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Indie Gains: Why Design Matters to Independent Game Development

We've been involved with indie videogames over the past couple of weeks, and wonder why more game developers don't identify as designers.

Messhof's "Turbo Turbo Turbo"

It's been a couple of weeks since the Freeplay festival took place in the State Library here in Melbourne. This blog post is a summary of my response and the ideas that kept cropping up in my mind; it's about attitudes in design and is super long, my apologies. Freeplay is a games festival that has been running for around 5 years now, and for the past couple of years it's been helmed by the team of Paul Callaghan and Eve Penford-Dennis. The event provides a great environment for the local development community to come together and talk about their current projects, and in the process raise the level of awareness about current game development activity in Melbourne and elsewhere here in Australia.

The event was especially fun for us, as it gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends, and also gauge the local scene. Adam Saltsman and Brandon Boyer, the two headliners of the event, were staying with us which was awesome, so we had plenty of opportunity to talk about a lot of different stuff. We're all about the same age, and it's really interesting to see our common tastes, interests and ideas. In both Adam and Brandon's keynote speeches, there was a distinct emphasis on the importance of personal expression, and a tacit rejection of the kind of "design by committee" thinking that governs AAA game development. This has been something that I have been thinking about for a long time, and so I wanted to share some points here, and extend some of the freeplay discussion further.

Caring about Design

Freeplay is an independent game festival, but there are many commercial studios here in Melbourne. It's been a tough year for them, and many are now restructuring. A lot of the developers are going indie and moving to new platforms such as mobile. In the UK as well as here one of the reasons that so many developers struggle is because they lack the kind of intellectual property to adequately profit from the development process. You need visionary designers to come up with that kind of material, and yet in many cases the management of the design process within games companies actively opposes the generation of maverick or innovative thinking. Design by Committee: I'm talking about the culture of development focus groups and statistical and demographically-driven "positioning" that has dominated the production cultures of most mass-media production since the advent of television. "Tailoring" content based on market research certainly boosts the confidence of risk-averse investors, but has real consequences to creativity, pushing original thinking to the margins and creating an increasingly homogeneous set of releases. "Brown" games, FPS clones, JRPGs, "casual" games, shovelware, so many new ways to describe a common problem: the (troubled) market value of design vision.

When I was studying animation in film school, one of the principles my tutors constantly emphasised was "create work which appeals to you as the director, and the audience will follow you". It's an uncompromising position in some respects, but underneath the ego is a really humane sentiment -- at best we're all pretty similar, your vision will resonate with others. In a way, it's about believing that people want to be challenged, not just placated. The artist/designer should make the effort to be culturally engaged, experience lots of different media, incorporate an original perspective into their work, and take seriously the professional obligation of creating experiences for others.

Our media culture is now totally schizophrenic. On the one hand, designers and artists are lauded for their vision -- for example, a lead designer keynotes at a major conference -- but that is surrounded by a proliferation of work looking to undermine any singular or focused vision, through excessive emphasis on the casual, the collective, user-generated content, and hobbyist practice.

In 2010, what is a game designer?

At the risk of being overly simplistic, "big" games culture often blurs the difference in duties that exist between the player and designer. For example, one of the big development trends of the past few years has been user generated content. Through level editors and character customisation, players are free to create content that can then be uploaded to official servers. In some cases, entirely "new" gameplay scenarios can be authored on an increasingly sophisticated portfolio of tools. The creativity of players-as-designers is big business. But are we forgetting some things about what it means to be a designer? Does the indie game scene address those concerns?

Players becoming designers is the natural way of things. As Adam suggested at Freeplay, play is ubiquitous. Tinkering on the home computer was the pastime of erstwhile kids the world over, curiosity and play naturally lead to commercial enterprise. The story of the bedroom coder turned teenage entrepreneur is a big part of the game designer dream. The more games become like work, the more players "labour" needs to be recognised, and UGC provides a perfect mechanism to capture the work of play. With the advent of social media, these issues are now the major focus of game development, and are almost all encompassing. What must it have been like to make a game on the NES, without the incredible pressures exerted by social media and contemporary digital consumer culture?

I want to talk about the value of a different picture, where there is a clear distinction made between the artist/designer and the audience that they draw through the exhibition of their work. It has to do with the value proposition made by design. When we spend money on a game, what are we investing in? In a culture where the making of games is becoming increasingly democratic, and "design by focus group" removes complexity from games, there is a considerable shift in expectation. Imagine if the audience understood the way in which the (good) game designer creates imaginary worlds and play experiences that have an intelligence and poetry beyond the ability of the player. Imagine if the gaming audience could name their favourite art directors in games. Imagine if the gaming audience were happy to buy a game because it pushed the boundaries of the medium, rather than underscoring a hardware investment.

In my talk at GameCity in Nottingham last year, I spoke about the lack of appreciation of the role of the designer (there are many factors that have historically contributed to this, and Simon Parkin wrote an awesome summary of that talk here). The value of the designer is further questioned in a development culture where player creativity and market-driven design is king. 

I think that one of the core offerings of indie game development can be a return games to more distinct value proposition. In a culture where a 59 cent iPhone game exists, the correlation between cost and value becomes a question for the everyday consumer. Value found in originality, and ingenuity and aesthetics. At least some games should opt to not take the path of least resistance when defining gameplay, art styles, sound design, marketing and so on. The games designer has an opportunity to achieve distinction from an audience, not because he despises them, but precisely because he needs have that distance to be able to offer something special and new to the audience.

These thoughts have been inspired somewhat by the (troubling) Tale of Tales presentation at the Art History of Games conference (and the subsequent debate over at the TIGsource forums), and also the recent death of Satoshi Kon, and the letter that was posthumously published on his blog. Satoshi Kon was an incredible talent in the anime world, and his letter emphasises what a distinct and uncompromising character he was in life. He expresses a real appreciation for his fans, but also the degree to which his success is attributed to the "alternative perspective" he cherished throughout his life.

Design as Risk Reward

We should respect the efforts of artists and designers who work to their own tempo, because they take a huge risk each time they put work into the public domain. The personal vision of the designer is tested in the audience arena, and while it may continue to hold a relevance and importance to the designer, the audience are free to reject that vision. Conversely, when visionary creative work has a place, it doesn't just underscore the status quo to which the established standard works, but rather broaches new territory, creating a new, unanticipated place where the audience could never have moved without the intervention of the designer. In that moment the designer or artist is justified in their role, validated by their capacity to deepen and expand our experiences.

So when Brandon delivered his keynote at Freeplay this month, and made it clear that the meaning of indie lay more in a sensibility than an economic parameter, there are deep and wide-reaching consequences. It means that the games designer has an obligation to be interesting and engaging in his work. This might seem like a facetious point to make, but it's a response to the ways in which mainstream game development actively keeps the most radical and alternative perspectives offered by games out of the public eye. Being a games designer is a serious business, it means acquiring a special status, but implies also a recognition that there will be moments of vulnerability and risk, when personal vision and public reception collide.

The industry thinks it can harvest ideas from the proliferation of game prototypes and user generated content online. Until those making games identify as designers and defend their visions in the public sphere, the industry will swing further and further toward the amateur. I love the passion and professionalism of Adam, Cactus, Messhof and the Capy peeps and all the people that right now are taking seriously their personal vision as indie game designers, and are importantly fully present alongside their work to celebrate and defend it. It's 2010 and we're starting to make more games alongside the animation work that we do, and it's awesome to have a culture of indie development (that embodies best practice in design) doing its thing, outside of the purview of the mainstream. Things have changed a lot in 10 years!

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