Co-written with Yestin Harrison
In the past, it wasn’t unusual for projects to take 3-5 years, particularly in AAA or experimental IPs. Sometimes, the hype cycles were a strength, other times not so much. It’s not as though the development model that Infinity Ward popularized with Call of Duty hadn’t already been present in the industry. However, at the time, it was a strategy largely reserved for producing spinoffs and experimental gameplay.
Capcom were notorious for this, often sharing staff among multiple IPs. This is perhaps exemplified in the provenance of the original Devil May Cry, which began life as Resident Evil 4, but was deemed too incongruous with the Resident Evil series and eventually became the first installment in a series all its own. (The title actually known as Resident Evil 4, for reference, came several scrapped versions later.) DMC’s “air juggling” of enemies came from yet another title, being inspired by a bug in Onimusha: Warlords.
A predominant reason that this occurred was in-house engine development. This could have one of two outcomes, in general. Often, it would result in thrown-away source code, leaving game archivists or multi-platform re-release efforts frustrated and at a loss as to how to restore the game. On occasion, though, it could spawn a legendary modding ecosystem, inadvertently lending the game extreme replay value. We had games that, for all intents and purposes, doubled as engines in and of themselves. In the current landscape of similarly comprehensive standalone engines, what comes out on them may as well be considered mods, and the engines themselves may as well be games.
Monolithic game development kept the state of the art moving and our graphics at high fidelity without compromising on performance. It forced us to innovate expansive digital simulations in order to keep up with demand for innovation and to fuel the hype cycle needed to maintain interest over half a decade. Games like Human Head Studios’ Prey (that’s right, the first one), often regarded as vaporware, notorious for long development times, weren’t as outlandish in an industry where taking your time was the norm.
Hyperoptimized development cycles, with their unsustainable overgrowth of outsourcing, have turned an artform into something akin to Disney’s “fun factory” assembly lines, where artists processed any given cel as a mere stage in the creation of a whole. These, in turn, were directly inspired by the mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford, creating a family tree of manufactured Americana. We are now offered an endless parade of samey-feeling games in cookie-cutter genres, as opposed to anything that could be called a “diverse landscape”. From a management perspective, it makes sense: it turns talent fungible, not to mention standardized, just as object-oriented programming languages did for programmers at large. As a result of this good business sense, the product, too, becomes standardized. We no longer even have novel knockoffs like ActionForm’s Rift or the delightful proto-immsim Strife.
It’s a story in some ways mirroring the fate of the Action Office series of furniture. Action Office I was was compelling, practically indulgent, and, above all else, conceived to be liberatory. Adjustable in myriad ways to suit an office worker’s needs, and futuristic while remaining comfortable, it was nonetheless largely ignored by actual customers. It came back in a second, more marketable interation, Action Office II, selling to this day as just Action Office. In a truly tragic accident of history, its modular and reconfigurable pieces were by and large assembled into, and kept permanently as, the rigid, orthogonal cubicles that workers would come to dread, at least until the dawn of the modern open-plan office would make the loss of cubicles seem downright regressive. Just as with extensive outsourcing and compartmentalisation, that which was supposedly meant to eliminate drudgery and free up time for higher-level thinking, a newfound efficiency, turned into shackles for imagination. A time budget was freed up, but needed to be spent.
With the perpetual atomization of these endeavors we call “games”, with ever-accelerating turnover, with the standardization of skills, it begs a question relevant to our allegory: does there remain any point in trying to make offices work? The more a task is cleanly broken down into isolated tasks that stand a good chance of being outsourced, there is no point in not working remotely. It checks out in terms of business sense, what with needing to spend far less on real estate, or on researching what makes an office worker feel freer. Why not just put the onus of creating a liberatory space on the worker, and drastically catalyze the “home office” industry in one fell swoop?
Innovation is sometimes an accident, the serendipitous result of trying to set yourself apart in a saturated market, and it is increasingly hard to achieve in one where everyone uses the same tools, the same technologies, and the same techniques. As we erode the environments that can hedge authenticity or risk-taking with some level of safety, we search for profits in the margins and then squeeze games of any potential for artistic value, taking any effort that could be put toward it, instead applying it to the creation of endless digital trinkets and microtransactions. We transmute frustration into gold, petty aesthetic novelty into an endless gachapon machine. Pull the lever and hope this time you finally get the game you were hoping for.
The industry is trapped on a treadmill, one of perpetually increasing speed and likewise flattening incline. After 20 years of AAA development, it becomes ever harder to point out pinnacle moments in game design, anything as impactful as, say, the Source Engine, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s X-Ray engine. When was the last time you felt comfortable, if not at home, playing a game for six years straight, without fretting as to what was on the horizon for the next year? The transformation of games into “services” inherently reduces them to the cultural equivalent of a holiday events for commercial engine platforms, themselves acting as some pseudo-MMORPG.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice