Infinite Possibilities – Why the idea of the Auteur Game is Irrational
There’s been quite a bit of commotion in the wake of the announcement that Irrational Games, the development studio behind Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite, would be closing its doors and laying off its employees. The spotlight has primarily been directed at front-man and spokesperson Ken Levine, with people taking particular interest in his role in the shuttering of the studio, and his plans for the future. This is not surprising in itself considering the naïve paradigm of the “Auteur” game developer that still hangs over the industry. What is all the more surprising is how critical the perspectives of some of the articles on the web have been and that I, for once, am not the only one endeavoring to knock the halos off of people.
This gives me the luxury of taking on another role. I’m going to focus on the whole concept of these nebulous Auteurs who, rather than actual people are carefully constructed and altogether fake personae – a concept the Bioshock franchise explored at length, incidentally. Because even though the authors of some of these articles have made it quite clear that they understand that the games we all play and love are the products of teams of people, nobody has really explained in any satisfactory detail what this actually means in practice, from a development point of view, and in a language that even laypeople can understand. So I’m going to try to do that as best as I can. Because the industry’s many unsung development teams do not simply deserve token nods, or blanket admiration for that matter. They deserve to be taken seriously. They deserve that we make an effort. They deserve to be understood.
So let’s make a serious effort to understand what the team means to the game they are working on. But first a bit of housekeeping; we should start by establishing the mistaken assumptions we are trying to correct. Now, I’m sure there’s a bit of nuance involved here, but generally from what I’ve gathered over the years, the average gamer and games journalist thinks somewhere along these lines:
- Games are the brain children of one or, at the most, a handful of individuals. However, someone at the very top will always have autocratic say-so, so we can call this person the Auteur and the game “his” (and yeah, it’s usually a “he” – that part’s actually not incorrect).
- The Auteur tells his underlings what to do. It is mostly a one-way flow of information, and the quality of the team is measured by how well they manage to execute on the direction provided to them.
- Because of this strict demarcation, if the product is good then it’s because of the Auteur’s brilliance and the adequacy of the team. The team need only be good at doing what they are told. Glory goes to the Auteur; the team can at best not get in the way, and are basically interchangeable. They are the manual laborers of the games industry.
Now let me explain why all of this is absolute horseshit.
First, we need to establish what a game is before it is, in fact, a finished and playable product. In the terminology of the games industry, we generally talk of a “vision” and a primary “vision keeper” within the development team. This is the person principally responsible for having an image of the game in their heads, and then to ensure that the game is made. The scope of a vision may differ and depend on many factors, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just pretend that a vision keeper may have an idea for the game in its entirety in his or her head. The next step, then, is to make sure that the game happens, and that the vision is indeed the one that the vision keeper and the different key stakeholders (if applicable) have agreed on. Now, let’s illustrate what happens to that vision in a couple of different development scenarios.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s start by assuming we’re making a one-person indie game. In fact, let’s pretend that you’re the one making the game. The high-level process for the development may look something like in Figure A below:
As you will probably agree, this workflow feels a bit… excessive. I mean, it goes to and from the same person; there probably aren’t even explicit steps involved. And it’s true – I only offer it as a point of reference, because we need to establish a baseline before we discuss scaling.
One of the projects that I’m currently working on is indeed an indie game, and my workflow is kind of like the one above for most tasks. Except I totally suck as an artist, so I’ve decided to outsource most of the art-related tasks to a talented young lady over in the States. So in addition to the workflow above there is another workflow in parallel, for the art stuff. It kind of looks like the one in Figure B below:
As you can tell, Figure B is a bit more complicated than Figure A. It’s not all bad though. Let’s go through the most important steps. First, let’s say that the Results are not accepted, we can no longer just “redo them”. We have to establish what went wrong, and if fixing the delivered assets fits within the previously agreed “shit happens” buffer. But if the failure is mine, if the artist can sincerely prove that the mistake is on my head and the work must be scrapped and redone, I still have to pay. Now, there’s always negotiation in these situations. Sometimes one can split the difference. But the most important point to take from this is that if I make a mistake, it’s literally coming out of my pocket. Now, I could be a dick and stubbornly choose not to pay her for my mistake, but then I’ll quickly find myself without an artist and the project will grind to a halt. Either way, there’s a cost associated with it. And it’s really no different if the artist is in-house rather than freelance; the added time involved in redoing an asset is being paid for somehow (the details of this I’ll save for another post, I think).
Now let’s take a quick look at the other new step at the very end, called “has vision changed”. The thing is, you won’t always get what you asked for from the people you work with, even if it’s not outright “wrong”. If I could be a bit cheeky and borrow a bit from the Bioshock: Infinite vernacular, think of it in terms of “constants and variables”. The variables in this case are the things that you didn’t set in stone or define very clearly, and where the artist took the liberty to… be an artist. This is often a good thing, and it can make you want to change the overall vision for the better. Sometimes it’s of course more of a compromise, and the change to the vision is a concession (indeed, this can happen even when you’re the only one making the game, just because some things don’t always turn out like you expected them to for whatever reason). The “damage”, however, is very isolated in this specific case, because there’s just the two of you to consider.
Now imagine you had to consider about 50%, give or take, of these people:
Sure, we can discuss whether 50% is fair or not, but it doesn’t quite matter. We can look at this one instead, if you prefer:
The point is, for every content creator under your Auteur ass, you would have to repeat the workflow in Figure B if you wanted to retain anything even approaching the full creative control required for the amount of credit some of the supposed visionaries of the industry get for their work. Does anyone sincerely believe that this level of control would even be possible beyond a certain point? Maybe back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days that would’ve been possible, but with teams made of upwards of 1000 people, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for that degree of creative control to even exist.
At this point some of you are already thinking “Ah-hah! I can solve this! You just need to delegate! Have Art Directors and Design Directors and Technical Directors and whatnot.” And you’re right, that’s usually how it’s done. But when you say that, you’ve already made a very important concession: that the creative control of the game is, in fact, shared. Because all you’ve done is postpone the problem; now it’s up to other people to disseminate your vision to the team, and by extension to retain creative control of their area of responsibility. If you disagree with your new deputies, well, it sucks to be you, because you simply don’t have the bandwidth to do everything yourself – remember? Unless you have endless resources at your disposal, you basically have to accept the compromise, and the near infinite possibilities that result from it. The best you can do in this kind of scenario is to make sure that everyone understands the constraints; the vision and the core ideas behind the game, so that even if the final game is not what you would’ve originally wanted in every way, it may still be as good, or maybe even better. Anything else would be… irrational.
But I suppose you could just refuse to play nice. I mean, you could throw away whole, more or less finished parts of the game and have them be redone or replaced by something else on a whim. You could keep the game in a perpetually unfinished state that couldn’t possibly be sold on to consumers, forcing the publisher to endlessly delay the game until you’re happy with it, and/or eventually send in one or more people to overrule you and “close” the project. Indeed, they may take the game off your hands completely and give it to a different development studio (see Duke Nukem Forever, for one). But, see, this kind of behavior doesn’t really amount to anything other than arrogant self-indulgence. Throughout my years in the industry I’ve never seen anything that makes me think that this kind of obsessing over one’s own pet definitions of “quality” is worthwhile. Mostly it just ends up in a frustrated team of zombies who stop taking any initiatives for their own, as they feel that they will ever only miss the mark anyway. So they sit around, waiting to be told what to do. And voilà, there’s your bandwidth problem again.
Indeed, the argument could be made that if you have to go engage in these kinds of practices (and I’ve really only scratched the surface here), you are in fact demonstrably not a good Auteur, and the games most likely turn out well in spite of, not thanks to, you. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, working in this manner pushes the costs through the roof and make for some truly horrendous financial scenarios for your games. Sometimes the costs are high enough to doom the entire studio. Irrational Games wouldn’t be the first place where that’s happened, if that is indeed how it went down.
While we’re on the topic of the studio’s closure, Ken Levine’s “message” or press release or whatever you would call it, had some interesting bits in it. I especially found the following part interesting:
“When I first contemplated what I wanted to do, it became very clear to me that we were going to need a long period of design. Initially, I thought the only way to build this venture was with a classical startup model, a risk I was prepared to take. But when I talked to Take-Two about the idea, they convinced me that there was no better place to pursue this new chapter than within their walls.”
Now, there are several ways one could interpret this, and I don’t know for a fact what actually transpired. But from the information I do have, and my own experience with the industry, I’m going to allow myself to speculate a little:
1.) Ken approached Take-Two about making a new, risky, untried endeavor, still under the name of, and with the staff of, Irrational Games.
2.) Take-Two, looking at the development process behind their past projects with Ken, were skeptical.
3.) Ken threatened to leave and make the game himself. Possibly (probably, he’d be stupid not to) by securing funding from Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding avenue.
4.) Take-Two offered the compromise: “We’ll pay for the project, but seeing how you usually work and the development hell of Bioshock Infinite, we can’t afford to pay for anything other than a skeleton crew while the game is in R&D mode. Later, when the concept is proven, we can staff up again. Meanwhile, we can’t imagine this thoroughly broken team at Irrational making anything else, whether with or without you, so pick the ones you want from that team and then we shut the studio down”.
5.) Ken accepted.
Again, I’m speculating – but to me it feels likely in light of the facts. I don’t know Ken Levine at all, so I don’t know whether he’d have it in him. But I also don’t know that he wouldn’t. And the industry is full of people who have been put out to pasture, or otherwise rejected by the established games industry for being unprofessional, dishonest, arrogant dicks to work with, and who’ve been part of even more cynical dialogues than the fake one above. Many of them can be found on Kickstarter, peddling their crap to the idiots who still believe in the Auteur myth. Which leads us to one final question: why is this myth so damn persistent?
Well, there’s probably a lot to it. Just to list a few things, you should consider:
- People’s dislike for complex explanations. They’d rather accept a conspiracy theory that’s simple – twelve guys running the world from a smoky room – than a more complicated picture that they can’t get their heads around.
- The industry’s wilful latching on to the tendency above. Marketing-wise it makes sense to be able to attach one face, one spokesperson, to your games.
- People’s lack of understanding of how game development works leads them to believe it’s analogous to other things they have a better grasp of, like writing books or music or drawing comics.
So what’ll it take to end it? Well, that I don’t know. I mentioned Kickstarter before, and to be honest, I had hoped that the whole crowdfunding thing would bring with it a healthy dose of skepticism – especially once a few Hero-Auteurs failed at delivering what they’d promised. But the stupid is strong with many gamers, it seems, and many projects are still being funded on the backs of individuals that, for all we know, may never have deserved the admiration they got even when they were in their prime. But even if they did, I hope I’ve illustrated that what worked in the small teams of the 80’s and 90’s may not scale all that well to the teams of today.
Maybe it’s all just a question of time. Maybe all it takes is for a few more big-name developers to get put in a situation equivalent to that of George Lucas when he made episodes 1 through 3 of Star Wars. They could then proceed to show that they were only as good as the teams they surrounded themselves with. Maybe the industry and gamers in particular, could grow from that. Then maybe some of these Auteurs would stop believing their own bullshit, because some of them really do. Even some publishers, who should know better, seem to actually think there’s something to it. It’s funny when your fakery is so good you start to believe it yourself.
Whatever happens, it can’t happen soon enough. Especially for the poor developers who keep having to pay, one way or another, for our industry’s many failings. No, I don’t have a punchline here, no grand statement to end everything with and no silver bullet. I just want any ground floor developer who reads this, especially if they’ve been laid off from Irrational, to know that some of us see, and acknowledge your talent. We know that your contributions were great if the games were great – it had to have been. And if someone doesn’t understand that it was all thanks to you, then that’s on them, not you.
Fat consolation, I know. But it’s all I have right now.