Wednesday, 28 July 2010
The Hollywood Model of Employment & Individual Culpability
The recent consideration I've been giving to the projects I've worked on and my role within them has encouraged a regular topic of discussion between myself and GAMESbrief's Nicholas Lovell to resurface in my thoughts: that is, the idea that the current model of permanent 100+ man teams is dead, and that video games as a medium should be moving towards the project-by-project freelancing approach of the film industry.
The arguments in favour of such an approach are plenty:
1. Eliminate costs associated with employee downtime between projects
2. Eliminate post-project redundancies, rendering both staff and the PR department significantly less grumpy
3. Hire a bespoke team suited to each project and scale it up and down as the schedule dictates
4. Reward talent by pursuing those with proven credentials, and don't get lumped with salaried dead weight
5. Freedom for everyone to work on more varied projects
6. A possible compromise for unpaid overtime (ie higher day rates and time off between projects)
The ideal system would be for publishers and/or developers to maintain a small core staff. A group of 1 - 20 trusted, talented individuals (perhaps with a leaning towards production experience), ensuring the studio always has permanent personnel who are invested in the company and can ensure external hires work to the standard required.
Following this, if the studio already has a concept or property, the appropriate hires can be made. "We think cell-shading is the way to go, let's have a chat with the art directors from Mad World, Wind Waker and XIII." Alternatively, the Hollywood model allows for greater autonomy on the part of experienced staff. While talent agents for such trailblazers are already starting to pop up, a more industry wide adoption of this approach might empower - for instance - a talented programmer to approach a publisher with an astonishing concept for a new AI routine, and for that publisher to finance his personal research with a view to providing a growing team as and when the routine has been proven and a game is ready to be built around it. On a more obvious level, a designer and a writer could pitch a project to a studio in just the same way as a director might approach Pathé with a screenplay.
One of the main draws of this system for an individual developer might be increased public and industry recognition of his or her talent. In the next month or two there are two games coming out that I'm connected to: Lost Horizon and Amnesia. What's strange about these games is that on one my name will be in the credits as the writer - despite the original script being by someone else - while on the other a great many people will assume I was the writer when in fact I haven't been involved.
When Amnesia arrives, it's going to be an interesting experience discovering what a Penumbra game looks like with someone else behind the keyboard. Naturally I'm a part of this industry because I want to be involved in developing fantastic, important games; but at the same time there are few creatives who could honestly claim they don't hope for some kind of artistic identity in their work, some stamp of their involvement. If Amnesia arrives to rave reviews it's only right that Mikael Hedberg should take credit; if things don't go so well it'll be disheartening that very few players or critics will realise why. Full credit to journos like Lewis Denby - who do their research and credit appropriately in their articles - but while it's very common to read something like, "Mauro Fiore's cinematography in Avatar is his best work to date," in a film review, it's incredibly rare in games.
In Lost Horizon, while I hope I've added a distinctive flavour of my own, the script is ultimately originated by another writer. While I was involved in the voice direction, I wasn't sitting in the chair, and I had no say over casting. If and when Lost Horizon receives praise, it's right that I should take only partial responsibility - but it's incredibly difficult to ascertain who's culpable for what.
My dream is of a model where key talent (department leads etc) are recognised for their triumphs and successes by the press, the audience, and by the industry. While most developers remain salaried their studios will remain cautious of talent poaching, but with an employment reform developers would be free to deliver, along with review code, a short document highlighting the central talent and their roles, so that critics can credit appropriately.
There are arguments against, of course. Speaking with Craig Pearson of PCG UK, he pointed out the potential damage a bad review under this system could do to a career. It's the problem games writers complain of non-stop: that good writing implemented badly reflects badly on the writer through no fault of their own. There's also the question of who deserves this elite status as a front of the box credit.
There's no denying these are problems, but they're problems every other industry seems to handle, and I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I dream of the day when someone plays a game and says, "Well, I can see elements of what Brian Mitsoda brought to the latter stages of Neverwinter Nights 2, but it's clear his style is more coherently implemented in Vampire: Bloodlines, and this game continues that confidence of expression."
Hey: a man can dream, can't he?
Update 29/07/10: Brian Mitsoda writes a friendly hello and suggests one possible drawback of the Hollywood model is typecasting of freelancers as developers rely more and more on their previous work to secure new jobs. He also points out that, contrary to what's suggested above, of all the very talented people on NWN2 he wasn't actually one of them. My fault.