Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Creativity Vs Profits: What's More Important?

In a recent post, gaming news blog Kotaku posted an interesting hypothetical article regarding Gran Turismo developers Polyphony Digital. In short, the article was asking readers to imagine, for a moment, that they were Kaz Hirai -- head of Sony Computer Entertainment -- and what they (he) should do with Polyphony: look at their previous success and continue to allocate the time they need for their upcoming game, or, approach the game's status from a business point of view and realise that the often delayed (as recently as last week) game is taking too much money and resources, a lot of which could be put to better use elsewhere?

While the article was completely hypothetical, it got me thinking -- Should developers, based on their previous success or reputation, be given the money and time they need to ensure their product is as good as it can be, creatively and technically? Or should the business side of things and therefore profits come first, meaning faster development times and meeting deadlines at the possible expense of quality?

As a consumer and fan of the industry, and someone who is a keen observer of the medium's progress, my initial response to that is that developers should be given as much time as they need to ensure their game is as good as it can be. Regardless of whether it takes two years or five, if the end result is a quality product then in the meantime I can wait patiently for it. After all, it's not as if I (we) don't have anything else to play while we're waiting; backlogs are a common issue for regular gamers and this is only exacerbated each holiday season as everyone tries to release their games before Christmas.

But that wasn't the point of the article, the point was to answer the questions from a hypothetical viewpoint and it's here where things get complicated. On a pure profit level, the sooner a game can be released to the public the better. While a relatively decent game needs to be ensured for success, hitting deadlines and getting it out on time is also crucial. Suffer from delays and it is quite possible that consumers will lose interest, or the hype train will lose momentum due to a longer journey; competition could close in or even surpass the game in production, making commercial success even more challenging; and a once strong reputation could be ruined, all because the development time took too long and the game didn't deliver on its promises throughout. As far as the Gran Turismo series is concerned, Sony's PlayStation consoles wouldn't be anywhere without the franchise: the original game is the PS1's biggest selling game, and Gran Turismo 3 and Gran Turismo 4 are the second and third biggest selling games respectively for the PlayStation 2. Based on history, it's easy to assume that when it does finally come out, Gran Turismo 5 will also see success -- the brand name alone will no doubt sell PS3 units for Sony -- but we're in a different time period now, one where Sony's consoles aren't the clear leaders of the industry anymore and one where Gran Turismo's closest rival, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport franchise, has not only closed the gap but caused hesitation towards Sony's flagship racing franchise. Within the time frame it has taken Polyphony Digital to make Gran Turismo 5, Forza developers Turn 10 have released three installments of their game, and the resulting factor from that is not just a successful franchise for Microsoft's consoles; perception amongst gamers has changed, and is continuing to change. Avid Gran Turismo and Sony supporters can't deny that the Forza series of games are decent, quality products, and some of these supporters are even playing the competition whilst they wait for Polyphony to develop their game. This competition and perception didn't exist when the original Gran Turismo was released, nor around the time of Gran Turismo 3's release. Sony may discard this as irrelevant due to their previous successes with the franchise, but when you consider the changes and how it may impact upon their profits, the question has got to be asked: When does the freedom to polish and perfect Gran Turismo 5 cease so that the game can be finally released and Sony can start making a return on their huge investment?

What about another development house within Sony's stable who have also been developing their next game for multiple years? Team ICO have a remarkably strong reputation within this industry for creating videogame experiences that have been unlike anything else out there, and, clearly, this reputation is enough for Sony to trust Team ICO to take their time with their latest project The Last Guardian. But unlike the Gran Turismo series, Team ICO's games have never seen the commercial success that both Sony or Team ICO would have liked, so where is the line drawn for them? When does the development time stop being about fulfilling the creativity Team ICO clearly want to achieve with The Last Guardian, and instead becomes about getting the game out to market? Due to the more quiet retail success (or not) of Team ICO's games, it's easy to assume that out of the two development teams, it's Fumito Ueda's team who would see upper management's call first, potentially leading to a lesser product. With the reputation that particular team holds in this industry, is that something we really want to see happen?

There are countless other games out there (Alan Wake is just one other example) that these questions and issues could concern, and whilst each game and development team would have their own individual reasons for the long production time or constant delays, when considered as a whole there's definitely a trend out there that is worth pondering and analysing. As consumers it's easy to side with the development teams and suggest that they receive the time they deserve to create a decent product, but without managing the needs of the publishers and the business side, our industry wouldn't be anywhere near as huge as it is now. As a multi-billion dollar industry, it's a conundrum I certainly wouldn't ever want to be in charge of solving, but it's also one I will be keeping my eye on. I just hope that whatever decisions are made, they are the right ones for all involved.


Joseph Rositano said...

It certainly is quite a perplexing issue. Not all developers would have the same budget as the famed Polyphony Digital or Team ICO, and as such their goal would be to release the game ASAP. Take movie tie-ins for example, most developers have such a small team and budget to work with that their primary goal is to make the game functional and release it on time. Should the film be a smash hit, then you can expect to rake in a huge profit, otherwise you're looking at substantial losses if the film's a flop.

As you mentioned, Steven, sometimes a long development time isn’t necessarily a good thing either. At the top of my head I can think of Too Human as a game that failed to deliver. Right from its humble beginnings as a PSone game, the developers boasted it would be a groundbreaking title. Fast forward two generations, the end result was a game that didn’t quite live up to expectations and was panned critically. I believe a few of the criticisms at the time were the gameplay was unpolished and there were several other minor annoyances. Now, for a game that had an estimated budget of $80million and was in development for almost ten years, one would think it would have achieved a milestone in one form or another. Another strong example is Duke Nukem Forever, and to be quite frank if I need to go into detail about that one whoever’s reading this shouldn’t consider themselves a gamer!

Just some food for thought…

Steven O'Dell said...

Joseph -- While your example is sound, Too Human -- and other games like it such as Perfect Dark: Zero -- is unique in that it had to accommodate three different consoles: the PS1 where it was originally announced, the GameCube when Silicon Knights were a second-party developer for Nintendo and then, of course, the Xbox 360 where it was finally released. I'm not entirely sure but I think it might have even been scheduled for the original Xbox at some point, meaning that the game certainly had a tumultuous time in development. So with this in mind, the fact that opinions are so mixed about the game could be considered impressive given the difficulties it had. The fact that some people out there still enjoyed it proves, first and foremost, that we all have our own individual opinions, but more than that, it shows that it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. A mediocre game, while not ideal, is a much better result than a terrible game. Since the game was part of an intended trilogy, here's hoping Silicon Knights have been given a second chance (perhaps based off the reputation they have from Eternal Darkness) to reboot and nail their intentions with the Too Human franchise.

With all that said, I haven't played the game so take my comments with a grain of salt.