The topic of conversation in one of my other posts has meandered around to the art of crafting a game instead of the industry of manufacturing (“making”) a game. Julian over at bettergame reposted some pretty in-depth comments originally written a few years ago about the topic as well.
I have suggested (and ranted for years) that the game industry has focused too much on flash (particularly graphics) and neglected substance. Publishers have eschewed adventure games for years now, story is relatively non-existent in nearly every game on the market (a “setting” does not count as story or plot), and the few attempts at creating a rich and evocative game with depth and complexity have usually ended up being overly complicated and confusing.
Story (not setting) is incredibly important to crafting a great game. What do you have without it? Imagine a movie with the most impressive and high-tech graphics and visuals you have ever seen…add in sound and effects so real, you literally feel like you are right in the middle of the action. But what if the movie is simply about two people sitting at a table eating Doritos? Sure, the killer trailer got you to open up your wallet and go to see the movie, but so what? Without story, dialogue, plot, character development, conflict, content, and interaction, you leave the theater with an empty feeling that is easily forgotten.
You cannot have a good story without good writers. Our industry will never truly evolve into the next stage until we have more emphasis on writing and story. “Content is King” as they say, but Story is the power behind the throne.
Some thoughts before I continue rambling from my soapbox…
First, years and years ago, TV shows were pretty shallow. They were short, facile, and forgettable. It was rare for a show to offer ongoing plot and any semblance of a story with continuity that would last for more than a single episode. Conversely, games, particularly adventure games, were extremely rich and offered lush worlds to explore, even if the graphics were primitive by the standards of today. Some of the best games ever created (and that still have an influence today) were crafted with extreme restrictions and limitations. Zork was simply text based. Diplomacy was limited to four colors (black, white, cyan, magenta), and Bard’s Tale had sixteen.
Anyway, my point here is that years ago, games = depth and complexity and TV = shallow entertainment. Today however, things are quite different. Games and gameplay have been diminished into simplicity and banal shallowness. Television on the other hand, has made great strides into claiming the throne that games once had. LOST, Heroes, 24, The Sopranos, ROME, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and many others are pretty good examples. The worlds are rich and many layered, with subtlety wielded by master writers.
But for games? We are more concerned with how big our gun is, whether or not that hot elf chick has melon sized breasts, and how many things we can blow-up and destroy are immediately available. This reminds me of something else I wrote in my book (go buy it already!)…destructive versus constructive gaming and its relevance to gender appeal. But I’m not going to talk about that today.
As our industry continues on a terrible downward spiral, it is also growing rapidly. That means that more and more people are becoming gamers, and a great majority of these new gamers are children and youth. I keep talking about the problem of “lowest common denominator” in our culture as a whole, but this point is dramatically illustrated here. Every time we make a game that emphasis quick and easy little rewards, shiny graphics, little or no story, separate PvP and RP servers for a role-playing game, or even something as seemingly innocuous as free and advertising based games or even double XP weekends, we lower the bar. Each time we lower the bar, we lower the expectations of gamers. As these bars descend, the chance of success for of a well crafted game that offers depth and sophistication also drops. Publishers and marketing companies keep whining and telling us that games are too hard and we have to make them “accessible” and “simple” to appeal to the mass market. The more we keep telling ourselves, the truer this mantra becomes. In ten years, the 12 year old playing with a Wii today will be part of our hardcore market. If we keep feeding them crap now, the only thing they will want later is more crap.
You know Myst sold over eleven million units? That may not seem all that impressive compared to other top-selling games *today*, but think about that for a minute. How much bigger is our industry today? If you adjust for growth and inflation, how many units does that eleven million equate to today? That certainly wasn’t an easy game. It had a highly detailed plot and storyline combined with mind numbing puzzles. How about our favorite “hard” game today? They said Eve-Online would never be successful at all because it was too complicated and the learning curve was too high. The last time I checked, Eve was still growing in numbers. To me, that says that all is not lost yet, and maybe games created to a higher standard (not just polish, but depth, complexity, and sophistication) could become a tremendous blockbuster that could reach far and penetrate deeper into the “mass” market than a silly go-kart game could. I’m not saying that simple games are bad (damn I love Katamari), I’m just saying that there is a perception in the industry that we have to keep dumbing things down to make games appealing. That ultimately means that we don’t need writers for anything other than press releases and marketing shlock.
Anyway, I did a little research tonight. I went to a number of sites that offered game industry job listings and searched for how many writers were sought after. My results were surprising…I mean, I expected the number to be small, but not this small.
83 Jobs Listed
1 for Editor/Writer (website journalist)
1352 Jobs Listed
(404 artist, 135 game/level designer, 529 programmer, 161 management, etc.)
290 Jobs Listed
1 “Senior Writer”
Slipgate Ironworks, ironically enough (John Romero’s MMO Studio)
21 Jobs Listed
22 Jobs Listed
Now, I know there are writers in the industry…pick a game and look at the credits. There is usually at least one writer listed (even if they are heavily outnumbered by everyone else). Of course, these poor saps are usually relegated to writing the manual, doing “flavor” text for quests, or editing everyone else’s work to fix atrocious spelling and grade school attempts at grammar. You would be amazed at how many emails I get, or even business plans and design documents that I review that are more like an imbroglio of letters and thoughts splattered across the page as if some alphabet soup was shotgunned all over a wall.
But why isn’t the industry hiring more writers? Why doesn’t the phrase “excellent writing skills” appear very often on job postings for *all* jobs?
Maybe this is why no one in the industry can really tell you what a producer or designer actually does, or is supposed to do. We lack a common standard language. I mentioned this before, and why it is important. Heck, even with MMORPGs, “guild” and “clan” are used interchangeably, even though both have very different meanings, and neither of which are even appropriate for a number of players forming a social organization (in this context). How many “guilds” or “clans” have you seen lately that has less than 20 members? Wouldn’t the term “gang” be more appropriate?
I wonder, if we had more writers in our industry, if they wouldn’t be sitting at their desks, demanding that people quit screwing up words and definitions, and insisting that the proper words be used in the appropriate context. Yes my friend, semantics is important.
By the way, I linked all the “big” words to their definitions over at dictionary.com. No, I am not showing off, I am trying to make a point. Good writers craft. Paper is their canvas, the pen is their paintbrush, and a broad vocabulary of words becomes a palette of rich colors with subtle meanings and differences. Graphics can make you say “wow”, music can transcend mere feeling into deep emotion, but it takes words to truly draw you in and change your life. Nothing else can communicate an idea, a philosophy, or have a real impact on our lives and history as much as the written word.
Where are the writers? Why has our culture become so disdainful of grammar, spelling, writing, and education? Have we lost our cultural soul? Where are the storytellers and dreamweavers? We may still dream in color, but the sandman is no longer welcome, and our sleepy wanderings are empty and forgotten in the morning.
If you really want to make a change, read a book. Buy a dictionary and use it. Quit using stupid abbreviations when you chat. Write some poetry. Refuse to buy any game that lacks good story, and return the ones with bad writing and terrible spelling. Ban any moron that makes fun of someone else for being a grammar or spelling nazi (what a terrible insult that is!). Challenge your peers. Demand more. Teach someone to read. Be articulate. Consumers can make or break a market…you can change the world if you really desire it.
It is getting late. I meant to write a lot more here, and throw in some sweet words like desanguination, causality, ephemeral, anthropomorphism, and excoriation, but I am running out of steam. So, for now, I will leave it to you to critique another late night rant. You get extra points if you correct a spelling or grammar mistake. Maybe I did it on purpose to see if you would notice. Or maybe, my coffee is just cold.
~ Robert / Nicodemus.