Another week closer to the that time of year everyone breaks out the word “glut” to describe the increased frequency of releases and I must say this year is shaping up much better than the previous one. But as we lead up to the busy season, allow me to make an observation on how these very games get made. In terms of the videogame industry the only thing I come close to being a professional at is being a consumer, but I nevertheless feel a tiny bit qualified to talk about the development process of games as I have experienced them on the consumer end. With the process of development shifting on its foundation thanks to the more open practices of studios at all levels, there comes a moment where the differences between open and closed development become worth discussing.
Open and closed in this case refers to the environment in which the game is produced, either one more open to the public or one closed off from it. Time was that development could only realistically take place in a closed environment and that a released product needed to be in its final form. Today patches and increased internet presence mean there are new avenues to explore during the development process. Open beta and alpha builds have become increasingly common from small and large studios and across all platforms, not just PC. What comes out of this development process and what it means for future game development has only now become a real question put to developers. Are there any pitfalls to an open development process and does this new way significantly improve things over the older closed model?
I would be, as is my general tendency, cautious about this new wave of public involvement with development. There could be some far reaching precedents set by this trend that present-day supporters did not intend, but aside from that I think it may change the kinds of games being made and not necessarily for the better. The older system of a closed environment meant that developers had to know, among a relatively small group of people, what kind of game most gamers would be interested in. They had to have the ability to see what games had done in the past and what they should do going forward and apply those lessons from their work or other people’s work into their current offering. While not having been a part of this process I have have no doubt such an undertaking is very difficult by dint of the rarity of very successful games in the past. But of those studios that were up to the task, and despite not always being successful at it, I feel they were able to cultivate a special kind of talent and moreover a kind of personal brand between individual game directors. The big names we know today like Miyamoto, Sakaguchi, Levine, or even Molyneux have all established their own brand of game and some have gone on to make their own studios. The experience some of these directors have typically shows up in their products and self examination of past work helps them to improve while make them “taste makers” that buyers become fans of and learn to expect certain things from.
I favor this model, despite the failures it has produced in the past and despite the sometimes systemic arresting of whole markets of the industry (See: Japanese AAA game development), but it is difficult to deny that an open development process has a place in the current landscape of gaming. The model has certainly worked wonders for smaller and independent studios, one need look no further than Minecraft for proof, and with growing resources at the disposal of small and mid-sized developers the attraction to this model is little wonder at all. Elements like Steam’s Early Access for smaller studios or the increased acceptance of online-required games for bigger studios has allowed games to blur the lines between Product and Service. I have spoken out against this trend before and I will continue to do so because of, if nothing else, the trend of big business in gaming to misappropriate otherwise beneficent tools in the industry.
But whereas a closed system means the developers must essentially guess at what will be popular, an open system comprised of public betas or early access schedules can make appeals to what the end users think. It typically also asks of these people some financial backing, which is where I tend to lose interest, but for those willing to support the idea behind the game it can make for an engaging experience. For the developer it can mean a good deal of the guesswork is cut out, but it does not come for free. Amidst the all the public feedback it is still necessary to weed out the opinions of people who simply have terrible ideas on a game’s development. I also think that this development structure acts more as a lead up to a final product than it really is. With players buying their way into an early access version, and through all the turbulence of a game-in-progress, I often wonder who is left playing months or more afterward? The game may have been sculpted all along with the generous aid of public input, but for who? It would seem like the attraction was the development process, and the final product is more like a concluded story. In the past on PCs, betas were for very short periods of time, often by invitation or application only, and were expressly for supplying feedback to the developers sometimes in a specific format. The term “beta testing” has faded away in the face of numerous open betas, and I wonder if it is for the best.
No doubt it will remain a great tool for the smaller developers out there that wish to make a deeper connection with their players, which remains the only currency they can rely on, but I cannot help fearing this process is not simply another example of a good idea taken to a bad place.
What do you think about it? Closed development has its own problems, and studios in Japan continue to wrestle with protracted development cycles, but are they better overall? Is there perhaps a way to keep open development from seeping into aspects of the industry it should not? Make your mark and be heard below, bold reader. And then when you are done, make studious note of the employment application. We are looking for two good applicants. Has it been you all along?