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What video game studios can teach us about creativity under capitalism
Collaboration can be creatively fruitful — unless it's overseen by suits interested in nothing but the bottom line
 
Valve could have endlessly stamped out Half-Life sequels, but instead the gaming company branched out creatively.
Valve could have endlessly stamped out Half-Life sequels, but instead the gaming company branched out creatively. (Facebook.com/Half-Life2)

Recently, famed video game designer Ken Levine left his studio, Irrational Games, to strike out with a smaller team of about 15 people. He's taking those people to a unit inside the studio Take 2, where presumably he can focus more on smaller, more creatively fulfilling titles. On a related note, designer Tim Schafer funded his recent game Broken Age through Kickstarter instead of the studio system. This trend prompted game critic Ben Croshaw at Escapist Magazine to declare the whole idea of studios as overblown:

But it's misleading to talk in terms of studios "dying" or "going down." Because a company is, by definition, a collection of individuals, and it's not like the individuals are being lined up in the car park and shot by a Square Enix execution squad….

But it is a lingering issue, standing in the way of games being taken seriously as art and culture, that they aren't generally considered to be auteur projects with names behind them. In Japan, someone is credited as Director, like Hideo Kojima, and that's a practice we badly need to adopt in the west...knowing what individual creators are responsible tends to give me a far better idea of the game's potential quality, or how it will play, or what themes the plot will explore, than the name of the franchise or the name of the developer. [Escapist Magazine]

This is a common theme of Croshaw's, who tends to take a highly individualistic — almost Thatcheresque — view of creative enterprises. Great games are the result of passionate individuals, while blandly awful ones are "designed by committee."

There is surely something to this view — as Croshaw and his fellow critics have well established, the larger a studio gets, the more its output tends to become bland, conservative, and creatively derivative. But this individualistic view has two problems: First, it underestimates the power of institutions; second, it doesn't provide a convincing account of why larger studios are so terrible.

Let's take a look at institutions. Because contrary to Croshaw's view, practically every game ever made was designed by committee. Excepting the odd individual project, games — like movies — are far too technically complicated to be made by less than a dozen people, which was true even 20 years ago. Nowadays, of course, cutting edge titles take design teams of hundreds or even thousands of people.

Such projects are and always have been the product of institutions, which are far more than the sum of their constituent individuals. Human beings are malleable creatures, and institutional frameworks powerfully guide expectations and behavior. Anyone who's worked for several different companies knows how a different workplace culture can massively influence the way that people behave. The case is even more obvious on a grand scale: The institution of democracy can entirely change how people behave with respect to practically the whole of life.

This is not to say that Croshaw's case for the auteur is wrong under all circumstances — there are some really good individual game designers out there working all alone. But collaboration in itself can also be creatively fruitful. Division of labor can allow people to develop specialized creative expertise that an individual wouldn't be able to obtain alone. Even novels benefit hugely from an editor.

While it is certainly true that the larger an institution is, the more difficult it is to manage — more unwieldy, more subject to bureaucratic dysfunction — it's also true that larger organizations can plumb more deeply into the well of talent and specialization. Remember King Théoden in the Lord of the Rings movies? Check out what Richard Taylor, one of the film's prop designers, says he did with the king's armor:

The inside of King Théoden's breastplate is the horse motif of the king of Rohan. I wanted it to be the last thing that [actor] Bernard Hill saw as he put on his armor and took on the persona of the king. [Houghton Mifflin Books]

That's hours of painstaking work that no moviegoer will ever see, just to maybe help the actor get a bit more into his character. Think of the obsessive creative commitment that implies!

Creative collaboration can also restrain an auteur when their ideas are bad. Red Letter Media's Star Wars reviews make this case quite well. During the filming of the original trilogy, George Lucas was forced to get help in key areas, especially editing, due to lack of money and other factors. During the prequel movies, by contrast, he had total creative control, and the result was an epic disaster.

Lucas always seemed to want total control on his project... While directors should have control on a project, filmmaking should also be a collaborative process. A second screenwriter can help focus the story and the dialogue. Actors are creative people too — they can provide valuable insight on the characters, and a lot of good ideas... And a good executive producer can be the voice of reason when things start to get out of hand. [Red Letter Media]

So larger institutions are not necessarily harmful to creativity — but as I've said, they seem to be much of the time. Why is that?

This is where the culture of capitalism itself comes in. Because big, cutting-edge games take a tremendous amount of money to produce, and big money means big business. That in turn means the active acquiescence of people who control the money in our society — which means corporate elites. In his series The Age of Uncertainty, John Kenneth Galbraith described such people like this:

The corporate people are the new and universal priesthood. Their religion is business success; their test of virtue is growth and profit. Their bible is the computer printout; their communion bench is the committee room. Alcohol is under interdict as an intoxicant but useful instrument of friendly persuasion. Recreation is for regeneration of the business spirit. Sex is for better sleep. The Jesuits of this austere faith are the graduates of the modern business school. [Age of Uncertainty]

The only difference from 1977 is that such a view is no longer nearly cynical enough.

The fact that modern game studios — like modern corporations generally — are almost exclusively controlled by people who are equal parts 1) actively contemptuous of art for its own sake, 2) nevertheless convinced of their own high aesthetic judgment, 3) slavishly devoted to profits above life itself, and 4) politically reactionary, reveals why so many big-budget movies and games are plodding, paint-by-numbers sequels, reboots, and ripoffs stuffed with sexism and other prejudice.

But again, such people do not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, they are also the product of an institution, in this case capitalism. I think it probably takes a lot of effort on the part of management to stamp out the creativity of thousands of people who almost certainly got into game design because of a love of the art form, not because they wanted to stamp out cynical dreck like license plates.

Let's look at it from another angle: consider one of the most critically acclaimed game studios of this generation, Valve. The creator of titles like Half-Life and the distribution system Steam, Valve has many structures which explicitly lean against the hierarchical, capitalist tendencies of modern corporations. It is privately held, which prevents hostile takeovers from private equity types. It has a decentralized decision-making process, and an honor-system leave policy. Founder Gabe Newell seems to recognize the necessity of these structures if his company is to be creatively successful, and not just endlessly stamp out sequels:

When we started out we were a single-player video game company that could have been really successful just doing Half-Life sequel after Half-Life sequel, but we collectively said let's try to make multi-player games even though there's never been a commercial successful multi-player game. [The Washington Post]

Absent that kind of strategic thinking, it seems large corporations readily become so creatively stifling that they drive out their own founders.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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