Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 27, 2011

Carmack and Creativity

Thanks to those who sent this in.

John Carmack has made gaming history: he is the first game developer to question ‘creativity’.

“If they buy the next Call of Duty, it’s because they loved the last one and they want more of it. So I am pretty down on people who take the sort of creative auteurs’ perspective. It’s like ‘Oh, we’re not being creative.’ But we’re creating value for people – that’s our job! It’s not to do something that nobody’s ever seen before. It’s to do something that people love so much they’re willing to give us money for.”

I’ve noticed programmers tend to be more warm to the idea of questioning ‘creativity’. I do not remember game development revolving around the concept of ‘creativity’ back in the 80s or early 90s. It was more about ‘how do we get the computer to do something?’ and ‘how can we get the game to sell so we don’t have to get a real job?’ Programmers and the designers used to be the same. I get the sense that game development has been engulfed by art asset making meaning a flood of ‘artists’ have entered game making. And all these ‘artists’ want to make ‘stories’, want to make ‘characters’, and be ‘creative’.

Carmack is placing creativity in the right perspective. The ‘pursuit of creativity’ is breaking the traditional ‘give customers value’ view of product making. The reason why no one reads books today is because 99% of writers are interested in making books they want to write, not making books people want to read. As a medium, American poetry was completely destroyed by ‘creativity’. Where people used to read and purchase poetry (used to be printed in magazines and all, think of poets like Robert Frost), it is completely destroyed except in academia (where poets are paid by the university, not by customers).

From the business sites of gaming, all I hear is, “How do we make new business models?” to “How to pursue this demographic of customers?” (as if the game developer was going to run for Congress). You don’t really hear much curiosity about the customers or how customers interact with the games.

It is not normal to change the business model everyday like changing a pair of pants. And no matter what the business model is, everything is going to revolve around making customers. In a young person’s business or financial education, he often asks, “What do sales have to with business? I don’t want to learn how to sell. That’s for someone else to do.” I drag the young person by the ear out back to the woodshed for a good thrashing. Everything revolves around sales. And what is a sale? It is a customer. For books, there is no New York Times ‘best written’ list. It is the New York Times ‘best selling’ list. For video games, there is no NPD ‘most creative top ten’ list. It is only the NPD ‘best selling top ten’ list.

I have done the door to door salesman job. It is not easy, and certain personalities are better at it than others. But there is a reason why salesmen get paid so much and why they rise rapidly to the top of the company. Everything revolves around sales. Salesmen make customers.

As a salesman, I despised product makers who weren’t designing their product to make customers. So the order comes from above to make the marketers or salesmen to sell it. In other words, the designers were making the salesman’s job (already incredibly hard) even harder. The salesman actually meets the customer face to face, hears their story, listens to their woes nodding as if it is interesting (it never is), and then there is this creative bastard who decided to make something that doesn’t sell.

Let me use a video game example. Metroid: Other M was designed not to make customers, not to make Metroid fans happy, but designed for Sakamoto to be ‘creative’ (which apparently means being cliché in every way). When the product doesn’t initially meet the sales expectation, the order will go to the marketers and salesmen to ‘push the product’ and to ‘make it sell’. Because someone was a selfish bastard caused a ripple effect of everyone working harder in order to create a sale.

It is not the job of marketers to make customers. It is the job of everyone to make customers. What is the job of the game designer? To make customers. What is the job of the game artist? To make customers. What is the job of the game programmer? To make customers. “That is a filthy notion,” says the young reader. “That sounds like a ‘business venture’. I wish to be ‘creative’.” Then you wish to be unemployed.

I realize Human beings are given different personalities and talents. There are some people who are natural scientists, some who are natural athletes, and the ones I am most envious of are those who can walk down a street and people will throw money at them.

The so-called ‘creative personality’ used to refer to someone who didn’t function very well at technical jobs or administration jobs, but were very good at making products that people wanted. Today, the ‘creative personality’ is used to describe an anti-customer ideology. “Stop talking about sales. I wish to be ‘creative’.” “Who cares what customers want? It is about tapping our creativity.”

There are some ground rules for anyone wishing to make something to sell.

-You must follow the law. You cannot violate copyright laws, employment laws, and other sort of laws.

-You must stay within the budget. You cannot spend more money than the business has.

-You must make customers. You must put out products people wish to buy.

If you accept these generalized ground rules going in, and I don’t mean intellectually but emotionally, you won’t have any problems. But the Video Game Industry has a big problem with the latter one: ‘you must make customers’. Intellectually, they get it. Emotionally, they don’t. Where is this emotional barrier coming from? I suspect it is coming from the fanaticism of ‘creativity’.

Modern ‘Creativity’ has more to do with an emotional state than anything intellectual. It is an adult’s way of acting like a child. To immerse oneself in play. Now, play is fine if it led to the bigger picture of making customers. But that is not the big picture at all. The big picture is to ‘be creative’ and if customers show up, good. If not, then attack the customers for not being sophisticated enough.

To ask these people not to be ‘creative’ is to result in a banshee-like scream. From their emotional state, it is like you are asking them not to be Human. Why, you are asking them to be bourgeois.

With these people, it is a division between their minds and hearts. In their minds, they know they must make customers. But in their hearts, they don’t care about making customers but wish to pursue ‘creativity’ (because apparently the ‘creative being’ is the only true Human being, anyone who isn’t ‘creative’ possesses no personality, no individuality, and is nothing more than a Borg drone). So whenever these people are in a good financial position, their hearts take over their heads. The more ‘creative’ they are, the more they drive paying customers away. The collapse of the business is imminent. Usually, the business side steps in and is forced to reign in this behavior. This makes the ‘creative’ people hotly hostile to ‘the suits’ and to the ‘business side’. By not allowing them to be ‘creative’, that vicious business side is not allowing them to be truly ‘Human’, to have a personality, and is making them all into Borg drones.

It’s clear to me the business side of gaming doesn’t understand gamers or gaming. So why do the suits have so much power? It is because developers give the suits power by not tuning their hearts to create customers. Someone making products that are not set to ‘make customers’ is like someone not showing up for work. Discipline ensues. The ‘creative’ person, intensely hostile to the suits over their heavy handing paddling they receive, will realize the discipline vanishes once they get on board with the mission: make customers.

“Yes,” says the creative person, “we must make customers. But we make customers only through my creativity.”

This is a dangerous idea. It is trying to say an anti-consumer behavior results in making consumers. It never works, but is kept being tried, desperately, with countless new business models, because by removing the ‘make customers’ requirement, these people cease to have jobs and only have ‘play’. How inviting! I wish I could ‘play’ all day and not do any “work”.

There is no example of ‘creativity’ (as is defined in modern terms) is responsible for sales. For example, the early Nintendo games performed well not due to any ‘creativity’ but due to an extremely high value in craftsmanship. Donkey Kong wasn’t ‘creative’ as MGM sued the hell out of Nintendo (which Nintendo got out by showing MGM didn’t create King Kong either). Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, and Metroid were finely crafted games on a level above and beyond other games at the time. None of them presented ‘imagination’ or ‘ideas’ we’ve never seen before. Before Super Mario Brothers, there was Pitfall. Before Legend of Zelda, there was Gauntlet. And before Metroid, there were various space adventure games.

The reason why sales of Nintendo games haven’t totally collapsed is because Nintendo still retains a high craftsmanship standard. Zelda: Skyward Sword will be a highly polished game. But a polished turd is still a turd. The reason why there is growing dissatisfaction with Nintendo games is because creativity doesn’t satisfy the consumers’ needs. The Nintendo games that show growth are those that didn’t follow ‘creativity’ (Nintendogs, Brain Age, Wii Sports, Wii Fit, NSMB, Animal Crossing, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Returns). The games that were disappointments were all designed around creativity: “Wii Music, Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, Metroid Other M, Any Modern Zelda game…”

As Carmack is saying, it is the customers who need to be emotionally satisfied, not the developers. It would be like a cook who refuses to make me a steak because he doesn’t feel like making me a steak. Why would a diner care about what the cook feels like doing? Imagine a bus driver getting tired of taking the same route. “I wish to be creative,” he says as he goes off-road. The passengers are wondering, “WTF!?” and the bus driver would promptly get fired.

Emotional satisfaction for the developer should derive from the customer being satisfied. Such a developer would become very successful because he is not satisfied until the customer is satisfied. If the customers are having problems, he is having problems. With the current ‘creativity mindset’, the customers end up becoming the ‘obstacle’ because customers care only for their own emotional satisfaction and not the developer’s.

“But Malstrom,” the reader says. “If the entertainer is not passionately involved, the audience gets bored.” And there is truth in that. The reason why children are told to ‘do what they love’ is because they will be productive at it. But the word ‘entertainer’ implies the end result is the audience. An entertainer without an audience is someone who is unable to entertain anybody. I know some top entertainers, and while they do pursue a ‘do what you are passionate about because audience will be excited for it’, that isn’t the ultimate frame. The ultimate frame is their getting enjoyment from the audience getting enjoyment.

Unlike other mediums, game developers do not get to see their audience. The game developer is not at the opera house looking into the crowd. The game developer is not on a stage at a rock concert looking at the fans. Even the movie director can see the theater fill up with customers. But like the writer, the game developer doesn’t see a crowd of people called ‘customers’. They see reviews, they see message board comments, and they might even see some of them in Gamestop (which would probably make them question their choice of a profession). But there is no time where the game developer is on stage looking at a sea of people called ‘customers’. Even at E3, those aren’t customers out there but journalists. It is because of the abstraction of the customer might be why both game journalists and writers lose sight of their true goal.

As a kid, I worked at a store for one of those old, grizzly central Texas farmers. Annoyed at how we employees were acting, he placed a sign in the employee area that was huge which read: “CUSTOMERS ARE THE REASON WHY YOU ARE HERE.” When I was young and stupid, you do things like mock your boss and resent working the crappy job in the first place. I remember all of us mocking how humiliating he looked as he pandered to the customers that came into the store, acted as if he was their best friend, and so on. But now that I am older, wiser, that actually wasn’t humiliation. Making customers and satisfying them is not the mark of humiliation. As the old farmer’s sign said, customers were the reason why we were there in the first place.

“It’s interesting that over the course of it, once FPS kind of got out of being the sole property of id, it seemed clear to me that when we reached a certain level of visual fidelity, that third person was going to have certain significant advantages because you can use the tools of the director – these established, finely honed cinematography skills to do things in games that we never did before. And I was more or less expecting third person to be the more popular set of genres and indeed it was looking like, with Gears’ success, that even in the serious action [genre], that it might end up trending more that way,” he offered.

“And I’ve actually been really happy seeing the success of Call of Duty, which is also a 60 fps game, which would validate some of my [thinking]. That was one of our big arguments internally as we were stressing over that, like, ‘Y’know, I think some of the success of Call of Duty is because of how good it feels.’ But seeing the huge success of that, it has been great to see it swing back towards people really seeing the advantages of first person perspective, the immersion that you get in the game – that you may be watching a kick ass movie in the third person view, but you’re in the kick ass movie with first person. 


Carmack is saying something interesting here as well. He is saying that the ‘cinema’ may not be the ‘only destination’ of video games. Video games are a different medium than movies, and perhaps gaming should explore its uniqueness. For example, no other medium has something like the MMO type game. And Carmack was responsible for the rise of the FPS, for even popularizing network gaming, and user innovation via map making.

Speaking about Gears of War, the reason why it sold didn’t have anything to do with the camera angles. It was a solid game, but more importantly it was an excellent co-op game. It is one of the best co-op games around. The complaints I hear are about when the game does go into ‘movie time’. In the first Gears game, everyone complained about the third stage (where you are dropped underground). No one liked it because it was very linear (meaning the pace wasn’t set by the players) and seemed as if the game was trying to show off the Unreal 3 engine. Concerning the reasons why people did like the game, for the solid run and shoot gameplay and co-op experience, is this any different from the phenomenon of Contra? Or even Gauntlet in the arcades? The same underpinnings for sales of games in the 1980s I see still humming today.

My rantings aside, I’ve actually had a very difficult time making this blog post. I agree with everything Carmack is saying. And I can’t just write a blog post saying, “I agree with everything Carmack is saying” and call it a day. Carmack is a rocket scientist. He knows there is no ‘creativity’ in making rockets. The rocket either goes up or it does not. A ‘creative’ rocket, with propellers, tentacles and God knows what else, won’t fly.

Carmack has had more influence and ‘mover and shaker’ ability over gaming than pretty much anyone. Yet, I’ve always remembered he kept getting criticized by ‘not being creative’. It was even said Carmack should not make games but just make engines. What I hate about the ‘creative people’, those who think pursuing creativity gives them personality, makes them Human, and doesn’t make them a Borg drone, is that they seek to rid everyone else of their personality, Humanity, and make them into a Borg drone. “I am creative! Not a cog in the machine!” they say while demanding other people, like Carmack, to be cogs in the machine. Carmack and various other programmers and engineers possess the same capacity of imagination as anyone else. Why must they be cogs-in-the-machine for mediocrities?

When it comes to writing books, a writer must discipline oneself to sit, alone, everyday to write and improve the craftsmanship after many years. It doesn’t matter what ‘imagination’ or ‘story’ the person has. Without this discipline, the book will never be written. I cannot imagine the absurdity of someone coming to the writer and saying, “I have a story churned up from my brilliant creativity. I demand you write it immediately.” The novelist would tell the person to go to hell.

Because how life consuming video games have been, many, many young people have ‘ideas’ on how to make a better video game. It used to be that in order to explore these ideas, they needed to know the discipline of the game developer. They needed to know how to program, how to get the computer to behave and do tricks. Since everyone has various talents, someone who is not strong in programming would be strong in something else like art or music. But even then, the artists and musicians could wear the programmer’s hat for a day if if needed to be done.

Today, it seems like these ‘creative people’ are those who are devoid of many necessary skills and disciplines. But they have ‘visions’. They have ‘ideas’. And they expect to command everyone else based solely on their crown of ‘creativity’. ‘Creativity’ is allowing people, who have no business making games, to get in and then order people around. No wonder games today suck.

Away from the programming, art, and sound technicalities, there is a need for design in terms of balance of the game. In a FPS or RTS, a map would need to be ‘balanced’ for multiplayer. But this game balance, which is extremely important in gaming, requires a sense of precision and technicality. But the ‘creative person’ finds that even that is beneath him. “Let me make stories and cutscenes instead!” The reason why Blizzard games have such a long shelf life is because there is a very high degree of precision, technicality, as well as monitoring consumer feedback in concerns of game balance. But when Blizzard decides to ‘get creative’, you can instantly tell because it feels like going from steak to garbage. The Starcraft 2’s “creative story” is awful. But the single player campaign was very solid (as is the multiplayer). Clearly, two different thought processes and emotions were behind the making of both. Ironically, prior to Starcraft 2’s release, the people responsible for the story were trashing Starcraft 1’s story (which is still well received despite it being ‘non-creative’ mish mash of generalized sci-fi themes and Starship Troopers).

Creativity tends to be a very bad idea in the ‘imagination’ environment of gaming because it only harms the game. It has long been the tradition of gaming to imitate pop culture. With Metroid, you can see the movie ‘Alien’. With Zelda, you can see the all the other fantasy folktales of a hero with a sword and shield. Many, many games used Star Wars or Star Trek or history for its ‘imagination’ environment. The point was that the player felt very comfortable with the game. But now since everyone is trying to be ‘creative’, the player no longer feels comfortable. Japanese games no longer sell in the West because Westerners do not feel comfortable with them. There is too much anime. While I was very excited to buy the early Final Fantasy games, the recent Final Fantasy games make me very uncomfortable. This ‘creativity’ is pushing me away.

In the movies, they are not really ‘creative’ with their ‘imagination’ environment either. Most movies come from a book or history tale or Standard Hollywood Formula (e.g. chick flicks).

Where the authors get their ideas is revealing. Since writing is not a technical process like programming a computer and 99% of the population can do it, what largely makes an author is their ideas. The author’s life is consumed with research and life experiences. For example, Jurassic Park could not be written had Michael Crichton not knew his biology and anthropology. John Grisham couldn’t write anything anyone would want to buy if he didn’t have his knowledge of law. It is common for someone to never have written a book, but did something else in life, to write one and become successful. It is like a war hero who wrote a book about his experiences and sees the book become very successful. Why? In order to make interesting things, you must be interesting first of all. You will know the tree by its fruit.

Aonuma, at GDC 2004, spoke of cooks who had a ‘great personality’ because they got to embrace their ‘creativity’. The idea is that when creativity is ‘unleashed’, the person becomes interesting and then has a personality. This is totally backwards. A person must be interesting first, and then interesting works will flow from it. Getting something interesting from someone boring is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. It doesn’t happen.

Creative people are the most boring people on the face of the Earth. They have to construct imaginary universes just so they won’t bore themselves to death. They don’t have adventures. They don’t make interesting conversation at the dinner table. The motive behind a creative person has nothing to do with customers or ‘being clever’ but is about one thing: to make themselves interesting. If they are terrified at looking themselves in the mirror and realize they are boring. The so-called ‘cog’ in the machine is more interesting than they are. The ‘creative’ person is a flight from his own boring self. When they are put in charge, all we get are cliches because boring people can only produce boredom.

This is why the theme of Malstrom is ‘the most interesting gamer in the world’. It is not ‘the most interesting game blogger in the world’. By aiming to be interesting first, the goal is for the output of articles and such will become interesting. You must be interesting first. And then the rest will flow from it.

When you look at the so-called ‘Game Gods’, the reason why their interviews can be fun is not because they are ‘deep creative souls pulsing with vision’. The actual reason is that the people are interesting. And interesting people say interesting things. Shigeru Miyamoto is an interesting person (though I wouldn’t say that about him now). But if you compare him to, say, Aonuma, Aonuma comes across as very boring. Interviews with Kojima, while I disagree with his vision of gaming, are interesting because Kojima is an interesting guy.

John Carmack is an interesting guy. This is a cut and paste of his ‘youth’ from Wikipedia:

As reported in David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, “when Carmack was 14, he broke into a school to help a group of kids steal Apple II computers, but during the attempted break-in one of the kids set off the silent alarm. John was arrested, and sent for psychiatric evaluation (the report mentions “no empathy for other human beings”). Carmack was then sentenced to a year in a juvenile home.[1] … he was asked “if you had not been caught, would you consider doing it again?” he answered “yes, probably” but when the therapist presented this evaluation he neglected to repeat “if you had not been caught” from his statement.[2] He attended the University of Missouri–Kansas City for two semesters before withdrawing to work as a freelance programmer.

Do ‘creative people’ have an interesting youth? No. They never do anything like the above.

By attacking patents and releasing his engines as open source, Carmack has done more for ‘creativity’ in gaming than all these ‘I have a vision’ creative people.put together. I bet the patent system was devised by the ‘creative’ obsessed people who are obsessed with their ‘creativity’. If anything in law needs an overhaul, it is the ridiculous patent system.

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