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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.

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

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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.
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?

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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.
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+