It takes a lot to make things happen in the gaming industry. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar interactive medium with tremendous conglomerates monopolizing the landscape. Gaming, as such, has gone through awkward cycles, beginning as a small diversion on early computers, games often the product of a single individual or a small team thereof, then something grander and more mainstream, surpassing even cinema as the highest grossing entertainment industry in the world. Now, with digital distribution an increasingly prevalent means of selling and purchasing games, and development tools that demand less intricate knowledge of the inner workings of a computer than in days past, the independent gaming scene has become an integral part of the landscape, well represented on Steam and Desura.
But of the games that make it to sale, the highest profile are still those formulated by the big, full-fledged studios, with multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns backing them. It becomes all too easy to forget that even in such a large-scale development effort, those who are creating the games are still individuals, many of whom have sought out a career in the gaming industry because it’s something about which they are passionate, be it the art, the engine, the story or the sound that draws them in and drives them to work insane hours for appreciation in only the most general of senses. We homogenize the process, think in terms of studios instead of artists and programmers, writers, and musicians.
At the beginning of last month, a video went out from Sony Online Entertainment, relating some of the upcoming changes in EverQuest II with its latest patch. Rather than prattle on about balance changes or retooled zones, the video regales its viewers with two “quality-of-life” features: built-in voice modulation and, perhaps more impressive, a webcam-based facial recognition technology that maps a player’s character’s face to the player, allowing him (or her) to speak or emote and have the character they control mimic their facial motion.
There’s a secondary question in here about how much the EverQuest II player-base will actually care about a feature such as this. Voice modulation, as demonstrated on the original Xbox, often comes across as more annoying than entertaining in practice, while the face morphing tech on display requires a webcam; of those who still play EQII, how many communicate with those around them by voice and, of those, what percentage actually have enough of an investment in role-playing that they desire their character to mimic them and possess a webcam? Each factor sees the fraction of the player-base for whom these efforts are being made plummet in size to the point where one might ask, “Is it even substantive enough to warrant the manpower going into it?”
The primary question, though (as is pertinent to this article and, going forward, this weekly column), is “who put this guy up to this?” Watch the video below and see for yourself:
Follow his eyes, listen to the cadence of his voice, the pacing thereof. It smacks of overt rehearsal, to the point where his enthusiasm comes across as wholly fabricated, a product of the features he’s hawking. A narrative built in my head, growing from an insidious little seed to a pervasive sense of certainty that this guy, with his pony-tail and over-the-top enthusiasm, was being put up to making these absurd changes by Sony Online Entertainment, his job essentially being held hostage and his unbelievable excitement at the prospect of voice modulation and facial motion capture in yesterday’s MMO stemming from an SOE mandate.
About a week later, I was at E3, walking by the SOE booth on the last day. I’d had an appointment there the day prior, but had only had time to see a trio of the titles they had on display and wanted to take some of my free time to wander around and see a few more (SOE had over half a dozen games on display, all of them free-to-play). It was while doing this that I spotted the same individual from the video, walking another journalist through the aforementioned features on the booth’s EverQuest II machine. His hair was down, but the smile on his face was easy to recognize. I considered approaching him and asking a pointed question about just who this update was planned for (who in the remaining EQII player-base would have both the means and desire to speak through a filter and have their character’s face warp in an odd pantomime of theirs as they traversed the land? Jokes about slack-jawed über-nerds traipsing about Norrath, mouths dangling listlessly as they grind through mob after mob.
I almost immediately thought better of it and took only a few steps closer, looked over my fellow journalist’s shoulder as my quarry explained how the motion capture worked (virtual points generated on one’s face and then tracked through the webcam, all in real-time). I watched his eyes, which lit up as she asked questions that allowed him to delve deeper into the system, explain more about what his team had sought to accomplish and how they’d gone about it, what they felt it would contribute to the player-base. I watched his smile, far more genuine than in the trailer, and listened to his voice, which was missing that artificial affect I’d expected, instead brimming with natural and infectious excitement.
And it hit me: This is a dude who seriously cares about what he is doing in the gaming industry, and to EverQuest II in particular. It doesn’t matter to him if the vast majority of the players don’t use it, if it doesn’t bring in new players or what have you, but if it enriches the experience for even a small fraction of those in the game, he will be satisfied that he has done right by the players and invested his time well. And, even if not, it will still stand as something that he was personally passionate about, into which he invested his time until it became a real, substantial thing that he could demonstrate to the public.
In many ways, David Georgeson (because that’s his name) is the everyman in the gaming industry. He is the director of development for EverQuest II, yes, but he is still just a part of the team. He stands out in my mind specifically because I witnessed his humanization, the moment in which he went from a shill on the screen to a real individual who I had seen and now knew to be as genuine as anyone else.
Stretch back for a moment to the days of Atari, when games were often developed entirely by a single individual or a very small team of programmers. Their names were generally not released to the public, the cartridges fabricated by the ambiguous, voluminous mass that was Atari. Adventure, though, was built with an easter egg (one of, if not the absolute, first in gaming history) that revealed the name “Warren Robinett,” who created not just the room that contained his credit but also the rest of the game with no official credit from Atari.
Even in modern games, which have credit sequences like movies, and for which there are some notable, star developers, the credits are often just another element that, as with movies, players skip over or never even attempt to view. They’re certainly rarely, if ever, internalized. I speak primarily from personal and anecdotal experience, of course, but I can’t imagine the majority of those who drool at the sight of the newest Call of Duty title, mainly so they can hop online and spew racial and sexist obscenities at their fellow men and women, really give a shit who worked absurd, crunch-time shifts to get their latest fix out the door.
David Georgeson brought this back down to Earth for me. It chipped through the jade-encrusted exterior I’d built over decades of gaming, growing increasingly distant from that original, blind joy of play that allowed me to lose myself for hours in a simple, side-scrolling platformer. It showed me, again, that almost every title, regardless of whether it’s the most popular shooter or niche RPG in the world has not only its fans, but also its dedicated and passionate developers.
That is something special. Maybe you should try playing his game.