In music, there are essentially two models of working: the band and the orchestra.
Bands are small, groups of 1-5 artists working on albums, doing shows, having fun. They are generally undisciplined, chaotic, even crazy. They live a small, frugal and creative life and find success by trying.
Orchestras are driven by discipline. There is sheet music, everyone has their role, there is a conductor and a symphony is produced. Orchestras have a very craft-oriented way of approaching music, and they are capable of great harmonies etc. However life in orchestral music is very much a vocation. For every brilliant soloist there are a hundred tuba players, basoonists, viola players and flautists all essentially being paid to play in time.
The games industry used to be a place for bands. In real terms a lot of the old indie studios like id, Bullfrog, Sensible Software and a thousand others were really just hothouse rooms with a few guys and girls working on their
albums games and having a go.
Nowadays the games industry is all about orchestras. A studio of 80 staff with production managers and milestones is not a band in which weird things happen, it's a symphony in which everyone has their music sheet and most are expected to play in time. It's a very thought-driven discipline sort of environment, with books on how to design, system architectures and serious tools. Which, if you're making big games, is probably necessary. Educationally speaking, most game development courses are teaching skills to help youngsters become a part of the orchestra, teaching them their specialist instruments.
The Fat Pyramid
They also teach their place. When they come out of their courses and off into the industry, they join in as juniors and are expected to work their way up patiently, from third viola to second viola.
What drives this is aspiration. The young acolytes see a generation of game developers before them that they want to emulate. They want to be the next Carmack, Schafer, Miyamoto or whomever and think that they'll join the industry to get some experience, which will help them become that. Young people typically have no real plan as to what they want to do other than 'make games' and see themselves as creatives.
I talked with a young designer friend of mine about this recently. She had just been let go from a company after another disappointing project, another couple of years put into working on something and struggling to make something happen as a part of a team. She's been in the industry for 6-ish years already, and was one of a team with a lead who'd been around for 10 or more years, and feels a lack of movement and frustration. I totally sympathised with her, but the sum total of my argument back to her was this:
"At the rate things are going you won't be a design director until you're 40"
Simply put, as the games industry's production requirements increase, the number of available projects decreases. At the same time the number of junior level positions continues to broaden. The orchestra needs more third violas but there's still only room for one conductor. The problem my friend has encountered is that the really senior positions of the industry are dominated by the same figures who dominated 15 and 20 years ago. It's plain bad luck on her part to have been born younger, and good luck on their part that they are older and so got in on the ground early. She can't be the next Schafer because he's only 41 and is going to go on being the next Schafer for at least another 19 years.
Back to Bands
The problem with the orchestral path is that it is uncreative. If you look at the rate of innovation in classical music, it is very slow compared to rock 'n roll, dance music and jazz. In the 20th century alone we've seen many new kinds of music rise and fall, from folk to metal, because the band structure enables comparatively fast innovation.
Orchestral music by contrast is very slow moving. Orchestras are built around a mindset of patience and repetition in a way that is artistic in execution rather than invention. Also because the orchestral culture tends to produce musicians who think in limited terms about music itself and so are incapable of really creating. Instead they improve.
The same is happening in games. Back in 1990 someone might be a creative director on a game as their first or second job. Now it's a 15+ year sentence of different jobs, years spent in scripting and testing and the like, like an orchestra.
Do any of us suppose that after 20 years of working in an orchestral culture of development that you are going to be able to suddenly think fast and loose and be creative? Of course not. Once you eventually are handed the directorship of a project you will do so with a mind laden with complicated concerns and institutional patterns of behaviour and thought that mean you will self-edit. You will create from within a limited mindset.
So. Young game developers. Listen Up, for I have only one lesson teach: Form bands. Don't get swept up in orchestras. Bands are the only way to make your dreams happen.
Industry education makes out that there are so many skills that have to be learned before you can actually start to make games. But those early developers in the labels that we all loved back then didn't have college courses or a roadmap to tell them where they were going wrong. They didn't have design manuals or worry at all about the practise of doing things. They just tried stuff, saw what stuck. Why can't you?
The truth is that the skills that educators want to teahc you are ideal if you want to join the orchestra. They are vocational training which will probably get you into the industry but put you in place to do long service before you ever get to do anything you might want to do. It really doesn't have to be like that.
The internet in particular, whether through digital distribution, web games or social network games, offers a path. Freely available and easy to use technologies like Flash, Silverlight, Cocoa (for iPhone), PHP, Unity, downloadable console shenanigans and hundreds of other bits of tech are there. Free packages to create art, models and so on are there. And there are ways to make the money too, get your names out, all the rest of it.
I am very interested in seeing more young developers forming bands. I care about it deeply because I believe bands are the core of creativity in games and that orchestras are just the wrong way to go for those of us who have ideas we want to make. It's important for them and also for the bigger industry that a truly creative culture is reignited and kept going.
Do you agree?
(You can follow me on Twitter @tadhgk)