SPOnG has just noticed an interesting op-ed piece in today's Guardian, that bastion of the English liberal chattering classes, which looks at some rather fundamental issues surrounding creativity in games development. Keith Stuart asks how companies square the creative drive with those two necessary evils - money and discipline - in light of the recent flurry of mergers and acquisitions across the games industry.
Spring, as Keith points out is ?A time of frenzied activity in the natural world? which has also ?...proved equally as stirring for the videogame industry?. This is a good analogy, and one which we wish that we had thought of before Keith. Damn.
Last week, SPOnG spoke to Lionhead founder, big boss and all-round development guru Peter Molyneux
whose legendary development studios have just been bought out by none other than Microsoft.
Two days before the Lionhead deal was announced, US mobile games giant Glu snapped up UK publisher iFone (which owns the 'license-to-print-money' rights Java versions of Atari and Sega classics).
The other well publicised buy-out was that of SEGA, who bought not one but two leading Western dev outfits ? Britsoft sports sim stalwarts Sports Interactive
(of Football Manager fame) as well as San Francisco-based outfit Secret Level.
?Usually, industry watchers take a dim view of such corporate bustle, bemoaning the homogenisation of game development and the creeping death of the independent spirit,? observes Stuart.
He is, unfortunately, bang on the money with this. What with all the requisite grumblings and rumblings from the hardcore gaming fraternity, not to mention the aggrieved Sony/Nintendo fanboys worldwide, that this invevitably involves, Stuart goes on to pose the valid question ?Is consolidation such a bad thing??
?History has shown that developers, like ageing pop musicians, can become flabby if left to their own devices for too long?, Stuart wryly observes. Damn it, this guy is good with the analogy. SPOnG makes a mental note to file this under ?quotes to pass off as our own at dinner parties and that?.
Stuart uses DMA design as an example of a studio that has clearly benefited (creatively) from being given loads of money when they were bought out by Rockstar. It?s hard to see how they might not have benefited really, given that Rockstar is a publisher that understands the vagaries of the development process far better than most.
As Stuart observes: ?Responsible for the classic puzzler Lemmings, the company rocketed into a creative vortex in the late 90s, before being bought out by Rockstar. What emerged from the chaos? Grand Theft Auto III - one of the most important British games ever released.? Fair point.
He also cites as further proof that buy-outs are generally good things
the cases of US developer Neversoft (who were having a simply awful 1990s, until Activision and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater came along); EA?s buyout of Bullfrog (which saw them ?abandon vanity projects in favour of big sellers Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper II?) and Infogrames buy-out of Britsoft legend Ocean.
?Mergers and acquisitions usually bring discipline, and when large numbers of people are involved - as is the case with modern videogame production - this can be a much more valuable driving force than creative freedom,? opines Stuart, claiming that the "It's finished when it's finished" approach rarely works.
?Id pulled it off with Doom III and Quake IV, Valve did it with Half-Life 2, but for each of those titles there are 10 bloated and pretentious failures.?
In a flurry of happy analogies, Stuart goes back to nature: ?Nature consolidates. It is the way of the world. What the industry needs is a corporate culture that nourishes quirky design - but within a strict framework. The tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1940s provides a pretty good model. Sports Interactive, through its excellent relationship with Sega, has learned to trim its excesses, but at the moment Lionhead, a national treasure, is operating like a maverick auteur of the 1970s, spinning out its good ideas into confusing experiences. In this season of re-birth, it is time for a fresh approach.?
SPOnG spoke to a Lionhead rep earlier today to ask what they thought of being described as a maverick, out-of-control 1970s auteur. ?Well, of course Keith is entitled to his opinion, but it?s obviously one which we don?t agree with,? said our source.
Plus, as one SPOnG staffer observed: "I'm not sure "confusing experiences" is correct when talking about Lionhead's recent output, such as The Movies or Black and White. They may fall short of their original promises, but they are not confusing."
Yes, it?s a shame really, it's just a clumsy analogy. SPOnG would hardly liken the softly-spoken, easy-going Peter Molyneux to a cocaine-crazed Francis Ford Coppola, for example. But other than that, Keith has raised some interesting and important points about the nature of the capitalist beast that drives videogame design and production. Let us know your thoughts in the forum below.