It occurred to me the other night that my PC games have been telling me to "challenge everything" a lot lately. I'm not sure if they're privy to some dystopian future that I am not, or if they just like pushing me around, but it seems every time I double click a desktop icon, I'm given that weighty directive. It seems like a lot to do, and I'm a busy guy. Just this weekend I was planning to get a haircut and watch the last ten episodes of 24's first season. Maybe I can challenge one or two things to build up some momentum, say I could challenge an egg-salad sandwich, or perhaps challenge the cat to a staring contest.Of course, I can't help but notice a trend to these games. They all seem to be coming from a single, megalithic corporation. A corporation that I doubt actually wants me to challenge anything. After all, if I did, I might notice there are a number of things worth challenging. As yet another games endorses my everything challenging potential, it occurs to me to ask the question: how many Electronic Arts games do I have?
I felt like an experiment was in order for today's discussion, so I dug around in the closet for the "˜Dilapidated Box of Lost Games'. Then, having found said box, I came out of the closet! But, only because there was no food in there and my GBA ran out of batteries. Let's explore. Among the dusty contents of the makeshift box I found a wealth of games; software published by Interplay, Activision, God Games, Eidos, Microprose, Virgin Interactive, Maxis (when it was independent), id, and so on.
Now, I look at my computer desk where I keep the games I'm most likely to play, the games still not relegated to the dilapidated box or the foodless closet. There are games like Age of Mythology, Sim City 4, Tiger Woods 2003, Diablo 2, and Medal of Honor Allied Assault. Of the 22 games on my desk, 10 of them are published by Electronic Arts. That is to say, out of the roughly $750 I've spent on gaming software over the past year (Oh My God, please never let my wife see that!), fully half has gone into the coffers over at EA.
Inspired, and now curious, as to where the rest of my gaming dinero straggled off toward, I explored further. Infogrames finds five games on my desk, Vivendi has four, Activision two, and Microsoft one. This is a disturbing revelation for me. Of my twenty-one current games, nineteen of them come from only three publishers. Publishers that do more than just box and ship games, but clearly become involved in the development process.
Really, though, is this such a terrible thing? After all, the movie industry is dominated by only a few production companies and we all know that the quality of films coming from Hollywood is consistently high! Right? Great stuff. Well, maybe great isn't the right word, but the offering is varied and the creativity of the cinema is never influenced by market trends, focus groups, or thin, pasty-faced men whose idea of good promotion is close up shots of crotch kicks.
Maybe the movie industry isn't such a good analogy, as it's rife with predictability, stereotypes, and a me-too quality to popular films that overloads given trends with poorly made cinema until the profitability of that genre is exploited completely and the potential creativity squelched under product placement and starlet launching. It's an industry enjoying a limited monopoly from a few companies that can exert ridiculous control over content and pricing; a corporate bottleneck that excels at bilking ever hungry consumers. You know ... nothing at all like the computer gaming industry [sic].
Here's the problem. What happens when any industry has only two or three big players that produce 90% of the product available, is that those companies create unwritten standards of acceptability. Prices are not fixed, per se, but there's no market force to control pricing or quality. If it were generally agreed by Electronic Arts, Infogrames, and Vivendi that the publishing focusshould be putting a product on the shelf for their $49.99 MSRP and then perhaps patching later as long as it's profitable, then that means that the consumer base is forced into either acquiescing or taking up needle point. There need not be any kind of inter-corporate memorandum, any secret meeting at a stormy, Alpine castle where executives assemble to sacrifice the blood of a virgin gamer (not that they'd have a hard time finding one *rimshot*), or even a wink and a nod over Brandy Old Fashioneds at Republican fundraisers. They'd simply have to not make a serious effort to compete against one another, to push for quality, or to change pricing tactics.
And, isn't that pretty much exactly what's going on right now?
Worst of all, PC gamers ultimately turn their ire down on precisely the wrong people. The developers, who are the gamers, our peers in the industry, who have sweat out the overpriced software that you gnash your teeth about over a period of years, are not the enemy! I've talked with many developers over the past few years, and the impression I get from almost all of them is that they are gamers who love well made games, who have a passion for a quality experience. You've seen how difficult it is to get into this industry, so it only makes sense that these guys are on our side. I would wager my favorite pair of boxer shorts that the game you've ached to play and now find is on your hard drive in an unstable, incomplete form was not ruined by the developer but by the publisher who exerted unreasonable control over creative license. When I see a game pulled from one developer and dumped on another, I sometimes wonder, is it because that developer was incompetent, or because they refused to create a shoddy product? When a known name leaves a project, is it because of creative difference, or because he wouldn't play ball? We always, as jaded gamers, assume that the developers are out to screw us, spending their design time drag-racing down the pacific coast in their Lotuses, reading angry forum posts about crash-to-desktop issues and then laughing at our malaise.
Maybe it's not the developers.
So, what can we do as gamers? As many of us have already learned, the best way to get burned is to buy that game you've been longing after for ages on launch day. We need to be more responsible with our gaming dollars. Refuse to pay $50 for a game, or only pay full price for games that launch stable. It used to be easier, when we could return poorly constructed software, to vote with our purchase dollars as well as our power as consumers to return, but those days are falling by the wayside. And, lest you be too quick to blame Electronics Boutique for their changing policy, rest assured that publishers played a hand in that as well. Next time you hit your favorite software store, take a look at the endcaps, the signage under new games, the promotional posters. Software stores don't put those up for ambiance. It's because they receive millions of dollars from publishers for product placement, and those millions of dollars buy more than simply space. They buy policy.