“Dumb systems are not usually the result of dumb people. They’re usually the result of smart people compromising over different priorities.” – Duncan Jones, Director of Moon.
If you let one person captain a boat, he or she will sooner or later realize that they could take that boat anywhere, and a trip to Fiji could easily turn into a trip to Finland. But if you let ten people captain a boat, suddenly the destination becomes a compromise. Someone wants to go to Europe, someone else wants to go to New Zealand, and some moron in the back thought you could get to Ch’ungch’ongbukto by sea. In any event, even if there’s only one dissenter that boat isn’t going anywhere – and the only souvenir anyone’s walking away with is a shirt that reads, “I was landlocked with a doofus.”
Well, I hate to tell you this, but AAA games are landlocked, and each of us could be the doofus.
Creativity works when it’s unencumbered; unrestrained. The sky’s the limit, and no idea is too far-fetched. Honestly, it’s the singular reason why the indie scene is thriving the way it is. Games are being produced by small teams (if not just one person) and are thus able to remain true to the artists’ original visions. However, when several people are tasked with the same artistic endeavor, suddenly visions collide and compromise is the only acceptable solution – especially if a game needs to be shipped.
Therein lies the problem with most major development studios.
Development “The AAA Way” is most akin to one of those dreadful group assignments from grade school. Someone always emerges as the leader while a few others are just along for the ride, and then there’s always the slacker who sits in the corner and draws a unicorn with breasts for his contribution. Though ultimately, those roles don’t really matter because each member of the group will get the same grade.
Teams of artists and programmers work in the same way. Several people are responsible for each facet of the game, and no one person is really going to be allowed to run away with a concept. It’s in this way that most of these games tend to lose their originality. If an idea isn’t quite palatable enough (read: “too out there”), someone will step in and put the kibosh on it.
Not all ground-breaking ideas fall victim to suppression, otherwise reverse-time mechanics and cover-based shooting would never have seen the light of day. Those essentially are just mechanics, though. Games like Deep Sea, CodeRunner, and the oft-mentioned Johann Sebastian Joust represent and entirely new way of thinking about gameplay and are craftily pushing the boundaries in ways that larger studios are afraid to – for strictly financial reasons. It’s inconceivable to anyone who’s played Joust that Sony hasn’t locked up a deal to bring it to their platform (since its best implementation is with the PlayStation Move controllers), but that example alone truly exemplifies the extreme reticence on a business level to these alternative ideas.
In cases like this it’s sad to be witness to the stranglehold that budgets can have on creativity, because without these forward-thinking ideas we’re left with the current glut of sequels and first-person shooters. And frankly, as long as we buy them we’re going to keep playing the part of the doofus.
This late in the consoles’ life cycles, it’s important for the well-being of the industry to loosen up the reigns on the developers. If they’re allowed to take the boat out of the harbor every once in awhile, we’ll all see the innovation and creativity that we’re craving long before the next generation is here.