In an interview with Digifest speaker Jason Della Rocca, co-founder of Execution Labs, Digifest blogger Marcello Ferrara asks about the current state of game development. The highlights of their conversation are below.
Q: What do you think is a serious misconception about game development?
That’s a good question – it really depends, if you ask an average person on the street, hey how are games made? They will have no clue.
Q: But what about the ‘average’ gamer?
I think ‘gamers’ are probably a little bit knowledgeable – ok there’s some artists, some programmers, and some designers coming up with ideas and they all put it together, and here’s this, you know, game. I don’t think people really understand how games are made. There’s just not as much awareness as, let’s say, movies. They’ll have better sense of it: oh you write a script, there’s a director, etc. They’ll probably miss certain points about costume design, all those little details, but they’ll have an overarching idea.
Q: Do you think that’s a problem with the industry not being transparent as others or not as popular?
I mean arguably games are as popular from a consumer consumption point of view. It’s different because it’s less human: in movies you see actors on screen, there’s just more awareness of the humanity behind it and I don’t think you have that as much in the game industry because we’re not on the screen. You don’t have television shows about where we go for dinner and vacation.
But that might change or will change as game creation becomes more mundane, the same way that taking a video of yourself and posting it was unimaginable even just a few years ago, whereas now everybody can be an amateur movie-maker or writer. If you went back several hundred years, and asked an average medieval person, how is a book made? I don’t know, there’s monks and they chant! Whereas now everyone opens up Word and starts writing.
So I think ‘in the future’ when anyone can say, oh I have an idea for something that’s a playful system, let me open up Game and I’ll just say new game and type up my ideas – then it will change.
Q: What do you think of about the current state of the Canadian game industry?
The game industry in Canada is quite robust. It has a very, very good reputation worldwide. We are known to make top-quality, critically acclaimed games. On the whole, I would say we’re doing extremely well and we’re well positioned globally. Historically, Canada has been more weighted toward the triple-A, big budget console games. And so there’s a bit of a rocky-road on the transition to new platforms and mobile devices and free-to-play business models. But that’s a rocky-road for everyone to migrate towards, so we’re still dealing with the challenges of that transition.
Q: You mentioned in your talk that you encountered a professor that didn’t know how to grade innovation. What about the current way we teach game development that you think could be improved?
We’re still in a world where most game designers have not been formally taught. The notion of a game design degree program is relatively new, probably from the turn of the century. I mean, now, of course, it’s much more prevalent.
I think the question of innovation is – what area of you innovating in? If I think of games, I tend to think of it through four different lenses: one is the technology, one is design, one is the aesthetic element, and one is the business side. We often talk about technological innovation – Playstation has this many chips and memory and speed, the next IPhone has x, y, and z new features! – we’re so comfortable talking about technological innovation, but the other areas less so. In fact, on the business side, there has been a tremendous amount of innovation from business models and monetization. Like massive. Like billions of dollars worth of value creation has come from business innovation in the game industry. On the design and artistic front, we often don’t articulate or identify what is gameplay innovation or what is cultural innovation.
Q: Why is the business end able to innovate far more than the ‘creative’?
I think what we see are certain companies building momentum on the rules of the games today. They optimize how to succeed. If you look at Electronic Arts (EA), they’ve dominated the retail channel, getting all their games on the shelves at Walmart and Best Buy.
Now things are getting digital, and those distribution channels become meaningless. You have new companies that come out of nowhere to innovate based on the new rules. Because games are so dynamic – and I don’t wanna say easy to produce – but if you put a bunch of artists and programmers and designers together and make a game, you can reconfigure the economic, business side of things relatively easily. So while EA is worried about shipping boxes to warehouses, you’re Rovio, with seven guys, saying, oh, this iPhone is coming out, let’s put our game on there – whereas EA would say, what the hell do I wanna put my game on a phone? Leave me alone, I’m busy shipping a million units to Best Buy.
Q: Do you see new revenue streams such as Patreon or Kickstarter as a potential sustainable source of revenue for independent artists?
Kickstarter has been revolutionary for games, really starting with Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s efforts. If you look at something like Star Citizen, they’re up to seventy or eighty million dollars. It opens the door to a whole different type of relationship between developers and fans – I think it’s challenging in that there’s no guarantee. It requires well-seasoned developers to leverage that platform. If you’re some bozo, and you think, I got a game idea, I’ll put it on Kickstarter and get a million dollars – it just doesn’t happen. You have to be so coordinated and organized and aggressive in terms of how you communicate. It’s hard work. Your job is the Kickstarter. For those who can coordinate themselves and have that tenacity, then it’s a very powerful tool, but I mean for everyone funded there’s another fifty that die on roadside.
Q: Given the recent madness with paid mods on steam, if Gabe Newell asked you, “Jason, what did we do wrong?” What would you say to him?
Yeah, they were too greedy. I think in places where you’re doing community driven stuff like mods, you have to be community minded. You have to look like you’re serving the users and not taking such a big cut. I mean, admittedly, I haven’t read the details, but I’m surprised that the splits would have been aggressive in favour of the companies. I think flipping it – Valve and Bethesda taking less of a cut – would have avoided a backlash, but the IP stuff is very tricky. Mods in many ways are meant to be labours of love, and they’re also combinatorial in that I grab your stuff and build something and then you grab my stuff, etc. But now, how do you divvy up the share if I built on your stuff, which is built on his stuff, which is built on her stuff, etc.? You see similar problems in the open source community.
Q: How do people in the AAA industry view the modding community?
Depends on who you talk to. If you go to someone like Id Software – they essentially pioneered the notion of mods – they’d probably see it as extremely valuable. For many games it’s a way to extend the lifetime of the game, keep players engaged, to leverage that subset of fans with amateur development skills. It’s also a pipeline for talent. If you look at Epic, Bethesda, Gearbox, they’ll go and hire some of the best modders. It’s like a proving ground for talent. Of course, not every game has modding capabilities or even makes sense for mods, so it’s not prevalent across all games, but I think on the whole it’s viewed as something very positive, very useful, and very valuable.
Q: Last year there were a number of big named releases that botched their launches – server issues, bugs, glitches – how does this happen and why do these companies release incomplete games?
Yeah, it would be fun if we were in the boardrooms of those companies to hear the conversations they were having. The challenge is that a lot of these companies are large, multinationals that report to shareholders. They have the stock markets watching them. There are certain timings that make it necessary: we have to get the game out by this date so it’s counted in this quarter. You can imagine they’re sitting in the boardroom saying, we have to get it out by this date, but we know it’s buggy – who knows. Because everything’s connected, they’re always the temptation, ah, we’ll patch it. It’s not like it used to be where you put it out and done.
Q: Why is video game marketing often better at engaging emotions than the actual game?
That’s a really good question – the best answer I can think of is that the advertising is made by ad agencies that have been doing this for decades. They know exactly how to pull all your strings and play with your emotions and deal with the human psyche, and they’re way more talented than we are as game designers. Or the medium allows for a different level of engagement.
That was a great commercial – the Gears of War – it was super potent: every moment was controlled and authored as drugs for your brain, whereas a game is much more loose, much more open, systemic, with all the variables in play, the user controlling the experience. It’s much more difficult in a long form interactive experience to really manage those emotions. The people in advertising have been playing with our emotions for a hundred years, whereas we in many ways are still figuring it out.
Q: What do you think it says about the time and culture of video games today that toxicity has become so excessive and aggressive?
That’s a tough one – on one hand the game industry is more diverse, both terms of who the creators are and what’s being produced, it’s more diverse than it’s ever been. You have mainstream blockbuster content, small studio production, punk-rocker type indie designers that are just making creative stuff for free. The creative and expressive power of games has never been more evident than before. I think what’s happening to a certain extent is that opening up of the art form comes into conflict with the historical norms of what game culture and game geeks were – the male dominated, shoot everything – the male power fantasy type experiences. You have that culture of the male power fantasy colliding with the much more expressive, open and diverse power of games. I think the old school feels threatened, like they’re losing what’s ‘special’ about games to them.
To look at the silver lining, it’s amazing that those conflicts are happening because it means the art form is evolving, flourishing and changing, expanding beyond what we could have ever imagined. But you do have that toxicity and trouble along the way. If it just remained this niche and nerdy subculture, that would be cause for concern more so than the fact that there’s conflict. As ironic as it may sound, I see that as positive thing, even though in the moment, of course, it’s extremely horrible and it sucks, but if you think of the long term trajectory of the medium, it’s a necessary step.