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.


  1. 5 intangible points to anyone who can name the film the still is from. I hope to be giving out a lot of points.

    What are your feelings on this approach? Are you coming from a development, press or audience perspective?

    Hashing this out on paper, I'm now quite taken by the idea fo a short post or web page ordering my games by the creative control I had on them, and highlighting exactly which features I was responsible for. Might be there are some surprises.

  2. It seems like things might be moving in this direction already. You yourself seem to occupy that sort of hired-gun status, and I can think of the Robert Briscoe as well off the top of my head, who is in a similar position.

    My main question would be what do you think the affect such a system would have on getting started in the industry? If work is won by renown, then how does one go about getting in? I realize it works that way already to an extent. Work experience is a huge factor in getting work anywhere, but do you think the system you've proposed would make it more difficult to get started?

    Also, one thing that never ceases to bother me is this fascination the enthusiast press has with people like David Jaffe. Jaffe is considered the creator of God of War and Twisted Metal, but what does he really do? I don't know what he does except piss me off every time I read his blog. When I think back to God of War and I remember things like the texture work, the animation and level geometry and how they come together to form memorable, visually arresting moments, and I wonder if Jaffe did any of that. And I don't think that he did.

    And I, personally, would rather hear from the people who did the things I care about on that game and not the guy who wrangled everybody or whatever Jaffe does. Do you think these attachments people have to these personalities would fade under your system? It sounds like that's part of what your going for, not wanting to be credited for what you didn't do on Lost Horizon and all.

  3. I like the idea of freelancing. Anything to give people a little bit more control over their lives, although writers can find themselves desperately managing the pennies between jobs. I suspect people who work within the industry might have better words to add on the subject.

    You remind me, however, of the second-rate recognition of writers in films.

    The director is often seen as the creative master of film. They are the defining primary credit often up there with the leads, while screenwriters flounder down the credits - Charlie Kaufman is the only counterexample I can think of right now. It is true that directors often make a film what it is - what would The Exorcist be without William Friedkin? But the writer is frequently disregarded as just one of the interchangeable cogs of the movie machine (which they are on certain projects).

    And so:

    Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu break up over just who was responsible for the critical success of Babel.

    The Changeling: A Clint Eastwood movie. But Eastwood only took the film after falling for the script. And the script was the result of the writer researching the true story of Christine Collins over the course of a year. That writer was J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5.

    Joss Whedon swears that Alien Resurrection was not what he wrote, that it was Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who ruined it; but the audience is comfortable tagging Whedon and not Jeunet as the film's weakness. (one take on this is here)

    But while it's true to say a film could not exist without a writer, the same is not true of a game. Some of these authorship crises would be avoided in the field of games, but not all, I imagine.

  4. Oh, no idea about the film. French?

    I win no points today.

  5. In terms of getting started, I don't think there's much danger of games adopting the screen media model in which talented, passionate people are forced to work for free just to get feet in the door - games jobs, unlike TV, usually require demonstrable technical knowledge, and therefore demand higher starting wages.

    I don't see any reason (though I'd be interested to hear some) why things should change in that area. Games will always need fresh blood, there'll always be graduate jobs.

    In the topic of David Jaffe, I am actually all in favour of the 'auteur'. Hollywood and AAA games do creativity by committee, and it'd be great to see more games like Braid or Metal Gear which bear the hallmarks of their creator's intent. Not to say a great game can't be made without a single creative vision, but true creative genius is rarely prepared to compromise.

    This said, I understand entirely the 'Jaffe' effect. I saw something similar at Lionhead where Peter Molyneux is the figurehead for something like Fable, despite it being conceived largely without his involvement.

    However, with almost all great auteurs you'll hear horror stories of what they're like to work with, but ultimately if you take complete control of something you're bound to piss some people off. I'd rather our industry was about making fantastic works of art, than about making friends.

    But yes, while I hope my proposed system would retain or even grow the power of the auteur, I hope it would also allow for other key members of the team - the guys who maybe don't do the interviews or shout the loudest - to receive fair credit for the work they've done.

  6. That Babel link was an interesting read, HM, good find.

    Nope, not French. American...

  7. I have so much to say, but I'll start with this.

    The auteur is a fiction.

    Hollywood marketing departments created the idea because it was too complex for most cinemagoers to understand the full credit list. So they go to a Spielberg film or a Tarantino film or an Oliver Stone film.

    In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman says that 7 people have to be at the top of their game to make a movie work. (If you haven't read Adventures in the Screen Trade, shame on you. Go and buy it right now: Adventures in the Screen Trade)
    He says they are:
    - actor
    - cinematographer
    - director
    - editor
    - producer
    - production designer
    - writer
    - and sometimes the composer

    That's a lot of people. While having auteurs in games would be good (because it means the mainstream press have someone to talk about), it is bad because it just isn't true. On the other hand, it isn't true in Hollywood, and they seem to cope just fine.

  8. I thought you might ;-)

    The only thing I disagree with is your definition of the auteur.

    I absolutely agree with Goldman - an auteur without a talented team is knackered. Personally, however, I would thoroughly disagree that the auteur is an invention of Hollywood marketing (for a start, I'm pretty sure it originated as a part of French theory), and that Spielberg would qualify.

    An auteur such as, to take your example, Tarantino, qualifies as such because he - at the very least - writes and directs his films. He fills (arguably) the two roles with the greatest creative control. He is of course still reliant on other talented people, but his films can be considered his own in a way Spielberg's never can.

    On this interpretation of the term I see no reason why games shouldn't continue to broaden the role of the auteur in development.

  9. Oh, and it's Blade Runner. Shame on you!


    You know that is exactly what I thought - it looked very much like Pris at the back there - and I checked out an image from Bladerunner online to confirm. But she looked very different in the image I found to that above.

    So I thought no, and stayed quiet.