Previously, I wrote about why clandestine conduct regarding upcoming projects can be a good thing (or at least a necessity). But excessive secrecy can also be harmful. Especially so in two ways, one impeding developers, the other inhibiting the audience.
Simply, the culture of secrecy that pervades most game development prevents developers from collaborating with each to advance their craft as a whole. Especially in terms of design, what I consider the most nascent aspect of game development, a lack conversation makes systematic progress in this area difficult.
Part of this stems from the understandable, but often unchecked, corporate desire to control a game's message. Saying in an interview that an in-production game is suffering from some
serious challenges is probably not conducive to generating excitement about your game. But even after a game ships, there often doesn't seem to be enough deep conversation about what the objectives of a game were, what worked and what didn't in meeting those objectives and what could be done to solve such problems in the future. The postmortems Think Services put together are good, but they're only 4-6 pages.
Some local events facilitate these conversations wells (e.g. Boston Postmortem), but obviously offer little to those not local. And if your city doesn't have a development community strong in this regard, it's a pretty difficult thing to change (believe me, I'm trying). Part of the reason why GDC is such an important event is that those spatial constraints are temporarily removed. But it's also once a year, and perhaps because of such, it's a pretty ... chaotic event.
As a pseudo-aside, one fantastic trend (as usual, set by Valve) is adding developer commentary to games. While some of the comments are known best practices to experienced developers, others are surprisingly technical. And it's useful to hear things you may "know" but haven't been at the front of your mind for a while. This is a trend I'd really, really like to see more studios adopt.
It's unfortunate but true that one of the best ways to spread development knowledge around is to close a successful studio. While the closure of Looking Glass still saddens, its extremely talented ex-pats ended up at Irrational/2K Boston, Harmonix, Bethesda and others. This spread of talent produced some of the best games of the last decade.
So, that's the cost of excess secrecy to developers. But the audience suffers here as well. The need for secrecy and to control the message shapes the conversation the audience has about upcoming games, and it's not for the better.
Prior to a game's release, statements about it from the publisher/developer are almost universally ebullient and vague. Descriptions of features are almost always glowing. I'm often struck by how often a pre-release interview just sounds like flipping through a thesaurus for "intense," "visceral," "over-the-top" and "compelling." Only rarely is the essential why discussed.
Unfortunately, this drives conversation about a game toward its "objective" quality at the expense of basically everything else (the absurd fixation on percent scoring isn't helping this either). Rather than ask, "Is it interesting?" the conversation is primed for "Is it good?", where good is how closely a game lives up to its pre-release promises.
Now I understand the need to sell a product (all too well; this exclusively keeps me housed and fed); this isn't a call for elimination, just moderation. Reaching a little further, and honestly, expecting more from ourselves and our audience, would serve both well. Secrecy in the games industry isn't going away, nor should it, but we should really be asking if we're being secret for the right reasons. Letting it all hang out from time to time would probably do us all some good.
Labels: games industry