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The Limits of Authorship

November 2nd, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Industry

You know you’ve made it when someone calls you out on shoddy journalism because they know how to write your articles better than you do. I’m a hack!

Mr. Goldberg’s reasonable (but out of place) point makes me question the persistence of authorship in game franchising. For how long should game journalists be expected to go to Will Wright for every Sims article or to Sid Meier for every Civ article? Meier is still heavily involved in play testing and prototyping but neither has been the lead designer on their signature franchise for over a decade. From where I sit, Wright’s position on the Sims community would be dated, but if my article had taken a different standpoint and addressed issues of, say, consumerism, avatar development, etc. should the series founder still be the go to guy for perspectives on the series? Why not talk to Tim LeTourneau? Or Margaret Ng?

Wright is one of my personal game deities, as I noted last week. And, unless Spore satisfies its promise, there’s no doubt that the Sims is the culmination of his career. But the franchise has been going on for so long and through so many different hands that there are lots of people who are very knowledgeable about it. EA has given Maxis unparalleled freedom to go crazy and that has let to an explosion of insight and talent in that division.

Yesterday I was exchanging emails with a friend who has moved into game development and he talked about how collaborative the process is; how the idea of the lead designer we grew up with is increasingly irrelevant. You still need a central repository to bring all these ideas together, but design is messy. Still, there is a tendency for game journalists and gamers to attach a name to the development process. Miyamoto, Jaffe, Carmack…these are our movie stars and there is a lot to be gained in putting them up front. The idea of the Game God persists even as the industry becomes less dependent on original breakthrough designs and more dependent on a consistent collection of talent.

And the old names of the past keep their hands on the collective impression of their franchises. Sort of like how Tom Clancy doesn’t write Tom Clancy books anymore. There is a need for recognition, I suppose, to have someone who can be a public spokesman for a series. And if the audience already has a persona mapped in your head (Wright=Mad Genius, Carmack=Technogeek, etc.) then PR and the games press can use that recognition as a hook. “Bruce Shelley talks Age of Empires IV” works better as a headline than “Dave Pottinger”, even though Ensemble has assembled one of the strongest RTS design teams in the world.

Is there an alternative? Maybe lead design credits should be on the cover of every box. The author format does keep some of the design process decoupled from the corporate brand. (I should probably talk about Jason Bender more than I do EALA.) And certainly the gaming pantheon is still relevant, especially when they takes a hands-on design role (Wright in Spore, Molyneux in everything.)


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan Au

    I think your comment over there sums it up nicely; the article is not about the development of The Sims, but rather about the people who play it.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Wait, is that the same VH1 as the cable channel? When did they get into gaming?

    Sheesh, what an absolutely ridiculous post by Goldberg, who apparently missed the basic premise of the article and then starts spinning conspiracy theories. I wonder if he wears a tinfoil hat to protect against the CIA mind control satellites?

    Now, regarding your current post I’ve always looked at the game god thing with slight derision. For the most part it’s entirely fabricated by publishers and pushed by game journalists (thinking back to the PC Gamer Game God issues), yet as you point out it’s usually not one guy but a team designing the game. I have to wonder what goes through the minds of anyone Sid Meier works with knowing that in the end it’s his name in big bold 28pt font above the title?

    That said I can also understand it somewhat, wholly agreeing with your take on it in the second to last paragraph. I do also wonder how much it ultimately matters. Does it really promote sales with the average consumer, or is it just the industry trying to make designers a marketable commodity, akin to the entertainment industry?

  • Dave Long

    I think gamers like the names because it gives us some fodder for messageboards, but ultimately I don’t think the public at large that buys these titles cares at all. They might remember Sid Meier, but that’s about it. It’s just something that helps sell a few more copies.

    It’s not unlike Directors in film. I go out of my way to watch certain movies because of the director. I can often tell how much I’ll enjoy a film and how “good” it’ll be by who directed it. Most of the movie-going public doesn’t even know what the director does, let alone who they are.

    I’ve personally become increasingly aware of how insular the gaming community is by watching its reaction to the Nintendo DS and the Wii. These systems are selling like wildfire yet coverage of them is very limited, not unlike The Sims phenomenon that Troy got called out to write about. The gaming community (and I think Troy even says this in his article) puts The Sims in the category of non-game or establishment-designed garbage, trying to pigeonhole it so they can forget it exists. That makes it easier for them to sit back every night blasting the same Nazis, Zombies and Space Aliens that have been getting the best of them for years without letting romance between computer generated mannequins spoil their hobby.

  • Justin Fletcher

    Funny the gamer god thing should come up as it’s been annoying the hell out of me recently. Ken Levine is way up there in my personal pantheon, but I grow weary of some fans and members of the media attributing BioShock solely to Levine as if he coded it in his garage. I know the developer’s name has become a mouthful since it changed from “Irrational” to “2K Australia/2K Boston,” but let’s give credit where credit is due, people.

    The John Romero days are over. Irrational made me its bitch long ago, but Levine didn’t break me by himself.

  • Sparky

    Troy, don’t you know — you must not only mention Will Wright in any article about The Sims, but you must also use that tired old goofy photo of him staring at the little Sims in his outstretched hand.


  • Keith Nemitz

    Maybe the Game God can be resurrected by the indie movement. There are some amazing ideas coming out of one designer bands of developers. Why isn’t the inventor of Bejeweled as well known as Mr. Wright? How about the inventor of Betty’s Beer Bar, the game that inspired Diner Dash? At least Mr. Pajitnov got his cred.

  • Troy

    Indie development seems to be the last stand of the small design team. Here you can get a sense of authorship and continuity for a series or a franchise.

    Indie game developers are, sadly, notoriously indiosyncratic at marketing their games, let alone themselves. But connoisseurs do recognize names like Introversion or Chroniclogic. So the branding is attached to the team name more than the individual

    Considering how hard it is for a good casual game to stand out in an increasingly crowded market something along the lines of “From the Makers of Peggle” would be a blessing. (Still, the portals now have as much power over marketing for casual games as the big publishers do for the retail sector. )

  • Kriss Daniels

    Gamers are, in the majority, morons. Disagree? Go stand in any games shop and observe the customers. Do not tell me these are not the real gamers if anything the fantards (I’m not going to tell you to go read a fantard forum I’m not that cruel) are even more moronic than everyone else.

    The only point of interaction that matters is if they buy, this is mostly dependent on advertising/distribution. Putting a recognized name on the box will get more sales than putting a good game in the box. Thats the only reason its there.

    Doesn’t really matter if that name had anything to do with development. Why should it?

    Indie doesn’t get you anywhere, despite the self trumpeting, its just the difference between a small bastard and a big bastard if anything Indie is forced to be more conservative because they can’t afford to fuckup.

    Authorship isn’t the issue here, it never was, its all just branding where some people where lucky enough to turn their name into a brand in the distant past.

  • jason

    Actually, Sid *is* the lead designer of CivRevolution. It’s the first Civ game he’s been involved in this heavily since the first one, but he’s extremely involved in the design, coding, and pretty much every aspect of the game.

    But I get your point, since again, he hasn’t been this involved since the first one.

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