Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I'd Rather Eat Gravel than Land a Job in the Games Industry

     For those of you who don't know, I'm a sophomore year college student majoring in political science. Despite my passion for making games, I have for a long time disregarded the possibility of studying game development or pursuing a career in the medium. Most people I've talked to about it tell me that it's a natural choice for someone with my interests. Whenever I have conversations about choosing a major or considering a career path, the other person almost always mentions, "you know, you've always disregarded the game thing, but you know, it's good to be paid to do something you love/good to pick up some highly technical skills/it seems like a natural fit for you." It was hard to provide a response that indicated otherwise, why wouldn't I want to be paid for something that I love? Yet, deep down, I knew that the games industry wasn't for me. I didn't want to be part of a massive development team, cranking out another generic AAA first person shooter whose story that wasn't worth shit. I wanted to do something different, I wanted to make stories that reflected upon real human experience, and I wanted to tell stories on my own terms, to realize my vision and not somebody else's. The games medium was made for me, but the industry, as it exists today, isn't.



     Despite my sentiments, I have recently declared a second major in games and animation, a major dedicated to equipping me the skills necessary for a career in the industry. This came about in a bizarre manner. Long story short, I had mistakenly thought that political science was not a good choice of major for me, needed to find something alternative, decided that games would be a good substitute, rediscovered my passion for social justice, and decided to stick with both majors. I was originally excited about my new major because I thought that learning to use professional quality software would somehow make me better able to build virtual worlds and tell stories within them. I thought that, because I was making low-tech 2-D games in an obscure programming language that was not used professionally at all, that I was somehow lesser of an artist than those with skills to make beautifully rendered 3-D world. I ignored the fact that those skills would be impractical to me outside of the industry that would be hostile to my ambitions, and was excited for a while about the new direction I was taking. Then, a few things happened.

     The first think that happened was that I had started to attend meetings of the Ohio University Game Developer's Association, the OUGDA. I was excited to finally get to meet hobbyist and indie game developers who were like-minded - I've encountered such personalities online but never in person. Sadly, this organization was not at all what I had expected. The leaders of the organization, the only ones with any game development experience, were generally games and animation majors who specialized in specific skills. The rest of the members were people who had no experience in game development at all. The perspective towards game development held by the club was extremely homogeneous: the leaders of OUGDA teach the novices to specialize in a skill and to be a mere cog in a massive machine. There is nothing inherently wrong with large game production teams - except for that I do not want to be part of one.

     Generally, I felt incredibly alienated whenever I attended meetings. Whereas I wanted to talk about telling better stories through games, using interactivity as a storytelling technique rather than a literal game mechanic, and game design from a top-down perspective, everybody else talked about learning programming languages, creating shaders and textures, and what it takes to land a job in the industry. Hell, there wasn't even any discussion on traditional game design itself - on challenges and rewards, learning curves, incentives, or game balance - let alone radical non-game interactive narrative design. Instead, all discussion was technical and professional, and not at all content-based.  I might as well have been working in a completely different medium from them. I have long since abandoned the OUGDA, but the few meetings I had attended provided me with my first personal experience of the people who work in the games industry and served as a rude reminder that I was a black sheep.

     The second thing that happened was that I had come across a couple of articles on the medium on Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to critical discussion of games. The first is titled Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution. The author of the article, interactive fiction writer Porpetine, makes the argument that in capitalist societies there exists a notion a tall and intimidating barrier between those who produce culture and the consuming masses. Those in positions of privilege have greater opportunity to produce consumable culture and therefore dominate it at the expense of others. The masses are therefore discouraged from creation. He specifically relates this theory to video games, to which there are perceived to be large technical barriers to their creation. Indeed, the power of creation is almost exclusive to the mainstream games industry. Yet the widely perceived barrier to entry is, Porpetine argues, illusory. There is a wide variety of game development software that is free, accessible, flexible, and requires little technical skill. The most notable among this software is Twine, a free, flexible, efficient tool for creating interactive fiction with hypertext. The beauty of Twine requires no technical skill that a typical computer user does not already have, it makes interactive storytelling accessible to virtually anyone who can use a keyboard and mouse.

     Porpetine's account of creation and capitalism resonates deeply with my experience. The members of OUGDA, for example, were above all else concerned with overcoming the technical barriers needed to become game developers, and not at all concerned with what they would do after overcoming those barriers. Because of the perception of these barriers, whenever I tell people that I am a hobbyist game developer, they are much more likely to be impressed than when I tell them that I am a photographer, a bassist, or that I write a blog. Frankly, any extra prestige that I get for expressing myself through games instead of any other medium is totally unwarranted. Becoming good at game development is no different from becoming good at any other skill - period. It requires time, a little money, practice, and the ability to learn and grow as you master the skill. I started to teach myself to make games when I was 13 years old - if a dopey kid can do it, so can you. Some of you might be thinking: sure, the technical barriers for making a short, low-tech game may be easily surmountable, but the barriers for making a real video game are high. To this I respond: the difference between making a short game alone and a AAA game in a large team is the same as the difference between writing and performing a song by yourself and performing in a symphonic orchestra, between sculpting a bowl and helping sculpt the Statue of Liberty, between writing a short story and publishing an anthology of poems. The barriers to music, art, and literature themselves are minimal, and the work that can be produced immediately after transcending that barrier is by no means lesser than those works that require large sums of money and a team of laborers to produce. It would be absurd to say that a small painting is inherently less beautiful than a mural.

     When I declared my second major, as I had mentioned, I had thought that my current technical skills as a game developer are not good enough. Now I realize that I was utterly full of shit. I already have the tools at my disposal to tell any story that I want and ability to use them, and, because of software like Twine, so do you. I made the mistake of adopting the common cultural conception of a video game as a mass-produced high-cost commercial product, when what a video game actually is is so much broader than that.

     Now, the second  article I read was one written by indie dev Jonas Kyratzes titled Games for Adults (it is a highly entertaining read, do take a minute and look at it, then come back here when you're done). The conversation between the bartender, the rabbit, the rabbi, and the robot serves not only as a reminder of the homogeneity among the stories told in games, but also of how disconnected games are from art in general. I don't believe that the games industry is inherently limited to telling adolescent stories, or that it inherently has a distorted definition of art, or that there aren't a few professional studios that do tell mature stories, but the chance that any of these trait of the industry will change by the time I enter it, were I to do that, are slim.

     Perhaps the high technical expertise required to make high-budget games is part of the reason why the stories that they tell are often as bad as they are. It requires a fair amount of technical skill to be a programmer or animator, but less to be a writer. When hiring for a large commercial game development team, you're primary concern isn't for the creative vision of your employees, but instead simply for their skill set. This isn't to say that brilliantly creative people don't exist in the industry - of course they do - but injecting these people into it isn't a top priority.

     Before I conclude, I also want to make the disclaimer that I don't hate AAA games or games that sacrifice story for mechanics - I enjoy a good game of Team Fortress 2 from time to time. The point that I want to make is that AAA games are perceived to comprise the interactive medium as a whole, when they really only comprise an incredibly narrow part of it. I enjoy consuming them, but I do not desire to make them, just as I enjoying watching films but have no desire to be a director. Sure, if I could get paid to do what I loved, that would be wonderful. The problem is, unless I take the incredibly risky option of self-employment, I can't. There are very few studios in the world that make the sort of games that I want to make. It's like being a novelist when your only choice for employment is writing instruction manuals - the medium of text is the same, but the forms are radically different from each other.

     This brings me back to people's confusion when I tell them that I'm a hobbyist game developer who usually disregards the option of going professional. They think that the "novels" that I'm writing are the "instruction manuals" that are being produced in the industry - but they're not. Until recently, I had also mistakenly held this viewpoint, and although I knew that they industry wasn't for me, I couldn't convincingly articulate why that was the case. Frankly, I don't even want to think of the stories that I'm telling as being games even though I may refer to them as such. They are much more akin to novels or cinema than tabletop games or sports. Now that I've realized this, I have lost all excitement for my newly declared major. I will give it a chance, but at this point, I'm already looking forward to the day that I discard it and liberate myself.



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