December 1, 2022

What happened to the Rockstar status programmers in the game?


Published on October 23, 2022 |
by Jameelah “Just Jay” Wilkerson

Source: Pixabay

Gaming might be considered a bit geeky to some, but it’s a massive industry and those at the top not only win the affections of millions, but make millions of dollars. For example, Alfonso John Romero, known simply as John Romero, is a video game icon. The man behind hits like Wolfenstein 3D, Quake and, of course, Doom, is as outspoken as he’s adored. He made the games he wanted to make. He believed that “logic-based creativitywas key to innovation in gaming. He felt that, despite differing opinions, programming is a “tremendously creative profession.”

Romero championed the art of the game, but he also made a lot of money doing it. By any other measure, he’s a rockstar. Of course, he is not alone. Developers such as Gabe Newell, the man behind Half-Life, the mastermind of Mario Miyamoto, and Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata are all big names in gaming. However, it seems the days of rockstar developers with larger than life characters slowly fade. Why? Like all things, there is no single reason.

Games are multifaceted beasts

There is no doubt that gaming brands have been in the spotlight more in recent years. Even though hardcore game fans can dig into the details, most people associate hits like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto with Rockstar Games, rather than individual programmers and designers. In fact, you can scroll through a library of action rpg games from any major publisher and don’t necessarily know who the programmers were. What you’ll see instead are survival-themed offerings, MMORPGs, and 5v5 mechanistic battles that are popular due to the gameplay they offer and the brand they come from. Simply put, many big brands have enough brand awareness to attract the same cult status that individual programmers like Romero achieved in the late 90s and early 2000s.

There is no place for one person to outrank everyone else and steal the show. Gaming, as an industry, is bigger than ever and there are more moving parts than ever before. This means two things. First, corporations dominate and eclipse individual personalities. Second, modern video games are so complex that they are a team effort. Yes, Romero et al had help back then, but their teams pale in comparison to the vast networks of people working on modern games. In this regard, no one is responsible for a game anymore.

Money Makes Programmers Rockstars

Then there is the matter of money. Programmers very rarely manage to take the lead. When Romero was coding, that was his vision. Today, visions tend to come from executives and creative directors. Programmers are simply there to program. This limits the amount of influence they can have on a game, which in turn limits the amount of money they can win. Also, if you go to any game development subreddit, you’ll see threads advising against a career in the industry. Why? Because programmers can make more money in the business sector.

Game companies don’t pay enough at the low end to train new talent, which is another reason why there aren’t as many rockstars. Of course there are. Philippe Poisson is still under 40 and his willingness to experiment has made him a famous gaming figure. However, his species is fading. Companies are still delivering great games and gamers probably won’t suffer too much. But the death of rockstar programmers is a sign that gaming has lost some of its indie vibes and it’s something a lot of people will mourn.