I.P. and the language of game development

The language that we use to discuss things also influences our ability to think about them because the frame of reference becomes inherently bound up in that language.   Locally, one of the main ways we talk about games, from the industry side at least, is bound up in the idea of original I.P. versus work for hire, with that discussion also spilling out into our audience.  You don’t have to dig far on tsumea to find a heated debate on the perceived merits of original I.P.

But film-makers, novellists, and musicians don’t talk about creating original I.P., so what makes us different?  I’d argue nothing – just the frames of reference we’ve built around the discussion.  Those other mediums might talk specifically about engaging audiences, but they also have their strong creative voices saying ‘make the sorts of things you want to see’.

This post isn’t an attempt to say that isn’t important to foster and develop original projects, but more an exploration of what that process might mean and ways we can look at reframing the core of that discussion beecause when you step away from it, what are we talking about when we say IP?

When you pull a wikipedia, there’s nothing that really illuminates what is being talked about.  Is it the characters, the world, the game mechanics itself? Is it some sort of exploitable elements that can transition into other forms, something frequently touted but which rarely if ever materialises?   It’s potentially all of these things – or none of them – which is a real danger because this call for original I.P. has become an abstraction from what should really be focused on – which I’d argue is the game itself – and an abstraction which emerges from another: the description of ourselves as an industry.

Both of these uses of language sets up certain expectations – whether intentional or not – in how we discuss our work.   Industry conjures up images, whether true or not, of replaceable cogs, of machines producing easily repeatable product, of a clear path of training and careers.  Original IP conjures up, at least in my mind, images of nothing because it is something inherently intangible. It has no boundaries, and that’s what makes it a difficult thing to discuss.  If I’m writing a novel, I know the strengths and weaknesses of what I can do within the form.  If I’m creating IP, what are the edges?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of what I can evoke?  What do I really mean?  Tell me I’m making a game, and suddenly, I know the parameters, have 30 years of experience to draw on, and a clear sense of the possibilities.

This isn’t to say that you can’t build an industry out of a cultural form, because there is certainly evidence that you can, and not that you can’t develop and exploit I.P., because there is evidence for that too.  My argument is that we need to look beyond the words we use to find others that fully describe our intent in that development because this use of specific words & descriptions restricts not only our ability to evaluate the industry itself and what we produce, but also our ability to critically engage with our own culture – which is at the heart of what I think these series of posts are about, finding the words that express the thoughts we need to properly and honestly talk about the medium.

So, I think it’s about time we staked out our claims for specific words that more adequately explain what we do, and also if we need to, to reframe what those words can mean.  It’s time that we found ways to better establish the boundaries of the conversation about our place in the culture, establishment, and how we relate to other forms.  It’s time that we  reevaluated our use of language and became clear about what we do.  Original IP is important, but it’s only important if we can see beyond that to the heart of making a specific game with a clear emotional arc that’s delivered through identifiable mechanics and narrative. By the same token, industry is important, but only if it’s part of a broader framework of culture, art, and community.

And I think this is important because culture isn’t defined by I.P.  There may be elements within a title or a franchise such as a character or a moment or a story that could be described as I.P., but audiences respond to things in a far more visceral, experiential way to how they were moved or transported or affected emotionally.  Movies can do that, books can do that, songs can do that, and games can do that.  I.P. on its own can’t.

2 thoughts on “I.P. and the language of game development”

  1. I tend to try my hardest to make sure I say ‘Original IP’ whenever referring to a game title which would be considered an individual effort rather than a license.

    It seems as though you’re swinging toward the ‘Games as art’ conundrum more in this article though. The kicker comes down to the potential monetary value of an IP (Original or License) yet even an original IP can become so successful that it warrants additional releases, after which point it has become a license title and no longer an original intellectual property. Fundamentally an IP (sans Original or License labeling) is an idea that belongs to someone and has been labeled as such in order to make money from it at some point right? This is all the same for film and literature; An idea is conceived of and the creator might attempt to share it with others if they can make money from it, or the idea is attached in some way to a franchise and its granted a budget for the sole purpose of making more money, based on its successfulness as in original endeavor.

    It’s unfortunate, but gaming is still very much stuck in the latter example; it’s an entertainment industry, perhaps it started out as a simple electronic art form, but it will take an incredible amount of focus and critical attention for the medium to ever turn into a healthy artistic scene. It’s not impossible of course (film and literature started out in many ways as art forms also) but the pursuit for money will always succeed the exploration of creativity.

    • I don’t think I’m swinging towards ‘games as art’ as much as I’m swinging towards ‘games as games’ here. In the conversations I’ve had or been part of with the established industry, original IP comes up as the number one thing that they’d like to focus on, and has been used in submissions to government, statistical analysis, and a whole range of arguments and proposals, but doesn’t actually mean anything in and of itself.

      While I take your point about the definition of IP, I think my key argument is that writers don’t talk about their original IP story they’re working on, they talk about the novel or short story or film. They talk about the concrete manifestation of their idea, which in turn forms how they think about it, and about how their audience thinks about it. I think that defining games using the IP abstraction does the same – but not in a positive way.

      And I agree about the effort required to turn things into a healthy artistic scene – hence me blogging more actively – but I’d disagree that the pursuit of money will always succeed the exploration of creativity, and will hopefully get to cover that in a future post 🙂


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