The recent spat between former Blizzard man David Brevik and current Diablo 3 director Jay Wilson shines a spotlight on the issue of professional relationships and expressing personal opinions about other people's games.
More and more these days, we are seeing game developers with the confidence to say what they think not merely about their own work, but about the work of others. Brevik commented on what he saw as poor design decisions in a game in which he had no hand in making, but having made the original Diablo and Diablo 2, he is eminently qualified to state these opinions, and we should welcome his honesty.
Wilson's initial response, an infamous three-word post on Facebook, was regrettable and he later apologized. In doing so, he explained his own emotional response to the criticism and some of the details about the game's genesis, addressing a few of the points Brevik had made. So although the conversation briefly strayed into unpleasantness, it was nonetheless an illuminating insight into one of the year's biggest games, from two people of intelligence and passion.
There have been times in the past when debate between the game industry's best and brightest has been dulled by the forces of corporate publicity machines. Employees of large publishers, even the most senior and respected ones, must toe the line and avoid making statements that might cause PR teams to rush out "clarifications."
But as the business splinters, as power is drawn from these large organizations towards developers, indies, and Kickstarters, we should all be able to enjoy a more open conversation.
Last month, Cory Davis, who worked on Yager's Spec Ops: The Line, criticized publisher 2K Games for its "relentless" insistence on a multiplayer mode that he described as a "cancerous" growth.
For those of us who work in the press, this is really good stuff -- visual imagery and strong opinions are our bread and marmalade. But more than this, it's a signal that bad design decisions -- those that come from a marketing-agenda rather than a gaming one -- can carry negative publicity consequences. We find out that the multiplayer part of the game was indeed rushed to Darkside Game Studios, which did the best job it could under the circumstances.
Is it too much to hope that there are executives at publishers who, reading those stories, will think twice before insisting, against the advice of a game's designers, on squeezing in an inappropriate feature?
The trouble with expressing opinions about other people's decisions is that we are all liable to get prickly and irate when we feel under attack, especially in the area of work and creativity. This is why, while we can all agree that personal attacks are wrong, it is possible to sympathize with Wilson for his initial angry response to Brevik.
There are also developers like David Jaffe, who says what he thinks, and deals with the consequences later. You can Google News Jaffe at almost any point and he'll be in the media expressing a colorful opinion. Agree or not with his commentary, the alternative is a bland and boring world in which game developers merely sit in media interviews parroting feature-lists.
Take also Arkane's Harvey Smith, who's working on Dishonored. Last week he also was expressing opinions on other people's games, addressing a massively important issue in game design. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz to promote his forthcoming game Dishonored, he talked at length about his own discomfort with heavily-scripted cinematic games, how they represented a "less healthy" evolution in game design than more open experiences.
This is not an opinion that everyone will share, and was certainly not the general wisdom in the executive corridors a few years ago. And yet it is essential that leading game designers feel comfortable critiquing others' work in a public forum.
Freedom to express
Obviously, it is generally good practice to avoid outright meanness, but video game creation progresses through the honest appraisal of work by people who really know what they are talking about. It's interesting to hear what actual game makers have to say about each others' work.
Game developers are becoming less and less under the thumb of marketing overlords, dictating what they can and can't say. This freedom to express opinions is yet another consequence of the rise of digital distribution, and the coming of Kickstarter.
Note Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2pitch on Kickstarter, which spent no small amount of time savaging publishers for their limited creative horizons. And then there are guys like Notch, Edmund McMillen and Jenova Chen who are never backward about coming forward when it comes to talking about the creative direction of gaming.
We are lucky to be able to enjoy their work, but also the opinions and emotional perspectives that produce them.