It's intrinsic to human nature, but the idea of focusing on a single issue or event, or at least a single cause, is rather limiting and usually results in an incorrect analysis of any given situation. Take for example the question “why are there so many game sequels?” There are a half dozen answers to it and they're all correct, but people are apt to focus on one or two and dismiss the rest. Moreover, the very question itself is limiting – we're only asking about game sequels. There are other, equally important questions that are related to the original – why do so many games fail? Why do publishers have increasingly more control of development? Why isn't there more innovation in games? What happened to the great designers like Sid Meier, where is the new generation? Believe it or not, all these questions are related and are best asked with “why is modern game development the way it is?”
Ironically enough, there is actually a single issue that lies at the core of these questions, so pardon me while I paint myself a hypocrite and point it out – game development is a business and people are in it to make money. Once we accept this axiom, all answers will flow from it. Let's deal with the questions one by one.
Where are the great designers?
With the exception of Will Wright, few of the any old, great designers have done much lately. Sid Meier's name is on a bunch of games, but it's not actually Sid in charge of development or design. Chris Roberts, of Wing Commander fame? Let's just say he had a conflict of interest with the Wing Commander movie and his projects at Digital Anvil, and that Microsoft's sudden, detail-free take-over of Digital Anvil has quite a few details if you scratch beneath the surface. Lord British? He's heading a studio more than dealing with development itself. Warren Spector? I can't speak with certainty, but it's likely he passed on the reigns of Deus Ex 2 to Harvey Smith for a reason. And finally, there's John Romero, who in his own way inspired this article.
One answer to what happened to these big-name developers is that they simply moved on. That they did their time in development and then took higher-paying jobs further up the job ladder. Yet this doesn't quite answer why there aren't any big names now. Where are all the great ideas coming from? Who were the minds behind Allegiance, Sacrifice, World of WarCraft, Company of Heroes?
Which brings us to John Romero. Before it was fashionable to rip on the long-haired one, he convinced Eidos to fund ION Storm, which was to be the sexiest, most promising game studio ever. At some point between his departure from id and the jokes about Daikatana, John coined his motto: “Design is Law”. Even after it became a joke, the phrase does have some appeal. After all, doesn't it make sense? A great designer who has incredible ideas and legitimate ways to implement them organizes a team to make it happen. He says “this is how it should work”, and clearly communicates the ultimate vision to his subordinates, who, corrected from their erroneous interpretations, diligently get to work by making the nitty-gritty details fit together to make the Design a Reality.
This phenomenon isn't unique to game development. Sexy, simple, flattering ideas are all over the place, throughout history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was popular to think that it was the courage and ingenuity of the individual soldiers, combined with brilliant leadership, which lead the Great Powers to victory over one another. The idea was popular because the soldiers would naturally reflect the ingrained character of the nations at war. Sports teams, especially before free agency, also rely on this – the city feels good because its teams are good. Similarly, people like the idea of the great and noble game designer because everyone has a game idea and everyone imagines themselves to be that designer – not the peon slaving away in the trenches.
The truth is, however, that design isn't especially difficult and great ideas aren't hard to come by – not in the least. Everyone has ideas and most people with a college education (or capable thereof) can put them down on paper in an organized and clear fashion. Those with some experience in development, especially if they've seen the capabilities and limitations of a team, can usually make that document a good foundation to build from.
No, the difficulty is not in design in the least. Nor is it in programming – look hard enough and you can find programmers for all jobs. Art, sound, marketing, and PR staff are also readily attainable. Where real talent is necessary is in organizing all this staff. A typical team for an A-list game exceeds 100 members for most of its development time. The difficulty in keeping everyone motivated, focused, and working towards their assigned tasks is immense. This includes overcoming the occasional personality conflicts, drama, frustrations over progress, making sure people don't get bogged down on pet projects, and selecting the right people to manage specific departments. No employee is perfect and they all need to be motivated and managed in individual ways. It is the project manager and his immediate subordinates who involve the team in developing workable ideas and innovations, while excluding the ones that would distract from the game or are too difficult to tackle. It's about being able to keep milestones and satisfying the publisher, the marketing team, and the press. The task also involves that very difficult job of planning out the various parts of the game and bringing them all together as economically as possible – so that the engine (including network code), sounds, graphics, level design, story design, and AI can be worked on simultaneously and tested as early as possible for that ever-elusive “fun” factor. That's a lot of skills to ask of a single person, or a small group.
The great designer can still exist, but he also has to be the great manager. It's not enough to have a cool vision and get 10 or 20 people working together – that's within most people's reach. Where the early great designers set themselves apart is in having original ideas, being able to manage the teams of the day, and having the technical know-how to understand what was capable and what you could force computers to do. However, having all that knowledge and being able to keep 100 people working for two or three years on the same project, through delays, stress about milestones, technology changes, and revelations from the competition? There's the rub. Ultimately, the project management skills are more important than design skills, because they're harder to find. ION Storm's ultimate fate is a perfect example of that. It's not that John Romero was a bad designer, but as evidenced by the numerous delays and drama surrounding his team, he seems to have been a bad manager. Had Daikatana launched on time with its original feature set, it would likely have fared well against its immediate competition. Half-Life and the revolution of the FPS genre was still some time away.