What would a Game Developers Guild (GDG) look like? Would we want such an entity? Would it hobble the world of game development with the kind of "not-my-department" surliness many associate with unions? Or could it be a tool that game designers, developers, producers, and unions can use to move game development into a new paradigm?
What Kind Of World Needs A Game Developer's Guild?
Our company is unusual in the game industry. We are a "game producer". What's a game producer?
A game producer company asks game designers to come forth with their best game designs. It's the opposite of conventional wisdom (which has it that game developers don't want to hear you when you say "I've got a great idea for a game!"). Such a company is modeled after a film production company. It asks for inspired, well-thought-out, well-written designs. It sends word out it's looking for free agent designers to approach with their best design for a game.
Surprisingly, while many have looked at us as tire-kickers, maybe semi-seriously applying, almost none have full-on committed and submitted a well-done design that could plausibly spark a full game.
Our CFO, who comes from film and television, can hardly believe this. In film, writer-directors will wash dishes, wait tables, mortgage their house, max out their credit cards, do anything to get the time and freedom to craft their dream script or shoot a short film. But their game development equivalents -- designers -- seem to crave security.
It's not because they don't have great ideas. Most do. But they come to us as if we are a game publisher. They want to do the minimum -- a pitch doc, basically -- and then have us hire them, buy them out, and make the game.
Problem is, we aren't that. A game producer can't work that way. It isn't about being a monolithic corporation with a static roster of unchanging talent, grinding out games that, even if they come in the front door with a unique vision, leave the back door all looking the same: large, brown-castle shooters done in the Unreal Engine (or something like that). So we tell them, we need more. A game producer needs commitment. Needs a good design that it can establish chain-of-title to; that forms a selling basis -- one you breathe life into.
But then, when it comes to this, many of them back away.
Why do they do this? Why don't they make a more thought-out, better design, with actual production-ready documentation and maybe an early playable prototype?
It's not because it's not doable (though there aren't many good writers of design docs today).
Mostly it's because it's dangerous.
The Danger Of Being A Free Agent Game Designer
You're an intermediate game designer at Game Company X -- not some Will Wright (yet). Just a person who's worked in a supporting role for some years, maybe designed some levels, wrote the odd mission design, or something to this end. You have a "dream idea" for a game -- but you hold it close to your chest, not wanting to share it with your employer because you know that if you do, it might get co-opted into the game you're working on now. Or you won't share in the reward if it becomes a major hit. Or it will get distilled in the churning groupthink of your typical game development company so that by the time it's released anything original in it will have been boiled out. Or you haven't the time or energy to somehow cobble together the production resources required to quit your company (giving up healthcare benefits and so on), and finance an entire vertical slice.
Or, worse, if you do start shopping around your design you might piss off your current employer and they might fire you -- and now you're out of a job, health insurance, and so on. Or if you actually do take a chance to write up the idea into something close to a well-executed, readable design document (maybe you're between jobs and have some time), you know that you have very few places to take it as publishers "don't read designs", and even if they did they wouldn't greenlight anything until they first saw a vertical slice.
So your Dream Game sits there... On your hard drive... Or in your mind... In limbo...
Now let's switch the tables somewhat. Take the perspective of us, the game producing company. Not a game developer; not a game publisher... a game producer. We do on occasion see a designer with that good early design. Working like a film producer, we want to do a deal on it and begin to "package" it: to attach elements to it which will both map out the production picture and have a sway over whether it gets greenlit: if Outsourcer X says they really, really want to build Game X by Designer X, then the idea would be that might have sway over an investor or publisher (after all: who better to judge whether a design could actually be turned into a good game than a game creator? At least, that's how it often works in the film industry with key talent).
So the game producer needs to be able to shop it around. It needs to be able to find outsourcing parties to come on board if it gets greenlit (as a game producer maintains no internal production resources to minimize its burn rate). It needs to be able to show your design to investment parties to see if they like it. So to pound that pavement, a game producer needs to do a deal. (Otherwise we're just giving you charity.) The game producer either options it as a design document (using the literary model) or does a co-production with you. But to do either, we need that design to be substantial. There needs to be a something there. You, game designer, need to put some sweat equity into it.
We say this to designers, but they don't seem to want to take that time to flesh out their designs. They don't want to lose their jobs. They don't want to lose their healthcare. They don't want to alienate their bosses. They don't want to spend all kinds of time writing up a design and beginning the journey of realizing their vision when they could be doing something more useful -- like learning how to optimize lightmaps.