Who Cares Who Makes Games?

When my kid plays games, I can’t help but jump in and lecture him about something. He knows that every time he grabs the controller, I’m going to point out some mechanic, or talk about a franchise’s history, or tell him why some other game was oh so much better. Lately, I’ve been bugging him about names. The other day, after a long break, he told me he wanted to play Plants vs. Zombies. I said, “Sure.  But on one condition. Do you remember the name of the designer?”

He didn’t, so I reminded him: “It was George Fan.” And then I told him to play something else.

This week we finally dug into Quantum Conundrum, the platform puzzler designed by the project lead from Portal. My kid is finally starting to remember that her name is Kim Swift. But that’s easy; her name is catchy.  How long will it take him to recognize Shigeru Miyamoto?  Miyamoto is only the guy who made Mario and Zelda. But how many of his youngest fans know his name?

Now, you may ask why I care whether my kid can name this or that game designer. You probably think I’m forcing him into what we call “hipster homeschool”: that I’m dragging him into my own pop culture obsessions, just like the dads who make their kids listen to the Clash instead of the Wiggles, or watch old clips of David Sanborn’s Night Music instead of Sesame Street. And yes, that’s probably part of the problem. I have an excess of knowledge about a topic that very few people around me care to discuss. Every day I see people at lunch, I hang out at the coffee shop and I sit down to dinner with my wife – and nobody at any of those places cares what happened at the experimental gameplay session at GDC 2009. So when I finally have a captive audience, can you blame me for going on a little?

Don’t forget that there’s only one person in my life who loves videogames more than I do. That’s my kid. I think it’s fair to teach him something about them along the way.

When I was his age, I didn’t know anything about videogames. I may have heard of Nolan Bushnell of Atari, but I couldn’t have named a single person who worked on an Atari game. Back in the day, their names were actually hidden.  In the game Adventure, the programmers snuck their credits into an easter egg. You had to jump through hoops just to find them – and you know, now that I think about it, I don’t even remember what their names actually were.

The one game designer that I could name as a kid was Richard Garriott. But that’s only because he actually put himself into the games, as Lord British, a character that you meet in each of the Ultima titles. You could talk to him, get help from him, and even try to kill him – and I did, in every single game. He was interesting not because I had any idea who the guy was or how he did his work. I knew about him because he was a character and that’s all that most kids care about.

But I guess that for my kid, I want something more. I bug him about George Fan because I think it’s odd that he can name every single type of plant and zombie and even recite some of their backstories, and yet he doesn’t remember the two-syllable name of the guy who set the whole thing in motion. I guess I also want him to understand what it takes for a lone creator, or a team of people or a giant corporate empire like Nintendo to produce the games we all love. I want him to appreciate the industry even a little bit so that he’ll appreciate the time he spends with it.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started working on games as a writer. My latest project, Klei’s Mark of the Ninja, shipped this September. While I was working on it, I shared some of the early builds with my kid, explained how the work was going, and even let him listen to the auditions of some of the voice talent that we hired. I’m proud to say that he took a real interest in the game – mostly because he could play it – and that he came away with some little idea of how this process actually works. He may never go into the games industry, and in fact, last I checked, his dream was to run a Pokemon ranch, but he still gets a chance to understand all of the steps and setbacks and sweat that go into making a thing, and by that I mean anything.  To appreciate that it takes a lot of work and risk and luck, but that when we stick with it, we can succeed.

So while I want him to respect the work of Fan, Miyamoto, Swift and the rest of the gang, I also want him to watch the credits for the most basic reason of all: because someday, he might be in them.

———

Everything is a teaching moment for Chris Dahlen. Learn more by following him on Twitter @SavetheRobot.

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  • Everton

    Sorry, but I don't really care about who made the games I love. Sure, I do remember a few names from the people who made my favorite games, but it's easier to remember the name of the company/team who made it than to remember the people from said company/team. In the end it's just a monetary transaction: the team makes a product (game) which I enjoy, I give them my money, they give me the product. The end.
    Do you ask the names of the people who prepared your Big Mac? Do you look for the names of the engineers who designed your car? Do you care about the people who planted and cultivated the tomato you used for your salad? Nope. Why would it be any different about video games?

    • Stu Horvath

      Maybe some of the big budget games are like tomatoes – I don\’t particularly care about the team behind Darksiders, say, even though I loved playing that game. But more philosophically and aesthetically complicated games, like Far Cry 2 (Clint Hocking) or El Shaddai (Takeyasu Sawaki), and independent small studio games like Hotline Miami (Cactus) definitely make me interested in the personalities involved in making them. Its the same way I follow Umberto Eco\’s novels and Terry Gilliam\’s movies. It is partly an assurance of quality but partly, also, a vested interest in artistic vision. I want to see how all those folks develop and change and evolve.

      • Everton

        Like I said, I do remember a few names from the people who made my favorite games. This happens either by researching some of them if I like their work a lot or by reading gaming related articles. Just to name a few examples, my favorite artist is by far Kazuma Kaneko and one of my favorite composers is Shoji Meguro. Both worked on many games from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, which is the RPG franchise I love the most. Or if I see anything that has the hands of Derek Yu or Edmund McMillen on it, I definitely check it out because I love some of their works. But if I play a game and like it a lot, I won't really care about its authors right at first.

        • ellep

          "I don't really care about who made the games I love."

          "if I see anything that has the hands of Derek Yu or Edmund McMillen on it, I definitely check it out because I love some of their works"

          I think this is ultimately the point. If you know who made the game, it's easier to find other games they made. So if you make an effort to find out who made any game you play, you can find (or avoid!) other games they made.

          "Do you ask the names of the people who prepared your Big Mac?"

          James Delligatti created it; he cribbed it from the Big Boy double-decker, which is how I found out that Big Boy was an actual thing once upon a time (and still is!). Because it was made by a franchisee and developed for franchising, it's assembled on site, not developed or prepared each time, so it's a poor analogy for a game. So are most dishes off a recipe, unless we're talking about hyperformulaic games like the _Ville series.

          "Do you look for the names of the engineers who designed your car?"

          I do, but Honda doesn't credit individual designers and engineers in remotely the same way as media companies credit designers/writers/directors/developers/publishers/editors. But the studios themselves and their processes are fascinating. Did you know Honda's advanced design studio is in Los Angeles? Their high-end models are designed in the US.

          "Do you care about the people who planted and cultivated the tomato you used for your salad?"

          For any vegetable I care, mostly because of the hellish working conditions for most people who plant and cultivate anything (and that's assuming planting or cultivation isn't automated or machined, as many farms, even small ones, do now). But to the more relevant point about the success of the resulting tomato, I care far more about how the farmers developed the genetic background and agricultural process for the variety of tomato used, as that actually has a factor in the flavor. Even within the same batch, each tomato can be radically different, and finding out why helps you select the best tomatoes from the bin at the market.

          tl;dr: Learning ANYTHING about ANYTHING makes finding out relevant information easier. Learning ANYTHING about the process behind the things you enjoy is always better than learning nothing.

  • http://www.TinyGrenade.com Jon Fisco

    I like this a lot. As Justin from Polygon said, when you get to know the people behind the projects it becomes easier to back them when they want to try something new. (Paraphrasing) Nice writeup.

  • http://twitter.com/Molluskgonebad @Molluskgonebad

    I'm both supportive and hesitant. As an avid fan and a parent, I've done my fair share of explaining exactly who makes the media that my kids love and how it gets produced. I've certainly responded to curiosity about, say, how a cartoon is made with a long excursion into the world of animation and voice acting, naming and describing the directors and animators of Disney's and Warner Brothers' heydays; techniques, styles, personalities to look out for.

    But on the other hand, I have very mixed feelings about gatekeeping a kid's ability to play that content based on quizzing him about who made it. Not necessarily because I think the kid shouldn't need to earn access to over-consumed games, but because I'm uncomfortable with the implied singular ownership of the created games for team projects, even if that single person is the game designer or "lead" designer. I keep thinking of the bit in the "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" documentary where Robert White says that he created one of the most instantly recognizable guitar lines of all time but no one knows his name. Like on the one hand, this seems like an amazing first step towards understanding that people make these things, that who does what makes a difference, and that different designers have recognizable concerns and voices. On the other, it seems to presuppose and reinforce a concept of authorship in a team setting that overstates the "singular vision" model of the thing and minimizes the contributions of the rest of the team. That seems offset in your case by your ability to draw back the curtain a bit and show him how the sausage is made, but it still leaves me slightly unsettled.

    Really interesting article, thanks for writing it.

    • http://twitter.com/savetherobot @savetherobot

      I agree – it's easy to single people out with indie projects but less fair when you're talking about team efforts. That's why I make us watch the credits, start to finish, every time we beat a game.