Principles? Don’t make me choke to death laughing
Trawling through abandoned drafts of old posts is often much like dredging a canal — a sediment of unidentified rubbish, broken constructions and an overall stench of rotting death. Still, sometimes you turn up something worth looking at, which I hope this short rant may prove to be.
Reading the thoroughly unsurprising news this morning that developer Glu Mobile has upped the price of the top weapon in their Gun Bros mobile title to the equivalent of $500, I found myself in kind of a reflective mood about the industry. Ste Curran, he of One Life Left, put the current situation extremely well when he claimed (excuse my paraphrasing):
Publishers only care about making money. That’s why they don’t want to take risks, and we don’t see more titles for an adult audience.
And he’s absolutely correct. He should know, after all he has worked in the industry for years, first as a journalist, and then making the unusual jump to working for developer Zoë Mode, acting as creative director for the excellent Chime.
The interesting thing about the Glu Mobile story was not the move in and of itself, but the general lack of outcry about it. Trawling reddit for comments netted me such gems as:
“I really don’t see a problem with this, tbh, if I pay $500 for an ingame item, I would expect it to be good.”
“regardless, isn’t it co-op against AI or something? balance really ain’t an issue”
“Stupid, but not that big a deal. You buy it or you don’t. The fact that it exists shouldn’t bother you.”
This points to a rather big problem for me – namely that price gouging and “optional” content has become so commonplace within the gaming industry that it no longer exercises the commentariat to paroxysms of rage and the throwing around of words like ‘boycott’. However, the impact of the constant stream of disappointments, from exclusive pre-order DLC to micro-payments, has blunted the edge of Internet ire.
And the thing is, the Angry Internet Men were right to be worried.
Let me lay it out for you, nice and simple. The reason games publishers come out with the products that you cherish so dearly is to make money, and for no other reason. This applies just as much to jolly old Gabe Newell and Valve as it does to EA and their putrescent slew of annual sports donkeys.
Note that I am talking here about the publishing companies, not the designers, developers and other people who work extremely hard and very long hours to do something that they love and respect. In an important sense, they are ones who should be considered the true authors of any title. In another important sense, they have fuck all control over what happens with the end product.
It doesn’t take a genius economist to see that publishing companies are responsible in the last instance only for their bottom line, and in the case of publicly held companies, not just to owners but to the law. Companies are forced by their very nature to treat what you love as a product — not a piece of art, or entertainment, or even as a worthwhile distraction from the plodding inevitable onrush of wasted years, but as something to be produced in the most efficient and cheapest manner and sold with the highest margin of profit that the market will bear.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that there cannot be principled individuals within the industry who will refuse the temptation of obvious profit-oriented strategies that damage the development paradigm. What I am saying, however, is that once the box is opened, you cannot simply stuff the monetisation genie back inside. There will come a stage in the process of game-building now, when a marketeer or finance type will tap the design lead on the shoulder, and initiate a conversation about what content can be safely gated away from the rest, available only to those willing to pay-to-play.
While indie developers may find it easier to laugh off the idea, what about devs working for a huge multinational corporation, where most often it is the suits that are in control? It’s no coincidence that the current era of year-on-year game sales inflation, of blockbusting launches and obscene profits is also the era of the Online Pass, the day-one-DLC pack and the always-online DRM.
So if the drive to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of the consumer with no regard for their aesthetic and social needs is what I am against, what am I for? Well, aside from production based on need and not profit, and a society where resources for production and consumption are held in common; failing global revolution, there seems little point in asking the stuffed shirts and accountants who control the industry to change their ways.
Film critic Mark Kermode made similar criticisms of poor quality Hollywood films in his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. To Kermode, the blockbusters are machines for extracting the money of patrons as efficiently as possible, with very little regard for the magic ingredients that make cinema popular in the first place — a shared participatory activity that blends narrative and genre conventions with visual dynamism in a way that leaves audiences richer in experience than they were when they came in. The sad thing is that there is no reason for film making to have dropped to depths that permit Michael Bay to be a highly bankable figure; profitability is achievable by giving people what they want, the things which they started going to the cinema to see, rather than lazy, empty spectacle that reproduces a series of drab stereotypes.
I share Kermode’s prescription for short-term change within the industry — vote with your wallets. While boycotts are rarely effective in achieving the ends they set out with, they are at least usual propaganda tools. And while diffuse feeling with the market is difficult to translate into action limiting the power of publishers to push their business model, pressure from within the industry can certainly do the job. Our future lies with the next generation of programmers, artists and designers, and what they are willing to do to make a buck.