So many glass ceilings you can't see the sky

Snipehunter's picture

I've been kind of bitchy lately. So much so that I really didn't want to post anything because I knew how negative it would sound, if I did. I'm not going to talk about why I'm bitchy, but instead I'm gonna talk about something that occurred to me, because of it:

There's a lot of general crankiness and other assorted poison in the industry, right now. It expresses itself as a sort of general ennui, as if there's nothing surprising out there anymore.

I'm not the only cranky game dev out there, right now. In fact, some folks proudly claim their cynicism on their own blogs; a shtick to attract readers. That makes me think that maybe their audience (gamers and other devs) are bitchy and cynical, too.

This industry, no scratch that, this scene has lost its soul.

It's not just the devs, it's players too. We're so damned jaded, cynical and tired that we don't even take the effort to investigate the majority of games that release, any more.

Man, I used to hang out in game stores, talk on bbs forums about games and generally just live games. Sure, you could argue I was a kid back then and that's fair, but even after I got a game job, I spent my spare time prowling the internet for .plan files, gossip posts on usenet, anything I could get my hands on. I wanted to know what was going on in the gaming world - I wanted to know what wonders were coming, what fantasies were being made and I wanted to know who was making them. In a real way, I landed my first game dev job because I did that.

Now a days, not so much. I don't really have the time. I have a life outside of games. I have a lot of work to do. I have plans that need to be realized if I'm gonna meet my 5 year goal. I have bills to pay. I have to do laundry. I have to do everything that I had to do before, but now somehow, they're barriers between me and my passion.

In fact, where has that passion gone? I don't see it in the bulk of the industry anymore; what I see instead are insanely talented and experienced people harnessing that brilliance just to go through the motions. I look around and for me, it's sort of like a scene in a creepy movie, the kind where everything seems so awesome and perfect and wonderful, but then the calliope music starts and the lights change and now it's all leering and grotesque shadow play.

When I first started to notice, it was a few years back and I was watching a would-be publisher crumble the ground because it had decided shovel ware and short low-budget projects was the way to make money in the games industry. Back then I thought I knew exactly why it was happening. It was the publishers, I was sure. They only cared about the money, you see. They didn't care about games at all; hell, most of them didn't even believe games were art. Publishers were the glass ceiling preventing great games - hell, even different games - from getting made. I figured that sooner or later, they would get the message or the small studios would simply find a way around the publishers eventually. Steam came out a little while later and that seemed to support my conclusion... Then I went to work for small studios again.

I've worked at several of them since, in fact. Some were the small focused art houses I was dreaming of, some of them were little more than sweatshops with no soul at all and others were somewhere in between... but all of them failed to make to great games, too. In no way was this about their ideas or their goals -- it was about the path taken and the compromises made after the ideas were had. At each one there was always some glass ceiling or another that prevented us from "doing it the way we really wanted to" -- the problems were different, but myriad: "The publisher wants to do it this way." or "'They' will never go for that." or "We don't have the time." or "That's not what players will expect."

As a player lately, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes time to actually pick a new game to play: "Eh, I'll wait to get that until I hear it's good." or "I don't have time for a game like that."

It's like no one wants to expend the time and energy to do anything that really excites us, anymore. In some cases, there's even active effort put against the very concept of getting excited, inspired or experimental. There are a few notable stand outs (play World of Goo and Dwarf Fortress if you haven't yet), but how many games are being made right now that are just like the hits of last year? Or just like WoW? Well, not as many now, thanks to so many studios and publishers being impacted by the "bad economy," but you know I think that's just another glass ceiling.

I've come to realize that the problem isn't a lack of vision or any of the other angst ridden complaints you hear about the industry. I think the problem is ennui. We remember liking games and we want to hold on to that, but we haven't produced anything truly interesting or surprising in so long that we don't actually feel it anymore. This filters both into the developer's work (as a lack of true passion or perhaps an aversion to risk since "there's really no point in taking risks just for a job") and into the player's expectations (as an unwillingness to see past genre, search for new games to buy or really give non-mainstream games a chance on their own merits).

I think about the games we consider incredible and ground breaking that released this year and I sort of cringe because that same ennui is supported in our choices. I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another, but was any of them really innovative? I love Fallout 3 to death and beyond appropriateness, but is it really new or innovative? How about Braid? Really? That's new? See - I'm even getting cynical about pointing out why I'm cynical. My point is simple - why don't we expect more? Are we so jaded that we just won't take the effort to ask for something more exciting and new?

When I think about what I want to make, I realize I have the same problem, really. I've self edited my own pitches to the point where, at the wrong studio, the resulting games wouldn't be much different from the me-too releases of today.

That has to stop. But you don't stop the cynics by telling them to be more optimistic any more than you can tell a skeptic that you don't need proof to know something is true. You stop a cynic by surprising him just like you convert the skeptic by giving him proof.

I suppose it's a chicken and the egg thing, then. We need something to revitalize the games industry, so that it will make better games... but better games are really the only things I know of that could do that.

Then again, good games often happen despite the circumstances of their creation. I seem to recall that Blizzard was a port-house contract studio before they did the games they're famous for and I know that in the case of one project I worked on - greatness sort of just stumbled into that game and never left, despite the best efforts of every glass ceiling in our way to prevent it.

And that's the trick right? What we really need is to find a way to see the broad blue sky again, despite all the glass ceilings that express our ennui and stand in the way. For my part, I think I'm going to start by breaking the first glass ceiling I can see: My supposed lack of passion.

I clearly still care and maybe it's time I stopped making excuses about not feeling that passion and back to doing things new and special, eh?

- Snipehunter

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