director_chairEditor’s note: Steve, a game programmer, goes behind the scenes to discuss similarities in movie and game production, and the role of indie game developers as the cutting edge of game design. -Demian


While this may not be news to some, I’m not sure how many people realize the number of parallels between the game and movie industries. It wasn’t until I started working in the game industry myself that I started to see just how similar they are.

Over the past few years, there’s been a fair amount of discussion concerning how close some games are to becoming interactive movies. But instead of talking about the content of games, I’d like to look at the actual industry itself.

Assuming my limited experience in game development allows me to make broad, sweeping statements about the game industry as a whole, the structure of major game publishers/developers often mirrors that of large motion picture studios.

 

At the highest level of abstraction, there are the “suits,” who ultimately decide which projects make the cut and how to allocate the greenbacks. Then there are those who are out in the field doing the hands-on work.

Digging a bit deeper in “out in the field” portion, producers in both industries serve similar roles; they act as a buffer between the team and the suits, provide general guidance on the project, and make sure everything runs smoothly, on budget, and on time.

The role of director is a bit trickier; depending on the game team, it’s often either the executive producer or lead designer…or sometimes someone with the actual designation of team lead.

The_Movies

Game designers play the role of screenwriters, while programmers and artists are the rest of the production crew; the camera operators, the makeup artists, the set designers, etc. Granted, I have a bit of a bias as I’m a programmer myself, but I feel it’s these guys who are the backbone of the projects, not the executives, producers, directors, or actors.

Without a production crew, movies/games would never get made. However, production crews could create movies/games on their own, albeit the end result would be a piece of garbage that no one would pay good money to go see/play.

The only role that doesn’t have a clear one-to-one relationship between the two industries is that of the actor. I suppose one could make the case that the in-game characters play the role of actors, but I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that analogy.

Aside from the business structures, another similarity lies in the marketing of games and movies. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but look at the places where you see ads for both (enthusiast magazines and web sites, demographically targeted TV stations, ads that play before movies in theaters, etc.) and consider the similarities between most action movie trailers and many modern FPS teaser trailers.

Another similarity is related to the sales and distribution of these two mediums. This analogy worked better twenty years ago, when arcades were in their prime, but arcades used to be analogous to movie theaters. Places where, for a small fee, consumers could essentially test the waters before possibly making a larger purchase for your entertainment center in the form of a VHS tape or game cartridge. With the semi-death of American arcades, downloadable game demos have come to fill the role instead.

The schism between big budget and indie development is quite possibly the most interesting similarity between the two mediums.

Speaking in very general terms, big budget movies and games are all about what’s “cool,” while the indie scene is much more introspective in that it often examines the core principals of the medium.

I’m going to avoid getting too abstract here, but I feel that the most important aspect for many indie movies is to effectively convey a message. and the presentation serves the message.

Similarly, I think when many indie developers ask themselves what the most important aspect of a game is, they reply “fun.” I’m not speaking for all indie developers; I know many of them try to imbue their games with a message, which is an admirable goal in and of itself.

And don’t get me wrong, there’s room for both “cool” and “fun” in the game space, but it certainty seems like the division between the two is growing.

But what I’m trying to get at here, in very simple terms, is I feel like big budgets drive developers to concern themselves with what’s “cool,” and it’s due to the fact that “cool” is often a lot easier to sell than “fun.” More copies sold equals larger royalties and greater job security.

I’m not trying to accuse developers of triple-A games of being greedy, money-hungry pigs, but I think undertones of unit sales play a bigger role in triple-A development than many developers would care to admit. It’s also often not even the developer’s fault, as with large motion picture companies, the suits tend to stick their noses where they don’t belong.

On a separate but related topic, judging by shear volume, apparently first/third person shooters are the coolest of the “cool” these days.

Am I the only gamer who’s completely and utterly sick of shooters? Talk about big budget games being stuck in a rut…if you look at the high-profile games in the past few years, the majority of them are shooters.

What’s depressing is that many high-profile, non-shooter games in the past year, such as Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge, have received a very mixed reception from the gaming media and gamers alike. In my book, innovation doesn’t need to be executed perfectly, and as supporters of the medium we should do everything we can to encourage innovation.

If we keep eating the same old garbage, they’ll keep feeding it to us.