The word “corporate” can conjure up some pretty negative imagery. Statistically the majority of people reading this article will have worked or will work for some sort of corporation in their lifetime. “The Man”, “The Establishment” they are all viewed as the bad guy, the overlords who tells us when we can’t take time off, when we aren’t going to get raises, and when it is time to stop having fun and play by the rules. We have dreams of being famous, winning the lottery, or some other windfall that will spare us working as a cog in a giant wheel.
In many ways, while we may admire games designers, especially the household names that we recognize, they are still beholden to corporations. Over the last two years we have seen a handful of video games designers who have left behind their high-ranking positions in search of smaller endeavors, a simpler set up. These names, which include Bleszinski, Levine, Molyneaux, and Hall, each have their own story, but all add up to people who felt the need to leave their jobs at large, well-known studios to create something that truly mattered to them.
Triple-A development is a grueling world. One where designers answer to executives, who answer to board members, who answer to stockholders. This world of suits and titles has no interest in fostering creativity or providing new experiences, it is far more concerned with the bottom line and justifying large production values. Large studios are unwilling to take risks, far more concerned with treading old paths, and reiterating on proven ideas that sell pre-orders. It is a world that is made for few people, and thrives off the kinds of designers who are used to working in very specific roles.
I often wonder if people who have been industry staples for so long, names like Kenji Inafune, developer of Mega Man and countless other commercial successes, or Cliff Bleszinski who created the Quake and the Gears of War series, feel like they were betrayed by their long-term commitments to certain studios. When games like Gears of War were being created, there was no independent scene to speak of. Even when independent games were created, finding a platform to put them on was difficult, getting any sort of promotion was nearly impossible. If you wanted to make a game eight years ago, you went to work at a large studio, put in your long hours, and hoped to rise to the top.
Today is a totally different story. Video games are born in basements and small offices across the globe. Whether it is small teams of studio veterans, financed by Kickstarter, or a one-man amatuer making a mod for an established shooter, the studio model is becoming more and more obtuse, and people are creating things that blockbuster developers never could. The biggest advantage to being one of these small-time developers is the ability to be creative, not beholden to the tropes of past work, be it your or own or someone elses. This freedom obviously speaks to the one-time rogues who have come to be shackled by studios.
When Cliff Bleszinski left Epic Studios, it was considered a pretty surprising move. The Gears of War series had no end in sight, and many figured that if the personality known as CliffyB was going to build something new, it would be at the same large-scale design level. However, I imagine working on the same series for the better part of decade, each release with its massive expectations both critically and sales-wise, has got to wear on one’s ambition and spirit. When Bleszinski said he needed a break, many assumed it would be from designing altogether, it turns out he just needed to get away from the Triple-A. In a recent interview with Leigh Alexander, Bleszinski revealed that the Gears of War series didn’t turn out how he wanted, how he didn’t want it to be his legacy, and how he never wanted to work at a large studio again.
Many of these designers didn’t dream of working for any sort of corporate overlords, in fact, they started making games to escape that very lifestyle. Ken Levine founded Irrational to be a creative team with new ideas, and as BioShock Infinite weighed on him, I’m sure he wondered if staying at Irrational meant making a game where there is always a girl and always a lighthouse. As someone who is a video game luminary, I am sure the prospective of being shackled to a type of game and type of franchise seemed horrifically unappealing.
The list goes on. Dean Hall arose to fame with Day-Z, quickly being shoved into the video game limelight as another small-time eccentric designer who was gifted a large scale development team of his own, as long as he continued to work on his newly bonafide success. It should not surprise anyone that the man who loved risk and loved experimentation found that working for a corporation like Bohemia was not for him.
Game designers, at least the truly great ones, arise to fame because they are people who seek to do something different, who like to break down barriers. Unfortunately, those same people often end up in shitty situations where the walls have never been thicker, the rules have never been more strict. When expectations are set, when large amounts of money is on the line, you have to play by the rules established by those who are funding your dream. The more money invested, the shorter the leash. These limitations are exactly what scares these amazing minds from working with these studios.
Triple-A development is going through growing pains as video games continue to evolve as a medium. Escalation in the cost of development are making many publishers increasingly skeptical of games which carry large financial risks. These publishers fail to realize the expectations and development cycles are fostering crushing environments, chasing away world-class talent who can no longer work under such oppressive conditions. While the Irrational layoffs were hard to hear about, it was clear that for the first time, a publisher was willing to amend their vision of games to accommodate a weary Ken Levine. More publishers need to find more efficient, and more effective ways to utilize the talents of the great designers they are fortunate to have on payroll, or risk losing more visionaries to the growing world of independent developers.