Mad Mack: Why Bad Business Means Bad Games
There have been a number of rather disastrous game launches in the past few months. The eagerly-anticipated Aliens: Colonial Marines turned out to be more ‘colon’ and less ‘hoo-RAH’; the ugly nemesis of always-online DRM prevented many gamers who’d parted with good money from playing EA’s Sim City on release; and we’ve suffered through mundane and bland sequels and spin-offs like Gears Of War: Judgement, Dead Space 3 and Dead Island: Riptide.
You have to wonder why so much is going wrong for so many game companies. After all, it takes a lot of intelligent people investing a lot of effort to bring a game from concept to completion, so it cannot simply be a lack of intelligence on the part of the development team.
Well, I am about to look under the hood of the knackered old car that is the Triple A gaming industry, and try to go some way to answer that burning question: ‘what the fuck were they thinking?’
Before I begin, I would like to explain that in real life I work as a consultant helping firms bring their products to a market – products that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to take to the consumer. The market is not an exact analogue to video games, but the mistakes companies make in both industries are actually remarkably similar.
Developers don’t release games
Imagine a carpenter making a table. It’s a thing of beauty – made from fine mahogany, hand carved to a contemporary but classic design, and then lacquered and polished to a perfect, mirror finish.
Now, imagine that instead of the carpenter selling that table in his (or her – you sexist pig!) shop, a marketing consultant takes the table away, and decides that day-glo Japanese furniture is now what’s really selling, so he (and it is always a he, because he is a massive dick) has the legs brutally sawn off, and slathers it in neon pink and orange paint before roughly shoehorning it into the back of a lorry with all the other Japanese day-glo furniture where it is then shipped to a random country, regardless of what is actually in fashion in that market.
If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. But as an analogy to video games, it is surprisingly grounded in reality. You see, for a game developer, regardless of how rushed a game is – or the money that was thrown at it – at its core, there will be a group of people who laboured hard and long to make it the best game they could. To them, the game is wonderful and perfect and could not possibly fail to capture the hearts and minds of the target audience, even if, to them, that target audience is a niche core of gamers who are just like the devs and their friends.
While the motivations of anyone developing a game have to be somewhat financially grounded, many enter the development side because it is a chance to express themselves through an artistic medium where you don’t have to be an auteur to succeed.
The indie games market more truly reflects this (unencumbered by publishers and other third parties): some games are amazing, some are not so good, and some are just totally daft; but nearly all of them were a labour of love, unsullied by tricky things like ‘trends’, or ‘fashion’ or ‘focus groups’.
However, we are not talking about indie games here. For the big games, you need a publisher. This publisher will come along, and some asshole from marketing will say: ‘actually, we focus-grouped this, and it isn’t working’. So the devs will have to change their game, or it will never ship. Then, some other asshole comes in and asks: ‘can you, like, slip in some of these products, because we will get a lot of money if you can make your renegade, devil-may care heroine really love using Tampax’. So the devs go off and include several scenes where the character waxes on and on about how she can now have a happy period thanks to those magical Tampax. And so on and so on, until the game has been brutalised beyond all recognition. Only then, once the game has been stretched and poked and moulded to appeal to as many focus groups as possible and have as many product placements as possible, will it ship.
This is all in an effort to create a product. Not a game – a product. One that will appeal to as many different people as possible. After all, the greater the market appeal of your product, the greater the likelihood of commercial success and all those marketing people getting their bonus. You see, developers make games, but publishers release products.
As an aside, if you want a clear idea of how important a publisher is, look no further than the failure of THQ. Games that were more or less complete were put totally at risk because they no longer had a publisher.
The target audience has no money
Regardless of the reality, the games market is seen by investors, executives, shareholders and much of the general public as being dominated by kids and young adults in the 12-24 age range. To an extent this is very true – only in the past 5 to 10 years have computer games really begun to achieve credibility as a mass entertainment medium on a par with TV, movies and books, and thus earned a legitimacy as a leisure pursuit open to individuals of all age ranges. Regardless, the majority of game purchases are made by or on behalf of individuals in the teen/young adult age group.
So, assuming this is true (either that the market is dominated by that age range, or it is perceived to be), what does that mean for an investor? An investor who is, say, over 50 – and who doesn’t really know anything about video games, only that they are ‘played by kids’? Kids who are internet savvy, and oh yeah, a few years ago didn’t they steal loads of money from Metallica or something? Isn’t that why the recording industry has gone to hell?
Well, for a start it means that these money men think their games are going to struggle to make any profit. And maybe they are right. Do you ever wonder what happens to all those games that never make it big? The ones that are launched to neither critical acclaim nor commercial aplomb? Do you think they realistically make their money back for the publishers? No. Unlikely. This goes some way to explaining why EA and Activision keep on pumping out Battle Duty clones: so many games make a loss that they need those sure-things to keep them in the black (for publishers that do the alternative and just make really good, varied games, well, see THQ for what happens to them).
However, it also means that they believe gamers don’t have any money and cannot afford their games, even if they have a guaranteed user -ase and a monolithic marketing and promotions budget. So you know what they think gamers will do? They think you are going to steal that shit.
Awwww yeah, nothing cheaper than free amirite? You will download that shit with your Twitters and then you will Napster it so you can play for free on your Play Boxes – it happens all the time. Well, fuck you, target audience, because we are going to make it Always Online, so we know if you bought it – and you can’t pirate it.
Think about it. Not one person at EA who knows anything about gaming thought that Sim City’s ‘always on’ was a good idea – but they need to show the Powers That Be (shareholders, board of directors, whatever) that they are actively trying to combat piracy as well as keep the revenue stream for DLC open. And that is irrespective of whether the game is shit or not.
As we move into the next console generation, this problem will become increasingly apparent as development costs soar and steps need to be taken to ensure the revenue stream is protected from all you light-fingered teens.
Development costs have outstripped revenue
How much did you pay for a game on the Mega Drive, or Master System, or Amiga? To my recollection, the games cost around £40 when I was but a boy. So what about now? Well, if anything, the games cost less in present money than they did in ‘90s money. Adjusting for inflation, a game that cost £40 should cost in the region of £80 today.
But it doesn’t. Games often cost less than £35 on launch day, and the price (and revenue) drop off rapidly in the months after launch. While I will accept that the user base has grown in the intervening years, the cost of developing a game has absolutely exploded.
Whereas it used to be possible to programme a game in one’s bedroom and make a commercial success of it, nowadays producing a Triple A game costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, combine that with a decline in real terms in willingness to pay for a game, a savvy consumer base, a saturated, highly competitive market plus the rise in piracy (which has an impact that is difficult to quantify admittedly) and the rise in mobile gaming (again, how much of an impact this is having is debatable), and you can see a considerable number of factors are conspiring to lower the potential revenue a game might generate. This, incidentally, is also a problem that is only going to worsen as we move into the next console generation and game development takes an iterative step forward in all terms – graphical, processing and size.
So what does that mean for games? First off, it means that you are going to have outsourcing. Outsourcing can work, but often it doesn’t. Development teams in outsourced companies may lack the knowledge or commitment (or even financial means) to fully develop a game to the expected standard. It seems that it was partly the outsourcing of Colonial Marines that was at the root of a number of issues that caused the game to ultimately flop. I am not saying that it will fail in all circumstances (a lot of DLC is developed by outsourced development teams), but I am saying that it is unlikely to improve a game, and more often than not will lead to an inferior product (which a lot of DLC seems to be when compared to the original experience).
The drop in revenue and increase in cost also means you are going to see a lot more of games publishers trying to monetise the gamer further. Micro-transactions, Day-One DLC and other ‘nickel and dime’ efforts to extract more money from gamers are going to be standard in big games going forward. I have waxed lyrical on this topic previously, but I want to include it here as I feel I am at least offering the point of view from the games publishers this time (instead of just calling them ‘shitcunts’, as usual). These strategies are proving to be remarkably successful for the publishers, so don’t expect them to go anywhere anytime soon.
There are no benchmarks of quality
Gaming is subjective. And variable. And convoluted. And magical.
Like any other established medium, there is no catch-all term that can really cover the entirety of ‘gaming’ – even the established definitions we use (strategy, FPS, RPG etc.) often fall short in really capturing the essence of what the game is about. Look at Starcraft 2 – yes, it is a real-time strategy game. But actually, when you look at the character development and upgrade trees, as well as the story missions that eschew the ‘Mine-Build-Conquer’ model, it comes off more like an action-RPG. So, even within the medium it is difficult to really define what a given game is. This is actually a great thing, and a sign of innovation and variety.
However, it does make the establishment of real benchmarks of quality difficult to identify. We can all look at Half-Life as the FPS game to emulate (a feat that has not really been achieved despite all the advances in game technology), but how does that map to Deus Ex? Maybe Deus Ex is the cyber-punk RPG/FPS to emulate – but how many games fit that rather specific label? Not many, in the grand scheme of things.
This is a problem for a number of reasons, but most obviously it is evident when an utter steaming shit-pile of a game, developed at a cost of millions, is foisted upon the market. You can have a game sit in development for a decade, and what ultimately ends up on your plate is a titty-slapping turd (though of course Duke Nukem had a host of problems as a result of its long development cycle that I am not touching on here), because there is no defined benchmark against which to compare it.
Or a developer can go the other way, and just shit something out in record time and hope that it will pass muster for a while until play testers (i.e. paying customers) can identify and fix the problems plaguing the game (just look at the so-called ‘alpha build of The War-Z’).
This approach saves the developer a lot of money at the expense of the paying customer. I wish I could say that the rapid transfer of information and increasing savvy of the consumer base thanks to the internet has rendered this approach obsolete, but thanks to the rise in pre-ordering of games and direct-to-consumer sales (i.e. Steam and Origin bypassing third party vendors), it is as viable an approach now as it was when you had to wait for monthly review magazines to be sold in the local newsagent.
Without a clear benchmark, it is difficult to really anticipate how a game will be received before it is actually launched. And the easy access consumers have to the product means that impulse or uninformed purchasing decisions will drive success for games that are frankly sub-par. Why do you think Pre-Order bonuses and Special or Limited Editions have exploded in popularity in recent years?
So, there you have it. I hope I have gone some way towards explaining the rationale behind some of the seemingly bamboozling decisions made by games developers and publishers. There are other reasons why poor games and ridiculous decisions will continue to be made (use of social media, consumer apathy, homogenisation of global tastes), but the discussion points above are what I consider to be the most influential factors at work in the Triple A games industry today.