Peril of the Producer

A lot of creative types tend to give producers a bad rap. The suits. The MBAs. The squares. Those guys who take their SACRED and HOLY capital A Art and turn it into something profane in pursuit of that almighty dollar. Those who ruin everything that was good about the original creation. Those who cause all the bad things you ever hear about that one thing you like.

But no. In truth, producers, good producers, are usually very valuable to the creation. They may not be popular. People who impact the artistic vision of the creative types aren’t usually very welcome around the bullpen.

A producer’s job is to make sure the creative work is profitable. This means making sure it’s… you know… good. Also means making sure it’s going to be palatable to enough of an audience to support its cost plus margin. Sometimes, it means changing the vision of the creative folks heading the production. Sometimes it means making sure they have the free rein and the resources to thrive. Usually, they’re in charge of cultivating the material from the beginning either selecting the base and giving it the resources to grow or coming up with the source idea itself and putting the right people in place to build that seed up. Producers can be known by different terms in different mediums. Editors are more common for written form. But yeah, these are the people in charge of making sure this thing makes money.

A good producer can make the product. A bad producer ruins it. When a producer does their job well, you will rarely ever know what they did in the final product. When a producer doesn’t, well, that’s where we get all these stories from.

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Just look at Silicon Knights. When they had a good, strong, producer, they made magic. Much has been made of the quality of their work when they were a second-party developer under Nintendo. Let free of that arrangement, their work just fell apart. An article (admittedly, published by Kotaku, so, you know keep that garbage can handy) published a few years back sees an anonymous former Silicon Knights employee credit Nintendo’s very involved producing with the reason for the high quality behind those releases.

Likewise, you know all those Kickstarter games by proven developers that seem to keep crapping the bed. Most of their problems seem to stem from things a quality producer would help them avoid. Not to say that the creative types, people involved in the development, can’t be good producers in their own right. There’re plenty who can manage both the creative and the business needs of their projects. Most of the indie successes out there can attest to that.

But, at the same time, it takes a lot to be a good producer. You need good strong knowledge of the creative process, a great awareness of your team and what they’re capable of, and you need to be able to fit everything in with an ultimate vision for the project. Without all of those, it is really, really easy for a producer to have some strong adverse impacts on the project.

Much has been made of Shigeru Miyamoto’s ability to upend the table on any project Nintendo’s working on. If he sees you doing something, and he decides you need to change, you’re changing. Miyamoto’s also got a very distinct taste in what makes a good game. That’s one of the reasons Nintendo puts out games with a very unique flavor. Overall, it seems to have been a positive arrangement for Nintendo, overall.

But if you’re going to be changing the creative vision of something, you have to be choosing the right time to do it, and make sure the team has the time and resources to follow through and implement that new vision totally. Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures seems to be lacking for that. The game was originally designed as a direct prequel to A Link to the Past. In its original form, it told the tale of the war that led Ganon to the situation he was in in the middle of the SNES game.

Miyamoto wasn’t into that. He’s never been big on continuity and storytelling in games, and didn’t like the connections this game had with A Link to the Past. So he made sure the Links between the two were removed. In the end, Four Swords Adventures ended up in a completely different branch of the timeline than A Link to the Past.

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I don’t know when in the development cycle the change was made. But it was obvious it wasn’t near early enough, and once the change was made, the team didn’t have what they needed to implement it completely. In spite of having no story ties to a Link to the Past, Four Swords Adventures is LTTP as all hell. The art style mimics that of the former game, much of the music comes directly from the earlier game, and the overall feel is very, very much that of “Link to the Past callback”.

To the point that the lack of story elements and the insistence of telling a different tale caused me a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. Now, I don’t demand a great, in depth story in my Zelda games. The games are what they are, and while they do have a story, it’s not the most important part of their experience. But when you have the story actively running counter to everything the tone and atmosphere and visuals are telling me, it makes it really hard to get involved in either. Because of this change, elements were in strong conflict with each other, and it made it a lot harder to get myself involved in it.

Maybe the decision did lead to a better game. Maybe the tale about the Sealing War in Link to the Past’s backstory just wasn’t very good, and is one of those things that are better left to the imagination. Maybe the change was necessary. But it wasn’t handled effectively, and that really comes down to the producer. The change completely altered the game’s vision, and at the time it came around, there either wasn’t enough time or enough resources to make the necessary changes to the sound, art, and atmosphere to see that through. If that decision just came at a better time, or with more of a mind to what the team had to work with, Four Swords Adventures may have been a much better game for it.

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7 responses to “Peril of the Producer

  1. I’d say Earthbound (and to a lesser extent, Earthbound Beginnings) was another instance of game that found much success due to having a good producer. It’s a bit different because the producer in this case is a single, well-known person as opposed to an entire company, but I’m not sure I can think of another title where the producer was that involved in the game’s creation. Granted, the series ended up being hit-or-miss in terms of consistent quality because of that, but I have to give them points for effort.

    Otherwise, yeah, it’s easy to forget that these jobs exist for a reason. BioShock was a case where executive meddling saved a product from going south at the last minute. The worst ending of that game was originally intended to be the only ending; the executives vetoed that idea and convinced Ken Levine to add a happier ending, thus saving it from the fate that befell System Shock 2. A lot of fans like to extol the value of the auteur theory, but the reality is, like everything else, it too has a dark side. If someone is given complete creative control, it often means their mistakes tend to be more pronounced than in works those same people would consider a product instead of an artistic statement. The concept of the Hollywood ending is frequently mocked as cliché, but the reason so many creators resort to it when it comes to wrapping things up is because it’s often the only sensible way to end the proceedings. These things are never as black-and-white as a lot of people like to make it out to be.

    I kind of liked Four Swords Adventures, but it seemed to me that the format in which it was presented made the story less cohesive – it kind of felt like a bunch of random events glued together to resemble a story. Maybe it’s because there isn’t a single world to explore that expands as you progress through the game.

    Also, “Player 1 [took] great damage!” is what it says in that screencap.

    • Yeah, I didn’t thin of Earthbound, but that’s completely true. And yeah, they do get a little hit or miss. The series is very much driven by a single personality, those types of works tend to turn rather love it or hate it.

      I didn’t know of the Bioshock situation, either. The bad ending was originally intended to be the only one? That would have been awful! Considering how much of the game was set up around you thinking your were working towards somethig that at least had its good points, if the only way for it to end was that whole “surprise! You’re an asshole!” deal, that would have been rather infuriating. Although I guess Levine did get something like that in with Bioshock Infinite.

      I think that’s exactly it; when you get one person calling all the shots, they’ve got more control over the vision that comes out of it, sure, but all the flaws and mistakes end up being a lot more pronounced without the safeties, there. That tends to be why a lot of the famous creative types end up with some really out there pieces once they don’t have to answer to their editors. Also ends up with works that are only loved by a smaller market, pushing everyone else who doesn’t feel exactly the way the author does away.

      For endings, I can understand why a lot of creators go want to try out a ‘dark ending’. It’s shocking, it runs counter to some of the biggest expectations out there, and it gets strong reactions. And you can definitely have endings where the wrong people win, that are still very good. But, almost every time I’ve seen creators go for the dark ending, they just don’t do it right. The big things you want for an ending are to have it cap out the tale and to be satisfying. Usually, the endings where the bad guys win fail on one if not both of those counts. Either it’ll leave too many questions lingering/give the work a feeling of “And the fight still continues”, both of which prevent the feeling of a proper conclusion, or it’ll offend the reader’s sense of what’s right/come out of left field/make the whole story feel like a waste of time, which keeps it from being satisfying. If you’re going to have a shaggy dog ending, you’re really got to know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to work up to it. Most of the time it’s used, writer’s don’t do either.

      If Zelda was an arcade game, that’s what Four Swords Adventures felt like to me. I still had some fun with it, although I didn’t enjoy it in the same way I would the typical Zelda game. And yeah, “Player 1 took Great Damage”. I ran into that waaaay too many times in my own playthrough.

      • I’ll say! Rewarding someone’s hard work with an ending that basically says, “Guess what? You went insane!” isn’t exactly what I’d call very gracious to one’s fans. As it stands, I like that the best ending requires a personal sacrifice – it makes saving the Little Sisters actually mean something. Indeed, this game is the reason I was able to appreciate it when Papers, Please and Undertale pulled something similar off.

        Looking back, I’m kind of surprised I didn’t end up disliking the ending of BioShock: Infinite. It seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it deal, but I didn’t really have that much of a problem with it. I don’t know; maybe it’s because by that point, I had experienced at least two games with endings that were significantly worse, so anything short of outright deplorable wasn’t going to get a negative reaction out of me. That said, I completely understand why people would have a problem with it, and I wouldn’t lift a finger to defend it.

        I think the problem of when people go for similar methods of defying the status quo, such as those dark endings where the bad guy wins, is that they assume something like “Because successful authors pulled it off, I can achieve that same success if I do too.” In reality, the people who pull that off well are the exceptions that justify the presence of the Hollywood ending; that’s because, as you say, it comes across as anticlimactic more often than not to end a work in such a fashion. I accused System Shock 2 of doing this, but sometimes I wonder if it was meant to be a sequel hook. If so, that’s a different problem; it’s almost never wise to do that unless you know a sequel is being made. Similarly, I heard that a sequel to The Last of Us has been announced, so it looks like you were right when you said it didn’t feel conclusive when it ended; it looks like someone on Naughty Dog’s staff agreed. It’ll be interesting if this new installment ultimately makes our criticisms obsolete.

        I think “pushing everyone else who doesn’t feel exactly the way the author does away” is how I would describe what happened to me when I finished Mother 3, and I can’t help but if that’s why it failed to resonate with the Japanese fans despite selling over 200,000 copies (indeed, from what I’ve read, it’s often openly ridiculed on Japanese forums). I’ll be sure to expand my thoughts on that when I eventually get around to (re-)reviewing it.

        It’s been over a decade since I played Four Swords Adventures, yet I still remember the “You took great damage!” sound effect.

  2. That’s one of the things about being a good manager – you need to be able to effectively manage the talent around you. It’s not about telling them how to do their work or anything like that; it’s making their work most efficient/effective.

    I also have to chuckle at Miyamoto’s lack of concern with continuity, considering the fans’ desire to create a timeline, and then the subsequent outburst when the official timeline was deemed “wrong” by the fanbase.

    • Yep, and while the skills that make a good manager and the skills that make a good creator aren’t mutually exclusive, there’s no guarantee that someone who has one side will have the other. In fact, most of the time, they won’t until they’ve built it up. It takes all types to make a videogame, and as with anything, someone to manage it all is vitally important.

      The odd thing is that it’s been clear there’s at least some sort of timeline going on since the very beginning. Zelda II directly followed the original, Link to the Past is where Ganon’s backstory originated, which slotted right into Ocarina of Time. Miyamoto may not have been up on it, but he didn’t stamp down on the directors who were, yet even so, they were so coy about the lore for the longest time. I get the desire to have the players keep guessing, and really, I’m glad Nintendo’s old case that the continuity doesn’t matter when clearly, there are parts of it where it really does.

      • I agree you definitely need two sides to make a coin.

        Yeah, it always seemed like the Zelda games were all loosely tied to each other; I think that’s why some people were so upset with the timeline, because it didn’t play into what some fans thought it should be. But you’re right, there are clear threads holding the entire series together, regardless of whether Miyamoto wanted them there or not!

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