The Last Pixel: Closing the book on Pixel Pusher
July 8, 2013 Page 2 of 2
Playing for Real
Speaking of writing: There's a lot of it out there. Both reflecting and propelling the cultural acceptance of our art form, game criticism has escaped from the gravity well of commercial star-reviews and soared off into the ether in a way that would have been hard to predict a decade ago. That kid in Seoul is, in fact, probably talking (more likely tweeting) about deconstructing notional game spaces at this very moment. Bloggers, game journalists, and academics have arrived on our shores like conquistadors and are staking out claims left and right. You can buy(!) a 50,000(!)-word critical essay about Spec Ops: The Line (Killing is Harmless by Brendan Keogh, which examines the entire game level by level with the intensity of a PhD thesis). We've finally achieved the most coveted distinction of artists everywhere: the chance to pick up a piece of commentary on our work and think, "What the hell is this joker talking about?"
All kidding aside, the rise of a literate and argumentative critical community is a great thing for us. We used to have a hard time seeing our own work in perspective when the only people whose tastes counted were commercial game reviewers, publishers, and marketroids cruising the bass-thumping halls of E3.
Like any commercial art form, we're always in danger of getting into ruts; sequelitis, copycatting, and creaky old tropes lurk around every corner. As criticism flourishes, it will teach us to see our own work with a fresh set of eyes, and help us be better artists as a result. Of course, just like fine artists, film makers, and authors, we'll alternate between fearing, despising, and desperately hoping to please the critics. For right now, however, take a moment to thank all those bloggers and academics who are trying to tell us how to do our jobs. The cacophony of critical voices out there will occasionally elevate your blood pressure, but it also helps keep you from getting stale.
Churn Out, Burn Out
Now, if you've been working in this industry for most of the last decade, you've probably got enough reasons to get your blood pressure checked without any help from bloggers. The games business has weathered some pretty remarkable challenges over the last decade. We've gone from days when 30 people were a big studio to days when 300 wasn't considered unusual -- and now we seem headed back toward 30 as casual, mobile, and indie games proliferate while triple-A leviathans founder (as this was going to press, EA announced another big round of layoffs in the hundreds). Along the way we've had to deal with flat salaries, outsourcing, and automation. Not to mention hardy perennials like crunch time and quality-of-life problems. Somebody out there really needs to take a look at the tuning on this thing -- it sometimes seems like our game is stuck on Nightmare Mode.
There, alas, are long-standing reasons why so few people stick with this profession more than six or seven years: Work-life balance and lack of long-term career headroom were problems even at the height of the triple-A gold rush. Even on a 300-person team, there are only a couple of ladder rungs to climb. One of the most popular columns we ever ran in Pixel Pusher considered the fate of artists getting into their 30s and finding themselves adrift in midcareer dates from 2004:
"...the games business has come to remind me of the glitzy shopping mall/utopia in Logan's Run. It's a fabulous playground for young people -- though to be fair, the games biz is short on free love and polyester unitards -- and we've all got blinking crystals in our palms, ticking away inexorably towards extinction. While we may not be facing the fiery Carousel at 30, it seems like very few us stay in the business past 35." (Pixel Pusher, August 2004)
We revisited the same issue five years later, and thankfully the demographics had shifted a bit. By 2009, the average developer was between 31 and 35 (up from 25-30) and veterans were making noticeably more money than younger developers -- which no doubt had something to do keeping artists in the industry past the five-year mark. It remains to be seen, of course, if that trend continues. Perhaps the vets will get a chance to relive their low-polygon glory days on mobile platforms: An iPad 2 has about the same horsepower as a PlayStation 2 did back in the day. On the other hand, smaller budgets and tighter margins might drag us back to the days of churning and burning through 20-somethings.
Everyone a Game Developer
The graying of the industry creeps along slowly year by year, but other demographic changes are happening with amazing speed. The industry remains overwhelmingly white and male (and, dare we say, slightly pudgy?) but that's changing fast. Everybody is a gamer -- hell, my parents play games nowadays -- so it's not surprising that everybodies of all backgrounds want to make games too. However, this change isn't going to be seamless; the fervor of last year's #1ReasonWhy campaign shows that we've done a pretty poor job opening up our profession. Unfortunately, it also shows how easily efforts to change that can evoke defensiveness and derision. But let's face it: It's literally inevitable that the cozy monoculture most of us learned our trade in is going away. As the industry broadens its base, it's also going to be more loosely knit and fractious.
That's actually a vital thing for our medium. Differences of opinion and point of view keep us from getting boring and repeating ourselves -- something we've been, ahem, occasionally accused of. However, it's also going to change the way we relate to our workplaces and our profession. We need to embrace the new reality with the same adaptability that we show when our professional skills get obsoleted every few years. We're good at constant relearning, and this will be an excellent opportunity.
Which brings us back to where we began. Nothing lasts forever: not DPaint, not Character Studio, not the MMO boom, or even the EA football monopoly. And not, alas, the print version of Game Developer. On the way out the door, let me offer a profound thanks to all the folks who've read and responded to the column over the last decade: The game art community is an amazing place, and it's been a privilege. Thanks, too, to all the good folks at the magazine who made it all work. Nothing lasts forever -- but in a world where XCOM can come roaring back to waste as much of my life in 2013 as it did in 1994, who knows what the future holds?
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