Nexon CEO: "Precious little good art coming out of industry"

Owen Mahoney laments biz dev types taking control, says there's light at end of the tunnel after "five bad years"

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."

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Latest comments (10)

What a whining snobby hipster indie twat.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 3 years ago
He has some points, especially about what I term "Zynga Syndrome".

However, to say there has been precious little good art in recent years??

Red Dead Redemption, Dear Esther, Dragon Age Origins, Dishonoured, Limbo, The Wonderful End of the World, Cat Lady, Fallout 3, The Walking Dead, the trailer for Dead Island, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, Journey, dys4ia, Depression Quest, Portal II, The Secret World

I class these as art - and good art - because they have the power to affect my emotions and give me "the feels". Some are fresh and innovative, some are ground-breaking, others pieces of a franchise but that does not stop them harbouring powerful messages and fantastic stories.

And special mention goes to Eve Online and Age of Wulin, because of the sheer exultation of discovering the story and plugging it together in my own mind trumps anything where the NPC hands it to me. Creating a living world that interacts with you as well as you with it is the greatest art you can make, surely.

Edit: And Minecraft. No idea how I forgot that. There is no way that rediscovering that visceral childhood fear of the dark, shut in your little bunker, is not a function of art. Minecraft is The Orange Book of Fairytales of gaming.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 18th June 2014 1:17pm

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James Coote Independent Game Developer 3 years ago
You do need a balanced portfolio of games. Scope is one risk axis and creativity another
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Show all comments (10)
@Bonnie - 100% agree tho I assume he was talking about how publishers approach the industry, that while of course there has been great games, hardly anyone in publishing is out to push gaming forward any more. Generally it's as if we've given up and no one believes in hits, the best "new" stuff they can muster support for is already established licences/brands - and they'll think that's edgy and risky.

Even on your list, most of those games were indie or were titles by auteurs/brands with their own clout that allowed them to pull out of the orbit of the clique of extremely powerful lightweights that decide what we all get to play. Red Dead is an example I use a lot - nobody wanted a cowboy game because "the numbers say no way" - its not an accident it took Rockstar to make that game.

The split between creativity and business is horseshit if your business is in a creative market. But for whatever reason - arguably in order to appear rugged and clear-thinking - most people in games publishing have forgotten the creative battle because, as he pointed out, it's so much easier to follow money and numbers and look like you're being a responsible leader - easier for everybody, from the board and investors on down - in fact especially for them.

Our industry continues to think being anti-creativity is a signifier of steely realism and success whereas many of us think that attitude merely signifies a puddle-deep appreciation of the market and a business firmly in the "lunch for future rivals" category.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 3 years ago
@Barry - very good points.

I remember once - I may have told this story before - there was a man who founded a studio to make a specific game, about a sport he loved and was passionate about. It was also a sport that most people, when told about it, would say "Oh yeah! I'd forgotten that existed."

But because he'd been sitting there for years, creating this game in his head, dreaming of the day it existed, his specs were good, and when the game came out.... WHAMBAMBRRBRRSPLOOF! That was the sound of his house collapsing under all the money from people for whom this forgotten sport had become fun again through his game.

But then he had a studio and had to make another game. So he decided to make a set of games for little girls.

He was not a little girl. He didn't have a daughter. He hadn't spent time dreaming about this wonderful thing that would complete a little girl. The specs were terrible and the design merely a way to eke money, straight down the line, unoriginal, passionless, joyless.

The game was produced - over-budget because of poor specs, of course - published and put on sale. Word got out quickly.

To quote one 5 year old girl at a Catholic primary school: "This so-called game is a piece of **** and if your parents buy this septic bucket of *** for you, you should stab them to death with a ***** and &*$*(! the remains with a **$&**$^"($^!and then &%$^^! on them" *

it flopped horribly. All his business brains (he'd been successful in many retail fields) couldn't compensate for the fact this his product was unwanted and unimaginative; it added neither beauty or value to anyone's life.

Creativity should not be an impediment to business - for a smart publisher, it should BE the business.

* May not actually have happened. The quote, that is. And the house collapsing. The rest is true.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 18th June 2014 2:13pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 years ago
Thanks to their f2p track record, Nexon isn't known for its popularity among western core gamers.

As Bonnie pointed out, there seems to be a disconnect between knowing what to say in order to appeal to people and backing it up.
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Diana Hsu Product Manager, Free-to-Play, Big Fish Games3 years ago
Perhaps we'll be seeing Nexon publishing some indie darling games soon?
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games3 years ago
I would have to agree with him. But I would substitute the word "creativity" for "art". There has always been good art out there (I speak as someone who works on the visual side of games). But the creativity of the games produced over the last five or so years has gone by the wayside. Many "games" were just the repetitive act of: collect experience points, use experience points to do a mission/chore, collect money from mission, spend money of device to increase experience point output. Repeat for hundreds of levels. No game play or thinking required.

It came to a point where all you needed to start a "game" studio was to have three people: someone with an advanced computer science degree, someone with a MBA and someone with a marketing degree. No need for a creative person. Just buy a game format (or just steal/copy/fast follow a game format), change the artwork (with a temporary staff) and you got yourself a "game".

I feel that it has gotten to where the people who have been playing these types of game have grown tired of them. The "Skinner Studios" that produce these games are going to have to adapt by coming up with some creative original games or they are going to fold.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 3 years ago
The answer is simple, though painful...

You see that splashscreen at the front of a game? Or that box (if yiou still use one)? Put the core creators name on it. Right up front.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios3 years ago
Hi Tim, do you mean the individual designer? What effect does that have, not trolling just curious what you meant.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marty Howe on 19th June 2014 9:43am

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