The announcement that BioWare’s founding doctors, Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, would be leaving the studio at which they’ve made an indelible mark on storytelling and roleplay, took fans by surprise. There’s something of an assumption in the game industry that you’re in it for life. Lasting ‘names’ are treasured, and even those who take breaks from their visible roles are expected to return in a Kickstarter age being colonised in significant part by veterans in search of a revival.
The message is that the climate may change or the economy may shift, but one’s passion for the games industry generally doesn’t. That’s why Zeschuk and Muzyka’s resignation was so hard for some to get their heads round. Star Wars: The Old Republic may be struggling, but the pair didn’t bow out gracefully amid layoffs or resurface with some new venture. They said, with unusual candour, they just weren’t that interested in making videogames any more.
“I’ve reached an unexpected point in my life where I no longer have the passion that I once did for the company, for the games and for the challenge of creation,” said Zeschuk. Muzyka said he had “personally achieved what [he] wanted in videogames” and there was a “strong possibility” he won’t return.
Why is it so uncommon – beyond the fact that personal honesty is quite rare in quotes to the press – for accomplished figures in games to simply feel finished and ready for something else? This is because passion is considered to hold primacy over all other motivating traits in the game industry. I frequently write about how an incredible devotion to the industry is essential to survive the high cost of participation – either the manifold crunch and constraints of commercial development, or the hard-scrabble life of a game writer – and only those with the most feverish commitment will survive.
The result is that an almost-religious obsession with games is a cultural requirement. Game writers receive routine grilling from their voracious readership; we work under often significant scrutiny from vocal fans who want to demand we prove we are qualified to act as leading voices within their beloved hobby. A review score from a veteran writer is something to be dissected and undermined, and readers presume we are absolutely expert at an impossible range of games.
If we applaud politely at press events, we have been bought and are untrustworthy. If we show no emotion, we are jaded and undeserving. We carry high expectations as authority figures, but in the social media age countless voices have easy access to us, so they can fight to be the first to tell us we are wrong. The passion of gamers is part of what makes our work so challenging, and – at the risk of incurring the ire of the hundreds and probably thousands of people who would like my job – taxing. Depressing, even. We’re told every day we’re living a dream, and we’re not allowed to get sad or tired.
There are a small handful of readers with whom I’ve remained in touch for some years, who routinely send me messages about their great hope to become a game journalist. I give advice where I can, and sometimes they seem to want me to listen as they share their frustration that they haven’t gotten yet to where they hope to be.
These are often quite bright and college-educated young people who are accepting free internships and unpaid work and spending swathes of free time piloting gaming blogs. I want to tell them there are hundreds of other things they’d be excellent at and enjoy, but nothing can dissuade them from the sacrifice they want to make in the name of their passion for games.
This incredible emphasis on passion becomes disillusioning as we age, as this console generation drags on, and as the commercial industry matures and becomes mired in sameness. Nearly all my friends tell me they don’t have the passion for games they once did. I tell them I don’t either – but always in private, never publicly, where the sin of losing passion might be overheard and taken to task.
The thing is, we still like games just fine. We still know loads about them, are interested in the industry, have things to offer. Our relationship to them changes with time and maturity – but if you were over the age of 30 and still thrilled to play Nintendo for hours in a basement every day the way you did as a child, mightn’t there be something a little wrong there?
We’ll still have flashes of love and excellence, but those who’ve been in games for a long time these days have the option of showing their affinity by the duration, not the intensity, of our commitment. That obsessive fervour, the constant pressure from our peers and audience to be the biggest gamer in the room, the most tireless creator, just isn’t sustainable. It would be lovely to finally admit that pure passion isn’t everything , and that it can run out.
The BioWare doctors know this – no wonder Greg Zeschuk wants to explore beer culture now.
Illustration: Martin Davies