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Game designers have become afraid of their own voice (and it's all your fault)

“So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show... that's completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”
- "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show", The Simpsons

So concludes one hapless focus group leader when, in an effort to lift the flagging ratings of "The Itchy & Scratchy Show", he hauls in a bunch of kids and asks them, point blank, what they want to see from their favourite cartoon. Their scattergun responses, contradictory at best, highlight the uselessness in tailoring content to the audience that demands it - not that the public doesn’t know what it wants, but that in making the one product everything that they love, they will invariably create something that they’ll hate.

Putting the consumer in the creator’s chair is a bad move for any creative endeavour. While it may seem like a shortcut to success - you’re giving them exactly what they want, after all - chances are it’ll result in an incompatible mix of ideas; a rudderless, overburdened boat that’s liable to sink just after it leaves port. It speaks not only of an uncertainty of the creator’s own message, but a feeling of safety that comes from simply regurgitating the messages asked of it.

Which is why this tweet from Mass Effect executive producer Casey Hudson has me kinda worried...

It’s no surprise that Hudson is asking this. The debate surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending is no doubt still ringing in BioWare’s ears - we all know what happened there, let’s not unearth that one again. Following the fallout, it seems they’re keen to demonstrate to their fans and loyal customers that, hey, they are actually listening, they’re not a closed bubble at the top of the BioWare Tower. They want to make a game that you’re guaranteed to enjoy, and avoid a repeat incident of You Know What.

Is this the best strategy, though? To trust the consumer to have creative input? Look at the quote at the top of this piece - look at how ridiculous it sounds. It’s an extreme example, sure, but an everything-to-everyone approach runs that very risk, and risks becoming a jumbled mess of out-of-place puzzle pieces that are all present and accounted for, but don’t join together in any coherent way. Perhaps the creative agents in between - Casey Hudson, Mac Walters, BioWare’s story writers - will serve to filter and distill the cacophony of suggestions down to something workable, and for the sake of Mass Effect 4 I hope they do. Yet even if that happens, there’s another inherent problem: that BioWare saw it necessary to solicit suggestions at all.

Rather than producing a game that says “this is what we have”, Hudson, on behalf of the Mass Effect development team, sent out a tweet that says “tell us what you want.” They're asking, not telling. In the fallout of Mass Effect 3’s endi- sorry, You Know What, it’s a suggestion of a loss of confidence, a loss of self assuredness. They’ve got the fear. They’re afraid of their own direction. This is a company that doesn’t trust itself anymore, and it seems that it's our fault.

Perhaps there’s also another reason at play: BioWare can use the strategy as a convenient out should they cop flack yet again from an angered consumer base. With the game incorporating suggestions and ideas from the public, they can point the finger back at us and say “But this is what you wanted! This comes from you!” It’s a shirking of responsibility, but every idea thrown their way will give them the permission - and the right - to deploy it.

Look, I don’t want to open up the whole “games are art” debate - that one can remain sealed inside that giant warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark for all I care - but those charged with making a creative expression need to take ownership and responsibility for it, from inception through to execution. It’s their message, their collection of ideas. You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can make a statement confident in your own authority. An artist that crowdsources his work is no artist.

Perhaps I should revise my opening statement. The public doesn’t know what it wants. No, wait, that’s too strong. How about, the public shouldn’t be given that power. You, me, we shouldn’t have that power. It should be up to the storyteller, the ones in charge of the videogame - or the TV show, or the movie, or whatever - to make the experience they want. It’s their expression. It’s their baby. I’m not going to go up to a parent and tell them how to raise their kids; that’s their business. But the freedom of our creative culture is such that, if I don’t like something that someone’s done, I’m free to refuse it and move on to something else that does capture my interests. I have that right. So does everyone else.

In the same episode of The Simpsons mentioned above, when concern is expressed at the addition of a new character, Krusty the Clown says “Hey, this ain’t art -- it's business!” Perhaps it is. Yet with gaming such an expressive, creative medium, game designers should retain the guts to make the games they want to make, the way they want to make them. Gaming needs stories and experiences to come from people with the expertise in making them happen; I’d rather see them retain that power, rather than outsourcing the creative sparks to the people who are going to pay for them.

“I want to see your ideas,” said one brave soul in response to Hudson’s initial tweet.

So do I.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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39 comments

  • swamphag - November 24, 2012 5:55 p.m.

    I think this whole article is hypocritical. Not a week goes by without Gamesradar posting a feature about "Things we'd like to see in the next ... game." Yet this article seems to condemn a developer from seeking input from the people who will end up consuming the product. Your frequent articles always lay out exactly what kind of changes you'd like to have implemented in the next installment in a series: can we assume that you'd be unhappy if these changes were not put in place? But should a developer actually ask your opinion on the very same subject, they're accused of "becoming afraid of their own voice"? This doesn't quite add up to me. Furthermore, unless you're actually a fan of the game series, you're unlikely to be following the twitter page, so why not ask for feedback from the core audience of fans, as it's going to be them playing the game. Gamesradar already published a feature about the next game in the series. So, please, explain to me, why are you condemning the makers for seeking some fan input, when you so clearly want to be listened to when you publish features entitled: Mass Effect 4 – Where we want to see the franchise go next (7th March 2012)
  • RedOutlive. - November 21, 2012 11:24 p.m.

    Hey IGN get the hell outta here, I'm in for GR features.. oh.. ME series has lost its step in storytelling after the first game with the "lul collecturz" and almost entire focus on Cerberus (same time Drew was pulled from it), also way bigger focus on action/making Shepard some kind of Master Chief in Gears of War gameplay which pretty much flushed down the toiled the soul of Mass Effect. Almost as if George Lucas was hired to make ME2 and ME3. It's no surprise at all they can't make a coherent game by now. Putting the blame on the consumers for their mess is just pure class.
  • ultimatepunchrod - November 21, 2012 3:51 p.m.

    This has kind of been my stance on the whole issue for a while now. Gaming is the only medium where the audience feel it has the unquestionable right to tell creators how they should do their jobs. I mean, would you tell JK Rowling that
  • ultimatepunchrod - November 21, 2012 3:55 p.m.

    Whoops, hit the "Post Comment" button before I was done. ...(cont) the ending of the Harry Potter series wasn't good enough and that she not only should change it, but she must? No. You wouldn't do that. Maybe it's the price of admission. After all, $60 is a lot more than $25, but the principle is the same. If you want games to be a story telling medium, then you're going to have to get used to not liking the ending of every story. I think most people's problem was that they felt their choices didn't matter in the end, but I disagree. There are so many variations on how things can go down in those games that even if the end game is similar no matter what, everyone's journey was quite different.
  • Vincent Wolf - November 21, 2012 11:06 p.m.

    Yes I would really like an opportunity to tell her to gtfo for killing off so unnecesary many characters and making Dumbledoor a fag.
  • ultimatepunchrod - November 26, 2012 1:58 p.m.

    I really hope you aren't serious.
  • 7-D - November 21, 2012 12:04 p.m.

    No two studios are the same but a recent interview with Rocksteady is telling: 'That a studio avoids fan service - caring what the outside world thought would have "totally suffocated" it, believes Walker - has won so many fans must say something. Maybe 'fan' is just a really clumsy word to describe two entirely different groups of people: those who feel entitled to disrupt the creative process, and those who see it as sacrosanct.' In my opinion, games should be the vision of the developers only. For better or for worse. I have no respect for devs who pander or are too lazy/scared to come up with their own ideas and feel the need to source to the "mob". Keep your McGames, i'll spend my time and money elsewhere.
  • LordEvan88 - November 21, 2012 10:33 a.m.

    Sounds like they can't come up with a good idea and are trying to ask fans because they lack any kind of creative direction, particularly since any staff member with a sense of creativity has left since the merger. If you can't come up with a good idea you shouldn't be making games. The ending to Mass Effect flat out sucked. Probably had something to do with Drew Kapshyrn having nothing to do with it. Yes, I agree, we should have no input on the making of the game. But the game should be subject to judgement once it is released. If they don't feel like they can write a good story, that says far more about them than it does about us.
  • redwing605 - November 21, 2012 9:34 a.m.

    Blame the fans, maybe....BUT...Could it be the simple fact there wasn't supposed to be more Mass Effects? It's like forcing a TV show to continue after it's finished....If you're storyline is finished, it's finished. So yeah I can see someone asking for advice. Sum it up, blame E.A.
  • thesearingstar - November 21, 2012 9:01 a.m.

    I'm inclined to agree, and have ranted about as much in the wake of Sony Bend Studios' postmortem on Uncharted: Golden Abyss on Gamasutra, in which writer/director John Gavin discussed how Marisa Chase was heavily influenced by focus group testing. Look, I get that making a video game is a very expensive undertaking, and that countless people’s jobs hinge on a game’s success/sales. But there comes a point at which trading creative vision and backbone for likability becomes unacceptable, and people ought to be held accountable. The art of storytelling isn’t about pleasing everyone. That’s just impossible. Because it's topical, take James Bond: there have been enough complaints about his sexist, womanizing ways to see Daniel Craig’s Bond touched up a bit. But even Craig’s Bond is still a womanizer, because that’s who James Bond is. It’s not about celebrating womanizing. It’s about being honest: that not every character is likable in all aspects of their personality. When I watch Bond one-and-done Solange Dimitrios—directly causing her death— it makes me uncomfortable. Makes me dislike him profoundly. But that emotional reaction is good writing. It forms the basis of a complex character with whom you struggle to like, with whom you struggle to decide if their means and methods are justified even if their endgame may be morally validated. More to the point, womanizing men exist. Ignoring this is bad writing, a Tolkienesque attempt at creating a fantasy world in which everyone holds hands and gets along and the only conflicts worth worying about are global-scale conflicts. The trick, of course, is not to simply write in a womanizing character because they exist. There has to be push and pull, there has to be repercussions, or at the very least reaction to this aspect of them. But now I'm wandering off the beaten path. This is what makes AC3's Connor an interesting character--it's hard to like him. Real hard. He's an unabashed ass--consistently so. But justifiably so. A good protagonist is not synonymous with a likable protagonist. Bioware's hesitance to commit seems like a direct response to the Star Wars prequel, which centered around an event (the Clone Wars) only hinted at in the original trilogy--one which most fans ran with in a different direction, which resulted in a slew of comics and novels about Jedi vs. Clone Jedi warfare, as opposed to flimsy metaphors for white imperialism (er, I mean, Stormtroopers?). But can we imagine a world in which Joss Whedon polled fans what he should do next, becoming yet another member of society "fearful of revealing who we are" (William Zinsser, On Writing Well)? We might not have gotten Firefly if Joss Whedon didn't do what ~he~ wanted to do. Well, yes we would--let's be honest, everyone would have clamored for more Buffy or Angel. The difference is, we have faith in Joss Whedon. We don't, it seems, have faith in video game writing (which, honestly, I can't blame any one for, but I'd rather see more writers stick to their fuckin' guns than pander to the audience like "ass-covering prigs" governed more by the heavy hand of business than creativity.
  • mothbanquet - November 21, 2012 8:32 a.m.

    Hmm...a bit of blame on all fronts here. As a fan, I certainly don't feel any compunction to march into Bioware HQ and tell them how to do things, though I certainly won't shy away from voicing my dissatisfaction if truly compelled. Airing my disappointment with the ME3 ending was the only complaint I've ever made publically and I was both happy with and grateful for the ending DLC released. To make it clear, I am an aspiring writer and I do consider myself an artist. However, I also live in the real world. I know that to make a living from any art, you must build a following. You can't just chuck your work out into the world and expect to grow famous. You have to cultivate an audience, just like Bioware have done with many years of quality titles, and maintain that relationship. It's a two-way street, but it all gets a bit messy when publishers get involved. These are the marketing and financial powerhouses of the industry. That means they hold more control than anyone, including the consumer and the artist themselves. When the publisher puts pressure on the dev, it reflects in their work and thus the fan is angered. Some fans take this to extremes of course, and that's where the fan fails to uphold their side of the bargain. We have to trust artists to be able to express themselves creatively. If unsatisfied, don't buy their art. It's as simple as that. In this day and age a lost sale is far more powerful than a thousand angry forum posts. But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that the creative process is a connection between artist and audience and there seems to be a real "us and them" attitude at the moment. Unfortunately, until the current publishing culture of annual sequels and spinoffs (which the fans are arguably responsible for) abates, that rift will continue to deepen. More than anything, that should make everyone, artist and fan alike, very sad indeed.
  • Marcunio88 - November 21, 2012 7:19 a.m.

    Wow, calm down people and think before you speak. The problem isn't that Bioware are 'asking for feedback', there's nothing wrong with that, it's that they're literally asking us for direction. There's nothing to give feedback on yet, the game doesn't even exist in concept form. They should decide what to do on their own first, refine their ideas through internal feedback and testing, then they can start looking for broader criticism. They've cast the net too wide and too early. If they'd waited, say, 18 months until they've got a debut trailer ready, then asked peoples opinions on that, great. That's connecting with your fanbase while keeping them at an appropriate distance. You don't see Valve asking whether Half-Life 3 should follow on directly after Episode 2 or leave a gap, a la Half-Life 2. They just get on with it and when it's done, it's done. In my mind at least, this is what it boils down to. Oh yeah, and Mass Effect 3's ending was great. When you dig into peoples complaints, most of them amount to either "I didn't pay enough attention" or "I wish there was an hour of post credits exposition explaining exactly that happened to everyone". A good ending leaves you with questions, get over it.
  • disappointed - November 21, 2012 7:17 a.m.

    You Know What showed that Bioware, for all their talent, lacked the long term vision that Mass Effect had always been sold on. It was mediocre game design - a shortfall in their ability. This wasn't the public hijacking the creative process. Although they overplayed their hand, their complaint was legitimate criticism. Bioware made a critical mistake in the design of an otherwise impressive title. Games, like movies, books, songs and even paintings, are both art and business. But mostly business. It is usually bad business to create bad art. That will happen unless there is a strong creative talent leading the process. Bioware seem to have huge talent almost everywhere but ME3 showed a crack of vulnerability that ripped the whole project apart. That's not our fault, it's theirs. But you're right that asking your critics how they'd make the game is no solution. If you don't know how to make games, don't make games.
  • Thedigitalg - November 21, 2012 6:53 a.m.

    Games are only a holy piece of art in the same way books and films are. It has to be enjoyable, fuck sweeping narratives if it isn't also fun. Look at Prometheus, that film is one of the most gorgeous I can remember, but it was full of boring action sequences and deliberately left plotholes in case they wanted a sequel. *Flies away*
  • Dmellott11 - November 21, 2012 6:05 a.m.

    I'm a Game Art & Design student, almost finished with my Bachelor's Degree and this article scares me to death. The fact that a AAA Dev is asking the consumer's what they want in the game is ludicrous. It's sneaky, in the sense that he is basically begging the audience to buy the next Mass Effect on the premise that there will be something in it that the audience had a role in producing. However, in the end the game's industry is going through a big change in both presentation and development and all I can hope is that this kind of foolishness doesn't last for long.
  • JarkayColt - November 21, 2012 5:01 a.m.

    This article is slightly presumptuous. Just because Bioware are asking their fans doesn't mean they've lost their own voice or direction or whatever. I mean, I haven't even played Mass Effect at all, but speaking as an artist I can see that all this is is that Bioware are acknowledging how much their fans care about the outcomes (games). This isn't an artist "crowdsourcing". There is absolutely nothing wrong with an artist asking opinions from peers and the target audience to shape the direction of the finished, or usually in-progress, result. It's about being influenced, but not controlled. As mentioned in the article, you would expect the ideas to be debated, filtered, reconciled and reconfigured to match the vision of the artist in a more considered and relevant way. Appealing to the fans is a massive consideration. I'm sure developers do in fact take to the internet to find critique (e.g. reviews) or fan feedback after releasing a game; this is just taking it to a more preemptive level.
  • Dmellott11 - November 21, 2012 6:10 a.m.

    Jar, I am also a fellow artist and yes fan/audience input is absolutely necessary. However, the point where the input supersedes my own personal artistic intent and goals is the point where I stop listening to those people. I feel that in this case Bioware is taking that fan input and superseding their own intents.
  • mothbanquet - November 21, 2012 8 a.m.

    I think you should be just as concerned with publishers not giving you the time or space to fully explore or develop your creations. The public will be your final judges in the end and if you're happy with a small but dedicated follow then fair enough - but it won't satisfy the moneymen. I think artists are having to come to terms with the fact that art and busines are becoming inseparable in this day and age, and if an artist wishes to remain successful they can't bite the hand that feeds. Or they can keep their integrity and live in poverty and obscurity, whatever suits them. For the record, I don't think this is the first time a dev's asked their fans what they'd like to see in a game's sequel, surely?

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