Will the video game studio system collapse?

So this is something I've been thinking about for a while. Let me set this up by talking about Hollywood.

In the early days of cinema, there was what was called the "studio system." Large movie companies owned all the means of production of the movie industry: the sets, the equipment, the directors, the writers, and the actors. Movies were produced in an assembly-line fashion, with the people involved having no creative claim over the works that were released. All rights stayed with the companies, and the creative people signed themselves to many years-long exclusive contracts.

The movies produced in this time were little more than big, exciting, escapist entertainment for the world-weary audiences. People came to the theater to be entertained, nothing more. The images on the screen dazzled audiences everywhere. Patrons of older arts like stage theatre and the printed word scoffed at films, dismissing them as big, flashy, and empty pieces of drivel.

But then, in the 1960s, the studio system began to crumble. Directors desired more ownership of their works, both legally and creatively. Independent filmmakers began pouring out of universities with the vision that films could be more than simple pleasures: that they could change peoples lives and speak to the human condition. Films started being released that defied convention. Intensely personal films were made with vision and purpose. Now, today, film is a widely accepted art form. And while big dumb blockbusters still exist and create huge profits, films are released every year that inspire people, enrich lives, and challenge our minds.

Fast-forward to present day. Large companies like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc produce huge, lavish, and ultimately empty works of pure escapist entertainment for the masses. Writers, programmers, voice actors all work on contract with these companies to produce games they maintain little to no creative ownership of. Film-goers and critics like Roger Ebert point out their assembly-line production and the profit-first mentality of these companies. They are not seen as a legitimate art, and even those that enjoy them only want them to ever be a form of entertainment and escapism.

But we see the rumblings of change. Indie developers are beginning to release games that have a clear artistic vision. Meaning is trying to be conveyed, and the emotion of these creative people is present on the screen: people like Jonathan Blow, Phil Phish Terry Cavanaugh and small teams like Supergiant and Thatgamecompany. These people are gaining notice. Not only of Forbes and the Wallstreet Journal, but of critics. And not just "game reviewers" but of people that are interested in real critique.

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close? Young people with passion and fresh ideas are pouring out of schools across the world, and new business models are making it financially viable for small teams and independent developers to make their visions a reality. Our hobby is moving inexorably into the realm of art. Like it or not. Movies haven't always been like they are now. One they were considered a lower form of entertainment, and fans and critics alike scoffed at the notion that they could be anything more than what they were. Those people were short sighted. I hope there are enough of us out there today in the audience and in the industry that are not.

23 Comments
24 Comments
Posted by Dtat

So this is something I've been thinking about for a while. Let me set this up by talking about Hollywood.

In the early days of cinema, there was what was called the "studio system." Large movie companies owned all the means of production of the movie industry: the sets, the equipment, the directors, the writers, and the actors. Movies were produced in an assembly-line fashion, with the people involved having no creative claim over the works that were released. All rights stayed with the companies, and the creative people signed themselves to many years-long exclusive contracts.

The movies produced in this time were little more than big, exciting, escapist entertainment for the world-weary audiences. People came to the theater to be entertained, nothing more. The images on the screen dazzled audiences everywhere. Patrons of older arts like stage theatre and the printed word scoffed at films, dismissing them as big, flashy, and empty pieces of drivel.

But then, in the 1960s, the studio system began to crumble. Directors desired more ownership of their works, both legally and creatively. Independent filmmakers began pouring out of universities with the vision that films could be more than simple pleasures: that they could change peoples lives and speak to the human condition. Films started being released that defied convention. Intensely personal films were made with vision and purpose. Now, today, film is a widely accepted art form. And while big dumb blockbusters still exist and create huge profits, films are released every year that inspire people, enrich lives, and challenge our minds.

Fast-forward to present day. Large companies like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc produce huge, lavish, and ultimately empty works of pure escapist entertainment for the masses. Writers, programmers, voice actors all work on contract with these companies to produce games they maintain little to no creative ownership of. Film-goers and critics like Roger Ebert point out their assembly-line production and the profit-first mentality of these companies. They are not seen as a legitimate art, and even those that enjoy them only want them to ever be a form of entertainment and escapism.

But we see the rumblings of change. Indie developers are beginning to release games that have a clear artistic vision. Meaning is trying to be conveyed, and the emotion of these creative people is present on the screen: people like Jonathan Blow, Phil Phish Terry Cavanaugh and small teams like Supergiant and Thatgamecompany. These people are gaining notice. Not only of Forbes and the Wallstreet Journal, but of critics. And not just "game reviewers" but of people that are interested in real critique.

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close? Young people with passion and fresh ideas are pouring out of schools across the world, and new business models are making it financially viable for small teams and independent developers to make their visions a reality. Our hobby is moving inexorably into the realm of art. Like it or not. Movies haven't always been like they are now. One they were considered a lower form of entertainment, and fans and critics alike scoffed at the notion that they could be anything more than what they were. Those people were short sighted. I hope there are enough of us out there today in the audience and in the industry that are not.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Dtat said:

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close?

You mean the past few years of games were utter shit? I don't even know where to start with this one.

Posted by TheDudeOfGaming
@Dtat said:

So this is something I've been thinking about for a while. Let me set this up by talking about Hollywood.

In the early days of cinema, there was what was called the "studio system." Large movie companies owned all the means of production of the movie industry: the sets, the equipment, the directors, the writers, and the actors. Movies were produced in an assembly-line fashion, with the people involved having no creative claim over the works that were released. All rights stayed with the companies

So... nothing's changed. Oh no, wait. There are a lot more bad movies being made today. Sorry, my bad. 
It won't change. You know why? Because money.
Posted by Dtat

@Video_Game_King said:

@Dtat said:

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close?

You mean the past few years of games were utter shit? I don't even know where to start with this one.

I'm drawing parallels between the progression of the movie industry and the progression of the video game industry. You're free to disagree. Your definition of a shitty game and mine probably differ, and they're not material to this discussion.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Dtat:

I'm the type of person who picks one quote out of an article and nitpicks the hell out of it. Speaking of...

@Dtat said:

Young people with passion and fresh ideas are pouring out of schools across the world

Isn't that kind of what happened with the game industry in the 80s? Kids were coming out of college and working their way up the ladder, and then...we got here. The game industry changed, but it also didn't change. Food for thought. (That last part wasn't meant to be snarky, if it comes across as such.)

Posted by Animasta

it's easier to make a movie with 3 people than a game with 3 people, so no I don't think the comparison is valid

Posted by Dtat

@Video_Game_King said:

@Dtat:

I'm the type of person who picks one quote out of an article and nitpicks the hell out of it. Speaking of...

@Dtat said:

Young people with passion and fresh ideas are pouring out of schools across the world

Isn't that kind of what happened with the game industry in the 80s? Kids were coming out of college and working their way up the ladder, and then...we got here. The game industry changed, but it also didn't change. Food for thought. (That last part wasn't meant to be snarky, if it comes across as such.)

But those people in the 80s lived in a very different time, when video games were still in their infancy. Those people weren't approaching them the way that young filmmakers in the 60s and 70s were approaching film: as a way to express themselves. That's the broad point I'm trying to make.

@Animasta said:

it's easier to make a movie with 3 people than a game with 3 people, so no I don't think the comparison is valid

No comparison of different things will ever be perfect. And this one observation, which I don't think is entirely accurate, does not rebut my entire argument. Did you read the whole post?

Posted by Vodun

@Dtat said:

@Video_Game_King said:

@Dtat said:

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close?

You mean the past few years of games were utter shit? I don't even know where to start with this one.

I'm drawing parallels between the progression of the movie industry and the progression of the video game industry. You're free to disagree. Your definition of a shitty game and mine probably differ, and they're not material to this discussion.

Of course it is, your whole argument is that the current system produces shit. If someone disagrees with that, then it has a significant impact on how they view the current system.

Personally I am fine with how it works right now. There's plenty of room for small independent developers to create whatever they want, but if someone wants the security of a major studio at their back they can have that as well. Much like John Cleese once said about his ad-work, there are some things you need to do to do the things you want to do. Money, it's a bitch.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@Dtat:

Really? That period of the game industry was a time of great change, and I imagine the people working on games at the time had some idea that this was the case. Keep in mind that soon after games started having stories en masse, many games started having story with some type of actual meaning.

Edited by benspyda

There are already big names in games and design, like Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer, Will Wright etc. Yes some studios are completely controlled and owned by big publishers, however there are many cases where studios have creative control of their projects.

That said obviously games are still viewed by the older generations as below other media, probably like how films where first thought of, as they are starting to hit mainstream popularity. What gaming will be in the next 20 years is what interests me.

Edited by Radar

All media is going through a transitional stage. Lower budget, still high quality, independent works are becoming much more popular because the technology to make these things are within reach to anyone with an ambition to create. Music went through it with mp3s and the rise of digitally/electronically created music. Movies are going through it with the rise of affordable video equipment and editing software. Games are going through it with widely available toolkits, game engines, middleware, stores, and a gaming device in everyones hand.

I wouldn't say the transition is to better fortify gaming as an artform, it's more that developers are able to do things we weren't able to do 5 years ago at a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the staff. They're able to do this with no overhead. Allowing them to do what they want and not do what will guaranteed sell.

Posted by Dtat

@Vodun said:

@Dtat said:

@Video_Game_King said:

@Dtat said:

Could it be that the "golden age" of video games may be nearing a close?

You mean the past few years of games were utter shit? I don't even know where to start with this one.

I'm drawing parallels between the progression of the movie industry and the progression of the video game industry. You're free to disagree. Your definition of a shitty game and mine probably differ, and they're not material to this discussion.

Of course it is, your whole argument is that the current system produces shit. If someone disagrees with that, then it has a significant impact on how they view the current system.

Personally I am fine with how it works right now. There's plenty of room for small independent developers to create whatever they want, but if someone wants the security of a major studio at their back they can have that as well. Much like John Cleese once said about his ad-work, there are some things you need to do to do the things you want to do. Money, it's a bitch.

My whole argument is NOT that the industry produces shit. My argument is that just like in movies, independent developers have who approach their craft with vision produce personal, and meaningful works of art. Companies produce escapist entertainment. Whether you like that or not is a matter of opinion. And THAT opinion has no bearing on this discussion. I'm merely pointing out a similarity I see between the progression of these two industries. Agree or disagree, but argue on those terms.

Posted by deathstriker666

@Dtat: They'll always be a demand for what you call "escapist" entertainment. What collapse were you referring to? The film industry certainly opened up to more artistic films, but it never collapsed. It's still there.

Nonetheless, I think the indie, independent, game scene is seeing a blossoming in a more artistic direction. But that will never affect the big-budget/AAA games. Like other entertainment industries, video games will only grow as other nations enter there Industrial Revolutions. New markets that can afford luxury items and wholly produce them as well.

Posted by Dtat

@deathstriker666 said:

@Dtat: They'll always be a demand for what you call "escapist" entertainment. What collapse were you referring to? The film industry certainly opened up to more artistic films, but it never collapsed. It's still there.

Nonetheless, I think the indie, independent, game scene is seeing a blossoming in a more artistic direction. But that will never affect the big-budget/AAA games. Like other entertainment industries, video games will only grow as other nations enter there Industrial Revolutions. New markets that can afford luxury items and wholly produce them as well.

The studio system collapsed. Look up the "golden age of Hollywood" or the "collapse of the studio system." It's pretty close to how I described it (albeit much more complicated). I never said "the film industry collapsed." The old way of making movies became outdated and was largely replaced by independent filmmakers. I think it may be possible a similar thing could happen with the games industry. You say it will "never affect the big-budget/AAA games." Why do you think that?

Posted by jmood88

Guillermo Del Toro talked about this in an interview with Ken Levine and I've been thinking about this ever since I heard him make the comparison. Would it make a huge difference if it was a game directed by Casey Hudson, for example, and the team he decided to get together to make something specific rather than what we have now with (for the most part) static teams that try to do what that team is best at doing? EA, Activision, etc can still be around to publish games but there could be more flexibility in the teams that are put together if you went away from the publisher-owned developer system that we have now.

Posted by bighat_logan

no

Posted by Lunar_Aura

@Animasta said:

it's easier to make a movie with 3 people than a game with 3 people, so no I don't think the comparison is valid

True. I'm sure Super Meat Boy would have been a broken clusterfuck if they added another person.

Posted by Brodehouse

Phil Fish won't finish another game for five years. Jonathan Blow's last game came out in 2008. There have been 40 million copies of Call of Duty sold since then. Entire trilogies will start and finish before he gets The Witness out.

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Posted by Brodehouse
@jmood88

Guillermo Del Toro talked about this in an interview with Ken Levine and I've been thinking about this ever since I heard him make the comparison. Would it make a huge difference if it was a game directed by Casey Hudson, for example, and the team he decided to get together to make something specific rather than what we have now with (for the most part) static teams that try to do what that team is best at doing? EA, Activision, etc can still be around to publish games but there could be more flexibility in the teams that are put together if you went away from the publisher-owned developer system that we have now.

Thats just the Japanese studio system. There traditionally were no studios, just directors who put a temporary team out of the company's employees. That's where the whole 'Team Silent' thing broke down... everyone but the leads (and even then) were in flux.
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Posted by sins_of_mosin

The PS2 was the trash era. It had so much trash that garbage collectors charged a special tax because so much trash built up during that time. Right now, we are in the spoiled era. We have a lot of top quality games that come out nearly every month and in some months there are several games that are a must play. We bitch and moan about every little stupid thing because if that dev didn't make another game, who cares we got another one who will make a game that will replace it anyway. Hollywood has its own set of issues so comparing the video game industry to them is just wrong to me.

Posted by The_Tolman

Money, money, money, money..... Mmmmoooooooonnnnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyy!

Posted by Scrawnto

@jmood88 said:

Guillermo Del Toro talked about this in an interview with Ken Levine and I've been thinking about this ever since I heard him make the comparison. Would it make a huge difference if it was a game directed by Casey Hudson, for example, and the team he decided to get together to make something specific rather than what we have now with (for the most part) static teams that try to do what that team is best at doing? EA, Activision, etc can still be around to publish games but there could be more flexibility in the teams that are put together if you went away from the publisher-owned developer system that we have now.

In a significant way, that already happens, and I think it will happen more and more as the industry matures.

Large numbers of people are hired on a contract basis for single projects even in AAA game development.

Indie developers often provide a more direct comparison. Look at Super Meat Boy and the Binding of Isaac. There are a number of people who don't even realize that those games were programmed and designed by different people. They weren't from the same 'studio'. They just share an artist and composer. There are a number of sort-of ad hoc teams out there that get together for a specific game. Unsurprisingly, almost every mod team works like that too. Those guys are volunteers, after all.

There's also the example of Chris Avellone from Obsidian working on inXile's Wasteland 2.

Finally, it's a bit of an odd case, but the internal structure, or lack thereof, of Valve is sort of like this. The internal teams get together to make a certain game, and then they break off again.

Anyway, I'm rambling.

Posted by Little_Socrates

Maybe I'm missing something, but haven't we moved back to the studio system? I feel like I see Skywalker Sound, IL&M, Sony Imageworks, or some other studio credited for special effects, audio mixing, sound effects, sound editing, and the like after almost any film. The idea that the auteurs "won" against the big-budget studios is kind of absurd when you consider that the two had become one and the same by the 1980's. The moment an indie auteur writer or director makes a movie worth noticing, he gets picked up and starts producing films at much higher budgets. This is still true today, with Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Peter Jackson all getting smaller starts before becoming the major big-budget directors they are today.

Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Richard Garriott, and the other early development all-stars worked on games that were practically indie titles for years and years, while Capcom, Nintendo, and Square-Enix produced epics like Mega Man, the Street Fighter II franchise, The Legend of Zelda franchise, the Final Fantasy empire, and Chrono Trigger. I'd argue that we're in a similar point to the 1980's, where the auteurs making smaller games now get all the budget in the world to make true epics. Well, except Tim Schafer, I guess, but who's counting?

So, in a nutshell, no, I don't think the studios will "fall" in any serious sense. Beyond the statement that studios are still definitely a large part of how we build games today, having another studio develop art assets, sound effects, and animations is too useful to not utilize. Games, as an essential part of their programming, simply need to be rendered as a reality that can be interacted with. While it is feasible to create these assets in-house (and, obviously, sometimes very effective, as DICE showed us with Battlefield 3) it's usually not more cost-effective to do so. Licensing an engine, or an asset catalogue, or an animation catalogue, is just too useful to pass up on. So, if nothing else, those layers of studios will still exist.

Posted by Dtat

@Little_Socrates: That's a good point. We've already seen a revival of the movie studio system in a way. It was a temporary ousting of the business that was necessary for auteurs to gain a foothold in culture. Maybe we'll skip over the step of a major collapse, and go right to the situation the movie industry is in now: big companies making big movies, and smaller indie filmmakers making their passion-projects.

I don't think that "true epics" is an accurate description of the kind of games indie devs make with larger budgets though.