The Soapbox: Game developers are not rock stars

Shawn Schuster
S. Schuster|03.15.11

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The Soapbox: Game developers are not rock stars
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Take a moment to think of your single favorite game developer. Is this person your favorite because of his talent? Maybe he made a game that influenced you growing up, or he has a charming personality for interviews. Whatever the reason, we probably all have our favorite game developers whom we hold on a pedestal of greatness.

But did this one person make the game entirely by himself? Did Sid Meier write every line of code for the Civilization games? Did Richard Garriott draw every texture in Tabula Rasa? No, of course they didn't, but their names are right there on the box, showing ownership. Despite my own fanboy appreciation of certain devs, the title of this article says it all. With a few notable exceptions, those who make our favorite games make up a collective group of talented people who come together under proper leadership and design guidelines to create something that keeps us entertained for hours/weeks/months/years.

So why do we pick out one or two and treat them like rock stars?

Well, that's easy. They're usually the most vocal. But when I watch talking heads run around convention stages or late night talk show sets with prop chainsaw guns, I can't help but feel a little embarrassed for them and us.

On one hand, I'm very happy that gaming has become such a monstrosity that there are recognizable faces in the industry. When Epic Games' Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinkski makes an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I'm usually a bit proud of how far we, as gamers, have come. But when I watched EA's Paul Barnett don his stage outfit of white-rimmed sunglasses and Warhammer-logo jeans at every gaming event and every Mythic developer video in 2008, it made me wince quite a bit.

Of course, that's not to say anything bad about Mr. Barnett. He's a really great guy and one of the most hardcore true (tabletop) gamers I've met. But it all just seemed too staged. No matter how much EA wanted to make itself a rock star spokesperson, it doesn't seem like a natural fit -- not just for Paul but for anyone in that position.

When Warhammer Online didn't live up to the hyped standards, many people blamed Paul. When Tabula Rasa failed, they blamed Richard Garriott. Even though neither of those individuals was 100% to blame for any perceived or real failures, becoming the face of these games became a dangerous bridge for a single developer to cross.

"Our show doesn't need a star, and our choir doesn't need a soloist."

I think it's important to point out that I'm not against spotlighting game developers as a general rule. Every popular game needs a spokesperson to spotlight the product, and like I said, I do get excited when I see how far we've come. Late night talk show appearances and autograph signings are a common element of the increased popularity of any media, but there should be a limit to perceived individuality.

We're in the Wild West of gaming right now, and we're still learning how to present our normally hidden hobbies to the hungry and curious masses. This allows for lots of experimentation and learning things the hard way. Who would have ever imagined five years ago that our parents would be sending us CityVille requests or that our grandmothers would be playing Bingo on their iPhones?

For this reason, we need to be a bit more careful about how we market the industry. Our show doesn't need a star, and our choir doesn't need a soloist. Assigning one person to that role creates an unnecessary social burden on him and a certain level of expectation from us. We can have a representative without having an all-encompassing scapegoat. I believe companies like Turbine and SOE have the right idea with several members of their community teams sharing the spotlight with "code names," keeping it less personal. But even this isn't fool-proof, as Blizzard's Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street has shown by achieving cult leader status when he speaks on the World of Warcraft forums.

But as it says in this article's intro, this is all just my opinion. I'd be curious to hear how each of you feels about this topic. Do you mind rock star devs soaking up the spotlight, or do you prefer a team focus?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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