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Other People's Money

Creative arrogance, Jodorowsky's Dune, and a bunch of strangers canceling my game.

(Reposted from my game development blog)

"$15 million - a lot of money back then"


I recently watched Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary about filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his attempt, in the mid-70's, to adapt Dune to the big screen. Jodorowsky becomes obsessed with the novel and undertakes an epic quest to conscript, like, every important artist ever into the project. And he's almost comedically successful, recruiting a pedigreed team including HR Giger, Orson Wells, Mick Jagger, and (amazingly and amusingly) Salvador Dalí. They plan the production meticulously, and Jodorowsky's elaborate and uncompromising vision for the film will require $15 million to create ("a lot of money back then")... and run 20 to 30 hours long.

And then it's time to talk to Hollywood in order to get the money to shoot the thing. The studios push back: they want a 1.5 hour movie, and are wary of Jodorowsky as director. Jodorowsky refuses to compromise and - spoiler alert - his film doesn't get made.

Strangers in Another Land


Several years ago, a bunch of strangers in another country canceled my game without ever playing it.

I was leading a tiny team - two artists and me - on a small, experimental action game for phones and tablets. We'd been prototyping for a number of months when the studio I worked for was acquired by a big publisher. We pitched our nascent project to the publisher's American branch, who were excited about it and - after some concessions on art style and business model - assured us we were on the right track.

But ultimately, it was their bosses in Japan who held the purse strings. When those bosses killed the game, it'd been in production for more than a year and the gameplay was starting to congeal into something interesting. But the money men weren't happy with the business model, and gave us two weeks to redesign the game as an asynchronous multiplayer PvP affair.

It was a single-player PvE action game.

Short of using our art assets in a completely different game, there could simply be no "redesigning" around the fundamental nature of our project: not at all multiplayer, and not at all asynchronous.

So the project was canceled, and I was sad, and I left my job to go indie. (My first project as an indie, ironically, is an asynchronous multiplayer PvP game - though I don't think the guys in Japan would like this one either. No microtransactions.)

There's another side to this story, though. The same publisher had recently invested in other single-player games at other studios they owned, and those games had failed. And their retail business - their traditional cash cow - was faltering. My game was a risk they didn't believe in, and they weren't in a position to be taking unreasonable risks. I have a hard time holding a grudge against those faraway strangers in that faraway place. They had their reasons.

Other People's Money

There's a common narrative in the games industry - in every creative industry - where Those With Money are just a frustrating road block to Those With Ideas. I'm frequently guilty of seeing things in this light, and it's great to have a villain you can bitch about over drinks.

Jodorowsky, when reflecting on his film's failure to secure funding, says:

"You have to be like a poet. Your movie must be just as you think of it and just as you want it. Do not take comments to change this or that from this person or the other. No! The movie has to be just like I dream it. It's a dream. Don't change my dream!"

Creative arrogance - it has to be just like I dream it! - is fair until you ask someone else for their help. Any multi-person project necessarily involves a shared vision and shared constraints. We either respect our partners - creative or otherwise - or we remain the impotent dictators of our tiny, lonely countries.



(If you’re interested in running your own thieves’ guild, you can read more about Antihero, my in-development game, here, or follow me on Twitter, here.)


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