Whilst the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is true, it is often ignored. Due to this book publishers spend a lot of money on designing the front covers of their books since they know that a lot of people, if not the majority, will be influenced by it; to some extent the same is true for computer games. Time is precious, and since humans are hardwired to favour speed over accuracy, too much choice takes too long so we find ways to quickly narrow the field. Adding to this we tend to favour the familiar, especially if we have a good history with a particular brand. So if we hear that a new game is being made by studio that we know, then we are more likely to look forward to it. However, on average I suggest that we shouldn’t.
The idea of ‘game studio legacy’ is pretty much a joke, a tragic one. The games industry as a whole is known as being unstable and turnover at a games studio is high. In part because most studios work on many projects; once a project is completed the staff move on to the next project, which may have radically different requirements. Also because people can learn quite a lot on a project, and then be able to seek a better paying opportunity, or even start up their own project. There is also the fear of layoffs to consider; maybe an employee leaves ahead of restructuring, but so many are caught by the frequent industry layoffs. With so many factors attacking a studio’s foundations, it should come as no surprise that a company that is coming off a successful release may struggle with its next project. Their next project could be a complete mess, and the studio could even fold!
I dare not go in to the topic of publishers much, as I will likely descend into writing expletives everywhere (feel free to read the rest of this paragraph and add your own favourites). Publishers generally need to learn their role and back off! The games industry is not a young one, by now a lot of ideas are understood. I find the concept of hiding behind the reasoning of “oh, it keeps changing” to be ludicrous. Yes, there have been changes to preferences, and new technology, but the core of gaming has not changed at a fundamental level. Games that are built off seemingly only hype have always been an issue. If publishers are so reliant on a few titles then they should be better at understanding their investment. Even EA is aware of criticism levelled against it, sadly since it is still earning lots of money it doesn’t seem to prioritise this aspect.
The fact that publishers do famously interfere in studio projects so much, on average is clearly not working very well for a lot of studios. Whilst it is common for studios to fold, it is rare for publishers. As normal the money people are more likely to survive a mess they help create, seemingly treating studios as expendable assets. Conclusion: most are rubbish at it, they should not be involved!
The majority of projects are really a team effort, ignoring tiny indie games, and even many of them still involve more than one person. So the belief that a studio that undergoes many changes in just a few years, including losing many of their staff, can be considered to be a reliable one is a shocking idea. This is why I think that the vast majority of the studios in the games industry are known for releasing products of varied quality. With titles ranging from great to awful, and worse the rare incomplete product. This is ignoring games that are so bug ridden at launch that it should be considered criminal that they are being sold. The fact some games are fixed later and may turn out to be good should not be lauded as a great thing; yes it is something, but certainly not great.
Thankfully there are exceptions to the average studio issue. Personally, like so many others, I rate Blizzard Entertainment very highly. They have mostly produced exceptional games, and are known for their ability to take an existing idea and polish it and add their own special gleam to it. A studio like CD Projekt is known for its exceptional Witcher series; hopefully Cyberpunk 2077 will further add to their legacy. Similarly Team Ico has made a few great games, several of the team formed genDESIGN and their next project The Last Guardian is likely going to be incredible. Then there are companies like Grinding Gear Games that have only produced one game, which just happens to be brilliant, well if you like ARPG.
Then there are the special anomalies, for example Peter Molyneux has been involved in some exceptional computer games as part of Bullfrog Productions. However, the games from Lionhead Studios are commonly recognised as being good, but suffered from what later became known as the Molyneux effect “creating overenthusiastic expectations”, more commonly known as hyping. I still think the Lionhead Studios are good, the common question is: without my expectations being so hyped would I consider them to be great games?
In a world full of sweeping statements and with many people being quick to defend something they love it is not surprising that studios are defended by so many. However, I still hear and read comments about the idea that something will be great because a particular studio is making it, or even a particular individual. Given that problems listed above it is too much to expect brilliance for even a particular individual, never mind a studio. However, I do think we should celebrate those that do achieve this level of consistency all the more. Further we should financial prioritise these people. For example: System Shock 2 was an exceptional game, so the fact Ken Levine was lead designer of Bioshock was a good sign; he had also been involved in other games I liked Thief: The Dark Project and Freedom Force. One can certainly debate how amazing Bioshock is or isn’t, but I am sure most can agree that Bioshock was still a quality game.
I want a games industry that values its staff more, that appreciates the concept of legacy and understand the long-term goal of increased revenue via trust. With more awareness, and massive public pressure it could even happen, but I certainly won’t be expecting it. Since people can make money out of crap, and with worsening exploitive trends in the industry why would they be inclined to be different?
I want more studios like Blizzard Entertainment and CD Projekt. I dislike the idea that ‘corporates suits’ consider studios like these to be outliers, and thus do not count. I certainly do not want publishers continuing to be a major factor. Crowd sourcing could be answer, but so far it seems to be a poor answer and publishers are already ‘(mis)appropriating’ it.
Excluding a few exceptions who have earned their legacy, don’t judge a game by its studio, and never by its publisher!