Opinion: Game creation and the art of listening
One of the curious choices inherent to game development is the extent to which the creator does or does not listen to feedback from the community.
Ron Gilbert, the talented creator of Maniac Mansion
and Monkey Island
, currently working on adventure game The Cave
, recently said
, "You have to do what you think is the right thing to do and what you think is the best thing to do. People who like what you do and are fans of your work are just going to like what you do as long as you do something true to yourself. Creative things, if they're really good, they have lots of pointy little edges, and that's what makes them interesting."
This is the voice of the auteur, the person working alone or in small groups, entirely devoted to a particular artistic vision. Happily, game development today offers more and more opportunities for such bright stars to do what they do, and 2012 has seen a bounty of gorgeous, moving games from small teams.
However the vast majority of commercially successful games are not so much the work of artists passionately following their own desires, but by artisans -- creative and talented, for sure, but toiling away according to a grand overall scheme, adding dashes of their own genius to something that is best described as a Big Plan.
This is the game development of $20 million budgets, the one that keeps teams of a few dozen or even a few hundred employed. It has little use or facility for the individual as creator. Everything is collaborative. This in itself is a taxing form of creativity and it calls for skills of listening, empathy and meeting-in-the-middle.
People admire a single-minded devotion -- the creators who don't torture themselves over anyone's opinion of their work, apart from that of their most intimate collaborators and muses. We admire the Van Gogh lashing into his canvas without even a splash of compromise.
There's a passage in Neal Stephenson's brilliant techno-thriller Reamde
, in which a main character, Richard Forthrast, contemplates his own role as the founder of the world's most successful MMO, T'Rain. In making the game he was all action and passion, but once it becomes a success, once it becomes about people-management and data analysis, he falls into despondency and boredom. People with different skills come to the fore.
Making a game at, say, Electronic Arts is all about people-management and data analysis and listening to the feedback. I recently spoke to EA Games' senior VP of global marketing, Laura Miele about her role: "It really is about making sure that consumers are being heard and that we are connecting our creative talent in our studios," she said. "And that we're bringing that message and connecting those dots.
"I created a listening engine for my marketing organization, and it has been an incredibly valuable process and tool for us, where we have multiple inputs of information and data from the marketplace and consumers, as well as our products. We have telemetry in our games. And so when you can bring all that together and develop meaningful insights and bring some transparency from the marketplace to our creative development teams, it really can unleash more innovation."
She describes her job, essentially, as listening to other people's opinions. This is exactly the opposite of Gilbert's perspective, and yet both are engaged in making and selling interactive entertainment, albeit on vastly different scales.
Telemetry, market research and any other form of feedback are constantly informing or affirming decision-making processes among game developers. Huge games companies, like Zynga, are constructed entirely of these angular pipes of data and information.
Modern telemetry and the desire among large publishers to not waste time and money on fruitless experiments has created an efficient nexus between creator and consumer. Miele explains, "We know what consumers like. In Battlefield 3
, they love the indoor maps, they love the customization. And so we're able to add more dimensions to that game experience through the service [Battlelog]."
Miele has been analyzing data and helping to create games since she worked at Westwood back in the '90s. She adds, "Ten years ago it was very hard to understand how a consumer responded to something. You would spend three years making a game, and you would put out there, and then you'd have another three years before you could react in a new iteration. Now, by being more pointed and focused about what we are offering, we are able to innovate faster."
This does lead to the concern that creators of big games move in ever-decreasing circles, chasing the central experience of what the consumer wants, all converging on, basically, the same game. The indie auteur will point out that many games from large organizations share prime characteristics.
When I asked Miele about this, she said, "If you were reading data quite literally and translating it exactly into what you were reading, then yes. But that is not at all how we are behaving. By taking multiple inputs and evaluating what makes sense, having insights and data informs and allows our development teams to create. The last thing we want them to do is be beholden to data and analytics. Otherwise you could end up being in a downward spiral."
This issue came up spectacularly earlier this year when consumers made a giant fuss about the Mass Effect 3
endings, which many found to be unsatisfactory. BioWare's Ray Muzyka, in an open letter addressing the situation, found a way to the heart of the artistic conflict.
He wrote, "I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team."
In that case, Bioware found itself in an impossible situation, unable to please two sets of fundamentalists: those who believe it is their right to dictate to the creator, and those who believe the artist has no business listening at all.
The truth is more subtle, that successful artists and creators who take no heed of their audience's wishes are extremely rare, while those who slavishly follow their audience's every last desire are doomed to failure and, probably, madness.
Colin Campbell is a games journalist living in Santa Cruz, CA. He writes mostly for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx