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Friday, August 26, 2016

Game Development is Science & Art...but Not Contemporary Art

Sounds weird, right?  Claiming that video game development is an art but not contemporary when video games have only been around for the past ~40-50 years.  Hear me out here because a lack of understanding this is positively ruining the game industry as well as the credibility of indie game development; possibly even game development as a whole.

Listen, I'm guilty of being one of the many over the past decade who pushed for categorizing both anime and video games as art.  This is from decades of dealing with a usually right winged, religious conservative mentality that since the 80's tried to demonize our hobbies and games from either a position of ignorance or a position of envy that they have no discerning hobbies and dreams.  Since my early years of gaming in the 80's I've been told a number of times that I was "wasting my time" with my love for video games from those in my own social circle, on public news and even my academic sphere of influence in Computer Science during the early 00's.  Oddly, we are now seeing the same bullying from those on the far left.

Kid trying to talk to great aunt about Pokemon Go; who's desperately wanting to return to a life of no hobbies. Source 

It was a battle of creditability that many of us fought and still try to fight to this day.  Thing is something (mostly) great happened.  A few years after I finished left college in 2004-2005 a threshold was reached, games became bigger than Hollywood movies.  The "game" changed.  Video games pierced into the main stream media and has since only grown and expanded in the 10+ years since; maintained by the fact that we, the gamers, became adults and to the dismay of the past generations, didn't shed our supposedly childish love.  From that point on, game development & programming courses became a norm in many schools and eventually it was finally recognized as an art of both technology and design as oppose to some "childish fad" some hoped it was going only to be.

So the battle was won right?  We did it.  We, the gamers (and yes, even anime fans to some degree) didn't have to be shunned for liking a hobby that was scientifically proven to improve a number of our senses and expand our imagination; with the development of which encompassing the entirety of of Computer Science and also responsible for moving that field forward.  Trust me, the old hat enterprise apps being outsourced to India in the early 00's were in no way improving Computer Science.  Much of the mobile / smart phone revolution was due to gaming... as is the current revolution of VR and AR.   Games have and will always move tech forward.

Dark Souls 3: A game that is a work of art in addition to being a fun game

Depression Quest: A game created for the sake of being "artsy" 

Not so fast with the celebration, though...
With this great improvement of the field and hobby came some issues; one of which was a ghost of gaming's past that almost killed it before.  The main issue is that the popularity of games and thus the money that can be had from clinging onto it's coattails invited a feverish group of marketeers and later, non-tech contemporary "artists" into the field.  The prior, the marketers, where actually the group who almost killed games in the 1980's, whom shunned games after a crash they created, and whom their succesors today like to keep the indie game scene in some sort of clique.  If you are not a part of that clique, forget any preemptive rewards, accolades, blog posts and well... hype.  The "clique" now includes a bunch of well positioned non engineer contemporary "artists" who don't know what it takes to make / code a game but want to "change" the industry similar to how a contemporary artist wants to "change" art with a canvas full of literal, actual shit.

See the above example of two games; Depression Quest (DQ) and Dark Souls 3 (DS3).  First off, I initially honored Depression Quest's "doing something different" angle.  Though one was by one person and the other was by a big budgeted studio, the politically motivated gate keeping created by the maker & bloggers supporting DQ shows what is wrong with the Western Indie game dev scene.  Dark Souls was created by a person (Hidetaka Miyazaki) who, like me, was told he'd never be good enough for the industry.  The creator of DQ took the fame to her head, not looking for improvement of the craft while Miyazaki stays humble and always trying to do better with each game since Demon Souls.  If you are to be a true game designer, the latter is the way to go and how you make art out of the craft.  The other way is like being a cat who sprays the yard to keep others out while also letting the yard die from the abundance of urine.

Like Art, Game Development and Programming is a Craft & Skill
da Vinci's art vs...

...contemporary art.

Before even the 00's, to make a game was a mostly engineering feat that, once set up, could then be given a focus on art, gameplay and design.  You had to know Computer Science and programming first and foremost and create your own game engine.  The improvement of the game development field was moved along by people like John Carmack who understood the science of both light and what gets displayed on to the screen.  Even in the early 00's I read the insane details on how to code for the Game Boy Advance in C++.  Once you got a working game engine, you can then get to work on the "real" development.  This steep learning curve was why Flash and actionscript2 took off in the early 00's as much of the initial engine set up was done.  This lead to many game devs beginning in the field thanks to mainly Newgrounds.com.  in 2002-2003 it was either 1) Go to Computer Science in college and secretly do it for game development (since you'd have been shunned then) or 2) Self teach some action script and Flash and get posting on Newgrounds.  I did a little bit of both.  Later when IOS game development reached a peak in 2010, me and other devs had engines like Cocos2D, Cocos3D and later SpriteKit / SceneKit to get going on apps.  Today it's even easier with the Unity game engine taking the lead as Flash did then with others like Unreal Engine and other easily available engines at our disposal. To be a game dev now is like saying you were a blogger in 2008... it's not hard to be a game dev at the minimum... and that is fine.   

However, like good art, there are basics one should know before being able to do something truly great with the craft.  Even with great tools like Unity and Unreal Engine, a lack of understanding the science/coding behind it will become apparent to the masses of gamers, your real client, in the form of missing features, lag and overall bad execution.

For Da Vinci to have even begun his art, he had to study human anatomy and lighting.   Many artists know this and a good art school will train the artists with those two main keys to their teaching.  That scientific detail to the craft in art is no different when you learn the update loop cycle to a game, or understanding that you need to keep polygons, lighting and scripting lean on mobile devices or even on consoles.  No being a so-called "true" artist is the driving force to the tenants of contemporary art and also due to the paradox-like idea of the question of "what is art?" You can (sadly) get away with an empty canvas due to some weird artsy notion of "emptiness" or some drivel like that.  

To the dismay of bloggers posing as news companies and some indie devs...you can't pull the same crap in game development.  Your clients, the gamers, will see right through it.  It's a fragile foundation to build a game on and no amount of mass demonization of those who call this out will protect you from the obvious... that you'd need to get back to the drawing board. 

The issues of Over-Hyping By Marketers, Devs and Computer Illiterate Journalism 

The promised look of No Man's Sky at E3 2014

Back when a non gaming marketing-based company like Warner Bros took over a then new industry when they bought out Atari in the 80's, it echoed the current situations of when major blogs posing as news sites (blogs younger than even this blog) haphazardly promote or degrade individuals via political motives with the end goal of who gets the most clicks while awarding and promoting games that aren't even out in the market.  WB was an uptight, stuffy, suit-filled cubicle factory that saw the groups of free loving Atari devs, cabinet builders and it's former owner as a bunch of hooligans.  In what became a development hell for Yar's Revenge's creator Howard Scott Warshaw, the computer illiterate marketers / owners of WB tried to ride the hype of the E.T movie and rush out a game based on the movie.  This mistake and ignorance of what it takes for developers to make a good game was what lead to the crash of '83 (and not Warsaw's fault).

When you have people who are not familiar with the craft trying to sell the craft, you run into a big problem.  There have been a number of companies who have done this mistake over the years but the most recent example of this was with the game, No Man's Sky.  This one was a collision of two of the bad issues that arose in video games being in the mainstream.  Not only was this game over hyped by bloggers and game "journalists" who hardly know about the technology (just how to spin things for clicks) it also was over hyped by it's main designer, director and yes, the rare thing of also being a developer as well.. Sean Murray.  As a fellow dev who loves procedural computing, I really feel for why he was maybe a bit too excited about this.  To make a game even like the final output of No Man's Sky all procedurally is a feat of the science.  However, the current Indie culture does nothing but make insane expectations for upcoming games and applications.  Marketers are paid to do just that, market products and make them look good.  To a point we can see where they were coming from but we have to stop over selling something that isn't even out.  Even worse, when you look at games like Fez or No Man's Sky... the games were not even out, yet the creators were given awards and accolades for what was nothing but hot air at the time of the awards.  The indie "clique" is creating a hashtag leeching, gatekeeping "club" of people who are all high on themselves.  Instead of the humble attitudes we see from someone like Miyazaki, we see nothing but pats on the back, oddly synchronized well edited Youtube videos and blog posts for a select batch of games the "club" feels worth it.  Not only is this counter to what it means to be an indie dev, as all of these "indie" award conferences resemble the averous of the Oscars, but it also goes a few steps further in it's delusion by shunning and blackballing those who call them out.  It's awarding devs too early in what the Oscar equivalent would be like giving the Oscar away to a movie where only the trailer was shown.

So, how do we fix this?  How do we, the gamers and game devs stop the over hype?  It's unfair to the gamers who are already tired of the now over two years of being demonized by people "in the industry" who don't even represent the end clients.  It's also not fair to developers who work hard to get a game out but have to feverishly try to match the extra hype that might not have matched the scope of the work they had to do; an extra scope brought on by the blindly passed accolades & overzealous, uninformed bloggers.

To fix this, we have to realize that great game development is the combination of both great science and great art.  Flimsy contemporary art methodology could maybe work on the most abstract, upper level...an after thought after the presentation, but won't fly as the foundation of the development.  Secondly, in addition to gamers (and some devs) speaking out against the collusion in the game journalism and the indie scene, we have to also let it be known that journalists have to know at least some of the technology before they go out and hashtag bomb the hell out of social media about some "industry changing game."  We need less business people and marketers behind the voice of games and more gamers and game devs being that voice.  If you are a game dev like me, get blogging and though I've be a "dev" technically for over 15 years, I'm not some amazing dev, I'm always improving and learning. Yes, the blogs that spawned a few years after this one became huge and yes, they love to blackball devs and gamers who go against their marketing campaigns or political agendas (things that have no place in this field) but your voice can matter.  Gamers still love it when a dev is open and honest about the hard work that it takes to make even a basic game. It might drown out the marketers who are only writing about games because it's a hot topic is just a feather in withered cap of journalism.

In the case of No Man's Sky, it was also much to the fault of it's director. So studios, indie or not, need to find that median between what they are delivering and representing it in a good promotional fashion to the gamers.  Basically, under promise, over deliver.

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