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Opinion: We Need To Aim Higher
Opinion: We Need To Aim Higher
June 9, 2011 | By Mike Acton

June 9, 2011 | By Mike Acton
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

[Insomniac Games' engine director Mike Acton makes an impassioned plea for developers to cast away their fears and reclaim their genius, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.]

Sink or swim?

Game developers should know this isn’t a yes or no question. Unlike old school bankers stuck in the vainglorious days of million-dollar pool parties, or alarmist CEOs who call for massive layoff’s at the first sign of trouble, most game developers have had the privilege of seeing things from the underdog perspective.

By their nature underdogs tend to challenge the status quo and eschew the easy answers. Rather than sink or swim, we might make a sail, build a submarine, or find a hundred different ways to get out of the water. We’ve just never been as limited in our thinking as those other guys, right?

Then why is it that game developers are beginning to drown in a culture of fear, or more specifically, a fear of change?

Is it because the gaming world has gone too corporate and is no longer exclusive to small teams of genius misfits and creative underdogs? Is it because the demographics of game players—once made up almost exclusively of teen boys—has widened to include nearly everyone from 5-50?

There are people who would deny that it’s fear of change that keeps them where they are. There are those that are content with the status quo because they believe that they have a formula “that works” and there’s no good reason to risk a major change when they already successful with what they’re doing.

At best, they’ll take a “wait and see” approach, confident that they can learn from others’ mistakes and jump in if and when it becomes necessary. However, to those I say that the real risk is in waiting too long and letting the opportunity for change and grow pass you by.
“So there’s no question that they’re scared; they’re scared of screwing up a transition. Right now they have a model that they know works and they don’t know if other models will work for them. And, consequently, that’s why you see them moving so damned slowly.” – Paul Hyman, The Necessity Of Making Free-to-Play Moves

Whatever the reasons for their fear and consequent sluggishness, game developers need to get back to their rebellious roots and do what they do best—being catalysts for innovation and evolution. They don’t need to merely embrace change; they need to create the products and ideals that change the gaming environment and keep it fresh.

Game developers are, at their heart, futurists and this is what they need to do now—put themselves ahead of the times so that they can surpass the stale leadership and old models that are holding them back. Our collective destiny should not be held hostage to one-size-fits-all concepts or obsolete ideals.

Game Development Needs Giants—And A Bigger Vision

Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes. Or, as famously quoted by Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” While many game developers continue to improve on existing ideas and platforms, others think in more revolutionary terms. There is abundant room in our industry for both the giants and those who would stand on their shoulders. Before individual developers can know which position suits them best, they have to recognize their own goals. What does making a great game mean?
  • An uncompromising expression of artistic vision?
  • A fantastic diversion for a niche crowd?
  • Reaching the widest audience and making the most money?
  • Creating something transformative, that challenges the status quo?
The possibilities are wide open. We need only an honest appraisal of our authentic motivations. Is it our goal as game developers to leave our mark on the world? To teach something to others, affect some cultural change, or explore the depths of our own creativity? Knowing the answers to these questions won’t make you a great game developer, but they will give you a clearer focus and help you avoid the distracting maze of less important questions that tend to waste creative talents.

Fundamental questions like—What are games? Who should they appeal to? What defining boxes do they fit into? Do we fit our games to an audience or create an audience for our games? Are social, mobile, F2P games, etc., the future?—have been asked hundreds of times before.

The simple answer to all of them is that as developers, if we invent the scenario we also get to define (or break) the rules and create the audience and outcome and drive the platform. We don’t have to be bogged down by any particular paradigm except the one that recognizes that change is constant, and that we can either help create that change or merely find ourselves adjusting to it in second-party fashion.
“Social network models are disrupting the traditional gaming industry with superior pricing, business and economic models.” – Chris Carvalho, Hardcore Social Gaming Disrupting the Industry
“We have not been this uncertain about what’s coming next in the games industry since Epic’s been around for 20 years.” – Mike Capps, Epic: 99-Cent Apps Are ‘Killing Us’
“The ripple effect is now that you *cannot* price a game correctly according to scope and effort, because so many games are *not* priced that way . . . – Jake Simpson, The Race to the Bottom
Change is going to happen because it must. The most sought after game developers in the future will be those who not only “adjust, adapt, and overcome” but who also take the lead in revolutionary new schools of thought and opportunity.

Five Signs of the Old School Apocalypse
  1. The independent game market is thriving. I would venture to guess that more indie games have been produced in the last three years than in the last 25 years combined. Or close to that anyway. Just a few short years ago, everyone was sure that the end of indie games was near. Instead, what we’ve seen is an absolute explosion of Indies. There is an ecosystem that can support independent game development, and right now it is on fire! iOS development is the obvious example.
  2. Serious games are finally catching some momentum. Fundamentally, people now actually believe (rightly) that using games to teach and to learn about the world around us is one of the most effective methods we have at our disposal. We’ve just seen the beginning, but you can’t speak seriously about the future of education and training without considering how games will play a significant, if not the most significant, part in schools, learning centers, and independent studies.
  3. Social and mobile games are rapidly growing in popularity. There’s been a tendency to look at the success of games in social and mobile spaces in a way that conflates the success of a particular type of game or genre of game with the space or platform. That’s completely backward in my opinion. The real transformation is not “social games” or “mobile games” (which are fairly meaningless descriptions), but rather the success of games in new spaces—the recognition of both a wider appeal beyond the traditional “core” audience and a reflection of the broader world. Games are simply and inevitably wherever people are.
  4. Gamification. There is some debate over the word itself (much disliked among certain game developers) and the use of certain “techniques” like pointsification and friendsploitation (see also: exploitionware and alternatively, gameful design). But there is no question that whatever you call it, and whether or not you understand it fully, or use it appropriately, games have been recognized for their ability to make a difference in the way people see and interact with the world. Whether used for marketing a product, engaging people in activities they’d otherwise find boring, or simply adding a bit of fun to something, the lessons we’ve learned in developing games are powerful and useful tools.
  5. A ‘change the world’ philosophy is edging its way into game development. If anything makes it obvious that games have leveled up, it’s the belief that games can affect culture and attitudes—and not just in a happy Pollyanna way, either. Savvy game developers are beginning to see how games can help give people insight into their world, and that games don’t have to make light or fun of big problems in order to educate people. We have started to see games take their rightful place among other socially meaningful and artistic media like writing, painting, and film and like those, it can be used as a tool to humanize issues. Interactively engaging and learning about subjects like war, violence, loss, tragedy, poverty, clean water, etc. can put issues into perspective and give people the incentive and knowledge to make real change.
Of course, the most significant change in games is their ongoing success. Video games have become an accepted and integral part of our larger culture, with applications that are continuously growing in both scope and potential.

It’s time for game developers to get out of their own way. To refuse to be boxed in by fear or creatively diminished by rigid, outdated schools of thought. We need to reclaim our genius, expand our visions, and get back to doing what we do best: Evolving our products and ourselves and taking the world along with us.

We need to aim higher.

Thanks to Matt Yaney, Rob Crossley and Leigh Alexander for lending their valuable time, expertise and advice on clarifying my thoughts here. You rock.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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William Collins
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This article is a rallying cry for repressed creatives in the game industry. Oftentimes people point out problems and obstacles when presented with new ideas and ways of thinking (which I'm sure some will do with this article). Anyone can think of reasons not to pursue/support new ideas, but I believe a true creative doesn't believe in the word "can't" and craves the challenge of lassoing the future into the present. Thanks for the inspiring start to my day!

Mike Reddy
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On points 2 and 4 of the signs of apocalypse I'd suggest a note of caution. As a professional educator, who just happens in this case to be teaching game development, I'm convinced of the Educational benefit of Games. However, it's an article of Faith, a perceived virtuous circle, not one of Evidence-Based Practice. Sure, there is some evidence, but there always is. Education Research is rather like Medicine in that respect, rather 19th century in approach: "Did it kill the patient? No? Better write it up then!" Developments in Learning can only benefit from hindsight. It takes people to try something, anything, to progress, but there's always what I call the Education Placebo to consider: games are novel right now and novelty motivates, but not sustainably. It's important not to think necessarily that games were the inherent cause of improved learning without eliminating other factors. Educators know this. Others often don't. 

The thing to avoid is saturation. I used to do lots of Education outreach work in UK schools. The British Council flew me all round the World advocating Climate Change Games and Educational Robotics. (There's an Ed Tech that comes and goes! Remember the fascination a few years ago with Robot Wars, TechnoGames and the like?) I regularly saw teachers amazed at the engagement of pupils, even and especially the normally disruptive students, but I'd always remind everyone that it was probably as much (if not more) to do with the variety as the activity. Like teenagers listening to advice only when it didn't come from their parents. The teachers usually knew though, that when I left, they'd have to pick things up again. That the fun activity couldn't be the norm. That if it was, it wouldn't be fun. That the magic of the activity would evaporate. I can imagine a school lesson where the kids, through some unintended aversion therapy, roll their eyes and plead, Plead, PLEAD not to play another Game, preferring some Chalk and Talk. Maybe a test? Anything but another game!

This has happened with other technologies. I've seen it myself, being a former school teacher. And it's something for the Brabens and Livingstone-Hopes, advocating teaching Programming in schools, to consider. We need to use Games Technology judiciously, sparingly, wisely to prevent student burnout. Which leads me to item 4 on the apocalist (see what I did there?): Gamification is JUST the way to rapidly disengage young people. Many don't just have a problem with the word. It's the whole disingenuous philosophy that stinks. Only Mary Poppins could pull off making a chore into a game, and she's fictional! We aren't Skinner's rats pressing levers. Making a game out of life can only work if it comes from the people themselves.

At best Gamification successes are an example of the placebo effect mentioned earlier. At worst, it's the fast track to losing what is, in my opinion, a genuinely useful educational technology. I'm completely with Mike Acton's call to aim higher, but please listen to the everyday teachers, who want you to look at your feet every so often so you don't trip.

David Serrano
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Gee... ya think lol?

Games and gaming technology have the potential to become as important as the printing press, the telephone and the internet. But the past 5 to 7 years have been like watching a child that's not living up to his or her potential, making mistake after mistake after falling in with a bad crowd. The industry has become its own worst enemy and it must drastically change.

Unfortunately, the people who prevent the industry from aiming higher and who are also preventing it from reaching its full potential are sitting in the board rooms at EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc... Before the industry can take the next logical step, reaching a larger and more mature audience, it must change from the top down. Fortunately, one problem the industry doesn't have is a lack of creative or technical talent. I have no doubt it already has some giants waiting in the wings. Giants who are currently stuck working under hacks and micro-managers. What the industry lacks is leadership. Leaders who have the skill sets and vision to find the giants and give them a platform, without interference from management. Leaders who are willing to take risks because they understand innovation demands it. And leaders who not only understand the vast potential of gaming, they want to turn the potential into reality. At some point investors and shareholders need to accept that Kotick, Riccitiello, Guillemot, Farrell, etc... are not the leaders the industry desperately needs. The longer they remain in their current positions, the greater the likelihood they'll run large segments of the industry directly into the ground. They simply do not have skill sets, vision or courage needed to deal with the problems currently at hand let alone future challenges. I was watching Fareed Zakaria's segment on CNN last night about the innovation gap between the US and other countries. He interviewed CEO's and VC's about the types of people and businesses that foster and create innovation. As they went down the list, I said out loud "the game industry is so frigging screwed." The CEO's and senior managers of gaming's largest companies are kryptonite for innovation.

Also, the quote from Paul Hyman is a huge red flag no one should ignore or dismiss. Because it's a very accurate description of how businesses and industries behave right before the rug is pulled out from under them by disruptive competition and technology. They see the problem but they either dismiss it, they don't move quickly enough to deal with it or they don't fully commit to making the difficult changes needed to stay competitive and survive. American automakers in the late 70's and 80's, Kodak, Polaroid, AOL, etc... Will the core game industry be next? Maybe, right now it's teetering on the edge.