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Killed at the Conference Table: Gaming's Balancing Act Between Art & Product

Games live in that hazy area between works of art and products to be sold. What happens to creativity in that gray area?

Video games, like any other form of entertainment media, often straddles the line between art and product. Some games exist as pure works of creative vision, while others are created only to sell to a potential customer.

Most games — especially the ones we tend to talk about in the gaming community — sit somewhere in between. Whether a single person, a small team, or a studio hundreds strong, most game developers pour their heart into making a creative work that will hopefully sell. As you move towards the larger studios, you find more push-and-pull within those teams, balancing the ideas they love with the ideas they know can sell.

This back-and-forth becomes more difficult when studios require external assistance. A studio in need of money and other resources turns to a publisher or partner studio. Development houses who want to work on established brands have to turn to the original licensor. To reach consumers, creators need help from marketing. Recently, many studios have turned to fans directly via crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Regardless of the route a developer chooses, each of these outside entities claims a stake in the success of the final game and each exerts its own form of pressure on the developer.

Fans tend to think of game development as a straight line from beginning to end. There's the idea or concept, and there's the team of developers that works on turning it into a finished product. In truth, development is a very iterative process. Great ideas may be created and developed yet ultimately cut because they don't work in the overall game. And sometimes, ideas or features end up on the cutting room floor because outside resources have offered advice or even used their stake in the product to force their own changes.

I've always been fascinated by the gray area between art and product. I'm interested to learn why ideas and concepts fall by the wayside: Whether it's due to developer choice, executive edict, or marketing influence. So, I asked a number of lead developers about the nature of creative vision within the industry and how their specific visions have been changed by various forces within and outside of internal development. Obsidian Entertainment creative director and co-founder Chris Avellone (formerly of Interplay), Hinterland Games creative director and co-founder Raphael van Lierop (formerly of Relic Entertainment and Ubisoft Montreal), and Carbine Studios art director Matt Mocarski were kind enough to talk to me.

Kill Your Darlings

All three developers have been involved with the industry for some time now, and all three have seen ideas and concepts fall by the wayside. During development of any game, the vision is constantly being compromised for various reasons.

"We wanted this group of female sky pirates as an enemy faction. We did a ton of concepts. They had a pink motif with striped socks and one of the girls had a tooth knocked out," answers Mocarski, whose studio just launched the MMO WildStar. "This was early in the development process and we were still finding our voice. Our Senior Producer disliked it and we reluctantly took it out."

Unique housing is one of the distinct features that make WildStar what it is.

"Funny thing is, I feel like we could easily get that into the present game. That's sometimes the trick with developing a new IP: everyone has their own idea in their head of what it should be. Knowing what I know now, I should have stuck to my guns, but sometimes you need to choose your battles. It's possible that because I agreed to pull the pirates that the Chua got approved as a player race. Who knows, maybe you'll see the pink pirates show up in a future patch!"

Van Lierop attempted to bring Far Cry and its sequels together in a single cohesive narrative. Unfortunately, he left Ubisoft Montreal in the early stages of Far Cry 3's development and the game took a different direction afterward.

"During the pre-production phase of Far Cry 3, I invested significant time in crafting a narrative direction and overall IP flavor that would reconcile all previous Far Cry games into a coherent setting and also set the tone for the new Far Cry game to carry on the mature aesthetic introduced in Far Cry 2, which was a fantastic game," he explains. "This work involved generating ideas for new settings, a new protagonist, and an overarching narrative framework for the franchise. After I left the development, Ubisoft decided to take the game in another direction, which is 100 percent appropriate but was still disappointing given the personal investment."

He believes that the final narrative for Far Cry 3 was "more mainstream-friendly" than his take, which was probably "the right call" for a game that had to recoup a larger investment due to issues in development. (Far Cry began pre-production in 2008, but didn't ship until November 2012.)

"I feel that the Far Cry franchise took a weird turn with Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon, and now has become synonymous with oddball antagonists and brash spin-offs," Van Lierop says of the series' current direction. "Perhaps this has made it a more profitable venture. In my case, I have no interest in playing Far Cry anymore."

Avellone offered the longest answer, noting various cuts and changes to games from Obsidian, Black Isle Studios, and Interplay. Examples included changes to Fallout back when it was intended to be based on the GURPS pen-and-paper game or the near-omission of global dialog for the companions in Planescape: Torment. For the latter example, Avellone explained that it looked like the team didn't have the infrastructure to support the idea; he credits former Black Isle Studios division director and current Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart and the localization team for making the vision ultimately work. He also mentioned a character idea shot down by the Dungeons & Dragons franchise holders during the development of Neverwinter Nights 2.

"Discriminating based on sexual preference seems backward now, a move that even the franchise holder has stepped back on."

Chris Avellone

"There was an attempt in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer to create a bisexual character, although that was not accepted by the franchise holders," says Avellone. "We made attempts to persuade them that we would handle it properly, but that was not a direction they wished to go. With the arrival of the next editions of D&D and Pathfinder, however, as well as the progress with romances from BioWare, I think this would be a moot discussion today, and for that, I'm grateful. Discriminating based on sexual preference seems backward now, a move that even the franchise holder has stepped back on."

According to Avellone, outside forces haven't dictated too much of the content of Obsidian's games, despite the fact that the studio has worked on franchises like Star Wars, Fallout, and South Park. Most cuts were due to publishers explicitly veto-ing certain additions, like power armor prototypes and Forced Evolutionary Virus variations in Fallout: New Vegas' DLC, Old World Blues.

"LucasArts were comfortable with the story in Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (they had six comments on it), and when it came to Fallout: New Vegas, there was little we weren't allowed to do, but I credit the smooth discussions there because the publishers understood empowerment, and our development teams had shown evidence that we understood the franchise we were designing for," he adds.

Balancing Creative Vision in Commercial Art

The community talks about video games in an odd way because there's so much wrapped up in development. Aesthetics (how it looks), narrative (what story is being told), and mechanics (how it plays) come together in a collective whole, with the input of hundreds of individuals in our biggest titles. Some players approach games from an aesthetic or narrative perspective, while others focus purely on the mechanics. Our forums and comment sections are full of passionate gamers talking at each other from these different perspectives. When fans enjoy something they talk about "creative vision"; when they want it to change, it's a product they paid for.

These discussions are so difficult because most games are commercial art. They are creative products meant to be sold. The art runs the risk of being compromised trying to improve the chances of selling a final product. It's a constant balancing act that developers have to keep in mind. For Van Lierop, the side you favor as a developer tends to come down to who holds the purse strings.

The Long Dark pits one lone pilot against the Northern Wilderness.

"Balance becomes harder to strike the more of someone else's money you have to spend to deliver your 'vision'. The artist who wants to purely pursue their vision, commercial realities be damned, has to be willing to have their work sit in an empty room, unseen," he tells me. "For me, it's important to create 'art' that expresses some specific sense of creative values and particularly those that are personal to me. But, it needs an audience to matter. With The Long Dark, for example, we're not only creating a game, but we're also creating an experience that will hopefully be thought-provoking on many levels. The more people we can engage in this dialogue, the more of an impact we can have on people's lives. I think we derive a lot of meaning from that."

Mocarski feels that it's best to start with your idea and slowly gauge reactions in an ever-expanding circle. Start with the development team, expand to beta testers and business partners, and then let more and more of your intended audience into the process.

"The trick is to build in a little flexibility to be able to shift things a little to the left or right," he says. "I don't think you can change your creative vision completely due to consumer feedback. At that point you might as well start from scratch."

Avellone's primary focus during development is simple: he makes sure that players are having fun moment-to-moment. He leaves the selling to marketing, who still rely on devs that are passionate about their creations to help sell a product.

When fans get heated while talking about their favorite game, sometimes one side will throw out the "creative vision" card: the idea that asking for any change in a work fo art is infringing upon the creator's rights. But development is full of unknown twists and turns, so creative vision can't be a sacrosanct, unchangeable thing.

Obsidian's Avellone says that creative vision is malleable and a developer can "achieve much better results in collaborating with a team of individuals whose skills you trust." He points to Fallout: New Vegas' Old World Blues and Icewind Dale 2 as two projects where that style of development worked well. Avellone admits that some projects, like Fallout 2, could've benefitted from a stronger creative lead setting the overall vision. And when it comes to player feedback, developer communication with players is key.

"There are some elements of our games we don't share because we feel it would diminish the player's fun, but we feel as long as we can speak intelligently about a title and the reasons for implementing content the way we do (even if it's on something as sensitive as the game interface), people seem to understand the reasons for it and can speak to it when they themselves are asked about it or it comes up in other discussions," says Avellone.

"Even with full freedom and not being influenced by commercial interests, I don't think vision is a static thing," Van Lierop explains. "Beyond that, if you are making something that requires millions of dollars of other people's money, you'd have to be very arrogant to think your vision trumps all. The road to creating something great is long and harrowing, with many turns and dead-ends along the way. You can't ignore what's right in front of you just because you have a clear destination in mind."

The Hinterland Games creative director says a developer's job "is to shepherd a high-concept from ideation to execution without letting it get destroyed along the way," but that doesn't mean the concept is set in stone. He says that on large teams "your vision will be constantly assaulted on all sides by various forces," which can lead to creators becoming defensive and protective. Remaining open-minded during the development process is important. Some of those assaults come from the most passionate fans, but Van Lierop says developers need to let those fans know that they've been heard.

"Player feedback is a highly valuable tool to help you avoid drinking your own Kool Aid," he adds. "But, I don't believe that player feedback trumps all. There's a degree of interpretation that's involved and in the end, I don't believe you can make something great solely by reacting to what you hear from your community. We receive the feedback with great appreciation and we incorporate it into our overall decision-making process."

"Even with full freedom and not being influenced by commercial interests, I don't think vision is a static thing."

Raphael van Lierop

"It's up to us as developers to take the feedback and interpret it into something that we can address without destroying the core concept of our features," Mocarski agrees. "It's a tricky process. Do too little and your players feel they don't have a voice; too much could destroy your game. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns, knowing you are going to alienate a large portion of your player base. These are the tough decisions we make every day."

As Mocarski said before, the core of the vision remains unchanged, but there are areas outside that core where change can happen. As an example, he explained the vision of housing in Carbine's Wildstar was "pretty rigid," but the studio ultimately saw value in allowing more freedom.

"The changes still met our initial creative vision, but I will say that I don't think housing would have been such a hit if it stayed on the original course," Mocarski says.

Kickstarting Greatness

Crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, or paid-alpha programs like Steam Early Access have grown in popularity for the development community. Avellone is involved with two Kickstarter-based projects: Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity and InXile's Torment: Tides of Numenera. Hinterland Games, Van Lierop's new studio, successfully Kickstarted the first-person survival sim, The Long Dark.

The Kickstarted Project Eternity is now Pillars of Eternity.

Kickstarter and Steam Early Access bring player feedback into the creative process earlier than traditional development. That feedback could be a large influence on a project's creative vision if the developer isn't committed to a specific course. These services elevate the stake players have in the final product, meaning they want their feedback to matter more.

"Even with Early Access, when you take money up front, I feel you are accepting that the fans are a part of your publishing agreement. I think it's more important to involve them in decisions," answers Mocarski, the lone developer who isn't involved with a Kickstarted project. "Ultimately, you are the game developer and you are going to be responsible for the success or failure of the product. If your game is terrible, you can't say 'well, that's what the fans asked for.' You'll never get the chance to make that type of game again."

With a Kickstarted development project, a developer needs to have a core vision to get the fans on board. Mocarski points out that this happens before any fans get involved and those fans "need to trust the devs to make something cool" in the end.

"If J.J. Abrams Kickstarted the new Star Wars movie, I would have thrown money at him; but that doesn't mean I want to decide what happens to Luke," he offers as an example. "I'm paying them because they are better suited to make those calls. So maybe I get to vote on the color of his lightsaber. That's cool enough for me because I trust them. That's why I gave money in the first place."

Wasteland 2's vision document allows InXile and the fans to make sure the game lives up to the original concept.

"Kickstarter serves as a bit of a test for the high-concept of what you're doing, to see if it engages people. Early Access serves as a testing ground for that high-concept made real," says Van Lierop, delineating between the two services. "In the case of The Long Dark, I think if you go back to our Kickstarter and listen to the creative pillars we espoused there, and then compare the game that's currently in Alpha, you'll see that we have delivered on the vision we set out. It's all the details that support the vision that have evolved over time, based on our own work and now, based on what we hear from and can observe from our players."

"We're not asking them for guidance, we're asking them for feedback. I guess you could think of it as more of an editorial process."

Raphael van Lierop

"In our case, we've not changed anything fundamental to the overall creative direction of the game based on feedback from Kickstarter backers or our playtesters since. I think it's because we're not asking them for guidance, we're asking them for feedback. Essentially – 'this is what we have, what do you think?' vs. 'what should we do?'. I guess you could think of it as more of an editorial process."

Avellone prefers to release a vision document - like InXile did with the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter - allowing the studio and fans to account for how close the current project is sticking to the original idea. He also tells me that neither of the Kickstarters he has worked on can be considered as only the studio's vision, calling the service "collaborative."

"With Kickstarter, there's tremendous value in knowing your target audience and corresponding with them – for either help meeting their expectations or redefining those expectations if both groups agree that adding a feature set to a title wouldn't add to the overall value of the product," Avellone continues. "On every Kickstarter, the goal has been to sell the idea to the public and get their support before development begins, and often it is the developers who are doing the heavy lifting for this (and community managers, if you can get one). For us, selling a project hasn't been hard, because it is built on ideas that grew from successful and even financially unsuccessful titles."

The Auteur Leads The Way

Certain directors leave a definite imprint on the films they create. You can tell when you're watching a David Lynch, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, or Christopher Nolan film. The larger, publisher-driven projects in the game industry have teams of hundreds of developers working in tandem, so it's harder to achieve that unique feeling. That said, certain lead developers have reached the point where their clear fingerprints can be seen by players: Ken Levine, Hideo Kojima, and Goichi Suda come to mind. They are auteurs, the term for a filmmaker whose vision is so strong that they're almost considered the singular author of a film.

You can always tell when you're playing a Suda 51 game.

"So as much as it may or may not be fair to single out a film director from the hundreds of people who may make a film, I think the same can be said for game directors," Van Lierop replies regarding the comparison. "Saying that something was 'directed' by someone doesn't suggest they were the only person who contributed to it and all but the most powerful film directors (who have 'final cut' on their films) also still answer to the people who paid for the film to be made.

"I think that the less comfortable we are with the idea that a game can represent someone's creative intention, the more the focus is on "games as product" vs. "games as medium for creative expression". I'd like to think that what we see in the 'indie games' movement shows that it's possible to have highly successful games that communicate the specific direction and creative intent of a studio or even an individual."

"I like when the team gets credit," says Mocarski. "When developers say 'I' instead of 'We' it does bug me because it's a rare case when one person makes an entire game. Some names are a brand that could drive an audience to buy your product; if we hired Sid Meier and tagged his name in front of WildStar, it would have brought in an audience we wouldn't have reached normally. And trust me, most of the well-known names in the industry deserve that recognition because they have a history of making awesome games. The trick is that it should never be used as a Band-Aid to sell something they had little or nothing to do with."

"When developers say 'I' instead of 'We' it does bug me because it's a rare case when one person makes an entire game."

Matt Mocarski

For Avellone, it's all about the process. He names South Park: The Stick of Truth as the specific vision of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Obsidian doing the heavy lifting to make that vision a reality. He feels that Ultima and Bioshock are the work of auteurs, while admitting that he doesn't know the reality of the development behind those titles. And Avellone counts Planescape: Torment as the game where his personal vision came out the strongest.

"I worked on Planescape: Torment, and because I was the only one writing the story for so long, that I think that voice came through a little louder, but the game would have been impossible and not nearly as good without the team," he says.

"None come to mind," is Van Lierop's simple reply when asked if there were any large studio projects that he felt were the work of a single auteur. And on his own work: "The Long Dark will be the closest to achieving that, and even then it's a blend because I'm influenced by my team in all the ways they contribute to the process. That said, I don't think any of them would disagree that I'm directing the game. You need some kind of compass to navigate with, otherwise you end up with an incoherent mess. I don't think driving a vision is synonymous with being deaf to feedback."

"WildStar is the game that has the most of 'me' in it," says Mocarski. "But it was made by hundreds of people, contributing each day. Even the creation of the vision is shared across 3-5 people minimum. And that's not even fair to say. We might see something someone created and like it enough to latch on to it and amplify it in the game. This game actually has had the most creative collaboration of any project I've worked on."

Mocarski points to the games of Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto as having "a certain feel that other Nintendo games lacked," but still contends "that a lot of people helped bring that vision to life."

Developer intention also factors into our discussions about games. If a game makes a player think in one way, but the developer intended something else, does that matter? We'll draw again from another medium's terminology: In this case, 'Death of the Author,' a literary idea for criticism that looks a work separately from the creator's intentions. As a reviewer, I find that both viewpoints have their benefits.

"Honestly I don't feel the majority of players think about it. Some games promote the vision better than others. If you play Dark Souls, you should know you're in for a brutally-punishing experience," says Mocarski, using an example close to the hearts of many players. "I'm sure there are players who go in blind and hate the game and wonder why the design was so bad. Not many casual gamers do their research. They form an expectation based upon word of mouth or what's on the box. It would be great if we could form a dialog with each player, but that's not practical. Hopefully things are maturing and a player's decision is formed from a better understanding of the intended experience. How we get there will be interesting."

"Should it impact how players experience a game? Probably not," says Van Lierop. "Should it impact how they understand the game's development within the larger context as a whole – industry, medium, market, culture, etc. – then yes, I think it really matters. But I'm a student of literature and I don't subscribe to the Death of the Author school of literary theory, so my worldview is biased in that regard. To offer a concrete point: I think I appreciate STALKER much more as a game because I know it was developed in the Ukraine. Knowing that makes me see the game and experience it in a different way than if I assumed it was developed somewhere in the Midwestern US, or I didn't think about it at all. So yeah, the author matters, and should matter."

Does knowing that Stalker was made in the Ukraine change how you feel about the game?

"I feel a game's blessing and a curse is that it speaks for itself," adds Avellone. "Sometimes this allows people to enjoy it more by imagining the designer's intentions aligning with their own, at other times, designers are unable to explain why they made the choices they did because the game doesn't make those intentions clear. I've worked on both types of titles. All I was left with is that at the end of the day, the game speaks for itself and it needs to stand on its own – the game itself will be your only defense if a player is not having fun, and no amount of developer explanation can change the emotion a player feels while playing the title."

Creativity isn't a clear line from start to finish. Creative vision requires strong pillars to survive, but it also needs to bend and sway as the development process continues.

The entire community can offer something during development, which that became clearer to me in these interviews. The final product is the combined effort and passion of artists, programmers, engineers, QA, marketers, community managers, publishers, and players; certain folks give more to the process, but everyone gives something. For top-to-bottom, every person is important and talking to one another in a civil and understanding fashion is critical to the overall health of the industry.

Tags: cover story editorial

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