While I wait in the lobby of one of the largest game studios in the world, I watch someone go through to the inner sanctum. The shiny barrier, with transparent doors that whir apart at the wave of a card-pass, looks familiar—I think I’ve seen the devices being used as turnstiles in a Tokyo subway.
Most places of work are satisfied with a locked door, but someone at Ubisoft Montreal decided they needed something with a little more panache. Something that made the employees feel important and impressed visitors. And something that said, “No, you won’t just be waltzing in here and stealing our secrets.”
I half-wonder if I’m being tested.
After all, the company’s breakthrough title was Splinter Cell, a military stealth game in which you circumvent much more challenging security than this. And last year’s Beyond Good and Evil has you sneaking around taking photos of sensitive information in order to topple a corrupt government.
But before I become convinced that the office is a set piece in some kind of real-life metagame upon which my life depends, Tali arrives. She welcomes me, swipes me through the subway turnstile, and shows me around. I’d just asked to have a look at the place while I was in town, maybe chat with some of the people who made the games. Most of the rooms are cubicle-style, open-concept kind of areas filled with a bunch of average-looking guys. What they have on their screens is different depending on whether they are play-testing, modelling, animating or producing the games, but their slumped posture and dispirited mouse-clicking are pretty much office-worker-standard for a Friday afternoon.
We continue on another floor, and Tali’s commentary pauses as we pass another clump of cubicles. Then she says, “Can’t tell you what’s going on there.” I naturally cast my eyes over this forbidden zone, but nothing stands out as notably different. I’m amused by it on the one hand—damn, and me without my lapel-pin spy camera!—and also slightly irritated.
A lot of the game world is top secret and hush-hush. Non-disclosure agreements are flying all over the place. Everyone from play-testers to journalists is asked to sign them, and you can almost understand in those cases. But when you make someone keep quiet about what they do for most of their waking hours, are you asking too much? And ethics aside, when so many great ideas happen through casual conversation in off-hours, is this even an effective way to run a creative business?
As we wait for the elevator, I ask Tali about the secrecy that pervades the videogame industry. “I mean, you don’t see it in the movies as much...”
She thinks about it. “Well, they rely a lot on pre-publicity...” she says. “Plus, if they have Tom Cruise acting in their movie, it’s not like you can steal that in the same way you can steal an idea for a game.”
The “marquee name” power that certain actors and directors have in film is not that common in videogames. Brands and game titles have always had the limelight (Atari, Pac-Man, etc.) and not the creators behind them. This is despite long-term pressure for the humans behind the games to get some credit. Arnie Katz wrote in the June, 1983 Electronic Games magazine, “All designers of electronic games are just as much creative artists as painters and novelists.... Why shouldn’t the creator of such a work of art be entitled to put his or her name on it to reap the praise and brickbats of gaming consumers?”
As a result of this, the Intellivision and Atari 2600 cartridges of Masters of the Universe: The Power of He-Man had the design teams credited on the packaging. But even He-Man could only push it so far -- today, though credits rolling at the end of a game are common, games haven’t made the big step towards the marquee name. I bring this up with Tali, and she points to a promotional cutout picture of XIII, a game done in a graphic novel style with voice acting by David Duchovny and Adam West.
I admit that having the voice of Batman encourage me along was one of my favourite parts of XIII, but it’s different when the names attached to the game have star power in other media. Once game makers promote the designers and the art directors, audiences will start picking up games based on those things... and the industry will have its own marquee names native to the form.
Sure, it’ll spawn a few enfants terribles. It’s not like a superstar designer won’t make games just as crappy as a game company on its own, but being able to raise funds for a game based on, say, having a prominent art director attached, will mean more diversity in how games can be made.
You can steal bits and pieces of a project, but a good game is more than the sum of its parts. The secrecy and paranoia belies an adolescent lack of confidence in this, a lack of trust that your audience won’t know a rip-off from the genuine quality article. All these electromagnetic doors, arcane contracts and press leaks—they’re good cloak-and-dagger fun and all, but it’s time to grow up.