Blogs of Rage #2: Malaise and the Business of Modern Gaming
Does anyone else feel that the business behind gaming is killing gaming? By that I mean it seems like the current business models, marketing strategies, and unreasonable development cycles are seemingly doing their best to kill my interest in modern gaming. Typically, I might chalk this new-found apathy up to my age, but the more I think about it, I am not so sure anymore. Take for example, everyone's favorite topic of microtransactions, where developers and/or publishers claim they cannot operate as a financially-viable business unless they create intricate schemes to milk extra dollars out of their customers for services and features that would have historically been considered part of the original sale price two generations ago. Again, maybe I am just old and crabby, but the second I hear about a game's ponzi scheme, or its forced a la carte menu, my interest in said game stops. It's akin to having an obese woman model lingerie such that I am sure if you looked long and hard enough, there is bound to be someone in the world that would find that scenario enticing, but it sure as hell isn't me. Whenever I hear about a new game's attempt at supplemental monetization, I am typically left with two conclusions: (1) the game has been heavily tweaked to push, or outright punish, the player into making them pay for additional content, thus the game will likely be an un-fun time sync and/or (2) someone at that company thinks so little of its customer base that it doesn't even care that it is presenting its product not as a work of art or entertainment to be patronized, but as a blatant money-making vehicle that just so happens to also contain a game as well . And you know what? That's really sad. Even as little as 5 years ago that would have made me angry, but today - not so much. I, and probably other gamers as well, have become desensitized to this horrible trend, to the point we even expect it nowadays. Frankly, it's killing the industry.
Wait, hold up - I already know what you may be saying to yourself. Last year, some companies made more money from microtransactions than they did from the sale of the actual games themselves. These companies are making money hand-over-fist right now. How can microtransactions 'kill' the industry? Simple; these predatory practices are slowly but surely eroding consumer confidence and interest in the medium. Give it enough time and people will eventually sour on this business practice, if not against the industry itself, to the point that they'll become indifferent to new products. If it happened to me, why wouldn't it happen to other gamers as well? Hear me out - aside from Red Dead 2, I can't even tell you the last time I was even somewhat interested in a new game for the current generation. The constant sales pitches and busy-work specifically created to push the microtransactions will eventually exhaust even the most enthusiastic gamer, much like how gentle wind and water will gradually erode even the tallest mountains into dust if given enough time. Again, maybe it's just me but have you noticed the number of games this generation that suspiciously seem a lot more like a job vs. entertainment, and that's not by accident. Consider for example the rewards/payouts from completing activities and missions in GTA 5, where you could potentially play for several hours with friends, only to make a measly $15,000 - $20,000 of in-game currency. In real-world terms, that may sound impressive for a few hours work, but consider most desirable cars cost 40 times that much, or more depending on the vehicle, to say nothing of the price of real estate in that game. Sure, you can grind for weeks on end to finally purchase that 1.75 million dollar attack helicopter, or you could just pay for in-game currency directly with real-world cash, thus allowing you to bypass the tedium and get right into the fray, before you and/or your friends tire of the game. Having a problem that is both artificially created by, as well as and potentially resolved by the publisher, assuming you are willing to pay, is just a little too overtly scummy for me to stomach. We've talked about this on the show before, but imagine another medium where microtransactions were fully implemented, such as a movie that required you to pay by the act, or actor, or for better sound quality. People would never stand for that. If the average gamer is something like 35 years old, I see no reason to think a 'burnt-out' scenario as I have described above is anything but inevitable. Simply put - apathy is learned, and school is definitely in session under this business model.
And this brings me to my 2nd point. Namely, the internet is killing gaming. Stay with me here - I am not referring to piracy replacing the legitimate gaming industry, or the popularity of Youtube bringing gaming into the mainstream to the point of oversaturation, or even emulation itself somehow replacing current-generation gaming. No, what I am referring to is the patch culture we live in where it is common practice for a game to require a lengthy, multiple gigabyte update just to become playable. How many times have you fired up a modern game, only to learn that it requires an update of 10, 20, 50, sometimes 90-gigabytes, on day 1 no less. How and why is this an acceptable business practice? Could you imagine if you bought a sandwich at a deli, and they brought you the individual components of that sandwich in 10 minute increments vs. a complete meal as a single exchange? How is it that movies and music can be released patch-free, but a video game, for some reason cannot, despite all three pieces of content likely having teams of 20-200 people working on the final product. I have no doubt that creating a video game could potentially be quite complex, but how much more complex than a film could it honestly be given how many films nowadays contain quite a bit of CGI, Foley effects, line re-dubbing, etc.? It's not like video games haven't been around for the better part of 30 years now. How many more years do they have to exist before developers start to learn how to code better, or more efficiently, or keep their development scope feasible? Why do we as consumers give video games a pass in this regard, while movies, music, and books don't? I honestly don't know, but it's that kind of coddling that is making the industry lazy and sloppy. Think back to pre-internet days, assuming you're old enough, and remember how a game had to be damn-near complete and bug-free prior to printing. While there are exceptions to this rule, for the most part, the majority of games from that era worked fine enough immediately out of the box. But in the age of the internet, the same cannot be said as many, if not most games, could never be played in their pre-patch version as they would likely be incomplete, or buggy, or be missing huge swaths of content. Again, maybe it's just me, but when I insert a modern game into my system, and notice it requires a 20+ gigabyte patch to download, I am left with 2 additional conclusions: (1) this company is incompetent as they were not able to complete their project without cutting corners, which is something you yourself could probably never do at your job without penalty, and (2) they value their shareholders or deadlines more than their customers. Again, this is also a shame because as a consumer, I value quality in my arts above speed and rigidly holding to an arbitrary development timeline. As a consumer, would you honestly care if a game's release was delayed a couple of months knowing it would be an overall better finished product? If anything, it would probably increase product sales as the publisher would have more time to market that game to new audiences, as well as have a more reputable product to peddle in the process. Considering these same companies are making so much money on the sale of microtransactions, you'd think they would be investing some of that revenue back into improving their products, but I guess not.
While I still love gaming, I am finding it increasingly more and more difficult to stay interested in modern gaming. What do you think? I am just old, or do you also see the industry's focus on monetization and patch-culture as holding itself back? Let us know your thoughts.