The push and pull between the suits and the creatives is not a new battle, and indeed it's certainly not exclusive to the video games industry, but in recent years a culture of creativity has been losing out to a culture of money, if you ask Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney. In one of the more forthright and refreshing interviews we've read in some time, Mahoney, who used to work in AAA publishing, bemoaned to GamesBeat the impact of putting business ahead of art.
"Back at EA, I used to get lectured by business development people about how we have to have a portfolio strategy of games, because we have no idea what's going to do well. I said, 'You have no idea what's going to do well because you're not a gamer and you don't care about games. You have no confidence in your ability to make good games.' How did we let our industry get taken over by the BD people? I was a BD person at the time, but at least I played games," he remarked.
Mahoney believes the problem escalated back in 2007, when you "had a false dichotomy in the business" between the big AAA publishers (who doubled down on graphics fidelity) and the emergence of Facebook and mobile gaming on the other side. While the AAA publishers had a hard time learning how to adjust for an increasingly online world, the other side "were on record as not giving a damn about gameplay and game quality," Mahoney said. "The founders of these companies were not game players themselves. We all know who those were."
"They thought that they could reskin the same gameplay into five different games. They thought they could copy someone else's game and bring a large audience to it. They found that their revenues skyrocketed, but they were hitting the afterburner the whole time. They fell to earth when people got sick of dumbed-down games," he continued.
While Mahoney sees the "light at the end of the tunnel" and the industry finally emerging from this mess, the unfortunate effect is that many consumers were caught in the middle between the two camps, and creativity in the industry suffered.
"The core of our business is a creative business. We make our money by making art. You have to ask yourself, in this industry, are you making good art? When I say five bad years, I think there was precious little good art coming out of the industry. Not across the board. There was some awesome stuff. But that's not where the majority of the people you would see in these halls were focusing their time and attention," Mahoney said, referencing E3.
"It's certainly not what the investors were asking about. They weren't asking, 'Where is the creative, good art coming from? Where is the next beautiful game coming from?'"
Using some of the flame-outs in the social and mobile space as examples, Mahoney noted, "Those hot up-and-coming companies of a few years ago did not end up having sustainable businesses at all. That indicates to me that our industry lives or dies based on the quality of its creative output. That's the lesson of the last five years.
"It's hard to do that, right? It's a lot easier to talk about buying revenue, about trends, about what game is popular this month. What's exceptionally hard to do, and what our industry has to give a lot of respect for, is the creative person, the game developer who is not asking those questions. Instead, they're asking, 'What is fun? What's a neat idea? What's something I can go explore and turn into a game that all my friends in the industry will love?' A few companies are doing that."