The Art of Game Studio Maintenance

This is the post where I tell you more about the game studio we’re starting. There’s much I still don’t know about the project, but I can at least discuss the things that are important to me about it. The whole project is still to coalesce in terms of actual people having concrete roles in a specific game project (although it seems pretty probable that we’ll be doing Theomachy in some form, what with me doing actual write-ups and outlines about it and all), but we’re getting there. Meanwhile, I’ve been putting down some principles that I want to emphasize, and having a little bit of design done for the project’s imago. I even have a logo…

Studio Arete logo

So, let’s begin with my exact relationship to this game project Jarkko Vuori is putting together: you probably know how people act and think differently depending on their commitment to ideas and where they are situated in social webs, right? Well, my position in this project’s social web at this point is in the margins, I think. The only person I communicate with to any great extent is Jarkko Vuori, who chooses the other people for the project. The project does have a forum where everybody can get to know each other, but we haven’t got anything clear accomplished in that regard yet. The thing is, after following the social development of the project for a while, it seems to me that I’m not the only guy on the fringe: there doesn’t seem to be any kind of a motivated, visionary core to this project at all, it’s just a bunch of people interested in game development at this point. I missed the first face-to-face meeting of the project (it overlapped with my apartment convention) so I don’t know for sure if this is the case, but if Jarkko actually has a core of people around him who know what they’re doing and whose leadership I should look for, they’re certainly being very low-profile about it.

This kind of pondering is important in social group situations simply so that we don’t step on each other’s toes when doing stuff. I’m not yet sure if I should be looking at this project as something that’s been in existence before my involvement and where I should be looking to others for guidance, or if I should be that guidance myself. On the one hand Jarkko obviously has this bunch of young programmers (students, according to their autobiographies on the forum) he knows and has invited into the project around the same time or perhaps before asking me into this. On the other hand, the discussion seems pretty intermittent and incoherent, kinda like if everyone’s just gotten together and trying to figure out what we’re here for.

One thing in this current social murk is luckily pretty clear, and it’s that Jarkko Vuori is the producer of the project. “Producer” – stripped of ulterior meanings – being the guy who knows everybody else, assigns tasks and crafts the crew into a team. I have no idea yet if he’ll take the right steps to make this happen, but it’s not my place to worry about it either way. My own position, according to our one-on-one discussion, seems to be pretty solidly as the main designer guy, including art direction and other content creation, at least until we get more solid talent on that side of things. The social murk makes me uncertain about whether the rest of the crew agrees, but I hope it won’t be too much of a problem. I’ll just have to write solid game design, and hopefully we get the others interested and inspired to commit to the project.

Anyway, one concrete result from us not having a very clear overall plan is that I ended up designing a draft for the publicity strategy of our group. This was mainly because we’ll ultimately need some kind of name for the company, but I also took the opportunity to wax pedantic about the values we want to promote with our work. In my head values, publicity and content design are pretty closely tied: you want to be truthful about what you represent, you want to communicate your representation in your design of publicity materials, and so on. Consequently I tapped my brother Jari to design the above logo and wrote down a ream of text about what I think our company should be about. Here are the main points:

  • “Studio Arete” is a carefully chosen name, even if it reflects the classicist binge I’ve been on due to Theomachia. “Arete” is an interesting word that means virtue, both moral and practical. By using it in the name of the studio I want to communicate a certain commitment to excellence: this is not just about creating an entertaining game, but a game that is an exceptional specimen of it’s kind, and being such, improves the human condition. This is arete: if the world can be a better place by our craft, even if only by containing a higher quality of gaming experience, then I am a happy camper.
  • The word “Studio” in the name carries deeper meaning for me as well, although it’s a pretty common word for a game company. Originally the French word meant an artisan workshop or an alchemist’s laboratory. Later on it became to mean a practicing artist’s office. In a wider sense “studio” implies a company structure focused and directed by the concerns of artisanship and artistry: the purpose of the company is not to simply sell product, but to act as an interface and brand name between the audience and a team of practicing artists.
  • The core values outlined above mean, for me, that as a game company we want to act as a part of the culture we want to act upon, which is the gaming culture. We don’t want to be a publicity-pandering, desperate company bleeding money and forced to be concerned with short-term sales; rather, I much prefer a studio that is open to the community it posits to serve, working to keep channels of communication open to both directions, and ultimately succeeding because we actually serve the interests of everybody involved. This means both small and subtle things, like talking openly about what we are doing, as well as larger and more far-reaching things, like desisting from low-brow image marketing.
  • As a necessary adjunct to the above points, I find personal responsibility and commitment paramount in a working environment. I hope to maintain my own work environment and involvement with the studio as an independent, committed actor who does not lack the initiative to act for the best of a project with goals I agree with. I also hope that others will be able to approach the project in the same manner, as co-owners and co-authors of a work of art, not responsible to a threatening boss, but to themselves and their own values.

Hmm… I do sound a bit of an impractical fanatic in those points of mine, so no wonder that Jarkko is constantly harping about the importance of economical focus and the goal of making money out of the project. I agree, and would love nothing better than making a career out of games, but mostly my discussion of the topic has been to lay to rest the idea that being genuinely artistic, or being honest, are any kind of a barrier to successful business endeavour. To the contrary, I find the very idea of contrapositioning art and business not only false, but reprehensible: saying that we need to make bad games (the opposite of artful, you know) or lie to make the buying public happy is behind many of the fundamental problems our free market economy is laboring under. We need more people willing to combine their business with their personal values, not more “compromise” where a decent guy goes to work and leaves his own sense of virtue home.

Actually, now that we’re this far into it, I really should give a short definition of art. It would be a shame if the reader got even a more harebrained understanding of what I’m raving about than what I mean. Therefore:

Intermission: a short definition of art

Art is skillful communication with an enduring form. The artist serves his community by discussing matters in a more penetrative or enticing manner than is possible for others. Usually the things artists discuss are very generic and only relevant on the most philosophical level to the audience. Regardless, the beauty of the form, affirmation of shared values, indignation with disagreeful ideas and the mere joy of communication with a fellow human being all contribute to making artistic experience one of the most popular entertainments for humanity. We could be out kicking a ball instead of watching tv or playing games, you know.

Games are a very peculiar form of art, full of interaction and different ways of experiencing the form. It is even true that considering games as art made no sense whatsoever before the era of game design began; if the game designer weren’t in practical matters, such as tools used and social commitments encountered, identical to an artist, we might not even be able to discuss games as “art”. But considering that game designers are artists with no appreciable difference, it makes sense for the time being to discuss games as a media participating of the attributes of art. The attributes of games as a form of ritualized challenge is also a very interesting topic, but as those different characterizations do not exclude each other, I’ll disregard the latter for now.

All this means that when I’m raving about how our game studio should work towards making art, all I mean is that we should be making games that people experience as relevant communication, not just noise and regurgigated old ideas. We want to challenge, not people’s ability to play our games, but their ideas about the world. For Theomachia, for example, one part of what this could mean is an exciting depiction of the Greek myth: I’ve always felt that the way school books present classical thought makes a great disservice to an exciting world of heroes, monsters, blood and sex. If we could make a game that engages the imagination and brings sense of wonder to a topic usually presented in the dullest ways imaginable, then we’re clearly making art. The same holds true for the actual game interactions, by the way; I won’t go into it here, because it is a very complex topic, but even a simple game like Tetris can be interpreted as a form of communication/art by considering the activity of designing the game instead of focusing on the activity of play.

Back to the actual topic…

With the philosophical intermission behind us, back to discussing my plans for our company: I’d like it very much if my ideas of the kind of game company I’d like to work at became the material reality for the fledgling “Studio Arete”. (Jarkko approved of the name and is apparently in the process of getting a domain, so it seems that this’ll be the name of the company.) Personally I’ll be satisfied with other people honoring my own freedom to act and live in an upright manner, but it’d also be cool if these ideas could become a part of the communal vision for the kind of company we are. I believe that this could generate positive attention and trust in the audience, as well as help us recruit the best young talent to work with us.

As for what social responsibility could mean for a game company, I don’t readily know yet. I think that this might be pretty close to the ideas of indie gaming we’ve developed at the Forge during the last five of years, but we’ll see. For example, I found it very striking when Ville Vuorela told us about the community of computer game design in Finland, when we discussed the topic at the Ropecon game designer meeting. According to Ville there is this enormous… hostility between game companies and individual designers towards each other in the electronic gaming business, where everybody is constantly suspecting each other of thievery of ideas or personnel. A wonder that they’re not stealing computer equipment as well. Indie roleplaying game designers, who I’m mostly familiar with when it comes to game design cultures, consider each other a resource of peers, where the success of other designers is really paving a way for your own success as well. This is something where I’d like to, if given a chance, make a difference in the Finnish computer gaming scene. I don’t like the idea of working for a company that considers my personal friendships with other game designers security risks.

But really, this is all still very vague for me, not the least because I’m not really the boss of this whole outfit. What we really need as a company is more communication and some structure to what we’re doing, so that we can really start putting together a game design team that can work together. At this point I have no idea what kind of commitments, values or ideas the various other people in the project are interested in. I hope we’ll have something solid together when it comes time to start producing the game itself.


6 Responses to “The Art of Game Studio Maintenance”

  1. Reko Says:

    “Enormous hostility between game companies and individual designers?” As I understand it, Sumea and Rovio used to have a bit of a scuffle about the matter, but looking at the whole professional game development scene in Finland, I couldn’t really see the hostility. At least in my experience, there is sharing of knowledge and open talk between designers. Everyone has a lot of ideas so and it’s not like you’d be putting out a whole feature spec for everyone to read. It’s mostly about game mechanics, how to portray certain aspects of the game etc. Game designers in Finland are all hardcore professionals with good skills in their specific genres and out of that, so why not talk about those 🙂 IGDA-evenings are great for that 🙂

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Yeah, I should probably open that throw-away comment a bit: first, I really am not kidding when I say that I know nothing about electronic game designer community (or even electronic gaming community, come to that). All I say about the topic is really just impressions gleaned from some few discussions and random meetings with people. I’d love to learn more, though, and I’m sure that there’s plenty more to the scene than a random passerby like me sees at first glance.

    Part of my reason for starting this blog was to simply do some public error-correction for our process of starting a computer game studio. I hope that people with much more experience will read this and point out any stupid mistakes I’m making in the project. I guess this is just an easier procedure for an outsider like me than trying to figure out who to ask for advice and all that; apart from Ville I don’t even know anybody in the business. This way anybody and everybody can see what I’m doing and tell me where I’m wrong.

    Anyway, thanks for the first comment in my blog, the point is well received. Also: your art is sweet! (I mean it, nice feel of plasticity, like a Tim Burroughs animation.)

  3. Reko Says:

    It’s definitely worthwhile if you can pop in to a IGDA-night. People who are putting up a game studio or something related to the industry have found good advice from people in there and I still remember certain individuals scouring the grounds back in William K when a few companies were put together. Anyway, the blog is great stuff and there can’t be enough of game design related ones 🙂

  4. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Meeting people working with this stuff would definitely be interesting, I always enjoy it when I get a chance. I’ll have to start following IGDA schedules, perhaps I’ll get to participate in something when I come south at some point. Or actually, I should send Jarkko Vuori to meet people, I’m sure he could benefit from it as well.

    My next opportunity to meet face-to-face with electronic game design people will apparently be in Oulu in November. There’s a gaming festival there, and it seems I’m going to participate in a panel or lecture or something like that with people from a local game studio called… uh, can’t remember it’s name. I’ve heard it a couple of times in different contexts, but… something to do with devils I think, but can’t remember what the name was. Anyway, I’m sure that’ll be educational.

  5. Burgeri Says:

    I congratulate Reko on his sunny disposition and the fact that his bosses haven’t caught up with him yet. 🙂

    I talk with Tim and Petri every time at IGDA and we all bite our tongues to keep the discussion on non-NDA topics. If the only thing you want is genre discussion and it doesn’t have anything to do with your project, sure we can talk about other games and movies. We just have to lie about the relevant parts and hope that nobody notices. Sam Lake hasn’t bothered to show up for years and I honestly think he hasn’t missed out on anything relevant.

    I would call the IGDA evenings both useless and stunted, if it wasn’t the only thing we have. Come and visit, Eero. If you don’t expect much you also won’t be disappointed and at least you’d know what the rest of us are talking about. And who knows, maybe a loose cannon like you can actually change our walking-dead of a discussion culture.

    And keep writing! You’re the only one who can. Shit, half the stuff I do on my own is covered by somebody’s NDA these days. I’m censoring my own blog for those.

  6. Reko Says:

    Well obviously you can’t strut around with the feature spec. in your hand and ask for feedback, but at least in my experience there’s been great discussions about game design in different fields. Be it the eternal struggle of storytelling vs. games and if it can ever work or some of the ongoing stuff like what Anyfun is doing. Mostly they are genre limited discussions and problem solving related. There’s been pretty good amount of stuff related to hobby projects as well.

    Of course, what no one ever tells is if the problem/discussion is directly related to the product they’re working on or not, but I don’t think it really matters. I think it’s just better if have an open atmosphere or else the Finnish video game industry turns into a Swedish one 🙂

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