Gaming at the Margins, Part 2

This article is the second in a four part series, beginning with Gaming at the Margins.

The Cultural Crossroad

The Situation
I don’t know about you, but I feel like there’s a target painted on my chest. Gaming is dead square in the cultural crosshairs, these days. Kids, teens and 20-somethings love us, which means parents and politicians are keeping an eye on us – and blaming us for all the ills of the modern age. It’s kind of cool that people are paying that much attention to us after years of ignoring us, but why now, and what can or should we do about it?

The why is pretty straightforward:

The last few years have seen an explosion in the popularity and cultural credibility of games.

  • Obviously, they love us for our money. The kind of revenue numbers we post ensures that we get some attention.
  • We’re written up in Newsweek and reviewed in Playboy, Entertainment Weekly and local newspapers.
  • Will Wright is named one of Esquire magazine’s most influential people and EA’s Larry Probst makes Entertainment Weekly‘s Power List.
  • Hollywood’s all over game IP – and, on the flip side, looking to turn just about every movie idea into a game, now that we’re stealing their core audience.

We’ve reached the point where, as MIT professor Henry Jenkins said after Columbine, “If you want to find the weird kid, look for the one who doesn’t play videogames, not the one who does…”

That all sounds great, right? Our audience is growing and people are paying attention – nothing wrong with that. Well, maybe not, but there’s no denying that the larger our audience grows, the more kids turn to games as a way of passing time, as well as entertaining and educating themselves, the more parents and cultural gate-keepers will pay attention and, in all likelihood, feel threatened.

There’s a whole generation of baby boomers out there who, for the most part, grew up without computers and don’t get games. They got their parent-bugging, rebellious kicks in other ways (notably by growing their hair long, listening to rock ‘n’ roll and protesting an unjust war – OK, so maybe things aren’t so very different). A lot of boomers don’t understand why their son barricades himself in his room every afternoon killing demons… why their daughter, instead of playing with Barbies, spends every waking moment raising a family of little electronic people. People fear and blame what they don’t understand. It’s always been that way.

And thanks to hardware advances, what gamers experience these days is clearly more compelling, at least on the surface, than what we used to offer, which further increases the gate-keepers’ fear level – escaping to a 16-color virtual world populated by stick figure villains was one thing; escaping to a world where the cop you kill or the car you steal looks, sounds and behaves like the real thing is an entirely different matter. Is it any wonder non-gaming adults in positions of power fear us and our influence?

The Choice
So, what do we do about this?

  • Should we worry about parents who don’t get it?
  • Should we fear government or judicial intervention?
  • Should we do things differently to mollify the worry-warts of the world?
  • Or should we just hunker down, revel in the fact that we kinda own the teens and 20’s scene right now and keep doing what we’re doing?

On the one hand, it’s a truism in the industry and among most cultural critics and financial analysts that, as gamers age, they’ll continue to play, on their own and with their kids. And as those playing parents move into positions of authority – political, educational and cultural – gaming will inevitably be accorded the respect it deserves, moving from marginal activity to become the dominant medium of the 21st century.

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So, maybe there really isn’t a choice to be made here, other than doing what we do and waiting things out. Eventually, guys like Joe Lieberman and Dave Grossman, and organizations like Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence will be replaced by a generation of gaming Congressmen and parents and we’ll be fine.

To be honest, I pretty much believe that to be the case. Eventually, some other medium will come along that we don’t understand, and the cultural crosshairs will move, leaving us to do our thing while someone else takes all the heat.

However, there’s a fine line between waiting things out and ignoring a problem in the hope that it will go away. Things could get ugly before they get better. In addition (and here I’m about to speak a bit of heresy – perhaps because I’m kind of an old fart myself!), I’m starting to think there might be something positive we can take from what these folks are telling us about our medium.

In other words, perhaps we can do something to reduce the fear factor among non-gamers, minimize the risk of outside intervention (i.e., regulation and censorship) while expanding our audience even further and contributing more positively to our culture.

To my mind, the best answer to the “problem” of the place of games in our culture is to expand the range of content we make available.

The Outcome(s)
The cultural crossroad can take us in a variety of directions:

We can continue as we are – making mindless, pathetic killfests or sports games that revel in blood spurts, bling and bad attitude. (And, no, I don’t believe the industry statistics about how few games are actually like that.) That leads, I think, to a coarsening of our culture and to government and judicial intervention. And that means eventual cultural irrelevance.

Or, we can knuckle under to the pressure from external groups, clean up our games and offer players nothing but pablum. That’s what comics did following congressional investigations and in the face of pressure from folks like Frederic Wertham. We see what that got them: A medium that almost achieved some credibility among adults was reduced to trivial entertainment for kids for 40-odd years.

Or, we can seek a third way, offering players a wider variety of game types:

  • We have to make games with a consciousness of our social obligations as creators of mediated entertainment and with a consciousness of the dialogue between designers and players.
  • We have to tackle design and technical problems at least as difficult as, and possibly more profound than, a new rendering model or better physics simulation, so we can do more than simulate the pulling of a virtual trigger.
  • We have to figure out how to create human antagonists and allies who can do more than offer a combat challenge.
  • We need to find ways to free players up to explore a variety of behavioral choices as they solve game problems, rather than killing everything that moves.
  • We can show players the consequences of their choices, rather than just patting them on the back for solving meaningless puzzles.
  • We can help players explore a broad range of emotions, instead of just offering them a cheap adrenaline rush.

I’m convinced if we do all this – if we ask players to consider why they’re doing things in-game, rather than just rewarding action for action’s sake – we’ll have a compelling case to take to the would-be regulators and we’ll appeal to folks who wouldn’t now be caught dead playing games. And we’ll contribute to the culture in positive ways apparent to all.

Diversified Development Community and Audience

The Situation
I see yet another best of times/worst of times situation in the aging of the game development and game player communities, as well as in an increasing number of female gamers.

From the player side, young players are sticking with us as they grow up, rather than moving on to other forms of entertainment. Anecdotally, men and women I started playing boardgames and videogames with when we were in our 20’s are still playing today, now that we’re in our, well, let’s just say our second childhoods and move on. And one of the coolest things to me is that many of us in this… older… demographic are playing with our kids.

The received wisdom in industry circles is our core demographic has expanded from early-teens and 20’s to upper 20’s. Thirteen to 17 used to be the heart of the market; now, it seems like 17-24. Assuming that trend continues, it has profound implications. Older players, with different life experiences will, inevitably, demand different kinds of content.

On the development side, the implications are equally profound. Crunch time is on the rise at a time when many developers are, by virtue of age and family factors, less able and willing to work crazy hours. And we have older people generating content and creating games aimed at teenagers and early-20 somethings. How’s that supposed to work?

As one of the older guys still actively involved in game development, the age question really hits home for me. Personally, I want something more, something different from games now than I did when I started playing years ago. And, in the spirit of total honesty, I want to spend time with my family, have a life and not have to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. And I know I’m not alone.

Another aspect of the aging issue hit home for me in a very specific way a couple of years ago when I realized I had two designers from different generations, working on the same game, sitting next to each other: One 18, single, never lived away from his mom, never went to college, working on his first game; the other, late 30’s, college grad, married, on his sixth full-scale project. They shared almost no life experiences, barely spoke the same language, but somehow, they had to find a way to collaborate in the creation of something coherent and compelling. I, for one, don’t know how we’re going to deal with it.

For all the talk, all the white papers, all the conferences, I really haven’t seen much progress in attracting women as either developers or players.

On the development side, there were a couple of women at Origin when I started and about the same percentage when I left. We still have very few women in development, and those who are have rarely risen to positions where they play the driving creative role that pushes game design in new directions. By and large, women work on “guy games” and their work is indistinguishable from that of their male counterparts.

The handful of companies founded by women and/or with the express purpose of making games for girls (never women, note) are either out of business or making games that don’t make much of a dent in the male-dominated press, at the trade shows or, near as I can tell, on the sales charts.

I don’t know if the lack of progress in attracting more women to development is lack of desire, interest or opportunity (perhaps a result of conscious or unconscious discrimination by the guys in charge). Whatever it is, it might as well be 1989, for all the progress we’ve made.

From the player side, it seems pretty much the same to me – except in the world of online gaming, where I really do see more women playing. That’s a huge plus and maybe the most positive thing to be said about MMOGs.

Sadly, there’s been literally no progress, here, that I can see. The number of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others among developers is pitifully low. Given the lack of role models among developers and characters to relate to among our heroes and heroines, it’s no surprise we’re doing such a poor job of encouraging ethnic diversity.

The Choice
We can just accept that we make games for kids and kids alone (or fool ourselves into thinking that older players will continue to want the same kinds of games they played as kids). In other words, we can allow adolescent male fantasies to dominate as they always have, focusing on skateboarding, urban thuggery, extreme sports, alien invasions, demon-killing and so on. And we can continue to make those adolescent games the way we always have – and just not worry when we burn out people. We can continue to assume women and non-Caucasians just don’t count.

Or, we can engage in active outreach to a broader range of developers. We can engage in equally active outreach by making games that are about things older, non-male gamers might actually care about.

The Outcome(s)
Current growth projections and expanding demographics be damned – we’re doomed if we continue to focus on our younger male players and on simplistic representations of more adult conflicts (see the deluge of so-called “realistic” wargames in recent years). OK, perhaps not “doomed,” literally, but doomed to continued (young) male domination of our industry and of the sales charts.

But we can make a different choice: If we have all these old fart developers lurking about, and we believe the gaming audience is getting older, maybe we could try trusting ourselves and make games we actually want to play.

Maybe we can try listening to the women we work with for a change. If women are playing MMOGs, maybe those of us in the non-MMOG space should be looking a little harder at why they’re playing those games and apply those lessons in our work.

Maybe we can ponder the possibilities for new game concepts and styles, and the sales potential in trying to reach the non-Anglo, non-North American audience.

Social/Solitary Activity

The Situation
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock the last decade you know MMOGs have burst on the scene. They no longer loom as a real financial force in our business, they are a financial force.

Just do the math. WoW has something like 6 million subscribers, most of whom are shelling out $15 a month for the privilege of engaging in some moderately interesting social interaction and some relatively simple gameplay.

That’s a nice bit of revenue generation.

Even less successful MMOGs represent great business – I mean, we’re talking about $180 of revenue per player, per year. Get even 100,000 players, and you’re talking $18 million per annum. A lot of people in the single player game space would be pretty happy about that. In fact, I know several people who made the leap from single player to “boutique” MMOGs and they’re doing quite well – by not competing either with the big, boxed single player games or with the big MMOG players. Their “narrowcast” MMOGs attract 10,000 people or so, generating enough subscription revenue to keep a team of five people nicely employed.

As a guy who isn’t in the MMOG space, I have to tell you, it’s awfully tempting to try to find a way to tap into that kind of revenue stream.

The Choice
Well, for starters, I wish more people in this business would recognize that there is a choice. With each passing year, I hear more and more people saying, “Online is the future of gaming” or, “MMOGs are it – single player gaming is dead.”

First, that seems silly to me; second, it seems sad. Look, I love stories – in any medium. And there’s a reason why most stories have a single hero. Stories just work better that way. So, single player gaming is important to me because it seems important to give players the experience of being The Hero of their own, compelling story, rather than bit players in a story of random events told by thousands, even millions of people.

So, the obvious question that arises from the ascendance of MMOGs and other online games is this: What can those of us in the single player (or small group multiplayer) space learn from MMOGs?

If we don’t learn from them, we might go the way of the dodo. If boxed game guys just keep on selling their boxed games at retail, it’s hard to see much of a future. Can we find a way to tap into the delivery systems and business models pioneered by the MMOGs? Can we non-MMOG guys get players’ credit card numbers?

We have to find ways to go direct to consumers. We have to tap into that $10 or $15 a month MMOG players get charged and forget about long after they’ve lost interest in the game. I mean, NCsoft got about $60 off of me after I stopped playing City of Heroes and before I remembered to cancel my subscription. My wife’s WoW habit has gone down to once or twice a week now, but Blizzard is still collecting her $15, like clockwork, and she can’t bring herself to stop playing completely.

I want a piece of that action!

We need to extend MMOG-style billing and distribution to non-MMOGs. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this sort of effort in Valve’s Steam, Comcast’s Games on Demand, Gametap, and BioWare’s online store. Greg Costikyan and Johnny Wilson recently announced their new online distribution venture, Manifesto Games. We need more of this.

And we need to take the idea further, delivering games in episodic form, adopting a television model, and more specifically, a cable model, rather than emulating the film industry’s standalone blockbuster mindset. Come on, HBO, get in the game!

The Outcome(s)
I think if we continue to think of MMOGs and single player games as two completely separate businesses the single player/retail side of things really could get destroyed. Heck, even EA execs are beginning to talk about the importance of going direct to consumers, and they own traditional retail distribution!

The convenience of direct distribution combined with the no-effort, low cost credit card purchase is just too powerful, from a consumer’s point of view, not to carry the day. As iTunes and other online businesses wean consumers from the need for a physical object that represents their purchase to a psychological place where intangible bits and bytes are worth spending money on, the two sides of gaming have to come together. I don’t think we can stop this, even if we want to.

Next time
Next installment, we’ll talk about some of the hardware and business challenges ahead.

Warren Spector is the founder of Junction Point Studios. He worked previously with Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios, TSR and Steve Jackson Games.

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