Behind the Curtain


Why are there 27 identical guitar games, but no Shenmue 3? There are some very simple reasons why the games industry doesn’t work the way we want it to.

I had a friend in college who was a movie buff – and movie buffs know their chosen subject to a scary degree. Not content to just ruminate on the brilliance of Chinatown and The Sound of Music in the same sentence, he could also quote from memory opening weekend box office figures for the past 24 months, explain the duties of a Key Grip and give a vast, detailed rundown of the greenlighting process that decides which movies get made.

Unlike the movie business, or say publishing, where every secret is laid bare and scrutinized, the level of mystery around the games industry is still rather shocking. There remains a layer of secrecy cast over everything that goes on in gaming, something we attempt to maintain by keeping the real creators voiceless and trotting out PR men and producers to be the faces of our games, lest anyone catch a glimpse of Oz behind the curtain.

It’s understandable – decades of tell-all autobiographies and detailed academic analysis have blown open any secrets the movie industry ever had, and I doubt there will ever be a brilliant game that is about making games in the same way Sunset Boulevard shows the movie industry. But it does lead to a lot of people talking about games without much understanding of why things are the way they are.

So why are things the way they are? Why doesn’t the games industry work the way we think it should? Why must we live in a world where the Dreamcast failed but Bobby Kotick succeeds, where Psychonauts is a flop but 50 Cent gets to make not one, but two games? None of the below is secret – in fact, it’s all astoundingly obvious – but in fact, that’s the point.

The Market Rules

It’s a simple point, but one that not enough people seem to get – gaming is a business now. It may not be a particularly well-run or smart business, but a business it is, and the days when hobbyists could decide what got done when are long over.

Most large publishers are publicly traded, which means they have a responsibility first and foremost to their stockholders. And stockholders want to see one thing – graphs labeled “profits” gracefully ascending from left to right, every quarter from now until eternity. That sometimes means making decisions which are totally out of the hands of developers, or that seemingly go against common sense.

These decisions can include rushing a release to make a critical quarter, regardless of the level of quality or the state of bugs – or on the other hand, holding off on a release known to be crappy in order to dump it in a quarter next to your star game so its under-performance goes unnoticed. Or that can mean rushing a slew of sequels to your one well performing series year after year to ensure a steady cash flow, regardless of the long-term detriment to the IP. Or any one of the seemingly moronic decisions that happen around the industry every day and have us, understandably, facepalming and asking “why?!”

To put it another way – if you’re tired of feeling like you’re being ignored by the industry and you want your favorite gaming company to act like its thinking about you, buy stock. You will be first and foremost on their mind every quarter.

Which brings me to the next point:

Every Hour of Work Costs Money

“I don’t understand why they just don’t add in [insert feature here]” is a common complaint from gamers. If you ever find yourself asking that question, don’t bother, because you already know what the answer is – because it costs money. Despite all the technological advances and expensive equipment, the massive budgets involved in gaming these days primarily come from one thing – man hours. People’s time costs money. Talented people’s time costs even more.

Past a certain point in development, every additional option or gameplay tweak that does not directly affect the main core of the game is going to be decided by one factor – will it make more money in sales than it costs to create? Not that creation is the end – every variable you add to the game’s mix (the option to play through as another character after beating the game once, for example) does not just increase, but multiplies the amount of time the game must spend in QA, being played through over and over again.

Is this a short-sighted way of looking at things? Shouldn’t games just be released only when they’re done, which would result in higher scores and better sales? Not necessarily. True, the companies that have the best talent give their talent the time needed to shine. But when your game is six months away from going gold, you’re by and large stuck with what you have – and if the team haven’t made it happen over the past two years, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever make it happen, no matter how much time and money you chuck at the problem. Sometimes you have to cut your losses.

Of course, this is a problem that is only going to get worse because…

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Costs are out of Control

For thirty years, the games industry has sold itself on one thing – power. More power than the rival company. Better graphics than the other guy. Sega does what Nintendo doesn’t, and so on. So much so that, even in the face of unquestionable proof that the average consumer doesn’t really care which machine is the more powerful – the Wii, DS, PS2, PS1 and Game Boy all had more powerful rivals on the market but came out on top, and in spectacular fashion to boot – we still keep turning up the dials on power.

When machines are sold on power, certain standards are expected. That means budgets in the tens of millions – but it also means the ability to shake up the gameplay goes downwards, not upward. Money that big means that you can’t afford to take chances – a cowardly but sometimes sensible way of thinking that is known in acceptable circles as risk aversion. Risk aversion means playing to what’s safe. Like a kid in high school, you want to stand out from the crowd, but only that tiny bit within the acceptable standing-out limits. With millions on the line, it’s hard to take a chance on a new and unproven gameplay idea. Better to rehash something tried and tested and leave it to the marketing team to sort out.

The funny thing is that, like the world economy in early 2008, everybody knows that the current system is unsustainable and destined for failure, and yet we can’t seem to put the brakes on ourselves. We can only hope that the upcoming motion controller battle allows us a little time to get our breath, and bank balances, back.
But while original ideas do exist amongst the lower rank-and-file developers, good luck getting anyone with money to sign off on them because of…

Management Groupthink

Amongst the collective upper management of the industry, there’s a disturbing amount of groupthink for a medium that theoretically has so few boundaries. Think of the amount of guitar games and FPSs out there right now; cast your mind back to the PS1 era, when games that played like Tomb Raider were everywhere, or to the 16-bit era when you were nothing without a 2D scrolling furry mascot to call your own.

But while wholescale rip-offs do occur, the amount of sameness that plagues the games industry is not a result of outright copying – rather, it’s a more insidious process whereby one example becomes law. Only games that look like they will sell will be commissioned; only games that are similar to what’s already out look like they will sell; therefore only games that look like what’s already out there will ever get made.

Until somewhere along the line somebody uncharacteristically takes a risk and releases, say, Guitar Hero. Then five years later you have guitar games taking up a third of floor space in any given Gamestop. Had you told a meeting of industry figures in 2004 if, three years later, plastic guitars would be the hottest thing in gaming you’d have laughed out of the boardroom, because everybody knows peripherals don’t sell. Until they do. It’s a vicious circle that sucks creativity in like a black hole, from which there is no escape.

False Expectations

But why doesn’t the games industry work the way we want it to? More than anything, it’s because we have false expectations of ourselves. Just as the people like my movie buff friend are not the ones who decide the success or failure of the latest Hollywood blockbuster – that job goes to the great unwashed who have never so much as heard of a Key Grip – we are nowhere near as important as we think we are in deciding the fate of the industry.

For all our talk about games like Beyond Good and Evil and Zack and Wiki and MadWorld, for all our self-flattering follies like Internet petitions and community sites, the fate of the games industry does not rest with us. That’s why there will be no Shenmue 3 (I dearly hope to be proven wrong someday though), no Dreamcast 2; it is why Treyarch will still make every other Call of Duty game and Activision will still pump out Guitar Heroes, why Wii Fit Plus will be one of the biggest selling games this year and the DS will continue to outsell any variation of the PSP that exists; and it’s why Nintendo is, in all likelihood, not working on that photo-realistic voice-acted Zelda. The games industry doesn’t work for us anymore – unless, that is, you own stock. In which case, ignore these plebs and please step right this way…

Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and wishes people in the games industry had job titles like Key Grip.

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