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Cred vs. Influence (or Killing our Soul)

January 12, 2010

"To be alive at all is to have scars." - John Steinbeck

Among the many games on my desktop, there is a specific game that I play every few days. It is something that’s old and time-worn, and God knows how it runs just fine on my iMac, but it does. I play it out of a sense of comfort, I think, because I know it inside and out, and it knows me. When it was made, game players could speak of nothing else, and game developers were humbled. It is one of the greatest designs our medium has ever seen, and that remains true nearly two decades after its release. I say this not just as a player but as a game designer with nearly three decades in the industry myself. I know a work of greatness when I see it.

And so, it was interesting to me to hear its designer mentioned the other evening in a gathering of fellow game developers.

I wonder how much cred he has among developers now?

The question wasn’t asked in an insulting way. Rather, it was raised as a curious point, a wonder, nothing more. And so, I took the bait, and I wondered what it meant for a developer to have “cred” now or in the past, and what precisely “cred” means to us in the first place.

Cred, by our definition, can be loosely translated to “what have you done for me lately?” It is a taking stock of a developer’s most recent works. Typically, these recent works are called into question – and hence the cred issue raised – when the developer has either a) been silent for a number of years or b) produced something which is less than one would have hoped for. The only way out of this cred death spiral is to a) release a very good game, b) stop making games after your very good game or c) die.

I wondered aloud if people still discussed the cred of the great American author John Steinbeck. His last published work is The Winter of Our Discontent. The title, perhaps, foreshadowed its reception. Some were kind to the work, but many critics and scholars were not fans. They criticized Steinbeck’s decision to speak for the characters rather than let them reveal their thoughts through action. The novel’s construction was sloppy, and its pacing was uncharacteristic of earlier Steinbeck novels. While Steinbeck noted that he was trying to tackle a specific challenge with the book (morals in American culture), he was condemned for exactly this experimentation. His effort, critics noted, was too overt and not well concealed under a typical and masterful layer of metaphor. The book wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but when compared to his previous glories (instead of others’ stock in trade), it didn’t compare well.

In short, Steinbeck didn’t give us a Steinbeck. How dare he. Then he died. Two unfinished works were published posthumously, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights and a screenplay, Zapata. Had he lived, they may have accused him of trading off Arthurian legend since his own well had quite obviously dried up.

Yet, we do not remember Steinbeck in this way.  Instead, we talk of his influence. We divide his work and the work of other masters into categories, and we reserve the title of “Major Works” for those contributions that touched our souls somehow. For Steinbeck, these works are East of EdenThe Grapes of WrathOf Mice and Men and Travels with Charley in Search of America. They are all wonderful and worth reading. East of Eden is the best book I’ve ever read. In those pages, I witnessed a master at work, and I am humbled by his eloquence. When I play the game on my desktop, I feel the same thing.

Steinbeck’s legacy is judged not by his last, but by his sum. This is not something we have learned to do.

In all, he published 27 novels in his lifetime, many short stories, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and took home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, just a year after The Winter of Our Discontent was released. Steinbeck’s influence, like the influence of our masters, is everywhere. Think of the games you play and how they came to be. Who inspired that young coder to enter the industry? Who was blown away by a game he could only play at his friend’s house? Who financed that company? Who invented whole genres that we live and breathe today? Who inspired you? Who inspired those who inspired you?

This is influence and legacy. These two are the important things.  They outlive the individual and the games. Cred is but a symptom of our expectations, our insecurity with our own medium. We expect too much from the masters within it; we expect mastery at all times.

Why?

I want to see our masters explore new mediums. I want to encourage their creativity and support their efforts even when they don’t succeed – especially when they don’t succeed. I want to acknowledge that there is something in their brain that doesn’t work like the something in my brain or your brain, and give that brain the creativity, the room, the respect, the love and the support it needs to make genius, make mediocre and make garbage. We must encourage the free exploration of ideas, of patterns, of play, and not beat our masters into the ground with their own legends. Otherwise, they stop. They just stop and go away, and we don’t learn from them anymore. We blunt them, and that is a tragedy.

Steinbeck had this to say:

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected… If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

- East of Eden

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2010 10:17 am

    “I wonder how much cred he has among developers now?”

    Interesting question and an interesting analysis. I agree with what you are saying, but I wonder if we could examine the question differently. Note that the question is about “developers” which is increasingly taken to mean “programmers”.

    So, another way to answer that question is to wonder “how current in his technical knowledge is this developer”? One of the issues we face is that people often confuse technical achievement with what could loosely be referred to as game design achievement. This is natural because often a technical breakthrough allows a particular game design to exist or shine. Thus we often (and mistakenly) expect new (and brilliant) game designs to come hand in hand with great technical innovations.

    “I wonder how much cred he has among developers now?”

    There is another issue with “cred” that the question rises. It is something I often see in my students and many younger generations of gamers. Bluntly put, the often have no idea of the history and the legacy of earlier and older games. This question can be viewed as a critique of many people in the industry who are ignorant of who the “masters” are, and why they should know about them. We are quite often guilty of focusing too much on the new and shiny… thankfully, I think we’re making progress on that front, though.

    • January 12, 2010 11:05 am

      In this case, in referring to game developers, I am speaking of developers in general, not programmers specifically. When I think of devs, I think of all the possible careers in the industry, and in asking about a dev’s cred in the instance which motivated the story, it was considered in the same way.

    • inches permalink
      January 12, 2010 11:35 am

      What game were you playing?

  2. January 12, 2010 12:15 pm

    Yeah, whenever I see or read “developers” I interpret that as everyone in a creative position on a development team.

    Come on Brenda, don’t tease us like that! What was the game? An Ultima? I could imagine that question referring to Richard Garriott.

  3. January 12, 2010 2:03 pm

    I am not saying which game it was. I think this applies to many masters and many games.

  4. January 12, 2010 2:24 pm

    Very interesting post! I say this as someone who I suspect has more influence than cred. :)

    One interesting thing about the industry is that many of the folks with influence have a lot of influence, so to speak, serving on awards committees, teaching classes, writing books, speaking at conferences, etc.

    • Jacek Wesołowski permalink
      January 12, 2010 3:23 pm

      Yeah, and then people just smile and nod, but don’t listen. I’ve been in “the industry” for (mere) several years now, and I have basically spent that entire time repeating what I’ve learned from those who came before me to anyone who would listen. The ultimate question that stops almost every discussion in its tracks, because I cannot answer it convincingly, has always been the same: “How many copies thit that guy sell last year?”

      On the other hand, that’s not how one exerts the strongest kind of influence. One project lead I worked with had a strong “let’s copy the last game I played” syndrome, and he was a devoted console fanboy. But at the same time, in every decision he made, you could see how he kept trying to recreate the experience of playing a Deathmatch in Quake.

  5. January 12, 2010 2:40 pm

    You are treating the ability to make great games as an inherent, constant attribute of a person. If someone was a Master ten years ago, they still “have it” today and will have it for the rest of their lives (whatever “it” is).

    Is it true? Once an awesome developer, always an awesome developer?

    I think a counter-argument is that our industry changes so fast… not just the technology, but the popular genres, the designs, the art styles, the business models, everything… that yesterday’s skills have less relevance in tomorrow’s industry. The skills to make a brilliant 8-bit Nintendo game are different from the skills required to make a hit PS3 title. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I could see the argument.

    And if that is the case, then that would be why you’re only as good as your last two projects. It’s also why continuing education and lifelong learning are so important. Two sides of the same coin.

    Maybe the industry tacitly assumes this, and that is why there is so much focus on “cred”?

  6. January 12, 2010 2:53 pm

    What I wonder about often is “Influence” or “Cred” actually matters in the current Game development industry. From my point of view the only thing that truly means anything is “Professional experience”.

    How many devs are out there that do indeed have both influence and cred yet don’t ever get taken seriously because of their lack of professional experience?

    Another question is if “masters” had all of their titles removed from them, yet retained all of their understanding of games, do they still qualify as “masters”?

    Personally yes, I feel they still are, I’m not sure how they would be regarded professionally.
    I love the treefort (Game Industry), but honestly I feel it has lost something since its start to now.

  7. January 12, 2010 5:34 pm

    I’ve wondered in many cases why we’re so much harsher on the one-hit wonders of the music industry than we seem to have been on those from literature. (What else did Bram Stoker write, anyway?)

    And I think there are a couple of features in this case that make typical videogame production more like a music band than a book writer:

    (1.) The band matters, and it can be hard to figure out who really made what happen within the group. With the exception of the 1970’s and tiny web/iPhone games, projects of single authorship are extremely rare in the videogame industry. Part of the street cred question is figuring out whether that individual was really a source of value for [popular game they worked on] – immediately after the project was a hit, everyone involved had a boost from their involvement, but over the years the key players are shifted out by whether that’s their only acclaim.

    (2.) Trends change rapidly, leaving what was a masterwork a few years ago looking dry and outdated today. While this is affected by technology – as has been equally true for music – it’s largely design and user experience. Whether the hot new thing is platformer games, polygons, first-person, online play, social network integration or physics, a master at what worked years ago may or may not be a master at designing what people want now. (Unless Nintendo sticks Mario or Zelda in it, or Capcom makes another Street Fighter II variant.)

    (1.) Has as much to do with how personalities and work styles jibe as it does with any individuals abilities. (2.) Isn’t just about about skills or technical competence, but a fundamental difference in principles and priorities – relevant mantras from the past sometimes contradict those at present., as a designer with NES/arcade-level challenge in mind will be met mostly with fury and distaste by Nintendo’s current audience, with even the next Mega Man game for WiiWare consciously turning down the heat.

    (On a history-related note, most kids are unfamiliar with old game design because by the time they were old enough to play, the Atari/NES/SNES were no longer sold in stores, Asteroids/BubbleBobble were no longer in arcades, and their shiny new OS was incompatible with many ancient DOS-only games.)

    Cred also has a unique value in our industry since, unlike music or literature, the vast majority of our key players that shaped gaming history are still alive. This means the market – not just intellectuals – is trying to gauge current cred as if these were star basketball players, because who they recruit and retain will affect their product quality and options for marketing hype. However many copies of Spore sold, I presume it would have sold fewer if Will Wright didn’t have his star power attached to it (assuming that it theoretically could have come out the same).

    Doom is part of what got me into videogame development. Yet the sharp inflection point in John Romero’s cred wasn’t just a question to be debated by historians, but a matter affecting business decisions and the designer’s career to this day, many gaming “generations” later. I loved Tom Hall’s later work on Anachronox, but the marketplace didn’t and that mismatch led to business trouble in the other fragment of Ion Storm. After id Software put out Doom 3, whether its because the band members had broken up or because their type of mastery was outdated, I stopped looking forward to the next thing coming out of id.

    I think the most stark example of a team that has mastery particularly well honed for one platform was the core team behind Goldeneye 007 on N64, that went on to make Perfect Dark before splitting from Rare to found Free Radical. In this case, the most important members of the band stayed together, but the trends changed rapidly, and the team with well-honed N64-fidelity skills put out a few more titles suited to PS2: Second Sight and Time Splitters. When PS3 arrived, it became clear that the sort of writing and level design that worked well for last generation’s games was no longer cutting it, and after Haze the studio dissolved. (I realize part of their workforce became Crytek UK, but the group minus Dave Doak and Steve Ellis isn’t the same group.)

    While as fans we can still admire and contextualize the past work, as fellow people in the industry, we need to think about who to work with (or under), who has relevant advice when they pontificate in interviews, and who has currently announced work that might be a divining rod to where the marketplace will go next.

    • January 12, 2010 6:02 pm

      Chris – great examples. One thing that’s interesting here is how marketing also affects the perception of a product and prevents it from being seen in its own light. This compounds the legend issue. In the instance you mention, and FWIW, Romero didn’t want that advert to run.

      In the beginning of the industry, and for probably almost 10 years, single authorship was responsible on 1,000s of games.

      • January 12, 2010 6:43 pm

        In reflecting further on this question, I was considering how John Steinbeck, if he were alive to write in today’s modern fiction market, would do in terms of cred when compared to the more formulaic but immensely successful likes of authors such as Dan Brown or Danielle Steel.

        Literature, like drama, had generations of development during which to partake of it was in part associated with sophistication, cultural education, resources and being an arm’s reach from elitist circles. While their origins were modest and widespread – whether oral tradition or simple crowd entertainment – they’ve gone through stages (no pun intended) of more obtuse art, and perhaps further taken on that identity when the old works were preserved and interpreted/translated by scholars. To this day there’s still a distinct air of cultural superiority (or snobbery) about someone that attends stage plays, as opposed to getting their drama through television, and there’s a similar vibe between (as previously mentioned) someone knowledgeable of literary classics as opposed to what’s on the top sellers list now.

        Those of us who know how much better Asteroids looks on a vector display, or how much different Pong and Breakout play with Atari paddles vs mouse/d-pad, surely have a similar snobbery about us. Though seeing as our roots are in toys, penny amusements, and (increasingly) mainstream entertainment, at a time in history enabling and rewarding widespread worldwide consumption, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps most of our industry’s most esteemed works are more in the category of Da Vinci Code or Digital Fortress than Grapes of Wrath. This was likely exacerbated by its targeting of children, since Nolan Bushnell brought the demographic to the Chuck-E-Cheese age and Nintendo identified that age’s demand at home (other than Lewis Carroll or A. A. Milne, there seems to be comparatively little great literature specifically for children).

        If there is genius to be found, and surely several candidates will come to mind (some across multiple generations like Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, others isolated to momentary shifts like Warren Robinett, David Crane, or Fukio Mitsuji), it was still broadly commercialized at its time, and is perhaps still too recent to judge whether it has really stood the test of time or whether we’re perhaps just nostalgic of childhood.

        Sorry to spin off on a tangent – it’s not my intention to colonize, but the thought seemed at least partly relevant in the context of cred across generations, and with the 1930-1960 works of Steinbeck in mind :)

  8. January 12, 2010 6:09 pm

    After writing this piece, it also occurred to me that we give plenty of credit where it is not due, and often, these people ride on the shoulders of the giants.

    We also fail to take into consideration just how difficult it was to achieve a masterwork *when it was created*. For instance, look at a 2600 game – looks very simple. Have you tried to actually design and code one? Have fun with that. Consider later works like DOOM or Wolf3D – there are no APIs. They basically had a chunk of memory they could write values into. That chunk of memory is reflected on the screen. Now, try representing a 3D world in that chunk of memory. This is expert level, though – you can’t get a book on 3D software rasterization – that didn’t exist back then. They had to make it all up… and the game design and the artwork… and…

    That’s just one game among many.

    • January 12, 2010 10:14 pm

      > “After writing this piece, it also occurred to me that we give plenty of credit where it is not due”

      While I realize this is more in reference to the prevalence of building on one another’s ideas without crediting past works (something Penny Arcade recently called out Darksiders and Dante’s Inferno for: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/1/8/ ) – that even from a purely design perspective we ignore the place of PS2 Rygar in the formation of God of War games and Devil May Cry sequels, hold F.E.A.R. up as brilliantly copying many great games that came before it, etc. – there’s another way of reading it that I think may be equally true and worrisome:

      I’m appalled at how readily players credit (1.) the publisher/distributor, if not at least… (2.) the company brand name, however with the exception of a few rockstars virtually never… (3.) the human beings that actually made a game.

      While I realize there are a variety of ways that game developers and publishers can get along, everything from internal development to pure business-side distribution agreements, on the far end of that spectrum when people credit the publisher it’s like saying Penguin Books made a lot of classics. When people think in terms of the company name, instead of the human being that was a driving force behind it, they miss cool connections like Dave Jones making both The Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto – or stranger, seeing plagiarism where it isn’t (“Crackdown” isn’t a GTA3 clone, it’s made by the original GTA guy after he left ASC/Rockstar; of course “Star Wars: Empire at War” plays like C&C, the heart of Westwood founded Petroglyph after EA ate their brand…).

      Certainly a valid point on the pushing of technology by market leaders, but I’d like to point out that this still happens to this day. It was every bit as impressive for Adventure to pack into a 2600 as it was for Final Fantasy to fit on NES or Doom to work on a 386, but no less impressive what Far Cry accomplished with outdoor terrain, what World of Warcraft did with reliable online gaming technologies, what Half-Life 2 did with 3D physics, or what Wii Sports found a way to do with accelerometers. At least to some degree, those building on the shoulders of giants are at least setting themselves up to be the new giants to be built upon :)

  9. josh diaz permalink
    January 12, 2010 10:45 pm

    I think it’s worth pointing out that cred, as a form of social capital, might have different values for different groups. Some people will respect Nasir Gebelli or Steve Meretzky for their mastery of their respective fields, but it might not be the same types of people acknowledging that mastery.

    Actually, they might be a bad example: maybe try replacing that with Cactus and Neil Young?

    I think this distinction matters more when cred is lost — or, as I suspect it usually is, transformed. Do you lose engineering cred if you use someone else’s engine, but gain production cred for making everyone else in the department’s job easier? Can you gain cred with a new generation of players for releasing a popular mod-friendly toolkit, but lose out elsewhere because of the sacrifices to release it? At what point did making indie games become a form of ‘cred’, and to whom is it valuable? And why?

  10. January 12, 2010 11:51 pm

    Great post. It’s always tempting to be overly negative when a good developer missteps or fails to deliver on a promise. I mean, poor Peter Molyneux has been the butt of a lot of jokes over the years, but you’re right that that sort of negativity is counterproductive at best and outright destructive at worst.

    I’ve got some more to say but I decided to save it for a blog post on my own site (which you were kind enough to link in a previous comment, thanks!) since it’s a bit lengthier. It will go up tomorrow noon-ish if you want to take a look.

  11. January 13, 2010 10:45 am

    Here’s a bit more of my thoughts on your post.

    http://beepsandboops.com/blog/37-grayson/73-the-burned-house

  12. AJ Marini permalink
    January 14, 2010 9:59 am

    I like the article and I am hopeful of a near future where credit is given where credit is due. However, I think the issues that cause true creators to be veiled in secrecy will live on for a while.

    With books or film, which I believe is more analogous to games, the creator is front and center. The author for a book and the producer or director of a film are made publicly known. In gaming however, it is always put forth as a team effort. Although this is true, I believe it is only true in as much as it is true that films are a team effort. The true creative force behind games are often obscured by equal parts intention and apathy.

    Books and film are both far older mediums than ours. I believe that as pressure builds to have every game be a competent piece of entertainment, the talent capable of delivering consistently will gain notoriety. At least, I hope that’s the case :)

    • January 16, 2010 3:01 pm

      Having read this article a while ago and now gone through the comments, I finally feel like I actually have something to add(initially, it just seemed like the post said all there was to say).

      I think one of the difficulties with influence and cred is that it’s further complicated by the commercial nature of the industry. I hasten to add that I don’t mean that as a criticism, or a unique feature of the industry–it’s simply an acknowledgment of the reality of the situation at hand: commercial impact on the industry exists, and that’s how it is.

      I suppose we have to consider that there’s “artistic” influence and cred, and there’s commercial influence and cred, and to make things worse, they overlap more often than not. And I think cred is the more commercial of the two. Cred is “but what have you done lately?” which seems to revolve much more around having recent commercial successes (but I could be wrong on that, to be honest– it’s a confusing subject).

      I suppose it would be easier to make a point if I tackle this a different way. I tend to think the commercial side overpowers the artistic side to some degree, especially with the public and especially when the artistic and commercial aren’t syncing up. And, well, let’s be honest. That public opinion that is often founded on the commercial side of it all tends to push the non-public opinion. How often are we really willing to look at a commercial “failure” and say “but it had some great points; I want to make a game like THAT!” Well… unless we’re very fortunate to make what we like or have a great gift for salesmanship, I guess we don’t really, because the studio/publisher/investors won’t go for it (I’m simplifying/generalizing/etc here).

      I’m not sure I’m making a point so much as an observation that I’m not sure is accurate. But it seems like there’s basically three ways things tend to go. The artistic and commercial influence/cred are both present (which I’d attribute to games like… say… Doom, SimCity, Warcraft). There’s games that have the artistic side going on, but for whatever reason not the commercial side(I’d put Daikatana in here now that I’ve played it, but there are plenty of others). And then there’s games that achieve the commercial side in spite of the artistic side being– arguably– missing (I tend to want to put games that shove out popular sequels frequently without changing much here, but I’ll resist naming any for any umber of reasons).

      The thing is, as much as I’d like to, I just can’t blame that third category for doing what they do. Especially since often times, they’re still fun games, and I stand by my belief that a fun game is all that really matters. But I’d be lying if I said the fun doesn’t degrade as the sequeling wears on. I suppose I wish we lived in a perfect world where every game was in category one.

      Tying it back in, I think that the real Masters (and I don’t think that mastery has anything to do with a perfect record) tend to fall into that first category. When they’re on-game, it’s artistically and commercially lauded, when they’re not, it’s neither. This has less to do with them not being commercial or what have you, and just a tendency not to fall into thinking “well, they liked the first, so why add anything significant to two?” And perhaps a willingness to accept that the follow-ups may fail due to taking a chance that doesn’t work.

      I’m sure I’ve got tons of holes in this, but it’s really a bit of a thought exercise. Ideas are refined by sharing, so if you see holes to shoot or think there’s something there, have at.

      • January 16, 2010 3:02 pm

        Dangit, I poked the wrong reply button. AJ, this wasn’t a comment on your comment; it was intended as a separate thought. Just to clarify that.

  13. January 18, 2010 4:17 am

    Sorry about my earlier verbosity. I get excited when I find other people that are knowledgeable and care about this subject area, and this can impair my sense of blog etiquette.

    I’ve been inspired by Grayson Davis’s example of putting a lengthy reply elsewhere on the web, and will try to stick to this method in the future.

    I’ve adapted and further developed my earlier replies here to a section in this month’s hobby videogame development newsletter:

    http://gamedevlessons.com/lessons/letter10.html#adv

    (No reply is expected, just wanted to share.)

    Cheers,
    Chris

  14. January 25, 2010 7:43 pm

    Not knowing which game you were playing is killing me.

    Was it Dark Castle?
    ..Lode Runner?
    …System’s Twilight?
    ….STUNT COPTER?!?!!

  15. January 30, 2010 9:40 am

    Wow, I was way off.. I guess the Mac thing threw me. Thanks :)

  16. tinman permalink
    February 7, 2010 11:02 pm

    I have a new-found respect for you and your work in knowing the fact that you still play Doom on regular basis.

    It doesn’t matter how much cred/influence a designer/developer has among his/her peers. It matters how much he/she has among the people that plays his/her games. No matter what, we’ll never forget Romero, we’ll never forget Carmack, we’ll never forget Doom (better yet, we’ll never stop playing it).

    Romero dared to do something better with Daikatana… and failed. Today the shelves are filled with games as mediocre as what Daikatana turned out to be. But they are not failures because they lacked the ambition to do better (one cannot fail without trying to do something different), and gamers simply stopped expecting them to be better (better in the sense of “more fun”, technology-wise they are indeed better).

Trackbacks

  1. Make Mistakes? Make Garbage! « Preparing for the Apocalypse
  2. Cred Vs. Influence (Or Killing Our Soul) | Kotaku Australia
  3. kirabug’s idea files » Blog Archive » Things you should read (or watch) from the Internet
  4. Effects of Time on Developer “Cred” | HobbyGameDev
  5. The Burned House | Beeps & Boops

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