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Big responsibilities, little ownership
by Karl E on 06/28/12 05:07:00 pm   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.


The Mass Effect 3 ending feels like a tired topic. However, I still have one thing I have to get off my mind. It concerns the frequently occurring argument that demanding a new ending is ”equivalent to ask Leonardo da Vinci or JK Rowling to change their work.”

Take a look at the cover of a Harry Potter book. It has a name on the cover, JK Rowling. Take a look at the cover of the Mass Effect 3 box. It features the name of two corporations: EA and Bioware.

Next, assume that JK Rowling died before the last Harry Potter book was finished. Would her publisher hire a ghostwriter to finish the book? Not likely. Compare this to any of the Mass Effect writers quitting Bioware. If he insisted that despite him being fired, it was still his version of the Mass Effect universe that was the ”true” version, people would ask if he’d lost his mind.

The separation of creator and content in the games industry makes sense from the perspective of the companies involved. If the Mass Effect games were in any way associated with the people who create them instead of the company that sells them, the creators would be able to get a larger share of the revenues.

Casey Hudson and his writers probably have decent salaries. But compared to JK Rowling, or anyone retaining creative rights to major media, it’s peanuts.

In this context, the whole da Vinci comparison becomes particularly annoying. The people who make it honestly seem to think that they are complimenting game workers by comparing them to da Vinci.

Since their level of creative control and ownership couldn’t be more different, the effect is probably the opposite. Ask any work psychologist: giving people responsibility without the equivalent amount of freedom is a sure way to make them stressed out and depressed.

There are several reasons for the games industry being organized in this manner. Creating games may be considered a more team-oriented, constraints-driven effort than film or music.

But the ME3 debacle suggests that in a story-driven game, an actual author is really useful. That is, someone with creative control. Someone who has a working copy of the game world in his or her mind, and a personal interest in seeing this world become realized as faithfully as possible. Someone who might even deserve some royalties.

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Michael Joseph
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"in a story-driven game, an actual author is really useful. That is, someone with creative control. Someone who has a working copy of the game world in his or her mind, and a personal interest in seeing this world become realized as faithfully as possible."

You see that all the time with single person or few person team projects. But it definetly becomes unweildly in very large projects like ME3. For huge projects it's not possible to seperate author-ship from art design and technical implementation and still wind up with an "author" having full creative control in reality. I'm not trying to be flippant. I think it's important to understand the technical impossibility of pure authorship in large game productions. In other words I think the words "actual author with creative control" suggests in the mind something that can not ever exist and I'm pointing it out so this fact doesn't escape us during our fantasizing :)

That said, despite the occassional screw ups, the current AAA production model seems to be working "ok" from a product perspective. But from my perspective, there's a lot more "wrong" with ME3 than the story. So I can't bring myself to isolate and bash it's story when so much else is wrong with the entire series.

I think when you start thinking in broader terms about what is wrong with AAA games you may start to see innumerous ways in which the "actual author" scenario is a utopian fantasy.
Your title is "big responsibility, little ownership." Unfortunately I think writers have little responsibility and commensurate ownership. Nobody is pushing them to create great stories. Games are the not the first, second or even third places to start looking for good stories. So maybe you actually want to see productions where the writer is given more responsibility. For me that means the game designer IS also the writer who maybe brings in someone who can help polish up all the rough edges.

Leonardo Ceballos
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I find it strange that after you give several painting and book examples, you then cite "film or media" at the end. Film is, in terms of scope and team size, the best comparison here. Books and paintings are often one-person jobs, and the author/artist can generally complete the project individually (if not publish/market it).

Similarly, indie games and small films have a much stronger authorial stamp on them than large AAA games and summer blockbusters. The simple fact is that you're trading freedom for money; show up on a publisher's doorstep with a fully finished indie game, and maybe they'll let you keep full ownership. Show up with a good idea and ask them for 50 million dollars to make a game, and they'll understandably want some input.

I don't see how that can change. For every Leonardo DaVinci, there were dozens of lesser artists toiling away in workshops or doing specific commissions for patrons. For every Spielberg and Cameron how many "good salary but no royalties" directors are there? Similarly, there are a few Sid Meyers, Will Wrights, Shigeru Miyamotos, and Todd Howards who do ok in the game development world.

The problem is that you don't get something for nothing. You can't own something if someone else paid tens of millions of dollars for it. I'm not saying the culture (both in Hollywood and game design) shouldn't be changed for the better, but I doubt its going to happen (or at least start with) the AAA system.

Michael Joseph
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"It's about the project/business structure that games have taken on. They use a software engineering model. That is not suited to entertainment projects."

You make a lot of sense.

My question is, isn't there a reason beyond just not wanting "to place creative control into the hands of a single creator" for this to be the case? We've seen a fair number of film directors over the last 15 years take shots at making games with mixed results. I assume they had a lot of control over their projects

Somewhat related

Joe Cooper
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I would not expect a film director to do a great job directing a game regardless; it's simply a very different beast and if you don't have experience designing games and playing games than it's very hard to have good judgment whether you can exercise it or not.

Joe Cooper
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Oh, I thought you were referring to particular individuals.

John Flush
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If that is the case then the authors of the mass effect universe must have died after #1 because they rewrote the universe when #2 came along and it only got worse with #3 where most of the writing staff turned over.

It already wasn't worth finishing creatively before ME3 even came along.

Karl E
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Thanks for the comments on the post.
I'd like to add that the conclusion from the post, about the ME3 fiasco causing development houses to give authors more power, is probably completely wrong. More likely, they might conclude that serious storytelling is too difficult in games and try even less.

Michael Joseph
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Tim Carter said: "Essentially, the game industry is suffering from learned helplessness by its inability to place creative control into the hands of a single creator, due to its bickering."

Not very convincing. There's got to be a better rationale than that. And I think that answer could be as simple as realizing that AAA game products are not catering to the people who are going to complain about meaningful gameplay or good stories (and the bar on what is a good game story has fallen to the floor). Big publishers have no delusions when it comes to the art vs product debate. They make products who's primary purpose is to make money and not to encourage players to ponder the great questions of life and the universe.

So that's where any solution must start. How do we prove that giving more control to an author results in products that perform better in the market place. How do you show that it will not result in niche products that only certain classes of gamers will buy. How do you show that it won't result in a wave of products whos budgets spiral out of control and then never see the light of day? How do you convince the powers that be that they can grow the market by raising the quality of their games (beyond the visual & visceral) so that games are taken more seriously.

So going back to the ME franchise yes you can say the 3rd installment has done some damage and I think the responses from the studios reflects that realization and so they've taken steps to address the issue. And correcting that mistake is fueld by the desire to protect the franchise. An author of a proper artistic work wouldn't give a **** about pleasing everyone.

And in the case of ME3 I think it's hard to make the argument that handing creative control over to an "author" is a good idea considering the franchise born from the old way of doing things.

EDIT: Game products start by asking "What will the player enjoy?" More artistic game works start by asking "What do I want this game to say?" These are very different mindsets from which to start working on a game. It's Avengers vs Unbreakable or Transformers vs The Matrix. But Avengers and Transformers have been box office successes.