The next wave of big-budget AAA video game releases is on the way from many of the top developers and publishers in the industry. These games receive an incredible amount of attention - in the last four days Kotaku has posted twenty stories devoted to GTA4 - and these games undoubtedly push the industry forward in many important ways.
While I'm as excited as the next gamer to explore Liberty City or try out Snake's newest camo gear, I'm also wondering if we're as focused as we might be on developing strong, high-production-value games positioned somewhere between big-budget titles and indie games. Obviously, many games fall into a middle range in terms of budget and commitment from developers (e.g. Capcom's Zack and Wiki), but I wonder if there are lessons to be learned from independent "boutique movie studios" like IFC Films, or from major players like Sony, Paramount and Disney that have created or purchased in-house studios like Sony Classics, Paramount Vantage and Miramax.
These studios typically develop prestige or niche projects that rarely make or lose big money, but often deliver projects that push at the edges of the medium. Such films attract high-talent artists willing to sacrifice money for freedom, but whom have moved beyond the "shoot-it, cut-it and pray for a Sundance screening" phase of their careers. Occasionally - as in the case of IFC's Y Tu Mamá También, a single film can establish the credibility and viability of a brand new studio. In other cases, acclaimed films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood emerge as a collaboration between boutique studios (both were developed by Miramax in tandem with Paramount Vantage).
Sometimes I think Gabe Newell functions more like an old-school movie studio boss than a game software developer. In a way, he's sort of the Louis B. Mayer of gaming, and Valve the MGM. Back in the golden age of the American cinema, MGM's motto was "More stars than there are in heaven." Newell could make similar claims, and his strategy of keeping an eye out for the best and brightest talent in the industry and getting them under contract to Valve is reminiscent of Mayer's efforts to maintain MGM's stature. Fortunately, from all reports Newell is also a great boss to work for...a claim Mayer (often a tyrant) could never have made for himself.
Portal is a boutique studio project. Valve could have made it bigger, longer, and splashier and unveiled it as their NEXT BIG IP. Or they could have simply bought the team and plowed all those great ideas into the next edition of Half-Life. Instead, they made a game that was just the size it needed to be with just the amount of attention it required.
We need more boutique developers. I believe there is a vital market for such games and an enthusiastic community of gamers hungry for such experiences. Not every game requires a 3-year $100 million development and marketing effort. And there's something to be said for allowing gamers to discover a game and push it forward ourselves. This was a big part of Portal's success, in my view, packed as it was into The Orange Box with much bigger and more recognizable titles.
Having said all this, I must also acknowledge that I'm an industry outsider, and I'm sure I bring with me a certain degree of naivete about the complexities of funding and managing game development. Is the idea of boutique game developers feasible? Pie in the sky? Are they already here, and I'm simply overlooking them? Am I drawing tenuous parallels between the film and game industries? I don't know. But if you do, I'd love to hear from you.