"I don't believe in art by committee." - Frank Capra
When Bungie Software released the unique and amusing Weekend Warriora while back, many on the internet were thrilled at the prospect of beingtreated to another "Bungie game." However, when people actually playedthe game, they realized that though it used cutting edge technology andwas entertaining in its own way, Weekend Warrior didn't really adhere tothe extreme violence, extreme carnage, quick reflexes aesthetic that hasbecome Bungie's trademark. Some said "Huh, that's weird" and wentback to playing Marathon. The more inquisitive, however, may havepoked around on the back of the box or perhaps read a bit of the manual,to discover the game was actually created by Brian Greenstone and his company,Pangea Software. Though Bungie may have helped with final play-testingand funding, in essence Brian Greenstone was the author of the game, notJason Jones, who was the brain behind the Marathon series and all the otherBungie "hits" to date.
Why did consumers perceive Weekend Warrior as another "Bungie game,"and, indeed, why were consumers eager for the next "Bungie game" and notthe next "Jason Jones game?" Part is that Bungie wanted to use thetrusted Bungie brand name to convince consumers to buy as many copies ofthe new game as they could, despite the fact that it was all but completelyunrelated to what they had come to expect from Bungie games. ButBungie can hardly be faulted for this, since marketing by brand name insteadof by designer is a practice as old as the computer gaming industry. Indeed, part of the reason people saw Weekend Warrior as a "Bungie game"is that the entire industry has been successfully selling the public onthe notion that companies, not individuals, make games.
As Old as Time Itself
The practice of denying humans the authorship of computer games goesall the way back to the very beginning of commercial computer game development,when game designers like Ed Logg (Asteroids, Centipede, Gauntlet), andDave Theurer (Missile Command, Tempest) slaved away at Atari in completeanonymity for minuscule salaries. It was Atari policy - and everyother game developer's policy - that designers did not receive credit fortheir work. In this way, Atari built a following around its brandname instead of around its talented employees. While the employeescould quit when someone offered them more pay or better working conditions,the brand name Atari was owned lock, stock, and barrel, and hence Ataricould hold on to its popularity even if Ed Logg quit for greener pastures. Since next to no one played games based on who designed them, Atari gotto keep its employees around for the lowest wages possible.
Indeed, denying humans authorship goes all the way back - if not farther- to the early days of film industry with which (both justly and unjustly)the computer game industry is so often compared. In the early daysof film, stars were denied credit by their producers, who hoped to keeptheir salaries low by maintaining their anonymity. Over the courseof the first decade of film as a popular art, stars managed to demand theright to screen credit and with it the ability to demand higher salaries,for the public was quick to realize it didn't so much want to see the latestParamount picture, they wanted to see the newest Lillian Gish movie. Along with the stars, the invisible creators of films - the directors,the screenwriters, the cinematographers, and so on - got screen creditas well. It wasn't for many years still that directors such as D.W.Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were able to attract audiences with the presenceof their name on the marquee, as audiences came to realize that a directorhad still more to do with whether a picture was any good or not than astar - let alone a movie studio - did.
Pac-Man Needs a New Agent
But computer games don't really have stars - or if they do, they'rethe virtual kind, such as Mario, Pac-Man, or Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. These wholly-owned properties can be used by companies to their heartscontent, without necessarily meaning that the games they're in are anygood. (Pac-Man Adventure, anyone?) Hence it's been an evenlonger time until game designers - such as Sid Meier - have gotten therecognition they deserve and thereby acquired the rights to their nameson the boxes of there games. Indeed, many designers who fully deserveto have their names above the titles of their games - such as Jason Jones- still don't. (Part of this is because many designers seem to notreally care - since Jones is part owner of Bungie Software I'm sure hecould make it Jason Jones' Myth - The Fallen Lords if he so desired - butpart of it is still the companies' desire to not makes stars out of itstalented designers.)
(In a bizarre twist on Sid Meier's "name above the title" status, theofficial name for Civilization is actually Sid Meier's Civilization. So, when Microprose wanted to do a sequel, it was called Sid Meier's CivilizationII, despite the fact that Meier didn't actually design it. ThoughMeier was apparently involved as a consultant to actual designer BrianReynolds and approved of the final version of the game, he cannot be consideredthe author of the sequel (which is a terrific game nonetheless). Meier's name has earned customer recognition, and no doubt Microprose wouldn'twant to deprive itself of a handy marketing tool, hence leaving his "nameabove the title" on a game he didn't make. Perhaps it should havebeen called Brian Reynold's Sid Meier's Civilization II? But I digress...)
Determining authorship in collaborative media - such as present daycomputer games - is always a tricky proposition. It's easy to knowwho wrote a novel such as The Sound and the Fury. William Faulknersat down and wrote every last word in the book. Sure, he didn't drawthe cover painting, and he no doubt had friends and confidants - not tomention editors - who helped him refine his work. But still, we haveno problem declaring him the author. In the early days of the computergaming industry, when designers were kept in forced anonymity by theiremployers, it was similarly easy to declare authorship, since often oneperson designed the game, programmed it, made all the sound effects, anddrew the art. Others may have helped here and there with that bitof code or this piece of art, but in the end one person did the lion'sshare of the work. This has lead to a nostalgic fondness for thebygone era of "one person, one game," and many today look upon that asa golden age never to revisited.
In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra (if youdidn't know, he's the director of It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goesto Washington, It Happened One Night, and a truck-load more of terrificfilms) talks at some length of his personal philosophy of "one person,one film," and credits the failure or success of each of his films withthe failure or success of his own personal vision and determination tosee it through. Of course, Capra wasn't the cinematographer, theart director, and the editor on all his films, nor did he play all of theparts. But it was his efforts that instructed his collaborators inwhat the film should look and sound like, so that his vision for the filmwould come through in the final cut.
But surely film is as much, if not more so, a collaborative media asmodern computer games. It may never be that another professional,commercial game is almost entirely created by one person, but does thismean that authorship has been diluted to the point where we can not claimany one person is the author of a modern game? I don't think so. The author is the person who, in the end, is responsible for saying yesor no to every element in a given game. This author is the personwho, though they may not have come up with the initial idea for the game,refined the design into the state which is finally available to the player. S/he is the person who asks their collaborators for a certain "look" tothe graphics, a certain "quality" to the sounds, a certain "vibe" to themusic, and most importantly, a certain "feel" to the gameplay. Indeed,the designers who it's easy to establish as the authors of their gamesare often involved intimately with the programming, doing some portionof it themselves. Certainly some designers who can easily claim authorshipfor their games do none of the programming themselves, but regardless theauthor must have an intimate and continuous involvement with the creationof the game. No one who writes a design document - no matter howdetailed - and then hands it off to someone else to implement can reallybe considered the author of a game. The author is there to the bitterend, making sure their vision is followed through.
Of course a good author is never closed to advice, in fact they encourageinput from all their collaborators. But in the end, it's the author'sdecision for what direction to take on the graphics, the sound, the music,the gameplay. Good collaborators often make all the difference inthe author seeing his vision through, but at the same time the author couldhave found other collaborators to do similar work, while still maintaininghis vision of the final product. The author, then, is necessarilythe sine qua non: - that without which there is not. Not to say agiven game wouldn't exist at all without the designer/leader, but thatit would be so different as to in essence be a completely different gamingexperience. If we can declare that Frank Capra is the authorof It's a Wonderful Life - and we most certainly can - we can just as easilyclaim that Sid Meier is the author of Civilization or Brian Greenstoneis the author of Weekend Warrior.
As in film-making, sometimes computer game authorship is compromised,meaning sometimes there is no one with a consistent, dominating visionto guide the project to completion. Sometimes there are too manyinterests who think they know what's best for the game, and no single visioncomes through in the final version. Often called "committeethink,"this method of creating games is not, as Frank Capra observed, somethingthat will lead to very good art. There are the happy exceptions,of course, when no one on a project really knows what's going on and itall comes out rather well at the end. (Otherwise known as dumb luck.) But more often than not, players end up with games that are trying to betoo many things at the same time, games that are all over the map as towhat sort of experience they're trying to create, and hence games thatjust aren't very fun, let alone stimulating.
The key thing to take away from all these paranoid ramblings is thatwithout the key person, without a computer game's author, you're left witha game that's more likely to be bad than it is to be good. And forthis reason, it's imperative that we as consumers take the initiative tofollow designers, not companies. Just as we're not waiting with batedbreath for the next "Paramount movie" or "Bantam book," we shouldn't beeager for the next "Bungie game." Suppose in five years, when JasonJones quits Bungie software to go on his long-dreamed-about mountain biketrip across the Himalayas, we as game fans need to realize that the gamesat Bungie just won't be the same any more, regardless of the fact thatthe Bungie brand name may still be on them. The games may be goodor they may be bad, we'll have to judge that when the time comes. But without Jones at the helm, they certainly won't be the same.
This column was originally printed in InsideMac Games.