IPerhaps it wasn’t the most surprising video game industry reveal of all time. Last week, Bloomberg published a ripping exhibition on the dysfunctional culture at Amazon Game Studios, the development teams made up of the online retail giant, which have so far failed to produce a single successful title for PC or consoles, despite recruiting a host of industry veterans. The backstory, as presented in the article, is almost too predictable: Amazon entrusted its game studies to a company veteran, Mike Frazzini, with no experience in game development, who gave the green light to expensive projects that they were chasing already successful titles (a League of Legends clone named Nova, a Fortnite competitor named Intensity) and it ended up being canceled. According to staff who spoke with Bloomberg, the studios also embraced a “sibling culture” in which female staff were looked down upon and marginalized. Bloomberg said they reached out to Amazon for a response, but a spokeswoman declined to comment or make Frazzini available for an interview.
Then came the news that Google would close its own game development studios in Los Angeles and Montreal, neither of which has yet produced a game for its Stadia streaming service. “Creating best-in-class games from scratch requires many years and significant investment, and the cost is increasing exponentially,” wrote Stadia GM and Vice President Phil Harrison in your blog post explaining the company’s decision to focus on the platform rather than game development. But should it have come as a surprise to a man who previously released consoles in Microsoft and Sony? Possibly not.
What this has shown is that a game development studio is not something that can be built and operated simply by combining financial investment and a few big-name talent acquisitions. You can’t just invest money at one end and watch blockbuster games appear at the other. One downside factor that seems to have been overlooked in both cases is that, like a movie production team, comedy writers’ lounge, orchestra, or repertory theater company, a game studio is a culture. It requires a combination of factors, including a shared vision, a work ethic, a supportive environment, a sense of identity and purpose, which arise not from funding, but from creative relationships and trust. It’s frustrating that you can’t buy these things, they develop.
As a game journalist, I have visited and written about hundreds of video game studios around the world. I met former nuclear missile engineers working on flight simulators in Moscow, I met RPG creators in Tokyo, and shooter creators in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam. And every successful studio I’ve spent time with has had one thing in common: they are all different. Blizzard, the creator of the Warcraft and Starcraft titles, has a sprawling campus in Irvine, California that feels like a university, with its beautiful wood-paneled library, statues, and many college buildings. Media Molecule in Guildford, creator of the charming crafting titles LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, feels like the modern take on Oliver Postgate’s animation studio – all craft tables and natural drawing workshops. When I visited the Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward, it was like a combination of a teenager’s bedroom and an underground hacking collective. In fact, someone lived in the office. There were so many free sweets that I spent the entire visit in a gigantic sugar rush.
Nobody designed these places to feel that way, it just happened; it evolved over time and through the web of shared experiences. I love visiting Rare, the Midlands studio that created Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie, and most recently Sea of Thieves. Set in acres of countryside, it feels like a world unto itself, and is comprised of industry veterans with decades of experience and fresh-faced graduates and newcomers who spoke to me about feeling heard and valued and being part of something truly enriching. . . I’m not sure if that’s something you can buy.
When I worked in game development in the early 1990s, as a writer and QA assistant at Big Red Software in Leamington, we worked very closely with Codemasters, the developer of the Micro Machines games, and Colin McRae Rally. The company was based on a farm, with equipment housed in barns and portable buildings. It was ramshackle and chaotic, but also fun, and the people who worked there felt like they belonged to something. It was the same as DMA Design, the Dundee studio from the 1990s that created Grand Theft Auto, an anarchic collective of talented rookies who came up with crazy ideas based on the movies they watched together, sparking eccentric projects in the then half-life. . undoing them, but using those experiences to create better things. Grand Theft Auto emerged as a mutant from other failed designs and ideas, which barely worked, hardly loved by the publisher. Fortnite: Battle Royale evolved from a somewhat failed cooperative zombie blaster, which in turn emerged as a creative side project in 2011. Minecraft was something a small team worked on while maintaining another game. Nobody put 2 billion dollars on a table and said “make me the digital version of Lego in two years”.
Video games were projected to generate $ 160 billion in 2020, according to industry analyst Newzoo. They have become the The entertainment and cultural format of choice for Gen Z, so of course major entertainment corporations and retailers want creative control in the industry. It’s almost too cliché, on the nose too, the way Amazon and Google did it with their expensive test tube studies, the way they seem to have wanted to leverage Triple-A game development to promote their other services and technologies, as though holistic business integration was always enough to motivate great art or even decent entertainment. Even the most heartless Hollywood action blockbusters spring from creative stables bringing particular visions to the screen. You might think Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay are pirates, but you sure know when you’re watching something they did.
Developing great modern games is a quagmire of dysfunctional work practices, where periods of irrational crisis are still seen by many as the price of brilliance. This is not a commendable culture. Yet at the same time, formulating a successful team is not a cold and precise endeavor, it relies on people coming together, brainstorming each other, willing to try iterate and try again. That’s the process, that’s how it works. I have no doubt that the Amazon and Google studios are full of talented and brilliant people, but even that is not enough without a sense of purpose and direction, without resources, without time. Money can buy art, but in the end it cannot, just generate it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism