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The Authorship of a Video Game -- Part 2

Jeremiah and Patrick's conversation concludes with discussion of how little people know about how development works, the merits of Indie Game: The Movie, and the final word on putting a developer's name on the box.

Hybrid and Scribblenauts are about as far away on the spectrum of game design as you can get.

There was a full six months between my first and second exchange with 5th Cell creative director Jeremiah Slaczka about the decision to brand some 5th Cell releases as “a Jeremiah Slazcka game.” To be fair, Slaczka had some good reasons: he was launching the studio’s first multiplayer game and preparing to have a child.

That’s why my letter opens up with a mention of Hybrid moving into beta. The finished game was eventually released as part of this year’s Summer of Arcade lineup in August.

Not wanting to risk the prospect of another six-month lapse, I told Slazcka to view our second exchange as our last one. There’s no reason to stretch a discussion further than it needs, and as I was tapping out the last sentences of my response, it felt like we’d said all we needed to. If you guys have lingering questions, leave 'em in the comments.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our back-and-forth, and if I’m playing my cards right this time, it won’t be six months before another one happens. I’ve already started reaching out to potential collaborators, and by kicking off several of them at once, hopefully we’ll avoid this problem a second time around.

In any case, links to our previous exchange are featured below, in addition to the first installment with Mass Effect 3 designer Manveer Heir, in which we talked about the role of critics, journalists, and reviews.

________________________________________________

Hey Jere…Miah,

Congrats on Hybrid finally launching into beta! That game's been a long time coming--the year delay still surprises me--and I'm anxious to finally play it. It's still hard to grasp that the developer who brought us whimsical games like Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life is putting out a sci-fi shooter.

As I read your email, your thoughtful response seemed to fully address my concerns and questions about the decision to brand 5th Cell games with your name. It might not be a direction for every studio, but for a company like 5th Cell, where each release clearly looks like a game that could have only come from the halls of 5th Cell, it makes sense. Then, I wondered why that was, and my mind wandered towards a recent experience.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of co-hosting the San Francisco arm of the What Would Molyduex? game jam (aka Molyjam). More than 100 developers showed up to our new home in the CBS building, including both amateurs to professionals. As a member of the press, I've talked to hundreds of developers, but you know what? I couldn't tell you many truths about game development. It's not to say I don't have an idea of how games are made, but the way I'm typically exposed to them, I'm shown a tiny slice with a very focused message. With the Molyjam, I watched the creative process from start to finish. It was raw, enlightening, stressful, interesting--and I wasn't even tasked with making a video game in 48 hours.

Indie Game: The Movie has narrative issues, but it offers our best look at the realities of development to give outsiders a glimpse within.

This comes not long after finally catching a screening of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary that was both inspiring and depressing. It broke my spirit because these yahoos who hadn't covered games prior to Indie Game: The Movie produced 90 minutes of material that was more provocative than my own collective body of work, but seeing how game development can be portrayed as dramatically as other mediums gave me pause.

It ties into your point about connecting games to an individual. With Hybrid, it's you, but it's bigger than that, right? Human beings make games, not robots. If I can't tell you very much about game development, imagine what the average player is thinking, let alone the new folks coming from Facebook, iOS, and other non-traditional avenues where games are played. If you asked those people how games are made, you'd likely get a blank stare. Yeah, that's partly driven by a lack of accessible ways to learn about game development that isn't from the hardcore-focused places like Giant Bomb. Outlets like us assume users come to them with a base knowledge about video games from the outset. Documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie will begin to bridge that gap, and allow people to emotionally connect with game creators. There's a face to the games they play every day.

When people think about what Steven Spielberg does, popular culture has given us a general idea, even if it's probably not totally accurate, about a film director's role. It's even easier with books and music, making it easy to daydream about how we could be those people, too. None of that is clear with video games, and I wonder how that makes you feel. Do you have the same problem I do, when I have to explain what my day job is to friends and family, the ones who don't play games? Most of them assume I sit around all day with a controller in my hand. Man, I wish that were true!

Part of the reason individuals in other mediums have so much power is because the consumer directly associates them with their creations-- Steven Spielberg's new movie, Radiohead's latest album. That does not happen with games, though we're beginning to see how personalization can empower developers through services like Kickstater. Tim Schafer has spent his career making a name for himself, and people gave him millions.

Slapping your name on the game is a small but important step towards putting more power in the hands of creators. The industry will be better for it. Right?

________________________________________________

Hey Patrick,

Sorry for the late reply, life has been very hectic! My wife and I had a daughter a few months ago, so we’re adjusting to that. On the studio front we’re shipping a Wii U launch title, a first for our studio, and starting to ramp up on our next projects as we speak.

Game development as a craft is still so young. There’s so much learning that we need to do on almost every level. We need better business standards, better crediting standards, better development pipeline practices, better sharing of technology – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Not only do we, as developers, still have a lot of growing to do, but so does our perception of the community at large. The stigma of the typical gamer is rapidly fading, almost day-by-day, due to the exploding “non-gamer” market. That doesn’t even make sense, right? The “non-gamer gamers”.

I absolutely understand what you mean about the general perception of game development. Wouldn’t that be nice if the industry was all about us sitting in our office, kicking back, playing games all day? That would be awesome.

Who would buy another game from this mad man? Okay, I would buy all the games from him.

Sadly it’s nowhere near true, but that fault is no one’s but our own for not making the development process as transparent as it could be to the players. The work involved in game development is gradually being documented and presented to the community, but in a lot of ways it is still a mystery to those who don’t have a passionate interest in it.

Part of the reason that, generally, people don’t have a particularly strong interest in, or understanding of how game development works yet is because we are just now on the cusp of breaking through the zeitgeist of pop culture. It’s getting there, but if we don’t keep pushing – I mean, if people don’t even try – how can we progress our medium? How can we call something art if we can’t name any of its artists?

Adding a name to a piece of art is not about selling more, it’s not about marketing, it’s not about fame; it’s about communication. Let’s say I’m a player looking to buy a new game, but I’m not totally sure what I want to get. I like Costume Quest and Stacking. If I can find another game by Tim Schafer, chances are good I’m going to enjoy it, right? It is intended to guide the community towards the kinds of games they might be interested in. It’s easy to counter that argument by saying, “What’s wrong with just putting the studio name on it, like always?” That’s easy... the reason is that studios aren’t people. It’s the people who drive our favorite games. That’s why there are studios out there that used to have great brands, but their key people left and now the studio is a shell of what it used to be. But if those people want to start something else, we should be following them.

That being said, those who do put their name out there need to be humble about it. It’s a big responsibility to be the face of your team, the person associated with the product. Ultimately, as you said, it’s for the betterment of the industry and the community. But for the individual, like any public figure, it will always be a double-edged sword.

Best,

Miah

Patrick Klepek on Google+
26 Comments
Posted by patrickklepek
Hybrid and Scribblenauts are about as far away on the spectrum of game design as you can get.

There was a full six months between my first and second exchange with 5th Cell creative director Jeremiah Slaczka about the decision to brand some 5th Cell releases as “a Jeremiah Slazcka game.” To be fair, Slaczka had some good reasons: he was launching the studio’s first multiplayer game and preparing to have a child.

That’s why my letter opens up with a mention of Hybrid moving into beta. The finished game was eventually released as part of this year’s Summer of Arcade lineup in August.

Not wanting to risk the prospect of another six-month lapse, I told Slazcka to view our second exchange as our last one. There’s no reason to stretch a discussion further than it needs, and as I was tapping out the last sentences of my response, it felt like we’d said all we needed to. If you guys have lingering questions, leave 'em in the comments.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our back-and-forth, and if I’m playing my cards right this time, it won’t be six months before another one happens. I’ve already started reaching out to potential collaborators, and by kicking off several of them at once, hopefully we’ll avoid this problem a second time around.

In any case, links to our previous exchange are featured below, in addition to the first installment with Mass Effect 3 designer Manveer Heir, in which we talked about the role of critics, journalists, and reviews.

________________________________________________

Hey Jere…Miah,

Congrats on Hybrid finally launching into beta! That game's been a long time coming--the year delay still surprises me--and I'm anxious to finally play it. It's still hard to grasp that the developer who brought us whimsical games like Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life is putting out a sci-fi shooter.

As I read your email, your thoughtful response seemed to fully address my concerns and questions about the decision to brand 5th Cell games with your name. It might not be a direction for every studio, but for a company like 5th Cell, where each release clearly looks like a game that could have only come from the halls of 5th Cell, it makes sense. Then, I wondered why that was, and my mind wandered towards a recent experience.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of co-hosting the San Francisco arm of the What Would Molyduex? game jam (aka Molyjam). More than 100 developers showed up to our new home in the CBS building, including both amateurs to professionals. As a member of the press, I've talked to hundreds of developers, but you know what? I couldn't tell you many truths about game development. It's not to say I don't have an idea of how games are made, but the way I'm typically exposed to them, I'm shown a tiny slice with a very focused message. With the Molyjam, I watched the creative process from start to finish. It was raw, enlightening, stressful, interesting--and I wasn't even tasked with making a video game in 48 hours.

Indie Game: The Movie has narrative issues, but it offers our best look at the realities of development to give outsiders a glimpse within.

This comes not long after finally catching a screening of Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary that was both inspiring and depressing. It broke my spirit because these yahoos who hadn't covered games prior to Indie Game: The Movie produced 90 minutes of material that was more provocative than my own collective body of work, but seeing how game development can be portrayed as dramatically as other mediums gave me pause.

It ties into your point about connecting games to an individual. With Hybrid, it's you, but it's bigger than that, right? Human beings make games, not robots. If I can't tell you very much about game development, imagine what the average player is thinking, let alone the new folks coming from Facebook, iOS, and other non-traditional avenues where games are played. If you asked those people how games are made, you'd likely get a blank stare. Yeah, that's partly driven by a lack of accessible ways to learn about game development that isn't from the hardcore-focused places like Giant Bomb. Outlets like us assume users come to them with a base knowledge about video games from the outset. Documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie will begin to bridge that gap, and allow people to emotionally connect with game creators. There's a face to the games they play every day.

When people think about what Steven Spielberg does, popular culture has given us a general idea, even if it's probably not totally accurate, about a film director's role. It's even easier with books and music, making it easy to daydream about how we could be those people, too. None of that is clear with video games, and I wonder how that makes you feel. Do you have the same problem I do, when I have to explain what my day job is to friends and family, the ones who don't play games? Most of them assume I sit around all day with a controller in my hand. Man, I wish that were true!

Part of the reason individuals in other mediums have so much power is because the consumer directly associates them with their creations-- Steven Spielberg's new movie, Radiohead's latest album. That does not happen with games, though we're beginning to see how personalization can empower developers through services like Kickstater. Tim Schafer has spent his career making a name for himself, and people gave him millions.

Slapping your name on the game is a small but important step towards putting more power in the hands of creators. The industry will be better for it. Right?

________________________________________________

Hey Patrick,

Sorry for the late reply, life has been very hectic! My wife and I had a daughter a few months ago, so we’re adjusting to that. On the studio front we’re shipping a Wii U launch title, a first for our studio, and starting to ramp up on our next projects as we speak.

Game development as a craft is still so young. There’s so much learning that we need to do on almost every level. We need better business standards, better crediting standards, better development pipeline practices, better sharing of technology – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Not only do we, as developers, still have a lot of growing to do, but so does our perception of the community at large. The stigma of the typical gamer is rapidly fading, almost day-by-day, due to the exploding “non-gamer” market. That doesn’t even make sense, right? The “non-gamer gamers”.

I absolutely understand what you mean about the general perception of game development. Wouldn’t that be nice if the industry was all about us sitting in our office, kicking back, playing games all day? That would be awesome.

Who would buy another game from this mad man? Okay, I would buy all the games from him.

Sadly it’s nowhere near true, but that fault is no one’s but our own for not making the development process as transparent as it could be to the players. The work involved in game development is gradually being documented and presented to the community, but in a lot of ways it is still a mystery to those who don’t have a passionate interest in it.

Part of the reason that, generally, people don’t have a particularly strong interest in, or understanding of how game development works yet is because we are just now on the cusp of breaking through the zeitgeist of pop culture. It’s getting there, but if we don’t keep pushing – I mean, if people don’t even try – how can we progress our medium? How can we call something art if we can’t name any of its artists?

Adding a name to a piece of art is not about selling more, it’s not about marketing, it’s not about fame; it’s about communication. Let’s say I’m a player looking to buy a new game, but I’m not totally sure what I want to get. I like Costume Quest and Stacking. If I can find another game by Tim Schafer, chances are good I’m going to enjoy it, right? It is intended to guide the community towards the kinds of games they might be interested in. It’s easy to counter that argument by saying, “What’s wrong with just putting the studio name on it, like always?” That’s easy... the reason is that studios aren’t people. It’s the people who drive our favorite games. That’s why there are studios out there that used to have great brands, but their key people left and now the studio is a shell of what it used to be. But if those people want to start something else, we should be following them.

That being said, those who do put their name out there need to be humble about it. It’s a big responsibility to be the face of your team, the person associated with the product. Ultimately, as you said, it’s for the betterment of the industry and the community. But for the individual, like any public figure, it will always be a double-edged sword.

Best,

Miah

Edited by Graham_Nix

I've always wondered, how do games and movies compare in how much they are the vision of one person? Is it really only the (few) director(s) who make(s) the decisions, or are games and movies significantly affected by their staff (style-wise, not quality-wise)?

Also: quest get!

Excellent stuff, by the way!

Posted by mlarrabee

These letters are great! It's not often consumers get this intimate a look at their preferred content genre creators.

Posted by The_Nubster

Looking forward to more of these. Good work!

Posted by Theory

What a fantastic series! Great job Patrick (and Jeremiah)

Posted by Slow_pC

A great read while sitting in a waffle house ....

Posted by Vexxan

A great read, glad to see 'Miah" taking some time to give well-put answers as well.

Posted by jonnyboy

Hot scoops! Keep up the good work Patrick, these pieces are becoming one of the best features of the site.

Posted by TheVideoHustler

Damn Patrick. This was a fantastic series.

Posted by Jazzycola

I think people are giving Indie game the movie way too much credit for gaming than it warrants. It's a movie that if you edit out specific parts of the movie it could be used to describe any job position in existence. It never really makes its point beyond "making things is hard guys so give some sympathy to these makers". The movie also shows the ignorant hubris and hippie attitude of the indie scene(doesn't matter what industry you use). The "man" is bad because he's the "man" or we don't care what anybody thinks about our game, but then it comes out "WOO 95 metacritic score it's better than Fallout New Vegas". Those two things make me not want to buy from them.

Look if indie developers just said they just want to have full control of their product and left it at that I would be totally supportive and buy at least one product from them to see what they had to offer. But if they get their own hipster personality involved then they are no longer just selling their product they are selling themselves. In which case, I will not be buying.

Oh and also when people ask an indie developer what type of game their game is don't just answer "it's an Indie game that tells a story". Indie game is not a genre of game, it is the process by which it is published or developed.

Posted by triviaman09

It makes a lot of sense to me to put a creative lead's name on the game if for nothing else than the simple fact that people come and go from studios. It may seem a bit like hubris when an entire team of talented people worked on the project, but it's just the most practical thing to do.

Posted by lanerobertlane

really enjoyed reading this, looking forward to more.

Edited by TadThuggish

Great stuff. Slackza is completely right. Obviously, it's still fairly skewed when only one name is associated with a team project. But that's a step in the right direction. My friends sit around and talk about their favorite cinematographers, names that don't usually have up-front association with Hollywood blockbusters, but those creators are still recognizable. Hopefully we can get to the same point and will start being loyal to even, I don't know, great A.I. programmers.

Posted by poisonmonkey

Such an interesting series of articles, well done Patrick and all involved. I hope there is more to come.

Posted by fishmicmuffin

Great articles Patrick! Don't know why more people aren't commenting.

Online
Posted by jorbear

Really enjoying this series.

Edited by Lysergica33

I actually just saw Indie Game: The Movie last night. I actually think the movie functions better as an insight of the minds of artists, period, rather than an insight of indie game development. Or rather, let's say it functions better as an insight into a state of artistic insanity..

But yeah, it really struck a chord with me, everything these guys say, the paranoia, the insanity, the inspiration, the alienation, the fruition of years of ideas and conceptualising and the validation. Pretty much everything about my own personal journey as a Musician is reflected in the journeys of those making the games in the film. Although I sympathised with the Meat Boy guys the most, especially the smaller guy. He had a look in his eyes towards the end of the project that looked incredibly reminiscent of a look I've seen in my own before.

It actually moved me to tears, really beautiful little film. Hats off to those behind it and those who appeared in it.

Posted by Viking_Funeral

@Jazzycola: So what you're saying is that you really hate hipsters. And indie. Because pretentiousness.

Well, it's not exactly a unique opinion on the internet, but at least you've explained to people that something as mundane as perception influences your buying habits.

Posted by Brendan

Thanks for the series Patrick, looking forward to more!

Edited by heavymetalwaffle

Man, that picture of Tim Schafer is giving me the creeps.

Nice article(s), Scoops.

Edited by Jazzycola

@Viking_Funeral said:

@Jazzycola: So what you're saying is that you really hate hipsters. And indie. Because pretentiousness.

Well, it's not exactly a unique opinion on the internet, but at least you've explained to people that something as mundane as perception influences your buying habits.

Actually, if you think about it I'm keeping them to be hipsters. If I were to buy their games they would be reaching more people. If enough people do buy their games then eventually they become the big bad developers("the man"). So I'm in a way preserving their way of life.

Bad joke aside, indie and being a hipster shouldn't be used hand in hand. You can be an independent developer and not have this thought that people that work for Bioware, Bethesda, or whatever other big named developer are living in hell as that dude Tommy Refenes kept stating throughout the movie. I expanded on what I thought was important of what Jeremiah said.

"That being said, those who do put their name out there need to be humble about it. It’s a big responsibility to be the face of your team, the person associated with the product. Ultimately, as you said, it’s for the betterment of the industry and the community. But for the individual, like any public figure, it will always be a double-edged sword."

Indie developers that have this sort of attitude need to grow up. Don't put this judgement on the people that buy other games that you would consider bad. I want to have original ideas, but at the same time I want to have those original ideas expanded on in other games. I look at indie games as a starting place for something new or something old dressed up like something new. Then I look to AAA games to expand, refine, and polish it.

Edit: Also this article is about something mundane as perception. The last half is about perception of a person at the head of a studio.

Posted by Seii

Am I alone in the fact I enjoy the questions in this set of articles more then the answers? I'm not sure if it's a problem of time constraints, personal investment, or simply my expectations being too high because of the previous letter feature's quality. Maybe it's just a topic that doesn't seem to have that much traction within the current state of videogame development community? At it's surface it seems to be a great starting point for a very interesting and deep comparison of the different forms of media, and what it means to have a piece of art that is fundamentally interactive having authorship.

As always though, great job Patrick. Expectations or no, this is the kind of content I would love to continue to see.

Edited by studnoth1n

the inevitable discussion of the auteur awaits...

also, the collaboration of any production, whether it be a film, video game, album is usually demonstrated in the work and labor aspect, the dominant ideas and themes however typically fall under a single, unifying vision. call it pretentious, but it is what it is. whether it be an author, musician, architect, director, painter, etc., this is how the creative process works and how original, "personalized," ideas rise to the surface and connect with an audience, otherwise the process devolves into engineering a solution and committee by design. also, it's easier to keep track and heap blame onto one person if a production goes south.

Posted by Brodehouse

Good article.

I wish we had more devs who are eager to take credit, or to say "I did this, look at it." "Look at my game, look at my art, look at my contributions, however small." There's few other artistic forms, even extremely collaborative forms, that are as afraid to take ownership of their creation as video game design (specifically Western, Japanese leads will absolutely take credit). Musicians in bands are the first to go "John came in with this part and it was good, but then I did this and changed the key to F, and then we both naturally started playing it faster and that's how this part was made". The thing Jeremiah says about 'people don't really understand what goes into making games' is largely because you can rarely figure out what any person does, because they're afraid to claim even work that they did do. Are there really so many that want to create for an audience, but don't want the audience to know exactly what they did?

Posted by triclops41

Good job, Patrick.

I didn't love you, at first. But now that I get what you bring to the team, I see why they brought you.

Posted by Seb

Super interesting.