22 Dec Ursula Le Guin: Product vs Art
I wasn’t going to write a blog post this week until I saw this speech from Ursula Le Guin:
I remember very well conversations with Alex Garland and how he saw the lack of creative ownership and independence in games development as a problem. This is what he said to Edge Magazine in a rare interview back in October 2010:
“What I do think, though, is that the games industry has some very serious problems to address. It seems to me that what’s happened is that in its organic development, it has leapfrogged some key stages and has jumped straight to bloated Hollywood megabucks, mega-resources-type products. That’s really dangerous…
…It seems to me that it’s going to be very, very hard for the game equivalent of Taxi Driver to exist, because I don’t know where the niche for it is. I don’t know how it’ll get financed, and I’m also not sure who’ll buy it. You have a hope with these things that, like Kevin Costner in that Field Of Dreams movie, if you build it they will come, but unfortunately that’s not true. I thought Ico was a very good game but it didn’t feel like people came to that.”
The mention of ICO is prescient. This is from the Wikipedia entry on ICO:
“The game has received aggregate review scores of 90 out of 100 at Metacritic… The game is considered by some to be one of the greatest games of all time… Despite the positive praise, the original title did not sell well. By 2009, only 700,000 copies were sold worldwide, with 270,000 in the United States and the bulk in PAL regions”
ICO was sold into retail by a publishing system that is built to sell blockbusters. It was widely considered a commercial failure and served as an example by publishers and developers of how such unconventional games are not worth supporting. Developers have survived by largely focusing on making commercial “products” as that is what the retail publishing system demands.
It is my view that ICO was not a failure, it is a wonderful game, a beacon of hope for artistic expression. It was exclusive to a single platform, there was no social media to help promote the title, no mature digital distribution platform, and little flexibility on retail price. Yet it still sold 700,000. What would it have done in this day and age if sold digitally on any platform at a smaller price-point?
I suspect that games driven by art, story and other forms of inner expression have a bright future in store for those who dare seek it. Ursula Le Guin shows us that this future is worth pursuing across all forms of entertainment media. I hope we find it.