By way of response the to GDC panel Matt has asked TN to host this open letter to panel participants Warren Spector, Greg Costikyan, and Brenda Laurel. So, here it is,,,
At this year’s GDC, a panel of people (Warren Spector, Greg Costikyan, Jason Della Rocca, Chris Hecker, and Brenda Laurel) held a “we hate the games industry” rant entitled “Burning Down The House.” Jason and Chris sounded sensible, Brenda waxed ridiculous, and I have issues with what Warren and Greg had to say. This is my response, for whatever it’s worth to you. Please note that as no official transcripts are available, I’ve used the Alice transcript (https://crystaltips.typepad.com/wonderland/2005/03/burn_the_house_.html) for my quotes. If they’re incorrect, I apologize in advance.
I have a lot of respect for what Warren and Greg have accomplished in the past and hope that neither of them will take what follows as a personal insult. It’s intended as constructive criticism of their position, not an attack on them as people or game developers. Again, these guys are extremely accomplished. There’s no denying that. However, that doesn’t mean they’re right. My viewpoint is that they are talented people who are caught in the past, unwilling or unable to adapt to new realities.
I started Iron Realms (formerly known as Achaea LLC) in 1996 as the sole full-time developer. I did everything, from design to coding to the pathetic “marketing” we did back then. We’ve now got four successful, profitable text MMOs and 10 full-time developers. I love what I do and I believe so does everybody that works with me. We don’t have to put up with crunch time, we don’t have to deal with anyone censoring our content, and we have complete creative control over what we do. We’ll never be as polished as Worlds of Warcraft is and we’ll never be awarded Game of the Year by major publications, but on the other hand, they’ll never approach the depth certain aspects of our games achieve, and they can’t even dream about the amount of design freedom we have.
OK. I don’t feel very ranty actually. I tried to bail on this panel. But I have to say something so I want to say how this business is hopelessly broken. Haha. We’re doing pretty much everything wrong. This is at the root of much of what you’re gonna hear today. Games cost too much. They take too long to make. The whole concept of word of mouth, remember that? Holy cow it was nice.
And guess what? You’re free to make games that operate by word of mouth. Our single biggest source of customers, with a 200% advantage over the 2nd biggest source, is word of mouth. I am positive we are not unique. Are you going to make a game that sells 2 million copies this way? Probably not. But then, it’s not going to cost anything like a game that sells 2 million copies will either.
Wal-Mart drives development decisions from people who choose to make games to sell in Wal-Mart. No more, no less. If you want to make games that Wal-Mart will sell, be my guest. Lots of money to be made there, no doubt about it. Of course, many developers will have to censor themselves to even get a game on its shelves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-censorship, but let’s not pretend that the only way to support yourself while making games is to work on the AAA titles that Wal-Mart carries.
My first game cost me 273,000 dollars. My next one is BLAH millions. How many of you work on games that make money? 4 out of 5 games lose money, according to one pundit who may be lying, admittedly. Can we do any worse if we just trusted the creative folks entirely instead of the publishers?
Now you’re talking sense, Warren I can tell you that none of the funding we’ve gotten for our games over the years has come from anything related to distribution. The same is true of games like Three Rings’ Puzzle Pirates or the wildly successful Runescape, by Jagex.
We need alternative forms of distribution too. I’m not saying publishers suck, although I do believe that in many cases. [laughter] If the plane went down who would care about the marketing guys?
If you want to make games with a $25 million budget, deal with the baggage that comes along with it. If you’re just interested in making interesting games, stop worrying about making $25 million games. When you go smaller, you lose a lot of that baggage.
Has everyone bought Bioware’s online modules? JUST BUY THEM, OK, even if you don’t have the original games! We HAVE to get games into gamers’ hands.
Weird. I guess I didn’t realize that when I
purchased Halo 2 I wasn’t getting a game into my hands.
Weird. I guess I didn’t realize that when I purchased Halo 2 I wasn’t getting a game into my hands.
Finding ways to fund games isn’t the issue. What you seem to want to do is create Jerry Bruckenheimer movies without studio money. If you want to create games without a publisher, nothing is stopping you. Anybody can take an extra mortgage out, max out their credit cards, borrow from friends and family, etc. Hell, for our last 3 games all our investment money has come from inside the community of Iron Realms players. You wouldn’t believe how passionate some players are about seeing that the games they want to see made get made. Is that method going to get you $20 million? Hell no. But, it sounds to me like you want someone else to front the risk you want to introduce to the process via attempting unproven game designs that aren’t licensed and aren’t sequels. That’s a very laudable goal, of course, but it’s also risky, and investors with $20 million to spare are generally in the business of minimizing risk and maximizing returns…and rightly so.
The movies have this now: the studios don’t fund everything that happens out there. I’m not holding the movie business up as a model of great business practice, but you can get $ from a wide variety of sources.
Same with games. Developers have gotten money from governments, from angel investors, from VCs, from their own partners or employees, and so on.
At the very worst we need publishers to ask more than that one question: is this going to generate max profit. For most games this is NOT THE RIGHT QUESTION. Volkswagen owns rolls Royce….
Heh. Volkswagen owns Rolls Royce….and charges massive sums of money for the products. Are you advocating $1000 single-player games? Do you seriously believe that VW execs are sitting back thinking, “Hmm, shareholders and market be damned! Let’s just make a kick-ass car!” (Incidentally, I singled out single-player games because some players will spend way more than $1000 for MUDs/MMOs.)
You’re also kind of contradicting yourself. Earlier you talked about getting developers more money. Now you’re attacking that motivation when it’s a publisher trying to make more money.
The story of the past few decades is not about graphics and processing power, but startling innovation and industry.
What? You really believe that? Tell me the first thing that games market to people. I’ll tell you something. It’s not their AI or their design. I can’t say I’m happy about it either, but graphics and processing power have dominated the industry at least since the SNES/Genesis wars. Go google “screenshot.”
often DO they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo?? My friends, we are FUCKED [laughter]. We are well and truly
fucked. The bar in terms of graphics and glitz has been raised and raised until
we can’t afford to do anything at all. 80 hour weeks until our jobs are all
outsourced to Asia.
Huh. So what you’re saying to me then is that since we can’t afford to do anything at all, there will be no games available for any of the next gen consoles upon release? I have to say, I don’t get that. It seems to me that Sony, MS, and Nintendo are pretty sure to have at least SOME games in development. I can’t imagine they plan to release their consoles sans games.
And what is this talk of the bar being raised? What does that mean unless you’re just interested in making the big flashy games with huge budgets? Is the appeal there the fact that 15 year old boys everywhere will think of you as a God? Is it inconceivable that people might not need to work on the titles that get all the press attention? I’ve only met you once, but I don’t believe that fame and money is what motivates you. And if that’s true, why does it matter what the corporate giants are putting out? Why the need to compete with them?
You have choices too: work in a massive sweatshop publisher-run studio with thousands of others making the next racing game with the same gameplay as Pole Position. Or you can riot in the streets of redwood city! Choose another business model, development path, and you can choose to remember why you love games and make sure in a generation’s time there are still games to love. You can start today.
Did you ever notice there’s no place for the earth on the bottom line?
Yeah, man, like, there’s no LOVE in the bottom line I dig your far out vibe.
GIVE IT UP ABOUT DRM. GIVE IT UP ABOUT OWNERSHIP. Cleave to open source! A NEW ECONOMY IS COMING.
I had a dream once that little sentient fireflies were causing the static electric sparks in my bedsheets in the winter.
The problem isn’t the games industry. The
problem is the way some people choose to look at it. If your focus is purely on
money, go be an investment banker. If your focus is on fame, you better enjoy
being worshipped largely by pimply teenagers. If, on the other hand, your focus
is on making games that can give you a decent living and keep your creative
desires sated, then why not go out on a limb and do something smaller and
different? Why this obsession with AAA titles if you are truly interested in
games? ‘Cause I hate to tell you this, but unless you’re Will Wright, a LOT of
small developers are making games a hell of a lot more innovative than anything
with a $20 million budget.
The problem isn’t the games industry. The problem is the way some people choose to look at it. If your focus is purely on money, go be an investment banker. If your focus is on fame, you better enjoy being worshipped largely by pimply teenagers. If, on the other hand, your focus is on making games that can give you a decent living and keep your creative desires sated, then why not go out on a limb and do something smaller and different? Why this obsession with AAA titles if you are truly interested in games? ‘Cause I hate to tell you this, but unless you’re Will Wright, a LOT of small developers are making games a hell of a lot more innovative than anything with a $20 million budget.
Anyway, please, just stop the whining. Stop telling people about how horrible the games industry is. Stop telling them that they can’t succeed without radical industry changes. It’s bunk and you should know better. Are you intentionally trying to discourage people from getting into the industry? Stop telling people that life in the games industry universally sucks. Maybe it sucks for you. It doesn’t suck for me and I don’t think it sucks for a lot of people. I don’t want the next generation of talent to listen to the pessimistic, self-defeating viewpoints you’re pushing.