Tuesday, March 11, 2008

SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!....or,er. don't....unless I earn it.

EDIT: I've removed alot of the preamble to this entry to make it read easier and to not confuse folks in to thinking this is a 'are games art and worthy' piece. It ain't.

Ya'll read the great interviews with fellow GOD OF WAR director Cory Barlog over at N’gai’s Level Up Blog? If not, check them out. These interviews really got me thinking...


Reading Cory's interview- for me- really brings into focus how our industry is mainly about amazingly fun (and thus needed) PRODUCTS….But yes, products, NOT art….just products.

Now let's not get into the tired argument of 'can games can be emotional and artistic?'

I'll make it easy for you :)

Yes, of course they can.

Simply playing the flash game PASSAGE (http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/)- for me- has made this very clear and has stopped me forevermore from wavering on the subject. Hell, ONE DAY games may very well be the BEST medium from which to get our non-real-life emotional experiences.

But for RIGHT NOW, for the vast majority of people who play games, games are simply products. Video game sports. They are diversions; ultra fun diversions (and thus, to me, ultra worthy causes) but diversions nonetheless.

And because of this, I don't agree with Cory when he talks about how valued game directors should be. Or at least game directors who are making games that are- in being strong and focused on story and emotion- seemingly trying to rival what movies do so well.

And I’m not bashing Cory and his take on things. Not at all. Not only is Cory a great game director, a passionate storyteller, an amazing animator, and all around nice person, but he’s also a super smart guy. There’s a lot going on upstairs with this dude. And hell, what Cory is saying is stuff I have said in the past, almost verbatim.

Thing is, these days, in regards to this topic, I just don’t think I buy it. Not anymore.

In the interview, Cory talks about the idea that the game biz SHOULD be rewarding the key creative players for being instrumental in bringing such strong games to market. Man, I used to say the EXACT SAME THING! Hell, Dennis Dyak was saying similar things this week in a great Gamasutra article where he speaks about the need for game directors. Here, check it out:


And these guys are both right in the sense that without The Dyaks or Barlogs or Levine’s, those games (GOD OF WAR II, ETERNAL DARKNESS, BIOSHOCK) would not be what they are. No doubt.

The PROBLEM tho with the argument is that the vast majority of the audience really does not care. They want Smash Bros., and Halo3, and Grand Turismo, and Call of Duty 4 and Guitar Hero and Wii Sports.

Sure they buy games like GOD OF WAR and BIOSHOCK and ICO (well…maybe they don’t buy that many copies of ICO, even tho they should!)….but there is no indication from the audience that people like me or Cory or Dennis NEED to be paid a lot more money than we currently are. There is no indication from the players that game directors like us need to be negotiated with like movie directors- as Cory suggests-in order to get us to stick around. Because there is no financial upside for the studio/publisher to bend over backwards for folks like us.

See, it’s people like us who know movies and think of ourselves as the game equivalent of a movie director (well, I used to, not anymore). And we think there should be a 1:1 relationship between the way film directors are treated/paid/negotiated with and the way game directors are treated/paid/negotiated with. We deal in stories, they deal in stories. We deal with emotions in our games, they deal with emotions in their movies. We deal with- or try to deal with- intellectual, political, spiritual topics…just like the movie directors. But the thing is, GAME directing is NOT the equivalent of MOVIE directing because movie directors- when they are good- are key to driving the vast majority of folks to the box office/video store. Even more so than a big star, in most cases. And so they SHOULD be negotiated with and given embarrassing gobs of cash in order to get them to stick around.

But in games, it’s the STARS that get the players to line up. And the STARS in games can be SO MANY different things (concept; franchise character, technology, cool peripheral,movie license, amazing blend of elements to create a story game,etc) that to say that a game publisher should pony up the cash JUST to keep a person who can bring just ONE of those marketable elements to the table does not make sense. Because a) that director needs to be surrounded by a great- and thus- expensive team in order for him to do his thing at a level that will translate into sales. This is especially true in story based, narrative games. And b) the financial value a good story based game director brings is at or towards the BOTTOM of the food chain when compared to other game 'stars' like social gaming and movie licneses. So a publisher can just pump the same amount of cash it would take to keep a good story director around for 3 games, say, into a few different games, each with a different ‘star’; rolling the dice on a game that shines via tech and another that shines via peripheral and another that shines via movie license. And hell, those sorts of games are- most times- easier to make anyway! And more often than not, they sell better than the story based stuff (compare sales of the fantastic Uncharted to Singstar or American Idol or the Harry Potter or Fantastic Four video games).

So while I agree emotionally and phlisophically with Cory and Dennis and all the other game directors who have made amazing games that feel like movies, if I were a game publisher,while I would do a lot to keep these talented folks around, I would not brake the bank to do it. Because in games, I can get my hits from all over the place because there are many, many reasons that people play games and the vast majority of the gamers out there are NOT lining up to pay top dollar for games that give them the same feelings/ideas/vibes that movies do. Hell, I don’t have the figures, but it would not surprise me if the semi-sub par (but still kinda fun) casual title CARNIVAL GAMES has not made more cash than GOD OF WAR I. Certainly they have a higher profit margin and could very well have earned a higher dollar amount as well. (Note: I just read today that Carnival Games has sold thru 1 million copies...so they have not yet made more cash than GOD OF WAR, but they are well on their way).

And come to think of it, if the key person/people behind Carnival Games (could be a director, could be a coder, hell, it could be a guy in marketing) was able to get on a roll of 3-4 games that performed at the level of Carnival Games, then THAT person or group of people would be someone I WOULD bend over backwards for. Hell, a person who can make cheap ass games that sell great?!?! Where do I sign??! And it's NO DIFFERENT IN THE MOVIE BIZ. The reason the studios bend over backwards for Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski is NOT because they are moved by the amazing artistry of the films those directors make, but because they are moved by how much MONEY those films bring in.

So if we want to be treated- as Cory suggests- with the same level of financial respect as movie directors, then we need to start making games that are such BIG SUCCESSES that it makes the money peeps look like idiots to turn their backs on us. But right now, it makes good money sense to turn your back on someone like me and to give that money to someone like the guys at Harmonix or Neversoft or Zipper (they of Socom fame) or to that man in the picture up above playing Wii sports with Stevey Spielberg. Because that person and those companies are making the games that bring home not just the bacon, but the whole motherfucking pig. If people who make games that are movie-like want to be treated like people who make movies, then our movie-like games need to somehow find a way to become the biggest successes in the gaming business. And that- so far- has simply not come close to happening.

Of course, this is just now. In the future, things may change.

Or maybe not.

Because the reality is, in the future there may very well be the Holo-Deck from Star Trek where players can step into elaborate fantasies with depth and meaning and characters. But there will also be a Holo-Deck simulation where you can take center stage at the Staples center in LA (or better yet, a seedy club on Sunset Blvd) and Guitar Hero your way to really being a rock star, with the smell of pot filling the air, the bic lighters raised high, and groupies backstage waiting just for you.

And between those two options, just like today, I bet the Guitar Hero Holo-Deck experience would kick the shit- sales wise- out of the Holo-Deck version of Final Fantasy or God of War or Too Human...or, sadly, Ico.