The Last Pixel: Closing the book on Pixel Pusher

In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of GD Mag, Steve Theodore reflects on how the nature of discussing art in games has changed in the past ten years.

In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, Steve Theodore says farewell to the magazine and its art column mainstay, reflecting on how the nature of discussing art in games has changed in the past ten years.

I've spent a lot of the last decade at Pixel Pusher repeating the mantra that game art is a business where nothing ever stays the same, and you need to constantly redefine yourself to stay relevant. This final printed issue of Game Developer is, sadly, a perfect example of the principle. Honing your craft as a purveyor of news and information printed on former trees is not, alas, the path to a prosperous future. Of course, the skills that go into writing a good article aren't dependent on the print medium (any more than core art skills are tied to a particular bit of software), so hopefully the astonishing blizzard of erudition, wit, and artistic insight that is Pixel Pusher will find a new home on the web. However, it's fitting that we spend our last few droplets of ink trying to make some sense out of the amazing and maddening things that have happened to our profession in the last decade.

When I started writing Pixel Pusher back in 2003, the column was primarily technical in nature. Most of the articles were how-tos and surveys of different techniques. This made sense at the time: Much of the toolset we take for granted today was just emerging. Today's staples, like subdivision modeling, blended animations, and programmable shaders, were all newsworthy back then. In those ancient days (MySpace debuted just a couple of months before I took over the column) the 'net did not offer a lot of specialty information for computer artists. However it soon became clear that the Internet was going to provide a better medium for doing tutorials and walkthroughs. Hyperlinks, multimedia, and downloadable support files are just hands down a better way to teach advanced graphics techniques than 2,000 words of print and a couple of images.

As that became clearer, the column evolved into a running meditation on what it means to be a game artist. We've looked at the question philosophically, artistically, economically, and technically -- but after more than a decade of poking and prodding, I'm happy to admit that I don't have a pat answer. The games business -- particularly our end of it -- is completely and unabashedly mental. We try to hide it with solemn discussions about art and art history, with grand pronouncements about the future of media, or with high-tech wizardry. At the end of the day, though, we're people who make talking mushrooms, freaky deep-sea-diving cyborgs, and laser-armed zeppelins. Our profession is gleefully absurd even while it gropes for meaning and a chance to leave an imprint on the history of art. We combine the best and worst traits of adolescents: unfettered imagination and lack of common sense, incredible energy and ridiculous inefficiency, soaring passion and grumpy resignation. It's a puzzling life -- but one we're very lucky to be living. Don't forget that part.

The Changing of the Art

The craziness is a constant, but a lot of other things really have changed. We're a much more self-confident and ambitious bunch than we used to be. In 2004 I snarked about games that were naively hung up on the gimmickry of photorealism:

"Somehow one doubts that kids are sitting around the cybercafes of Seoul saying things like 'Halo's subversive use of lens-flare radically deconstructs the notional game space.' So why does our industry devote such phenomenal energy to recreating the artifacts of other media?" (Pixel Pusher, May 2004)

Nowadays, of course, we've witnessed a great flowering of post-photorealist art. It would have been nearly impossible to get a publisher to listen to a pitch for games like Journey or The Unfinished Swan a decade ago. Even triple-A titles like Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands would have seemed too daring for the mainstream back then. But today we've overthrown the tyranny of photorealism so thoroughly that it's hard to remember the way the industry used to lap up grainy phototextures and choppy mo-cap in the name of "realism." At the other end of the spectrum, genres that used to be locked into big-eyed pastel trance colors have found different ways to tell stories too: Games like LittleBigPlanet and Limbo have shown how platforming games can build on the legacy of Super Mario Bros. without being hobbled by it. In 2003, it would have been hard to imagine that all the fancy hardware and software of what we so quaintly called "next-gen" would be used to create Viva Pinata. Even if you hate every one of these games -- though if you do, you're crazy -- it's a great time to be doing what we do: There are a lot more ways to sling pixels than ever before. It's okay not to give a damn about space marines or chain-mail bikinis or exquisitely accurate PanzerKampWagens. The tent is a lot bigger than it used to be.

While toting up the positives, it's also a good time if you've got the old-time artistic urge to Make a Statement(™). The "can games be art?" debate is wrapped up more conclusively than Mass Effect 3. There's endless, acrimonious debate about the nuances -- the mixed critical reception of BioShock Infinite is a case in point -- but the mere existence of that debate proves the point: It's worth arguing about, therefore, it's important. Even the sentinels of high culture (most notably, the Smithsonian) have conceded the point that what we do occasionally rises to a level beyond peddling amusements. We knew that all along, of course:

"As you read these words a kid somewhere is daydreaming about growing up to become just like a character you created; a group of friends is reminiscing about the great time they had visiting an environment you built; somebody is training their body to move in real life with the grace of an animation you created. People give a damn about what we do—sometimes for deep philosophical reasons, sometimes for complex personal reasons, and sometimes out of admiration for the dexterity and skill with which we do our jobs. That's what counts." (Pixel Pusher, March 2009)

But it's nice to have it down in writing.

Playing for Real

Speaking of writing: There's a lot of it out there. Both reflecting and propelling the cultural acceptance of our art form, game criticism has escaped from the gravity well of commercial star-reviews and soared off into the ether in a way that would have been hard to predict a decade ago. That kid in Seoul is, in fact, probably talking (more likely tweeting) about deconstructing notional game spaces at this very moment. Bloggers, game journalists, and academics have arrived on our shores like conquistadors and are staking out claims left and right. You can buy(!) a 50,000(!)-word critical essay about Spec Ops: The Line (Killing is Harmless by Brendan Keogh, which examines the entire game level by level with the intensity of a PhD thesis). We've finally achieved the most coveted distinction of artists everywhere: the chance to pick up a piece of commentary on our work and think, "What the hell is this joker talking about?"

All kidding aside, the rise of a literate and argumentative critical community is a great thing for us. We used to have a hard time seeing our own work in perspective when the only people whose tastes counted were commercial game reviewers, publishers, and marketroids cruising the bass-thumping halls of E3.

Like any commercial art form, we're always in danger of getting into ruts; sequelitis, copycatting, and creaky old tropes lurk around every corner. As criticism flourishes, it will teach us to see our own work with a fresh set of eyes, and help us be better artists as a result. Of course, just like fine artists, film makers, and authors, we'll alternate between fearing, despising, and desperately hoping to please the critics. For right now, however, take a moment to thank all those bloggers and academics who are trying to tell us how to do our jobs. The cacophony of critical voices out there will occasionally elevate your blood pressure, but it also helps keep you from getting stale.

Churn Out, Burn Out

Now, if you've been working in this industry for most of the last decade, you've probably got enough reasons to get your blood pressure checked without any help from bloggers. The games business has weathered some pretty remarkable challenges over the last decade. We've gone from days when 30 people were a big studio to days when 300 wasn't considered unusual -- and now we seem headed back toward 30 as casual, mobile, and indie games proliferate while triple-A leviathans founder (as this was going to press, EA announced another big round of layoffs in the hundreds). Along the way we've had to deal with flat salaries, outsourcing, and automation. Not to mention hardy perennials like crunch time and quality-of-life problems. Somebody out there really needs to take a look at the tuning on this thing -- it sometimes seems like our game is stuck on Nightmare Mode.

There, alas, are long-standing reasons why so few people stick with this profession more than six or seven years: Work-life balance and lack of long-term career headroom were problems even at the height of the triple-A gold rush. Even on a 300-person team, there are only a couple of ladder rungs to climb. One of the most popular columns we ever ran in Pixel Pusher considered the fate of artists getting into their 30s and finding themselves adrift in midcareer dates from 2004:

"...the games business has come to remind me of the glitzy shopping mall/utopia in Logan's Run. It's a fabulous playground for young people -- though to be fair, the games biz is short on free love and polyester unitards -- and we've all got blinking crystals in our palms, ticking away inexorably towards extinction. While we may not be facing the fiery Carousel at 30, it seems like very few us stay in the business past 35." (Pixel Pusher, August 2004)

We revisited the same issue five years later, and thankfully the demographics had shifted a bit. By 2009, the average developer was between 31 and 35 (up from 25-30) and veterans were making noticeably more money than younger developers -- which no doubt had something to do keeping artists in the industry past the five-year mark. It remains to be seen, of course, if that trend continues. Perhaps the vets will get a chance to relive their low-polygon glory days on mobile platforms: An iPad 2 has about the same horsepower as a PlayStation 2 did back in the day. On the other hand, smaller budgets and tighter margins might drag us back to the days of churning and burning through 20-somethings.

Everyone a Game Developer

The graying of the industry creeps along slowly year by year, but other demographic changes are happening with amazing speed. The industry remains overwhelmingly white and male (and, dare we say, slightly pudgy?) but that's changing fast. Everybody is a gamer -- hell, my parents play games nowadays -- so it's not surprising that everybodies of all backgrounds want to make games too. However, this change isn't going to be seamless; the fervor of last year's #1ReasonWhy campaign shows that we've done a pretty poor job opening up our profession. Unfortunately, it also shows how easily efforts to change that can evoke defensiveness and derision. But let's face it: It's literally inevitable that the cozy monoculture most of us learned our trade in is going away. As the industry broadens its base, it's also going to be more loosely knit and fractious.

That's actually a vital thing for our medium. Differences of opinion and point of view keep us from getting boring and repeating ourselves -- something we've been, ahem, occasionally accused of. However, it's also going to change the way we relate to our workplaces and our profession. We need to embrace the new reality with the same adaptability that we show when our professional skills get obsoleted every few years. We're good at constant relearning, and this will be an excellent opportunity.

Game Over

Which brings us back to where we began. Nothing lasts forever: not DPaint, not Character Studio, not the MMO boom, or even the EA football monopoly. And not, alas, the print version of Game Developer. On the way out the door, let me offer a profound thanks to all the folks who've read and responded to the column over the last decade: The game art community is an amazing place, and it's been a privilege. Thanks, too, to all the good folks at the magazine who made it all work. Nothing lasts forever -- but in a world where XCOM can come roaring back to waste as much of my life in 2013 as it did in 1994, who knows what the future holds?

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