It’s likely the case that a number of people who know me, either in person or online, might use the word “cynical” to describe my attitude towards games, and they’re not entirely wrong in doing so. It is certainly true that I am cynical when it comes to a very certain brand of games, and it is also true that it happens to be the most popular brand of games that I’m most cynical of: the “AAA” videogame. People who know me personally know that I am not actually nearly as cynical when it comes to independently-made videogames, and even less so of designer boardgames. Further, I’m downright hopeful and optimistic when it comes to discussing the future of videogames.
But this isn’t an article about cynicism with regards to game consumption; instead, I want to talk about cynicism in game development.
The classical case of cynicism in game development goes something like “people are stupid, and so I have to make something stupid if I want to please them”. The idea that people simply won’t get it if you attempt to sincerely produce a game is probably the core nugget of philosophy behind a cynical game developer.
Some developers set out work with a cynical attitude. In a way, you can’t really begrudge these people – they see an opportunity, and they’re taking it. What’s more interesting is that we’ve got a generation of thoughtful, bright and experienced game designers who have now become cynical after a decade of game industry Hell.
Shaker’s Kickstarter Failure
Recently, ex-Sir Tech game designer Brenda Brathwaite started a Kickstarter for something she and ex-id Software game designer Tom Hall wanted to create: “An Old School RPG”. It asked for one million dollars, and also had the gall to muse that “if we get TWO million dollars, we’ll make TWO old-school RPGs”.
The Kickstarter campaign for this has since essentially failed, only having come up with 25% of what they asked for before the team pulled the proposal early. Brathwaite and company paint the picture this way:
“Ultimately, our pitch just wasn’t strong enough to get the traction we felt it needed to thrive. Sure, it may have made it. We could have fought our way to a possibly successful end. In reading your feedback and talking it over internally, however, we decided that it made more sense to kill it and come back with something stronger.”
According to them, it’s simply a matter of “the idea not being strong enough”. Others complained that their pitch, not necessarily their idea, was the problem, citing the fact that they gave basically no information about what the hell these games even were supposed to be like beyond vague genre references.
Both of these claims are true, but there’s a larger lesson here as well: this was a cynical proposal.
Firstly, the idea that you can just state some ill-defined genre such as “old-school RPG” and have that be good enough for people is an act of cynicism. Is it like.. D&D? Wizardry? Ultima? Which Ultima? Is Fallout an old-school RPG, or are we talking more like 1980s? Maybe it’s more like Dungeon Master? Your guess is as good as mine. But there’s an underlying idea that “RPGs” are this commodity that, instead of being highly specialized work of artisans, are instead something that needs to be produced and shoveled into the consumer in large quantites.
The “or maybe we’ll make two of them” thing really drove that idea home. Really?! Two of them? That means twice the fun! This idea that games are like bran flakes, meant to be sold by the pound without much individual description is probably the most cynical aspect to this story.
Cynicism basically means “distrust”, and by proposing something like this, they showed that they did not trust their audience to understand something like “an idea”, and therefore instead presented a “non-idea”.
You can find further evidence of this contempt for the audience by looking at their company “Loot Drop” and what it has done. Even the name, “Loot Drop”, smacks of cynicism, for what is “loot”? Ultimately meaningless +1 garbage that you sprinkle on a player that works, in almost every setting it exists in, similarly to that of an operant conditioning chamber. So they may as well have titled their company “Skinner Box”, or “Pay us and maybe you’ll get your food pellet, chumps!”.
Their recent game, Ghost Recon Commander, was incredibly cynical. First of all, it was a Farmville ripoff. You really can’t do anything more cynical than rip off Farmville, which was itself a horribly cynical ripoff of an already cynical design, that happened to be in the right place at the right time to make millions of dollars.
Ghost Recon Commander was basically Farmville with a “tactical veneer”. From screenshots, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they had created the next X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Indeed, it seemed that that was the case, until you played the thing. Beyond it feeling clunky and bizarrely unpolished, it quickly became clear that there was some persistent +1 Farmville world that was really the engine behind this thing.
Now, I may need to remind you that both Brathwaite and John Romero, Loot Drop’s CEOs, both have shown themselves capable of sincere game design. Romero’s Daikatana, for all its flaws, was certainly a sincere and ambitious attempt at creating the ultimate FPS (indeed, the same can be said for his previous game, Quake, especially early in its development). And Brathwaite’s Wizardry 8 and Jagged Alliance 2 are both not only sincere and ambitious, but also some of the most solid turn-based tactical computer RPGs ever made.
So these are people who are capable of sincere game design, but they, for whatever reason, just don’t have that switched “on”. Why not? We can only really guess that a full decade of a cynical, unresponsive, and unfair game publishing, marketing and media has turned an entire generation of developers cynical. I want to be clear: Brenda Brathwaite is not even close to being alone in this matter. Nor do I think that she, or any of these people are aware of the toll that the 00′s decade has taken on them.
Peter Molyneux – You probably know him as the guy behind the super-safe Fable series and the recent “how stupid are you people experiment” called “Curiosity”, but in his day, he was responsible for stuff like Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, and Black and White.
Shigeru Miyamoto – Comparing the post-millenial Miyamoto to the pre-millenial Miyamoto is somewhat depressing. This is the guy who designed The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, not to mention The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Doki Doki Panic, which was later re-themed for American audiences as Super Mario Bros. 2. What has he done in the past ten years that’s even close to as weird and revolutionary as any of these? Now he’s stuck doing shovelware with titles like “New New Super Mario Brothers 2 Wii Advance Mii New 3D Brothers Version New Youbuynow Chump!“.
Richard Garriott – Probably no other name is so tied to the idea of ambition in digital interactive entertainment. This is the guy behind the Ultima series! Anyone who has played games like Ultima 6 and 7, or Ultima Online during its early/beta days, understands that this person was trying to do something really special with videogames. What’s he doing now? Well, after the failure of Tabula Rasa, he sort of quit the industry for awhile to explore his other interest of space travel, becoming the world’s first space tourist. After that?
Garriott founded the company Portalarium in 2009 with the intent of developing and publishing games for the emerging social network market.
Mm. Wonder what those’ll be like. Farmville, perhaps?
In June of 2012, established social-media developer Zynga announced at its “Zynga Unleashed” conference a publishing partnership with various third-parties, including Portalarium
Mmmmmmm! Zynga, you say! They’re basically the icon of cynicism. If you wanted to do something ambitious, Zynga should be about the last place you look for a publisher
Come Back To Us, 90′s Designers!
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of Brenda Brathwaite, John Romero, Richard Garriott or any one individual. I honestly think that all of these people are super smart and clearly they’ve shown themselves capable of doing just about anything they set their minds to. I also don’t think they’re even aware that this change has occurred in them.
Instead, I am verbally hoping out loud that these people wake up to the pattern that they’ve found themselves in. The 2000s decade burned a lot of people out. It was a seriously dark time. Great game developers started dying left and right at the beginning of the decade, and it seemed that by 2008 or so that this was just the new way of the world. The game industry just wasn’t very receptive to progressive ideas.
But it’s a new world now! Between stuff like Steam and mobile app stores, anyone can do anything they imagine. The middle-men who would crush an idea that sounds weird have less and less control every day.
I plan on taking full advantage of this by creating what I believe is a totally non-cynical game, AURO, and putting it on as many platforms as I possibly can. It’s original, and yes, that means that by definition it’s a little strange. But I love it and I’m excited about it and I think that that’s what makes me a sincere game developer, regardless of how successful the game is or not.
I get that it may be a bit easier for me to take such a risk than someone like Garriott or Brathwaite. I don’t have kids to put through college, I’m young and I don’t really mind living paycheck to paycheck, etc. But if these guys put their minds to it, and really understood that they were operating in a cynical fashion (I’m not sure they do), they could do something about it.
I would much rather that these people make very small, but innovative games. Ghost Recon Commander, or something like that, shouldn’t cost millions of dollars to make. And frankly, there’s no reason that that game couldn’t have been some interesting, weird, progressive and ambitious thing. For once, I’m not even saying that they have to subscribe to my philosophy or any design philosophy. I’m not even saying they have to make good games. I am simply saying that I want them to return to the spirit of ambition and sincerity in game design. We in the new generation need them to look up to!