Monday, July 28, 2014

Money. The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

Longtime games writer Simon Parkin has a solution, but first he must convince us there is a problem.

His point in a piece for the New Statesman appears to be "we need to talk about creative successes as much as we talk about financial successes so indie* devs will feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of art."

(Summary is barbarism. I know, I know.)

In context, it's just as presumptuous. The artistic temperament is a thing that will create independent of critical pats on the head. If the further argument is potential devs will get blinded by the tall stacks of indie games dollars, I'm skeptical. If the argument after that one is the devs looking for truly insane amounts of cash or a seven figure PayPal account leave after their first attempt doesn't set them up for life, I'm not sorry to lose their creative energies. If the next argument is "but devs/artists won't create without being told their work is rainbows and unicorn giggles," (and I believe it is) Parkin's got a real low opinion of devs/artists.

Mr. Parkin is wrong four times over:
1) The critical discussion already exists on social media and outlets he no longer writes for.
2) Option paralysis is real and constraints often help jog creativity. (Doom 3's flashlight.)
3) Hearing developers talk about making their business sustainable at a conference for developers is a legitimate topic of inquiry and doesn't preclude serious discussion of craft.
4) "People come into an industry desirous of easy success" isn't a sign of the end times so much as a fact of of life in any human endeavor from art to sewage treatment.

In a comment, Parkin continues, his feature isn't about insulting indie devs, but instead around "the dominant stories around games creation."  Whether that's true or not, it contains the moralizing nugget that artists shouldn't be concerned about earthly lucre, they should instead concern themselves only with the thing that will enrich our lives.

This is precisely the opposite of what we should (I used the word should. I ought to tread lightly.) be telling artists. We should be telling artists, focus on money, not exclusively, but know what you want to say and know what vehicle is most effective in allowing you to subsidize your ability to express yourself. I trust that if you're an indie dev making a game, you're making something you want to make, putting out art into the world that you believe ought to exist in it. Parkin, apparently, does not.

What can you create that you can finish, polish and still have money left over to produce enough copies to sell? Remember: Art is a misnomer. Art is a mantle put on your work by another person. Phillip K. Dick only enjoyed mainstream accolades after his death. The Renaissance masters had patrons. Greek storytellers told stories for food, shelter and coin of the realm. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yes, make it because it means something to you (I assume "you're" doing that already,) but don't get drawn into an art before commerce discussion.

Worrying only about art doesn't free you up to create, you'd be creating anyway. Perhaps your dreams might appear in higher resolution, but what matters is that those dreams get out at all.

Be cordially mercenary, because Art is fickle, critics even more so and the way you get to keep saying what you want to say is by releasing things. And "focusing on art" does not help with releasing games. And each thing you release, incidentally, is art. Maybe not incredible art. Perhaps not boundary pushing. But small releases grow your confidence so when you do feel your oats, you have the dexterity and experience to push your vision. But first you must get to the point where you have dexterity and experience and that requires money and stability.

To get crass: An unlimited budget without constraints gave us Duke Nukem Forever. A budget of roughly $1.2-1.5 million gave us Shadowrun Returns. It's clear which one is the artistic success, but let's not forget that it's also the financial success, too. Why? Shadowrun has less to recoup and hard knowledge about what they could make given a discrete budget. Harebrained Schemes gets to make another game. 3D Realms doesn't.

Focus on the best work possible within the deadline. Art (or a particularly elegant manifestation of your creative vision) will come as a consequence.
 *indie of course being a marketing term and a funding mechanism.

The title of this piece is a graphic novella by the illustrious Eddie Campbell. You know what this song's gonna be. Art Is Hard, by Cursive.

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