With the shuttering of Game Developer magazine, I just want to point out how valuable semi-curated communities like Gamasutra have been, both for those of us still learning, and those of us who've done a lot and are still learning. =) This is basically tangential to Daniel's main point (sorry), but we really shouldn't take these places for granted.

Kim Pallister
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Good piece Dan. As with most of yours, I agree with some parts, less so with others. I'll have to find time for a lengthier response later.

An observation in the meantime: The consoles have been around for a long time, as long as the industry has. One key thing that changed in the late 90's was that the Playstation shifted the target audience to more of an adult one. Whether they were just tracking a trend or creating one is debatable, but the size of the industry and the types of blockbuster content changed as a result in that era

Daniel Cook
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Aye, the aging of the gamer population was a demographic shift (in my mind) that enabled Playstation to start marketing to adults. This is the generational change I mentioned. Seeds of that shift occurred much earlier. Anyone who loved their Atari 2600 was likely sad to give up gaming when they became an adult, though most did.

As you know, I'm always curious about power structures. 49% ownership is very different than 51% ownership in some situations. It seemed to me that a tipping point occurred once the console became the substantially larger platform where the hits were released. The openess of the PC was no longer a counter balance and the industry started consolidating relatively rapidly. Playstation took advantage of this. Microsoft certainly did.

As with many things it is not a chicken and egg scenario, but a feedback loop.

There are counterpoints to all this narrative. In the late 90's and early 00's, just as the console monoculture was solidifying, feeder schools kicking off and 3rd party developers dying out, the casual games market kicked off. And the PC market never actually died.

But it would be interesting mapping the flow of money over time and track where the majority of development dollars resided. My guess is that it shifted over time towards a state of console dominance and people, being the min/maxers that they are, shifted strategies appropriately.

Joe Cassavaugh
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1. I actually enjoyed the article and didn't find it as angry/dark or as depressing as others.

2. I agree about Game Design schools (up to a point), but I don't quite agree that the same can be said for other career paths (Engineers, Comp. Sci. etc...)

3. What distinguishes the Game Design problem is that it's not really a "teachable" thing. The same case can be made for programming in general...but it's not quite the same. Game Design is 90% art and 10% craft while a "good programmer" is about a 50-50 proposition of Science vs. Art (still making a good programmer more like a Master Craftsman than a Scientist). (This is all within reason and based on what a "good programmer" does with his skills - Research Scientist, Business Programmer, IT, Games, etc...)

4. The reason that Daniel's viewpoint doesn't depress me more...is that we're at the end of the gulag era for Game Developers. Because of better tools, we're returning to the Golden Era of small teams (or even single developers) that can design and create a whole game out of nothing...if they want. Once we have the ability, because of better tools, for 1 person to create a game from scratch in a reasonable amount of time (without having to write complete engines and/or worry about low-level details (unless they want to))...then anyone who is motivated will be able to bring their vision (within limits) to life.

And nowadays, the real "art" is not in creating a game....the real talent is "how does one get that game seen" by people that will appreciate it (and/or pay for it).

I was a pure Math major in College...and took a single computer course...Fortran Wat-IV and with a card deck. 3 days to find out I missed a semi-colon...Not really "fun". Anyway...two years after college I fell in love with "computers" when I sat down to a CRT and saw the immediate result of running a program.

Although an argument could be made that I haven't really used my pure-math background, I don't viewed it as "wasted" because it was a rigorous program and math actually has right and wrong answers. (I also put high value on the level of competition in general and other values an education gives you). The problem I have with "Game Design" schools/programs is that there are very few right and wrong answers in that field of study.

Lastly, for non Huge-Studio design...I lean towards the belief that the person who's both a Developer and Designer makes better/more interesting games than a Designer with a small Dev. Team.

When you're lost in the Jungle, it's not the Elephant that kills you, it's the 1000 mosquitoes.

For me, good Game Design is done/needed more often at the implementation level...especially the "flow of the game" and the "feel of the mechanic".

Done rambling...just my .02$
Joe

Rob Lockhart
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Dan, you should make a Machinations diagram of the game industry in the early 90s. Resources might include Money, Orthodoxy, Technical Skill, and Gamer Culture.

Emmanuel Henne
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Its a good article, and it somehow reflects my own feelings. I think I started to doubt this game industry when games stopped beeing games and started becoming "formats" and "products". We have far too many game developers. When I am sitting on the train, watching people playing a pointless mobile game between two phone talks, its pretty discouragung. They dont really care what they play, they just pass the time, if it wouldnt be a game it would be the latest Youtube video. I for one dont wanna do games at any cost, I for one dont wanna do THESE games. I know a whole industry depends on that "games as a servcie" shit, and using games as a frontend for monetisation. Well, good for them. That whole f2p and monetisation thing will burst like a bubble, and the nightmare will disappear. I hope. As developers you should wonder if itsvreally necessary to create another ville game, another "build your fantasy village" product, dont forget, only unique game ideas are hard to clone.

Dave Long
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I think this article is a bit narrow-minded - sure, at the big end there is a bit of an arc going on, but even in the early 2000s there was some genuinely innovative stuff being done which has had a big influence going forward (look at Europa Universalis and Ico, for example). I think it's very easy to extrapolate our personal experiences out without examining the broader context - game development, since at least the mid-1990s, has been an incredibly heterogeneous industry, with a wide range of avenues of entry (these are now ossifying a bit, but it's still far more open than most other professions), modes of work (there have always been one person and small team developers - the 'indie revolution' of the moment is an explosion of them, but they didn't suddenly appear a couple of years ago - and the bigger teams started forming in the mid-1990s as well, although exploded in the 2000s). It was absolutely not an 'enforced monoculture' in the 1990s, even if there was one element of the industry that was considerably larger than others. To pinch your words, while there is value in generalising, it is important to not be "blind to history", particularly if you're trying to understand it.

Plus, your comment "Strange as it may seem nowadays, people still made original games in the UK." comes off as incredibly arrogant and patronising (not to mention just plain wrong). The UK (as do many other markets) has a long history of producing original games, and continues to do so. I don't have time to do a full breakdown, but a quick example is Lost Winds - a wonderful, original game made by a UK dev. Just because you aren't personally involved in those original games, doesn't mean they're not happening. Yes, large-budget, less original titles are also happening, but that doesn't mean the others don't exist.

Neils Clark
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Nom nom nom. Loved this blog.

Christian Nutt
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Interesting, coming from an educator.

mikko tahtinen
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Actually... Don't know how many of you all have been around there. But many things he says is correct, maby a bit "highlighted". In many ways right. I started around 93-94. A dinosaur in many peoples eyes and recognisaing a lot in what Daniel was saying.

Maby a bit highlighted, but imho correct.

Entertaining reading, and i was nodding "ah, yes... and yes". Smiling at the same time.

Liked it a lot :)

Tom Kail
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I'm a student taking Game Design 101, raised in the cultural circle jerk. Yet from my distorted, distant viewpoint I couldn't agree more with this article. As my course has progressed, I've felt increasingly polarized, as you say. The experiences of my pre-student gaming days become increasingly stale while the reasons I love games drive me in my own direction. And yet only through my studies could I ever have come to realise this. My point, I guess, is that everyone is still learning; the student, the teacher and the Man. My new favourite article!

Tobirama Tendo
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I got a somewhat post apocalyptic vibe from reading this article, probably the
'War, war never changes, the end of the gaming industry occurred pretty much as we've predicted, too many developers , not enough smart gamers. it was only when the embers of overly monetized linear f2p p2w grindfested console mmos rained down from the heavens that we have realized our mistake, but by then it was too late... many intelligent gamers moved on, most of what remained was the ashes of minds that could be hypnotized by the mention of Double Xp Weekends and go-fetch quests, never seeing beyond the crude illusion... From the wastelands emerged a new type of developer , clad black rimmed glasses of critical taste who sought to break the mold..' (and so on)

I too can understand the frustration of not understanding what is the true path of learning to accomplish dreams and being told that there is a 'right way' or not being informed or confident enough to understand that teachers are just students with more advanced knowledge and their informed opinions are just as right or wrong as anyone's.
The final lesson in school: your gods/guides are false and their commandments are meant to be negotiated or worked around by you, I think that is something that is never stated but the most successful graduates tend to be the ones to realize this and develop the required confidence.

Of course many of us are discouraged to even go near this kind of thinking so it sometimes take a few years to get at that 'aha' moment.

I don't think Teachers do this out of bad intentions, it tends to be something they do not realize since the responsibility associated by their influence on student's long term development tends to be underrated,
to quote Kreia:
"Beware of charity and kindness, lest you do more harm with open hands than with a clenched fist."
it is something that bears on my mind in regards to educating others.

Alexander Brandon
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Danc, you've done it again. Except this time you've gone beyond teaching and you've actually taught me enough to respond properly to your writing.

First, the most minor point of contention: Tim's user generated works weren't all with bad art, although I think you're being facetious there. If so, hah!

The second point ties into the first: you have never been satisfied with even your own efforts. From your gorgeous art that almost never satisfies you to game design, it always seemed like we'd never finish a game because you'd have new ideas on not just how to make it better but how to revolutionize it. So in the most polite and respectfully possible way that this can be interpreted: your brain can be a real pain in the ass!

Case in point is this post, which admittedly I'm reading at 12:44 AM with a sick wife and son, and I have to get up in 5 hours to see off the two older sons to school.

I can see you being in a similar place to the one we were in around 1996 in North Carolina. You were excited for the prospects. Passionate. Talented as HELL. You still are. But back then there was a war between the bean counters and the people who wanted to create something really new and exciting completely outside the box. Yep, that war is still on, but it is being fought not just on two or three fronts but hundreds. And staying passionate is getting much harder to do without being distracted.

I feel your pain. However, the joy I have seen people express at what might be considered a lumbering behemoth of slow progress in our field is huge. People love what we've done over the years. It may be blatant copies of what has come before, it may be unworthy to be called a game. But if I've learned one thing up until now it is that happiness, even though our brains just don't seem to like it too much, is the end goal. Being so close to our craft, our own satisfaction gets exponentially harder than that of our audience, so contending with it is difficult. And trying to break down walls is even harder. Everyone agrees with my arguments for better iterative approaches to design as well as how audio influences the design and vice versa. But in the end the schedule and budget end up chopping that bold goal to pieces. Still, the happiness still ends up being generated. Just perhaps not on the scale that we'd want.

Man, we've come a long way. You'll never stop writing this stuff and I don't want you to. But at the same time let me buy you a round and leave you with this:

"Stolen at birth! But then... we tried to steal him BACK!"

Sorry to all for the inside jokes.

:)

Daniel Cook
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I tried to count up how many years it has actually been and I got a little wobbly on my numbers. :-) Tyrian was 1995?

Totally agree with you about being so close to our craft that we often can't see the joy it brings the world. I think I still remain hungry, despite the years or perhaps because of them. It can be good to remember...a million happy players here, a million there...eventually you've touched a lot of lives.

I did a small side step around the whole bean counter issue and now try to count beans myself every once in a while. It is fun mixing design, production and making a living as part of the same holistic problem. So I think that part is possible, especially now of all times where being an entrepreneur running a small game team is more financially feasible than almost any time in history. (I need a tattoo: "Mark was right")

Definitely up for a beer. :-)

Rich Levine
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Dan, I had to laugh, the early 90’s being “the relatively early days of game development.” I started working on games – handhelds and later video – at Mattel Electronics in the late 70’s. We were all from various backgrounds: chemists, engineers, mathematicians, artists, teachers, etc. Most of us didn’t know what a theory of games was – except for perhaps the science of Game Theory – nor did a degree in gaming exist. We just played and made games that we thought were fun, but like today’s businesses – big and small – we tried to reduce costs (e.g. consider the tradeoffs of .5k versus 1k of memory) and increase revenues (e.g. consider the value of using a brand name in the title). While game development tools, techniques, and environments have changed drastically – including the existence of gaming schools - I think that many young developers today, however they are trained, still understand and appreciate the goal (even if it isn't always achieved): enjoy what you’re doing and make a fun game, while reducing costs and hopefully increasing revenues.


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