Who will replace Wright?

Matt Barton's picture

It seems like the whole industry is abuzz about Will Wright's depature from Maxis. What's perhaps more interesting is a question posed by an Xbox co-creator, who sees a "generation gap" emerging and wonders how the industry will recruit and nurture new talent to replace retiring stars like Wright. Seamus Blackley argues that we need to stop squandering talent and let new people explore their own ideas--even when that seems risky or counter-intuitive. Mr. Blackley, I couldn't agree more!

It seems obvious to me that the new stars aren't to be found hovering around the offices of places like EA. To get to those spots, people have had to learn how to "act like they belong there," conforming and learning how to acceptable to the powers that be. They have the sort of ideas that get approved--in other words, the ideas that are about as original as "Yet Another Cross-Licensed First Person Shooter #12." I say, if you want to find the new stars, go beyond these offices to people who aren't yet tainted by the industry itself, yet who are familiar with games and have novel, "improbable" or "impractical" ideas that will really push the industry forward. Find the people "who wouldn't last ten minutes on a real development team." Again, I think of the big stars of the film industry, figures who were often seen as upstarts at first--roundly criticized for their "amateurish" or "unprofessional" approach--yet these "ridiculous" approaches set the paradigms for new generations of films. Blair Witch Project? What was that?

We've already identified the problems faced by such people in getting attention, much less funding. Nevertheless, if we want to see innovation, we've got to get past the ol' "that's not how things are done" mentality and back to the "whoa--I wonder if that's even possible--let's go for it!" attitude that got us where we are today. Doom wasn't made by a bunch of guys trying to make the latest me-too clone. Let's get back to basics, throw some money at upstarts with wacky, "you can't do that" ideas, and see what happens.

Hell, even I could give you 25 unexplored concepts for great new games right off the top of my head. You might think they're too wacky, improbable, or even unthinkable, but ask yourself--why the hell not? :)

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crcasey
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Joined: 11/17/2006
Old school, Mid school, and learned nothing in school.

Looking at the range of game designers, a large percentage over 80% will fall into one of the three classes above. Wright is a solid rep for the old school varsity, they chewed bytes and spit out games. The mid school I would consider to be the old upstarts, American McGee or Carmak are in this class. Then you get the most complex class, the nothing in school people. They either never went to school (by hard knocks like the other two classes, or by getting useful information from class time) the way the older classes did. They had training wheels like level editors, wad editors, or for the really dumb ones... video game classes. That last bit was harsh, but besides portal name a class project you can sing the song for. Or an Indy beyond Goo or Braid that gets major talk time.

The people that explored their talents di not go into play testing as a way to get into the game industry. The industry is hiring either programmers just getting their BS, and are wet behind the ears, or game happy kiddies who do play testing to find the bugs. I don't see much design background in either of those classes. But they do have the background to create a sitting in a lecture hall, or sitting on the couch simulator. But there is one niche that has some potential, they get a overview that others don't and they get feedback almost instantly on their designs, so they have the iterative ability to learn about design.

I am talking about the few, the hidden, the poly-sucking, sound effect playing, texture-spamming level designers. Here is the person that sits between the story, the art, and the engine. I figure if there is any spot ripe for picking the next better than average designer in a corporate setting this may well be it. I could be wrong, it could also be the AI script writers that have a chance for glory, because they play in that same crossroads.

The ones I would like to see get a chance are the writers, but since they are so insulated from the real technology of gaming, they may be a lost cause beyond the cut scene. Strangely they are also the ones that have notebooks full of stories that never have been told. This leads me to think that the next big name from a 'corp' background may be a team effort.

Scripting does the story, level design does the background, and interaction comes from the AI guru. But getting them the freedom to do that project together may be the limiting factor. What developer would willingly put their best writer, their best level designer, and their best AI scriptwriter on a project they have never seen?

It would take some stones.

-Cecil

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Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
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Joined: 08/31/2008
Where are we?

I blame the current state of affairs on a couple of points. I attack this topic from a personal point of view as a guy that entered college and obtained a degree in computer science with the intention of writing games.

1: I believe there is a general sense of business currently plaguing today's world of creativity. Corporate ideas, organization, and those that exist solely to tell others not only what to do at their job (manager) but also how to do it often get in the way of simply letting someone do their work in the way the worker's mind operates. I have written software for two companies, and there is a night and day difference between the two of them in regard to how the places are run.

My first place was terrible. Everything was extremely planned. Documents were exchanged, reviewed, reworked, detailed, edited (sometimes even for proper layout), code was written, and then that same code was reviewed letter by letter. The organizational methods enforced by the management were pushed so hard that they got in the way of the actual work itself! Trying to be overly efficient led to inefficiency!

My second (and current) place encourages input from the programmers. We can make suggestions of how to do things in a better way, and sometimes we get full creative control based on a simple design request. There is no micromanagement, few design documents (they are there when needed), and we don't do the code reviews. We write better software than my previous company, and there are six of us. Contrast that with the 100 programmers in the first place, and you have the difference between Office Space Incarnate and Creativity Central. Let the people that know what they are doing do what they know.

2: Piracy. It's been around a while, and it has grown over the years. Remember the 80s? Remember when the family had a computer, and said family was considered lucky if they had one? It was like television in the 1950s! "Nobody has two television sets." (Back to the Future). Nowadays it isn't just a single family computer or a college student that happens to be lucky. People have computers everywhere. Duplicating and pirating software is extremely easy to do, and the world wide web allows for easy distribution. The sheer volume of computers out there compared to the 80s naturally means there is a higher number of software titles pirated per day.

A company's desire to protect themselves from piracy has created an inconvenience for those that own software in a legitimate way. Consider the userbase repressed. Play your game. Okay, now put it away. That's a good gamer.

I am not encouraging piracy. I am saying that there needs to be a more open way to experiment and learn a system from a hardware and software standpoint. How can you expect people to be creative when you (the console providers) deny it? If someone sat down in their home and wrote a centipede clone for the Atari 400 in the early 1980s, they go "Landon Dyer" and get hired by Atari. If, in this more complicated age of 2001-2009, someone (let's phrase it in a way that Seamus Blackley can easily follow) buys an Xbox, chips it, flashes a new BIOS on it, acquires the Xbox development kit and writes an Xbox program that says "Hello World"....that person gets fined and thrown in jail.

Now in more recent days, end users have been oh so blessed with the legal opportunity to develop homebrew applications so long as they do it within the parameters specified by the manufacturer. Obtain the official game development kit (XNA Game studio for 360, I think). Remember to always follow the rules.

Hmm. Creativity and freedom go hand in hand. I don't have a cure-all solution, but you need to make sure you don't hold back the homebrew artists when you attempt to eliminate the pirates. And don't you dare ask where all the programming talent has gone - they are either stuffed away at some terrible corporate programming job or they transferred to the business school a LONG, long time ago.

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Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Joined: 01/16/2006
"Viral" Games
CkRtech wrote:

Hmm. Creativity and freedom go hand in hand. I don't have a cure-all solution, but you need to make sure you don't hold back the homebrew artists when you attempt to eliminate the pirates. And don't you dare ask where all the programming talent has gone - they are either stuffed away at some terrible corporate programming job or they transferred to the business school a LONG, long time ago.

Nice comments, CkRtech. I was thinking that there's certainly potential for a small time programmer to get big with a "viral" hit, much the way certain images, urban legends, or YouTube videos explode across the internet simply by word of mouth. Take, for instance, the Jedi kid, the Montgomery Flea Market, and so on. What could happen is that a really bold and innovative game could be released, probably as a web or mobile app, and hopefully get picked up as a "viral" and emailed/linked/posted all across the net. For that to happen, it'd need to have truly massive appeal. Imagine something like Tetris being released today, for free, and virally spread across the net. I suppose the key would be controlling the website where the game was hosted, so you could benefit from ad revenue.

I know there are plenty of web-based gaming sites out there that fit this model, but to my knowledge none have really had the kind of impact that something like the the iTunes store has had for iPhone development. The model I'm seeing is more of a de-centralized, word of mouth model, but still not sure how a developer could reap great profits from it. Maybe the old "basic" game for free, enhanced version for $10 or something like that.

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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Just saw this--seems

Just saw this--seems relevant:

Things We Hate About Gaming: Innovation and Change: Video games of today are becoming bigger and bigger, yet the progress in narration, ideas implemented well, and game play seems to be stagnating. Taking huge financial risks is not the way to go, but taking a step back and trying to distinguish what works and what is unnecessary in a game would help cut out a lot of the filler.

Again, this seems to come back to what I've said time and time again (everywhere and about everything!). It's better to do a few things and do them really well, than do a lot of stuff and do a half-ass job.

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Chris Kennedy
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Joined: 08/31/2008
Do a few things really well
Matt Barton wrote:

Again, this seems to come back to what I've said time and time again (everywhere and about everything!). It's better to do a few things and do them really well, than do a lot of stuff and do a half-ass job.

That is so true.

I am really glad Michael pointed out Mirror's Edge. I don't really like FPSes anymore. Seeing a first person platformer type of game in Mirror's Edge was really exciting. I must have played the demo many many times before picking up the game on its release date (with cool backpack).

Unfortunately, it wasn't executed properly. It broke out of the mindless rip-off mold of video games only to fall off the desk. I wanted to say "that was a great try guys - keep working on it!" I felt encouraged by the *idea* of the genre more so than I did let down by the play control during disarms.

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It seems like nowadays you have a bit of innovation and then everyone improves upon it or copies it in some way. "You have GOT to have a few FPSes in your arsenal. Buy this." "Every game should have multiplayer! Here - try this one!"

What if this mentality was in full force in the early 80s? "What? Centipede has a trackball? We have GOT to put a trackball in the next Pac-Man!" Hey it's great that there is a trackball in Centipede, but it fit with the gameplay. It wasn't ABOUT the trackball. It was about the game Centipede that also happened to use this nifty trackball. Arkanoid had a spinner. Xybots had multiplayer from two different camera angles and a twisty joystick. Xenophobe had a triple layer, pancake style screen for three players.

I think formulas are followed too closely these days in order to make a game.

"What traits of games make money? Okay. Do those."

I don't see making a game as a scientific exercise designed around making money. I see it as a form of artistic expression that can just so happen to make money. "Taking huge financial risks is not the way to go, but taking a step back and trying to distinguish what works and what is unnecessary in a game would help cut out a lot of the filler." That's the next critical point. I wasn't trying to say that a company should just toss money to the wind, let developers do their thing and then pray for income. All I ask is they do a bit more self examination and historical examination.

Maybe Vintage Games should be a required reading for development companies. Haha!

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