Success: Dignified Development’s Greatest Enemy

I don’t know in which specific facets of life one can find an established professional become outclassed in his or her prime by an inexperienced counter part that has nothing but sheer desire for improvement as a tool. I’m also unaware when it even begins to matter when such an event does take place.

In sports, a common tool used to counter the complacency veterans of the starting roster experience is a second and third string of players. With the risk of a player with more to gain working harder than you to take your the starting spot, you’re much more likely to train much more effectively to retain your position, or something like that.

In video game development, though, there is no such tool for work ethic. Sure, a programmer, artist, or actor might be fired in process of talent replacement. But the overall goal of the studio, of the programmers, artists, and actors, isn’t defined by any one rule in the same way the aforementioned sports team’s goal is.

A sport has the same rules and objectives every time a match is played, a video game’s rules and objectives (and overall quality) doesn’t sit as constant variable. They very much constantly evolving traits that can usually be equated in quality to the quality of the video game that represents them. And the quality of a video game can almost always be blindly guessed at with rough accuracy by the number of games that came before it.

A stupidly obvious example is the Call of Duty Franchise, which has, despite incredible success, become one of the laughing stocks of the video game world. As you may have guessed, despite just isn’t the correct word there, though. Because I’d argue their current predicament of being a game lauded by 5 year olds everywhere isn’t despite their success as a development studio(s), but rather because of it.

Treyarch and Infinity Ward, the two studios responsible for the multiple COD titles, have an incredibly large fan base to take care of. Since the success of the original Modern Warfare and ingenuity of is sequel, the name of the game for the two studios has been to develop new titles that change (not innovate) just enough to call themselves new games while also retaining, in large part, the same framework of the games that came before.

No, this isn’t even all of ’em.

Every Call of Duty release sees different maps, weapons, game modes, campaigns, and characters, yet one game is going to feel one step away from being copy/pasted from the the game that comes after it. If the developers attempted to take a risk to change the face of their game with drastic measures, they’d be faced with just that. A risk. A risk of lost jobs, lost revenue’s, the lost faith of every 10 year old on the video game market, and a lost cash cow.

It isn’t even fair to ask them to take that risk from an artistic perspective, to be quite honest. How reasonable is it to ask Jane and Joe at Infinity ward to risk their jobs and livelihood just to create a game from a completely new engine so that I can have a new experience with the COD title? Its not fair at all.

It’s fairly useless to call the two studio’s work tired and bit repetitive. Not only because there are plenty of children who disagree, not only because there are plenty of reasonable folk above the age of 12 who do agree, not only because both studio’s have a huge amount of talent they show off each year with acting, writing, and artwork, but because the studio’s themselves, I believe, know it themselves. Their work is tired and repetitive.

But does the contractor decline work because he or she has built the same structures his entire life and wants something new? Does the fast food worker invent a new burger for his or her customer purely out of boredom? And not get fired? No, these things don’t happen because a job isn’t always supposed to satisfy one’s artistic needs or be dignified. Its a job. And Infinity Ward / Treyarch are home to a lot of jobs. Jobs that, I’d argue, result in ultimately undignified work.

We can look at the long line of sports video games for a similar comparison. Fifa, Madden, NBA, all games that put out the same version of themselves with slight changes, regardless if the changes themselves make the game better, just to be released at triple-A prices while raking in ‘fuck you’ money with the micro transactions littered about (a phenomena not unseen in the Treyarch / IW products).

Do I need to talk about Fortnite? No? Good.

Look, these are the rules, but there plenty of exceptions. Naughty Dog is a studio that puts out incredible pieces of art that looks amazing and tells beautiful stories with gameplay that is smooth and consistent. Hell, some people might even say the games are “fun”. Imagine that?

FromSoftware is the studio behind the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and the (hopefully) soon to be released Elden Ring. The Dark Souls series is what they are most famous for, and all three games of the trilogy couldn’t be more unlike each other. The studio took risks with their product for better or for worse, and that’s something that I can respect, even if Dark Souls 2 was in shambles on release (and still is a bit fucky). Honestly, to create games and solid as the Souls series while also being able to put out titles like Sekiro and Bloodeborne, which are far quicker paced and less RPG-ish, you’d have to try different things. Complacency just won’t cut it for for a standard like that.

The point

is that there isn’t any way to have it both ways for a developer who faces success in the face. Either the road taken is a safe one, void of any real risk and sure to bring the fans wallets back into the rodeo, or its untraveled, a path marred with pitfalls and danger along the way, with no real course to safety to be seen.

To choose the safe path is to let go of any artistic dignity. It doesn’t mean to choose shame, or to choose a soulless job that purely exists to please masses of people necessarily, but it does mean that the dev’s work isn’t ever going to be the game changer that the game before it was.

To choose the unsafe path is to risk a safe source of revenue for the developer and anyone else who relies on the studio’s success for an income, it takes all the public input and throws it out the window, and it means that the sequel faces the grave danger of being a horrific failure, but with that risk comes alternative reward of a sequel becoming another successful title that people couldn’t have drummed up on their own, because they can’t drum up that kind of art on their own, otherwise they would have.