Effects of Time on Developer “Cred”

Jan 26, 2010

Inspired by Brenda Brathwaite’s Post

Noted game designer and games researcher Brenda Brathwaite recently posted in her blog some reflections on a once legendary developer’s contemporary “cred” being called into question. She drew parallel to John Steinbeck, since the last book he published was far from the greatest achievement of his career, noting that his lack of cred immediately following his final work hasn’t affected his greater influence or the historical significance of his best works. “Cred is but a symptom of our expectations, our insecurity with our own medium,” she added, offering that on this ground we ought to appreciate the need for genius to roam rather than chasing them away with non-stop expectations.

I appreciate the need for genius to roam. However, I disagree that concern with cred indicates insecurity with the medium. The observed mismatch seems, to me, to have more to do with important differences in the medium and time period of the example chosen for comparison. I’ll go so far as to suggest that cred, and our ongoing consideration of it, plays a healthy part in keeping our industry and researchers on track.

One-Hit Wonders

Bram Stoker is still regarded highly as an author, even though Dracula was his only work to stand out in history. Alexey Pajitnov made videogames after Tetris, although none of them came anywhere near that level of success. The music industry has so many one-hit wonders that it’s the medium we generally assume the term refers to.

There are a couple of qualities that make typical videogame production much more like a band’s work than that of a novelist:

  1. The band matters. With the exception of the 1970’s and tiny web/iPhone games (or hobby/freeware projects), games of single authorship are extremely rare in the videogame industry. Even Tetris, contrary to common mosconception, was not a one person project. This makes it difficult to pull apart who really made what happen within the group – or, at least, recognizing that a game requires synergy from all members of the team. Part of a given team or developer’s cred is figuring out who was the source of value for [popular game they worked on]. Immediately after a project becomes a hit, everyone involved gets a boost from their involvement, but over the years the key players are shifted out by whether that’s their only acclaim.
  2. Trends change rapidly. What was a hit a few years ago often looks dry and outdated today. While this is partly affected by technology – as has been equally true for popular music in the past half century – it’s also about design and user experience. Whether the hot new thing is platformer games, first-person, polygons, online play, physics or social network integration, a master at what worked years ago may or may not have the sort of design sense relevant to what today’s players want. (Unless Nintendo remakes a Mario or Zelda game, or Capcom puts out another Street Fighter II variant.)

To be clear: #2 is not just about about skills or technical competence, but a fundamental difference in principles and priorities. Relevant mantras from the past sometimes contradict those at present. A designer with NES/arcade-level challenge in mind will be met mostly with fury and distaste by Nintendo’s current audience. As revealed in last month’s Nintendo Power: even the next Mega Man game for WiiWare, a franchise notorious for its uncompromising challenge, is turning down the difficulty.

Unreadable Classics

In a split from music or book industry parallels, to pure challenges specific to the game industry: most kids are unfamiliar with old hits because by the time they were old enough to play, the Atari 2600 (or even the Nintendo 64!) were no longer sold in stores, Asteroids and Bubble Bobble were no longer in arcades, and their latest version of Windows was incompatible with many ancient DOS-only games. This exaggerates the effect of, “what has that developer made lately?” since a huge portion of the audience devoting the most time to videogame playing genuinely does not know what that developer did on previous hardware.

Short of seeing the sharp, brilliance light of an original vector display from the arcade, can today’s newest players really know how dazzling Asteroids looks? Without a pair of fixed-rotation paddles to play with (as opposed to a mouse, d-pad, or analog stick), does anyone under the age of 30 really understand how Pong plays? Even something as recent as Goldeneye 007 from Nintendo 64 simply doesn’t work without the proper claw in your hand.

Outdated Mastery

Speaking of Goldeneye 007 on N64, the rise and fall of the creative and technical forces behind that game offer a solid example of how technology and design requirements can sap a team of their cred. The geniuses behind that hit product went on to create Perfect Dark (also for Nintendo 64) before splitting from Rare to found Free Radical. The most important members of the band stayed together. They proved this to the world by putting together a few very respectable titles well suited to PlayStation 2: Second Sight and the Time Splitters series. Unfortunately, when PlayStation 3 arrived, it became clear that the sort of story, art, and level design that worked well for last generation’s games was no longer cutting it. After the release of Haze, the studio dissolved. (Part of their workforce became Crytek UK, but the team minus its key players Dave Doak and Steve Ellis is no longer the same team.)

Development Time

This difference in expectations related to changes in technology over time gets further accentuated by how long it takes to develop videogames. Although trends also change rapidly in music, a band isn’t held accountable for their worst songs because typically the song comes out alongside ten to twenty others. With commercial, research, and even some high profile indie (Fez, Braid) videogame projects routinely taking 2-4 years to develop, one bad project may mark the middle of a 4-8 year dry spell between other games, which can be the better part of an entire console generation. If these are two projects in a row that aren’t grand slam successes, that turns into a 6-12 year gap, which for all but the most hardcore of players will mark the duration of how long they’re into reaction-intensive real-time videogames. (For what it’s worth, note that hobby, experimental, iPhone, and web games can take far less time to develop – those first 3 links go to my work, while the 4th is to accomplished young indie Tyler Glaiel’s web games.)

Still Alive

Cred also has a unique value in our industry since, unlike music or literature, the vast majority of people that have ever been in our industry are still alive and in the workforce. This means that businesses and consumers – not just intellectual historians – have a keen interest in gauging current cred as if these were star basketball players, to be traded between teams. Who companies recruit and retain will affect their success in the great competition. In extreme cases, consumers recognize that star power, and this creates opportunities for businesses to leverage those associations for marketing hype. However many copies of Spore sold, it would have sold far fewer if Will Wright didn’t have his name attached to it (even if he had worked on it uncredited, and the game came out the same).

Cred’s Disconnect from Credit

In a quick tangent on that subject of consumer-starpower connection – and this nevertheless relates to the strange role of cred in the market – it is appalling at how readily players credit (1.) the publisher/distributor (if not at least… 2.) the company brand name (however with the exception of a few celebrities virtually never…3.) the human beings that actually made a game.

There are a variety of ways that game developers and publishers can interact, everywhere from internal development to pure business-side distribution agreements. On the far end of that spectrum, when people credit the publisher it’s like saying Penguin Books wrote a lot of classic literature.

Or – for a slightly more offensive and memorable example – this is a bit like crediting Pope Julius II for the rooftop of the Sistine Chapel instead of Michelangelo. The publisher says, “Paint something about a topic that I like on this ceiling”, provides funding, and occasionally prods to make sure it gets done. The developer makes the game. (Not to say that any games are like the Sistine Chapel – but nor are any publishers like the Pope.)

One Broken Band

id Software’s Wolfenstein 3-D was groundbreaking for its time, and Doom is part of what got me into videogame development.Lets look at how key players from that team have done since, including where the cred of that company’s brand has gone.

The sharp inflection point in John Romero’s cred after Daikatana wasn’t just a question to be debated by scholars, but a matter affecting business decisions, and the designer’s career today, many gaming “generations” later. I loved Tom Hall’s later work on Anachronox, but the market didn’t buy it (I blame ugly box design – no kidding), and that mismatch led to business trouble within his part of Ion Storm. After id Software put out Doom 3, whether its because the band members had broken up – maybe Romero and Hall were critical to the design success of Doom 1 and 2 – or because their type of mastery was outdated – someone can design an entire level for Doom in the time it takes to model and light a decent room for the Doom 3 engine – many of us stopped looking forward to the next thing coming out of id Software. The company lost its once powerful cred with many fans of the originals (for more on why, check out Text Lessons Vol. 8). Doom 3 sold a lot of copies because Doom 1 and 2 were history making, but I don’t expect that a Doom 4 release will get as much benefit of the doubrl.

While as fans we can still admire and contextualize the past work, as fellow developers in the industry, we have to consider who to work with (or under), who has the most relevant advice when they pontificate in interviews, and who has currently announced work that might be a divining rod to where the marketplace will go next.

Different Judges

Seeing as our roots are in late night amusements, children’s toys, and (increasingly) mainstream entertainment in a time in history enabling and rewarding widespread worldwide consumption, videogames have never been cooked in the cauldron of cultural elites. Pong started in bars. Atari’s founder Nolan Bushnell brought videogames to children by founding Chuck-E-Cheese, and Nintendo secured that demographic’s demand at home. This puts the creative cred of our medium – at least at its origins – closer to a throwaway bar trick or wind-up toy, ready to be forgotten by the married adult that outgrew its childish way of filling idle time. Is this an assumption that we hold literature, film, music, visual art, or any other medium to? No, but then only more recently has the industry taken seriously the prospect that videogames may be intended for more serious cultural value.

Even if there is genius to be found in what has been developed so far – and surely several candidates come to mind (some across multiple generations like Shigeru Miyamoto, Dave Jones, Keiji Inafune, or Hideo Kojima, others isolated to momentary shifts like Warren Robinett, David Crane, or Fukio Mitsuji) – its success was measured and affected in large part by children and mainstream America, not the judgment of other experts in the field. With more recent developments, it’s impossible just yet to tell whether the work will stand the test of time, or what place it may have in the industry’s future, and if the current trend of games more than 10 years old being virtually unplayable (in their original form) continues, we’ll continue to suffer from this problem unique to our formats. (Wii’s Virtual Console offers some potential relief, but games like Duck Hunt are fundamentally different without the springing Zapper, and mountains of titles will never find their way to such methods of republishing.)

Our Cred is Different

We work (predominantly) in teams. Trends shift several times per year. Our oldest master works are inaccessible to new generations, our newest generations are inaccessible to our oldest masters – virtually all of whom are still working age. Cred is more likely to be assigned to a source of funding than to a source of development. Lastly, important elements of our cred are heavily shaped by the response of wide audiences; as Brenda Brathwaite pointed out in her previous blog entry, Deep Critique Without Play, critics and developers are as guilty as anyone else when it comes to trashing a game based on poor sales or mainstream reviews, even without first-hand experience or any grounded justification. Cred in our industry is very different than cred in other mediums, but it’s serving a different purpose in a different context.

Buddy System

But is cred in our case really such a bad thing?

Life has obligations, distractions, and temptations. Sometimes, it helps to have a friend to help hold us accountable to our own goals.

It helps to know that someone else we respect is paying attention to how we reinvest our time and experience. People turn to this method of support for everything from exercise to academic goals, and questions about how others are progressing is central to how families operate. We can’t reach out to someone unless we suspect there’s a reason to reach out, meanwhile we want to check our instinct with others to determine whether our impression of their current direction or choices is out of alignment with reality. And if the person in question has enough cred built up, we’re likely to determine that no matter what they’ve been up to, they probably know darn well what they’re doing.

Who Cares?

The single most important part of cred is that the developer in question, and no one else, gets to decide who’s cred to pay attention to. This point was brought up by Josh Diaz in a follow up comment on the same blog. Cred with a peer group, cred with customers, cred with academics – underlying the original post’s suggestion that we should commend genius while it explores, I think it’s fair to say that the guru developer’s choices earned them even more cred with Brenda Brathwaite than they might have gained by doing more of what already worked commercially. When I left corporate videogame development, some of my coworkers likely got the impression that I had fallen off the horse, and it may have hurt my cred with them; the work that I have done since has built up cred with entirely different circles (indies, students, startups).

In my own journey, maintaining my cred with student developers helped keep me continually learning and pushing myself while I was an active part of the Game Creation Society. In my brief time at EA, building my cred with coworkers helped drive me to do the type of work that was needed for the projects coming from that environment.

When we apply to be educated in a university or vocational school, we do so in part because we believe that putting ourselves in a position to be concerned with the cred we earn with experts in our field of interest will help shape us into more empowered people.

When I set out to make experimental gameplay projects for my Interaction Artist series, I was mostly out to build better cred with myself. Having gone too long without an independent project of my own, I was no longer happy with how outside cred was steering me. At least one fellow indie (whose opinion I generally respect greatly) expressed sadness that I had seemingly lost interest in working on large entertainment projects. The site had only 2-3 visitors per day during its entire run, and the site’s numbers stayed in the single digits for an entire year after it wrapped up. I nevertheless regarded the project as a success though, during and after, since it helped me find new direction, explore questions of my own, and regain my creative and intellectual independence.

Cred can be constructive if we listen to it when the time is right. And there’s no reason for cred to ever be destructive, since as developers we always have the option of changing who’s cred we care about – including, as a final fallback, focusing on building cred with ourselves.

(No longer an obscure experiment, 150,000 visitors visited the Interaction Artist series last month. Even if no one else ever found it though, I’d still be just as happy with my work there. Citing numbers like that one helps me build my cred with others, but that was never the point of the project.)



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