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Being David Bowie: Why game developers need to be more like Ziggy Stardust

Consider the fifty-year career of David Bowie.

Throughout his life, Bowie has continually reinvented himself, from year to year, from album to album. His music and image changed radically over that time, but his fans stayed loyal to him, following both the excitement of his continual self-renewal, but also the values that his work embodies.

Game developers need to be more like Bowie and trust that their fans will follow their creative impulses, that the thing players like about a game is more the spirit of the creator and less the mechanics of the creation.

That challenge to developers came as the culmination of a powerful talk during Gamelab Barcelona in Spain by Richard Lemarchand earlier this month.

Lemarchand helped create the first three Uncharted games before moving to the Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. There he teaches game design and explores new design concepts by creating a series of experimental games.

"Games are a very ancient form of culture, and they produce many powerful experiences for us: experiences of emotion and intellect, of self-discovery, and of the discovery of others," he said. "As Neil McFarland suggested in his talk this morning, as game designers we're currently waking up to the value of the great range of experiences that we can create for our players, and that can extend into every aspect of our lives and minds.

"Like other cultural forms, from pop music to cinema, video games is a hit-driven business. Uncertainty about what is going to succeed this year can make publishers and developers unwilling to take risks with new titles as they hope to reproduce the successes and profits of the past."

But, he told his audience, consider Bowie and remember that the audience games serve continues to evolve.

The point, he told me later, is that hunting for the peak of that ever-changing audience interest might be a waste of time. Instead, developers should focus on what they love and keep in mind the huge unexplored markets out there. That's the market tapped by games like the Stanley Parable, Gone Home, even Uncharted to some degree.

And there are too, developers already following this model and having great success.

"Capy Games, makers of Sword and Sworcery EP and their recent new arrival Super Time Force, and of the forthcoming Below," he said. "No two Capy Games are alike — they boldly experiment with the form and content of their games — but their fans follow them for their identity of stylishness, experimentation and playability.

"They say that one of the best business plans you can have is to identify a product or a service that you passionately want, but that does not yet exist. The chances are that millions of people around the world will want it too, and your passion for whatever it is that you're creating will ensure that you make something of high quality.

So it's my firm belief that as game developers, we should trust our instincts, and cultivate our tastes. Whatever it is that you care about passionately, devote yourself to seeking out the best of it in the world, figure out what makes it good, and bring your discoveries to the games that you make."

Take, for instance, Antoni Gaudi, Lemarchand told the audience.

Gaudi was a famed Catalan architect whose Barcelona buildings were influenced heavily by things like nature, contemporary art and religion.

"I think that as we continue to use or ingenuity and creativity to invent the many futures of games, we would do well to look everywhere in our lives for the inspiration that will help us discover new game mechanics, new subjects for stories, and new audiences for our innovative works," he said. "Perhaps we might look to nature and architecture, to theater and literature, to history and family, in a spirit of learning and understanding, and in doing so, we will be sure that we are continuing to innovate and grow as we devote our lives to the pursuit of game and play, those most human of art forms."

Lemarchand told me later that his talk was shaped by his interest in the many possible futures of games and the many possible futures of the world.

"I watched my first Dr. Who when I was 5," he said. "Since then I've always considered myself a time traveler. We're all flying through time.

"As I've grown older I've seen many things once considered science fiction become real. I'm similarly excited about games, the kind of games we're able to make today. I think the future is very bright for console, PC and social games."

One thread Lemarchand sees running through a much of the innovation and change in gaming is the concept of player as performer.

Last summer Lemarchand went to a performance by British theater company Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man, like their New York performance Sleep No More, has the audience wandering through staged settings and acted scenes.

"We, the audience, entered the space wearing masks — we were forbidden from speaking, but encouraged to touch and explore the space, to open drawers, pick up objects, and read letters," he said. "As we moved through the space we came across actors who played out scenes with each other and would explode into sequences of dance, before running off through the environments, all carefully synchronized to a musical score and with moody lighting design.

"It had a tremendous impact on me. It left me with a feeling like having played a game, something about the fact that I was physically present in a fully immersive space with all of the nuance of the expression of the actors. I wondered if the games we are playing all of our lives might in some way be preparing us to be good performers."

More importantly, it reaffirmed Lemarchand's believe that technology is not at the end of the the story of game development.

"I don't think developers can avoid thinking about the kind of things I've been talking about," he said. "Whenever you make culture artifacts you have an opportunity to create new spaces of possibility. Clearly we have the opportunity to create new kinds of futures with the games people play.

"The present is very bright."