[In this editorial, originally published in the April issue of Game Developer magazine, Game Developer editor Brandon Sheffield wonders why people with passion, creativity and the best intentions end up making licensed games that... fail to make the grade.]
There are a lot of things that frustrate me about the game industry, and to read my monthly editorials you might think I dislike it. But I don't, of course. The frustration comes from love and an awareness of unrealized potential that I think almost everyone in the industry also feels.
Specifically I've been thinking recently about why good people make bad games. It's amazing to me that I can go and speak with someone working on a movie licensed title, and they'll be full of legitimate enthusiasm, real ideas, and almost convince me - OK, this time they're going to get it right.
Then the game comes out, releasing day and date with the movie, with under a year of development time, and totally flops critically.
What's depressing about this scenario is that nobody wonders why. Everybody on the team already knows! The schedule was too short, the demands from the licensor were unreasonable, and the project wasn't well managed.
I've heard of licensor requests such as the hero not being able to die, or appear to be mean, or that developers couldn't use X character from the franchise yet, because they're saving it for the sequel, even though the books upon which the movie is based have been out for years. So why do developers do this to themselves?
Yes, money. What other explanation is there? Companies need money to survive, and there's plenty of it in license tie-ins. I understand why some companies do it-they still haven't had a breakout hit, or are still finding their specialty, so are doing licensed games until they can figure it out (though some might say if you can't figure out the market, why are you still in the business?).
But for companies with a pedigree, and a stock of original IP, and the bright, creative people available to make more-why? If you know that 80 percent of these games are going to be poor, and difficult to make and complete, and if you know that the project will most likely not match the vision, why sign on?
And you, reader-why do you do it? There's a lot of pressure to stick with one team for the long haul, but what about realizing your dream as a developer, or making your creative mark? It's true that licensed games can be good, or at least have glimmers of brilliance.
I've seen it in Ubisoft's King Kong and some of the LucasArts Star Wars games for instance, as well as the Konami Simpsons arcade game, and Capcom's DuckTales on the NES - but these are, of course, the exceptions, and I don't know that most people have any such illusions when making a game based on, oh, let's say Jumper.
The Best Intentions
It's not just licenses, either. I see conferences and talks on the future of games and design, and the true integration and collaboration of games with other media, and many of these ideas are sound, genuinely intriguing, and some of them are even possible to implement. Yet, where are they?
There are so many fantastic ideas out there not getting realized. Grand Theft Auto is a classic example of a difficult-to-realize concept getting honed into an almost universally influential game experience. Games like that don't happen without someone taking the plunge.
That's the big question. How do you take that plunge? I can't count how many people I've talked to who have great ideas for games, or who had better concepts for sub-par games that were eventually released. Why don't their games get made? Too daunting? Too many bosses?
My coworker and previous editor-in-chief of Game Developer Simon Carless says that in his experience, the only way to make a very different game if you've got an idea is to just get some coders and artists, and make it. I think that might be the case right now. But it shouldn't be. There should be methods within our current structure which allow individual creativity to blossom.
It's said that there's only so much original IP to go around-only so many brilliant studios out there. Maybe that's true. But with the number of intelligent people in mediocre studios, there could be quite a few more brilliant ones.
Take a look at our Salary Survey article (the results of which will be printed on Gamasutra April 14th), and if you're not all the way at the top of your respective field yet, maybe it's time to cut your losses with your work for hire company and join or form one with more potential.
I'm just saying. If you're one of those with ideas, vision, and passion for this industry, don't waste it at a studio that doesn't respect you enough to let you bring those things to light.