I recently stumbled upon the blog of a person I used to follow named Sean Malstrom. Back in the day, he accurately predicted the success of the Wii and introduced me to the concept of the Blue Ocean strategy and the casual fallacy.
Actually, it was his article Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy, an article which has since seem to have disappeared from the internet, that really got me thinking about how I should go about and design better games. The summary of it though is this:
“Nintendo is flying high. Rather than examine the nature of this flight, the birdmen are mesmerized by the feathers. The analysts and executives do not see the concepts of disruption and don’t even understand the Blue Ocean principles (though they think they do). The feathers they see on Nintendo’s ascent are casual games. Therefore, they surmise, if they make casual games then they will be flying high with Nintendo.”
In other words, if you don’t understand the reason why a game or genre is successful, you are going to fail. But to my surprise, my recent encounter with his work is decrying Nintendo for making 3D Mario games. In an Iwata Asks about Super Mario 3D Land once of his responses to something said was:
“WHO CARES!? What’s ‘too bad’ are the MILLIONS of Mario fans who were not allowed to purchase a 2d Mario game because some retard in Nintendo refused to make it. It is the market’s desires that matter, not the developer’s desires.”
It is the last thing that struck me because this was basically someone telling Nintendo to stop being artist and start being businessmen. Now I know Nintendo is a business, they couldn’t have gotten as far as they have without being good businessmen, but what I appreciate about them so much is that they have melded being a business and being artist. In fact, a recent episode of Pach-Attack had Michael Pachter stating that the reason he believes Japanese development cycles are so long is because the people making games like The Legend of Zelda, The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy XIII Versus, are all artist, perfectionist seeking perfection, and will release the game when it is good and ready. This is opposed to such philosophies held by EA, which releases games yearly in order to maximize profit. Now I’m not saying the developers at EA aren’t as much artists as the developer working for Nintendo, but it does show priority.
So this is the conundrum: should game developers (particularly the designers) act more like businessmen or artists? This is a tough question because one way provides the financial success that makes the industry huge. Malstrom asserts that the market wants 2D Mario games, so why doesn’t Nintendo make more 2D Mario games and instead focuses their attention on 3D Mario games that isolates the market and ultimately is not as profitable. On the other hand, being a game developer requires creativity, and almost by the very definition, a game designer creates a platform in which he hands players the means to express themselves. This interactivity is basically what an artist does. One reason why games like Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, and Metroid Prime are among the greatest Nintendo games around is because the people who made them threw business models to the wind and said “lets create a new experience and lets do it really really well.”
Take Metroid Prime for instance. Boy were people unsure about how that game was going to turn out. Afterall, in turned a 2D platforming adventure game into a first-person shooter akin to games like Halo. The market had never really been too receiving of Metroid so releasing one that had pretty much changed all the rules would have seen like business suicide. But in the end, because of pretty much perfect level design, boss design, proper use of music and new mechanics like scanning to create this living breathing world that a game has rarely come close to, Metroid Prime is one of the best games ever made and dare I say one of the only examples of a perfect game.
One reason I would want to become an indie developer, or at least part of a small development studio, is because I love the creativity it takes to create games. I experiment with games and game mechanics as much as I can, to me being a game designer is an artist. One reason I do speculation Fridays is because I get sick of every single Battlefield being the same game, I get sick of not enough AAA titles taking risks and getting a little messy. I understand why they don’t, because sometimes one flop can kill you. It is totally reasonable for a big company to be scared to failing, but as a result creativity has been stifled on a major scale, and smaller indie developers don’t have the resources to make a game pretty, giant, and unique.
Malstrom sees it differently though. He seems to hate the fact that Nintendo is developing 3D Mario games, partly because it is the game that they want to make.
“You’re supposed to make games to sell, not to make games for yourself.”
I think this businessman attitude is what chokes off a lot of innovation in the gaming industry. It leads to a lot of follow the leader type attitudes, which, and ignores a good chunk of history. To elaborate: one thing that led to the great video game crash of ’83 was that the market for game hardware and software became over saturated with poor games. Atari for example, had led the way to the crash by refusing to let the game designers who made their games to be treated like artist, giving them barely anytime to create a fun game and just churn out products they thought would sell. E.T. as an infamous example, was made cheaply and quickly, because E.T. was the it game to have. It was also a really stupid game that wasn’t fun.
So video games almost died out in the west because people treated game development like a business and not like an art. They made games to sell and not for themselves. Imagine if game developers all took Malstrom’s advice and just made games in the style of games that were popular today. Innovation would cease, the market would be oversaturated, cats and dogs would getting along, Batman would be seen ballroom dancing with the Joker, My Little Pony Friendship is Magic would cancelled, it would chaos I tell you, utter chaos!
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think too many game developers treat their profession like they are creating something artistic. Even designers I don’t like treat it that way and have come up with plenty of fun topics to discuss I respect them taking chances. In the end, game development is an art, it requires more than just technical skill but imagination, creativity, and most importantly, soul.