Lessons learned from the world of the film set

“Should we adopt the film production model?”

As many know, I like to draw parallels with the film business, but here is an example that I think doesn’t work too well in our industry.

In film, often a ‘production company’ (usually just one or two people) finds individuals from each discipline as they are needed – cinematographer, script writer, director, actors, etcetera – and then they all work together to produce a single film only.

Some have suggested using this ‘guns for hire’ model in the games development business – but generally it is said wistfully as people count the cost of any downtime between funded projects; one of the real challenges in development.

Some ‘indie’ start-ups begin this way, with no formal structure, just a bunch of like-minded people working together, as did I, long ago. Without going all misty eyed about it, in the ‘80s it worked well, but that is because the projects were small.

We have seen this again with mobile games, and the ascendant platforms like iPhone and Android now, but that doesn’t mean they will stay that way. As with much of the history of this business, those groups are already changing, and as the size of projects increase, eventually a formal structure is needed.

It works in film as there are standard processes across most of the industry, so people in a given role are pretty interchangeable. This is because most films are stylised in specific ways; they may be set in a particular historic time period; shot with strange lighting; with post-process effects to make the film look desaturated or grainy like the tradition for some times of wartime films, but none of these things change the processes significantly.

Some of the things George Lucas did when he made Star Wars changed the process a little; he used much larger film stock to allow overlaying of special effects without degrading the quality.

It had major knock-on effects on filming and editing – and the unions hated it – but it greatly improved the end result. More recently the move to digital editing (again championed by Lucas through Industrial Light and Magic) improved the results but changed the processes. It meant he had to build a team around him with those new skills as the people were no longer interchangeable.

More importantly, look at Pixar (founded by George Lucas too– you can see why I’m a fan of his); the move to purely CGI content has turned the process upside down, and revolutionised Disney too. Even before this, producing a cartoon (or claymation – I’m an Aardman fan) is very different to that of a film. These need large teams to stay together as their skills are mutually interdependent and not interchangeable with other groups because of the different processes.

With games, the premiere evangelists for ‘guns for hire’ are the beneficiaries – companies offering middleware or central content libraries. Some games are starting to be made this way, but they look and sound the same.

Eventually that ‘look’ will approximate the real world, which for many types of games is fine – but as with film, those that don’t look or feel the same will really stand out. They tend to be the blockbusters.

The trouble is, innovation is still happening, and this model makes innovation much harder. As with the film business, the transition will never happen altogether; there will still be some die-hard groups innovating on processes, but we are not the film business – we need to remember that. Our processes are way more involved – closer to those of CGI, which doesn’t use the ‘guns for hire’ model yet in film.
For these ‘standard’ films, the main cost is the big-name actors, who are typically paid once the film is released. Other costs – camera rental and so on – are low, especially if the film is made in an existing location. This is why the model works.

In games the costs of middleware, content libraries, actors, staff are still too high for this model to work, without the costs being deferred to after the game ships. This will change, and as with film, it will be the names of the ‘talent’ that can help carry such a project.

Until that happens, the ‘production company’ model will not be for mainstream games, in my opinion.

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