Fucked. That’s the state of the videogame industry in a word. You can keep reading the other 1,200 or so words here, but I can tell you right now this piece is going to end on the same word as it started, because that’s where we are right now: fucked.
You can point the finger anywhere you like, really. It’s as much your fault as it is theirs as it is somebody else’s. If you would only want the same games you wanted last year and the year before and at the same time want new games that haven’t come before then none of this would be happening. Publishers wouldn’t be refusing to spend money on new IP, while, at the same time, spending millions to revamp last year’s hits, stifling creativity and turning what used to be a fun career creating worlds into a dead-end job making trees or coding cheering fans. But then, you want what you want. That’s no crime.
Nor is it a crime that you want what you want how you want it. After years of bitching about wanting the right to make copies of your game purchases, you’ve bent over and grabbed your ankles for Steam, paying good money for games you don’t even get to hold to begin with, much less make copies of or even play the damn things without an internet connection. Now everyone else is scrambling to enable digital distro (with varying degrees of success) and the old model of shipping discs to stores is falling apart.
But hey, you’re not alone in this. Far from it. You can also blame GameStop. If only they’d realize they’re a dinosaur and lie down and die already, they wouldn’t be stuffing their shelves with pre-owned merchandise, selling used discs for mere dollars off the price of new, cutting into publisher profits and eroding the lifeline for struggling developers. If only they’d give up the ghost already and close down their bajillion stores (laying off ten bajillion workers) we could get on with the serious business of moving this industry forward ten paces into a world where developers could afford to distribute games themselves and avoid having sign terrible, soul-crushing deals with greedy game publishers.
Speaking of “terrible deals,” you could lay it all on Metacritic. What good can come from compiling all review scores in one place and then averaging them? None. Developers are now being forced into contracts stating they will not get paid if their “meta-average” does not hit a certain percentage point. Imagine spending years on a game, selling a million copies and then going out of business anyway, because some game reviewer somewhere, decided you didn’t have enough pixels, or that your machine guns weren’t as machine gunny as the other guy’s. But I guess that’s your fault, too, since somebody has to be visiting that site. Must be handy, seeing all review scores at once for every game ever made. Wish I’d thought of that.
I’m part of this equation, too. We game reviewers had to go and get all honest about our work, telling it like it is and refusing to play the public relations game. Those who won’t take money for review scores are jamming the system, making it harder for publishers to get their message out. Better we should all just take the payola and tell you what the publishers want you to know and give review scores based on how fat the checks are, like they used to. Why don’t we do that again? Oh, that’s right. You said you wanted reviews you could trust, so we gave them to you. How’s that working out for everyone?
Where’s that leave the developer? They’re wedged in between publishing companies that are essentially lending banks with their hands on the controls of all distribution, consumers who don’t give a rat’s ass who made the game so long as they’re good and cheap and journalists who alternately want to make names for themselves by crapping all over their hard work and applying for jobs at the developers they’re crapping on. You’d be tempted to think the poor, old game developers are the victims in all of this, but you’d be wrong. Take a peek inside any random game company and you’ll see a world where the normal rules of running a business rarely apply. Where money is spilt like milk and the lunatics fresh out of the asylum are too busy riding skateboards down the hallways to clean any of it up, much less cry about it. If you’re tempted to blame the expansion/contraction cycle of hiring and firing that happens regularly in the game industry before and after a major game is shipped on anyone other than the developers themselves then you’re missing the point as much as they are that, sure a job can be fun but it’s still a job.
Still, aside from lousy business sense, most game developers are the smartest people you’ll ever meet. You’d have to be to juggle the demands of running what is essentially a software development company welded onto an entertainment company with, to paraphrase the “Hold onto your butts” guy from Jurassic Park “all the problems of both.” From tight budgets to tighter milestones, the pitfalls are many and varied, but none are so potentially deadly as the one that’s most important to get right: pleasing the crowd. Truth be told, anyone who spends years making a product and forgets that the most important problem it should solve is entertaining the player deserves whatever comes to them, but getting that right by figuring out what you want in the first place is the hardest nut of all to crack.
And yeah, that’s how I’ve brought it back around to you, the gamer. Because, in actuality it really all is your fault. All of us, from the journos, to the publishers, to the developers to the retailers, are here at your demand. Without you, there’d be no industry, and without your fickle demands, outrageous wants and changing tastes, it’d be a lot safer a place to make a buck.
We are currently living in a time of more entertainment choice than ever before in human history. We have at our disposal more devices capable of more things than ever before. There are more games now being produced for more platforms and played by more gamers, yet to hear your criticisms, read your forum comments and talk to you in online game lobbies, none of the choices are any good. To borrow a line from an analysis of the changing nature of television entertainment, there are currently thousands of ways to play games and nothing to play on them, according to you.
A lot of words have died defending the position that videogame making is an art form through which god-like developers share transcendent experiences, yet the degree to which that may be true is eclipsed by the fact that, first and foremost videogames are entertainment and, as such, serve at your pleasure. Therefore, my friends, whatever the videogame industry is now or will ever be is in your hands. That, in a nutshell, is why it is fucked.*
*(But it doesn’t have to be.)