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Permanent Entrepreneurs

Greg Tito | 19 Jul 2011 10:00
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One of the (many) problems with being a creative person is that you're often forced to work on material that others want to consume, but which may not be the type of work on which you thrive. The Russian composer Tchaikovsky hated the frivolous nature of his Nutcracker Suite, but audiences ate it up. Francis Ford Coppola had no desire to make any sequels to The Godfather, but was compelled to do so by the studio (he really should have stopped after Part II). Collaborative artists in the cinema and theater, especially when starting out, are even more susceptible to this effect because they often don't have a choice in what pieces they appear; the producer makes that call. Even famous actors lend their talents to commercials or kid's films because the ballooned salary gives them room to take only the SAG minimum on an indie film they believe in or to take time to appear in an Off Broadway play. Look at Harvey Keitel: Sure, he was in great movies like Reservoir Dogs and Smoke in the 90s, but he had to be appear in relatively safe bets like Monkey Trouble and Sister Act to pay for it.

"There are a lot of people out there working in the industry dissatisfied with the games they're making. They have big ideas but little control."

Sadly, the videogame industry is no different. Most people designing games - or creating art or programming for that matter - are so excited to be working in the industry that they might start out not caring whether the actual product they are working on is any good. The studio head or, even worse, the publishing executive, dictates what game the company works on next, which leaves every videogame developer powerless in choosing what game they want to make.

Perhaps that's why if you travel to GDC, or any other place where game developers congregate, the most enthusiasm for fresh ideas comes from relatively new areas like social and mobile games. Unless you land a job with a company that mirrors your aesthetic perfectly, the only way to make the game you want is to ditch the big name publishers and strike out on your own with an independent company.

"If you look at the manifesto of almost any start-up mobile company these days, you'll read something along the lines of, 'Our mission is to make the games we like playing.' You see that everywhere," said Mark Jessup from TinkerHouse Games. "And it makes you realize, wow, there are a lot of people out there working in the industry dissatisfied with the games they're making. They have big ideas but little control."

Even then, sacrifices must be made for the sake of making money, much like a successful actor. "This whole adventure we've started with TinkerHouse Games is to produce successful broader-appeal games so that we have the leisure to produce the smaller, more esoteric games, like a goofy co-op sandbox RPG, for example," said Jessup's business partner and TinkerHouse's chief tinkerer, Lane Daughtry. "We're calling it the Harvey Keitel model."

Jessup and Daughtry were living examples of creative people without the power to make the games of their dreams. Jessup was the marketing manager of Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic cards and Dungeons & Dragons, but he still felt unable to effect major change with a large bureaucracy behind him. Daughtry was toiling away at Airtight Games, the team who made Dark Void, with 15 years of videogame experience under his belt working for The Man. Both of them decided to start anew not necessarily because they needed to get out, but the opportunity to work on something great was too just too damn tempting.

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