Author Archives: Uriah

The Rise of the Small Production Team?

This week on Gamasutra, Stephen Ford’s article has garnered a fair bit of coverage. Is there something wrong with how business is being conducted in the gaming industry? Perhaps. That said, there are a great many companies doing fantastic business and reliably turning out quality products while increasing profits year-on-year. Regardless of any talk of problems needing correcting, Ford puts forward the idea of small production companies dominating the gaming industry in the future. What he’s suggesting, in essence, is that the games industry should adopt the production model that the film industry currently uses, especially as the average AAA game budget increasingly resembles the average blockbuster film budget.

Let’s take a look at the parallels between his model of game development and the film production model he’s basing it on: say we’re a film production company and we want to make a big comic book movie from an IP that we’ve optioned. So simulatenously now, we’re gonna start making the rounds of the different studios and see about finding one who’s willing to give us the money, we’re hiring a screenwriter to write the script, and we’re bringing on board a director and possibly casting the lead roles, simultaneously negotiating all of the contracts with all of those people. That’s the early stages, the make or break stuff. Boom, we’ve got one studio that’s willing to give us the money, and we found a director and big name to star. Let’s say the director also has a character artist he wants to help shape the look and feel of the film, plus an editor and cinematographer he likes to work with, so in this case we don’t need to find those people. So now we can really get into pre-production, scouting locations as we get our casting director on board (we probably use the same one or two over and over again), and hire the special effects company that we want to use, arrange the rental of all our equipment (possibly from the studio that has given us the money, possibly from one of the many other places in town that do such things, perhaps from several such companies), hire all of our production assistants, assistant directors, set dressers, grips, lighting board ops, sound guys, makeup artists, art assistants and all the rest, arrange transportation and housing and food for everyone, and THEN we can start production.

That’s a lot of fuss, a whole lot of negotiations, and a whole lot of places things can go wrong. Film production is a massive undertaking, even for a modest budget. It’s super expensive, because all those people are contractors. It requires knowing just about everybody in town, and the town’s pretty much gotta be LA or New York. So why is that a good idea?

It all comes down to due diligence. For every step of the way, you want to have the very best people you can possibly hire in each role, and you need to be able to fire them instantaneously if they drop the ball in any way. With a good reputation, you’re golden and you can get work into old age if you can keep up, and make LOTS of money in the process. That’s why LA is so notoriously networked. It’s all about who you know and what you’ve worked on, because as your reputation as a producer improves, so does the quality of people who want to work with you, and the more likely it’ll be for the studios to give you big piles of money. The film industry is one with vastly more people looking for work than actual work, and the production house system lets the cream rise to the top, in theory at least. While it seems like it would be cheaper to have everything under one house, it’s important to note that the film industry adopted the production house model to reduce overhead as well as risk while improving the quality of the films produced. Despite my significant dissatisfaction with most of the pablum produced by the film industry, after looking at the stuff made in the 60s and 70s, I’d have to say it’s been largely a good choice. The competitive pressures of the production house model help to ensure that the best managers are in control of most of the money in the industry.

Is the film industry the same as the game industry? No. The process of building a game is a different thing, with its own unique goals and challenges. But can the game industry use the business model utilized by the film industry? Absolutely. The increasing use of outsourcing makes it increasingly possible. As specialized companies rise up to provide the very best quality available in their specialty at a price comparable to doing it yourselves in-house with no worries of overhead, then we will of course see the small production company rise in popularity within the game industry. I don’t think that the studio model will be supplanted, but I do believe that once a major hit of the Half-Life or World of Warcraft variety is produced via this method, we will rapidly see a vast shift, specifically with regards to expansion of the industry. Starting a development house these days is a daunting task. Smaller companies committed to doing one thing perfectly just makes good business sense. The small production team is the natural outgrowth of that market trend. It’s sure not going to happen overnight, but we will see it happen.

What’s Up, Sony?

I hear a lot of talk about how Sony is trying to win ‘the HD format war’. At this point in the game it seems that there will be no winner. VHS was a poor technology that had long outlived its usefulness, and DVDs are vast improvements over VHS tapes. Having a DVD player is downright obvious at this point. But who needs either an HD-DVD or BluRay player? Other than audiophiles with $10,000+ home theatres, do you know anyone who feels that DVDs are in any way inadequate? There seems to be this assumption that one of the two will be crowned king of the movie market and the public will en masse gather behind the new king and stop buying DVDs. See, that’s just crap analysis. The only thing HD-DVD or BluRay has over DVD is higher expense, better picture, and more onerous copy-protection. DVD over VHS has chapter select, extras, better picture, similar cost and a smaller form factor and even then it took five years before the market had predominantly switched to DVD. So hear me now. Both HD-DVD and BluRay are doomed to obscurity, right alongside laser disc, mini disc, SACD, dvd-audio, and all the rest of the formats that weren’t vast improvements over the previous generation.

Five years from now they’ll put HD video on something like a minidisc and then that might become popular if readers and writers are cheap enough and the format natively supports both rewriting for data and DRM lockdown for the studio-produced discs. Plays on your 10th generation iPod (with 20 hr life playing hd video) or pop it into your Xbox 4ever and play away. But this? This is not a winning product. Neither HD-DVD nor BluRay has much over previous technology, and so both will rapidly fade into memory, just as UMP already has.

Sony is banking a lot on the notion of BluRay winning massive public support and becoming a de-facto standard. But it’s simply not feasible. In other words, they’re going down. They’ll bring in a butcher as the new CEO in a couple years who will pare everything down to their core profit centers. We may or may not see a PS4. Already Sony is shifting gears to a Japan-centric stance in the console war, regrouping to focus on the one market they know they can win. But can they? Nintendo is huge in Japan, and the DS is the clear winner over the PSP when it comes to both market share and profits. Sony may make good money with the PSP in Japan, but Nintendo is especially poised to dominate the video game market of Japan right now (as well as the world at large, to be honest). Half the cost counts for a lot in Japan’s dull economy, not to mention Nintendo’s efforts to expand the video game market past the hardcore Famitsu-reading fans will likely reap huge windfalls of new players. Sony will make good profits and push many units out the door, but in terms of market share they stand to lose in this generation.

The fate of Sony hinges primarily on the Cell processor coming down in price, up in yields, and being used across the brand for the next decade. While they are weak now, if Sony can push through the rough spot without falling down, and get even one major consumer electronics hit on their hands based on that new tech, then they could well see the land of rising profits once again. The PS3 may or may not become profitable in the US market– at this point it’s a crap shoot. But we do know that Sony’s dominace is over– they will have to play much better than they have in the past or they may be forced to walk Sega’s unenviable path. The PS3 may be Sony’s Saturn. I do believe that they could well rise again to the global market dominance they have enjoyed up until now, but it will most assuredly be a long, dangerous road for the corporate behemoth.

Creating our Citizen Kane

Recently, Chris Crawford has been making waves by claiming that games are dead at the hands of an industry that has forgotten how to innovate. I certainly wouldn’t make so bold a claim as that– Alyx in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 demonstrates a remarkable piece of advancement in characterization, artificial intelligence, and narrotological methodolgy. His own Storytronics project, from my understanding of it, represents a particularly potent potential for innovation in storytelling within the medium of video games. On the level of pure design, Will Wright’s Spore represents huge leaps in applied computer science, just as The Sims expanded the very boundaries of gaming. Meanwhile you’ve got Guitar Hero proving that a unique controller can make all the difference in the world, and still there’s Katamari making perfectly clear whether voice acting and realistic graphics are universally important or not, and even within the realm of realism, Crysis has within it the closest thing to a living jungle ever seen in a game.

Clearly innovation still abounds. Though we aren’t seeing completely unique concepts of play exploding into one new genre after another, I think it would be foolhardy to conclude that we are therefore at the end of the road for gameplay concepts. Please remember, folks, that film as a medium existed for nearly half a century before Citizen Kane, and it was realistically 50 years before they came up with most of the technology still used today. Comic books were popular for 50 years before The Watchmen . Painting has been around for 10,000 years or more, and only in the last hundred years has there been a Picasso.

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The Next Generation Industry

GDC is behind us now. We’ve all heard so much talk about the future of video games that it’s beginning to frazzle and run together. So many things, new developments and new ideas and new technology, all in the milieu of rapid political and social change. The idea of predicting the future seem hairy at best. There’s all these factors at work here, and somehow they’ll play off each other. So what are some of the issues and developing trends we’re facing?

We’ve heard many words about procedural game design, player-created content populating the massive environments. There’s that group of people off shouting about middleware and open source gaming cutting the costs that everyone says is gonna blow open with the next generation. Meanwhile, there’s real good reason to look at unionizing the big publishers, but that’s just gonna blow the costs up even more. At least unionization would create some real financial incentives for a growing independant games industry. Next thing you know you’re not a “real” gamer unless you eschew everything from EA “because it’s over-produced crap” and the “artistry” is entirely to be found in indie games. Indie gamers start thinking of GameSpot what indie rockers think of MTV– something for the uninformed masses. Maybe GameSpot is smart enough to capture the zeitgeist and they’ll have an “indie” subsite, maybe not. Regardless, the split between casual and hardcore gamers has already begun. A few years ago, you could reasonably purchase every truly fantastic game, and lots of us did. Yeah, myself included. That is no longer a possibility. You couldn’t play them all. You probably can’t afford to play them all. We’ve got a situation where people are increasingly having to decide where to put their money.

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