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Stealing from the movies

Since it's been around for a longer time than videogames, let's rip off experiences from the Cinema history and make our industry better!

Although it feels like it has always been here, the videogames industry is relatively young. Specially if you compare it with movies, for example. If you think about when games started to be marketed (1972 - Pong debuts in the arcades), our industry is in the equivalent timeline as movies were in 1940. Our Citizen Kane (1941) has not been made yet!

This article aims to encourage us all to learn from the mistakes that movies made along with their development as an industry. I know, you can’t really 100% compare both industries. They’re different for sure but I believe they share more similarities than differences. In any case, if you disagree with this initial statement feel free to move along. There are other articles in Gamasutra.

Still here? Good, let’s move onto some discussion topics and lessons I believe we can extract from the movie history. Enjoy!

Auteurs are too risky

Between the 60-70s some moviemakers embraced the “Auteur” theory, by which directors should not have limitations (budget-wise in particular) to make his art in any way they consider appropriate. Some masterpieces were created, but also colossal failures (i.e. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate even sent United Artists to bankruptcy). By the 80s that approach was widely considered far too risky and the “creative freedom” was substituted by a strong supervision from producers.

Videogames have gone through this phase as well, of course. We’ve had our own share of “geniouses” failing deadline after deadline only to demand more funding / time with no solid plan ahead. This has somehow set a questionable example on other creatives who have been lead to believe projects should go on for as many years as needed until something good comes out, no matter the cost.

I think we’re somehow living the latest stages of this period in videogames: Publishers seem to be learning from these experiences and unlimited power for creatives is rarely seen, while the use of “closer” producers who can outrank anybody is also becoming more and more common. A balance between both needs to happen, like it did in movies.

Gimmicks won’t last long

Along the Cinema history there have been many attempts to “enhance” the viewing experience with additional sensory technologies (i.e. Odorama, or the recent push on 3D that seems to be losing momentum). However only the core ones have really improved with the time: Better video and audio quality. The rest have had their blazes of glory here and there, but most are currently relegated to amusement parks as “one hit wonder” experiences.

If we were to port this premise to videogames, we can infer that improvements on the graphic, sound and online fronts are to be expected, but gimmicks such as the recent buzz about virtual reality won’t last long. Even the motion detection systems so popular when Kinect / Wii were first released are pretty much stagnant today.

Adult content barely exploited

It’s a well-known fact that the VHS’s success was in no little part due to the support of the porno industry. Since then, this industry had increased the platforms where it’s present, and despite the lack of media visibility the total world revenue that X-rated content can generate is substantial (and I’m being conservative with the adjective).

What about porno in videogames? It certainly exists, and if you’re interested you can probably find the way to get some. But as far as I know these are not particularly polished products and still not easy to access. However, the amount of money this industry can generate should be valued and we should try to find appropriate distribution channels for these games.

Unfortunately, most of the existing channels put a lot of effort to be perceived as “family platforms” (i.e. all existing consoles) and veto / censor any product that could jeopardize this image. For the moment there is no short-term solution to this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if prejudized-free entrepreneurs can find a way to make adult content accessible for those who’re interested. There is certainly big bucks to be made!

Stardome

Hollywood got it right, the public needs big names to drive the attention over your project. We’ve had some stars on our own but let’s admit it: We’re not even close to have the same glamour as actresses/actors have.

However, the reality of videogame development is that the real stars are the teams. If you have a well-staffed, experienced and reliable team you can do wonders. No matter how much in love you may be of any videogame celebrity, if you bring him into a lousy team you can be sure the game will suck big time. One person doesn’t make a difference in our industry. The team does.

Now, how to translate this into some sort of star system? Difficult to say. Recruitment wise your project background is certainly valued, but in terms of public recognition I wonder if there is any way for teams to have more media visibility...

Prestigious awards

Yes, we do have a bunch. But there is no one to “rule them all”. If you pay attention to the news there are no less than ten games claiming to be the game of the year (GotY). When everybody is a winner, well... none is.

Movies also have a number of them, but the Academy awards are by far the most prestigious and more importantly the ones with more public impact. Translated into numbers, analysis indicate that a movie can make up to 50% of its revenue if awarded with an Oscar

The media and economic impact of such approach should not be underestimated. However I don’t think we can “forge” a master award overnight to achieve this. Only the Academy of motion pictures could do it, and I would be surprised if they put any effort on this. However, maybe we can find an alternate solution...

Metacritics is widely used in our industry as the “less bad” solution to assess the quality of a game. What if we take the same approach to choose our game of the year? Let’s say a (still non-existing) website tracks each of the individual awards delivered by different magazines and associations, and add “GotY” points to the games in the database. All these points would be add up to a total score, which will determine the true winner of the Game of the Year.

Don’t start without a solid script

In the movie industry everything starts with a green-lighted script. It can be modified afterwards at a certain extent, but the bigger the changes the lesser options they have to be considered. You don’t go to the shooting without a script you feel 95% confident with, and even that generally means dialogue changes (which have the less chances to affect the production schedule).

I am of the opinion that more rigorous work on the concept and pre-production design documentation and prototyping would be enormeously benefitial for the industry. Right now lazy designers can use the “iteration” mantra to cover the lack of preliminary design work. It often works like this: A cuestionable designer suggests to work on a half-cooked system, or simply a bad one. Often not even proper documentation is delivered. The team highlights these issues, but they are told “we need to play it first to see if it’ll work or not”. After months of iterations, the team still struggles to make it work when it was obvious from the beginning it was not a good idea in the first place.

Like they say in movies: “A good script can end up being both a good or a bad movie. But a bad script will always end up as a bad one”.

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