Where's the Creativity?

March 19th, 2012
[This is an essay I wrote in November, 2004; I found it recently in an archive. I decided that it was worth publishing here.]

It is becoming common to see complaints that the games biz has lost its creativity. Year after year, we see the same game designs re-issued with improved graphics and a new title – but it’s still the same old game we got tired of ten years ago. Why can’t the games industry come up with something new?

First, let’s dispense with the hypothesis that game designers are a stolid, uncreative lot. The game designers I have met have always been some of the brightest, most creative people I know. I see no overall decline in creative talent among designers. What I do see is an unfortunate conjunction of factors that subvert the natural creative urges of game designers.

The most important factor is the marketplace. Let’s face it, customers don’t peruse the store shelves looking for oddball games. They may say they want innovation, but when it comes to laying down hard cash, they make it clear that they want to stick with the Same Old… Material. Of course, the retailers know this, too, so they refuse to stock anything that deviates from the straight and narrow. Distributors are the same. And publishers have gotten the message, too. Pushing an innovative product onto the public is a good way to lose your shirt.

Unless it’s The Sims, the most innovative and deviant game of recent times, and far and away the best-selling game in history. That didn’t stop the marketing geniuses at Electronic Arts from trying to smother this baby in its cradle. The inside story of the battles that Will Wright had to fight to get The Sims out the door make Frodo Baggins’ quest look like a cakewalk. If Will Wright, arguably the best game designer on the planet, with the best game on the planet, just barely squeaked it through, what chance has any other game designed by mere mortals?

The basic problem here is that marketing games requires large testicles (ladies, forgive the sexist reference, but the executives in the games business seem to prefer macho language, so I’ll use the words that get the point across.) Indeed, marketing any kind of consumer entertainment requires boldness bordering on recklessness. The problem is, the executives who run games publishing companies are seriously testicle-challenged. Can you name a single games executive who has said or done anything out of the ordinary at anytime in the last ten years? If they somehow find the courage to get up in public and say anything, it’s usually nothing more than the typical executive mushmouthing that’s long on hype, high in buzzwords, and short on content.

I don’t want to paint games industry executives as the sole, or even the primary villains in this industry. These people seriously believe that they are doing what’s best for their companies. Let’s face it, a lot of designers hype their stuff, too, and a healthy dollop of skepticism behooves any executive. Every executive can tell you his horror story of the time he went out on a limb for an ambitious design and got burned.

What’s needed here is a mature approach to risk; Hollywood has worked out a system that works. It took them decades, but they had no precedents to study; if we’re smart, we can learn from Hollywood. They recognize the inherantly risky nature of entertainment media, so they use a two-pronged approach. They rely on a base of safe products to provide them with operating expenses. The safe stuff doesn’t make a lot of money, but it pays the bills. The other prong is their risky side. They dedicate a certain amount of money to long shots. They don’t bet the farm – that’s not necessary. But they do devote serious money to innovation.

Hollywood’s expenditures on innovation are distributed over a wide range of activities. First comes support for educational institutions such as the University of Southern California. This one school alone has received millions from various industry sources. Contrast this with the games industry, whose attitude toward education is all take and no give. The games industry is quite happy to tell schools what they require of graduates, but they don’t back it up with any money.

But Hollywood does more than fund education. They also fund a great variety of small-time efforts through film festivals, various programs to assist young filmmakers, and so forth. Put all this together and you get a great pyramid of effort. At the bottom are all the beginners. Those who do well in school get a bit of help to move to the next level, where they’re acting as junior assistants. The best of these might be picked for small assignments such as contracted documentaries, training videos, or commercials. Those who do well here enjoy a variety of opportunities for making more ambitious (but still cheap) projects. And so it goes, with each level of the pyramid opening up a bit more money than the level below it, giving the artists some more responsibility, and providing some means for evaluating their talents. At the very top of this pyramid are the major movies that you see in theaters – but few moviegoers realize that these big projects are only the tip of the iceberg.

This pyramid that Hollywood has built provides it with both a source of tested talent and a font of new ideas. Some of the most profitable movies in recent years, such as Blair Witch Project and Pulp Fiction, bubbled up from lower levels of the pyramid. It is efforts such as these that keep Hollywood fresh with new ideas. The pyramid is a huge sorting mechanism that generates lots of new ideas, sifts through them, and brings the best new ideas to the top. It’s a creativity machine.

Compare this with the games industry: there’s nothing comparable. There are literally millions of eager young kids dying to make their big break into the games biz, but there’s no pyramid to climb. They can get a job as junior assistant to the design assistant, and slowly get promoted through the ranks, but this doesn’t nurture creativity, it stifles it. Nobody gets promoted in the organization by bucking corporate wisdom. The best way to get promoted is to keep your head down, smile, and say “Yessir!” whenever somebody higher up addresses you. Instead of giving junior people total responsibility for a tiny project, we give them a tiny responsibility for a big project. That doesn’t demonstrate anything about their talents, other than the ability to obey orders.

“But publishers can’t build tiny projects – nobody would buy them!” I hear the apologists squeal. Sure they can’t – but Hollywood has figured out ways to put their junior people to work. Commercials, training videos, sales videos, and all manner of low-budget projects are tossed to the junior people to see what they can handle. Why can’t the games industry build tiny games to liven up commercial websites, or little training games to show somebody how to operate a piece of machinery? Why not some trivial educational games to give away to schools, just to test out the new talent while making some nice PR? Why must all games be huge?

PostScript 2012
It would seem that the Indie Games Movement is in fact doing much of what I called for in this essay.