Highlights of Videogame Cultures 3
Artgames: The Infinite Shelf and the Market Shadow

Videogames: Engine Inertia vs Creative Industry

Film Reels Is the videogame industry a creative industry like movies, where ideas can be bought and sold? Or does the central role of the game engine in blockbuster titles render innovation and invention meaningless against the practical constraints of game development?

The movie business is considered an archetypal creative industry. Ideas are circulated in the form of pitches or draft scripts which are optioned by studios as possible future projects. These studios are a centralised source of money, which is allocated to projects which are then staffed from the talent pool working in movies. No-one is irreplaceable in this system: star actors and actresses may be the biggest driver of box office receipts, but they can and are replaced. Directors have the leadership skills required to steer projects with hundreds of staff, but they too are replaceable.

It can be objected that the film industry achieves more commercially than it does artistically, but it can't be denied that the big studios keep money flowing to the talent pool working in film, thus keeping the industry alive. Creative, artistically valued films get made in the cracks between the studios because movie makers have a robust industry to fall back on. You can take more risks when you know there's somewhere safe to fall should things go wrong.

In many respects, the blockbuster videogame industry has modelled itself on the movie industry. Money is centralised in publishers who fulfil the same role as studios in bankrolling projects, for instance, and marketing practices show considerable similarity too. But in games, there is no mechanism for a pitch or 'script' to be floated independently of a developer. I often meet people from movies who have "a great idea for a game", but in almost all cases there is no conceivable way that idea can become a game. Why should this be?

It is not that games lack a suitable brief document equivalent to a script: concept documents are passed around all the time, and my company does quite a lot of work developing these concise descriptions of potential game projects. But publishers don't option concepts for games the way movie studios option scripts, and for very practical reasons. The process of converting a script to a film is well established and has no critical element that can't be shuffled around as the project develops. But the process of converting a game concept to a game is deeply and critically dependent on one particular asset, which has no equivalent in film: an engine.

Ian Bogost has drawn attention to the theoretical importance of the engine for game development. In many respects, the engine is the game - or rather, any given engine supports a wide array of games with fundamentally similar capabilities. The engine determines what a game can or cannot do, and the cost of developing the engine is so significant that for blockbuster games an engine must deliver at least three game titles to make it worth creating in the first place.

Engines are also big business: superstar programmers (i.e. uber-nerds) write the code that steps up the top end capabilities for graphics, physics etc. and these cutting edge engines are then licensed for big bucks. Companies like id Software only make games to showcase their engines, which are their real money makers. This radical monopoly on engine construction is a central feature of the games industry - there can be no game without geeks to make them, which means every blockbuster that gets made is almost guaranteed to be 'nerd friendly'.

There is no equivalent to the game engine in film production, and this is the primary reason movie studios can afford to trade in ideas (i.e. option scripts). Movie projects have no significant critical elements beyond budget. If you have money, you can make movies. But money alone isn't enough in blockbuster games: you can license an engine, but you still need geeks to make it do what you want, and if you have the requisite programming talent it might look better to have them write the engine in the first place, taking about five years by today's blockbuster standards e.g. Team Bondi and L.A. Noire (2011).

The game engine is never an off-the-shelf resource. Engines have their own inertia that makes it hard to change what they do and time consuming to maintain and upgrade them. This all requires a significant investment of programmer time to master - or tame. This is why blockbuster projects revolve around teams, and pricipally around programming teams and their leaders at the executive level of the business. Artists, game designers, audio, QA - like actors and directors in films - are expendable, exchangeable... But whomever keeps the engine running is almost irreplaceable, and whomever can lead the unleadable (since programmers are wilful beasts) becomes hot property in game development.

Engine inertia not only reflects the efforts to build and maintain program code of the relevant complexity to run a blockbuster videogame, it reflects the trend across all such engines. Game engines are locked into a competition to produce higher quality renders and more detailed fictional worlds. This state of affairs is made inevitable by the constant market pressure to sell more powerful equipment on the one hand, and the game programmer's addiction to technical excellence on the other. An obsession with perfecting simulation meshes with ever more powerful computer equipment to create an industry-wide engine inertia that drives towards more advanced graphics and other computational flourishes. The mass market for games doesn't care about this futile arms race, as the Wii and DS show, but gamers buy into it for sport, if nothing else.

Suppose we wanted to remodel the games industry so that it was possible to trade in ideas, like the film industry - how could this be achieved? Arguably all that would be required would be an industry-wide standard engine, something that could be taught as the basic tool for making games. With this common footing, a shared methodology (equivalent to that used in film-making) would reduce the emphasis on technology and allow for more fertile creativity. Engine inertia would still have an effect, but it would occur on a  slower scale - compare the many decades 35 mm film was standard, to the sudden obsolescence of engines in games.

However, this fantasy is misguided. Hollywood trades in ideas because movies are mass market, and there's an appetite for novelty. But even then, the ideas it trades in are rather conservatively construed. A standardised games industry would still be making simulated fictional worlds, and these are not mass market. They appeal to gamers, not all-comers. Since gamers actively enjoy the high degree of fidelity, complexity and capacities that result from escalating engine inertia, the current situation serves them as much as the programmers (hardly surprising, given the crossover in tastes).

Thus it seems that games can never be a creative industry in the same way as films. We will never be open to inventive concepts brought in by a lone creative individual, as can happen in movies (at least on paper!) and those games that get made will tend to lean heavily towards the play needs of the nerds who program them. Engine inertia blocks the possibility of creative invention by placing a necessary requirement for programming as the essential and irreplaceable component of any blockbuster game title. While this is the case, innovation in games is heavily constrained, and this situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

Videogames are a creative medium, but they are only barely a creative industry. Engine inertia blocks this possibility by making code resources the critical element in any blockbuster game project. As a result there is no trickle-down from the funding of big games to the support of small, artistically interesting projects. Until this can happen, videogames are almost exempt from cultural esteem, being little more than expensive geek toys. I'd love to see this change, but at the moment the economic conditions are poisonous to risk. While code is more important than ideas, creativity necessarily suffers, and games are doomed to fall short of their potential.


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Surely if a games company were to say "To hell with the latest graphics, 2010 graphics are perfectly good" then re-using an older engine becomes more viable.

And if enough people start to do this then that engine will get worked upon, modularised, and eventually commoditised.

Isn't the problem that the people who commission the games buy into the argument that they must have THE most exciting graphics.

It's like every movie studio saying that every film must have special effects that redefine peoples expectations. Whether they make sense for any particular script concept or not.

Or something...


Matt: you are of course right that if the industry could set aside the race for superior graphics, the situation could stabilize. But videogames is a cutthroat competitive market - just like films - and no-one wants to give up even the slightest commercial advantage.

Plus, quite frankly, the 14-25 year old boys who are the mainstay of the blockbuster market buy into the race for superior tech - just as they buy into the race for superior special effects.

Ironically, what might "save" us from this is the growing commercial power of casual and social games. But I think, unlike many of the people I've spoken to here at IGDA Summit/Casual Connect, that talk of the "death of consoles" right now is still premature.

*waves from Seattle*

If small teams of 2 or 3 can make games that are played by millions and are able to support themselves financially, why lament the limitations of the studio model? Just make games outside that system. Those who due to various blinders voluntarily seek to participate in a broken system will run into some of the issues that you mention, but it is by no means necessary or predetermined for all.

As for engines limiting games, this is certainly true. Cardboard and dice form strong limits on board games so the same holds for other engines. However, it is easy enough to find an inexpensive engine that handles a vast range of potential designs. Engines are not a blocker, they are just another interesting creative constraint. I know that I regularly bring forth ideas by a single creative individual and don't feel in the least limited by engines.

Also it may not be apparent from your current watchtower, but large portions of the industry have set aside the race for superior graphics. It is easy to keep fighting the last war, but not necessary.

take care,

PS: It has been great chatting while you are here in the land of almost sun. :-)

Hey Dan,

I can see where you're coming at this issue - if (some) small teams can make a living, where's the problem, right? Well the public image of the games industry is still set by the media corporations, and perhaps more importantly, the kind of games that those small teams can survive with are specialist titles. For hobbyists, the existence of such specialist developers is great news - but it isn't a validation of the idea of games as a creative industry.

Similarly, the fact that specialist titles are not in the graphical arms race isn't the issue I'm tilting at here. Specialist titles have a freer hand because they are servicing their niches - which are still, let's face it, largely teenage boys. But the blockbuster industry still conditions the employment sector for games to an incredibly high degree, not to mention setting the scope of the specialist market - it's not a coincidence that the specialists and the blockbusters are all focused on male 15-25, right?

What's more, not everyone can pull off what you at Spry Fox are doing - and I feel it's unfair to suggest that the only barrier is that people don't try. Many try and fail, and after their small studio closes, what options do they have? The giant companies don't want you after your Logan's Run life-clock goes off, which means as a career choice game development is pretty damn treacherous.

Now I'm open to the idea that it doesn't matter that games are not (and perhaps never will be) a creative industry in the sense I am outlining here, but I'm not quite ready to accept a vision of the medium of games that is based solely around isolated islands of modest creativity in the boy-dominated spaces between towering media juggernauts that admit no invention. This to me is a kind of fortress mentality - "I got mine, so why worry"... I believe we can do better as an industry.

(See also my argument next week about the problems facing artgames, which is a kind of sequel to this piece.)

Totally awesome to hang out with you this week! If you're feeling a little better, it would be great to hook up one more time before I fly out on Monday. *waves*

Let's put some percentages on this. Consoles, the last refuge of the AAA blockbuster are currently at 40% of the videogame market and falling. Certainly a large and meaningful chunk of the gaming industry, but not the only valid portion. Ten years ago (when they were at 80%) it may have been valid to call them "towering media juggernauts", but less so now. (ref: http://www.industrygamers.com/news/ea-ceo-consoles-now-only-40-of-games-industry/)

I'm not sure I'd classify many of the newer markets as 'specialist'. I know that I personally don't always design for them as such. (Both Triple Town and Panda Poets skew heavily female) Both Facebook and Mobile games are targeted women as much if not more than 15-25 year old males.

The high failure rate of small studios is perhaps inevitable. It is certainly no worse than that of the failure rate of musicians or painters. My suspicion is that over time the power laws of success will result in a handful of highly financially successful services with a modest middle ground making a reasonable wage.

I find the economics of these new business models quite intriguing from the perspective of a smaller developer. 20-100k steady users of a decently monetizing game can keep a team going for a very long time. There's a financial stability there that is quite unlike that of a current retail company that sells less than 1 million units. It isn't always as simple as applying for a job, but a 6-12 month stint at entrepreneurship is something a surprising percentage of developers can pull off (and fail at!) without irreparably damaging their career.

Starting to feel a little better! Mostly have been sleeping all day today. :-)

take care

Dan: You raise some good points here. It's certainly the case that blockbuster console games are a smaller percentage of the market value than they were only a few years ago - but bear in mind that the reason for this isn't that the revenues in this space is retreating (for the successful titles, the revenues continue to rise) but rather that the casual and social games space has started to make serious money. But in terms of being a creative industry, the social games space is even worse than the blockbuster market! Almost the entirety of the titles in this space are directly copied from earlier Japanese game designs (I have a piece about this scheduled for two weeks time...)

A little clarification about my use of the term 'specialist' - the social games market is what I have termed the diversions market, and this isn't a specialist marketplace, but the kind of products that you are making at Spry Fox *are* specialist titles, at least according to the model of the games market I use.

We're rapidly heading into a space where the only place we can find innovation in games is in the specialist marketplace, while the 'tall' money is still in blockbusters and the 'wide' money in diversions (particularly service-based business models, such as Facebook games). I don't see any hope of games becoming a creative industry in the sense I develop here.

But then again, I am convinced from your argument that the reason for this is more than just engine inertia - although this still plays a key role in the blockbuster market, and will continue to do so even as this market supports fewer and fewer developers. But I must also allow that the wildly uncreative diversions market also has a key role in preventing the games industry from becoming a creative industry.

All the best!

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