Sunday, 16 March 2008

‘Telling Them How It’s Done’, Inc.

Our videogame entertainment industry is going through an unsure period of change and expansion. The Nintendo Wii and DS have opened our once predominantly hardcore audience to reach the ‘casual’ and ‘non-gamer’ demographic. The birth of digital distribution on home consoles has opened up the possibilities of small scale projects for cheap download on such sub-platforms as PlayStation Network and the recently launched WiiWare service. On the other hand, the largest of publishers are joining hands in industry domination, such as with the Activision-Blizzard merge and the recent Take Two takeover attempts from Electronic Arts. PC gaming is both dead and on the cusp of total domination, according to who you listen to. Independent games have reached fame and attention previously unheard of, but is it just a temporal popularity faze, or a looming revolution waiting to pounce at any moment? The near future is uncertain for us gamers. That’s the only thing that seems to be a guarantee.

It got me thinking, how could everything work out? What interests me most is the small game / large game invisible war, and how / if the two can co-exist in harmony. I’m not a games developer, and nor am I a reliable industry annalist, but here’s a little structural idea for how things could perhaps run smoothly, in the form of a naïve description of a non existent game company.

Lets give this company a name, something nice sounding and pleasant on the tongue. [Sits swirling his hands around while making swishy lip movements.] Erm, how about…Genie Rivara. Like a river of genies, but the word river made to sound more…Greek. Okay, this company has, say, 150 employees, divided into four key teams. Two teams consist of 50 developers each. They work in separate but parallel offices, and work on large budget releases for multiple platforms. They also bring in the most cash, and use the most up. Although the two projects are separate, ideas and tech are shared between the two. You could see this as similar to how Insomniac and Naughty Dog used to help each other out despite being completely independent from one another. Both of these two teams are led by a creative luminary, you know, one of those admired chaps who have lots of cool ideas, like Miyamoto or Kojima or Molyneux. They’re excellent at keeping everyone together and making a consistent finished product.

The remaining 50 guys (and gals) are divided in two again, maybe even quartered depending on the product. These small scale teams make small budget releases for download, like the PixelJunk guys for PSN. The important thing here is that they are not used commercially, but purely for experimentation. The big releases bring in the cash, securing the smaller teams with as much money as they’ll ever need for completing their projects. They’re encouraged to be as wild and creative as they possibly can, in a completely risk free development model. Occasionally, they’ll strike on something really great, something similar to a ‘Portal’ or an ‘AudioSurf’, which may even make a little money. But the important thing is that these innovations in game design are fed up into the larger teams across the hall, which can now incorporate these creative ideas into a larger budget product without the chance of it being unpopular. Finally, big budget games can incorporate crazy and experimental ideas without so much of a risk of screwing up their sales. If Valve were to make ‘Portal’ into a full priced, big budget, 20 hour game, it would no doubt sell. We can assume this because of the popularity of the original ‘Portal’, a small-scale release by a bunch of students who didn’t need to make millions of clams to cover the costs of development.

The company runs this creative cycle year after year, self publishing its games, maybe through its own independent download service (like Steam). These offices are also really nice to work in, with a private cinema room for late night screenings of French New Wave and other arthouse works to inspire new ideas. They’ll also be a games lounge with a roof that slides open during the summer for ‘outside gaming’, so as to keep people breezy and stuff. Let’s not forget the gym, and perhaps some weekly open debates on game design. Jonathan Blow would be invited to teach them of how to do things in new and progressive ways. Maybe I’m getting carried away now.

Still, it kinda works, doesn’t it? I’d happily work at Genie Rivara any day. And that name was my idea, remember?

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