September 19, 2009
New Sidebar Follows/Fellows
Just a quick heads up. I don't much talk about my work in this space, because the blog was kind of a way of letting off steam about what I consume and not so much what I create.
In any case, it's shameful that I haven't previously directed folks to two blogs by friends of mine from Day 1 Studios, Kyle Wilson and Adrian Stone.
Kyle has published a number of articles about the architecture of Day 1's Despair Engine, the sorts of trade-offs that they make and why.
Adrian talks about engineering concerns, often with regards to graphics but also general architecture or performance issues. His latest two articles are particularly nice and involve suggestions you can start using today on your own code bases.
In any case, I knew from the time I spent interviewing with these two gentlemen¹ a few years back that I could learn a lot from them, and it was a large part of why I took the job. Anyone else can read their thoughts on coding for games without changing his place of employment.
September 15, 2009
Beating the Biggest
Over the last month or so, I've been wondering how industry executives are going to thank Bobby Kotick. Will there be extra fruitcake at Christmas this year? Perhaps an assortment of nuts? I mean, the CEO of the number one American publisher has been doing little else but telling his competitors how to beat him.
It started about a month ago with a report on Edge, which was quoting an Economist piece. Kotick told his interviewer that “Actually, people are happy with existing franchises, provided you innovate within them.”
This is not necessarily untrue. Indeed, Activision Blizzard posted a strong set of profits this past year, driven primarily by sequels (Guitar Hero N, Call of Duty), movie tie-ins (Wolverine, Transformers 2), and a little perennial money-printing machine called World of Warcraft. They had one significant new intellectual property in the same period with Prototype, which according to VGChartz has sold close to 1.5 million units.
Certainly, this is historically the time of a console lifecycle where one expects less new IP and more in the way of sequels and licenses. But console generations don't last forever, and a company who refuses to invest (even in a small way) in new creative ventures is bound to be unable to rise to the challenge quickly when the next generation comes around. If you leave certain muscles unexercised for long enough, they simply aren't going to pop right back into shape, it'll take time and more than a little bit of pain.
Lately I've been watching Star Trek: The Original Series with my kids; the first season is available to stream on Netflix so it's easy to put on for an episode here or there. The other night we watched This Side of Paradise in which the Enterprise arrives at a planet to rescue a colony there, only to discover the small colony in a perpetual social stasis (due to a plant's spores). In the years they've been there, they've accomplished none of their original research goals, and have lived in a sort of vapid contentment¹.
This is exactly the sort of world Bobby Kotick seems to envision for the games market; he's okay with the people already buying games being happy with the brands we have. In his world, there are only a relatively few people who complain.
This is unsustainable. Kotick should know better -- isn't the core of capitalism continual growth? Certainly, it's possible to grow in many ways -- acquisitions and mergers, for example, which has been Activision's modus operandi for years. But there's any number of ways to die off as well, and among these is complacency. After all, even mighty Rome fell² after it grew fat and complacent -- leaving room for the barbarians at the gate to invade.
In fact, even now people are beginning to get fatigued from current franchises. Jeff Vogel, over at The Bottom Feeder recently posted a discussion of his personal view of why the hey-day of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and other plastic instrument games are doomed. I don't know that they're doomed, but I haven't bought one in a while and I'm not likely to, even though Rock Band appeals. The novelty has worn off after a few titles, and it has been months since I've really picked it up, possibly even a year. I've enjoyed the games, but even if they innovate within the franchises, I'm not likely to come back. Certainly, according to VGChartz, while Guitar Hero: World Tour was pretty huge, the single-band issues haven't enjoyed nearly the same popularity.
This is only anecdotal. But I'm not solely a developer, I'm a hardcore gamer. I'm envisioning people like my neighbors, who will buy only a couple of games, but for whom something has to be fairly special for them to pick up. They don't need copies of the same games over and over. They're happy with just one plastic instrument game, if that. They won't go out and buy every copy of Call of Duty that comes out. They'll just get weary of the same old thing.
And not long after I was reading Kotick's puzzling statement, I encountered Leigh Alexander's discussion with various designers about creative bankruptcy in games. Kind of goes hand-in-hand, doesn't it?
Finally, just over the last few days, new reports of interesting statements by Kotick have come to light. Trying to instill "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" into a company culture doesn't sound like a place where I want to make games. Over the long term, in that environment, people will be unable to take the risks that will allow them to deliver the quality of games that will be needed to grow the business. We can only hope that Kotick's approach, directing the largest American publisher as he does, won't sour the market entirely.
Lately, Activision just sounds like it copied EA's old ways of doing business, while EA is trying to make something more out of itself, funding riskier projects, investing in new IPs, investing in new markets (via mobile and other divisions). It seems like EA grew up from the kind of company that Activision now is, whereas Activision now has a CEO who believes strongly that it's the best way to be. EA at the moment has Brütal Legend waiting in the wings, and Dragon Age, and they are working the Mass Effect franchise. Even my old employer is getting into the act, both in mining its back catalog to find experiences they can bring to new users (certainly, Monkey Island didn't reach nearly the audience it might have had it been released into a larger gaming culture), and using the new delivery methods to experiment, as with the recently announced Lucidity.
So, how do you beat Kotick, other CEOs? Just make an environment which rewards creativity and instills a positive outlook. Shouldn't be too hard. Wish him a Merry Christmas for me.
¹When I was in college I had one of those dorm room posters that read "Everything I Know I Learned From Star Trek". It's funny coming back to it after all these years and still enjoying it so much with my kids. (back)
²We haven't watched the Season 2 episode "Bread and Circuses" ;) (back)