Industry, Suits, and Audience

The Six Steps from Scott Mcloud’s Understanding Comics.

MTV’s Multiplayer Blog recently interviewed Trey Smith, Creative Director at Electronic Arts working on NBA Jam.  In it, there was the following exchange:

What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?

I think there are a number of problems we have with the way games are being developed today, but honestly, I think one of the biggest problems right now is the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there. You know who they are. If they spent less time spewing ignorant hate on the boards and in online games, and more time rallying behind the great games they love and helping to build a thriving community that welcomes everyone that shows up to play with them – everybody wins. Nothing wrong with a little smack talk here and there, just wish gamers respected each other more. I just got back from PAX Prime down in Seattle. I am of the opinion that if the people of PAX ran the world, it would be a much better place. Costumes optional.

The Age’s Screenplay blog picked this up and, significantly I think, changed the emphasis:

What’s the biggest problem facing the games industry today?

According to NBA Jam’s Creative Director Trey Smith, who just put the finishing touches on the slapstick sports game for Electronic Arts, one of the biggest problems right now is “the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there”.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing the games industry today?

I’ve already written about this use of ‘industry‘ as a defining metaphor, and this is a perfect example of that.  Trey points out that there are issues with how games are developed, certainly an industry issue, but his chief complaint is as actually quite removed from industry – it’s about a small part of the audience that exists in the wider gaming culture.

But this hasn’t stopped it being picked up by some local blogs.  On GameTaco, Smoolander wrote:

I would like to respond to this sentiment by stating that this is not the biggest problem facing the games industry. The internet is synonymous with idiots, and this does not just restrict itself to gaming, but the internet as a whole. Hell, just step outside during the day, or night, and you’ll find your share of selfish idiots wandering around.

No, the biggest problem facing the games industry at the moment is suits. Corporate suits. Worn by people whose first thought is to their shareholders above anything else.

And in response, Fraser Allison on RedKingsDream wrote:

That’s what’s wrong with the games industry. Not the suits: they’d disappear in a month if we stopped supporting them. Not the angry ranty geeks: for all their lack of social graces, they often reserve their passion for the things that deserve to be supported. No, it’s the ordinary people who keep handing over their money for overproduced, soulless shit that doesn’t need to exist, either because they don’t know any better, or worse: even though they do.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

As Trey pointed out, there is a lot wrong with how we develop games.  No disagreements there.  But, I do disagree with the framing of suits and audience because I think, even when they apply to ‘industry’, they’re not necessarily a useful abstraction – and that’s where Scott Mcloud comes in.

In his book, Understanding Comics – which if you haven’t read, you should – attempts to decipher the essentials of the creative process, breaking it down into 6 stages:

  1. Idea / Purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

In becoming an artist – in any form – Scott puts forward the argument that an artist works backwards from 6 – first mimicking the surface aspects of the work, then learning craft, experimenting with structure, then underlying genre & possibility, before leaning on the essential strengths of the medium or exploring the breadth of their own ideas.

At each of these stages during the descent, people fall away.  The number of people sitting on the surface level is larger than those at craft, is larger than…well, you get the idea.

This applies to both our audience and our creatives.  A tiny little fraction of people who choose a specific form will dig all the way down to Idea / Purpose – and a tiny fraction of an art form’s audience will be interested in exploring work that does.

The same goes for those who provide the financial stake in the ‘industrial’ aspects of games – the suits.  The majority of them will sit with their understanding at the surface level, a smaller number at craft, and so on, and so on.

What these blog posts seem to be railing against is essential human nature, not some abstract money-man, or an audience that fails to appreciate creative work, but something fundamental in the way we develop as creatives, and in the way creative industries develop alongside that.  Like quality, community, platforms, and projects, this is fractal in nature.  Our ability to dig through those 6 stages as individuals is mirrored all the way through our gaming industry and culture – and not just ours, but every single creative industry & associated culture too.

So, how to address, really address, the root of this question of ‘audience’ and ‘suits’?

It appears to me that this is about the type and range and creativity of the projects that are made, not only by the industrial style of production, but the engagement of the independent sector audience as well.  But in order for that independent sector to exist, there needs to be a critical mass of gamers – gamers who inevitably engage with the superficial aspects of the work, but who, sometimes, feel the need to dig deeper and deeper.  Somewhere in the world, Halo: Reach will be a somebody’s first introduction to the world of video games, and if we’re lucky they’ll find something there to engage in, and if we’re even luckier, they’ll be drawn into the possibiltiy of the medium and want to learn more.

Since GCAP, I’ve been thinking a lot about community and the ecosystem that needs to exist in order for a creative industry and the associated culture to function.  While the language we use is important – no scratch that, essential – in capturing the various facets of what we create, it shouldn’t be used to create divisions and artificial boundaries between ‘suits’ and ‘creatives’ between ‘developers’ and ‘audience’.

In reality, all of these parts need to exist, sharing a symbiotic relationship, enabling more people to make more things, which in the end is the only way to increase the number and ability of the people who dig all the way down to Scott’s core levels.  This is simply the price to be paid, and I for one am mostly okay with that.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t continue to try & improve development practices, we shouldn’t stop trying to better educate our audiences, and we shouldn’t stop trying to be more creative developers, because we should.

But we also need to start digging deeper into all of those things to get to the core of why they happen rather than our arguments simply skimming the Surface.

4 thoughts on “Industry, Suits, and Audience”

  1. Something I particularly appreciate about this discussion is that, to my mind, each contribution has diagnosed a real issue, while the follow-ups have found a deeper underlying point: not necessarily contradicting the earlier issues, but explaining how they come about. It’s a productive discourse, especially for us at the superficial levels!

    For future readers, I think Paul’s been a little severe by implying we’re all looking at the Surface of game culture/industry. For fun, here’s my assessment:
    6. Trey Smith brought up a Surface issue.
    5. Smoolander looked at how the work is constructed – Craft.
    4. I talked about what gets made and why – Structure.
    3+2. Paul noted how we speak and think about games – Idiom – and what the culture of games is made of, in terms of participants – Form.

    I’m not sure games as a media can be said to have a central Idea or Purpose. It is a Form through which many ideas are expressed. Similarly, the wider games culture/industry is composed of people who all have their own motivations and ideals.

  2. Sorry about the implication. Wasn’t in particular directed at you guys, more the broader writing and thinking about the games culture, which I think tends towards the poor (and veers frequently into the very poor).

    I agree about it being a constructive discourse, so thanks for starting it off. One of the things that struck me post writing the post(!) was that the same thoughts I apply to Halo apply to the ideas & writing around gaming & games culture – something might be the first time anyone’s come across it, so it’s frequently worthwhile having a discussion start from familiar places to see where they go. And maybe that’ll encourage those new audiences to dig deeper.

    Your breakdown is interesting too, but I wonder if it could do with a finer degree of granularity – seperating out the medium, culture, and production aspects. Having said that though, I do have a scratching thought of what Idea might be in your model, but need to think more on it. I do have a draft post somewhere that tries to define each of those areas and their relationship, so perhaps it’s worth mapping this breakdown to that too…

  3. This is one of your most interesting articles yet Paul. I totally understand where you’re coming from. As a big movie buff I see this all the time. When discussing the merits of a particular movie I can see that others who have less experience with movies are comparing movies on their surface level, where I’ll be looking much deeper. Hence why so many people rate say Avatar so highly, as I’ll agree that at a surface level it’s fantastic.

    I’ve never thought about it in the way described here though, and I totally agree with you about games. In fact I’d say an understanding of this would help propel discussion and critique of games much further. For instance your average IGN review (not singling out IGN per se) dwells almost exclusively on the surface values of a game. I’ll be sure I’ll be trying to think of ways in which I can exploit the understanding of different depths you’ve discussed here in how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively to a wide range of people. And perhaps rather than saying “Oh well that movie was rubbish” (eg Avatar) I can form more articulate statements. My only concern being perhaps that I don’t want to sound like an intellectual snob at the other end (eg “Well yes Avatar is quite glamorous on a surface level, but it has the intellectual depth of Spot Can Run”)

  4. Fantastic post Paul; I was eagerly awaiting your input when the discussion broke.

    I absolutely agree that all aspects of gaming, be they the critical mass (which is a very succinct way of putting it) or independent game players, AAA/indie and all the corporate and creative elements in-between, are necessary elements of gaming in some way. None of them are inherently bad, they just may contain some historical poor practices, or even practices that simply need a bit of examination being modelled on other mediums. A comment I made yesterday was that corporate governance isn’t a bad thing at all if applied correctly. Applying it directly means investing time understanding the medium – all six steps if you will, but to invest time in the medium, all elements need to understand its worth, or at the least believe in it in good faith.

    That more or less applies to any aspect in which we hope to effect change, including on a cultural level. Regardless of some behaviour of some communities, they are still supporting the industry and deserve to be a part of it; they are a part of that giant pool of people who are players of games.

    Too many thoughts on a great discussion! I’ll leave it at that for now – not entirely sure I’m making any sense.

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