Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Well, Hell...I'd Rather Play In A Space Ship Than A Parking Garage Too...

Oh I dunno....I'm torn over this one.

I mean, ok, the ending occurs way too often in our business and that is very bad and very sad. And many times it IS the result of bad management and bad creative choices (that the game implementers- by the way-had NOTHING to do with 99% of the time). And the dude in the movie with the cell is a dickhead, no doubt.

So is this clip an accurate portrayal of the business? Do industry folks who work for developers (and publishers as well) really have a right to gripe about this stuff? Oh hells yes!

THAT SAID: I think this all too familiar discussion goes both ways in all creative businesses. But the way many developers like to spin it is, 'executives & high level creatives are clueless morons who are not engaged with the product and don't know anything because they are not the ones touching the code or the building the assets in Maya.'

This argument- by the way- is the obnoxious cousin of the equally obnoxious- and totally false- argument that 'great ideas are cheap and easy and execution is everything!'

I think both of those arguments are stinky-ass loads of horseshit. And I base that thinking on the game industry successes and failures I've been involved with and had a hand in over the last 17+ years.*

For every 50 examples a 3D modeler/programmer/game design scripter/etc. can give about being forced to implement an admittedly stupid or uneducated request from a publisher/producer/high level designer/game director, I can name 1 bad artistic/market ignorant/'ripped-off-from-the-latest-movie-they've-seen-without-even-realizing-it' high level creative decision made or suggested (or simply implemented without any warning) by a 3D modeler/programmer/texture artist/etc.

'Well, Jaffe- a 50:1 ratio ain't bad in the favor of the implementers', I hear you saying!

But it actually is. Because the reality is, the folks on a team who mostly do implementation can implement bad decisions (that they themselves had NOTHING to do with, creative wise) and a game can still be a mega hit. Don't get me wrong: NO ONE on the team wants ANYONE to ever be wrong. The more right we ALL ARE the better the game is going to be for the player. BUT if a specific texture doesn't look great or a bad decision by a publisher makes the frame rate drop in a few spots, those types of things (unless they are legion) don't spell doom for a game (and thus- because games are so expensive to make these days- also don't spell doom to the team, developer, and/or publisher).

BUT the folks making the high level decisions don't get to be wrong all that often. And for SOME decisions (game theme, genre, release window, key features, rating,etc.) they don't get to be wrong at all! Make even just a few of these big mistakes- or just miss ONE of the KEY issues- and that's the ball game.

All one needs to do is look at Sony Santa Monica's KINETICA or CALLING ALL CARS! to see this concept made real. Kinetica was a well reviewed, beautifully executed title (made by many of the same genius programmers and artists who make the GOD OF WAR series) but the theme and the art style and the read of the market for the time that title was made was all wrong. CALLING ALL CARS- while not as well reviewed as Kinetica- was beautifully executed from a code and art standpoint, but the theme and the timing made us DOA.

Now look: do I think there are people who can do BOTH of these things- high level creative, marketing thinking AND actual in the guts game making/implementation? Yes. But I've met very, very few.

Usually the ones who think they can do both kinds of jobs really can't. They just wish they could.

Trust me: I've tried to learn C programming language before. And you know, I can kind of do it. I can get some stuff to move around on screen and make stuff interactive. But I'd be a delusional fool- and a disrespectful asshole to the folks who are wired to be Gods at coding- to think my brain is even close to capable of thinking about- let alone executing- game code in ANYWAY close to what the coders at Eat Sleep Play and Sony Santa Monica can do. Same with art. Same with sound fx and music and producing and managing.

But because the high level marketing/game direction/design part of the equation is so intangible (just like writing a screenplay or directing a movie), most people assume they could do it if they just had the time or the opportunity. But I've seen many greenlit games that were ill thought out and/or poorly 'high level' directed (while being staffed with really talented folks) struggle for their lives (and frankly, the majority of these games end up cancelled).

The folks I love to work with in games are those who specialize in their fields but also have a healthy respect for those other areas of the game making process in which they do not excel. The reality is, all areas of game making are crucial and all areas need experts (as well as passionate, eager to learn noobs) on board if the ship is to fly high. Just like there are programers worth 100x their weight in gold because of their ability to lead a coder team to develop the next super hot graphics engine, and just like there are concept artists and 3D modelers who can take a chicken scratch sketch on a napkin and turn it into a fully realized, living, breathing world, there are people in design, direction, marketing, and publishing who can read the tea leaves of the business, who can take an accurate pulse of the players, and who are in touch with the cultural zeitgeist (as well as in touch with their own creative powers) and in doing and in being so, these 'high level thinkers' are able to make consistent-enough decisions that result in marketable high concepts, big sales, and intellectual property worth hundreds of millions of dollars.


* Please don't send me or reference the 'ideas are cheap;execution is everything' clip from PIXAR. It's a great- and pretty inspiring- clip. BUT what a lot of people miss when watching that clip is that IDEAS are PART of EXECUTION at PIXAR and Lasseter and Pete Doctor and Brad Bird are all masters of great ideas and storytelling and character creation (all intangible skills that range from high to low level thinking) . If these Pixar creative leaders were not great at the ideas, then instead of UP and TOY STORY and FINDING NEMO, PIXAR would be making MARS NEEDS MOMS! and GNOMEO AND JULLIET (2 movies that I've seen no one bitch about the execution of, but have seen TONS of people bitching about the lack of quality characters, lack of fresh ideas, and stale storytelling within those technically well executed films).

ps. Does it suck to turn a parking garage into a spaceship? Yes. SHOULD that idea have been brought up during the concept art phase? Yes. But you know what? Shit happens. High level thinkers don't always get it 100% right out of the gate anymore than a coder is expected to NOT rewrite a line of code close to launch in order to make the game run faster. Great creative work (at all levels) is messy and iterative (look at the history of TOY STORY 2) and it's management's job to recognize this and build this uncertainty/iterative time/redo time into the schedule and NOT sign deals with publishers that promise the moon (simply to get the deal signed) but end up hurting the team.