I’m not a programming veteran, experienced artist or a game design guru. My game development portfolio is very light and my mileage is low. I think this makes it easier for me to question some of the game development phenomena.
I also like to see myself as a jack of all trades creative guy. I love doing everything on my own. Not trapped in the mindset of a specialized coder, artist or designer, I can see the big picture more clearly. Steve Jobs talked about a special place where art and science meet. Now, I’m not Steve Jobs, but I’d like to think I’m in touch with that place.
For a few years now, I’ve been going through huge amounts of blogs, papers, speeches and ideas on game development. Technical, business, marketing, design, indie, AAA, MMO, social, mobile, freemium… everything. This is what I do when I get excited. Like an information sponge I just absorb everything I can find. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to share some of the things I have observed and also extrapolate a crazy hypothesis.
Before that, from all the stuff I’ve read, I’d like to highlight two of the finest specimens: Daniel Cook (@dantheduck) from Lost Garden and Tadhg Kelly (@tiedtiger) from What Games Are. If you are in the game development business there’s just no excuse for you to not read every word they ever written. Just do it.
2D vs. 3D
In the 80s, when I was first introduced to games, most of them were 2D. It’s natural to become nostalgic about your first youth experiences. Those experiences become the norm which everything else is compared against. I too feel nostalgic about wonderfully large retro pixels and limited palettes. I just keep wondering if they are as awkward for the teenagers today as 70s disco is for me.
During the 90s, when I was a teenager, the game industry made the shift from 2D to 3D. I never really liked the 3D aesthetics but fell deeply in love with the spatial immersion of 3D multiplayer shooters. The fierce competition combined with a deep sense of “being there” hooked like crack. Racing games really benefited from the third dimension, too.
Apart from these two genres, I didn’t really fancy the shift to 3D at all. RTS games felt much tighter in classic isometric 2D, graphics in 3D adventure games were a big joke and I still don’t understand why you’d want to render 2D platformers in 3D. I think the game industry got a bit carried away and tried to make every possible game in three dimensions. Games and 3D became synonyms. Big games also started emulating Hollywood and doing “interactive stories”. I stopped playing games at that time.
Now 2D is back. Stronger than ever. Two of the things that contributed most are the rise of mobile platforms and the rebirth of the classic bedroom coder: the indie developer.
On a mobile platform 3D makes much less sense. That doesn’t seem to prevent people from trying it. I guess they are still in the “games equal 3D” mindset. Maybe there’s pressure to put stuff out as fast as possible. All the pipelines are for 3D so companies brute-force desktop/console games to fit small mobile screens and hope for the best. Most of the big mobile hits are already 2D and I’m going to make a bold and naive prediction that 2D is going to “win” in the future. Tablets are a different story, though.
Indies are the second biggest thing to boost the 2D renaissance. What really makes 2D a tempting choice for indies is the amount of resources needed. Visually competitive 3D takes so much more work that it’s just out of reach. And I’m not talking about engine technology. I’m talking about raw graphic assets. Almost every 3D indie game out there that tries to copy an AAA first person or free camera design never ships and/or looks like shit. Most of the big indie hits are 2D. Even Minecraft and Fez are games that circumvent the pitfalls of the 3D workload by embracing naivistic graphic design.
Specialization is a cool thing. Our society relies heavily on it. One guy is planting seeds so we can eat, another is manufacturing clothes so we don’t freeze and a third one is telling jokes so we don’t get depressed. Each can hone their special skills and everyone benefits from this synergy. You can’t really deny its power in our industrialized society.
However, there is a point to be made, that specialization might not be so clear-cut when it comes to highly complex and creative stuff like game development. My point is that in classic industrialized specialization the jobs are much more isolated and predictable. A farmer who produces food for a policeman doesn’t need to understand anything about crime fighting, and the policeman doesn’t need to care about fertilizers either. When it comes down to more creative jobs it gets messier. Code, art and design in game development are highly interconnected and predictability is near zero. No game design doc ever survives the contact with the actual development process.
From where I’m looking at, the game industry still seems highly specialized. When I was still in school a couple of years ago, there was a series of lectures by people from the games industry (mostly big companies). Every single one of them told us we needed to specialize in order to get a job. You need to have one skill and you need to work on that. Period.
Now you think I’m questioning the specialization. That game companies should stop doing it and everything will be better. Not at all. I’m just making a hypothesis that specialization generates certain kinds of games. The kinds that are made by big teams. The kinds that benefit from having familiar mechanics and a huge amount of predictable assets. 3D shooters with Hollywood stories and racing games with photorealistic scenery. Surely you get higher quality graphics when an artist has specialized in modelling AK-47s for the past 15 years. Better quality parts don’t always make a better car, though.
Maybe there exists a whole other space of different kinds of games that can only be created by nonspecialized small teams with digital age Da Vincis. Maybe tight cross-discipline thinking is the area where future game development innovation flourishes. I know I’d much rather try that than be an optimally specialized cog in a well-oiled machine.
In the past year I’ve created two tools for Unity: RageSpline and RagePixel. They are both manifestations of the above: 2D and nonspecialization. The 2D aspect is quite literal. They are both tools for 2D development. The nonspecialization needs more explaining.
An extreme case of a nonspecialized (or should I say, a generalist) game developer is someone who does everything. He does code, art, design, audio, music and everything in between. I’m this guy. Many of the other indies are too. The mindset is different from the classic specialized developer. Everything is more interconnected. Everything becomes one.
To the generalist things like asset pipelines seem very futile. It’s very frustrating to jump from Unity to Photoshop and back again when iterating. It starts to feel obvious that you’d like to work in a truly pipeline-free environment. In this enviroment you could jump between code, design and art instantly. Specialized software like Photoshop and Blender are for specialized workflows. What the renaissance developer needs is integration.
Both of my tools did the same thing: they integrated art asset creation into the main game development engine (Unity). RageSpline did it for vector graphics and RagePixel for bitmaps. This kind of integration is revealing many new workflows that I couldn’t even predict beforehand. It is something that turned out to be much more powerful than I expected. The stuff currently bouncing in my head for RagePixel is going to be some serious shit.