Tadhg Kelly on why games don’t need traditional media: “Games are beautiful as they are”

Speaking today at Edge Presents: Changing The Game ahead of the Evolve conference inLondon, videogame designer and Edge columnist Tadhg Kelly called on developers to reassert their position in the wider media world. Too often, developers are beholden to the standards of mainstream media such as literature and TV but, he warned, this desire to become part of the media institution means that games will never mature on their own terms.

Kelly set out a media map, beginning with what is widely accepted as legitimate inspiration, such as novels, moving through to television then what he termed exploitation – the tie-in toys and products that attempt to capture the imagination of audiences. Games are commonly perceived as part of the final exploitation stage, but, Kelly believes, actually belong alongside novels and other generative media.

“Lots of movies are turned into games,” he explained. “And fair enough – who doesn’t want to play Harry Potter, having read the books or seen the films? But game to film conversions are usually terrible. The Max Payne movie was terrible, the Tomb Raider movies were terrible, Super Mario Bros: terrible. This leads to some bad conclusions.”

The reason that games rarely make good films, Kelly suggests, is that the most successful games are built around events and experiences, not the narrative. The things that take place while you play may well become narratives – even just exchanged water-cooler moments – but trying to make a game conform to any other format is a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes them work.

“Games are beautiful as they are – in many cases they’re wonderful examples of design,” Kelly continued. “Games don’t have to exist within another framework, we don’t have to be part of a scale that doesn’t really sit well.”

Super Mario Bros The Movie

One of many moments we wish we could forget from the infamously bad Super Mario Bros movie

Kelly’s talk built on his recent Edge column in which he set out his frustration at the absence of videogame developers from almost every level in the annual Media Power 100 list, despite games being, in his opinion, “among the most influential forms of modern culture.”

Games have now moved beyond the institution of traditional media, he said, and worrying about the lack of a good videogame TV show is increasingly irrelevant as massively multiplayer experiences, YouTube, eSports and mobile connectivity create an alternative culture of content distribution. Developers, through the creation of interactive experiences, have created a whole new language that has left other markets behind.

“Medialand can only sell ‘files’ – MP3s, MP4s etc, which are just recordings and fixed objects,” he said. “As there are so many of these objects, they become devalued as a result and they try to prevent globalisation of their industries to prevent that.”

Developers, rather than creating files, create products that generate their own value and can be built upon over time, and if done right, attract extremely loyal customers – Kelly described the high-paying users as “whales”. The file-based economy of old, he argued, will need the experience-selling expertise of the videogame industry in order to survive in the future, and for that reason, games are already the cultural mainstream.

“We need to unhook slowly from the idea that we need to be part of the institution,” he said. “The institution doesn’t really understand games, and expects us to engage on their terms… Games are no longer the red-headed step child. In many ways, we’re more in touch, and more mainstream in modern culture. The Power 100 might soon become an obiturary.”

Main image courtesy of Dan Griliopoulos

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