What's in a Game?

Gaming at the Margins


In November of 2005, I gave a talk at the Montreal International Game Summit. To say the reaction to my talk was “incendiary” might be something of an overstatement, but not by as much as you might think. I thought I was providing a relatively straightforward counterpoint to what I saw as relatively foolish optimism on the part of many of my peers, the press and industry analysts. “Things will be great in the grand and glorious future,” everyone seemed to be saying. I saw a more precarious and unpredictable future for gaming, and the organizers of the Montreal conference gave me a marvelous international forum to talk about that. (If you want to check out the slides from that talk, they’re posted here – you can also check out talks by other conference participants, which I highly recommend.)

Recently, The Escapist offered me the opportunity to return to the topics I’d discussed and expand on them in a way I couldn’t in a 45 minute lecture. Those of you who attended the Montreal conference will find what follows familiar (though I hope there’s enough new material here to keep you reading). Those of you who didn’t attend the conference can judge for yourself if I’m completely off my rocker, instead of having to depend on press reports and forum posts for your facts.

So, without further ado…

We work in a medium of staggering potential. I believe with all my heart in that potential and in the creative capabilities of the people who create, critique and play games.

Our ability to take people places they’ve never been before and allow them to do things they couldn’t do in any other way is hugely powerful. The opportunity to allow players to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes makes us, at least potentially, the most remarkable medium of expression in the history of, well, expression.

And though I sometimes worry that players seem willing – even eager – to settle for the mediocre, the rehashed, the non-interactive experience masquerading as interactivity, I have hope that, as gamers grow up, they will begin to demand more than they did as children or adolescents.

Unfortunately, despite my hopes and our medium’s potential, I have to be honest with you: I often find myself despairing, these days. For all the good, positive signs I see, there are an equal number of problems and pitfalls before us.

We are in a “best of times, worst of times” situation.

It’s the best of times because…
We live in an era of powerful new hardware, sky high sales, $25 billion in revenue world-wide, new business models and big media interest in what we do, and those big media types both promote our efforts in the press and, increasingly, seek to involve themselves in the creation of games.

But that’s not all. We also live in a time when older players, women and an increasingly international audience mean we’re no longer limited by an audience of adolescent males. As a result, industry analysts project double digit growth in revenues, and we enjoy unprecedented cultural credibility and interest in what we do.

Wow, things look great!

But, it’s also the worst of times
It doesn’t take a genius to see that powerful new hardware is threatening to drive development costs even higher than they already are. To drive sales to levels that justify those development costs, marketing costs are skyrocketing, too. And, if you’re paying any attention at all, it’s hard not to notice a glut of “product,” not all of it original. We’re awash in licenses, sequels and “me too” games – vain attempts by publishers to increase the odds of breaking even or, dare I say it? Profiting…

Frighteningly, despite the increasing emphasis on the safe, the tried and the true, despite all that “pre-sold property” cluttering the shelves, despite big marketing spends, sales are not keeping pace with costs – gamers simply aren’t buying in numbers sufficient to justify what we’re spending. Check out the SEC filings of any publicly traded game developer or publisher – the numbers aren’t pretty.

And that’s not all we face in the way of problems. All that big media attention I mentioned earlier? Well, some of those big media types are stirring up a pot of trouble for us, focusing on the “dangers” of gaming and our ability to influence kids – which leads to legal action and government attention we’d be better off avoiding. And when they’re not stirring up fear, big media players, seeing the potential of the hardware and salivating over industry growth rates that TV and movies will probably never see again, want a piece of our action… again. Didn’t we go through this 10 years ago? This time:

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we’re not careful, we could end up just another part of the vast, old school entertainment machine.

Still think things look great? Wait – there’s more trouble in paradise.

Developers are getting older all the time. Many of us are no longer part of our own target demographic! And just as some of us are looking to, oh, you know, have a life, publishers are looking for ways to keep costs down, asking developers to make quality of life cuts – work longer hours, do increasingly assembly-line-like work – for what amounts to lower pay. And more jobs are being sent overseas all the time.

Will the real future please stand up?
Depending on how you look at things, you can paint a picture of gaming’s bright future of growing profits and importance, or one of doom and gloom – of irrelevance and stagnation. Either could be true. Which future is our real future? Will we go mainstream or marginal?

The answer to that question will be determined by how we address a series of critical decisions ahead:

How will we deal with the upcoming explosion of platforms? And not just Xbox 360, PS3 and Revolution but PSP, DS, Gizmondo, cell phones, PDAs and who knows what else?

What sort of content will we provide our changing audience? Will we address an excruciatingly audience-limiting lack of diversity in our content?

What will we learn from the business success of online multiplayer gaming? Will we apply those lessons to other game styles and find entirely new ways of funding development and reaching our audience, or will we just keep doing things the way we always have?

Will we even bother to address the myriad social issues facing us? What do we think about gender issues, legal issues and generational issues as they impact developers, publishers and players?

And, finally, shouldn’t we spend at least a little time considering our place in world culture – the place we currently occupy and the place we’d like to occupy? Am I the only person for whom the word “legacy” (and I don’t mean my personal legacy!) carries more weight with each passing year and with each lurching move toward the mass market?

Lots of people clearly don’t see these questions as significant – there’s been so much written and said in recent years about gaming’s inevitable march to mainstream acceptance, it’s easy to stop thinking, to assume everything’s OK and destined to stay that way.

Such an outcome seems far less certain to me than to the true believers. I see us approaching a series of crossroads, any one of which could lead us to Heaven or Hell, toward a position as a mainstream medium or toward our traditional position as a marginal industry, a marginal activity for kids and a marginal contributor to world culture.

Racing toward all of these crossroads at once seems like a demand to pause and make conscious decisions about what we want our medium, our business, our lives to be.

Whether we succeed and soar to new heights or fail and return to our status as the marginal medium we used to be will be determined by a host of critical decisions we make over the next few years. (But no pressure…)

Chicken Little or Paul Revere?
Right now, you might be asking yourselves, “Is this guy serious?” Surely, we’re not at any risk of losing the ground we’ve gained over the last 20 years! Surely, we’re not headed back to the margins of social awareness, profitability and creativity!

Well, that’s precisely what I’m saying and, yes I’m serious as a heart attack. Whether I end up looking like a crazy doomsayer, walking the streets mumbling about the end of the world, or like a patriot who roused people from their slumber to confront and defeat a real threat will depend on which choices we make at the upcoming crossroads. That will determine whether gaming remains at or returns to marginal status – as a business, as an art form and as a medium of personal and cultural expression.

And for those of you who think I’m being an alarmist, that media don’t rise and fall in the way I’m describing, let me assure you they do. Media move around in cultural significance and profitability all the time. We’re not the first medium to face this.

  • When was the last time you went to a vaudeville show or listened to a radio drama?
  • Have you visited an arcade recently? (OK, I guess there’s still Dave & Buster’s.)
  • How many years has it been since Broadway was a vital part of American mass culture?
  • And does anybody outside the world of comic books really think adults are going to embrace “graphic novels” as serious literature anymore? Maybe as fodder for movies, but I doubt the Spider-man movies have convinced many librarians to put funny books on their shelves.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe we’re going to go away – gaming isn’t a fad like the hula hoop or Nehru jackets. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where gaming just… fades away. We’re gonna be OK. It’s just that it’s relatively easy for me to imagine scenarios where mainstream audiences get sick of us, sick of the product we offer them, sick of repetitive, seemingly-but-not-really interactive, emotion-free, slam-bang, U.S.-centric, urban, hip hop action games and alien invasion scenarios.

In other words, I can see us limiting ourselves to the same subset of adolescent male players we’ve always reached. And if we do that, it’s back to the margins for us.

I went down to the crossroads… Fell down on my knees
Let’s get more specific. What “crossroads” are we approaching, and where do the roads branching from these crossroads lead us?

For starters, there’s a Cultural Crossroad. Games have traditionally been a marginal or niche activity, but now we’re moving into the mainstream, which leads to…

A Generational and Gender Crossroad. Games are beginning to appeal to a broader audience than ever, which frightens the older, non-gaming generation and places new demands on developers in terms of content. And we’re appealing to more women all the time (finally!). Both of which lead to…

An Online Crossroad. What impact will online distribution and social play have on our players, our games and our business? Is there a future for traditional single player games, or will we take the branch in the road that leads to a predominantly or exclusively online and/or multiplayer gaming future?

And just as we’re having to deal with these Really Big Issues – as if they weren’t enough to challenge us and threaten our future – we face other, more specific crossroad-like choice points, all worth thinking about before we reach them:

There’s a Regional transition – the increasing importance of foreign markets and foreign developers (defined as “whichever country you’re not from”). This has profound ramifications for developers and marketers. Will we pick the easy path of making games for ourselves, or will we adopt a more international attitude? And how will we take advantage of, or compete with, an international resource pool that’s often cheaper and no less gifted than homegrown talent?

There’s the upcoming Platform transition, of course, but that’s not all we face. In addition to the Xbox 360, PS3 and Revolution, there’s the increasing importance of cell phones and PDAs (and PCs, of course) as gaming platforms. We’re entering a world where players will have more and more ways to access games. Will we stick our head in the stand and assume PC games are separate from console games which are separate from mobile games, and so on?

And when it comes to Business issues, there’s no shortage of questions and potential transitions:

[ul class=”dark”]
  • Will games continue to be a “blockbuster” business, with every title the equivalent of a big budget summer action movie?
  • Will we be dominated by the Big Media players, enviously eying our revenue numbers?
  • Will we continue to churn out licenses and sequels, or will we find ways to broaden the range of development funding schemes, development budgets and development processes, thus opening ourselves up to more (and more original) game styles?
  • [li]Will we stick to the traditional path to market of Publisher Funding/Big Studio Development/Big Box Retailing, or will we find new ways to reach consumers? Will we create a development culture and a business model that supports the two-guys (or gals)-in-a-garage model? Or, should we all plan on lucrative and fulfilling careers as workers bees in a game development hive? Just as the gap between rich and poor is widening in most Western nations (and certainly the United States), the game of game development increasingly favors the well-off, publisher-funded developer.[/blockquote]

    And finally, perhaps most importantly, we face a Content Crossroad. Gaming, as a medium, has traditionally limited its subject matter to adolescent male fantasies – sports and power fantasies – but now, we have to appeal to a more diverse audience.

    In the next installment of this article, we’ll look at each of these issues in a bit more detail.

    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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