As with movies, big time video games need huge numbers of people. Hundreds of developers toil away on AAA titles. With all those hands in the development of a game, is it possible to pin the title to a single author like critics have for films?
Traditionally, film producers and directors get their names at the end of the opening credits. However, it wasn't until the 1950s that a group of film critics and later New Wave directors like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and the Swiss-born Jean-Luc Godard at the French film journal Cahier du Cinéma came up with what's called the "auteur theory" with "auteur" meaning "author" in French.
The "auteur theory" was and is a largely romantic notion. In short, the theory championed directions, but not all directors. Those with a vision. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Psycho), Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole) and Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday) were praised for having a clear, defined point-of-view and for making films that reflected. Even though, for example, Hitchcock and Hawks worked with a myriad of writers and producers (Hawks worked in a variety of genres, too!), their films always have an unmistakable signature — whether that be camera work or dialogue. Nobody else could have made them. Film is art, and these weren't merely directors, they were auteurs. They were artists.
On the other hand, someone like Michael Curtiz might have made a wonderful film with Casablanca, but Michael Curtiz was certainly not considered an auteur. It is interesting to note that Howard Hawks disliked Casablanca so much (especially the singing scene) that he took Ernest Hemingway's "worst" novel To Have and Have Not and turned it into his take on Casablanca. Not only was the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but also the first film to feature two Nobel Prize winners in the credits (Hemingway for the original story and William Faulkner for the script).
"Auteur theory is basically a theory about creations sharing coherent identities from an author," says Flower creative director Jenova Chen, "so that people manage to memorize and become able to identify works from their creators." So in movies, Howard Hawks movies are about a group of people, usually professionals, coming together. And when those young French critics became filmmakers themselves, they made films like The 400 Blows or Breathless in which the director's presence was undeniable — as proof, in the wake of Truffaut's early success, he simply lent a story treatment to then film critic Godard for Breathless, which is certainly not a Truffaut film, but very much a Godard film. Without getting into a discussion over what is and what isn't art, if you consider video games art as well, then who is the primarily author of a game?
Video games are not made by one person. Then again, neither are movies! Yet, there does seem to be a need for someone driving the title as opposed to dreaded design-by-committee games. "I do believe in the auteur theory and consider myself a bit of an auteur in that I think a great deal of my soul, world view, and personality is stamped on all the games I work on," says God of War creator David Jaffe. That is why you sometimes hear that he is difficult to work with. "It's not because I'm an ass or a jerk — I think I'm a pretty even tempered guy — but I do come to the table, as the director or co-director of a game, with a very specific vision of what the game needs to be and if you are on the team with me and you are not on board with that vision, it will be a challenge." The best cases, Jaffe adds, are when team members take your personal vision and add to it, improve it, and make it into a team vision.
Jaffe's not being dogmatic. Even for him, the team is key. The team, however, must be on board with the project, because it is going to move it forward by contributing to it. Yet, Jaffe is one of those game designers people know by name. Ditto for Sid Meier, Hideo Kojima and Tim Schaffer. Their names are used to sell the game. Hideo Kojima's brand recognition is so strong that Konami has brought him in for the upcoming Castlevania game.
Not everyone in the industry is content to put a frontman (or woman!) out there. Take, Insomniac, the developer of Ratchet and Clank and the Resistance series. The end credits of their games are a laundry list of those who worked on it. They're alphabet soup, and the emphasis is on the entire team. "In my opinion making a AAA game requires that the majority of the team feel some degree of ownership of the game," says Insomniac founder and CEO Ted Price. The reason being being that it's easy to lose one's enthusiasm for any idea if you feel as if you have no say in its creation. "And if the majority of the team loses interest in what they're doing it's hard to see how greatness can be achieved."
And while there might be similarities between video games and film, making a video game is significantly more complex. The technology and interactivity in games surpasses any of the hurdles that film has to deal with. Filmmakers have to worry about telling a story and getting a performance, while game designers often worry about that plus things like game mechanics and game controls. Price says that Insomniac and the other studies he is familiar with are "highly collaborative," but that in game development it is hard not to be.
"There are so many different disciplines involved that no one person can reasonably make the right call 100 percent of the time," says Price. "Nor can any one person come up with all of the best ideas." Things are different of course if it is a three person team making an iPhone game. "But if you're leading a 100 person team you'll become a bottleneck, and probably universally hated, if you're trying to control every aspect of the game," he adds. "It doesn't mean that a great game can't be created with one person micromanaging everything; however, I'll bet after that game ships there won't be much of a team left..."
As Price points out, there are other internal difference between the way the film and game industry work. Games are made by studios that typically work together on project after project. Films are made by crews that disband after the film is over — that isn't to say they won't work together again, but they are not joined by any sort of corporate connection. In game development, that corporate connection, that concept of studio and of team is key. "The team obviously has a very strong role but there has to be one strong guiding hand at the top if you want some kind of artistry in the final game," says Dylan Cuthbert, head of Q-Games. "Of course, if the game doesn't need artistry then it can be a purely collaborative 'cabal' effort."
Movies have had a long tradition of certain studios specializing in certain types of movies: For Warner Bros., it was crime films. For MGM, it was musicals. Later, for A.I.P., it was exploitation films. Video game developers follow in this tradition, but in a far more specialized way. In a way, they're like sports teams. So, if you're a baseball fan, you might point to the 1927 Yankees, but the 1927 Yankees weren't only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. There were other players, important players like Earle Combs or Bob Meusel or Waite Hoyt or George Pipgras. But they were a team, and they were it in for the entire season. Sure, players might be traded away or retire at the end of the season, but there would not be a radical overhaul of entire team or, in this case, what it means to be a New York Yankee.
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.
In game development, because the studio is so important and because the team is so important and because there are so many variables, the auteur ends up being the studio itself. It's the, let's call it, the Studio Auteur Theory. More often than not, the studio heads or lead designer at the studio are driving the vision — not only for one title, but for all the titles the studio makes. They are setting the tone. That filters down through the rest of the studio. There are exceptions, of course, but look at Sam and Dan Houser at Rockstar. They have a clear vision and that vision becomes the vision of the entire company. Look at Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo. They are inseparable. It's inconceivable for Nintendo to make non Shigeru Miyamoto games and equally inconceivable for Miyamoto to make non Nintendo titles.
"I consider author both individual and a group of people," says Jenova Chen. "For example, I consider Blizzard and Apple an author of their creations." Blizzard and Apple both employ large number of people and both release products, or works, even, with a strong vision. "Unfortunately, people tend to remember one name rather than 20 or 30," adds Chen. "And often the name of the individual who represents the group will be memorized." And sometimes that name is the company itself.
When gamers look at new titles they're interested in playing, they look at the developer who did. Whether it's Valve, Bungie or whomever, those studios are more than a brand or even a seal of quality, but a strong indicator of what type of game the player is in store for. There is that one person pushing everyone forward, but video game development is just that: the action of a lot of people pushing forward. "I think a developer's corporate culture is a big part of whether a game is great," says Ted Price. "Though I can't say that it's the primary driver. There are plenty of other influential factors such as the tools & tech you're using, publisher support, the game's central idea, and perhaps whether you live in a place where it's predominantly sunny."
The auteur theory is just that — a theory. The Studio Auteur theory is just that as well, but it encompasses more. It's bigger. There is room to breath and room for than one single author. Games are akin to encyclopedias. There might be a handful of editors, but there is a small army of writers filling each page. Even later in life, Truffaut acknowledged the collaborative nature of film production. "There are no good and bad films," Truffaut once stated, "only good and bad directors." And in video games, there are only good and bad developers.