Thursday, November 05, 2009

Art or Capitalism?

In a recent online conversation, a friend of mine stated that he was doing games design for 'art not capitalism'. This is a phrase that has stuck in the back of my mind for some time now, niggling away at me. When I started to think around it, my creative persona and my rather hard-wired marketing-driven mindset clashed quite abruptly.

On the one hand, I can see exactly where he was coming from. One of the benefits of small-press publishing is that you can do things and go to places that mainstream publishers simply cannot. You can explore game ideas that would simply not be feasible in the world of three-tier, glossy hardback publishing. This becomes even more blatant when you consider the world of pdf publishing, the ultimate in 'legit but low cost' games publishing. If you really really want to write a game about the trials and tribulations of cartoon underwater animal lawyers, then you can - and someone did! Want to write a freeform game about the siege of Montesgur? Yup, you can do that too! Game of teenage self-destruction in the Warsaw Ghetto? Knock yourself out! The same naturally extends to mechanics - beyond the lunacy of Jenga as a mechanic, some games designers are working on things as bizarre as self-tattooing and performing operations on paper bowel templates. The mind boggles ... but in some way, this is where its at when it comes to being allowed the freedom from constraint that an art-driven game provides.

On the other hand, however, if your game is played at an empty table does anyone hear the dice falling? Every fibre of my being says that you should always consider the commercial viability of your game, even if you are going to give it away for free! I cannot see the point of creating a game that no-one will play so giving yourself a fighting start by choosing a topic or a genre which at least has a hook that people can attach themselves to is something. Beyond that, of course, publishing is filled with 1001 different business decisions - the most important of all being, in my opinion, how far do I want to go with this venture?

Not everyone is going to have the ambition to be the Next Big Thing. Indeed, realistically, you stand very little chance of doing that. Setting yourself goals to achieve and parameters to work within would seem a reasonable choice for the small publisher. My goals have always been quite modest. Some people would suggest that was a measured, realistic and prudent approach to the venture. Others would say I am just horrendously risk averse and don't have the courage of my convictions. Whatever the reasons, I have tried to pursue those goals with vigour and use every trick I know to leverage the advantages I have in the market - be that skills, contacts or knowledge. I'm well versed in the machinery of capitalism and I like to make it work for me a little bit now and then.

However, is that just some hypocrisy on my part? Would my artist friend not just be fulfilling his goals in the same way - just different goals? Has my creative vision been compromised by my need to work within a market and indeed in some ways pander to that market? Every time I have changed an aspect of my game in order to make it more sellable, have I lost a little of its soul in my pursuit of filthy sterling? Or am I simply exercising common sense in making my game spread through planning rather than happenstance?

I find it intriguing as a concept that someone could make something with the intent to sell it, but with no eye to what would sell or who it would be sold to? Intellectually, I can see what drives people in that direction but I'm just not wired that way.