NGJ08-1.jpg[In an in-depth opinion piece, game designer and researcher Douglas Wilson urges more collaborative approaches to game design, suggesting that "the 'auteur' school of game development is not only outmoded, but dangerous to the vitality of the medium".]

As I see it, indie game culture faced a major crossroads at the 2008 Nordic Game Jam.

The biggest event of its kind, the Nordic Game Jam brings professionals, students, academes, and enthusiasts together at IT University of Copenhagen for a frenzied weekend of experimental game development.

At a game jam, the operating principle is deep and messy collaboration. People pitch and trade their ideas, then coalesce into small teams. The more diverse the team, the better – different skill sets, ages, nationalities, you name it.

It's precisely this collaborative spirit that made the keynote speech seem so, well, out-of-place. After a relatively harmless speech, the speaker, an acclaimed indie game designer, launched into a curious Q&A.

Asked how he motivated himself to work largely alone, the speaker bluntly stated, “I don’t like team dynamics very much.” His justification was one of artistic control: “My goal is to express things that are very intimate and personal.” Indeed, the speaker went as far as to suggest that sharing the game vision is a secondary option for developers who aren’t fortunate enough to have the resources to work alone or control their own team.

Suffice to say, this is not the kind of pep-talk you want to hear right before a game jam.

Collaborative Design versus Auteur Theory

Right there, in that moment, the Nordic Game Jam was confronted with two fundamentally different schools of indie game design. On one side, the collaborative team approach. On the other, the do-it-yourself game designer as Artist.

The latter line of thinking dates back to the Romantic era of art and poetry, during which the creative soul rejected “mere” depiction in favor self-expression. More recently, the question has famously plagued the study of film throughout the 20th century. Is the director an “auteur,” the one true creative visionary? Or is filmmaking somehow a more messily collaborative endeavor?

Do “game auteurs” exist? The question is not a new one. Espen Aarseth, for instance, explored the question a number of years ago. More recently, my colleague Yavuz Kerem Demirbaş wrote an excellent Masters thesis on the debate.

My article here is not a discussion of whether the game auteur makes sense on some sort of theoretical level. For my purposes, game auteurs do indeed exist, if only because some indie game designers view themselves as such, and many fans accept them as such.

I believe that the “auteur” school of game development is not only outmoded, but dangerous to the vitality of the medium. Instead, we must pursue deeply collaborative work styles and seek out diverse teammates if indie game development is ever to reach new heights and thrive beyond its current audience.

Looking Beyond Self-Expression

One particularly illuminating example of the auteur school of indie game design is Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation. It’s somewhat unjust of me to single out Rohrer, given that he seems like a cool guy who takes risks and tries new things (more than we can say for many of his peers). Nonetheless, Rohrer’s games – avidly discussed around the Net – are helping to set expectations for what “artistic” indie games might look like.

I take issue with Gravitation because the Creator’s Statement advocates a kind of creator-centric approach to game design that seems to be gaining cultural currency in the indie games world these days.

Rohrer’s stated goal is to make an “autobiographical” game. The circumstances around the development are certainly touching, but such a romanticized conception of artistic expression is naïve. It’s no small wonder that the gameplay flounders (compared to, say, Rohrer’s Passage).

This isn’t to suggest that game designers should altogether avoid self-expression, or even biography. Both Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright, for instance, incorporate their childhood experiences and dreams into their work, and their games are undoubtedly better for it. But these games manage to transcend the purely personal; they never seem self-indulgent.

Keep in mind that, despite their star power, designers like Miyamoto and Wright work in large teams in which other individuals contribute to the core vision. Self-expression, after all, is only one small part of the full range of aesthetic and formal concerns, especially in a medium as multifaceted as games.

Above the Low-Hanging Fruit

Not all indie games are so overtly concerned with personal self-expression, of course. Indeed, two of my all-time favorite indie game projects, Knytt and Cave Story, are (largely) the brainchildren of individual visionaries.

Yet as much as I love both games, I can’t help but feel that these kinds of projects are low-hanging fruit, or at least well-trodden ground. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, as evidenced by how engaging both games are. But when are we going to start pushing our games into more uncharted territory? And how many more retro-styled platformers and shooters can the indie games community really withstand?

Developing small games on your own can be a great way to hone skills, explore new ideas, and share concepts with others. But such games are only that – prototypes on the path to something more intricate or ambitious.

This does not necessarily imply that we need “bigger” or more complicated games. Rather, we need to recognize the limitations of our own creativity, and look to our peers for inspiration.

A closer look at Knytt actually seems to support my argument. As an experimental platformer with sparse visuals and a lonely atmosphere, Knytt features a fragmentary soundtrack that is as essential to the game experience as the game mechanics are. One of the most poignant parts of the game, the Greenlands zone, relies on music co-written by both Gopher and Nifflas himself. Close collaboration in action!

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Practical Concerns

More collaborative modes of design and development can only help to attract new types of people to the industry, thereby leading to new ideas and new kinds of games. Given the troubling dearth of females and minorities in the game industry, we might do well to consider Pauline Kael’s famous invective: “auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence.”

I don’t mean to suggest that close collaboration is easy. It’s difficult – like, Paranoia Survivor Max difficult. Obviously it takes more than a group sing-along and team spirit to keep everyone on the same page while maintaining a shared core vision. A successful group project requires the right mix of people, the right team structure, and the right process.

It may be tempting to shy away from such organizational headaches, especially when developing games in a grassroots indie setting. Group projects can fail catastrophically – I’ve been there, and it can get ugly. But given the enormous potential payoffs, we owe it to ourselves to take the plunge; and not merely to work in teams, but to work in teams that are messily collaborative, teams that reject easy hierarchies.

And even though group projects deserve method and structure, we should also be careful not to blindly emulate the working methods of the industry. What makes indie game development “indie” is precisely the freedom to experiment – not only with the game itself, but also with the development process. We must re-conceptualize what it means to work together, and find new ways to collaborate.

"By your powers combined, I am awesome game!"

This isn't just some superficial hippie rhetoric. It's about making better games, more ambitious games, more meaningful games, radically new types of games. Those are the stakes, and that’s why every card-carrying games aficionado should care.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the team of students who made Narbacular Drop.

Speaking for myself, my own collaborative game design experiences have been nothing short of magical. My 2008 Nordic Game Jam group, for example, consisted of six people (male and female) representing four different countries.

Not only did our game turn out better for the wide range of backgrounds and opinions, but my life is now richer for the experience. Corny, I know – it sounds like something out of an episode of Captain friggin’ Planet, but it’s the honest truth.

Game as Process, not Object

We designers, critics, and players tend to focus too much on the game itself. We should remind ourselves that the development process and the discussion afterwards – all the stuff that feeds into the game and evolves out of it – are equally essential to the total game experience.

The wisdom is simple: push yourself to work with people very different from yourself; because at the end of the day, it’s just as important to let the world impact you as it is for you to impact the world.

If you still don’t believe me, I invite you to stop by the next Nordic Game Jam. Sitting at ScrollBar in a multi-national team of friends and strangers, with a beer in one hand and a sketchpad of crazy ideas in the other, you just might find yourself surprised at how fast innovation happens when creativity is finally freed from the prison of the self.

gl hf, collaboration.