Wednesday, April 18, 2012

#17: The True Problem with Modern Gaming

The games of today have come a long way from the games of old. Graphical fidelity has greatly advanced and allows for more rich and detailed environments. The streamlining of many often-used systems in games has made gaming more accessible to the masses. Different genres and new indie titles ensure that for every individual, there is a game to cater to his/her specific tastes. Gaming has played host to a myriad of innovations. However, despite this, there are many ways in which gaming has been degressing. This week, I will be looking at the potential causes of these worsening trends in gaming.

One the main reasons that major gaming corporations cite to explain downward trends in gaming is used games. According to game developers, used games are eating too much into profits, meaning they have to produce other ways to make money (through micro-transactions, DLC, etc.). There is some truth to used games affecting profits of game developers. Gamestop is particularly well-known for this. Gamestop's used game programs are responsible for a very decent chunk of their profits. They actively try to get customers to buy used and trade in their games through sales, money-back guarantees, and special one-time offers.

While this does result in an overall loss for game developers, there is one critical detail being missed: Used games are nothing new to the game industry. For years, people have been buying and selling used games and companies have not had a problem with them in the past. Furthermore, I could argue that used games are not as commonplace as they were before. Because of recent developments in gaming, used game sales for the PC are effectively dead. There are game trading systems on services like Steam, but used games have long been absent, at least from PC gaming, for awhile now. With the advent of online pass systems, console gaming has also begun to deter used game sales. Also, the economy has been taking its toll on people's budgets, gamers being no exception. For many people, trading in and barter games is the only way to buy new games and support the developers they care about. This means that there is a possibility that used games are necessary for the industry to remain profitable in this economy. With all of this, I find it hard to believe that used games the cause of the problems in modern gaming.

So then, if used games are not the trouble, then what could be. Many people have made the argument that the problems are caused by the new level of inter-connectivity present in modern gaming. I can see where this argument is coming from. With the exception of the PC and the original X-Box, gaming never really had any sort of online service until now, and certainly not to this degree. Developers never really had the capacity to change and impact the game post-release. For the most part, the product that was released was the same product ten years down the line. Any glitches that were there on day one would still be there. Any overpowered/weak equipment in games would stay that way. This gave developers tons of incentive to test and test and test everything that got released. If they did not, then their reputation would be ruined and people would no longer buy their games. Nowadays, day 1 patches, downloadable content, and updates for games are the norm. It is entirely possible, and this does happen, for games to be horribly, awfully, disgustingly broken at release, almost to the point of unplayability, only to be patched within the first few weeks. (Isn't that right, Fallout: New Vegas?) Furthermore, it is true that content can be withheld from the game and released later as DLC. Capcom and the Street Fight X Tekken debacle have proven this to be true.

As much as I dislike this (and I really dislike this), I do not think this is the cause of all the problems. While inter-connectivity has never been prevalent in gaming, it has certainly always been present. On the PC and the original X-Box, patches and expansion packs were used. Back then, developers had this functionality. However, the problems we are facing now were not around back then. Developers never (or at least not enough to be noticed) abused the use of patches and DLC to adjust games and hide away features in the name of profit. They might have hid away buggy parts of games or worked around them, but they never fixed it and released it later. No, something had to change to start this system of overuse and abuse.

What I have come to believe is that the animosity towards used games and the abuse of inter-connectivity are not problems of the industry. Rather, they are symptoms of bigger issues. The question remains: What are the problems? I believe that these issues are caused by two connected problems: Overinflated budgets in gaming and overall bad business sense in the game industry. These two problems are born from one central problem: The gaming industry is trying really hard to emulate the movie industry, when that is a grave mistake. Games have become more graphics-intensive these last few years. The more advanced graphics become, the more people need to be hired in order to make these graphics and (more importantly) the more programs and graphics engines cost to lease. This results in budgets for modern games skyrocketing. They want cinema-quality productions no matter the cost. The problem is that while the companies do this in order to stay on the cutting edge and keep their consumer base interested, this is not necessary. The truth is that graphics are only a small, minor consideration to gamers when deciding what games to buy. We gamers only take graphics into consideration when they begin to affect whether or not they can play the game (as in, when the game is incredibly ugly and hard to look at or when they lead to high load times). I have never once heard somebody refuse to buy a game specifically because the graphics were not as good as every other game. Nonetheless, this over-inflation of the budget causes the money-grubbing the modern gaming is becoming. It pushes deadlines up and “inspires” many of the DLC schemes gamers hate.

But this is not the only problem. Gaming has become more like the movie industry when that is not conducive to business. Like movies, game sales are usually tracked in the first week, and that is what many people use to determine the overall success of the game. Also, games tend to hype up their initial release and then let the hype fizzle out after a few weeks. This is detrimental to the industry. It works for movies for several reasons. One, theater ticket sales are only a small portion of initial profits. Odds are that released movies have tie-in products as well like toys, novelizations, even the inevitable movie tie-in game (Ugh). Furthermore, after movies are released, they have alternative methods to make money. Film producers can continue to profit off of DVD and Blu-Ray sales as well as the syndication of their works on TV channels like HBO. As a result, even a movie that was a complete flop at the box office can profit in the long run.

Similar to movies, games are trying to get tons of money through initial sales. Unlike films, games generally do not have the added safety nets that films do. As a result, with the current business model, game companies have to recoup all of their losses within the first week. Combined with the high graphics budgets, this is suicide. It means that any AAA game that is not of a well known brand is almost guaranteed to fail. A normal product normally would be able to fix the situation and still make some sort of profit by changing the price or something, but games have become increasingly inflexible as of late. Most modern games are released at a flat rate of $60. Like any other product, these prices are subject to change with the market. Unlike any other product, these prices can take months or, as it often the case, years to drop there prices. Instead of adjusting to supply and demand, prices for games are nearly unchanging. Used games are not subject to this and will often fluctuate with the demands of the market. This is why Gamestop is able to profit from used games. In fact, I have heard tales of times where Gamestop intentionally opens up unopened games to pawn them off as “used” at a loss in order to clear up shelf space. This mimicry of the movie industry combined with the inability to use basic business sense when selling the finished product (not a service, to the person who actually said that) is damaging the industry.

So how do we fix these two problems. There are two ways we can do this. First, we can vote with our wallets. We can support companies with good business models and deny companies who use poor business models or unethical practices. This is not done nearly enough in modern gaming. Gamers have demonstrated an inability to live without. We do not realize the power we hold over these corporations. So, this strategy seems unlikely. The second option is to do what gamers are best at: Bitch and Moan. Bitching and moaning are not bad. It is okay to criticize game companies. They need feedback, now more than ever. As one of my favorite game commentators, Shamus Young, once said, “If games aren't improving, than you haven't been complaining hard enough.” Input from the consumers is vital to improving the state of the industry. The last alternative is to do nothing. This is the worst possible option. At the rate games are going, if we do not do anything, than game companies will eventually begin to collapse. Budgets will grow unsustainable, given time. Nobody wants this. I certainly do not want this. If I complain about the state of the industry, than it is a because I love the industry. I hate these practices because I love gaming. I write this blog post because I love gaming. I love what these companies are able to do and I want them to continue to thrive. Hell, I want to be able to take-part in the creation of games. Everyday I hear about development studios closing shop, I feel terrible for all of the talent set loose in the process. We need to change this industry. We need to make it sustainable, else we will be seeing a repeat of the Atari E.T. Incident.

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