Wired has published a fascinating piece on the end of the big-name videogame designer in Japan. The article’s author, Chris Kohler, states that the videogame industry is “too expensive, too risky a business to be left up to the creative whims of a single auteur. But that’s precisely what the Japanese game business was, for a long time”, and that the departure of luminaries such as (by dint of the studios they were once attached to:) Konami’s Hideo Kojima, Capcom’s Keiji Inafune, Namco’s Toru Iwatani and Sega’s Yuji Naka. Sure, there’s still Shigeru Miyamoto over at Nintendo, and Goichi Suda over at Gung Ho, but they’re special cases: in the former, he’s far more involved with executive decisions than the actual games, while in the latter Suda left Human Entertainment for his own company (Grasshopper), which got swallowed up by Gung Ho.
So, Kohler’s right: the age of the auteur is over. Welcome to Hollywood, Part II.
The fact is that this isn’t just happening in Japan – it’s a global thing. Richard Garriott? Gone from EA and NCSoft. American McGee? Hasn’t been at id or EA in ages. Peter Molyneux? The man was built for indie, mainly because of his reputation. There’s not a single member of the originals over at id, Ken Levine’s no longer making things over at Irrational, and even the founders of Bioware have jumped ship. All of these are names, as big to the videogame industry as Jack Warner, George Lucas and JJ Abrams are to the movie industry.
And sure, it’s not like it’s entirely over: just as Disney or some other studio will hand the keys over to Joss Whedon for a film, so too will a publisher back something new from one of the game names (witness Deep Silver’s agreement to publish Inafune’s upcoming game Mighty No. 9) – but this won’t change things. The age of the big name is gone – it was already gone in the US and Europe; Japan is (as sadly seems to be the wont these days) just catching up with global trends in the industry.
How did it get this way? That’s easy – like the movie studios, it’s a mixture of things. As late as the 1970s, movies were about the director’s vision, before a string of blockbusters (Jaws, Star Wars, etc.) paved the way for the modern movie studio, where they survive on “must-have” blockbusters and the creative smaller films are pushed out the door or shuffled to their boutique labels (e.g. Fox Searchlight, Screen Gems). So to up until fairly recently the game industry existed the same way, with the lead developer’s vision moving the game forward. But due to blockbuster, “must-have” AAA hits, directors are being shoved out the door for those who can produce reliable (read: repetitive) hits. Ever notice that most movies nowadays are practically remakes, sequels or based on an existing IP? Notice the same thing in games?
Fortunately, like for movies, there’s an out for games. In the case of movies, there’s direct to video, Netflix, YouTube and a billion other ways for a director to get his artistic vision out there. Likewise, Indie Studios have led the way in creating some masterworks of videogames that would never fly under the regime of current studios. Sure, I like me some Star Wars and The Avengers, but I also like Forward Unto Dawn and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Likewise, I’m always going to love Street Fighter and Tomb Raider, but games like Type:Rider and Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae are also beautiful visions that speak to me as well.
But yes, the age of the director is over in Hollywood and Tokyo – and yet the dreams live on, and we’re better for it. Let’s see if the studios will be.