Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The False Dichotomy Between Artistic Freedom and Work For Hire

Let's talk about butts. Hold on! Don't run away yet! I promise there's a link here!

Yes, butts. Recently, there was yet another internet kerfuffle over Blizzard removing a pose for Tracer in Overwatch, one which was the stereotypical comic book "peeking over the shoulder to show off her butt" poses. Someone complained, Blizzard removed it with barely any explanation, Internet exploded, then Jeff Kaplan posted a more complete explanation:
While I stand by my previous comment, I realize I should have been more clear. As the game director, I have final creative say over what does or does not go into the game. With this particular decision, it was an easy one to make—not just for me, but for the art team as well. We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.

We wouldn’t do anything to sacrifice our creative vision for Overwatch, and we’re not going to remove something solely because someone may take issue with it. Our goal isn’t to water down or homogenize the world, or the diverse cast of heroes we’ve built within it. We have poured so much of our heart and souls into this game that it would be a travesty for us to do so.

We understand that not everyone will agree with our decision, and that’s okay. That’s what these kinds of public tests are for. This wasn’t pandering or caving, though. This was the right call from our perspective, and we think the game will be just as fun the next time you play it. ( http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583?page=11#post-210 )
tl;dr: The art team were already working on alternate poses, and input from the community just reinforced their original issues.

Artistic Freedom in Making Games

I'm a game developer working on an indie game where artistic freedom to create the game we envision is incredibly important to us. So important that we've insisted on maintaining near complete creative control in any negotiations we've been in so far. It wouldn't be Eon Altar if certain aspects of the gameplay were changed by some external party who doesn't share our vision.

But at the same time, the game we're creating is still for others to play. That's why we do things like have play tests, focus groups, and early access: to get feedback. Find out what resonates with players, and what turns them off the game.

Not all feedback is equal, mind. Sometimes we'll look at a piece of feedback and conclude, "not our target audience." That's okay. Not everyone has to love our game. Other times we'll look at a piece of feedback and say, "hey, they're on to something here, it really is not fun in this section." Then we'll take that feedback, discuss and dissect it within our team, and decide whether we want or can take action.

When someone says "artistic freedom" I immediately get the picture of an artist in front of a canvas, painting whatever the heck they want, in whatever style they want. And if you can afford to do that, fantastic! But there's a lot more than one person's artistic freedom involved in making something as large as a video game.

Design By Committee

If and when you get hired into a company to help create something--be it a video game, video streaming software, a movie, whatever--you're part of a larger group of artists or developers working towards the exact same goal: making a compelling product people can enjoy, and therefore want to purchase. Building something of this scale is nigh impossible for one person, and therefore is generally left to a larger organization like a company.

Often times, there's a single person--like in the case of Blizzard's Overwatch, the game director--who is the be-all end-all of the vision. But the entire game might not be their vision. They're the tie-breaker when difficult creative decisions come up, or sometimes when things go off the rails and something just isn't working within the framework of the game/world/product and they need to intervene. The work itself is (usually) a product of many people coming together to build something cool.

Even for Eon Altar, we have our Creative Director, but he leaves a lot of decision-making to the rest of us. It helps that we have a small team and we're all generally on the same page when it comes to the ultimate vision of the game--we still have clashes on occasion though. But if we can't set aside our differences--maybe because we have equally logical reasons for our own ideas--then having someone who's the tie-breaker helps us move forward. Sometimes that tie-breaking is also fueled by customer feedback.

The concept of "artistic freedom" as the Internet likes to envision it where you have someone dictating how all aspects of the product should be and their vision is sacrosanct is almost entirely absent from most creative productions in real life. Heck, even novels have editors and beta readers who provide feedback to novelists, despite the actual writing of the novel usually being driven by a single person.

There are exceptions. Barone's Stardew Valley is one recent one. He is the only person actively working on the game, but even then he still takes into account customer feedback. Adding more post-marriage content is one that he decided was worthwhile feedback to implement, for example, which alters his game and his vision. And he still rejects other suggestions as well. His work is malleable, on purpose. Yet no one is decrying his artistic vision being impugned by others.

Work For Hire

There is a tension between being able to create whatever you like, and having to create something somebody else wants. Unless you're working entirely by yourself in a vacuum, your own artistic vision will be altered, nudged, changed, and influenced by others: your team, your customers, and the culture around you. Sometimes it will change during the creative process itself!

With customer input comes difficult decisions, though. You want to make a fun game, you have an idea of what would make it cool/great, but then you get feedback from many customers who hate it. See: nixing flight in World of Warcraft. Some folks saw the return of flight as Blizzard caving to people who wanted to dictate how the game was made. Some folks hailed it as "listening to their customers". Sounds similar to the consumer narratives around Tracer's butt pose in Overwatch to me. Personally I saw it as the game designers taking the feedback, and returning with a clever system that let them deliver their vision and give customers what they wanted. Win-win in my mind there.

At the end of the day, you're still creating a product to sell. If you don't want to sell it, by all means, do whatever you like, but chances are you're not part of a large team creating it if that's the case. But even if you're creating to sell, it doesn't mean you can't create something awesome (e.g.: Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the original Transformers movie, all works created as work for hire).

Artistic freedom and work for hire aren't always at odds with each other, and even then, one could argue pure absolute "artistic freedom" doesn't exist outside of a vacuum anyhow, or at least total monetary freedom. It sounds like I'm contradicting myself, but I'm not. They're potentially correlated to each other, but there's not necessarily causation.

Game Devs Do What Game Devs Do

Game devs can still create whatever product they like, generally. Hatred as a game exists, it sold copies. GTA does extremely well despite critics of its hookers and violence. The Dead or Alive series has tits and asses as far as the eye can see.

In Blizzard's case, they're targeting a broad audience, which means creating many characters that fit many different archetypes. I mean, they're already shipping Widowmaker, who's fits the comic book-esque woman to a T, so it's not like they're removing everything "sexy" from the game. They've decided that's just not Tracer's style. And that's okay; it's ultimately their decision--a decision potentially of consensus internally, or top-down from the game director. But it's still their vision, their game, and their target customers are part of that vision.

#IndieDev, #Overwatch, #GameDevelopment

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