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Soapbox: The Santa-Incident - The Root of the Game Industry's Creative Crisis

In this Soapbox, Naughty Dog's Edvard Toth discusses what he sees as an ongoing 'creative crisis' in the game industry, suggesting: "We are basically that proverbial little kid who just got hit by the big ugly reveal about Santa." [UPDATE: Michael Fitch adds his response to this article.]

Lately there have been many speculations, theories and discussions about the ongoing “creative crisis” in the interactive entertainment industry. While many of these models offer valuable insight, very few address the often-overlooked fact that the building blocks of every industry, group or organization are basically individual human beings with thoughts, feelings, ideals and aspirations of their own.

I believe that our so-called crisis is rooted at this very personal and individual level, and it's essentially spiritual in nature: it's a deeply shaken confidence in the basic set of core values we used to have faith in. This erosion of confidence is only amplified by the rather skewed, sensationalized perception of interactive entertainment presented by the mass media, as well as the ripples generated by the massive structural changes that swept through the industry during the last couple of years.

We are basically that proverbial little kid who just got hit by the big ugly reveal about Santa. A fitting illustrative example of this could be the alarmingly rapid emergence of something that could almost be classified as a new character stereotype: the veteran game industry guy with two-digit years of experience under his belt, all disillusioned, cynical, skeptical, viciously sarcastic, and devoid of all passion and sense of purpose overall. (I'm sure most of us can recall at least one particular person who fits into this category.)

What's wrong with these guys, you ask? Most of them could be considered pretty successful by anyone's standards: they generally have solid track-records, the respect of their peers, financial stability, et cetera.


 

Back when the entire game industry was making its first baby-steps these guys were already there, driven by the idea that they are making something pure, fun and exciting, using technology to entertain people in innovative new ways nobody has even dreamt of before.

Well, let's just flash-forward to the present and take a quick look at what we've got here: yet another media barrage about yet another “videogame-inspired” juvenile crime, yet another lawsuit, legislative action, retail restriction or ratings controversy, yet another research study supporting the notion that videogames make children violent, dumb, hyperactive and fat, and yet another article whining about a “creative crisis” in the industry.

Whether these allegations have merit or not are beyond the scope of this article, but nevertheless, they still have the ability to get under the skin, no matter how well-justified or thickly sugar-coated they are. When more and more game industry professionals get admittedly uncomfortable allowing their own kids to play videogames, we've got a pretty solid indicator of an ongoing conflict of conscience.

As mentioned before, another contributing factor is the side-effects of the dramatic, sweeping structural changes the industry has gone through since its inception. Many of these changes were useful, logical or even unavoidable, but unfortunately quite a few of them have penetrated way too far - what started off basically as a garage-development subculture is now an inch away from being about as corporate-flavored as mutual fund management, and I'm completely convinced that a game industry-related Dilbert cartoon is already in the works.

The resulting symptoms are nothing new to write home about: executives with business degrees surrounded by committees of lukewarm conformists are sweating over far-reaching creative decisions, content and direction is dictated by licensors, focus-test results, and marketing-research data, while armies of middle managers are working hard to distribute accountability and responsibility as thinly as the laws of physics permit.

Needless to say, this situation is far from ideal: every inherently creative field which attempts to anticipate current trends and satisfy current needs instead of trying to aim high, invent, introduce new ideas, provoke thoughts, and invoke emotions, merely ends up catering to the basest instincts of some sort of artificially conjured-up “average consumer” (a.k.a. the dreaded “lowest common denominator”) and inevitably becomes faceless, thoughtless and soulless in the process, dragging everyone down with it.

In addition - since computer and video games are so closely tied to incredibly fast-moving generations of increasingly more sophisticated technology - the danger of them becoming regarded as irrelevant, momentary throwaway-entertainment is very real: if a game fails to leave a lasting impression in people's minds and transform into a fondly remembered gaming memory, it is essentially gone and completely forgotten, forever. I would like to think that gaming as a whole deserves a better fate than that.

As a direct result of all these combined elements a growing number of industry professionals either chooses or is driven into adopting an “it's-just-a-job” mentality to serve as a padded layer of protective insulation between themselves and their deep-seated doubts about the general direction our profession is heading toward. Consequently this attitude produces technically competent, but less and less inspired/interesting new titles, which in turn deals damaging blows to the precious trust and support our audience has granted us.

There are similar existing examples out there we could learn from, most notably the case of the movie industry: its slumping performance and fading reputation should be a cautionary tale for us about the potential effects of going against our own better judgment, and at the end of the day not having anyone else to blame but ourselves.

All in all however – even though it may seem that quite a few things have gone awry somewhere along the way – the state of things is nowhere near hopeless, quite the opposite in fact.

I'm confident that this situation is not only temporary, but it's also sort of an evolutionary transitional phase which carries a more or less guaranteed, built-in solution to itself.

The underlying infrastructure to support a paradigm-shift is already being built in the form of the ceaseless pursuit of various new management and development philosophies, funding opportunities, publishing venues, and alternative distribution channels.

These will hopefully serve as “replacement parts” for some of the more or less broken, creativity-hampering components of our industry, and as soon as a sufficiently large critical mass of talented but disillusioned people regains their faith and passion, great things are bound to happen.

Santa may roam the rooftops once again after all.

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