I sat down in a room in the San Jose Convention center and basked in the greatest gathering of artistic intelligence I'd experienced in my entire life. The day before, the Experimental Gameplay Sessions had taken place in that same room. I managed to grab one of the presenters, Cloud designer Jenova Chen, minutes before the "Scratchware Auteurs" roundtable was scheduled to begin. By sheer serendipity, Tom Long, a web game designer and straight-up Indie, happened to tag along. Waiting for us were Chris Bateman, a veteran designer operating out of International Hobo Inc. and Greg Costikyan, board, computer and mobile game designer turned firebrand. Late-comer, Santiago Siri, an advergame designer and the mind behind Utopia, a one-man assault on politically weighted, socially simulated interactive storytelling, also joined in.
Patrick Dugan: We're gathered here on the premise that being a Scratchware Auteur is the best thing you can be as a designer. Or at least it's a vital role that more people need to fill lately. Scratchware means, basically, software that's developed for scratch, we're talking paper thin budgets.
PD: Psychonauts, pegged as an "art-house" favorite for 2005, definitely fits as an auteur-produced game (by Tim Schafer, the Jack Black of game design). The story people don't like to mention about that game is that it didn't make enough profit for its publisher, Majesco Games, who ended up replacing their president or something. The question is: Is the AAA production process suited towards the "art game"?
Chris Bateman: Well, no. (Laughs) Clearly, it's not. The AAA process is an excellent mechanism for refining already established gameplay concepts. GTA: San Andreas is an example of how a large budget lets you refine things that have already been put in motion and let them appeal to a very large audience, admittedly a gender-narrow audience. But its still very large, $16 million is the figure that's been bandied about. However, it's a terrible way to go about experimenting with new ideas.
Jenova Chen: It's also really hard to define what is an "art game," you know? When something different comes out, not many people know about it, and they'll say, "It's revolutionary, it's art!" Then, the next one comes out and does pretty well, and people say, "Well, it's kinda like that other game." By the time the third one comes out its pretty solid and sells out, but by then everyone says, "Oh, it's just a sequel mill, why aren't there any original games!"
Santiago Siri: I hate to speak in these terms, but the success of niche games really has to do with the market. When you speak of hardcore gamers who buy AAA games for the consoles, it's a very mature market. The average gamer age is 29 years old, they've been consumers for 10 years and have very crisp ideas about what kinds of play they want, but it is still a young consumer market. And another thing, speaking about art games, all games are art. Art isn't [inherently] a good thing, it's not [always] a positive thing, there is a lot of crappy art and very few true gems in the history of all art. Lets not make "art" a pretentious thing.
Greg Costikyan: I would say there's "art" and there's "innovation." Blizzard makes good art - it's very polished and refined and well crafted - but they haven't innovated in a long time. Rembrandt was a very good craftsman, but a terrible innovator. He tended to paint what he was good at. Budgets reflect this; you don't get a whole lot of innovation in the Hollywood system because the budgets are huge and everyone is trying to cover their ass, and everyone has a say in what the final product looks like. It's possible to get highly innovative games through these systems, but it's extremely difficult. You have to be Will Wright or Stanley Kubrick or the equivalent. One of the problems with the industry is that conventional publishers have tried, as much as they can, to deny recognition of creators, and so there are very few people with the clout to get innovative titles published.