Dear Game Maker People,
I’ve been purchasing and playing your products since I was very young. I’ve met many of you at various conferences, shows and press events. I’ve been to your offices, your parties and your homes. I consider some of you friends, and even those of you who it is not my pleasure to know well are dear to me. It is out of fondness, therefore, that I write this letter, and I hope that it is received thus.
What I need to tell you is something you desperately need to hear. It is something you may have heard before, in jest, but I need you to hear me and to understand that I am being sincere. I need you to listen and to act, and above all trust that I am speaking the truth. This is difficult for me to write, but I know it is more difficult for you to see written. Again, I apologize.
What I am writing to tell you is that there is a grave threat to the future of the videogame industry and that threat is you. Yes, you.
This fall I’ve played three separate games from three separate game makers that were all unmitigated technological disasters. All three were AAA titles made by premier development studios. These are not games made by fly-by-night companies. None of the three are ports, or bargain titles, or were made cheaply or quickly. All of the three are from reputable publishers. I’m talking about companies like Bethesda, 2K and Microsoft. These are companies with reputations for quality. Companies that should know better than to release faulty products. Companies, in other words, I trust.
Although you can probably guess to which games I’m referring, I won’t single any one out. That would not be in the spirit of why I am writing this. I could (and perhaps should) write a detailed rant about each failed gameplay experience created by each of these three broken games, but that would serve no purpose other than to assuage my temper. You are already aware of the problems with these games.
I will say, however, that in each case, with each of these three games, the issues I experienced were not minor. In fact, in all three of these instances, the games were rendered periodically (and in one case permanently, pending a patch) unplayable. Let me write that word again, so that you may understand the severity of the situation. I will write it in bold and underline it: these games were unplayable.
Let me put this into perspective for you. Three games, at $60US per game, amounts to $180 dollars invested in games that don’t work. That may not be a lot of money to some, but to many of your fans that may be the entire amount they’re able to spend on games in a whole year. Imagine how it must feel for a devout fan of games, a true lover of the medium, to invest their entire yearly allowance in products that don’t work and are not refundable. If you can’t imagine it, I’ll tell you how it feels: It sucks.
I know that some of you know this. I know that some of you take this seriously enough to devote your working hours making these games right, making patches and fixes that will resolve your players’ issues. I know that some of you work overtime on this. I know you lose money. I know it sucks for you. And yet, I don’t care. The point at which you have to turn in overtime to create a patch that will fix a playability issue in a game that’s been released and sold to the public is the point at which you will have sold a defective product. If you’ve sold me a game that I cannot play, then I have lost money. It is only fair that you lose some too, in making it right. In fact, what would be most fair is for you to have not sold me that defective game to begin with, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Talking to you, reading your Twitter updates and personal blogs, your anonymous blogs and your editorials, it would appear that there are many threats to the game industry. From Supreme Court cases, unfavorable working conditions, unreasonable publisher demands, irresponsible superiors and highway patrol officers, you face a multitude of threats to your way of life and chosen profession. That is to say, as hard as it is to make a game at all (and I know it’s hard), the business of making games is even harder.
I would agree that there are many obstacles in your path to making great games, and I understand that not all are easily overcome. I know making games is not as much fun as you make it out to be. I know it can often be the most miserable way someone of your talents can make a living, and yet you do it anyway out of love. I get it. I know that for every one perfect game (if there is such a thing) there are at least ten more that, for reasons as innumerable as lines of code, didn’t come out the way they were intended. I know that this sometimes isn’t your fault. And yet it still is, even when it isn’t, because your name is on it. I hope that you know this.
I love games. Let me say that again, because it’s important: I love games. I am a grown man who spends his weekends playing them. I used to write a column and produce a podcast – for free – about games, because I love them so much. Five years ago I gave up a career, took a pay cut and made major life changes to accept a job working at The Escapist in no small part because I wanted to make writing about games (which I love) my career (so that I might love that, too), and I have since done so. That’s why it pains me so terribly when the games that I love simply don’t work.
There is an ironically oft-misquoted phrase that says (and here I paraphrase) that if one does not know one’s history, one will be doomed to repeat it. How many of you know your history? How many of you know that the videogame industry, often considered “recession proof” once suffered a major crash, in the 1980s during the last great economic recession? How many of you know the reason the industry suffered so badly was because you (or your predecessors) were making bad games?
As potentially harmful as the aforementioned threats to this industry may be, I argue that none are so devastatingly grave as the risk of you making broken games. So long as you make the games, and they’re good, we, the people who play games will buy them, even if your boss is a jerk. Even if the federal government believes we’re too young. Even if you, with your fast cars and brash temperaments, turn us off. If the games are good, we’ll buy them. But if they’re not, then heaven help you because we won’t.
I am not telling you this just to piss you off, I hope you know that. I am telling you because the moment you forget that making great games will be the start of all your good fortune and not some milestone you may pass at some point along the way, you will have lost. You will have been blinded by the adoration of your fans to the fact that our relationship, yours as gamemakers, mine as game buyer, is a simple one based on a straightforward economic transaction: You make magical experiences and I give you money. Lots of money, relative to other entertainment purchases. Yet unlike many of the things I buy, games are not returnable and there’s no quality guarantee. I trust you to make them enjoyable, and I give you my money, sight-unseen. That’s an incredible amount of faith I have in you. More often than not, it’s justified, but frequently it hasn’t been and, I have to be honest with you, that frequency is increasing.
I know that some of you consider the cycle of “release, patch, re-release” to be the norm, but surely you understand the fallacy there. You can’t seriously believe that using the funds derived from the sale of a broken game to continue working on that game and hopefully make it playable at some point in the undefined future to be a reasonable way of doing business. I understand that online services have advanced to the point where patches and fixes can be distributed almost instantaneously, yet roughly half or more of the people who buy your games aren’t online. Or, if they are, they don’t read websites like mine and so don’t know they should be waiting for a patch. To these people, you will have sold a game they will never be able to play. This is not too far off from the legal definition of fraud. Surely you know this?
I’ve worked with artists, craftsmen and technicians of all kinds in my various careers, and inevitably all of them come to me with unacceptable work. Most of the time it’s an understandable error, or my fault for not giving clear instructions, but sometimes it’s simply the result of someone doing a bad job. In these rare instances there are really only two possible reasons: Either they do not know the work was bad, or they knew and just didn’t care.
When I play a game that you have made, and which is broken, I ask myself the question: Which is it with you? Did you not know that your game had problems, or did you know and decide to ship it anyway? I hope you can understand that either way we have a problem. Actually, the problem is mostly yours. I can buy another game if I’m completely dissatisfied. I may lose money (and worse, time), but I will ultimately find a better way to spend both than on your products. But yours is the bigger problem, isn’t it?
You will be the one who has made a game that is so bad I can’t actually play it. You will have failed at your only job, to make a game. Worse, you will have contributed to the depression of your industry. You may be putting yourself and people you know out of a job. You may, in fact, be contributing to a crash the likes of the one in 1982, which destroyed an entire industry. You will have, in other words, repeated your history, and you will have only yourselves to blame.
Therefore I ask you, with all humility and sincerity, to hear what I have to say, and the next time you feel entitled to create an anonymous blog to complain that your supervisor won’t allow you to make dancing bears, or to blame your marketing manager for creating a bad gameplay trailer, or your publisher for setting too strict a deadline, or some senator for having a problem with blood, or Bobby Kotick for being a jerk, or the ungrateful fans for saying bad things about you on the internet or buying games used or stealing them outright, I ask you to please take a moment to reflect that you have made a deal with the people who purchase your games. You are in business together. You are working for them as much as for your boss. Please make better game for them in the future than you are currently making now.
Thank you for your time.