- [In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield reflects on the ever-increasingly bloated nature of game development, and wonders if there are better ways for developers to share their learning experiences.]

Consolidation scares the crap out of me, but it’s running rampant through our industry. Some of these companies seem to be getting so bloated that I wonder how they even operate.

It’s funny how it’s often the execs at large publishers who talk the most about making games more like movies, or at least more successful than them — and yet these are the very entities that are moving further and further away from the Hollywood studio system (which is composed mostly of freelance agents, production houses, and funding groups) and moving more toward a factory-style production model.

It’s a wonder to me that original or innovative games ever get through this system — at times it seems like it must have been some sort of grievous error of judgment on the part of somebody in the upper echelons, allowing a team to get paid to make what they want. After all, that’s how Ralph Baer wound up creating the first modern video games while researching for the military.

But of course, publishers fund big-budget games, and as the medium discovers itself, it strives to tackle more — more hours of gameplay, more sandbox options, more user-generated content, more graphical flourish and physics interaction.

These are certainly good things to an extent, but at this stage they are incredibly reliant on the money of large corporate entities, the largest of which are absorbing creative studios left and right (though on enlightened occasions, leaving the studios themselves alone, just taking a bit of the money and risk).

There are talented people in these publishers, but as we all know, being talented and being in charge don’t always go hand in hand. And when these structures get larger and more labyrinthine, it makes me wonder how long before we’re submitting game concepts to representative committees, like government entities.

They will then relay this information, complete with riders, to persons who consult with the people who have the money, who in turn speak with the people that “push the button,” as we represent our "constituents" whose tastes we barely even know. Or are we there already? Or alternately, am I being too pessimistic?

The fact is, you can make a good movie for $100,000 that can be shown in theaters — it's rare, but it's possible. Could you make a game for the same price that would make it onto store shelves?

You might be able to consider downloadable games as a corollary to direct-to-DVD movies. With movies of lower-budget, it's the luck of the draw and who you know that gets you in theatres or simply on a disc.

But in games, if you've got a small budget it's pretty unlikely that you're going to get any kind of traditional marketing or retail treatment. But DVD sales have overtaken box office sales, and so too will downloadable sales overtake retail. So perhaps the era of the indie is at hand?

Postmortems: The Best Policy

Part of the key to making great games - whether large or small - is to understand what you did wrong compared to your last game. So I've also been thinking — can there ever be such a thing as a truly honest public postmortem? I had a conversation with a designer friend recently, and we came to the conclusion that unless the game was made entirely by one person, probably not.

While you can say, “We changed scope too quickly,” you can’t say, “So-and-so screwed everything up and lost us lots of time because he’s a terrible manager.” The latter is likely a truer statement, but you’d never hear anyone say it outside of the office. And in the case where the people giving you the money are the problem, well what can you do?

At a certain point, one has to wonder — are we continually repeating the same mistakes, or are we just keeping it close to the vest? (And I use “we” for the sake of convenience — I’ve never written a postmortem myself.)

Certainly there can be interesting elements in these articles, such as information about genre or platform shifts, or innovative ways to deal with budgetary or time constraints. But in general, it seems these articles frequently tread over old ground, as the skeletons of the past come back to haunt us.

There’s still plenty to glean if you’re a fan of reading between the lines — most authors, like poker players, have a "tell," which at the very least informs you of when they clearly have a lot more they could say on a certain subject.

I don’t mean to say postmortems are useless — after all, we feature them on the cover of almost every issue of Game Developer magazine. But there might be better ways to structure this information, might there not?

If we can get to the stage where postmortems enable everyone to better understand the game development process, then perhaps some more autonomy will be given - even at higher levels - to game creators to break out of the rigidity discussed in the first part of this editorial.