Lately I’ve been hearing a little bit about the idea of “authorship” in the video game business, and have been asked at seminars and workshops about writing for video games. I come from a gamer background, but for a gentleman of a certain age, “gamer” meant president of his high school’s D&D club. When I was a kid, video games weren’t something you necessarily “authored”—who was responsible for the deeply existential malaise of the left-hand paddle in Pong? The world will never know.

But now <ahem> years later, video games are a story-driven medium, and even casual games tend to have some story element binding them together, even if it’s just kinda fun and cartoony like Angry Birds, or a way to get you from song to song like in Guitar Hero—two very popular games that aren’t known for their rich storytelling but are fun as heck to play.

But coming from a gamer culture, even before I started working for TSR then Wizards of the Coast, I still have distinct memories of a coherent authorship behind those games, the progenitors of the contemporary MMO, FPS, and pretty much everything else. Everybody who played D&D knew it was the creation of Gary Gygax—and those who really wanted to be fair knew it was a creation of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. When I was in high school, pretty much doing nothing but playing D&D and other role-playing games, my heroes were Gygax and Arneson, Traveller creator Marc Miller, David Hargrave of The Arduin Grimoire “fame,” Jeff “Gamma World” Grubb, and Steve Jackson, who designed some of my first entries into hobby gaming: the (for me, at least) legendary Microgames, including the amazing Ogre.


The title page of my MegaTraveller Players’ Manual, autographed by Marc Miller at Gen Con, 1990.

Let’s fast forward some thirty-five years from my first forays into “serious” gaming (wow, has it been that long? . . . damn) and now I’m not that high school geek anymore, but a grown up geek with kids of his own. My twelve-year-old son considers himself a “gamer” but for him, that means video games. And he’s, like pretty much every twelve-year-old boy in the western world, a first-person shooter aficionado. His sun rises and sets on Halo, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Batman: Arkham City.

And I’ll be willing to bet his Xbox 360 that he couldn’t name a single person who had anything to do with the creation of those games. But he does know Bungie, Valve, and other studios.

In “The Authorship of the Video Game,” a letter to/interview with 5th Cell designer Jeremiah Slaczka, whose games appear under the credit “A Jeremiah Slaczka Game,” Patrick Klepek wrote:

“The traditional reaction to assigning single authorship is that games are not like other forms of media. You credit J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter because, well, she wrote the whole damn series. A big team may come together to produce the new Steven Spielberg or David Fincher film, but the reason those movies are then touted as new works from a single individual is because those mediums better lend themselves to a single person having enough of an impact on the entire process. In film, it’s called auteur theory, relating to an artist’s personal vision. You know you’re watching an Alfred Hitchcock film because Hitchcock has such a distinctive style. No one else could have made this film.”

In his reply, Slaczka is quick to point out that a game like Hybrid is a collaborative effort, that this authorship brand is not meant to imply that Hybrid was “A Game Solely Made by Jeremiah Slaczka” but still:

“What works for us is to have a very clear vision and direction—and that direction since we were founded has come from me. The games we’ve made and the high level concepts we started out with have always lined up. Every studio is different, but this is what has worked for us. And just because I’m the one directing the vision doesn’t mean only my ideas get in, we always listen to ideas from anyone. If it makes the product better and fits in the schedule I’m all for it. But someone needs to be the person to weight whether or not it does gel with the vision.”

And this matches with what I eventfully came to understand about how TSR and D&D worked, even in the early days. Gary Gygax put himself forward as the creator of D&D but those of us who bothered to read the credits eventually started seeing some names regularly popping up, like Kim Mohan, Steve Winter, Harold Johnson, and David “Zeb” Cook. And for me, and my late-70s/early-80s gamer friends, we added these characters to the pantheon, much like Marvel Comics fans would look at Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (for D&D: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson), then widen their fan nets to include Steve Ditko, John Buscema, Marv Wolfman, and other stars—other authors—of the growing Marvel bullpen.

We had brand (Marvel) and creator (Jack Kirby) loyalty, sitting side by side.

When I first started at TSR I began hearing weird rumors, which I’ll leave as such—things like the then owner of the company looking to lower the profile of one of the most popular authors because she didn’t want any one personality growing more important than the brand—and this the same woman who pushed Gary Gygax out of the company he created. And one author who was convinced that TSR had purposely made another author more successful than him, as though any publisher has a real measure of control over who a readership will respond to . . .

Authorship can be messy. It can make one person very important to an organization and therefore more difficult to fire. It can make team-mates jealous, and sometimes rightfully so. But no one ever said it was going to be easy. How pissed off do the sound designer or the costume designer get when everybody talks about “the new Tom Cruise movie” they just worked on, everybody knowing full well that Mr. Cruise was just one part of a massive team effort?

What does this mean to video games, which, like movies, can be shockingly expensive and time-consuming to create, requiring massive teams and budgets only corporations can provide?

In his Kotaku article “The Search for the Video Game Auteurs,” Brian Ashcraft wrote:

“When movies finish, the crew disbands. Maybe the director will bring on the cinematographer he or she used in the last film. Maybe not. Citizen Kane proved Orson Welles’ genius, but it also proved the genius of Gregg Toland. Some filmmakers use the same collaborators for the majority of their career—take Martin Scorsese and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. When games finish, development studios begin work on the inevitable sequel. The process is seemingly unending.”

This seems to imply that video game studios keep the same staff of people, who move on to the next game together, as a team. But that runs contrary to my own experience of the video game industry, where I have close friends who’ve bounced all over the country, and even all over the world, from one studio to another, in precisely the same way that various artists and craftspeople jump from movie to movie. I know a dozen people who don’t live in the same area code as their cell phones. One of my closest friends has gone all the way to Shanghai to write for video games.

To me it seems as though the video game world is functioning almost exactly like the movie business—for good or ill. And if the movie business can not only withstand but gain considerable marketing traction, from authorship, why can’t the video game business?

Myst made stars of co-creators Rand Miller and Robyn Miller, and Sid Meier will forever be known as the creator of Civilization. And these are some of the earlier  entries in what is now a massive and crowded marketplace. How did the video game move from this early stage of clear authorship to the more studio-centric model exhibited by the majority of the industry? Or was authorship ever really that important? A case could be made that it was brand names like Atari and Nintendo that appeared first, and always have out-weighed the occasional breakthrough creator identity, that the Millers and Sid Meier were outliers even then.

But again, the movies had studio brands like Disney, and still do, while maintaining a healthy star system for both actors and directors, really all of whom are temps. Brad Pitt is a contractor. He comes in, lends his expertise to a movie, then goes on to the next one, as does Ridley Scott. And sometimes these contractors come in and out of existing properties like J.J. Abrams and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek or Daniel Craig and Ian Flemming’s 007.

For writers, the video game business can not only keep the rent paid but can provide some amazing creative challenges. I would wholeheartedly recommend it and not just as a “day job” for any writer, but as it stands, it’s a business that has a very tenuous relationship with its creative core, and writers often inhabit the bottom of the development food chain.

There’s very little reason to expect that writing a video game will make you “famous,” and for me, that’s a failing of an industry that too often functions in a bottle, with a strange cultural certainty that they’re the first ever to do this, that, or the other thing, including working with freelancers, contractors, and, dare I say it, “stars.”

Attention, video game industry, authorship is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced, and no, not everyone has to be a full time employee. Brad Pitt isn’t, and neither is Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, J.K. Rowling . . . and so on. And people who bring them onto their team rarely regret it.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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