Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Single Auteur vs Collaboration

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 1, 2008

This week’s 1UP Show is very interesting. It’s a new special called “RSVP”, and is a recorded dinner conversation between Mark MacDonald from 1UP, Erik Wolpaw from Valve, Dylan Cuthbert from Q Games and Jonathan Mak (who made Everyday Shooter). I love the concept, and if you’re interested in the thoughts of game developers I highly recommend you check it out. The definitely picked a good group of developers to create some good, informal, insightful conversation.

The part I found most interesting starts at around 18 minutes in, and is a discussion of Valve’s development process. Erik reaffirms that Valve uses extensive focus testing as part of the “Cabal System”. He also points out the reason why Valve has to do this (which I had suspected before): Valve doesn’t believe in the “single auteur” system of game development. The development teams at Valve tend to be very egalitarian and are forced to find some way to resolve game development conflicts. Jonathan Mak totally didn’t understand the concept, and felt that it’s the job of the primary visionary to decide conflicts. Dylan (and most of the game development community) agreed with Jonathan.

Erik pointed out what I believe to be the central problem with top-down design: “There are only so many auteurs in the world that are worth following… What Valve tried to do is come up with a process where smart people who aren’t necessarily visionary geniuses can get together and create an incredible game”. But the Cabal system has it’s own problems: “I don’t want to get fired but… It’s good at creating incredibly high quality products, but it’s not good at creating incredibly high quality products on any sort of schedule.” How do you deal with the business problems created by not hitting hard schedules? “Arguably smarter than the game design people are the business people you never hear about at Valve who are these super duper genius level business people… Valve is profitable enough to just let the creative people do more or less what they want to do”.

This is an argument I get into at work a lot. I think there are VERY few real auteurs, and many more false auteurs who will take you down the road to ruin. I think deep down in their hearts, most game designers (and half the artists and programmers) in the industry think that they could be Miyamoto, if just given the chance. Well, here’s the cold truth: it is extremely likely that you are not in fact a genius. It’s very likely that you are a smart, competent person (well, if you’ve been successful so far) who could work within a collaborative Cabal-like system to make Valve-quality games. In fact, you probably have some great ideas that can be built up into something like Portal if given the chance and not forced to wait your chance while trying to work your way up the game industry genius-ladder. I think Cryptic shares many of the same characteristics as Valve (and is one of the main reasons I love working here), but I think we could do better. I definitely need to read up more on the specifics of the Cabal system they’re using, as it sounds intruiging.


5 Responses to “Single Auteur vs Collaboration”

  1. Joe Ludwig said

    Gamasutra had an article a few years back on how Valve used the Cabal system for Half-Life. It’s pretty dated, but might be a step in the right direction.

    I haven’t watched the video yet, but from your description I’m definitely in the “collaboration” camp. Maybe there are auteurs out there other than Miyomoto, Will Wright, and Sid Meier, but I certainly haven’t met them. What I have met are tons of smart, hard-working people who want to make a great game and do right by the players.

    We all just need to have Valve’s infinite money. 🙂

  2. James L said

    Being able to “auteur” a game from the ground up and have it be fun is like Beethoven composing while deaf. Extensive focus testing simply makes games better. Likewise, getting design input from more than one person is better than getting input from only one person.

    That said, I can see a place for a “director,” whose job is to enforce tone and coherent feel rather than to singlehandedly invent the game mechanics.

  3. Wolfe said

    Isnt the real trick that these uber aeteurs actually know where they “dont know” anymore and can knowingly apply the procedure for soving the unknown problem where needed?

    This in turn includes testing and relying on other peoples expertise etc.

  4. […] clearly comes down on the “Single Auteur” side with regards to development methodology. His discussion of building the concept of a […]

  5. […] Double Buffered has some thoughts on a discussion between some industry people Valve’s cabal system was measured against the auteur model. […]

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