How do we honour our heroes when we don't even know their names?
Satoru Iwata was a great man. It might not need saying, but his contributions to the video game industry, along with his perpetual cheer and endearing laugh, warmed the hearts of gamers the world over. If it wasn't for his pivotal role in the release of the Nintendo DS and the Wii, the entire industry would be a very different place. He will be sorely missed, not just as the smiling face of Nintendo, but as the gamer at heart that he never stopped acknowledging. A legend, with a legacy that will live on long into gaming's future.
Mr. Iwata, though, was an anomaly in his renown. Consider his contemporaries at Sony and Microsoft, or even his predecessor at Nintendo; Steve Ballmer, Kazuo Hirai or Hiroshi Yamauchi. These are not trivial names in the business of gaming, and to some they are regarded with the same respect as the late, great Mr. Iwata. But among the general gaming public, they might as well be nobodies. Microsoft is Microsoft, Sony is Sony; that's all that matters. Who cares what name is engraved into the door of the boss' office?
This isn't exactly the ideal mentality to take. These are the leaders responsible for dictating the direction the entire video games industry takes. Their decisions influence our hobby greatly; if Mr. Iwata had not strived so hard to champion the Wii, where would gaming stand today in the minds of the general populace? Without Wii Bowling, how could we have convinced all those staunch naysayers that gaming is for everybody, from kids to parents to 70-year-old grandmas? Satisfying the goals of a business without exploiting the gamers who keep it afloat, taking risks and encouraging innovation without spooking investors and shareholders, maintaining a consumer-friendly image in spite of the realities of running a successful organisation - it's not an easy job.
And yet, though Microsoft and Sony are household names, Kaz Hirai and Steve Ballmer (or as of last year, Satya Nadella) are not. The brains behind the wheel are kept hidden behind tinted glass. What gives?
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The other creative industries do not operate this way. In the world of movies, the producers and directors do not receive short shrift for their efforts, regardless of the invisibility of their roles. But some might argue that this is a false equivalency: producers and directors are involved more directly with creative output instead of industry direction. The point is valid - although in this case, all the aforementioned CEOs have shown a propensity for rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty in ways not dissimilar to the most proactive of movie directors. Still, it could be said that the sizeable salaries accompanying these positions are recognition enough. Perhaps it should be taken as a given that the men and women in suits remain stage hands behind the scenes.
Perhaps, but perhaps not. The fact is, even if we were to accept that the bigwigs are already amply acknowledged for their contributions, there is a corollary to this line of thought that we cannot look past. The people at the core of it all, the fuel and fire of the industry, the designers and developers who craft the experiences we so enjoy; they too are drowning in obscurity. Shi Kai Wang, the guy who designed Master Chief's iconic armour; Rhianna Pratchett, the writer of Mirror's Edge and Tomb Raider; Ashley Johnson, the woman who brought Ellie from The Last of Us to life - these are not names found in the average gamer's lexicon. Despite the powerful impact their creations have had, they themselves enjoy a sliver of the recognition they so rightly deserve.
Compare this, again, to the movie industry. There, actors and actresses are paraded front and centre, and writers and producers are touted as proof of pedigree and quality. Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lawrence, Christopher Nolan - these are household names, immediately recognisable and synonymous with the fruits of their labours. 2001: A Space Odyssey - anyone who's familiar with it knows it was the brainchild of Stanley Kubrick. Star Wars - George Lucas. Titanic - James Cameron. But how many people have any idea who Toru Iwatani is? Maybe it's not surprising; he only created the incomparable Pac-Man, after all.
The other creative mediums further highlight this deficit in the video games industry. Books, being typically the work of a single author, celebrate their heredity in big letters right there on the cover - no Harry Potter fan is going to forget that J. K. Rowling was the genius responsible for bringing magic to readers the world over. Visual art is similarly singular in its creation, with names like Van Gogh and Monet whispered in the same hushed tones reserved for the galleries in which their works hang. Music, thanks to its emphasis on performance, casts the spotlight over its wunderkinds at every concert from stadium to school assembly. In nearly every other creative endeavour, we celebrate the human element with gusto.
But not with video games. True, games are unique in some key ways. For one, they are rarely the product of a lone person's efforts. Art, programming, story; more often than not, games are carved up into discrete chunks tackled by separate individuals or teams. Even when a singular creative direction entwines the disparate parts, each hand that touches the project leaves an indelible mark that affects the whole. And with mainstream games getting bigger and more complex all the time, the singling out of individual elements of the creative process is becoming almost impossible. Who receives credit for the creation of the LittleBigPlanet's adorable protagonist Sackboy when three different artists all contributed to his design?
Bigger teams aren't the only problem. If we look back through gaming's past, to a time when games really were shaped by a single pair of hands, the situation then wasn't a whole lot more encouraging. Outside of a few lonely luminaries like Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of both the Mario and Zelda franchises, and John Romero, of Doom fame, all credit went to the companies that fronted the cash to bring games to market. People knew Atari and Nintendo, but they had no clue who created Pitfall (David Crane), who designed and programmed Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov), or who wrote the iconic Super Mario theme music (Koji Kondo).
This cavalier treatment of industry talent only grew worse as games gained popularity. Nintendo, for a good long while, was console, developer and publisher all at once. Many less-informed consumers were under the impression that the company was responsible for every facet of the games industry, including its competition - Sega and Sony's consoles were still referred to as "Nintendos" for years after their release. Needless to say, Nintendo was more than happy to encourage this misnomer.
Not everyone was content to sit by silently, though. In the seminal Atari 2600 game, Adventure, there is hidden a secret room with the text "Created by Warren Robinett" inside. Robinett slipped this surprise into the game due to Atari's policy on not crediting its games' designers, purportedly out of fear of competing companies swooping in and stealing those same designers away.
A similar mentality drove many games in the 80s and 90s, especially those made in Japan, to falsify their credits sequences, giving the designers and developers fake names to hide their true identities. This behaviour has been attributed to both the desire to avoid the poaching of talent, as well as a way of preventing the humble creators from developing superiority complexes and demanding higher compensation for their work.
Whatever the reason, the neglect of recognition set a poor precedent for the industry. By foregoing recognition of creative individuality, the impetus to invent and innovate lost out to the simple desire for steady pay. Knowing that committing 110% to pushing the boundaries of convention would reap little to no personal acclaim made it seem like an unwise investment. Better to focus on delivering exactly what was expected and save the revolutionary ideas for a time when they would be adequately acknowledged.
That time, though, still hasn't come. The industry has unquestionably improved dramatically since those early years spent treating developers as disposable goods, but we haven't reached a point yet where the distribution of renown reflects accurately the division of intellectual investment. On the one hand, with the increasing accessibility and exposure of indie games, individual cogs in the development machine are able to stand front and centre alongside their creations. "Notch" of Minecraft fame, Jonathan Blow of Braid and Phil Fish of Fez, are all examples of creators justly rewarded for their efforts.
At the same time, though, the expansion of studios like Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red into organisations comprising hundreds of designers and developers practically condemns the individual workers there to obscurity. Ubisoft even name their various studios around the world based on their location, further homogenising the distinction of their constituent parts. Who is going to remember the different games Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Montpelier were responsible for? And how many gamers are going to sit through the entire 20-minute credit sequence at the end of an Assassin's Creed game, much less read any of the countless names blurring past? With an individual's worthy contributions relegated to a single entry in a wall of text the vast majority of players will never actually look at, it's easy to see why bigger games so often seem like the products of blueprint assembly lines, rather than experimental science labs.
What kind of incentive does this token acknowledgement present to the hard-working credits-fillers who constitute the vast majority of the industry? Why should they push new, revolutionary ideas when any recognition they might see would be minimal at best? Studies of the happiness of workers in all industries have shown irrefutably that praise and respect for a job well done promote satisfaction many times more than a monetary raise. As humans, we crave the feeling of importance, and there is no more effective way to crush our spirits than to ignore our contributions and take our efforts for granted.
Is it really any wonder, then, that the biggest studios take the fewest risks and often seem the most content to churn out the same games again and again? The lack of recognition awaiting those who dare to buck the trend doesn't exactly inspire laying one's pride and position on the line.
The worst part of all this is the fact that, despite all the progress games have made in gaining public acceptance and exploring more mature, diverse themes, the industry is still suffering from an identity crisis. As much as we might argue that games are art, the way they are sold hews far closer to McDonald's than the Mona Lisa. EA, BioWare, Rockstar: these are the names people identify with, not those of the thousands of highly skilled human beings holding up those faceless brands. Not only does this diminish the tireless efforts of the unsung creators, it exacerbates the issue of negative feedback following a game's release.
No matter how good a game is, there will always be those who are disappointed or offended by it. They seek their retribution in the form of angry forum posts and snarky reviews and general vehemence, directing their rage towards the parties they hold responsible.
Problem is, while the vitriol might be aimed at the "soulless" companies and "money-grubbing" corporations, the ones who get hit are the same poor sods for whom praise passes completely by. Most complainants aren't even conscious of this when they unleash their fury. Were the industry less dehumanising in its structure, though, this resentment would undoubtedly be significantly tempered. It is only through ignorance of the human element that gamers feel comfortable nominating EA as the worst company in America, and have no qualms hurling abuse at Rocksteady and Warner Bros. for messing up the PC port of the latest Batman game. A corporation doesn't have feelings. It can't hurt or suffer or cry. But the people who make it can. They endure every negative review, every snarky tweet, every denouncement of the product of their blood, sweat and tears as a personal criticism - a slight against the part of their soul that they poured into their work.
In the same way we take umbrage as fans of a particular game when detractors call out its flaws, the creators themselves take to heart each and every complaint, regardless of its intended target. By erecting these cold, lifeless walls around what is ostensibly the most creative medium on the planet, the games industry is punishing the very people keeping it alive. Games aren't built by robots; their flaws stem from those we as humans deal with every day. Critique is a valid pursuit, but its repercussions should never be forgotten.
Praise is no better off either for the branding of the industry. When you enjoy the latest Halo game, where is your gratitude directed? Not to the individual artists and programmers responsible for crafting the experience you're so enamoured with. The umbrella moniker hanging over those talented men and women receives the accolades, and unlike the hail of derision that strikes the hearts of all involved, the trickle of positivity diffuses on its way down, treating the parched programmers and drought-stricken designers to only a fraction of the acknowledgement they are due. Such is the nature of business: praise is for the few, while blame is open to everyone.
The example of Halo is a particularly interesting one, as it introduces its own slew of unique problems. The Halo franchise was created by Bungie, but is now under the dominion of 343 Industries, a different developer entirely. This raises a number of curious issues regarding the apportioning of both criticism and respect. If the latest Halo is a massive hit, is it due mainly to the impeccable framework Bungie constructed, or the refinements instituted by 343? If the game turns out to be too rote and predictable, is that the fault of 343 having to adhere to Bungie's established blueprints, or did 343 simply not do enough to distinguish its creation from the ones that came before it? In this case, it is nigh impossible to ensure that the appropriate parties receive the recognition due. And given the fact that games are far more prone to cycling development teams and transferring intellectual property wholesale from developer to developer than other creative mediums, conferring a fair amount of ownership amongst all participants is not an easy task.
It is why, more often than not, publishers receive an undue proportion of credit for a game's accomplishments, despite having little to no involvement with its actual development. Known entities like EA, Activision and Nintendo tend to command attention more effectively than the DICEs, the Treyarchs and the Game Freaks do, despite each one's actual role in creating three of the most popular franchises of the day: Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Pokémon, respectively. In reality, any of those three developers could be quietly replaced without the vast majority of gamers realising it, whereas a change in publisher would almost certainly garner more attention. It's hardly fair, but when the AAA section of the industry is so focused on the business of making money, administering recognition comes a distant second to encouraging profit.
This practice needs to change. In no other creative industry does the man with the money receive such a disproportionate division of fame - the fortune, however, always manages to bypass the truly deserving no matter what the industry. We, as a collective intent on fostering creativity, need to tear down the curtain and acknowledge the real heroes of the story. Only when aspiring artists, writers and programmers can feasibly dream of leaving a legacy that doesn't amount to "that dude who made Mario" will our industry be the bastion of imagination it deserves to be.
As Mr. Iwata so adroitly put it: the next generation is a place where the best idea, not the biggest budget, will win. Let us make sure, then, that it is the people with the ideas, not the budget, that we immortalise in history.
Rest in peace, Mr Iwata.