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September 15, 2005

Art and Product, Creators and Consumers

My Life as a Fake

Peter Carey's very absorbing My Life as a Fake is a really extraordinary update of the tale of Frankenstein. In this modern retelling, the monster is born of some literary tomfoolery when a middling poet named Christopher Chubb creates a literary hoax: a fictional poet by the name of Bob McCorkle, who composes amazingly literary and allusive poetry despite his (faked) background as an apparently uneducated bicyle mechanic. After an apparent suicide by the magazine editor who was the target of the hoax, Chubb discovers that his creation has become real, and much of the novel unravels the mystery of the creation and the interplay between the created and the creator.

Much of the novel contains twists on the original story which became almost instantly a sort of myth¹; I don't want to go into them in any great detail, but they drive the plot forward inexorably. Bob McCorkle is a monster driven by a desire to fill the holes that are in his backstory -- he has all these tremendous ideas and a remarkable gift for poetry, but it can take him a good time to identify the use of simple implements like rakes or hoes or what have you. For in creating Bob McCorkle, Chubb didn't give him a full childhood, merely the barest outlines of one, and Bob made flesh feels the gaps as great pains in his soul. He is a consummately understandable monster; in the light of his lacks, he is pitiable, though we can still despise his actions.

It's a really great read, though perhaps not as good as The True History of the Kelly Gang, which I would recommend first.

I've been thinking about the book a lot lately in preparation for posting about it, and I had settled on a sort of generic discussion of the relationship of a creator to his creation and drawing parallels and differences with books (single author) to films (a collaboration of a few artists with a large support staff) to games (a collaboration of several artists in different disciplines). But then someone else out in the blogosphere provided me with just the little jolt I needed to cement my thinking.

The thing about the games industry these days is that while it is increasingly mainstream, it hasn't yet reached the kinds of numbers where we can regularly pair high production costs and quality with risky or quirky themes and designs. While every now and again someone comes out and says how games have hit the mainstream because our business has surpassed the box office in terms of revenue, it's an oversimplification. While the business has grown dramatically since the rise of the current generation of consoles, we're still reaching out to a much smaller audience than films, because movie tickets cost about a fifth of the cost of a top game and DVDs aren't even factored into the film revenues we're usually compared against. Nor are international box office nor international DVD sales; really, it's gone beyond apples and oranges to be apples and orange groves. We are still dwarfed by the collective market of film.

(Incidentally, I take all of the above more or less as read -- I don't think I'm really saying anything particularly new or interesting, but it's a first step in my thinking on the issue and thus I share it with all of you.)

At this point, then, high-expense, high-profile games are products. While there will always be the surprises that break out and do something interesting in the marketplace², most of what we do is all about making a good product that gives players a dose of good fun in a way with which they're already pretty familiar. That is, if we want to tap into the mainstream and deliver a really gigantic hit. And particularly if we want to do it year after year, which is the model that Electronic Arts has used to make itself the first 2 billion dollar company in the business.

Part of what sparked my thinking about this was a post I saw in another blog. The blogger, a designer by trade, was admonishing an NFL football player who had spoken out and complained that in adding some new feature to the latest Madden the game had gotten harder and less fun. His response was something along the lines of, "Well, buddy, you do your job and I'll do mine."

Frankly, I was pretty astounded. I was taken aback, because that customer wasn't having fun. And that customer had even gone so far as to think about why he wasn't having as much fun. And that customer was summarily dismissed, as if the designer knew better whether the customer was actually having fun.³

When I was developing games at LucasArts, I had the good fortune to work with a director/lead designer who took entirely the other approach: he actively solicited as much feedback about the play as he could, from the team, from test, and from blind testers. He went out of his way to train people to sit and watch blind testers, to teach them to ask open-ended questions about what they were seeing, what kind of notes to take. Not only that, of course, but he took that feedback very seriously, even if it went against his own sensibilities.4 His feeling was that we need all the feedback we can possibly get; in development, we play our game so many more hours than any customer ever will, and we no longer have any idea by the time it ships if it's really any fun. We can only sort of judge that it's probably more fun than it was before we polished this or that feature, or before we balanced this or that stat. He got it, in my view.

Because what we're peddling is fun5, especially to the mass-market that is most of our business these days, given our budgets. We sell a product in a fairly narrow space, compared to novels or movies. We deliver fun, not even the more general "entertainment". We occasionally sell fear, horror, suspense, but in the safe way rollercoaster rides do -- as good, safe, sitting-down fun.

This is a little different from what books or movies can offer. The economies of scale there are enormous -- so a director can create something that more than 99% of the viewing public won't really like or get, and still find an audience and even receive critical acclaim.6 A lot of my friends probably wouldn't enjoy a book like My Life as a Fake, but it's still viable, Peter Carey is off making a living at it, capturing a vastly small percentage of the market, certainly less than 1% of people who buy books7. Imagine if we took a 12 million dollar game with 8 million bucks of marketing8 -- at 10 bucks a pop for the publisher, hitting less than 1% of the 100 million PlayStation market means a loss of more than 10 million dollars9. Ugh. With movies and its multiple revenue streams, it's closer to books in terms of cost to break-even numbers, though it's probably not exactly the same. That's why both these media can afford to deliver such a wide variety of types of entertainments, including presenting extremely difficult material.

We need to be honest about what we're delivering at this point in our development. And frankly, we need to be thankful for any feedback we can get, and do everything we can to get more of it. Because right now, there aren't enough people playing for us to scoff. Right now, our players are just as much the authors of the experience as we are -- they're the ones who ultimately need to have the fun, since that's all we offer them, all we can afford to offer them at this stage in our development. If you think you can afford to dismiss that, I suggest you find another line of work -- at least, until our market is really larger than the movies, in terms of actual people buying games, and not the revenue they generate.



¹Frankenstein is, of course, very well worth reading, not for nothing is it a classic. My recollection of it is of it being less about horror and more about the relationship of the good Dr. von Frankenstein with his creation -- the responsibility that the creature comes to believe Frankenstein owes him. Very compelling.
²Yup, Katamari Damacy, The Sims; in my view, these are analogous to film surprise successes like The Blair Witch Project or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
³I should note at this point that I don't believe the designer in question was in any way responsible for Madden. But I think the point still stands, because the author himself identifies himself as part of the brotherhood of game designers.
4As lead programmer or the gameplay programmer on those projects, I'm proud to say I often got in his face about that. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but we always had great arguments about design. In the end, I hope the players won, regardless of which of us drove the design in those particular cases.
5Yes, this is another blatant plug for the sort of game I'd really like you all to go out and buy, please.
6To judge by the ridiculously small sample size of the folks I saw it with, Broken Flowers was such a movie.
7Of course, the install base of people who could buy books is enormously large. The hardware requirements are essentially a pair of eyeballs; while economics are a factor, they aren't a huge factor, since libraries buy up a substantial number of copies to boot.
8These seem like reasonable numbers to me, given the next generation hardware; the marketing budget comes out of what I guess you'd want to spend to ensure your very big bet.
9The PS2 may not have hit these numbers yet, I'm not really sure. The PS1 certainly did. But the math stands -- I'm certain that the PS2 market is more than 50 million worldwide, which means that 1% of the market is break-even on a $20M title.10
10That said, budgets on current PS2 titles haven't quite hit that number, but they're not that far off, really. Next gen economics don't make a lot of sense unless the attach rate11 is very high or the hardware sales go through the roof.
11Attach rate means the number of people who have the hardware actually buy the game.12
12I believe I have now crushed any personal best as far as number of footnotes for a single article goes. In addition, I've also added footnotes to footnotes, which is a Wallace-ian condition I never aspired to attain. :)

Posted by Brett Douville at September 15, 2005 11:16 PM

Comments

That's an interesting thought progression, from an artist's personal relationship with their work to their relationship with their audience.

Instead of rambling about it here, I'll probably post something, just as soon as my thought cement sets. In general, though, I think you're right about listening to audience feedback during game design. Too often, the audience is discounted as a valid participant in the process and I think that's self defeating. After all, the audience are the ones who interpret our messages and let us know how far we've strayed from our mark.

Pater Carey's (incidently, my favorite author) novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, trumps True Story of the Kelly Gang. I also really enjoyed Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Tax Inspector, a position I hold onto in a somewhat lonely space.

Posted by: Corvus at September 16, 2005 07:15 AM

I think Damion's "You do your job I'll do mine" comment was tongue-in-cheek. I thought it was pretty funny - as you say, it's very important to be receptive to feedback, maybe with games more so than other media for more reasons than just market incentives. (If you create a game and nobody plays it does it exist? - I'd argue it has less, um, existence than an unread novel or unwatched movie because it's hard to separate the rules of the game from the play of the game. How's that for some muddy thinking.) - BUT, damn it, when I make a game I want it to be MINE, I want MY IDEAS to go in, and listening to all that wanking gets TIRING! I realize that's the wrongheaded demon part of me but it exists and likes to blow off a little anti-player steam every now and then.

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at September 16, 2005 01:55 PM

Yeah, I realized that it could be construed as tongue-in-cheek, which is why I didn't call out who wrote it or link to it or anything. I don't bear Damion any ill will. So, um, thanks for pointing him out ;)

That said, I have come across that attitude in designers (sometimes more up-close and personally than I'd like), the "I know better than you do when you're having fun" syndrome, and I think it's to be avoided at all costs, for the reasons I talk about above.

I'm not sure what I think about the difference between and unplayed game and an unread novel or unseen film. I think that the participation of your audience is what gives your game life, but I also feel that way about a book. Among other things, books are a way of connecting people to ideas; if the idea exists elsewhere, people still connect to it, and therefore the idea persists. As you say, the rules of the game have little independent existence outside of the play of the game -- but those rules can similarly exist elsewhere in concert with play. That's what makes clones so ephemeral -- it doesn't really matter if people play them, since they've been played already. They bring nothing new to the table.

Corvus: Yeah, Carey is becoming one of my favorites as well. I caught on to him after reading a review of My Life as a Fake and am planning on reading others, once I get through the dozen or so books on my short-term reading list. I'll go add those to my Powell's wish list now.

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 16, 2005 03:01 PM

Oh, and furthermore, Jamie, it's not necessarily that your game ideas shouldn't go in, I'm not saying that at all. We had a lot of game ideas in RC that shipped in the game that simply needed better support to communicate what was going on.

For example, having a squad guy use the sniper rifle was something we really wanted -- but the first incarnation of it wasn't fun. It wasn't fun because you'd be rushing over to shoot a guy and he'd just fall over dead, without you doing anything to him; or worse, you couldn't often connect the squad member on a snipe marker with the deaths you would be seeing. We got that feedback from blind testers, and we tackled the problem.

We added the tracer effect that shipped with the game, and suddenly, it was "Wow, my guys are supporting me from back there, I'm really glad I put one on that snipe marker". All players needed was a little more feedback and suddenly an idea that was a good one was also a fun one.

So, I guess I'd say don't be anti-player -- just look at the player's problems as challenges, *knowing* they can be overcome. Often they can be, while still preserving the underlying idea. Sometimes, though, that idea's just got to go -- and thank the stars that it went before it got out on the shelves.

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 16, 2005 03:12 PM