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Are Developer Diaries Destroying the Magic?

Are Developer Diaries Destroying the Magic?

Written by Randy Kalista on 7/13/2006 for
More On: Randy's Rants

The small Oregon town of Gold Hill settles near a whirlpool of inexplicable phenomena.  Tennis balls roll uphill.  Brooms stand on their bristles at non-linear angles.  And people shift in height as they walk around.  Local Native Americans labeled Gold Hill the "Forbidden Ground" because their horses refused to enter the area.  I took reams of photos during a visit over the Fourth of July weekend, and—despite studious application of light-bending theories, magnetic pole distortion theories, and molecular shrinkage theories—I'm still puzzled over the evidence.

A geologist and physicist, John Lister, performed over 14,000 experiments in the Oregon Vortex in the early 1900's.  He took copious notes and photographs of his findings, even corresponding directly with Albert Einstein regarding his hypotheses.  But just before he died, Lister declared "The world isn't yet ready for what goes on here," and subsequently burned all of his notes.

Either Lister found something absolutely amazing, or he found absolutely nothing.  We will never officially know.  But since Lister was also an uncanny businessman (opening the site for tourism in 1930) the loss may be for the best.  This dubious lack of information keeps thousands of visitors pouring into the rural backwoods town of Gold Hill year after year.

There are many industries that require a sense of mystery to support and sustain them.  A magician never reveals their secrets.  A chef never gives away his recipes.  Even a good stripper knows how to leave a little something to the imagination.  This mythical aura—no matter how scantily-clad the profession—keeps people curious long after skill and creativity run dry (witness the lasting power of the reclusive Wachowski brothers, despite every botched project before and after the original Matrix). 

Just like magicians, chefs, and strippers, video game producers need to implement a similarly calculated sense of mystery to their advantage. 

The constant onslaught of developer diaries is the gaming world's equivalent of reality TV.  America's pop culture fascination with the 'process' more than the 'product' spawns an artificial need for moment-to-moment highlights and updates during every step of production.  Consider: It takes longer to make an American Idol than to make a studio album.  In America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks withholds verdicts longer than it takes to finish a photo shoot.  Even the producers of Dancing with the Stars know how to stretch an hour's worth of drama out of a three minute dance routine.  And America eats it up, with appetizer after appetizer before they ever get to the main course.

This demystifying process, this peek behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain, is only hurting the game development industry, which is indeed becoming a Hollywood-sized industry itself. 

Gaming companies are pushing their public relations agenda and adapting a "more is more" philosophy when it comes to putting out product information.  As a result, instead of creating a buzz, they're creating a clamor.

It's hard to blame the small developers in this regard: Any amount of exposure for their product is an obvious godsend when competing with the big dogs.  But on the other hand, big-name productions do themselves a disservice when they give away too much too soon. Reading months of developer diaries before a game launches is like watching "The Making of" DVD extras before watching the actual film itself.  The movie-making (and game-making) magic is irrevocably dispelled.

Despite some Hollywood execs' sworn-to-secrecy efforts, word inevitably leaks about the latest projects.  This is why Hollywood always appears to double-up its efforts, like when a smaller-budget title races the production clock—often going straight to DVD—to garner a parasitic profit off larger productions. 

A glimpse at your local video store will easily confirm this.  Pirates of the Caribbean 2 hit the big screen last week, but the abysmal Pirates of Treasure Island went straight to DVD the week prior.  Jake Busey (Gary Busey's son) shamelessly starred in an exploitive straight to DVD version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds weeks prior to Spielberg's far superior release.  This process repeats itself month after month ad nauseum.

When employed properly, secrecy creates a bigger buzz than full-spread coverage.  Consider how tight Valve kept the lid on Half Life 2's technological advances (despite the leakage).  Or consider how surprised you were when you found yourself in the Covenant's shoes in Halo 2.  On a tangential note, how many of you are now resigning to an Xbox 360 now that you've finally heard about the PS3's astronomical price point? 

But this constant feed of information is where popular culture is at right now.  America is still, professionally, a nation of progress, and the hungry gaming community wants to bear witness to that progress too.  Unfortunately, these developer diaries are written by—yep—the developers.  This means that you, the reader, are fed a healthy dose of advertising propaganda with each and every diary entry released.  Objectivity is no longer the soup du jour, and putting a positive spin on their product is the diligently concocted intent.

Since this is the aim of all well-choreographed marketing, it sounds like business as usual, right?  Yes, it certainly does.  But in the not-so-distant past, coverage for video games was left in the hands of the print publications through interviews, technical coverage, previews, and reviews.  These were gamers' equivalent to Consumer Reports.  These magazine editors strove to bring unbiased, level-headed coverage to the video game market. 

But as increasing amounts of actual coverage are handed back to the developers, the more these purportedly objective magazines and websites become pages and pages of advertising banners.  A developer diary may be a couple thousand words longer than a popup box, but they serve a congruent purpose to such banner advertising.  Your favorite gaming website may, as we speak, be programming more of this propagandizing filler onto its loading page.

During production, both Black & White 2 and Bard's Tale had at least a dozen developer diaries each.  The Lord of the Rings Online is currently weighing in at over 30, and its release date is still only tentative for sometime this year.  It makes you wonder if there will be any Middle Earth left for players to explore.  Especially when it comes to a household name like Lord of the Rings, overexposure sounds like an out-of-breath inevitability—with the overly-familiar franchise cannibalizing its own sales before the game even goes gold. 

Perhaps, as an unexpected roadside attraction, the developers of LOTR Online could throw in a place filled with illusory terrain and gravitational anomalies, like the Oregon Vortex:  just as long as the game designers keep a trick or two up their sleeve and maintain a sense of wonder and mystery about things. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to watch Making the Band 3 before I burn my diary that says how much I heart P. Diddy.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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