Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Games Industry Is Its Own Citizen Kane

Robert Rath | 13 Feb 2014 16:01
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Owning your customers, too, is an industry sin. When Microsoft doubled down on its DRM policies, always-on Kinect and 24 hour check-ins, it believed it could weather the storm simply because it was Microsoft and their fans would all buy in anyway. They ignored every indication that consumers didn't want these features and ploughed ahead as if their customers owed them allegiance rather than the other way around. Over and over again with DRM, with SIM City's mandatory multiplayer, with on-disc DLC or shipping games that are unfinished or with odious free to play monetization schemes, companies continually act like we are beholden to them. Instead of creating a good product and selling it at a fair price, to often games seem conceived to serve the company's needs first. This is a thoroughly backward understanding of economics, and companies flirt with it at their own peril - as Microsoft discovered, and EA recently found with Dungeon Keeper. Every product strikes a balance between what consumers want to buy and companies want to sell, and if that balance sways too much toward the company, even your most loyal customers will desert you.

And perhaps due to that feeling of ownership game publishers have over their audience, some don't feel compelled to keep their own promises. Sometimes it happens despite a good faith effort, like how BioShock Infinite changed significantly from its original demo, but updated consumers' expectations with advertising before release. But in darker examples like Aliens: Colonial Marines, the game consumers bought - as pointed out masterfully by The Escapist's own Jim Sterling - was fundamentally different than the one promised in its promotional material. Other times broken promises are less about single games and more about a company's changing mission over the long term. It's difficult to read EA's old "Can a Computer Make You Cry?" advertisement without thinking how far they've fallen from their original vision - to the point that Extra Credits read the statement back to EA Marketing, much the same as Jedediah Leland mailed Kane his original Statement of Principles to remind the great man that he'd once had integrity. Likewise Nintendo, once so guarded about what games carried its Seal of Quality, has been slapping it on third-party shovelware for years - not to mention their bad record on conflict minerals, strange for a company that's all about "spreading smiles."

But far sadder than the broken promises and bad games are the good ones the industry sends out with unrealistic expectations. Like Kane's mistress Susan Alexander bombing at the opera house, they're pushed into the public unready on a stage where they can't possibly compete. Consider poor Tomb Raider, a game that failed to meet Square Enix's internal sales expectations - but how could it, when Square set the bar so high? You'd think setting a franchise record for sales and clearing 3.4 million units in a month would be enough, but it's not when you give a game unrealistic goals. Just because a woman can sing doesn't mean she can star in an opera. Just because you make an excellent, big-budget game doesn't mean it'll sell like Call of Duty - and it's unfair to both the product and design team to expect it to.

Then there are games - even successful ones - that get pushed out the door unready. Games that still carry the scars from the industry's policy to release now and patch later. It's a strategy that amounts to throwing the devs over the cliff and ordering them to build a parachute on the way down, so of course games ship broken. Take Battlefield 4, for instance, which still has systemic problems three months after launch. By all accounts it's a well-made and financially successful game, but rushing it to market marred what could've been a successful launch.

Except according to EA leadership, the launch was successful, and don't tell them otherwise. Like Kane, they're sitting in their opera box, doggedly clapping to drown out the lukewarm applause.

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