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Commerce, Contracts, & Coders

April 10, 2009

sanfranWhile attending one of my business-entertainment seminars we were on the subject of contracts, more specifically actor contracts negotiation. Basically, the discussion culminated to how actors and their agents bargain for salary ceiling and so forth. It eventually culminated to one student—possibly future industry agent—asking a question that I will now paraphrase:

Student: If say a high salary actor [insert celebrity] can bargain for $25 million in his contract for a movie, why would he decide to risk a lower salary for a less successful film?

Professor: You have to understand, actors are also artists.


The answer is simple and surprisingly not obvious when you’re stuck in a business class for over three hours. But like all creative industries, monetization can often overshadow the creativity and cultural relevance associated with art, and vice versa the importance of economic theory is likely ignored when we talk about art. Accept it or not, there are gatekeepers for artists whether its agents that discover an unknown or a museum gallery has to continuously find new talent to promote.

Economic theorist Richard E. Caves has a wonderful book titled Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and commerce. In it he integrates contract theory and business economics into creative industries both adhering and challenging the common phrase “art of the sake for art.” In it, he focuses primarily on the film industry while also touching upon more “traditional” forms we would associate as art. Cave’s theory relies on both notarized and informal contracts between artists, art, and those that monetize the cultural product. His theory states that even creative industries no matter how rebellious said artist is follow a similar process of distribution, notoriety, monetization, and exploitation as other, more typical products we purchase (i.e., cars, furniture, electronics, etc.)

“When a creative product goes to consumer for their assessment, they typically value it in comparison to similar creative products…More important for the organization of creative activities, one movie gets chosen among all those that are playing. No two are identical, but they can and do differ in two that that themselves have diverse consequences…This is the infinite variety property.”

Cave’s infinite variety property is a key factor to whether consumers respond or are indifferent to a product. A book and a movie both are alternative ways to entertain oneself, but the result is a varying consequence.

“Cultural products differ unpredictably in the quality of levels that consumers see in them. The artists who supply individual creative inputs also differ in skill, originality, and/or proficiency.”

It’s a pretty simple observation. What Cave explores in his text is to see how these creative goods respond to the economic situations artists find themselves striving for recognition and the gatekeepers that select said artists work for development and promotion. He then problematizes this model with more collaborate works of art, the motley crew aspect, where numerous individuals with different skill sets come together in an effort to harmonize and create a single cultural product for consumption. The conclusion of this investigation reveals that creative industries follow the same model of economics as all other product regardless of its elitist qualities comparable to more mainstream creative works. For example, reputation can replace monetary value and so forth. Repeatedly contracts are made either through personal individual contracts or separate parties.

There was no way I could ignore graffiti art in this post.

There was no way I could ignore graffiti art in this post.

I have often challenged the videogame industry and its place in both an artistic and industrial model. The motley crew analogy is apt, especially in videogames and the developer’s relation to criticism. Because the Hollywood studio system is structured in such a assembly line fashion with crews hired on a job to job basis, it is rare when an entire production crew will have the same level of investment for the overall final product than the individual work. Because game studios have yet to reach the same prevalence of an oligopoly in the industry, developers often have a more intimate relationship with the final product. Criticism becomes more personalized and surprisingly deemed a key factor to the success and failure of a released game. Rarely any other media invest so much in factoring negative criticism in its financial profit projections.

The harmonization of the motley crew in gaming therefore takes a much more collective consciousness and group investment that is under appreciated in the industry. Often we associate artists with a single figure, an auteur or mastermind behind the work. Though gamers have a respectable number of visionary game designers, we place a similar investment of authorship and quality in developer entities like Valve, Rockstar North, Blizzard, Harmonix, and so forth. Not surprising that Japan is the exception, often separating its designers from the studio such as Miyamoto and Nintendo, Inafune and Capcom, Kojima and Konami, or Suda and Grasshopper. Not since the Golden Age of Hollywood can studios claim the same relationship as videogame companies can with its audience and its fans.

But Cave’s reading deals with the internal economic relationships and considerations of artists, more so when he discusses collaborative works. His proposal concerning contract theory, however, reveals conflicts that occur in asymmetrical party positions, where one has better information about the quality of the product compared to the prospective buyer. It’s a convenient way of approaching the subject to explain the dynamics between art and commerce, a debate that will continue to rage one indefinitely.

My purpose of this post is to offer some sort of reading on how we see the direction of the videogame industry evolving and how we can justify approaching the medium in more culturally relevant manner concerning the production of the work itself rather than merely focusing on the reaction of the player and the product. This post is an effort to also comment on the interesting relationship of the industry, its developers, the critics, and the gamers. Where new media continues to emphasize the importance of convergence culture, consumer relationships, and transparency it is important to note how videogames as a medium contains the foundation for a more intimate relationship between corporation and individual similar to artist and admirer.

The most inaccessable intellectual in videogames.

The most inaccessable intellectual in videogames.

Note: You may have noticed the Monkey Island skull in the graphical header of this posting. In an attempt to integrate more theoretical texts into this blog, I have branded this entry as an MCR (Motley Crew Reader). The rag tag “crew” will be the theorists and philosophers I intend to further read and integrate into an unofficial series of blog posts. It also refers to you, dear readers and bloggers, as I feel we are all in this boat together discussing interactive media and the new horizons in videogames. This article will be tagged under MCR as well as my post discussing Henry Jenkin’s theory on negative capability.

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