Waiting for the Fall
I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. Specifically, I’ve been playing it on my PC using a mod collection called the "Direwolf20 Feed the Beast" collection. It adds all sorts of fantastic mods to the game; stuff that adds magic, industrial machines, new ores, new enemies and in fact, in some cases, entirely new dimensions. It is this incredibly dense, highly polished and seemingly endless procession of features and activities. It takes a game that already seemed to provide infinite replayability and exponentially jacks it up to some kind of hyper-infinity that likely is slowly eating away at the quantum flux of the whole universe. We’re going to end up living in a The Neverending Story nightmare, where we’re just floating on fragments of reality surrounded by the devouring Nothing created by my playing this game.
This is bad for the universe as a whole certainly, but for the games industry it’s even worse. Bad enough that the universe collapses, but what’s really unforgivable is that I have invested so many hours into a single game, finding a way to constantly enhance my experience without handing someone more money. Or, to put it another way, I had more fun than I should have been allowed without cashing back in.
Looking at the way the core of the games industry operates suggests that games are built to deliver a finite, intentionally limited, amount of fun on a per-dollar-spent basis. The result is some games that seem to be built with the explicit intent of being fun enough to be interesting, but not actually fun enough to exist as a complete and coherent thing. My gaming experience with something like Minecraft is anathema to this model.
Mainstream video games often feels less like a product and more like a doorway into a cash-syphoning system of diminishing returns, designed intentionality around hamstringing the customer. As far as I can tell, the biggest industry leaders have become so out of touch that they’ve backed themselves into a corner where this is the only way they know to make money. They’ve built a broken system and then locked themselves inside as it slowly builds toward a monumental collapse.
Which may not be a bad thing.
One of the common questions we’re asked on the podcast is something along the lines of, “Am I a bad gamer because I try to buy games on sale?” The answer is devastatingly simple: No, you are not. I do not position that as an opinion; I position it as a fact. Beyond the answer that sales support well run and responsible game developers, the broader point is that you owe nothing to an irresponsibly run industry. If Tomb Raider doesn’t make money unless it sells three million copies at full price, then that’s a broken and unsustainable system. It’s a great game, certainly, but it was terribly managed somewhere along the line.
I don’t know if that somewhere is in the office of the developer, the publisher or some other factor, but the revenue model doesn’t work, and you absolutely should buy that game at half or 75% off if you’re so inclined. Doing the right thing for yourself as a consumer isn’t the bad thing; forcing yourself to purchase it at full price because someone botched the plan to recoup expenses — and therefore enabling that kind of nonsense — is the bad thing.
I don’t even think the industry is kidding itself into thinking it’s got a sustainable plan anymore. Ask anyone if sales of three million before making a cent off the endeavor is a good business model, and my guess is that they’ll say no. But here we are, and the problem is far from uncommon. What’s unfortunate is that the solution to date has been to treat their customers as greedy adversaries who are immorally unwilling to part with the precious money-lifeblood that they guard so jealously. Isn't it just possible, though, that the solution could instead be to create trimmer, more realistic models for game development even for AAA game development?
I look at this industry and I get the impression that their most desired interaction between me and my game is for me to purchase it (preferably on a closed console system) at full price on day 1, play it for a few days, have a measured and reasonably bounded amount of fun, buy whatever add-ons are already available to enhance that experience, stop playing after a week so I can buy whatever new game is on the market, and return yet again when they offer the next morsel of over-priced gameplay (all without selling my used copies back to anyone). I look at that in comparison to my experience with Minecraft, where I bought the game during its development, was pushed inconceivable amounts of content and patches at no additional charge, enjoyed dozens of hours of the vanilla game, accessed the wealth of available player created content, and then played more.
Oh sure, the industry might respond, that’s because Minecraft became wildly successful and profitable, because it was created on a reasonably small budget by a lean but highly skilled team that was willing to make short-term concessions in order to deliver an exceptional end product that wasn’t built on a long-term monetization plan. To which I respond: exactly.
There are a lot of excuses made about why that isn’t a scalable model. Which is interesting, because it seems like every time people come along and demonstrate a positive gamer response to being treated fairly and with respect, the gut response is to say why that game or developer or situation was an edge case that can’t be applied to the bloated, sluggish, creatively-bankrupt, recklessly manipulative, volume-obsessed monster publishers that have sloshed and cavorted across the landscape of gaming like corrupt old gods shambling in malice across the face of the young world. To which I respond, again: exactly.
I realize that what I’m saying here has the flavor of irrational gamer screed, that really we should just grow up and realize that hitting customers with sticks is just a cold hard fact of business, and we should stop being children about it. Don’t people realize that it’s against the law not to hit customers with sticks? Not doing so would be a disservice to shareholders, who, by the way, are in the business of stick sales.
Fair enough. I’m finding myself a lot less inclined to be worried about whether we are being reasonable to the supposed business realities of game-making, realities which seem to be dispelled on an ever-increasing basis. After all, it’s an unequal model when we are asked to apply reason to a system that is not willing to apply reason in return.
So there is a part of me that waits for collapse, because I suspect that the longer it takes for collapse to arrive, the more painful it will ultimately be. Worse, I fear what will become of the business of gaming on the large if it never comes. I think in this moment where independent gaming is strong, where there are creative models for funding development and publication that can generate substantial dollars, we are in a unique place where if the collapse of the old model came tomorrow, the aftermath would be manageable.
I wonder what would fill the void, because I seriously doubt the answer is “nothing.” I ask myself: What if this was a year where there was no Call of Duty, no Assassin’s Creed, no Madden, no Halo, no Need for Speed, no Battlefield, no established recurring franchise from the major publishers that needs to sell to at least 5 million people to be considered remotely successful? What would take those games’ place? And, would I like that better? Would you?