pixel pusher // steve theodore
All in the FAmily
"Game artist" doesn't mean what it used to
iF you missed this yeAr's GdC, you Also missed A reAlly interestinG
moment in the ongoing evolution of the game business. The game design
track always features a "Rant Session"—a chance for developers to blow off
some steam and take public stands on controversial topics. This year's rant
was titled "No Freakin’ Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back." (See
References.) It was theoretically about design, but really it became a forum
for social game developers to push back against dismissive or derisive
attitudes from AAA developers. The mere existence of such a forum points
out some intriguing changes in today's game business.
Social games, even though they are only a few years old, are expected
to bring in around $2 billion next year in the US. That might seem small
compared to the $18 billion or so from more familiar console and PC
titles, but social and casual games are booming, while AAA development
by this sudden and massive change in the structure of the game business.
It's hard to know exactly what the future will look like; after all, the MMO
boom proved conclusively that big investments don't always translate into
big successes. Even so, it's hard to imagine that the game industry of three
or four years from now will be quite the same clubby, AAA-centric world
we've known for so long. For artists, in particular, the rise of Casual, Social,
and Mobile (CSM) gaming will upend a lot of things we thought we knew
about our professional identities.
is treading water. The social game market expanded by a whopping 66
percent last year, while the traditional market shrank by nearly a third.
Social and casual gaming has a lot of momentum right now, while the core
games market is in a holding pattern.
The contrast is pretty obvious to investors, who are firehosing money
into social game development. Disney bought Playdom for more than half a
billion dollars, and if the company hits performance targets, the total payout
could be about as big as EA's purchase of Bio Ware/Pandemic a few years
ago. But that's small change: Farmville creator Zynga is now reportedly
worth more than Electronic Arts. And as this article was going to press, EA
just bought PopCap for $750 million.
This all makes for some pretty heady times. But even us poor working
stiffs who aren't waiting for our new Lamborghinis are going to be affected
» CSM game studios don't match the standard game studio template
most of us know. The teams tend to be much smaller and more fluid.
Development cycles are measured in months rather than years, and
budgets usually hit six digits, rather than eight.
The skillsets for CSM artists tend to be different as
well. High-poly modeling, 3D character animation,
and shader work is rare, while graphic art stylings
and traditional animation are in high demand.
Perhaps more importantly from the artist’s
perspective, CSM studios are driven by gameplay
rather than content. A lot of big studios like to
talk about how “gameplay is king,” but in CSM
studios the line between game design and art is
often very fluid. With lower burn rates and looser
tech requirements, many CSM studios expect
their artists to actively shape their gameplay. As
Popcap's John Vechey said in an interview with the
“An artist on a PopCap title is never just an
artist, or a programmer just a programmer, all are
required to contribute to and have a vision for the
game and what makes it fun.”
That's not something a lot of traditional game
companies can say anymore. It sounds a lot more
like what our parents and friends think we do than
the actual reality of toiling way in the midst of a
$30 million project. It seems pretty attractive to
the poor drone toiling away on a long Excel sheet
of breakable crates. It’s also the reason why a lot
of veteran game artists are willing to walk away from the prestige of big-budget, as-seen-on-TV AAA games to work on CSM titles: It's a lot like the
way games used to be before the age of next-gen bloat.
» There's another obvious difference between CSM games and the core
business: demographics. If you're a GDC veteran, the change is pretty
apparent just walking the hallways. Game studios have traditionally
looked a lot like their “core gamer” audiences: young, white, and male. The
audiences for CSM games are a lot more diverse, and so are the artists.
Some of this just reflects the gradual mainstreaming of gamer culture;
now that pretty much everyone under the age of 30 has some experience
with games, it's not surprising that you see more kinds of faces around
game developer | august 2011 44