This article was written by Jaakko Kemppainen, Regional Artist of Games as Art, from Art Promotion Centre Finland (Taike)
Mainstream is dead, let us be diverse
Game development is a creative industry. It is thought to be fun and innovative, letting people express their ideas through the games they make.
In the dawn of digital games, when the games were still played in arcade halls, Atari and other companies thought it was a flaw to copy previous games.
Originality was appraised, people were enthusiastic, and the industry grew.
Well, of course it grew since the competition for players’ time and money was still rather mild.
During the next decades, the games and game industry grew bigger and bigger. Even if the games were all different, they represented only a few different types: sports, shooting and racing were quite common action genres. Then there were also slower paced strategies, puzzles, adventures, and what not.
Since the distribution of games was done in atoms rather than bits, only the big players had the possibility to gain larger audiences. Thus, the types of games tend to concentrate on a few big mainstream genres.
The mainstream of games is not a fixed genre or set of games. Modern game industry is kind of opportunistic in its way of following the big hits. As the investments to games are huge, publishers and developers tend to play safe and follow already proven examples. Whenever a new kind of megahit game is released, it is followed by a tsunami of games utilizing the new ideas.
This happened with e.g. Doom (1993) and first-person-shooters, Everquest (1999) and massively-multiplayer-role-playing-games and Clash of Clans (2012) and mobile free-to-play strategies.
These games and their followers are now mainstream, but at their launch they were at the fringes and marginals of what had been done before.
When the industry finds new hit genres, some of the older ones tend to drop out or gain less attention. The total amount of time the players and developers can use on games is finite, so there just aren’t enough players for every game to make them profitable – especially if the production values are great and the development cost is astronomical.
This happened, for example, to point-and-click adventures when the industry moved on to action adventures with Tomb Raider (1996) leading the way. But even if these genres weren’t anymore the main focus of the biggest publishers, their players didn’t stop wanting for new games.
Every now and then new adventure games were published. Their developers and publishers understood that even if the market is not the biggest one, there is still a market of loyal fans with some cash to spend on new games in their favorite genre. And there was much less competition than in the new hit genres.
The older hit genres were kept alive and developed by smaller teams and companies, carefully calculating their potential cash flow and scaling their production values to fit in there. Some companies survived, maybe even thrived, some died, but that happens throughout the industry. There has been a surge of pixel graphics boosted platformers and shooters, serving the 1980s and 1990s kids who have fond memories of playing Metroid, Commando and Smash TV. For example, Housemarque deliberately targeted the arcade action lovers with their shooters Dead Nation, Resogun and Nex Machina.
Rise of the indie
From the primordial soup of game development hobbyists and enthusiastic professional developers rose a new tribe of game makers.
They were independent game developers, who did experimental and personal games, inspired by nostalgia and other art forms. Crimsonland, Oceanhorn, Trine and Trials are some examples of successful Finnish games that draw inspiration from older games but manage to do something new within the genre.
The indie game market exploded around 2008. Indie developers have always existed, but with the democratization of the production tools (mainly Unity) and distribution channels (Steam, XBLA, Appstore, Google Play etc) even small and business-wise risky experimental games could be brought for global audiences. A sudden burst of creativity hit the game business and a few years later more than half of the visitors of Game Developer Conference in San Francisco declared themself as indies.
By some definition indie is something that is intentionally against the mainstream. And now most of the game developers were indies. This oxymoron could only mean one thing. In a few years the amount and diversity of published games had expanded, bringing more games for diversely growing audiences.
The mainstream is no longer clear. There is a market for almost all kinds of games, although the market can be small and difficult to reach.
Just take a look at Baba Is You, Noita and Legend of Grimrock to see the diversity of possibilities in the game business.
Growing together with your audiences
People who play games grow older and change, while new audiences emerge especially from the more mature age groups.
These players may still enjoy escapistic power fantasies, but there is also a need for games that handle issues and emotions of real people living in the real world. Just like readers of literature and cinephiles tend to expand their consumer habits from adventures to drama.
For example, point-and-click adventure Lydia tells a story of a child of alcoholic parents and how she escapes into a fantasy from the fearful things in the real world. The game was originally made as a regular commercial game, but the Finnish alcohol monopoly Alko funded the free mobile version of the game as a part of their educational program.
This evolution of players makes it possible for game developers to use their creativity more freely: They can make games that handle issues that are important for them. They may try out mechanics and functionalities that are not based on earlier games. They are breaking the barriers between art forms by making playable literature, comics, fine art, music, and what not. They have fresh ideas; they have something to say. They make games that are fun and entertaining. Sometimes they are not fun at all, they are meaningful, touching, and important.
These games may carry other values than entertainment and business. They can change us and the world we live in.
To make this possible, the developers need support from publishers, marketplaces, public funding and investors.
If all advertisement space is sold to companies making millions or billions, the smaller games can’t get any visibility.
If there is no visibility, it is rather difficult for an investor to see how they could make a profit from a game that could be very important or impactful in the societal sense. And if the game developers can’t pay their bills, they need to go working on a profitable project, leaving less or no time and energy for their meaningful and creative work. Games are too powerful a medium only to be used for fun and pastime.
Holding on your creative
Game industry is still a creative industry. We can appreciate games from many perspectives. In Nordic Game Awards 2020 one man project Baba Is You was competing with multi-million euro, hundred people made game Control for the title of the best Nordic game of the year. People willing to work in the industry have a passion for games. They want to make games that are meaningful for them.
If the industry pushes these people making games that feel like they are fully driven by key performance indicators and other numbers, their creativity dies.
People are already leaving the industry and having burnouts due to loss of creativity and meaning in their work. The industry is losing a lot of experience and potential with these creative minds who give up their dreams.
Games are very good at motivating the players. Game designers understand the meaning and functionality of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. They can apply the theories of flow and self-determination into their games. They know when to give an external prize, like points, badges and level-ups. But they also know that all those external prizes lose their power, if the actual gameplay sucks.
If the game is reduced just to points and badges, instead of focusing on a fun gameplay, the players can’t grow a passion for the game,or the passion is obsessive rather than harmonious, and that isn’t very healthy for the player.
We know how to treat the player. We should apply this knowledge to the game developers too. Let people do their own projects every now and then. Give them creative freedom within projects. Give them responsibility for their own work. A bigger salary or team working week in Spain are external motivators. The content of the work and the possibility to use and develop one’s creativity are internal ones. If the content is not interesting, people can lose their passion. Then they lose their creativity. A creative industry without creativity is just an industry.
We are not robots. We want to create. We want to be important.
Regional Artist of Games as art
Art Promotion Centre Finland
jaakko.kemppainen [at] taike.fi