Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Gaming at the Margins, Part 4

Warren Spector | 11 Apr 2006 08:02
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How do we break out of our best of times/worst of times situation and chart a course for the Promised Land that's clearly out there for us?

I've talked about some of the choices we might make, some possible outcomes associated with those choices. But is there some overarching thing that has to happen to increase the odds that we'll head in the right direction?

My answer to a lot of our current problems is hinted at in the title of this article: I called my Montreal talk, and this article, "Gaming at the Margins" not only because of the status we used to - and could again - be accorded in society. There's another aspect of "marginalization" I find intriguing.

To my mind, it often seems the most interesting and influential work is done at the "margins," rather than at the meaty center of a medium or movement. And content, as I've said repeatedly in this article, is where we have to make our move if we want to reach the Promised Land.

Best-selling fiction is rarely the stuff that changes the world. The most popular movies and movie stars of years gone by are only occasionally the ones that influenced and changed subsequent thinking about what movies could be. You don't typically see Thomas Kincade paintings in museums and rarely hear of his influence on other artists. And, to use a somewhat geekier example, it's been 40 years since an upstart Marvel Comics changed the face of the comic industry by offering readers new kinds of heroes and conflicts - it's now the alternative comic artists whose work comes to the attention of, and changes, the work of the mainstream publishers.

I'm kind of given to overstatement, so let me be clear that there are mainstream film-makers, writers and artists who have changed things, who have made works of lasting value. But often - even usually, I think - it's the independents in whatever medium you choose to examine who move things forward:

  • The avant-garde artist (Renoir in his day, Rothko in his, maybe a Keith Haring or a Basquiat, more recently).
  • The low-budget and experimental film-makers (if you want to see where MTV came from, you don't look to Hollywood, you look to the Russian avant-garde of the 20s - check out Vertov or Eisenstein or Pudovkin).
  • And in music it ain't the work of Britney Spears that drives things creatively...

The fundamental problem the game business has is that we went from being a medium that was all "indie" development, all avant-garde experimentalism, to one that actively discourages such efforts. As a business and as a medium, we are, basically, all "mainstream this," "big-budget that." Our entire business model has been geared toward bigger and brassier, but not bolder or better games.

Ten years ago, when I worked for EA, an executive there told me this was coming - that the future didn't lie in small, innovative, low-profit games, that the future was in roll-the-big-dice blockbusters. I thought he was nuts. And even though history has gone his way (for now) even though I play his game now, I still think he was nuts. We are an industry of blockbusters, but that is precisely what we have to change.

With very few exceptions, the truly innovative titles (when they make it past the corporate gatekeepers at all) rarely influence other titles in any significant way. I mean, it's not as if Katamari Damacy unleashed a flood of similar titles. Any of you tried selling a game like that to a publisher recently? Wow. Don't bother.

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