The Chicago chapter of the IGDA flew in Lorne Lanning, of Oddworld fame, to give a talk titled “In a Walmart World, Creativity is a Dirty Word”. I took the opportunity to volunteer to help out by collecting the entrance fee and selling the occasional IGDA t-shirt. I got to meet quite a few people, if only to shake hands with them, including Dan Choi of Joystiq.
I only played an Oddworld game once at a friend’s house, and so I wasn’t familiar with Lanning, his work, or his history. I went into it thinking that it would be a fairly standard presentation.
I was wrong. His presentation was very humorous, including many classic pictures that anyone who has been online for any length of time must have seen in a forward or link. It covered topics ranging from the role of games in escapism to the cost of imagination realization to the barriers games have in a world where “creativity” equates to “high risk”. The whole time you could tell that Lanning has a passion for what he does, and it was very infectious. At least for me. I couldn’t wait to get home and start creating things. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually ended up eating macaroni and cheese and cookie dough ice cream with friends that night.
Lanning started off talking about what the culture was like when he was growing up. Basically, gloom and doom. Vietnam, fear of nuclear war, and all sorts of issues with trust in politics resulted in a very disgruntled population. Then George Lucas makes Star Wars, and people have an escape. Lanning notes that in some poverty-stricken countries, people go to the movies every night. Movies were a form of escapism, and the nation desperately needed it.
Lanning mentioned that the costs of realizing your imagination had been going up. He talks about how he used to draw and paint, and he would think of it as taking “Kodak images” of some other world and time. A pencil and paper costs very little when you’re a child. Paint sets start to cost money, but they are doable on student’s budget. A basic camera to create a film costs even more, and when you add up the costs of actually producing a movie, it starts to get prohibitive to do. Then supercomputers were used to make computer graphics in movies, and the costs were astronomical. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per month for cooling the machines. Computing costs have come down recently, however, and a personal computer for a few thousand dollars is a supercomputer compared to the machines that cost millions a few years ago. He basically makes the point that movies and games cost quite a lot to produce. When I asked if he agreed with EA that game budgets are going to go up as much as they say, he basically said yes, but he did acknowledge that not all games are trying to be incredibly realistic or flashy.
He showed a number of pictures portraying developers and publishers. That was hilarious. He displayed some movie clips from work he had done in the past, including some computer generated movies, Abe’s Oddysee (“Follow me.” “OK”), and the latest, Stranger’s Wrath. He talked about the importance of empathy in games, and that it didn’t take too much work to get people to love the characters in Oddworld’s universe.
He documented the downfall of the word “creative”. In 1994, it was good. Companies wanted creative. They might not understand games, but they understood that good, creative games resulted in cold, hard cash. Today, publishers want to be able to sell games that they already know how to sell. Creativity is still good, but only incrementally. They know how to market a first person shooter or a real time strategy game. New genres are scary. If an incremental improvement can result in profit, why risk so much on a completely innovative game?
Retailers and magazines will push those games that get the most marketing bucks in their pockets. Lanning mentions that Alexander was a terrible movie, yet gets an entire wall of shelfspace at a rental store. Meanwhile, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert MacNamara gets over 100 great reviews and an Academy Award among others, and you will find it buried on a shelf with a bunch of terrible movies. Similarly, you can have the greatest game ever, but if a magazine doesn’t think it will get full page ads from it, good luck getting on the cover.
At some point he commented on the political issues in the game industry. Interestingly enough, he warns that the political attacks have only just started. When I asked if he could comment on what he thinks it might look like, he simply answered that politicians are like game developers. Both are trying to cut through the noise and promote their brand. In the case of the politician, that brand IS the politician. Games are an easy target.
He concluded with a comment on the ability of game engines to create film-like experiences. Previously a computer-generated movie had to be scripted and pre-rendered. Now machinima is just being explored. Next-gen systems will only increase the possibilities to make compelling stories. While pre-rendered will always look better than real-time in movies, Lanning notes that it is getting to the point where it won’t matter to the viewer. Linear and non-linear stories will just become easier to develop.
My favorite part of his presentation was the idea that in a few years the question “Are you a gamer?” will be as silly as asking people today “Do you listen to music?” No one today says, “I’m a movie watcher”. In the future, “I’m a gamer” will be just as silly a statement.
The IGDA Chicago chapter recently decided to try to create higher quality meetings, and if this one is any indication, I look forward to the next one.