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volume 1, issue 34

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Beaker's Bent:
Burn Siliwood Burn






By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff

I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...

3 is less than two weeks away and that means that we're already being deluged with product hype and over-excited announcements of the formation of new companies. Many readers of this site will be at the show taking a look at what the rest of the industry is doing, saying hi to old friends, and trying to get into as many parties as possible. The gaming press will be flooding their sites with info on hundreds of products, many of which won't even ship before the next E3, if at all.

Amongst all this excitement and schmoozing, it is easy to forget one thing: this show is about the games, and nothing else. There will be companies there trying to outdo each other with the flashiness of their booths, the volume of the lame techno soundtracks on their demo tapes, and the attractiveness of their booth bunnies. Many of these companies will reap the press attention which these frills attract. But as soon as the show is over, these companies will have to remember that they are making games and not booths, or their products will disappear without a trace.

E3 is a relatively new show, having replaced the Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show as gaming's big event. E3 began in Los Angeles and after two years of diminishing attendance in Atlanta has returned to Los Angeles. The proximity to Hollywood has had a great effect on the character of the show, and now that it seems like it is back in LA for good it is time once again to worry about the gaming industry ruining itself by trying to become too much like the movie industry.

"Siliwood" is a term used to refer to the wannabe movie-making game developers like Wired magazine favorites Digital Pictures, now thankfully dead and hopefully never to be heard from again. With the exception of Chris Roberts, most of the industry has grown out of this period. Roberts, of course, became so convinced that he was a movie maker and not a game maker that the first product from his new company Digital Anvil was the execrable Wing Commander movie and not a game at all. (As an aside, there seems to be a direct correlation between stupid company names that include generic words like "Digital" and movie-wannabeism. Thereís an even more direct correlation between appearances of big game industry egos in Wired and eventual shoddiness of their products).

However, just because most of the industry has realized that the important word in "interactive movie" is "interactive" does not mean that Siliwood itself is dead. In the last few years, a far more evil face of Siliwood has shown itself - now we have movie makers who wannabe game makers invading our industry, en-masse.

The existence of the new Siliwood is really not surprising - games are becoming a huge business, and the industry as a whole takes in more money than the movie business already, even if that money is divided up among many times more products. If Hollywood ever existed for any higher purpose than making money (which is not really clear), that purpose is long gone now, and when it sees an opportunity and potential threat as powerful as gaming, of course it is going to look for ways to enter and hopefully co-opt the new market.

What is surprising about the new Siliwood is how much the gaming industry seems prepared to embrace it wholeheartedly. Companies scramble for movie licenses, no matter how awful or unfit for game development they are, the press races to exceed each other in praise for dubious projects like Michael Crichton's new company, and developers forget why they entered the industry at all and sell their souls to get into any Hollywood-sponsored developer, thinking that they can use it as their springboard into movies.

Luckily, game players themselves seem less convinced, for good reason - movie-based games and games produced by movie-makers still largely suck. Even the company with the best movie license of all, LucasArts, hasn't managed a 100% success rate with its Star Wars games, and its first handful of Episode I games look as if they will be as by-the-numbers as the worst Acclaim-produced platform-jumping movie-licensed Genesis cartridges. It is also worth noting that Lucasarts' most memorable games have been completely original titles such as the Monkey Island series, made to be good games and not merely the proving ground for toy lines or Saturday morning cartoons.

It should be clear to industry veterans why Siliwood can't make good games - Siliwood is not staffed by game-makers. James Powell put it the most clearly in a letter to Next Generation Online (4/22/99), contrasting the very Siliwood-oriented AIAS (Association of Interactive Arts and Sciences) awards to the even more laughable SPA Codies - the AIAS awards are nominated by "a group of casual gamers thinking that they know games," whereas the Codies are nominated by "a group of non-gamers thinking that they know games."

This is the reality which even most traditional game developers have yet to fully acknowledge: to make games, you must know games. One of the factors inhibiting this realization is the fact that these casual gamers who create overblown foundations like the AIAS, casual gamers with Siliwood-sized egos, have no idea that they donít actually know games. Given the average movie project that gets greenlighted in Hollywood, itís pretty clear they also have no idea that they donít know film.

Despite the obvious lack of talent, the new Siliwood comes with traditional Hollywood money and connections at a time when developers from within the games industry are finding it harder to get funding for worthwhile projects. Some of these Siliwood companies can even stay afloat for years, cranking out miserable to mediocre product which does alright thanks to licenses, further convincing the execs that they actually do know what they are doing. But the one thing the new Siliwood canít do is make a memorable hit. (Lucasarts doesnít count since they have been around since the early days of computer gaming and the Star Wars license is good enough to sell even Yoda Stories).

So when you go to E3 this year, maintain your critical perspective as you are swamped with the noisy, summer-blockbuster-style Siliwood mentality. Remember that half of these gladhanders will be in some other business by next year, and that most or likely all of their products will be recycled for drink coasters if they are released at all. And most importantly, never forget that it was one of Siliwoodís earliest mistakes which almost killed gaming altogether: can anyone say ET for the Atari 2600? And gamers Ė next time you buy a crappy movie-licensed or "inspired" game, RETURN IT. Vote with your dollars, and eventually Siliwood will burn, baby, burn.


- Rich Wyckoff is a professional game designer.


Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.