In: Articles by Edie Sellers6 Aug 2010
There’s a lot good with the video-game industry. Compare your favorite game a decade ago and your favorite game today. You’ll see better graphics, better stories, better controls. In few markets have consumers been able to witness a near vertical increase in design, capability, and content as with their video games.
However, with bigger consoles, better graphics cards, larger processors, and greater numbers of talented, creative people coming to the game-design world, there’s a lot wrong with this monster we’ve created. Here’s my list of 10 things wrong with the gaming industry as a whole, why they’re wrong, and ways developers and publishers might want to fix them:
It’s very easy to pick on Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. He’s… well… he’s an asshole. But he is only the most visible of a number of industry leaders who buy into a couple very dangerous get-rich-quick propositions — ideas that are profitable for the moment but will only succeed in killing the industry.
While Kotick’s business strategies could fill this entire list, not the least being his breeding a culture of “pessimism and fear” at Activision, his greatest crime against the industry has been the promotion of the “Me Too” mentality — wherein developers see something successful and then do their best to scramble together a game that emulates it. Kotick was an early adopter of “Me Too” when Activision purchased Vivendi and then booted a number of complete and nearly complete titles simply because they were not established IPs. At the time, he declared that Activision would be focusing on franchises that “have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million franchises.”
Nothing new. Nothing innovative. Nothing original. And since then he’s been good to his word, milking the Guitar Hero franchise with little changes but new songs (Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith) or simply tacking on the paradigm to new controllers (DJ Hero). The largest expansion of the series came only because Activision’s chief competitor in the rhythm-game market, Harmonix, expanded its Rock Band franchise to encompass more instruments.
The “Me Too” mentality has always been an issue for the industry, but Kotick perfected it and showed that, short term, it is successful. However, it is exactly that mentality that has stifled creativity and innovation. Why put millions of investment dollars into something new, when for half that amount one could simply crank out a sequel of an established success? It’s even infected the console market: The Playstation Move and Microsoft Kinect can easily be viewed as extensions of “Me Too” for the Nintendo Wii. While not declaring either the Move or Kinect will be technological or financial failures — time will tell if either or both are good peripherals — both are already failures of creativity.
The second dangerous precedent Kotick set is raising the Cheap Crap Quotient the market will endure. When Kotick declared that Spiro games were keepers and tossed games like Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters on the garbage heap, he established that it’s easier and cheaper — and therefore more “successful” — to rely on nostalgia for old titles for a quick buck. And yes, it worked, but at what cost?
Microsoft spent a lot of time, money, and brain power dusting off a host of old Intellivision and Atari 2600 classics like Asteroids and Gravitar, porting them to the Xbox Live Arcade Game Room and charging way too much for them. Even now, new games are being hauled out of the closet, given manpower and money, and pumped out to the service, despite the near universal ambivalence of the gaming consumer. Why? Because the Cheap Crap Quotient is now so high that, even for the few people who actually buy these games, they are profitable. Yes, they make money, but not everything you haul out of memory lane does the gaming world any good. Many, if not most, of these games do not hold up to current gaming standards or controller schemes. One could argue that our fond childhood memories of Megamania and Space Armada have been cheapened and might have remained fond memories instead of violated and whored off. The whole prospect seems tawdry and alters these great memories into bitter tastes. It also takes money, time, and people away from making new games.
It must be hard to be a game developer. Making your product gets more expensive every year, and yet the retail price hasn’t budged. To make up for the shortfall, developers have tried a number of methods to sneak a few more dollars out of the consumer’s pocket. The most destructive is the release of unfinished games — be it an incomplete story or a missing ending — and then releasing the final bit as add-on downloadable content.
Take, for example, Fallout 3. It was an amazing game, no doubt, and would have been a completely satisfying experience at more than the retail price. However, Bethesda — rather than raising the price as it should have — left out the final battle and, instead, chose a static, sepia-toned montage of hand drawings to let you finish the story and then prevented post-campaign play. Later, Bethesda offered Broken Steel as DLC, which altered the ending and allowed the character to continue playing past the end of the main story line.
Todd Howard, lead designer for Fallout 3, has insisted to the media that this new ending was created after the fact in response to consumer complaints. With deference to Howard, that seems unlikely as it defies logic that experienced and professional developers would create a vast, open-world game with multiple side missions and sub plots and not consider that players would mistakenly finish the main line without finishing the sub-stories. Especially so considering that an earlier massive open-world title, Mass Effect, was deeply criticized for exactly that issue. While it’s wrong to say that Bethesda didn’t deserve extra money for making such a compelling and deeply detailed game — which no doubt cost far more to make than you’d think — it’s equally as wrong to hold back portions of the complete game and then charge extra for it.
More recently, Electronic Arts now requires an after-market pass code to access online servers for its EA Sports titles if you want to buy the game used. It’s the same principle: Gimp the game to get more out of the consumer.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for more money for more game, but when developers release incomplete games and then pull what can be considered a bait-and-switch on the public, it violates the trust that consumers have for the industry at large. Were other industries to employ such tactics — say, a book publisher were to rip out the last chapters and then release them as “add ons” — the practice would be instantly seized upon as an industry-wounding tactic. And so it is for gaming.
There’s a lot going on with digital distribution, but not nearly enough. The industry’s reticence to adopt digital distribution smacks of the same old-world thinking that almost killed the music industry not so long ago. Music executives needed a heavy hitter like Steve Jobs to beat some sense into them and show them the way. For games, Gabe Newell has done his best with Steam, but he apparently lacks the gravitas of Jobs to get major game publishers on board.
And it’s a shame. A shame for all involved. It’s a shame for the environment that becomes the ultimate recipient of millions of tons of cardboard and plastic, not to mention the pollution from gas-powered vehicles that must carry boxes of games to store shelves. It’s a shame for consumers, who are forced to pay for all that paper and plastic and petroleum as part of the retail price. And it’s a shame for developers and publishers themselves, who must use that paper-plastic-and-petroleum money on paper, plastic, and petroleum rather than on profit margin.
The only entities in this equation that don’t suffer for the lack of digital distribution are the brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy, GameStop, and Wal Mart, who carry a very big stick in the game industry. And they will resist until the very end or until they realize that they can still make money with points cards — just like they do with the iTunes Store.
This is hard one to argue, so bear with me. It seems counter-intuitive that giving you the option of buying a used game cheaper than a new game is hurting the industry. What’s better for us is better for the industry, right? Well, not so. We as gamers have to shoulder a little responsibility when it comes to what’s wrong with the industry.
Second-hand sales, while great for second-hand retailers and the gaming public, do hurt developers right where it counts: The bottom line. When a game is sold off retail shelves, the publishers and developers only see income from the first sale. Subsequent sales never get back to those who made the game. While many people will point to other used-item industries, like used auto sales, to counter this argument, those industries are very different than games. A when a new car is purchased, the vast majority of owners usually keep it for about five to seven years before they sell it used, and that used car is then sold about three more times over 20 years. Games have a far higher turnover rate. It’s not uncommon for a game to be purchased and sold five or six times in only the first year of ownership. This exponentially raises the “loss” of income to game publishers and developers compared to automakers. And in the case of a car, the second, third, or fourth owner were never in the used-car market — they would not be buying a car unless it was used because new car prices never come down to the level of used cars. However, with used games, those consumers are in the “new game” market. They may not be in the “full retail price” market, but in a surprisingly short time those prices do come down to where they would buy. So these consumers are in the market, they are simply capitalizing on an opportunity to save a few dollars.
We’ve all done it: Why buy the new game when you could save $5 and buy the used game sitting next to it on the shelf? While it feels good to have that extra few dollars in our pocket, it does rob the people who made the game of their due, and it cuts the dollars available for future games. Say, we can’t afford the extra $5 for that game at full retail? Our impatience leads us to buy used today, rather than waiting a few weeks or month and getting it new and on sale. As gamers, we must have the spirit and strength to look at our own practices and own our responsibility for our actions, even if they feel so good.
Little needs to be said, here. Pirates are disgusting, horrible people. Period. They are thieves, not heroes. They take the natural love of a bargain and twist it into wanting everything for free. They rip off the developers. They rip off the publishers. They rip off other gamers, because their actions are the reason we have such evil, vile things like DRM, which has caused untold hardship and pain for those who’ve had their systems laid open to hackers by SecuROM.
And it costs everybody money — even the gamer. Into every game you buy is factored a cost of piracy. Every time you think of piracy, realize you are costing everyone else money — just think how inexpensive a retail PC game would be were it not for the fact that the massive cost of piracy wasn’t added to the price tag. And we’re not just talking lost sales. We’re talking the costs of investigations and litigation, which is no chump change.
Every gamer reading this knows someone who pirates. Just remember that your buddy with that Bit Torrent copy of Spore cost you money out of your own pocket. And if you pirate, you’re a douchbag. Nuff said.
The 800-pound gorilla in the gaming-industry room is the $60 price tag. With used games leeching profits off titles, retail chains resisting digital distribution, and pirates flat out filching money from under your nose, the profit margin on games is slim, indeed. And yet, we demand bigger, better games, with bigger, better graphics, running at higher frame rates — and now with motion controls. Yet we want prices to remain the same. Economic law dictates that, with added cost for development, distribution, and overhead, the price of a product must rise or the quality must go down. There are a lot of ways to increase the profit margin — most of which I’ve detailed already — but eventually the breaking point will be reached and costs must go up. The industry has used just about every method it can devise to squeeze every penny out of their titles — including the Me Too mentality, the Cheap Crap Quotient, and the unfinished game for a price. Eventually someone will have to make the tough choice and raise the price.
That publisher will be slaughtered for it. It’s not fair, but it’s what will happen. We, as consumers, cannot expect to get more for less, or even the same. Not forever.
Remember when the PC games ruled? Remember when they were at E3?
It was so long ago, neither do I.
This seminal world-press event has long been the showcase of what’s here, what’s coming, and what will be in the gaming industry. However, it has largely become a console-driven event. Where did the PC go?
Not to complain about consoles — I am mainly a console gamer — but there are limitations to consoles that are not existent in the PC-game market. PC games are much less expensive to produce and their distribution and publication is much, much less bureaucratic. We as gamers have put E3 in the hands of three companies — Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. These three are the only conduit with which you can play nearly every single game you see at E3. There is so much more room for innovation in the PC market simply because, like the internet, it’s free of regulation, control, and certification. It’s an open space for investors with good ideas to get their works out there and change the gaming world.
But with few exception of large PC titles like Civilization, E3 is a console-driven event. Saying that E3 is the world showcase for new games is like saying that NBC, CBS, and ABC are the world showcase for television. There’s a lot out there that doesn’t get the E3 hype and it should.
Yes, we’re all fans of games. Or consoles. Or graphic-card makers. Or whatever. But the slavish and irrational jingoism of fanboys has become stale, divisive, and destructive. Why must such-and-such game for Xbox be denigrated by fans of such-and-such game for Playstation? Why must Xbox be compared to Playstation at all? Why must gamers who play Wii or social gamers be dismissed as “not real gamers?” What such arguments do, ultimately, is divide gamers into warring factions and spend a lot of energy on bickering among themselves instead of constructive dialogue about games.
Every visit to a forum must be viewed with skepticism. Every criticism must be eyed through a questioning of the critic’s intention. Intelligent discussion usually decays into juvenile arguments and name calling. Or worse yet, by slapping such phrases onto people as “Xbot” or “Playstation fanboi,” it gives permission to dismiss each other categorically rather than on the merit of the argument. And by keeping ourselves divided, we are easily manipulated by those who seek to capitalize on our factions. We become dumb pawns of the industry, and as long as gamers are seen as easily led sheep, our needs will never be taken seriously.
I will admit, I’ve been one of those who have profited from the fanboys. They are easy marks: Look at the topics that get the most comments (which usually concern a comparison of Xbox 360 and Playstation 3), make sure something relatively inflammatory is in the first sentence, and post. Instant hits. And hits mean income. I purchased an iPhone in one day using this method. And I still feel a bit guilty about it, but it worked. I’ve not done it again, though, simply because it made me feel dirty and manipulative. If I’ve done it, you know a lot of others do every day. And yet we still keep up the same wars, the same divisions, the same rhetoric. It’s sad, and it makes gamers treated like patsies.
Not all parents are to blame for hurting the gaming industry. Certainly there are a lot of parents who are informed, responsible, and rational. Many, many are gamers in their own right. But there’s a large and vocal segment that are daily manipulated like fanboys — Give them a half-true story, whip them up with some catch phrases, and send them off to riot in the streets. They are manipulated by websites that proclaim games are damaging to children. They are manipulated by politicians looking to score some fast publicity and a “family friendly” platform. They are manipulated by the media who know they can churn viewers into a froth and boost their numbers.
And these red herrings are costly to the industry and to taxpayers at large. As the most recent example, how much do you think that the cash-strapped State of California has paid and will pay to take its video-game legislation to the Supreme Court? Taking a case like this to the land’s highest court is not free, by a long shot. In a state where police and firefighters are being laid off and state parks are being closed due to lack of funds, millions and millions in California cash has been squandered so that nine justices can decide if a GameStop manager should be fined $1,000 because a child got his hands on Modern Warfare 2.
While the manipulation of uniformed parents is wholly destructive to the general public, it’s incredibly damaging to the game industry that must defend itself and to gamers, who must decide which “side” of the battle they support — even if they support both or neither. There is a reasonable, logical middle ground when it comes to protecting children from games they are not ready for. But when individuals are exploited by entities looking for publicity or profit, they do two important harms to gaming: They infantilize the industry by inferring that all games are and should be for children and they imply that the monitoring of their children’s gaming choices should be left up to the industry.
Games are like movies and television in that not all titles are for all people. And parents have the responsibility to make those decisions for their children, but not for all gamers or other parents. There’s a lot of grey area on this, and it does no one involved any favors by construing the argument otherwise — unless you’re a politician stumping for votes or a non-profit looking for publicity.
Bringing you the latest in news, GameHounds delivers an adult perspective on the video game business and culture.
This podcast is explicit and is intended for adults ages 18 and older.