On the State of the Industry

3 Nov

[Cross posted on Destructoid]

While I was browsing the usual suspects for gaming news today I noticed something very ordinary that struck me as unusual – a thumbnail of what looked like an N64 era Hulk about to throw a car. It’s a mobile phone game. Business as usual; it’s a crappy cash in doomed to disuse and neglect. But it got me thinking about how far the industry has come, and it’s not the rosiest picture.

 There are so many developers out there making games that nobody wants to play, games that nobody cares about, not even the developers. Game developers can come to the end of their careers not having made a game they liked. It’s highly probable that nobody reading this will ever come across that Hulk game. So why is it even being made?

The most obvious answer is money; but it goes a bit deeper than that – why not make an honestly good game in order to make money? Because not everyone can afford to make a good game, but everyone wants in. Gaming is the hot new thing, and while it may inspire a group of geeks to work nonstop to put something they love onscreen, it also draws in businessmen who see an opening. There are companies that exist to make bad games, and are happy to survive off of high profit margins. Even big studios like EA produce cash crop games; games that only the most defiant developer could defend with a straight face. A producer from EA once told me that there was a reason EA was founded by Stanford graduates; by businessmen. They might as well be selling toilet seats, it doesn’t change anything.

All for money. And just now gamers are seeing some of EA’s money going towards new and quality titles. But surely it didn’t take Madden sales that long to fund a new game. So even when these small businesses evolve into giants like EA, it takes them a long time to change their ways. They invest the money they make so they can make more money. And with that money they find a way to make more money. The consumer doesn’t really fit into the picture, besides as the unwitting dope with money to spend.

And all the while they look on with wonder at Blizzard, Nintendo, at Valve, Bungie, id, Epic, and at Infinity Ward. How do they do it? They make the games that other game developers love more than their own projects. Yet there’s no secret – they make games for themselves. Nobody asked for Mario; the market didn’t seem right for Mario, nobody advised that Mario would make some money. Nintendo made it and told you to love it.

Just look at EA’s Facebreaker – made for everyone! Made for the casual and the hardcore! It sold just over fifty thousand copies. And instead of looking at the evidence and seeing the failure associated with pandering to demographics, you know that they’ll do? For starters they won’t publish Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend, because it’s too risky. It’s not for any demographic, so why should it sell? And when the game finds a publisher and outsells games like Facebreaker, they’ll be left wondering again. How did they do it?

Clearly they’re doing something these business oriented companies can’t – think clearly. People don’t know what they want, and trying to service demographics is a misguided use of statistics. Every developer is a human being, and chances are if they love what they’re making then other people will love it too. But if you don’t love the project you’re working on, why should anyone else? Does that invisible casual gamer exist? What exactly is a hardcore gamer, and are you sure there is just one type of hardcore gamer? Why do some Counter Strike players also love Warioware, and why do some casual gamers play Halo? It’s hard to classify what people want in their entertainment. No Country for Old Men wasn’t made for the cowboy murder fiction demographic. It was made for people.

And to be clear, a business oriented company is not just a company with a smart marketing team. Valve has great business people, but they exist to keep the company alive long enough for the creatives to deliver their game. A business oriented company is the exact opposite – their creatives make games in order to support the business.

There isn’t really a precedent to fall back on here, so who can say what direction the industry will go in; but one thing is clear – if money continues to drive the production of so many games then gamers can expect more Hulk games on their phones, and developers can expect to be working on them.

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