Video games are an interesting subject, because they are simultaneously a business, a technology, and an art all at once. I think tales from the video game world give us an understanding of what technologists don’t understand about art — and what artists don’t understand about technology.
There are, traditionally, five mediums of art: art (duh), music, writing, film, and games. You can technically include other mediums such as cooking and fashion on here, but they’re usually lumped into that first catch-all term.
The evolution of art is interesting. The first four mediums on this list are indisputably creative endeavors. Certainly you use instruments such as publishers and marketers to get from hobby to profession, but the publishers and marketers themselves don’t necessarily influence the art. They influence where the money goes, but not the art. Businessmen have tried to place themselves in the throne of the creative for these mediums, but it has never worked out.
Video games, the newest medium, are… different. You could make video games an art, or you could make them a business. Or you can make them an art and a business. A game like Final Fantasy VII is indisputably art, but a mobile game like Gardenscapes lacks many of the artistic criteria that a game like Final Fantasy VII has. Likewise, there are elements of World of Warcraft that make it an artistic endeavor, but at the end of the day they’re trying to sell you a $15 a month subscription.
Games are also a technology. Art, music, writing, and film are for the most part “technology-complete”. Sure, you can try a gimmick such as making a “4-D” movie, but this doesn’t necessarily add to the experience. A film is a film. Games, on the other hand, went from being played on a physical board, to a personal computer, to a handheld, to your phone, and now to AR/VR. Breakthrough advances in physics, AI, and economics are constantly being applied to video games. Games are not tech complete — they constantly get better as more research is done.
I imagine most people who read this blog are already at the intersection of technology and art, and thus already know where I’m going with this. You can run a games company as a startup, or you can run it as an artistic studio, but you have to understand both. Technologists fail to understand games as art, and artists fail to understand games as technology.
An example of the first case is MMOs. Often new massively-multiplayer online games come out, insisting on grand aspirations such as user-generated content and incredible new technologies that provide a never-before-seen experience. And then, they flop. They flop because beyond these grand new achievements these games feel empty. You can only have so many randomly generated quests and unique habit-inducing hooks before players begin to catch on. The reason why World of Warcraft has been successful for so many years — and the reason why Final Fantasy XIV now overtakes it — is because they had the perfect balance of art and technology. It should come as no surprise that the narrative quality of the games directly correlated with their subscription numbers. Even if people don’t pay attention to the story, they’re still drawn in by it.
The opposite of this is referred to in the gaming world derogatorily as “interactive movies” or “walking simulators”. Some artists just want to make a story, or worse: something that just looks neat. When there’s no game to the video game, people begin to wonder why it’s even a game at all. The thing that makes games unique from other art mediums is in their interactiveness, and that interactiveness does not mean simply walking around a canvas or occasionally pressing a button. It means being fully immersed in the work. Games like Journey and Rez manage to walk this line correctly by providing an artistic experience that is enabled by interactivity. A good heuristical test for this is whether you could make essentially the same experience by just producing a movie. If the answer is yes, you failed. If the answer is no, you succeeded.
There are some cases of studios that have proved to be the exception — who masterfully weave this intersection together. Valve Software began as a group of programmers and scientists, yet embedded their technology into the intricate narratives of Half-Life and Portal. Kojima Productions was primarily composed of creative thinkers, but when they created the Metal Gear Solid series they built a complex and exciting gameplay system that took hours for competence and years for mastery. Those who succeed best in games are people who have a solid understanding of both the left hemisphere and the right. I wonder where else this rule might apply?
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