is great, isn't it?
our industry, technology has driven massive progress and financial
returns, the likes of which were undreamt of 20 years ago. From
'rumble packs' and EyeToy-s to 3DFX cards and analog pads, we are
blessed with the fruits of a golden age of, well, stuff. We have
come to rely on technology. We await new formats, new capabilities
and new toys with something approaching high passion.
there is a dark side to techno-love. We have come forward leaps
and bounds in hardware, but the software lacks far behind. The industry,
especially in the console and handheld sectors, remains immature
and hardware-led. Games are now much more expensive to develop.
Geometric cost rises are not matched by equally geometric rises
in sales. Creative game content is not evolving, and release schedules
increasingly carry the whiff of déjà vu.
industry is becoming more the equivalent of an electronic comics
industry rather than the usurper of film that it aspires to be.
Technology, bizarrely, is now part of the problem rather than the
solution. We rely on greater and greater hits, trying to achieve
better-than-photo realism through ever-more complicated graphics
technology, massive physics systems, and ever more complicated consoles.
Yet while we seek these new electro-thrills, we seem increasingly
oblivious to our own atrophy, to the arguably failing state of the
games we produce, and to our own future.
are we addicted to?
We are addicted to new toys. Who doesn't want to play with new
hardware and software?
2. We're addicted to a business model that values hardware over
3. We are addicted to trusting that new technology somehow magically
translates into new money
4. Mostly, we're addicted to the ability of new technology to
anaesthetize fear of the future. Technology has become the catch-all
is a downward spiral. The rate of return for increasing investment
thins from one generation to the next. The faster turnover cycle
between console generations leads to market fragmentation. The pay-offs
in terms of the games themselves are now lackluster. The media and
the customers are increasingly cynical about over-inflated promises.
are spiraling. Most developers are not having much success in bringing
costs under control, and they know that the situation is only going
to get worse. In the UK, over a hundred development studios, big
and small, have gone out of business in the last three years. The
next round will cull nearly everyone else.
all is not lost. Addiction can be beaten and sanity restored, if
we learn to recognize the problem, admit that there is a problem,
and then take steps to re-affirm the decision to mend our ways.
So, throwing taste and caution to the wind, how better to solve
our problems than with a 12-step program?
One: We admit that we have made poor decisions.
addiction recovery starts with an admission of responsibility.
studios made the leap from PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 development
without stopping to think whether it was a good idea. PS1 development
was typically inexpensive, and therefore afforded a good rate of
return on even a modest scale. PS2 development changed all that,
ramping up the costs by four times as much, and increasing development
the surface, it was a great prospect. There were millions of customers
out there. They recognized the brand, they would upgrade smoothly.
It was rock solid. The customers moved over, the PS2 brand became
ubiquitous. The problem that many developers discovered was that
what was good for Sony and EA was not necessarily good for them.
But they discovered it too late.
businesses would not have made the leap instantaneously. The PS1
still had (still has, in fact) a huge user-base and a platform technology
that was well understood. It could support any number of games,
and yet the industry by and large turned its back on this.
in their legions the developers bought in to what, on the surface,
was a mad proposition. From an objective standpoint (and with the
benefit of hindsight), the decision was simply poor beyond reckoning
for many companies. They came to believe in the mythic power of
PS2 to somehow save them. Somehow they would leverage brands. Somehow
they would manage to move increasingly unwieldy teams from one project
to another. Somehow the money would be found to pay everyone. Somehow
new publishers would be found.
was a benign and successful situation quickly melted into a quagmire of paranoia
and layoffs. Hundreds of collapsed businesses, an industry that
has become deeply unpleasant to work in, a console hardware industry
spiralling out of control, release catalogs of nothing but franchises
and sequels. A few people are making money, but the majority of
the industry is suffering. This is where technoholism has gotten
reason for such poor decisions is blind faith. Like a self-reinforcing
prophecy, many developers and publishers automatically believe that
any new format with backing must be a success, and therefore they
must be a part of it. They frequently do not stop to consider whether
the new format will be good for their business, regardless of whether
it is a success or not.
Two: We realize that stability does not mean death
is often assumed is that companies technologically move forward
because they have to, as customers drive the technology forward
through their desires, and companies are only doing what the market
us imagine that Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Intel, and everyone
else decided tomorrow that they would never develop another iota
of hardware again. Does anyone seriously think that Joe Public would
throw out his existing hardware and cease buying hardware ever again?
are quite a few people who do believe it.
are many examples of media formats where stability has done nothing
to destroy hardware sales. CDs are still going strong. DVD is dominant
despite hardware-lusters on the Internet decrying its shortcomings.
I hear the book is doing well. The Spectrum and C64 played host
to nearly ten years of games apiece. There is strength in stability.
is the key to both creative and financial success in any medium,
because stability breeds experimentation. An excellent analogy can
be drawn between the games industry to the music industry. In music,
new instruments emerge from time to time. There are guitars, there
are 808s and 909s. There are drums, horns, pipes and violins. But
the upgrade cycle of musical instruments is slow, and so musicians
are afforded the time to not only learn them, but to master them,
become artists and learn real creativity. They create music, which
is in a sense the software of the music industry. And they create
endless variations with the same tools.
is because the music industry, from the most asinine pop to the
most breath-taking music from the masters, is focused on the software
rather than the hardware. Despite a few bumps in the road of market
conditions, nobody expects the music industry to collapse if Fender
stops inventing new types of guitar, or if Roland went out business
examples can be drawn from the worlds of film and television, the
works of poets and novelists, playwrights and artists. Stability
in the basic instruments of any art form allow for real work, real
development and, by the way, real financial success. Even the poor
corporate-dominated comics industry has its independent side that
is making real inroads toward becoming a respected art.
is exactly the same in the games industry. Coders need years to
learn to become masters. Designers need stable platforms to try
out ideas. Artists need standards that they work with the produce
excellent work. Producers need certainties to learn how to become
professional managers. But because everything shifts and everyone
is chasing after the golden egg that technology offers, nothing
settles. Instability rules the roost, corporate conservatism tries
to manage the vast risks involved, and everything slowly slides
some twisted logic, many in the industry have come around to the
idea that capitalism breeds innovation, new hardware breeds competition,
which feeds further innovation, and that we are therefore living
in the best times the industry has ever seen. Those of us still
living on Sanity Island beg to differ.
Three: We recognize our pushers.
do we get our fix?
technoholic hits come from hardware manufacturers because the industry
is structured in such a way that it makes them a lot of money. Like
the comics industry, the games industry relies heavily on the branding
of its major labels (swap PlayStation 2 with Marvel, Gamecube with
DC, and Xbox with Image, and so on). This keeps the power and media
focussed on the hardware.
wield most of the real power in the industry, as they own the core
brands, they are the gatekeepers, and it is in their interest for
the core brand to recycle on a regular basis. They are in competition
with each other for total dominance, and therefore total ownership
of what amounts to a huge slice of revenue at the till. Unlike a
movie studio or a music publisher, console manufacturers know that
dominance means long-term rewards, and the best way to do that is
with new hardware. Even the PC industry is caught in the same vice.
hardware equals new brand, equals new opportunity for angles on
the existing industry. And so it goes until one of the manufacturers
runs out of money or ideas or, often, both.
key to all this is enchanting developers and publishers with the
idea that their new technology is going to somehow change everything.
Remember the Emotion Engine? Now, do you see the Cell plan on the
horizon, or the whole XNA idea? Nintendo's "Revolution",
or the furore created over touch-screen gaming? Remember the UMD?
whole point of all this information is not really to enchant the
greater buying public. The whole point is to enchant you.
By irrationally jumping after every new shiny thing that manufacturers
produce, developers keep themselves in the financial doghouse. There
is always so much to learn, new markets to be proven, untested engines
and processes to be learned, new dev kits to purchase. All of that
continues to cost developers big. They can rarely sit down and actually
make the best games in the world because they're too busy tripping
over themselves to catch up.
it be better to catch one's breath and not follow the red rag?
recovery recognizes the importance of changing one's pattern of
behaviours, no matter how difficult it would seem. One recognizes
that the pattern that one is following, no matter how well rationalized,
or inspired by fear, will lead to one's destruction. This is exactly
the pattern that all developers great and small (and not a few publishers)
find themselves on. Developers have to learn to behave maturely,
rather than as grown-up kids clubs, if they are to survive.
Four: We realize that the media is not the market
don't, on the whole, need the most advanced technology in their
games in order to buy and enjoy them. They just need good games,
need to know that they exist, and find them appealing.
PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto games have never been the
pinnacle of racing, character control or firearms-based games. The
Sims has never been a game hailed for its technological firepower.
Cult-favourites Rez and Ico are relatively low-tech
compared to many a game. Who the hell bought all those copies of
Deer Hunter? Why does such a comparatively low-tech shooter
as Halo 2 do so well in the days when Half Life 2
and Doom 3 are abroad?
the entertainment value, stupid.
are some customers out there to whom tech-level is very important.
There are lots of journalists who seem to think so and write about
it constantly, but we must realize that the media is not the market.
Internet forums are not the market. The market is much vaster than
we realize, and its tastes encompass a vast array of experiences.
Most of them are not dependent on how many polygons are flying in
front of them. And we're not just talking about those consumers
who like to hunt virtual deer to pass the time.
we need to do is really understand our customers. Who are the people
that walk into game shops? Why do they come in? Who else might come
in if they only understood what was on offer? What do customers
see in games that we may not? What do we see in games that they
may not? These are the questions to which many of us have off-the-cuff
answers, but which, if we're deadly honest, most of us know very
Five: We decide not to buy into the next round until it is proved
to be profitable
fact is that for many of us, we are simply moving forward on the
assumption that we have to keep pace. It will be more expensive,
break-even points will be much higher than before, and we will find
ourselves increasingly mired. We must examine what we get from the
we see increased sales of games? That is unlikely. The customer
base for any new machine is going to be much smaller than the current
console bases. Will we see increased profitability? Hardly. Publishers
are under ever-increased pressure to sell as many copies and make
as much money as possible, and the natural course of action in those
circumstances is to squeeze development as much as possible. Will
we have a chance to develop that million-selling mainstream game
that we've always wanted? It's cold in hell, but the outlook is
it's a bad business decision to move over to the new platforms for
most publishers and developers. There are 70+ million PS2 customers
out there. They actually like to play games, and they buy them.
There are another 30+ million Xbox and Gamecube customers, also
big on buying games, despite owning "dying" platforms.
There are many hundreds of millions of PC customers who have machines
that are older than brand new. Many of them like to play games as
not a cardinal sin to realize that these people can be entertained,
and that you are allowed to make money in the process.
of the reason that the television industry has been so slow to move
over to high-definition broadcasting is because they know full well
that they have a huge audience in regular broadcasting, and any
move they make is going to involve expense, adjustment and so on.
And for what? The ability to shoot soap operas in HDTV? They ask
themselves whether it's really such a compelling proposition.
industry developers and publishers need to be asking themselves
the same question. Is it really such a good idea to migrate staff,
pay giant costs and permanently increased budgets? To make what?
Generic platformers, racers and FPS shooters? Is that really such
a compelling proposition?
Six: We admit the need to organize to right our wrongs.
industry very badly needs a professional association that represents
the software side and cuts hardware out of the loop.
everything is fractured, and there is an air of kill-or-be-killed.
This suits a large publisher or manufacturer right down the ground,
because it keeps the developers under the thumb. The only way that
publishers can make money in the current scenario is if they keep
developers scared, because manufacturers are taking so much money
out of each sale that their margins are much reduced. With the advance
in technology at every stage, this problem only gets worse.
of you may say that that's capitalism, but it isn't. It is in fact
the extended effect of monopoly. The games industry as a whole is
not a monopoly. Rather, it is a series of competing quasi-monopolies.
Once you're in with a hardware manufacturer, you are in their monopoly,
operating under their brand with little or no capacity for negotiation.
They assume that you want to work with them (and let's be honest,
you do), so they hold all the cards. There are, after all, hundreds
of PS2 games produced every year, and what is one game missing off
the catalogue? Nothing.
is the actual power in the industry, but developers are beguiled
into believing that things are the other way around. Games sell
consoles, much as films such as The Matrix sold DVD. The developers
need the outlet, but the outlet needs the developers more. Where
Nintendo may be relatively comfortable without needing third parties,
Sony and Microsoft absolutely rely on them. Aside from the key releases,
their consoles both need the appearance of great libraries of software.
It looks bad if a console only has ten games.
professional organisation of software developers and publishers
would act as a lobby group, negotiating with hardware manufacturers
and encouraging stability. Much as it sounds tempting to have the
new toys, there is more mileage in being able to produce games for
an existing audience than constantly being forced into the new thing.
Similar associations exist in the film and music industries (The
dreaded MPAA and RIAA). Much though these associations may be hated,
it cannot be argued that they wield heavy power in favour of the
software of their respective media.
software, there are associations like ELSPA and some smaller ones,
but they are comparatively toothless and the hardware manufacturers
are heavily represented within them. The figures speak for themselves.
Sony, Phillips and the DVD consortium make a small amount per title
of every CD and DVD sold. Console manufacturers take up to 30% of
each release on the shelf.
money may be used to subsidize the hardware and keep it cheap, but
that is something of a straw man. It is the hardware manufacturers
that are pushing new technology in the first place, after all, so
are they really that deserving of our sympathy?
Seven: We admit that limitations are a good thing
use rhyme schemes for a reason. They are limiting and liberating
all at once. Limitation encourages creativity and innovation. This
has been a lesson learned in practically every art form that mankind
has ever engaged in except for games.
the games industry, it is often thought that hardware advances encourage
innovation. Technologically, this is true. There are some innovations
that open up new ways of looking at things, like the EyeToy and
the FPS engine.
we are still making the same sorts of first person shooters as we
were back in id's day. They have new and different features, but
they use the same conventions of quasi-military garb and blasting
aliens. Platform games are still replete with moustachioed plumbers,
racing games are still covered in the trappings of Formula One,
and RPGs are still using creaky-old D+D as their main inspiration.
encourages lateral thinking. The long era of the Spectrum and C64 saw an
awful lot of real innovation. In modern terms, hardware is thousands
of times more powerful than those early machines, and yet games
are often much less interesting on either a mechanical or an aesthetic
anything, the industry has moved backward. In 1998 it was cool to
create racing games set in the future to then-underground thumping
dance music. You could set an adventure game in the Mexican underworld
and see it released. You could play an FPS in which you were a scientist.
It was cool to be an evil dungeon keeper. There were the glimmerings
of a real sea change of imagination in the industry as a whole.
And then came the increasing costs, and that all died a short death.
have been a few (a very few) games in the last five years that are
somewhat aesthetically imaginative, but nothing like the promise
of earlier times would have indicated. Videogames, once the most
amazingly creative medium in the world, have become a hole of relived
glories, movie tie-ins and the odd manufacturer-sponsored success.
chasing the technological dragon, we have lost the ability to laterally
think. Lateral thinking costs money if you're always hot-footing
it from one platform to the next because it has reached its "limits".
Anyone who tells you that the real limits of the PS2 and other machines
have been reached is simply wrong.
Eight: We realize that there's more to sales than tech.
the press, publishers and public has become an ever-more important
part of the industry. A large publisher like Atari might get away
with selling some piece of rubbish to the unsuspecting public through
blanket advertisement (akin to a pop promoter), but for the smaller
and more discerning fry, promotion requires a lot of skill.
what most developers do is to talk tech. The pattern here is to
invite a gaggle of journalists into your company's offices, show
them something on the screen, and talk long and loud.
problems with this approach are that:
It can end up committing the company to a course with the game
that they later realize was in fact a mistake, and
2. Everybody does it.
are other ways to sell a project that don't require technology.
most developers don't realize, or haven't realized to date, is that
the games business is not a software business. It is not a business
in which software is continuously developed at length to create
a compelling game that then lives in eternity. The games business
is exactly the same as every other medium in the world: It's an
how the other media sell themselves. The majority of films are sold
without any hint of a word of technology ever being mentioned. They
are sold on their trailer, on their stars and their image. Books
are sold on their authors, their jackets, their extracts and their
covers. Music is sold on its videos, its play coverage, its celebrity
coverage and its style. All these media are sold on their content.
Hell, even porn is sold on the sex.
has very little to do with any of that, and it proves that there
are whole dimensions of interest that can be harnessed over and
above bits and bytes. While it is easy for a large publisher or
manufacturer to crank out a video reel to advertise their game like
a music video, many smaller companies often rely on trying to generate
technology-press. However, as we said in Step Four, the media is
not the market.
many people is this technology advertising actually reaching, and
how might that time and effort be better spent? How many developers
have relationships with the mainstream press? How many of them spend
money on their branding? How many of them spend appropriate money
on their PR? All too few. The technology press is all that they
can think of (again, think of destructive patterns of addiction),
and so it is all that they do, and so they come to believe that
the only market out there is the technology press. It's a silly
and self-destructive practice.
Nine: We realize the need for a common format.
of you may think that the whole point of this piece is essentially
and extended attack on hardware manufacturers. It isn't really.
Hardware is a business much like any other, and the actions of manufacturers
are perfectly acceptable in light of the financial framework in
which they operate. It must be recognized, however, that the hardware
manufacturers' method of operation is responsible in part for the
plight of many developers. It is also, by being so brand-focused
and transient, limiting to the industry overall.
don't, on the whole, feature in the collective unconscious of the
over-thirties. And even many of the under-thirties regard them as
something of a cultural underpass, home to vagrants and nerds the
world over. PlayStation may have made gaming relatively cool the
world over, but that aura has faded, and nobody's pushing
games into the ubiquity territory that DVD and the music CD occupy.
Games remain shackled by their hardware-dominated feuds.
buying into this sort of hardware-and-brand competitive structure,
what we the technoholics are doing is actually limiting possibilities.
Creative limitations may be a great thing, but business limitations
are generally held to be suicide. Imagine a world where we could
go into the local media shop and buy a music CD, a game disc or
a DVD without ever having to ask an assistant whether it would work
for our console, whether we have the right one, why some games are
only available in one format or another. This sort of total availability
is what we need, but we often don't see it that way.
need to. As part of the activities of its software association,
the developers and publishers of this industry really need to push
for a common format. Every other media industry manages to get its
act together and develop common standards from which the whole can
operate. Why can't the games industry manage it?
Ten: We learn that there are more numbers than one and zero
is commonly thought that the only way to real success in the industry
is to be number one. This is a quaint notion, but it's not true.
Nintendo are not number one, and they don't seem to mind a bit.
In any business, there are slots available all the way down the
chart, and numbers two, three and twenty can often be quite profitable.
problem in the industry is therefore one of scale. Number twenty
can be quite profitable, but only if he's not spending the same
sort of money that number one is. Some companies have made a good
living from this sort of attitude.
has some high profile titles, but the company has made a not insignificant
portion of its money in racing games. Climax has produced a lot
of racing games that aren't yet necessarily brand-leading names.
Yet they do well enough in this business because Climax have developed
the tools that allow them to turn around this specific type of game
quickly (and, more importantly, cheaply) with very little fuss.
only time when being number one is critical is when you're spending
a lot of money in the first place. The chief means by which a company
spends a lot of money is by hiring a lot of staff for a long period
of time and, essentially, dicking around. Technology is central
long does it take to develop an engine on a new platform? How long
is a piece of string? How much art resources do we actually need?
How feasible is our new design on our new platform? These are the
sorts of unanswerable questions that wrestling with new technology
brings. We may lament or blame producers (and we do) for these apparently
mismanaged states of affairs, but the thing is that most of the
time the activities of mismanagement come from the inability to
answer unanswerable questions. Producers also never learn to become
good producers if they are always battling against such invisible
yet, with an attitude that drives toward stability, many of these
problems would not be so intractable. Rather than hazily guessing
at the specs of the Xbox Next and trying to pitch development toward
it, couldn't we ask ourselves whether it would be better to just
make a game for the PS2 instead? It's a known quantity, after all,
and it has limitations. But limitations, as we already said, are
a good thing.
is an entertainment industry, possibly even verging on an art. We
are about making money, but there is more to wanting to work in
this industry than just making money. We make games because we want
to, because we like the product. It's not the stock market. It's
not kill-or-be-killed. It's a competitive community. Once we learn
that it's ok to aim for number ten or even twenty, provided the
budget can be kept tight, that will be a sign of true success.
Eleven: We accept that games will never be perfect
matter how far we go down the road of technology, though it
may take us over the edge into oblivion, games will never be perfect.
There is no technology that will create the perfect self-generated
storytelling experience, nor the perfectly animated human. There
is no technology that will recreate the world in its entirety in
game form, or if there is it is wildly beyond the games industry's
is an entertainment industry, not a science project. We are artists,
not researchers, and we are here to entertain people, maybe touch
them with our creations. We can do this with the tools that we have
today. As the tools become more widely understood, the costs involved
film industry has evolved to the point where, with straightforward
technology that hasn't changed that much (CGI excepted) over the
decades, they have evolved the ability to create grand visions.
Movies will never be perfect, and neither will games. But that's
not the point.
point is that perfection is not a sensible goal. It is an immature
goal in many ways, like the wish to draw the perfect circle, write
the perfect novel or sing the perfect note. Perfectionism is the
addict's way of not dealing with the world as it is and not engaging
with the world as it is. You can carry on tweaking and refining
that game engine forever and ever and it will never be perfect.
we must learn, as new, responsible, recovering technoholics, is
that the imperfect is as good as it's going to get, and so we must
learn to write novels rather than endlessly tinkering with the first
one. We can pour money and endless hours of frustration down the
drain of technology if we like, but all we will end up with are
pink slips and bankruptcy. And quite possibly a huge sense of disappointment
order to do this, we must learn to become decisive.
Twelve: We admit that times have changed
be honest. Addicts only recover when they are honest.
next round of console gaming is going to be just like this one.
The advances are not going to be enormous. There are only so many
layers of textures that you can apply before you have to squint
to notice the difference. There are only so many ways to surrounds
us in sound, and there are only so many ways to control plumbers
rescuing princesses, cars careening around street corners and blocks
falling from the sky. There are only so many ways to make a box
fall over realistically before it takes a super-brain to notice
greatest danger that developers have to contend with is thinking
that the past is the future, and that everything is going to return
there some day. There are many people in the industry that pine
for such yesteryears, looking toward handhelds, independent gaming
and mobile phones for some sense that the revival is coming. It
those days, technology drove whole new kinds of games and gaming,
but those early discoveries have come and gone. The challenges of
the future are no longer the frontiers of the past, and its technoholic
challenge is now depth. It is in taking the instruments that we
have, learning to play them well, and making all kinds of beautiful
music. Like the musician practising with his violin, it's time to
become masters rather than going back to the music store to try
the latest SuperObo.
may be great, but it's long past time to move on.