Many developers want game making to be treated as a skilled profession. They want it to be serious, have stable working hours, to acknowledge their contribution and to be paid accordingly. They want to see themselves as craftsmen bringing decades of experience to bear on projects.
This desire reminds me of a scene in The Wire where Marlo steals lollipops in plain view of a security guard, and when the guard challenges him Marlo sizes him up and says:
‘You want it be one way. But it’s the other way.’
Are You Mediocre?
The normal definition of mediocrity is someone of average ability. If you put ten programmers in a room and give them a problem to solve, two of them solve it excellently, two of them will not solve it at all, and the remaining six will do an okay job. Of course you hire the excellent programmers, for they will be the most productive.
The professional-oriented mind strives to be in that 20%. It’s no mean feat to be so smart that you can perceive the solutions that others do not. If you are one of those people then you want to be paid to keep solving problems and doing a professional job. Ideas are cheap. Execution (i.e. solving the problem) is everything.
This, more or less, is what Ernest Adams is looking for in his recent Gamasutra article. He wants that kind of diligence to be encouraged and for the industry to work around that principle. Most people who work in the industry don’t get their choice of project, so a professional mind-set is probably more useful in the long run. Or so he thinks.
Professional people seek to impress, to get promoted and to succeed. They believe that the industry is pushed forward by small innovations and incremental ideas. Like most lawyers, doctors, architects and software engineers, their skill is who they are. They believe that society should value them by their time served and diligence.
The problem is that people who pursue their games industry careers with that mind-set might have great technical skills or an encyclopaedic knowledge of games, but that’s irrelevant. They believe that mediocrity is defined by skill, but it isn’t. What they haven’t realised is that they are the mediocre ones because their end product is the same as everyone else’s.
Mediocrity is no longer about process or skill, it’s about output. Put a mediocre team on making a racing game and you will get a perfectly executed clone of another racing game that was already successful, and which won’t sell. Put them on making a social game and you will get a CityVille. Put them on making a shooter and you will get a beautiful brown-and-grey shooter with brilliant physics that’s just the same as all the others.
The mediocre developer may be a whizz but he has no inspiration. He doesn’t passionately believe in one idea over another, nor does he have a vision for how things should be. He creates stereotypical, but good quality, content because it’s all the same to him. He does a job that’s expected of him to a high standard but that’s all.
Everything is a product from a high level point of view. Software is an engineering product that provides solutions to problems, such as spreadsheets or search engines. It might well be delightful, even playful, but software has a serious purpose. ‘Ideas are cheap, execution is everything’ is a software industry maxim that reflects its problem/solution basis. This, more or less, is what the skilled-profession developers want for their game careers.
But what problem does Orcs Must Die solve? None. Just like Lady Gaga solves no problems, nor Damien Hirst or Leonard DiCaprio. All of these people are a part of a different kind of industry, one which is permanently chaotic, maddening and yet capable of producing truly amazing things. They are artists, and they create cultural products.
Games are also cultural products because they tempt players into magical worlds and entertain them. They are driven by trends, novelties, and the fear of audience boredom. They breed fans, cultures, game conventions where people dress up, and sometimes even contribute to overall culture in surprising ways. They are constantly chasing a moving target, trying to find franchises and ward off new challengers with cooler ideas than theirs.
These are exactly the same pressures that musicians, novelists, sculptors and opera companies face. In culture, cheap ideas are cheap. Great ideas, on the other hand, are gold. What distinguishes the mediocre from the star is not competence or innovation. It’s the ability to create, to tell a marketing story and to inspire others to make a vision a reality because that’s what the audience wants.
The Other Way
Marlo Stanfield’s ‘other way’ is the chaos of the streets. The games industry is also chaotic, but this can be bad or good. It can lead to wage-slave studios churning out products, but also dynamic teams who invent the next wave.
As platforms democratise, distribution cost collapse and tools get cheaper, the advantage of the professional recedes. Technology tends to remove the importance of the skilled labourer from an industry over time, as has been seen in music, and is now happening in publishing and video. The same is happening in games.
Instability is on the increase as more and more developers who have decided they want to make great games rather than be professionals do so by circumventing traditional structures. They become the rising stars, and suddenly all that diligence that professional developers hang their sense of self worth by seems like a chump’s deal.
So how can you join the new wave? Not with more skill.
Madonna has never been the world’s greatest singer, songwriter, dancer or sex symbol. However she ruled the music industry for two decades by focusing on what mattered, which was inspiring her audience with decidedly non-mediocre ideas. She understood that the chaos was there to be seized through inspiration, which led to Material Girl, Vogue, Sex and dozens of other works.
People who understand that it’s the other way accept that the chaos is never going to change. They get that the blogosphere is afflicted with permanent attention deficit disorder and that is never going to change. They see that the audience wants to be told stories and to be inspired in a new and awesome way. And that is also never going to change.
Finally, they realise that those factors are opportunities, not problems. You can wish it was one way all you like, but it’s the other way. If you see it for what it is rather what you think it should be then maybe you might figure out how to make something amazing.
(Here’s that scene from The Wire.)