The Grey Developers (Or, Where Did All The Young Ones Go?)

Seeing Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski on Jimmy Fallon the other night got me thinking, about two things. One, how great it was seeing a developer on international television. And two, how few other devs there are like him.

I don't mean in terms of his ability. I'm sure he's worked hard on Gears, and has enjoyed a lot of success as a result, but you can't quantify creative talent. It's like trying to compare Pele to Maradona. You can't do it.

No, I mean in terms of how young he is. Bleszinski is a big enough name working on a big enough game that he can be booked to appear on the kind of show normally reserved for rappers and movie stars. But, crucially considering Fallon's demographic, he's also young. Guy's only 35.

Who else is such a big name in the industry? The list of AAA developers, the kind of guys who can sell a game simply from their involvement, is an easy one to rattle off. Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario), Peter Molyneux (Fable), Warren Spector (Deus Ex), Will Wright (the Sims), Sid Meier (Civilization), Tomonobu Itagaki (Dead or Alive), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid). Take a breath. Move onto Ken Levine (BioShock), Keiji Inafune (Mega Man), Kazunori Yamauchi (Gran Turismo), the Houser brothers (Grand Theft Auto) and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy). Oh, and what the hell, Fumito Ueda (Ico) and John Carmack (Doom) are probably worth a mention as well.

That's pretty much everyone. Now look at those names, and look at the games they're associated with. Some are from the 1990s. Most are from the 1980s. Miyamoto, for example, is 57. Molyneux is 50. Spector is 54. Will Wright is 50. Sid Meier is 56, Kojima 46, Sakaguchi 47. Indeed, of all those listed, only the Houser brothers and maybe Ken Levine (sorry Ken, can't find your date of birth!) are under the age of 40.

I'm not saying 40 is old, by any means. I'm 30, I don't want to tempt fate. But it's not young, either, certainly not young like many of those guys were when they first hit the big time, getting the big magazine features and some, like Sid Meier, even getting their names on the box.

Why is that, then? Why is the upper echelon of games development driven by the same men who have been driving it for the past twenty years, and not a new generation (or two!) of new developers?

It's surely because the nature of development has changed so much since the 1980s. Back then, when games were made by only a handful of people, the creativity and guidance of a single person could significantly contribute to the success of a title. It could really be marked out as "their" game.

Fast forward to 2010, though, and most games have staffs of 50-100 people, while some - like Assassin's Creed 2 - have staffs in the hundreds. With an entire army at work on a game, it becomes harder for any one person to exert real influence over a game's direction. Making it harder for a single person to rise above the ranks and become a "celebrity". Sure, they can guide it, help shape it, but there are too many cooks at work these days for any one person to be able to take credit for a game.

It's why those few fresh faces we do see, like Bleszinski or Ubisoft's Patrice Desilets, are just that: faces, people who while important to a game's development, are just as important as the human face of a project that has dozens, sometimes hundreds of other faces.

In some ways, it's a good thing we rarely associate a game with one person any more. Even those iconic contemporary developers, like Levine or the Housers, would admit that they're simply the heads of immense machines, all of them doing great work not just on the coding side of things, but on the creative side as well. For those unknown faces, it's only fair that modern games are seen as the products of studios, and not people.

And yet, you can't also help but feel that something has been lost in this as well. That the spark and creative flair that can only come from a single person, unhindered by boardroom discussions or focus groups, is something sorely lacking in modern game development, which indie titles aside feels a little more shallow, and a little less striking than the small-team games of yesteryear.