ExciteMike.com - Things by Mike Meyer

This is part of the Scratchware Manifesto.

Phase One: Prelude To Revolution

The machinery of gaming has run amok.

Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it. Instead of encouraging innovation, it represses it. Instead of taking its cue from our most imaginative minds, it takes its cue from the latest month's PC Data list. Instead of rewarding those who succeed, it penalizes them with development budgets so high and royalties so low that there can be no reward for creators. Instead of ascribing credit to those who deserve it, it seeks to associate success with the corporate machine.

It is time for revolution.

Walk into your local bookstore; you'll find tens of thousands of titles. Walk into your local record store; you'll find thousands of albums. Walk into your local software store; you'll find perhaps 40 games.

Yet thousands of games are released each year.

The only games that fill those 40 slots are those on which publishers have lavished millions in placement and promotion and advertising and marketing dollars. The only games that make it to the shelves are those on which publishers have advanced millions in development funding, because they know that only a handful will succeed, will ever recoup the millions or tens of millions they spend in developing and launching them, because to succeed, a game must pass through the eye of the needle, become one of the handful that make it to the shelves or to the cover of PC Games.

When millions are at stake, the publishers become terrified. Each executive knows that greenlighting something offbeat that fails will lose him his job. So they greenlight the same old crap, imitations of what's on the list this month, simply to cover their own quivering asses. No one will fire them for going with the tried and true.

An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation.

A project that costs millions must have a development team to match; ten people, twenty, thirty, more. It must take years from project start to completion. It must involve so many talents, and so much labor, that no single creative vision can survive. Certainly, none can survive the clueless demands of marketing weasels and clueless executives drawn from packaged-goods industries and inexperienced external producers who think demanding unnecessary and counter-productive changes will prove their merit to their bosses.

We say: Basta! Enough! It doesn't have to be like that.

You need thirty talents to develop a game? Bullshit. Richard Garriott programmed Ultima by himself in a matter of weeks. Chris Crawford developed Balance of Power sitting by himself at his Mac. Chris Sawyer created RollerCoaster Tycoon--last year's #1 best-selling game--almost entirely on his own.

What do you need to create a game? Two people and a copy of Code Warrior.

You need millions in funding to create a great game? Garbage! As recently as 1991, the typical computer game lost less than $200,000 to develop. NetHack, still one of the best computer games ever created, was developedfor nothing, by a dev team working as a labor of love, in their spare time. TreadMarks, this year's IGF finalist, was developed by a team working for scratch and paying their groceries with the meager earnings of a little downloadable game they'd put up on their site.

What do you need to fund a game? Food stamps and enough scratch to pay the electricity bill.

You need to imitate existing products to reduce the risk of publishing? Sheer and utter lunacy, a theory in complete defiance of the facts of the history of our field. The products that have become huge hits have almost always been startlingly innovative, amazing departures from what has gone before: The Sims, SimCity, Doom, Command & Conquer, Populous, Civilization, and on and on. The real risk is in developing the me-too product, the poor imitation, the incremental change from something else. The real wins come with creative vision.

The narrow retail channel forces millions in promotional expense? Then kill it. There is no shelf space on the Internet.

You need hundreds of thousands in sales to recoup your costs? Yes, under the dysfunctional business model that rules today. But if you develop games the right way, the fearless way, the independent way, your costs are drastically smaller. A few thousand unit sales will pay the bills.

Death to Software, Etc.! Almost every PC in America is connected to a pipe that can carry bits. Why are we copying bits to a plastic-and-metal platter, sticking it in box full of air, and shipping it cross-country, when it is far easier, cheaper, and environmentally sensible to ship those bits down that pipe?

Death to EA and Vivendi! Your groveling to the retailers, your lack of understanding of what constitutes a game, your complete failure of aesthetic sense, your timidity in funding, your attempts to grow by choking off competitors, your inability to make developers and marketers understand each other, has led us to this pass. You are dinosaurs, your brobdignabian sloth nothing but a drag on what ought to be a field of staggering originality.

Death to Sony, Sega, and Nintendo! Your insistence on controlling every step of development, of ensuring that no product strays too far from your own blinkered twitch-game aesthetic, your absurdly high platform royalties, your gouging prices for development stations and SDKs, your boxes with the controllers wholly unsuited to a game of any depth make you irrelevant to anyone who wants to develop games of enduring merit.

Death to the gaming industry! Long live games.

We find our heroes not among rock stars, or game developers whose real desire is to direct movies, or designers who bare their breasts in the pages of Playboy. We find them among the men and women who created this industry, whose imaginative vision once sparked its rise, who developed games the way we mean to:

  • Chris Crawford, once vaunted as the world's greatest game designer, nowcast aside by a marketing machine that can't figure out how to sell anything that doesn't fit into its tedious categories.
  • Dani Bunten, who understood the importance of socialization in gaming far better than the Verants and Origins of the world, with their customer-hostile policies, spurned by a bigoted industry because she was a transsexual.
  • Richard Garriott, the virtual inventor of the computer RPG, cast aside like a used condom by a machine that thinks it's sucked what useful value it can find in him.
  • Julian Gollop, languishing in obscurity, the fruits of his own labor denied him by an industry that values trademarks more highly than talent.
  • Will Wright, who somehow still manages to force his vision through despite all the obstacles the machine puts in his path.

As they did, so shall we do. We will develop for open platforms, not proprietary consoles.

We will work in the white-hot ferment of our own imaginations, striving to produce games of enduring merit, games so fine that generations to come will point to them and say, this, this was important in the creation of the great artistic form we know as games.

We will strive for innovation over imitation, originality over the tried and true.

We will explore the enormous plasticity of what is "the game," thefantastic flexibility of code, seeking new game styles and new approachesto the form.

We will create games we know gamers will want to play, because we ARE gamers, not MBAs or assholes from Hollywood or marketing dweebs whose last gig was selling Tide.

We will work in small, committed teams, sharing a unified vision, striving to perfect that vision without fear, favor, or interference.

We will find our market not by bribing retailers to stock our product, buton the public Internet, reaching our audience through the excellence of our own product, through guerilla marketing and rabble-rousing manifestoes, by nurturing a community of people passionate about and committed to games.

We will create, through sheer force of will, an independent games revolution, an audience and market and body of work that will ultimately redound to the benefit of the whole field, providing a venue for creative work, as independent cinema does for film, as independent labels do for music.

We reject the machine. We reject the retail channel. We reject big budgets and big teams. We reject $50 boxes of air. We reject end-caps and payments for shelf-space. We reject executives and producers who don't understand what they sell. We reject timidity. We reject the notion that "we know what works," and commit ourselves to finding NEW things that work.

We will turn this industry on its head.

Tremble, Redwood City! The forces of revolution are on the march.
- Designer X

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.
- Gandhi

WE are gamers, game makers, writers and readers of computerized media. We think some things are deeply fucked in the game industry -- no surprise, given how much is fucked in every other industry. We've figured it out: shareholders, corporations, managers don't care how good a game is to make or play. They're just looking for their return on investment to be higher than humanly possible.We want to play good games, and we want making games to be an art, not an electronic sweatshop. This problem, also not unique to the gaming industry, is as old as Das Kapital and as new as The Matrix.
It's ugly, It's pervasive, And it can and will be changed.
- Designer J1

Marketing should be geared towards selling the game that the developers have created and 
not used as an extension of management. They work for you, the developer, not you for
them. If they want a game with a feature list, then they should program it. If they
can't sell the game that you've created then fire them and find someone who can.

- Designer J2

We reject crunch time. It is anathema to the principles of quality for which we strive. Nobody EVER does their best work at the end of a 12-hour day. And if you're not doing good work, then what the hell are you doing? Go home. Sleep. Play with your kids. Mow the lawn. Watch some television. Then, when you have some creative energy to give, come work.We will declare a game done when it IS done, not when marketing says it has to be done. If it's not done, it will suck. If it sucks, then no one will want to buy it (or even download it for free) and no one will pay attention when we release the next one.

A corollary: no one should pay for being a beta tester. Listen up, everyone -- yes, even you, id software: we will do our level best to make sure the damn thing is done. If it ain't done, it's a beta. And those are free. If we discover something is wrong, we'll fix it.

Another corollary: our games are our responsibility. (You listening, Jason Hall, King of teh monstars?) If it's broke, we fix it. We don't blame it on other people, even computer and video card makers who don't adhere to standards. If we can't fix it, we let people know that we can't, why we can't... and we give them their money back if they ask.

What we're about is credibility, in a fundamental way. We're saying that games should be 
created by people who play them and love them.
That comes with a responsibility to create games we would want to play -- and we sure
as hell don't want to play buggy, unfinished games that make our systems crash.

- Designer K

The original Incredible Machine was developed for $35,000, and went on to sell over 
800,000 units.

- Dynamix

The Quotable Designer R

Someone is raking in so much dough that even Zaphod Beeblebrox, or John Romero, would blush.

As for the state of game development...I need to use an even more disturbing metaphor: The 
Donner Party tragedy...their journey was also doomed to fail, and in the worst imaginable
ways, due to inexperience, overconfidence, bad judgment, wasted resources, in-fighting,
taking short cuts and heeding what turned out to be just plain bad advice... I have come
to the conclusion that if game development is going to be so blindly ignorant that it only
succeeds in causing itself to relive some bizarre version of the Donner party story again
and again... then it deserves whatever grim fate awaits...

There is a denial of failure pervasive in this business, from top to bottom, that defies 
common sense. Taking risks and failing is an important part of the creative process.
Denying one's self of this experience is to enter the realm of the mediocre.

I see a utopia for game designers, artists, writers and musicians. I see a perfect balance 
of freedom, lifestyle and creativity as the norm, not the goal or the exception. However,
this utopia cannot arise within a system which is based upon concepts of management,
marketing and product development which are uncreative, out-dated, wasteful and
ineffective.

Do you want an arcade-based, shoot-'em-up, puppet-show, Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic 
criteria to dominate the industry? Do you want more crappy games made with assembly-line
techniques by yuppie puppies in luxury sweatshops?

Remember: John Romero wants to make you his bitch.  As a matter of fact, so do about a 
dozen other game developers I know...

Creator's Bill of Rights

The full version of the Creator's Bill of Rights that Scott McCloud created in 1987 can be read by clicking here. It is very applicable to the computer game industry.

The Rights are:

  1. The right to full ownership of what we fully create.
  2. The right to full control over the creative execution of that which we fully own.
  3. The right of approval over the reproduction and format of our creative property.
  4. The right of approval over the methods by which our creative property is distributed.
  5. The right to free movement of ourselves and our creative property to and from publishers.
  6. The right to employ legal counsel in any and all business transactions.
  7. The right to offer a proposal to more than one publisher at a time.
  8. The right to prompt payment of a fair and equitable share of profits derived from all of our creative work.
  9. The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.
  10. The right to prompt and complete return of our artwork in its original condition.
  11. The right to full control over the licensing of our creative property.
  12. The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of ourselves and our creative property.

Next: Phase Two