As with many things, money is the root of this particular evil. There are very few ways to access the funding necessary to create well-crafted, expressive games. The AAA title industry is so entrenched in its high-budget ways that it is unlikely to change any time soon.
Approaching GameStop, Best Buy, Toys R Us, Amazon.com and other mainstream outlets with a new type of game is not really possible. XBLA, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and the iPhone all provide outlets for games that otherwise couldn't compete for shelf space, but they do not provide seed money in the vast majority of cases.
Game portals like Manifesto Games, Kongregate and the like provide marketing and virtual shelf space, but not a lot more. Solo release of games using the PayPal donation doesn't scale well as most people view online content as naturally free.
The "give them the game, sell them the coffee cup" freemium method is not a reliable revenue stream, as it requires that the game catch on in a substantial way before a sufficient amount of money comes in. In all of these models, the burden lies on the shoulders of the developer to take on the risk of funding development.
This problem has a flip side: the lack of an obvious market for thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games. When so many units of sequels can be moved to the complacent game buying market, why would anyone want a better educated and highly critical audience?
New forms of funding could help spur a movement of artistic games. There are a number of solutions that can be borrowed from other parts of culture and tailored to the needs of game developers -- government funding, grants from corporations and non-profits, patronage, artist in residence programs, angel funders, and venture capital firms are all viable alternates to funding.
The art world's primary sources for funding are donations and grants. These come from a variety of sources: government agencies, private foundations, corporate foundations, and philanthropists. In countries like France and Canada, the government treats games like film and other art forms by providing grants and other opportunities for funding. In the United States, outside of tangential educational programs, this does not happen. The NEA should look to the programs in Canada and France for models of funding.
Jonathan Blow's Braid
But ultimately, artistic games need a market that appreciates and pays for them. Money talks. Someone will have to make a breakthrough with an atypical thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game using the standard tools of the trade.
Jonathan Blow's Braid may yet fit the bill -- though game execs are not exactly beating down his door trying to give him suitcases full of money. Many hopes were placed on Spore, but thus far it seems it has had the opposite effect.
There are models in other mediums for industry getting involved in the funding of more artful work. Film has Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Sony Picture Classics that all seek out, fund and publish riskier, more challenging films -- with a tremendous return on investment for a small percentage of hits.
How do we get tomorrow's thoughtfully-crafted, expressive genius-of-a-game to the wider world? How do we create a mature, intelligent, but still sexy gaming market?
We believe that a new type of venue is an important first step. As opposed to other art forms, there is a lack of venues for providing focused access to play, evaluate and discuss games in a public forum. Only a festival allows industry, wannabes, fans, and the media to converge with games and their creators.
The film industry has film festivals, art houses, the Sundance Channel and IFC; the art world has galleries, museums and biennials; music has SXSW, small clubs and indie record stores; literature has Oprah, BookTV, and in-store readings. What do thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games have? The Wild West of the web. Festivals such as IGF and Indiecade based on film festival models. XBLA (sort of). And Wal-Mart.
Existing events such as the Game Developer's Conference's Experimental Game Workshop and Jonathan Blow's Nuances of Design survey deserve great credit for making inroads towards legitimizing and promoting independent games, but they are not mainstream cultural events yet. Game festivals lack the expectation that officially selected titles will be bid on by a publisher. And few outside the industry know or care about them.
We believe there is a need for new venues that break with the conventional view of games, and that can provide the proper context for playing, discussing and critiquing. All solutions to the venue and audience problem need to start with a reminder of what makes games unique: they are systems for generating play experiences.
Games cannot be framed and hung on the wall and they cannot be screened at a set time for large audiences. Having a room full of kiosks set up and allowing people to play around with the game for five minutes does not solve the problem either, as even the shortest games cannot be played fully in this context.
One solution is a public massive play session in the presence of the game designer. We imagine this happening at game conferences and other events. The audience would be encouraged to bring laptops, smartphones or handhelds or the venue would supply PCs or consoles. The session would provide the audience with cheat codes or modified versions of the game that allowed access to portions the designer wanted to discuss. Following the play session, the designer would speak about their game, followed by a Q&A session.
Play sessions of this sort should be part of a festival along the lines of Sundance -- an event known for bringing the best and brightest of the thoughtfully-crafted, expressive game community together in a single place. Awards would be given out for various artistic categories. And those with funding (publishers) would have a one-stop-shop to snatch up the best and boldest games of tomorrow.
The members of the Project Horseshoe workgroup are embarking on the creation of such as festival. This April, the SCAD Game Developers eXchange Conference will attempt this format with one of Jason Rohrer's games. We invite any like-minded individuals to help organize this and other festivals. Where is our Robert Redford?
Ultimately, we feel that this shift is inevitable. Just as games have recently gone from basement antisocial angst to mass market phenomenon, so too shall certain thoughtfully-crafted, expressive games be promoted as art.
As more games like Braid are made and achieve critical and commercial success, as game journalism becomes smarter and more accessible, as game festivals become grand cultural events, the free world will start to take notice.