Games Get Serious

December 1st, 2007 PC Powerplay, Tech, Tech Features

No longer just the ultra-hip bleeding edge of media content, gaming is showing critical signs of maturity. Drew Turney asks how important it if for the industry’s profile.

Game studios started off as small teams of young, talented and dedicated people with little time for traditional management who slept under their desks and survived 16 hours days on pizza and Red Bull — many undoubtedly still do.

But to survive and prosper in the future, any industry needs to get serious and adopt practices and standards that ensure things go right. Among the concerns shared by many is the assigning of proper credit to developers.

You might know the notorious example of Rockstar/Manhunt 2 credit debacle. With the game nearing completion by a team of over 50 developers in the company’s Vienna, Austria studio, the corporate overseers shut the office down, fired all the staff and took over the rest of the project. To add insult to injury, the release of the game carried no mention of the entire Vienna crew who’d done most of the work.

Many Hollywood watchers complain about the Byzantine legal framework of the creative unions (the Writers’ and Director’ Guilds of America), but they wield an iron fist over studios to ensure proper onscreen credit for their members — as the recent strike that’s ground Hollywood to a halt proves.

Many people want similar standards to ensure game developers get proper credit. Among them is the International Game Developers Association. "Your credits are your CV to take to the rest of the industry," said executive director Jason Della Rocca on a recent Australian visit, "without them you have nothing to show for your skills."

According to the Association, the informal crediting procedures of the industry don’t work any more. Development teams and studios not only grow bigger, but more creative and production development is outsourced to smaller, more specialist players that deserve their share of the kudos for a game.

A statement on the IGDA website asserts that ‘[accurate], complete, and fair credits are essential to ongoing employment, professional development, and artistic fulfillment for all developers. Further, having accurate credits helps employers make informed hiring decisions’, and September 2007 saw the beta launch of their draft guidelines.

Among the rules included, publishers are urged to give team members a say in the credits before publication. The IGDA says the guidelines will ensure things like a developer receiving credit even when they don’t work at the studio come shipping date.

And as nobody wants the bad press Rockstar received after the Manhunt 2 episode, the industry’s already taking notice — a session at the San Francisco Game Developers Conference 08 is designed to help developers standardise their crediting procedure.

"So far so good," Della Rocca says when asked how the industry has reacted. "We’ve received tremendous support. We’ve received critical feedback on various nuts-and-bolts elements too, but that’s expected — and appreciated."

If it does take off, we’ll have an industry as professional as it is profitable and avoid the burnout Jason Della Rocca says plagues the field as young, talented people are worked into the ground. "The whole industry churns half its staff every five years," he says, "because people realise they have no life."

Another positive sign gaming’s finally being taken seriously is the attention from academia. The final word that you have a legitimate cultural media on your hands is the armies of people studying or lecturing about it, and Danish academic Jesper Juul is one of the few who can legitimately call himself a doctor of gaming.

The 37 year old completed a Masters in Danish literature at the University of Copenhagen, then moving to a PhD in IT studies before completing two PhD dissertations on gaming. With a book credit, academic publications, appointments, peer-reviewed papers, lecturing and teaching roles and speaking appointments, his experience would put some nuclear physicists to shame.

Among Juul’s accomplishments is the study and advancement of video game theory, as outlined in his 2005 book Half Real; Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (MIY Press).

His dictionary of game theory (which you can see at www.half-real.net/dictionary/) contains gems like the phenomena of gameplay the game environment makes possible but which the publisher didn’t anticipate (’emergent gameplay’) or a game you’re observing and controlling from a position of omnipotence rather than living in like a first person shooter (‘ant-farming’).

They might sound whimsical, but the work of Juul and his few contemporaries is a clear signal games are much more than the bad influence turning our children into pasty-skinned, antisocial potential murderers. As a huge source of entertainment, tax and employment revenue the influence of games on our culture (and vice versa) is being treated as a legitimate media and cultural phenomenon.


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