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November 19, 2019
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“The Itch to Make and Nothing to Say” Creative Significance and Games

by Paul Kilduff-Taylor on 08/14/15 03:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In my last post, I suggested that developers should focus on “creatively significant work”. I realised that this was so vague as to be almost completely meaningless, so here’s a further look…

Moneyballs

 


At Mode 7, we try to make two things: games which interest us, and money. This blend of creativity and commerce seems to be a traditional game development recipe: a happy medium. I do wonder, though, if this is the worst of both worlds. Perhaps real pioneering creativity is being hampered, both by the need to keep the company ticking over and by the desire to grow it? Maybe we’re chasing some futile abstract creative ideal and undermining our financial prospects?

So, what if we just tried to make money?

Pre-credit crunch, any financey / investory / venture-capitally-type people we met would tell us that we should be taking on loads of debt and scaling up. That never felt right and, in retrospect, it would definitely have been a horrible idea. The core value we have is the creative collaboration betweenIan Hardingham (our Lead Designer) and myself: diluting this would be a waste. There was basically no guarantee that a second or even third simultaneous game would be anything like as good as a single project we worked on intensively together.

The business side of my brain has always been annoyed by this scaling problem. It gets angry and jealous when I see developers who can scale by just repeating themselves: this seems unfairly easy.

Could you pivot (ugh) an indie company to become this kind of cash cow? Well, possibly. The Supercell “game spam” approach, where you soft-launch reams of microprojects then mine the successful ones forever is certainly a great risk management strategy which doesn’t seem out of reach for many indies. Picking obvious trends like the survival genre or popular aesthetics like swords-and-wizards fantasy could also be more straightforward than magically predicting the whims of the audience.

 

There are some issues with that, however. It seems odd to me that Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen can say, “I’ve never worked for money. I just want to make great games” when his two most successful titles are slight evolutions of traditional F2P and exhibit monetisation systems which place extreme constraints on game design. That’s not knee-jerk F2P-bashing, by the way — I deeply respect Supercell’s work and achievements — it’s just something I find curious. Here’s why: developers who are willing to compromise a shot at the very top end of financial success in exchange for a little more creative freedom avoid traditional free-to-play like the plague. So “just wanting to make great games” seems disingenuous: there is absolutely no way Supercell can exercise their full creative freedom if they need to operate within these tough parameters.

This sounds a bit precious, but I also don’t know any serious artists who focus test their output and then commit to working only on the most popular pieces either. It just doesn’t make sense as an environment in which anything genuinely challenging could happen. They couldn’t, for example, make a game which intentionally bores and frustrates the audience; I feel like creativity is being confused with something else here.

Whether or not you think it’s possible for a small indie team to have a Clash of Clans style success (for the record, I do believe that someone could achieve this with some truly disruptive design in that area), I think there are only two routes to making a lot of money consistently in the games industry which don’t solely rely on luck:

1.) Being extremely conservative with aesthetic and genre choices but very ambitious with subtle design innovation and tech

2.) A sustainable portfolio approach with which enables you to release a variety of titles without taking too much risk on a single one

Cliffski’s recent post on risk management would seem to support this theory.

 

My point is simply that if you want consistently reliable commercial success, there is little incentive for what you might call “real creativity”: no deep formal innovation; no singular focus; certainly no narrative challenge. Over the last few years, the most straightforward commercial choices were the correct ones: it wouldn’t have taken superhuman perspicacity to spot those trends or systems at the time and capitalise.

So why did very few people do that? One problem is that when smaller studios try to be market-driven or even cynical, they tend to be spectacularly bad at it. Tale of Tales asserted that they “studied successful games and applied our findings to the design of Sunset”: this somehow led them to make a slightly impenetrable narrative game about a cleaner.

Overwhelmingly, though, designers (especially indies) are attracted to the high-risk, high-return model of pushing their pet projects through to completion. The fact that almost every hugely successful indie title was made without a strong commercial direction in mind is profoundly enticing because it throws the spotlight on what they want to do: design. Whether or not you believe this is “right” depends entirely on your stance on creativity vs. commerce.

As things stand now, it’s debatable whether anything can be considered reliable. Discussion among the big guns is largely about how significant success is only possible through the vagaries of massive innovation.

I’m personally most attracted to wildly creative art which is also successful: that’s specific to me and not necessarily an inclination which is always helpful. I think for real creativity to happen we need to break out of a situation where money is the only justification for a game’s existence.

Let’s change tack and take cash out of the equation.

A Personal God Quaquaquaqua


Most creators make things because they have to: it’s all about “self-expression” or personal fulfillment; an auto-inflatable afflatus. Culturally, it’s pretty hard to argue with those things, no matter how little respect you have for them.

A lot of designers will say things like, “I always wanted a game where you could combine Thing A with Thing B.” Any idea of a larger concept or project is considered to be pretentious: in fact, some of the very few designers who work on larger concepts are fairly pretentious. We’re a medium where the motivations are largely technical and mechanical; any infusion of authorial intent is often about indulging nostalgia or some other equally onanistic drive. Blocks are plugged together because the blocks are cool and they look cool next to each other.

Can we eventually get beyond this to a place where creators are somehow incentivised to produce meaningful works? I don’t think many game designers give this much thought, as they mostly want to entertain people and shift units. Those that do care primarily about creative significance often seem embittered: “Why does insert famous game name here get lots of attention while my wilfully obscure narrative experiment is ignored?” Clearly the act of making isn’t sufficiently satisfying.

Although I believe the audience for interesting workhas grown, we’re still stuck in a situation where the only permissible metrics for success are some aggregated form of “entertainment value” and revenue, as I’ve previously discussed.

“The nerves of the audience, not its intellect”

 

 

One reason that I’ve been concerned about advising developers to pursue creative significance is that I’m not sure that the general gaming audience is particularly interested in it. Anything which deviates slightly from prosaic immediacy is dismissed as “artsy”. Titles like Gone Home are discussed more for their opposition to traditional gaming norms than they are for their actual content; the majority of Dear Esther’s criticism focussed on the fact that the protagonist didn’t carry a gun.

If we are ever given a chance to think about content, the focus is mostly placed on writing, specifically narrative and characterisation.

Stories are just engines: Shakespeare nicked almost all of his because he didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Why innovate there when audiences endlessly wanted the same thing? He chose to focus his creative efforts elsewhere.

Game characters also are often just vessels for entertainment. Centuries-old ideas of realism and naturalism are the only acceptable goals: “How to Write Believable Characters” could be a subtitle from almost any GDC writing talk. Game writers are taught, endlessly, to lowball.

 

“The Citizen Kane of Games” is now a worn-out meme; we still seem to be missing the Endgame of games. There’s a reason that Her Story and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, two recent titles praised for their narrative content, are forced to cling to well-worn tropes and familiar forms: we don’t yet have the audience or vocabulary to cope with anything else.

We seem stuck in a cycle of representation where only traditional stories will do, and we can only respond to them contextually or in some other very literal way.

 

Of course, there are outliers: The Stanley Parable is a hilariously brilliant (and coincidentally commercially successful) deconstruction of modern gaming; Porpentine’s subversive and incisive Howling Dogs has some awareness (largely due to its guerilla insertion into the IGF) and Twine has, in general, made people think more about the possibilities of games. Abstraction, fluid characterisation, the dissolution of dull didactic drudgery: it is possible in games.

Although issue-driven narrative is something of a profundity cheap-shot,This War of Mine and Papers Please among others have done a lot to show that games can tackle unconventional and uncomfortable themes.

To go to places like this, developers really do have to shed the fear of commercial failure. They also have to currently be content that their work won’t be well understood or fully explored.

“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence”

 


Of course, writing isn’t the only area in which developers can exercise meaningful creativity. A brilliant sequence in Smash Bros is arguably as beautiful as a classical ballet pas-de-deux:

The problem with this, though is that gameplay is largely only appreciated for its entertainment value. It’s difficult to see how you could justify the creation of meaningful gameplay for its own sake — as an artform — as ludology and other related academic disciplines have apparently had minimal impact on the audience who actually play games. Ideas of how to “read” games have not really filtered down to the general public; even the gaming press makes very few references to them.

For example, the writer and academic Ian Bogost has made some attempts to unify the various critical approaches to games. His Unit Operations is a complex interleaving of literary theory (ranging from structuralism to psychoanalysis) with computer science, ludology and other schools of thought. It’s brilliant but, understandably, a slightly challenging read. It’s nothing that a serious critic couldn’t handle, though but I’ve never seen it referenced in a single article about games published outside academia. In discussing this on Twitter, I was also recommended Brian Upton’s The Aesthetic of Play which deals with somewhat similar issues: a lot of the groundwork has been laid, so why isn’t it working?

Good ideas should trickle down. What should be happening is that, as critical approaches develop, they influence popular creators, writers and journalists who, in turn, allow the audience a means of accessing work which is more than just entertaining.

This has been happening in other forms for centuries. In contemporary dance, for example, performers and companies are able to blend challenging, occasionally utterly bizarre work with populist crowd-pleasers. Rambert’s highly-accessible Rooster, which uses the music of the Rolling Stones, is performed on a programme alongside Merce Cunningham’s patently bonkers, slightly terrifying, silly and annoying deconstructionist post-ballet Sounddance, which is underscored by grinding and twittering modular synth noise. The audience can appreciate both because they have been given a way in; because theory, practice and commercialisation have moved in lock-step.

Well? Shall we go?

 


To allow developers true freedom to be creative and to allow important work to thrive we need to do something to stop the schism between games as entertainment and games as art. We have to stop rating games purely in terms of commercial success; we need to criticise them to the same standard as other media.

Although both pioneering and beneficial, I don’t feel that the current interface between academic criticism of games, games journalism and the public is working as it should. Feminist Frequency is by far the most prominent effort so far, and it presents — admittedly intentionally — an extremely limited critical approach. Bogost’s forthcoming book, How to Talk About Videogames, will hopefully provide a more accessible path to some of his concepts, but much more effort is needed to get us to where we need to be.

Events like Gamecity and their permanent fixture, the National Videogame Arcade, are also attempting to bridge that gap. They show that games can be simultaneously silly, straightforward, fun, entertaining, profound, challenging and meaningful. Although it’s very much not simply a gallery, having another method by which games can be encountered and appreciated could be key to encouraging important creative work.

I’ve attempted to outline the pressures and tensions which are hindering creativity in game development. Ultimately though, the onus is on creators. Many don’t care about criticism, some don’t care about money but everyone should care about their legacy. Some vague idea of “bringing pleasure to people” isn’t enough when we’re able to bring meaning as well; not just social or contextual meaning but truth.

If you are making a game outside of a supposedly commercially reliable context then one of the most sensible things you can do is to apply your creativity: cultivate it, improve it and direct it. Outliers work because they offer something new and because they have integrity. If you take the risk of having an original thought or evoking something profound, you will help build the audience for others who come after you. You can stop pretentious twits like me from trying to define what’s truly worthwhile.

Perhaps more importantly, you will have actually said something worth saying.


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