Robot Invader is housed in a small office in Mountain View, California. The office is located in one of the many featureless business parks that pepper the Peninsula like the aftermath of a boring meteor storm, a rectangular wedge of gray protruding from the landscape. Personally, I would have preferred some sort of Victorian mansion, not unlike those that dominate the Resident Evil games, complete with a secret underground laboratory for nefarious experiments. Alas, ours is a utilitarian structure; the architects of our building chose not waste much space on impressive staircases or hedge mazes.
But had we access to long passages with marble flooring and spot lighting, we would use the location to hang portraits of our heroes. Such a hall would be adorned with images of Suda51, Jordan Mechner, and Hideo Kojima. Akira Yamaoka, Eric Chahi, and Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. Jason Jones, SWERY, and Team Meat (in their matching sweaters) would all have a place. While we’re big fans of all sorts of game development studios all over the world, these individuals are particularly influential to us because their personalities shine through the games that they make. Even when they miss the mark, these developers build games that have charm, vision, and a unique internal consistency. Their work pulls you off your couch, through your TV, and into their head, much like Raz’ brow doorway in Psychonauts. If we could, we’d put portraits of these people up to remind us that a big part of artistry is the artist himself.
There are designers throughout the game industry with the capacity to fuse their games with distinct personality, but many of them never get the chance. Game development is a complicated and risky endeavor; modern game teams are often constructed to mitigate risk by any means necessary. Rather than give any one person complete creative control, many studios attempt to stabilize development by distributing creative responsibility across many different disciplines. There are art directors, combat directors, game play programmers, producers, and all sorts of other stakeholders that have a say in the development process. If a lead designer wants some feature but the lead engineer says it probably costs more than it is worth, the safe thing to do is to kill it. When polish and schedule are your primary concerns, this is a valid method to ensuring that your studio can maintain quality without veering too far from the original plan.
The problem is, this method produces games that, despite sporting high production values and general slickness, have no personality. They are the game equivalent of our drab office park, built for maximal efficiency and minimal risk. Such safe games are not bad games per se, they are just, well, routine. Don’t rock the boat. An 80 on Metacritic requires a specific set of high-level features, so let’s make sure we have those first. A bad game shipped is better than no game shipped. Let’s cut the hedge maze and use that space for more cubical storage.
Not to say that these studios would be better off throwing caution into the wind and just developing willy-nilly with no process at all, like some hedonistic commune or something. Putting your faith in one person to direct all aspects of game development is a hard thing to do, both for the folks running game development studios and the rest of the team working under that person. Design is a creative process, and it can be messy; it’s the polar opposite of the “well oiled production machine” that many studios aspire to become. And sometimes the results are mixed; Deadly Premonition is one of the most interesting games I’ve played and yet it’s an extremely rough game, production-wise. I’m a big fan of No More Heroes and Killer7, but Suda51’s earlier Michigan is terrible. Still, nobody else in the world could have made Killer7. Deadly Premonition wouldn’t exist without SWERY. Resting an entire game on the shoulders of one person is dangerous, but when it works out the personal touch of the designer improves the game dramatically.
So taken are we with the power of an individual to completely influence a game design that we’ve attempted to create a process to support it here at Robot Invader. While all of us have titles related to our discipline and roles, there is one title that trumps us all: the Game Director. For each game we make we select a single person to act as Director. This person is the authority of the design, the vision holder, and most importantly, the tie breaker. He may be an engineer, a level designer, an animator, whatever. The Game Director may not design the entire game from top to bottom, but he or she has the power to overrule any design decision. He has the power to change the schedule to accommodate a new idea, or to scrap work that has already been completed. The Game Director takes the game we are making and fuses it with a consistent, singular vision. If he wants to make a Victorian mansion instead of an office park, that’s what we’ll make.
With a Game Director in place there are no stalemates. We trust in our ability to implement just about any idea, and look to the Director for final say in what that idea actually is. We all participate in design, of course; as a small studio we can actually benefit from hard-core collaboration without veering off the road into the Ravine of Kitchens With Too Many Cooks. But every concept, every implementation, every UI screen passes through the Director, and is often mutated by him in transit. The resulting work is still a collaborative effort, but it’s one that has been uniquely shaped and molded by the Director in charge.
We think that the resulting games will feel different and unique. The Game Director responsibility rotates with each project, so our games should also have their own distinct flavor. In a market dominated by knock-off products and outright clones, we think that the influence of a singular Game Director will give our titles the creative edge, which will translate directly into sales. Then we can get that secret laboratory installed.