World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel used his Montreal International Games Summit keynote speech to urge large publishers to use their resources to create small internal teams that would work on groundbreaking games from within.
"We need a medium-sized design studio. Something that is larger than a typical indie, but has the same propensity for of talent density, focus, and risk-taking," said Carmel, formerly an employee of major publisher Electronic Arts prior to going independent.
Notably, a focus on profit must be eliminated from the equation. "Creating this within a major developer doesn't present a problem," said Carmel. With a budget of $1-$2 million dollars, 10 staffers could be hired to work on "creatively ambitious and forward-thinking projects."
He likened it to the automobile industry, which alongside its mainstream consumer products works on concept cars -- few of which enter production as regular models. The concept car is, said Carmel, "a marketing expense to build your brand, and say, 'Look at all the amazing things we're creating.'"
It also helps with recruitment. Said Carmel, "there's no reason the larger game companies can't do that."
He also said that developers must move away from the notion that a team comprised primarily of programmers and artists can create a great work. Why do Valve's games have such amazing environments? Because, said Carmel, "Valve has architects on staff."
"Because games are, in a way, a superset of all the mediums that came before them... we need to incorporate the people who are at the top of their respective fields into our game design process."
However, he said, that doesn't mean just hiring them onto projects in limited roles. In his view, everybody has to have their hands in the project. "Cross-pollination [creates a] more cohesive [game] experience because everybody holds in their head the full vision of what the game is supposed to be."
Both examples of teams he thinks approach this model come from within Sony Computer Entertainment. Carmel says that Team Ico, with 2005's Shadow of the Colossus, reached a point "that is about as far as games have come in terms of expressing something meaningful and authentic."
At the same time, Flower and Journey developer Thatgamecompany, which is funded by Sony and works out of its Santa Monica studio, may not be "quite as far along as Team Ico," in Carmel's view, "but each project is significantly more ambitious than the last."
Carmel noted that games are getting more ubiquitous as a medium, too, and that's a concern. "When everybody's playing, them there will be a much greater desire for experiences in games that are a lot more nuanced."
His view is that a group like this could "have experiments and don't work, and try better next time" when separated from strict profitability. He also considered the idea that "a large studio would hire a bunch of indies and create a studio out of that... but I am not entirely sure that would work." The reason? Many current independents choose that road due to a singularity of vision, and may not be team-oriented.
What Separates Indies?
Carmel showed a clip from the acclaimed TV series The Wire early on in his presentation -- one he hoped would illustrate the show as what he calls "the first masterpiece of television... nuanced and authentic."
In Carmel's view, "video games are in a relatively similar place to television, but they're 20 years behind. I don't think we've so far seen a masterpiece of video games. Great works yes, but nothing that's as expressive as the great works of film, television, literature."
Interactivity, he said, is the key here. "With choice comes the possibility for something very interesting... in which your own emotional landscape gets to interact in meaningful tangible ways with a fictional world. They have very barely begun to climb towards reaching this potential."
What's the stumbling block? "The way we develop games is not necessarily conducive to the creation of great works. Very few designers end up pursuing that desire" to create meaningful work -- due to circumstances of their employment or other reasons.
That's why the indie scene is crucial, he argued. "In order to create great works, and to break new ground you have to take risks."
"Unfortunately," he said, "you need a critical mass of resources to create something great. Is this where we're stuck? Either an underfunded indie or a risk-averse mainstream studio? ... Does that ["indie"] label still have meaning for us today now that the independent game scene is well-established and games have been critical and commercial successes?"
In Carmel's view, and thanks to some survey data, he doesn't see lot of difference between indie developers and mainstream developers in many ways -- age, whether they have kids, education, gender, and ethnic diversity are all similar.
The main difference seems to be that they take on more roles working as understaffed indies. "Does the difference in people or environment make a different kind of game than another? I don't think so, it's priorities." Indies, he said, "make games they want or need to make." Meanwhile, developers at studios work under "pretty fine profitability constraints or schedule constraints, and within that they make the best game they can."
Thus, rather than "indie" versus "mainstream", Carmel would view the split as design versus commercial studios -- and at this point he'd lump PopCap and Valve into the "design" camp. When we concentrate, as an industry, on "practices rather than identity, then we can talk about the meaningful differences in our games without creating conflict," said Carmel.