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Opinion: How We Can Reshape The Game Industry

In an impassioned opinion piece, designer Tim Carter argues that the industry's current studio model is set up to develop game companies, not to develop games -- backing an alternative movie-derived model that better rewards creative talent.

Tim Carter, Blogger

February 4, 2009

27 Min Read

[In an impassioned opinion piece, designer Tim Carter argues that the industry's current studio model is set up to develop game companies, not to develop games -- backing an alternative model that follows the film industry's system and better rewards creative talent.] Is the game development industry a software development or entertainment one? Sounds like a dumb question, but the way it does business, a disinterested observer would wonder. The game industry is about fun. It sells products that compel and engage; take people to worlds and let them attain personas they could not in real life. These are all elements of creative entertainment. Yet, business-wise, this industry sees itself heavily as software development, not entertainment. Game designers focus a lot on company management while their filmmaking, novel-writing and music-composing contemporaries are off to the next project. If you want to share in the wealth for a film you're making, you sign a good contract and that's over with. If you want the same in the game industry, you have to split time between developing the game and running the company that's making it. Or, you can give away your best work as an employee in a large studio -- but you'll be doing just that: giving away your best work, the studio and publisher reaping the lion's share of rewards if it leads to a hit. Why? Should this be the case? And what effect does this have on games? An Inherited Business Model The game industry probably did not consciously choose its business model so much as inherit it. The pioneers of the game industry were not in show business. Gary Gygax was an insurance man; Sid Meier and his contemporaries software engineers. They undertook business in the classic manner (operations-based) because that's what they knew: make a company to make a product or service that meets a need, then operate. When the entire roster of a company consists of five people, you can get away with this. But when you need a hundred people to make a game, does this way of working still make sense? What fallout will using a business practice ideal for making widgets or providing financial services have on what is, after all, an entertainment venture? Perhaps it might lead to a creative crisis. Beyond The Creative Crisis The creative crisis of the game industry is well known. Game companies stuck making sequels, trapped inside old and stale genres; innovation done on the backs of tiny self-funded indie developers; massive publishers staying only with the tried-and-true -- unoriginal takes on space marines, alien invasions, WW2, orcs and elves. But there has been response to this. High-level parties have declared, "Okay, everyone, let's start innovating here." Sincere attempts have been made. But there has been little examination and questioning of the underlying process used to make games. So isn't this just whipping a horse? How can using the same fundamental process that brought us into the creative crisis now facilitate innovation for the larger game projects that form the backbone of this industry? Outsourcing & Prototyping To be fair, there have been two progressive strides: outsourcing and prototyping. But are these enough? Can we tack them on and, voila! -- it's all better? Outsourcing follows the film industry somewhat. Actually, it follows almost the entire outside business world, not just the film industry. Do architectural firms possess heavy construction fleets in-house? Instead of maintaining large, cumbersome pools of internal personnel who have little to do between projects, the outsourcing model strips the studio to a few key creators who then subcontract bulk work to external suppliers. Makes sense, and the game industry is moving toward it. Prototyping is merely an acknowledgement and application of some disciplined process toward something we've done a long time. To innovate, you have to spend time fooling around, dreaming up new ideas, puttering about inventing things, building prototypes before the raw work of actually making the final product. This has always gone on in game development, but in the past was camouflaged within GANTT charts dutifully produced for fearful money types who wanted the cake of innovation and the eat-it-too of straightforward scheduling. (Anyone remember the anonymous Slashdot programmer who said you might as well write "and here the miracle happens" right on the MS Project waterfall chart?) So, today, we've "outted" prototyping: it occurs, and needs to. Let's pony up for it (somebody other than indie game jammers, that is). Let's do it with discipline: agile, spiral, iterative methodologies. It's happening. Then why, if we've done these things, do we still see homogeneity in games? Why is the staleness of "grind" still so prevalent? Why are we still afflicted by sequelitis, on the one hand, or no ambition beyond being making what are really toys, on the other? Well: - We don't use a project-based business model. - We don't cast projects. - We don't package projects. - Game designers don't claim their power. Project-Based Game Development The traditional game industry model -- development studio makes a vertical slice, pitches it to publisher, publisher advances the production funds, owns all the IP, markets and distributes it and then pays a royalty (less the advance) back to the dev studio -- is not really set up to make games, per se. It's more set up to make game companies. Each game is just a vehicle for the company. We're really talking more about game company development here than game development. In any conflict between the needs of the development studio and the needs of the game, guess which loses? The game. The game is there, ultimately, to further the development studio's agenda, not the other way around. Since the company's purpose is to stay alive and operate -- pay overhead and salaries -- the easiest route to do this is to follow the path of least resistance: make sequels; work within comfortable boundaries; don't push it. To do a really new game, our game development studio here will need to spend a million or more of its own money making a vertical slice, to show to decision-makers for a greenlight. Said decision-makers don't seem to have as much imagination as those in other industries -- are little inclined to read a game design the way a film producer reads a screenplay -- wishing to passively wait until games appear nearly complete before greenlighting. The burden to pay for early visualization -- the design phase -- thus falls almost entirely on creators. If, for some reason, the studio does get a really new game greenlit, it will usually retread its static roster of staff and technologies for this new project. Nobody wants to let go of old key talent in favor of hiring new persons perfectly suited to the new project. Again, the game is a vehicle for the company, in the same vein as a factory. But should a game studio be a factory? Many key designers are held as employees and expected to kick in their best work for a mere wage, no share in the benefit if the project is a hit and no incentive to reveal their best work, often held under a "we-own-your-dreams" contract by the employer. A talented game designer in this system holds his prize projects close to his heart, hidden until some day in the future when he and some partners might jump ship and start their own game company to realize this dream game. Hoping that when that day comes, possibly years later, the original passion and vision will not have slipped away. This doesn't cultivate talent and creative projects. It controls them. There are probably only two kinds of original IPs that can be initiated in this system: 1.) gigantic projects based on yesterday's games, funded by large publishers, staffed by chiefly static rosters of talent (who sell all their IP rights, even residuals, to the publisher; waive their creative moral rights, seek no rights reversions and so forth); or 2.) small indie casual titles By contrast, under a project-based system, the company making the game is a vehicle for the game and core talent. This is how it happens in film. The spirit is "If you build it, they will come." It's still a business with a profit mandate, but it's tailored to entertainment requirements: focusing on making the best possible individual title, the result of said quality leading indirectly to large sales. Each game is a project -- its own company. Projects are assembled in slates, mitigating risk, allowing for more creative chances to be taken. What usually sparks a project is an early game design, by one or two individual designers, which is shopped around. This project is then cast and packaged (see below). Everything is outsourced -- even the core team members. There are more financing tools, utilizing film finance experience, such as optioning and negative pick-up deals. The game is made virtually during early prototyping; but in late prototyping and full production, a temporary office is set up for the core team. Large outsourcing companies work from their own permanent facilities. Once the game is done, everyone exits. This is also a strength of project-based development. The temporary office is wrapped; the IP rights of the finished game assigned to the marketing company (typically a publisher that funded the project through a slate) for distribution. Core talent and outsourcing suppliers all go their own way: take a break, or on to the next project elsewhere, each free to follow an independent path Since grunt employees are working for outsourcing suppliers, they do not suffer the kind of mass layoff that we are seeing occur every time a major publisher wraps a project: their company is just off the project, and is on to the next. All talent, core and non-core, is protected by standardized crediting procedures, allowing them to efficiently build a resume to move rapidly from project to project. Core talent, who actually created the spine of the game, is featured up front, on the box -- this lets a key developer promote the only brand they have that ultimately matters: their actual name. Casting & Packaging This system works on casting and packaging. Casting is to find the best person for the project -- not the company. If game developers Anne and Jim are best suited to Project X, choosing them will strengthen it. This is starting to happen in game development, though it's not that formalized, and the concern is often over what technology or game trope Anne and Jim and experienced in rather than what core sensibility they bring. There's a subtle but vital difference. Packaging is related to casting. Packaging is starting with a game design -- a prototype, design document, et cetera -- and attaching elements to it -- core creators, technologies, outsourcers -- based on what that design needs. Packaging is not throwing a game design into a static team of developers with a static set of middleware tools, concerned more with the team's or studio's agenda than the design's. Another subtle but important difference. Packaging is actively scouting out new designs, building an ensemble of creators around it, a roster of production outsourcers, and then raising money. Star talent "attaches its name" to a project it feels worthy -- advancing the investment rationale. Packaging has a kind of perpetual motion, absorbing some of the greenlighting basis. That's why it has its name: do it well and you're handing it to an investor "wrapped up with a bow on top", a no-brainer. Here's the design, this key talent believes in it, let's make it. It's difficult to explain its snowballing quality in a methodical way. It works on relationships, hustle, and intuition. You have to trust it and see it in action. It's bootstrapping on steroids. We're starting to see some of what we might call casting applied in the new core-team/outsourcing paradigm. Perhaps many wish to leave it at this -- without actually going to a project-based system. But isn't project-based game development inevitable? When a game studio strips from 100 to 10 or so key creators, what is holding those last 10 together? Misplaced loyalty perhaps? Is your loyalty to nine other people, or is it to seeking the depths of your own talent? Are you here to develop game companies or games? If the system is going to reinvent itself, why strip it down but then stop at the core team? You're still left with the old situation -- static genres, cranking out sequels, constrained by the talent of the unchanging roster you're "glued" to -- except in a 10-person situation instead of a 100-person one. You still have your idols and status quo. Perhaps you have even more status quo, given there's less anonymity in a 10-person boat than a 100-person ship. Project-based packaging recognizes game creators can be independent professionals. Just because they haven't been cemented together the past five or ten projects doesn't mean they can't be put together as an ensemble for one -- as ensembles have in other creative fields for years -- and then go their own ways once the project wraps. An ensemble is unlike a team. An ensemble is a temporary group of creators who bring divergent sensibilities and principles to a project and are prepared to stand for those even if it causes some internal tension. A team, on the other hand, is a group so invested in sticking together, its members may suppress their own creative views to maintain cohesion (we call this "groupthink": hey, this game may succeed or fail, but I have to live with these guys...). A team's goal is essentially institutional: to propagate its own existence, whatever reason it was brought together. An ensemble is not institutional -- or you might stay, it propagates itself only through that which it makes. The cast of Seinfeld is no longer together, but what they made lives on. Thus an ensemble -- working in a project-based system -- is foremost concerned with what it is making. Creative tension may occur between members, but this is welcomed: it leads to heightened output, raising the bar, a "studio hothouse" effect. Each ensemble has a unique chemistry. Ensembles can afford this, being made of free agents who may go their own way after a project wraps. Teams cannot. The power of packaging depends on appreciating the ensemble concept. On talent being cooperative but also separate. It depends on the "name on the box: individual recognition. Glued to a team, you basically go with the group, with little power to attach your name -- to wield your individual vote of sorts -- to this or that project. Fluid in ensembles, top-level talent moves about and influences what should or should not be made. In the film industry, a major star likes a screenplay, attaches their name, and that greenlights it: that's classic packaging. Talent realizes and wields its power. Packaging can unite the incubating drive of the small ensemble with the production power and market appeal of a large budget. The game industry simply doesn't do this, which probably underlies the creative crisis. Package the design and small core ensemble; get investment; coordinate prototyping and production work through outsourcing. We need a route other than tiny indie casual development, on the one hand, or large productions driven by static companies, on the other. Realizing Game Designers' Power Ultimately, casting and packaging forges a project by seeking and growing its most elemental working part: the individual creator. Individuals are essential: not just talented ones, but the best of those; as free agents under a fair contract; who are rewarded for success; who seek to follow their own creativity to its depths; bringing their vectors of ambition in line with others going in mutual directions on projects. This is cultivation of talent, not control of it. Developing and respecting game designers, not binding them. Individuation of creators has lead to greatness in film, theatre and music. It could lead to that in the game industry, too. If we let it. In a free agent system, creators license their IP in a different way: through an aggressive contract. In the present game industry, creators basically toss all their IP into a development studio and count on being compensated for any hit they help make through their ownership and management stake. But the additional organizational workload is a distraction from focusing on creating IP. And this can be a tenuous strategy: you can be diluted; you can be forced out; your studio can get bought out and the projects you tossed into it, eager to make, now shelved by new management; companies are ever-changing. This company/team focus is institutional in its nature. Its main concern is propagating the ownership vehicle of the IP (the company); its secondary one to propagate the IP itself. This gives us the creative crisis. A similar institutional practice used to exist in film. It was called "the studio system." The film studios then were like the game publishers now. Writers, for example, would work in offices on studio lots, like employees; executives would assign them scripts to write; star actors and directors were kept under tight leash; an unchanging roster of talent and technology was used on each new film, regardless of the film's needs. The range of output from the old studio system was very limited. Then, several decades ago, core film talent questioned this. This gave us the agent-based system we know today. In film, core talent doesn't waste time managing companies as a means to share in the wealth from their creative work. They do assign their IP, as they must, but by drawing up a new contract each time they do, clearly laying out all ways said IP may be used and how they, personally, will be compensated in each case. And then they just make the IP. This example can serve game talent, too. There is little compensation you can get from ownership of a company you cannot get through a strong, specific IP licensing contract; one that means you can leave the administrative hassle for other parties better suited to deal with and then focus on your work. A solid IP transfer agreement can make a creator personally wealthy -- can give you a share of the wealth from a hit (including from ancillary sources), your name on the box, consideration for sequels, and so on. Remember: even if you're a principal owner of a development studio -- even if that studio retains all the IP rights -- you, as individual creator, still have to assign your IP. In a sense, the holy grail of "developers owning IP" is an illusion. It's always a company that owns it in the end. Not you. Think of your own creative ambition. Seek a better deal. This new practice, also gives an instant exit for core individual creators -- so they can promote their name (their own name) and go on to a new project. Forget the added distraction of being company manager, which offers no easy exit. If you are a core owner-manager of a game studio, you've taken on the burden of steering that studio and managing that IP for far longer than the duration of a single project. You're stuck. You can't focus totally on your personal design ambition here. And your studio is now associated with its first game: again, you wind up making sequels. To compensate for this immobility, key game creators seem to do a lot of analyzing, deducing, explaining and so on -- at conferences, in web articles, or what have you -- about what "we" need to do in the game industry, and about how to make games. Sometimes giving away trade secrets. While in other entertainment fields, core creators "speak" to each other by, as free agents, moving on to the next project and getting it out there, and developing a mystery and aura around their talent. Some may try to mitigate game development's creative immobility by "democratizing" game design (without wondering if there isn't a better way to do so). By condescendingly making "everyone a designer" to disguise the reality you are bogged down here with little hope for a shot to really become a designer (no quotation marks). Again, we inherited this system without questioning it. Do you really want to do sequel after sequel, et cetera, inside the same technology framework, the same talent roster, project after project, while also managing a development studio? Do you only want to work in a two-person shop with no way to make a really ambitious project based on your design? Have you ever thought that after your first-person shooter set on an alien spacecraft, you'd like to do a persuasive game on pharmaceutical exploration in the Amazon, and then a real-time strategy game on the English Civil War? Imagine that kind of creative freedom? In the film industry, a director goes from doing a trippy caper movie about heroin addicts, then years later totally reinvents the rules of the zombie genre (rules which, by the way, game designers obediently follow in titles like Left 4 Dead), and then does a romance movie about a poor kid in India on a TV game show (Danny Boyle). Why can't the game industry facilitate the ability of its core talent to explore its dimensions the way the film industry can? The screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "Nobody knows anything." It's a way of saying that if Jill has the special gift to make a piece great, instead of trying to dissect and analyze that gift and pry it from Jill's hands -- to "know it, "as the game industry attempts -- feed Jill, support Jill, fund Jill, market Jill; and then reward Jill for success. Because the equation for making a hit is essentially mysterious and unknowable. If we want to capture the magic we know games can have, we must stop treating core creators as cogs in a machine. We have to help them realize their power. Those who insist on dissecting these organic and mysterious elements of gamemaking -- treat it as a kind of static science rather than a living art -- will never realize this value prospect. They'll kill it -- reduce it to dead mechanical parts, classically focusing on exactly the wrong thing; not "getting it," like the fool who looks at the sage's finger when the sage points to the moon. Again, are you making games or game companies? Film and other mature creative industries have people who really care about individual talent. They've learned you can thrive and profit being project- as well as company-focussed. This also helps explain why films are important -- influencing the culture, identity and policies of entire nations -- while games remain largely trivial entertainment. Daring new films command the attention of top thinkers; draw tens of millions to televised awards ceremonies. Do games? Do our decision-makers even care? The Challenges of Free Agency Science-fiction great Arthur C Clarke famously identified the two main barriers to innovation in all fields: failure of imagination and failure of nerve. These challenges we also face in creating a free agent game development universe focussed on making projects with a spirit of largesse. Can we see games this way? Can core talent claim its power? The Challenge of Imagination: Developing Design Literacy A free agent, scouting, packaging paradigm must formalize to some degree the discussion of designs and concepts. To imagine the game unmade. To develop a clearer framework for discussion: design standards. The challenge of imagination is to work on designs, themselves, the way in films much work is put into the screenplay prior to the film; or in architecture much is put into the blueprint before building. True that no design survives contact with gameplay. But to obsess over that is to miss the point. Even effective prototyping depends on first imagining and documenting gameplay (i.e. designing), then building a prototype, then re-documenting design, tossing out old code but retaining what you learned and repeating the process in a new iteration. So the "moon" of the design informs the "sage's finger" of the new code, which informs the design, which informs new code, and so on, as a master swordsmith folds the steel then hammers it, folds and hammers, folds and hammers. We're following Einstein's advice: imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination, the design. Knowledge, the code. But in a free agency paradigm, we're also talking about selling the design. To this end, game designers must learn to write stripped-down, effective, engaging documents that convey the fun and sell the vision. Designs that can, themselves, be read and sold. Pitch documents aren't enough. Sure, it's a great way to get to know your project, but unless you're an industry giant like Will Wright, we can't execute a deal on that. Designs that are semi-organized notes and stuff thrown together, ad hoc, for designers' own internal purposes -- not meant to be read by external parties -- also won't work in free agency. You need to draft a design understanding it's also a marketing tool: will journey beneath many eyes in a quest for buy-in. You need good writing, editing and diagrammatical skills. To move design drafting from an implosive, pedantic process to an externalizing, disciplined and visualizing one. This also means those who greenlight projects need to better visualize designs -- in a sense becoming designers themselves. In this process, the software development is heavily supported by middleware and is recognized as an important means to gameplay: a price of admission: the sage's finger where the moon is the meeting of design and player. Does the design have something to say? Even though a game has a player, the designer shapes its overall experience. That is its lasting value. Remaining when the ensemble has long parted ways. It is to miss the point entirely to argue a design has little value because no game can be made directly from it without adaptation. That utterly dismisses its legal and business properties. Neither is any screenplay filmed precisely -- but a screenplay can still be the bedrock of a package: you can do a deal on it: it can be a legal hub as well as a creative one. Standardized literary forms -- the script, sheet music, blueprints -- have lead to legal and business practices which brought theatre, film, music and architecture into agility and profundity, and innovative freedom and fair compensation to their core creators. No game could ever be made directly from a design document without being adapted, but doing a deal on a design -- optioning it as a literary work -- is a way to facilitate a new project. A way out of the prison of corporatist-agenda game development. Every new game starts with a conversation -- even if it's two employees talking in a cubicle about jumping ship make it. Without formalizing this conversation -- through effective design, scouting, packaging -- it is a long, cumbersome, oral process plagued with demons: lack of foresight; resistance to visualize things unmade; the catch 22 of needing to see things built before deciding on a little funding; confusion of social and creative talent; chatter, slang and gossip; core messaging that drifts with each retelling; chasing after fad and gimmick. A process leaving many projects with true merit untouched while others of mediocre quality are greenlit. (Assuming you care whether projects of merit are greenlit.) Vision requires all the stuff that brought humanity out of the jungle. Formal, disciplined communication, with both firmness and flexibility. Deep literacy. Imagination. Describing and perceiving stuff before it's made. That's why it's called "vision." The Challenge of Nerve: Facing Free Agency The final challenge to free agency is one of courage. It's very telling that in film, core creators are among the most powerful industry participants, but in games producers, studio heads and other largely executive or managerial types reign supreme. Do the core creators of games have the courage to assume their mantle? There's probably a lot of risk-aversion among the game industry's creative types compared to those in other entertainment industries. Maybe because there's an element of calculation in gaming and game development -- of gaming the system. When you play a good game, you learn to game it -- to find the exploits. But gaming the system of game development itself -- playing the exploits (cranking out sequels, controlling talent, and so on) -- is not a route to innovation. Because it's underlain with fear. True artistic development is about knowing your talent, claiming it in your guts, and using it to passionately reinvent. Knowing your worth and expecting to be rewarded for it. In other media, new growth has always come by rewriting the rules even as the game is being played. From Rembrandt to Van Gogh to Picasso; Duke Ellington to Elvis to The Clash. To enter a world of free agency is to be prepared to sacrifice, patiently, knowing this risks amounting to nothing. It is to face true fear. If you have a game design hidden close to your heart -- your game, your vision -- to realize it in free agency means to believe in it. It means to design to at least first draft, then to shop this design around: sell and promote it in the uncertain world of people and aesthetics (compared to the nice, clean predictability of rules and technology); redraft and prototype as much as you can on your own dime or with your few partners; to talk about it and develop mindshare for it; and, if greenlit, work for the duration of a single gig then start all over on an entirely new project. None of this carries guarantees. It means to be prepared to work for times alone, away from the comfort and security of the group and steady employment. The price to continue discovering the depths of games is to work as individuals within ensembles, envisioning games, believing in them, and working them in the space of imagination and promotion before that of technology and production. This may scare the hell out of core talent, but it's the panorama of a free agent game development universe. But here's the good part: The added payoff a designer can earn from a hit will sweeten this deal greatly. The appearance of badly needed organizations such as a Game Designers' Guild (for health, unemployment and other assurances) will help mitigate risk. Some companies are already starting to build this future. There isn't just risk in the Wild West -- there's also opportunity. We believe history is due to repeat itself: that the game industry is where the film industry was around 1950 -- when that industry began to transform from a large, bloated system to a light, agile network of virtual studios and talent mobility. So I guess this brings up the classic questions. Who will be an early adapter? Who wants to be in on the ground floor? Who has a game design, close to the heart, they know will change the world? If we ask to see it, will you have the guts to show it? [Tim Carter is the CEO of Core Talent Games, which packages and produces free-agent-driven game projects. A freelance game designer and producer in Toronto with film industry experience, Tim has worked as core and consulting game designer for companies such as BreakAway, Amaze Entertainment, Kaos Studios, and most recently on a hospital pandemic training game for Simquest funded by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Tim also teaches game business and design at the University of Ontario Information Technology in Oshawa, Canada.]

About the Author(s)

Tim Carter


Tim Carter is a game designer and producer who has worked for companies such as Kaos Studios, BreakAway Games, Amaze Entertainment, the Washington Hospital Center and various serious games clients. He has experience as an independent film writer and director. Currently he teaches game design and business at the University of Ontario Information Technology in the Toronto area, and is the CEO of Core Talent Games Ltd, a game producing company.

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