We all read from and or write on sites like GameInformer because we all share a common thread: we love video games. We love the smell of a freshly opened game (or dread the smell of a used game) as we tear open the packaging in anticipation of the new gaming experience we are about to partake in (after load and install times, of course). Whether we agree with design concepts of the developers have made, we relish and devour the gameplay/cutscenes/animations/[insert other game design aspect here]. In short, we romanticize gaming. 

Sure, gaming it has its issues and flaws but I submit the thought that we focus on and blow those issues out of proportion because we romanticize the hobby pointing out the flaws like a car enthusiast pointing out the small scratches or dents on their otherwise pristine 1969 Corvette. But underneath the hood of this beautiful hobby lays the grimy engine, the dark truth of gaming: it is a business.

Too often it seems the gaming community tries to tell itself or the outside world that they understand what it means for video games to be a business but all too often it comes off as a child trying to tell their parents they know how to use a knife as they cut towards themselves with the blade.

 

Money is King

Everyone knows that Corporations have officers like CEO's and CFO's that make, in some cases, enormous amounts of money. But how people understand what they do or who they work for if they are at the top of the proverbial food chain?

Corporate officers are elected by its shareholders (those who own parts of a company). The job of these officers is to protect and further the interests of the shareholders. Whether this means they are to grow the worth of the business or increase money on hand to pay additional money to shareholders through dividends. Either way, money is what drives them.

Say, for instance you have a friend who wants to open a used game store. They come to you and ask you for $1,000 and in exchange they will give you part ownership in the company. Sometimes this means you will get a piece of the profits of the company. Other times it means you need your money back but the business has grown in size, so your piece is now worth $2,000. So you sell your piece either back to your friend or to someone else for the $2,000 and their goal is to make that piece worth $4,000. And on it goes.

 

But I am the Customer, Mine is the Money they Prize

And so it is, it is your money they want but they walk a fine line between creativity and profit. If a few thousand people whine and cry about a missing feature in a game but only a few hundred people will not buy the game because the feature is missing, why bother spending the extra money? But if you only have to invest $1,000 to add a feature that will bring in an extra $5,000 in revenue, why not go for it?

We could use the example of Assassin's Creed here but I won't because it would open a dozen other debates and arguments all with very heated opinions. Instead, we're going to discuss long time game designer and system beast, Nintendo. From a hindsight financial perspective, Nintendo has made some of the most idiotic decisions in the last year or two: deciding to release a not-so-next-gen console to compete with next gen consoles and deciding to omit Blu Ray playback. Their most recent decision has been to ignore adding streaming capabilities onto the Wii U, believing the financial return would not justify the investment. At this point, nobody can argue with the decision from a financial perspective. Nintendo's Wii found great success in an older audience that would most likely find no gain in being able to stream their gameplay online, so adding the feature to the Wii U will most likely generate very few additional console sales. Is it something fans want? Sure, but will it satisfy the first rules of business, to make money? No.

Creative decisions are monetized every day in the gaming industry. To add multiplayer or a single player campaign; to make playable male, female, gay, transgender, white black, etc... characters; adding a tutorial; using live-action versus animated characters; do we try and stem piracy and benefit from used game sales with on-line passes; the list goes on. All of these decisions are brought to the table and price tags attached to each and every one. Some are labeled as 100% necessary while others are placed on a wish list and still more aren't even considered. In the end, not everyone can be pleased, just as long as the expense is justified by additional revenue to cover the expenses.


Game Designers Walk the Financial Tightrope with Every Title they Work On

To Play it Safe or Roll the Dice

Gamers are amongst the touchiest consumers on the market. Simply by saying that I am sure I have elicited at least one mental defensive "no we're not." It is not, however, entirely unjustified. We shell out an average of $60 for a single game we may finish in a matter of days and never touch again. Others we play for years on end and remain just as content as the first day we put the game in the console. Top that with the $400+ we pay for systems these days and you get an audience who wants their money's worth for every purchase they make. So many game players buy only the highest rated games out there, decrying anything that would have a Metascore below an 85. It is no wonder publishers and developers throw piles of money into events like E3 to excite gaming journalists and vendors so they pass their excitement on to you before they have ever played anything more than a scripted segment of a game or less.


Publishers fear the fickle gaming populace

Sadly, this review-centered line of thinking causes two problems. First, and foremost, people miss out on some great titles who were simply subjected to another person's opinion. Second, it scared publishers and developers alike, making every new IP they release a roll of the dice and in some cases that gamble or a series of those gambles can lead to the collapse of a publisher or developer (i.e. THQ). So, when faced with the decision of taking a successful title and making it a yearly release to appease the constant money needs of investors or throw out a new IP that could take years to develop and has a questionable future it is no wonder Activision and EA chose to take the yearly release route. This decision, in turn, provides little incentive for the big developers and publishers to truly innovate as long as the masses are buying in. So long as sales continue to grow for IP's like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, etc... you will never see an end to the yearly release model and creativity in these titles will stagnate if it hasn't already. After all, if it ain't broke (i.e. they keep making more money off of it), why fix it?

 

Indie Games are Our Saving Grace?

First off, I am happy indie developers are getting their time in the spotlight. Games like Journey, Minecraft, Super Meatboy, etc... deserve their time in the spotlight. Their lack of dependence on the financial decisions of a giant publisher leave them open to explore new creative realms and try things the AAA publishers wouldn't have the stones to do. In this respect, that "indie" stamp acts as a strength. They can run a leaner ship, sell games for less money and still walk away successful.

Unfortunately, there is another side to the indie stamp that is not so good. "Indie" these days implies something of a haughty attitude towards gaming. I remember watching Indie Game: The Movie and coming to the conclusion that I could not hang out with any of those guys simply from the attitude they carried towards popular gaming. As South Park once put it, it is like dealing with people who claim to love the smell of their own flatulence.

This attitude towards what is popular in gaming from big titles now sometimes bleeds into their work, steering them further and further from what would sell versus what won't because they aren't looking at the cost-benefit of their decisions, they just do it because it would be cool in the game. There is something noble and honorable in that line of thinking. But, as it is with Game of Thrones, honorable and noble generally doesn't have a good outcome in the long run.

As an act of experiment, I went onto Steam's Greenlight and went through 100 of the titles out there asking to find its way onto Steam. In my opinion (keep in mind, this is my OPINION), I found only 5 indie titles I would buy. The rest were either way the heck too strange, lacked features I would consider key to the gametype, or I just thought were outright stupid. Granted, Greenlight cannot be taken as an entire representative population of indie games, but it is as close as I could come to a gut check for my thoughts.To top it off, indie developers suffer more from an issue even larger developers cannot avoid, many of their project managers are great designers, but poor project leaders. In large developers, people are promoted based on their coding or design skills rather than their ability to lead, causing additional expenses and delays (i.e. every game ever announced a year too early).

So while indie games deserve their time in the spotlight and they can make major changes to the industry (i.e. Journey, Minecraft, The Walking Dead), they will only produce a handful of popular and worthwhile (note the use of the word "and" and don't freak out on me people who love indie titles) titles every year. This would not be enough to buoy up the entire industry on its own. Like it or not, they need the big publishers too, just in a different way. But don't get me wrong, there are some amazing indie games out there (Bastion aside...I didn't like that one).

In Conclusion

Engines are greasy and dirty compared to the polished paint exterior and refined leather interiors of the cars they propel. But without them, a car is nothing more than a museum show piece or a lawn ornament in the backwoods of Arkansas. Our opinions aside, our hobby cannot exist without the dirty engine that is business and money. We would do well to spend more time considering this point as we formulate our own opinions of the industry and the decisions publishers and developers make while trying to entertain us with their passion and their art.

 

It has been a long time since I last wrote on this site and an even longer time since I wrote a more serious blog like this. It feels good to be back. Feel free to post your thoughts and opinions below in the comments.