Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's All Cloak & Dagger

If I had to wager, I'd say the most common reply to the question, "What are you working on these days?" for those working in the games industry is, "I can't really talk about it." There's a great deal of secrecy in the industry. Sometimes it's necessary, simply due to the way projects evolve. The relationships with the media and public also necessitate some amount of secrecy. But more often that not, it's excessive and may actually be stymieing the advancement of the medium.

Making games is hardly an exact science, but I'm not sure many outside the industry realize exactly how much things can be in flux at the beginning of a project, and even well into production.

I know of projects that have radically changed directions in their early stages. Sometimes good ideas just don't have enough substance to merit a full game. Certain business conditions, which can be legitimate, may necessitate changes. Seemingly core features may prove untenable for artistic, technical or design reasons. Legal constraints regarding rights, licenses or something else could also change a game from its initial concept.

Anyone not familiar with the way games are made might see such changes as sign for concern or of poor leadership. The truth is, this is how the best games get made. There's a lot of chaos and experimentation at the beginning, which gradually settles toward something good. But if every tech demo, vertical slice, prototype, etc. was available for all to see, not only would lots and lots of it appear quite rough, but it's a recipe for disappointment and a diagnosis of schizophrenic production.

It really is the case that more often than not, it's better to be tight-lipped about a project until it's pretty close to being done. And even then, it will probably still change quite a bit.

Developers' relationship with the press is another big cause of industry-wide furtiveness. Entertainment journalism covering other media (film, TV, even music) is largely about people. While absurd and unfortunate in its own way (gossip rags, etc.), actors, musicians, directors and the like are emphasized more than their current work. But for games, it's all about products.

There's a number of reasons for the focus on product, but going into these would be a whole other post (at least). Suffice to say, it's partially due to the different genesis of different mediums. Film/TV grew from the theatre tradition, which has always been about actors, directors and playwrites as much as the actual script itself. After 400 years, one can't just talk about Hamlet. You talk about the performance of Hamlet by these actors and this director. The software tradition games grew out of is far more anonymous.

Modern Warfare 2 just launched, selling a ludicrous number of copies, but I couldn't tell you the name of a single person that worked on that game. Granted, I haven't followed IW that closely since the first Call of Duty, but I think I'd be able to name at least one person. Conversely, despite that fact that I'd rather shove bleach-soaked pipe cleaners in my eyes that watch a minute of Twilight, I can tell you the names of the stars, their characters' names, the director and a number of the producers/writers (although the Twilight Rifftrax is quite brilliant).

While there are some simply amazing game journalists out there, most simply write previews/reviews and post press releases. With gaming news and sites' profitability tied to pageviews, any information about an upcoming game is worth posting, no matter how unsubstantiated or trivial.

But this can actually be at odds with the ultimate success of a game. Oversaturating the media builds up audience expectations to levels that are impossible to reach. Combine this with the fact that almost nothing substantive is ever said about a game before it's released (more on that later), and too much media coverage too soon can be a bad thing. Dakitana and Duke Nukem Forever are the most infamous examples, but lots of games have fallen prey to this. I'm glad that many developers and publishers have shortened their media cycles and I hope they'll continue to do so.

This post has become longer than I was intending, so it's now a two-parter. Next time, I'll discuss that while some secrecy can be good, excessive secrecy not only harms developers' ability to learn from each other, but might well be impairing the audiences' ability to have deeper and more substantive conversations about games. Until then, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on secrecy. Bane or boon?



Blogger Unknown said...

As someone that used to work in "the industry" I think that transparency would actually not hurt anything and may even help production. Look at the Wolfire guys and how open they are ( I realize they are indies just finding their way, but it is refreshing.

I'm honestly not sure where the secrecy comes from. As far as hoarding ideas, that's just stupid because everyone knows (or should) that it's all in the execution. Ideas are a dime a dozen. As far as actual software and techniques I think that secrecy just means that collectively game studios are shooting themselves in the foot, since the wheel must be reinvented endlessly.

If a studio is firm on not listening to crazed fanboy forum posters and just works out on its own what seems to be the best game, then why keep the process so hidden?

November 30, 2009 at 5:05 AM  
Blogger Matthew Gallant said...

Some people believe that publishers intentionally avoid associating developer names to games. That way the IP can still retain its value even when the core creative team moves on to other projects. They can continue to pump out sequels without alerting the average consumer.

November 30, 2009 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Tesh said...

I'll second Seth's comment, especially the "ideas are cheap" notion. Perhaps it's a symptom of an overlitiginous and slothful society that "IP" is considered more valuable than actual production and work (execution).

December 1, 2009 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Seth, Tesh Those are the kind of things I'll be talking about next.

@Matthew Yeah, folks say that. While I'm sure that's kind of true to a certain degree, it seems a bit cynical.

It's seem a bit chicken-and-egg, but I'm not sure most buyers care who made a game (certainly not in the way they care about movie/tv stars). If creators were more prominent, I'm not sure many people who don't care now would care more, you know?

December 2, 2009 at 1:05 PM  

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