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.
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