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What the F&*K is a Gamerunner, and why do we need them?

With the recent news of Visceral's closure, and with it the end of the Amy Hennig helmed Star Wars game, it seems like a good time to reflect on how creative control works in large studios.

My title on Hand of Fate was “Creative Director,” and my title on “Hand of Fate 2,” says “Gamerunner.” Why? Before I dig in to that, lets take a brief sideways trip into current affairs.

The news came through a couple of days ago that EA had closed down Visceral (a wholly owned subsidiary) and with it the project in development helmed by Amy Hennig. That’s Amy Hennig, writer and creative director of Uncharted, creator of one of the defining franchises when it comes to videogame storytelling. That’s Amy Hennig, who has already firmly written her own place in the history books. That’s Amy Hennig, BAFTA winner, WGA Award Winner, Game Developers Choice award Game of the Year creator.

That’s Amy Hennig, who couldn’t get a game made inside EA.

The honest truth is, there are almost no creatives who can get a AAA game made inside a big publisher. There are a lot of reasons for that, but they mainly come down to a common cause — games, as a business, has no respect for creatives. The number of game directors who have autonomy when it comes to the decisions on their projects in the AAA space you can count on one hand. And three of those fingers are called “Hideo Kojima.”

Compare and contrast that with the role of a director in film or television. Sure, they have to work inside budgets, and they have to (with the aid of producers) get buy-in on their project in order to get a budget to work with. Once that’s done however, they have an enormous amount of freedom to make the damn thing. This never happens inside major publishers. Even the strongest willed of AAA Creative Directors (and I’ve had the good fortune to work with some great ones) has to deal with layers of executive bullshit every day they come to work. They have an endless series of VP’s trying to make political hay out of the work they’re doing.

I have watched a nearly endless series of incredibly talented senior creatives build amazing things — and then get crushed by the system inside large publishers. I’ve seen them travel from place to place, from executive interference to quarterly strategy shift, and along the way watched their games get cancelled before they get a chance to live. I’ve seen people spend a decade without shipping a game, moving from studio to studio in the hope things will be different somewhere else. I’ve seen studios bought for the original work they’ve developed, and then get turned into cookie-cutter producers of derivative work before being shuttered.

There is a place where that isn’t true, however. Most indie studios are creator lead and creator driven. They’re also largely self-funded or bootstrapped. Nonetheless, the wave of indie autuers is starting to have an influence on the way larger projects are managed. As an example of this cross pollination Teddy Dief has gone from indie success (Hyperlight Drifter) through to a Creative Director role at Square Enix. Yet, the question as to whether he can have the impact there that he had on a smaller scale team is still open.

Reagrdless, most indies are lead by someone with a vision and the ability to get the job done to make it a reality. The auteur lives on in the indie space.

On the other hand, I’ve had “Creative Director” on my business cards for 8 or so years now. It’s never been a title that sits comfortably, but it’s been a reasonably good way to communicate with the outside world some of the work I do. As a company founder, there’s always other things that need doing however, that fall outside of that purview. More importantly, as our design team has grown we’ve been conciously evolving towards a model that puts collaboration front and center, ahead of “Direction.”[2] As a mid-size indie studio, we’re very different to a small team of people chasing a vision. We have a lot of other considerations, not least of which is our burn rate.

So my responsibilities aren’t solely the creative outcomes of our projects, but also the production realities of getting them made. The market realities of choosing our projects. The financial responsibilities of ensuring our projects are able to find funding (either internally or externally). The management responsibilities of building our team, ensuring it works well, and guiding its growth.[1]

Now games are not movies, nor are they TV series. The realities of game production (and distribution) are a long way from the way other screen media gets made. Every games company is also a tech company. Nonetheless, TV has a good way of summing up the varied duties that are incumbent on the person with creative authority and production responsibility. In TV, that’s a Showrunner.

“The person who has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a television programme. Generally the creator or co-creator.”

And in that definition is a simple way of summing up the things I do at Defiant. The conversion to Gamerunner is very simple :

“The person who has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a videogame. Generally the creator or co-creator.”

All of which makes a lot more sense. If nothing else, it better reflects the ways that I work (and try to work) with our team. I don’t direct, I run with them. I hustle ahead of the pack to try and clear the way before them, so they can focus on making the game. I help them to set goals, and help judge whether we’ve achieved them or not. More than anything else, I worry about things so they don’t have to. A runner is the most junior position in the hierarchy of a TV programme. They serve everyone, running and fetching. It seems to me that the title is reflected at the top as well, because in the end that’s the most important thing. My job is to serve the game, and to serve the team, in order to create the best possible outcome for all involved.

I have the authority to make that happen, and the responsibility to make sure it does. And that’s why my title is Gamerunner.

It’s also why I humbly hope that the AAA field starts to treat their creatives the same way. If Amy had gone to EA as a Gamerunner, and not a Creative Director, maybe she would have had the authority as well as the responsibility — and in the world of making things for the screen, that makes all the difference.

[1] All of these responsabilities are shared with others inside Defiant. Don’t ever get the impression it’s a one man show — this is just one persons view of it. Most prominently, the co-founder Dan Treble is our “Tech Director,” and that title has the same issues as discussed here with “Creative Director,” — in actual fact, he’s across every part of the studio and business, and is the glue that holds it together.

[2] I’m keen to talk more about our “writers room” model for game design, and the ways that model is evolving. That’s for another day, though.

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