The biggest problem facing the games industry

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We have met the enemy, and he is an angry game nerd. So says NBA Jam developer Trey Smith on the MTV Multiplayer blog:

MTV: What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?

Smith: I think there are a number of problems we have with the way games are being developed today, but honestly, I think one of the biggest problems right now is the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there. You know who they are. If they spent less time spewing ignorant hate on the boards and in online games, and more time rallying behind the great games they love and helping to build a thriving community that welcomes everyone that shows up to play with them – everybody wins.

There is truth in this. I doubt anyone who has visited a videogames forum – any videogames forum – would disagree. And the comments threads on even the most genteel game websites are rarely free of venom. But is it really fair to call it “one of the biggest problems right now” with games?

Steve Smoothy at GameTaco makes the counterpoint that this is not a problem unique to games culture (obviously he has visited YouTube at least once). No, Smoothy has his daggers out for:

Corporate suits. Worn by people whose first thought is to their shareholders above anything else.

Having worked in a corporate environment for well over ten years now I can comfortably state that corporate management is not the sort of thing that a game development company should be ruled by. A regime based on big business corporate governance revolves around predictability and employees operating like a mechanised assembly line, churning out work at a set rate, in a specified manner, without deviation from business processes.

That’s true, too. Like internet rage, it still comes down to human nature, but there’s a specific problem there for the videogame industry: bureaucracies are shit at making art.

But the suits, and their culture of corporate management, are a symptom, not a cause.

Bureaucracies, deadlines, share prices, budgets and mechanisation of human work are all necessary tools to get a $20 million dollar game made. AAA games require an enormous amount of content, and it’s all difficult to make. Someone has to coordinate the horde of specialist crafters who are each capable of making one or two elements of a game well, and that’s a difficult enough job; making sure they all get paid in the end is even harder.

That can mean making decisions that are unpopular with the game designers and the audience. Sometimes the marketing department is right when it tells the game designers they need to add more stupid guns and stupid “badass” characters if they want to be able to keep paying off their mortgages. That’s why big game development studios have suits: someone has to manage everything to make sure the game gets made and sells enough that the next game will get made. The people who are good at this job, not by coincidence, tend to be more concerned with the size of their bonus than the artistic value of the work they oversee.

What happens when a AAA game development studio with significant resources isn’t run by corporate suits who don’t really care about the quality of the game? If you’re very lucky, Half-Life. Otherwise, Duke Nukem Forever.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The tools for making games have got better every year, so it’s now trivial to make something that was awe-inspiring 20 years ago, and not difficult for four people to make something that would have taken forty people 10 years ago. Game makers could sidestep the need for huge departments, money-obsessed bureaucracts and people like Mark Rein by simply using the existing tools more efficiently – but that means being behind the state of the art.

That’s essentially all the indie sector is: people who don’t need an enormous support structure because they don’t mind that their games aren’t competing with James Cameron on spectacle. And that’s a very powerful position to be in. It gives them all the leverage of modern game-making technology with none of the weight of a large management superstructure. It also allows individuals to express themselves directly through their games, in a way that nobody at a AAA studio really can anymore.

In theory, that’s game over for the big companies (no pun intended). Good old games can be just as enjoyable as big modern ones, and the internet has made distribution a non-issue, so the developers who are making games with modest production values using modern tools should stomp all over the companies who go for the biggest budget, flashiest graphics and most workmanlike design possible.

But that isn’t how it plays out.

For every Minecraft success story, there are scores of worthy indie developers struggling to get by because everyone is buying yet another mediocre but spectacular blastathon even though – and this is key – they would enjoy the indie games just as much. How can I know that? Because there are a million different indie games out there right now, and they cater to all of the brain’s various pleasure centres (yes, even those ones). Paying full price for the kind of game that has a huge marketing budget is rampant stupidity.

Are we better than others for recognising this? Hell no. Dan bought Halo: Reach new just the other day, and he doesn’t even particularly like the Halo series. And now I’m buying it from him, while still half-heartedly plodding through Halo 3: ODST. It’s downright immoral how often we give slabs of money to enormous corporation who will spend it on making soulless games, while hesitating to part with a few measly dollars for something everyone says is amazing and can’t survive without us. And yet as people who buy awesome worthwhile indie games with some kind of regularity, we’re already in a small minority of the game-playing population.

That’s what’s wrong with the games industry. Not the suits: they’d disappear in a month if we stopped supporting them. Not the angry ranty geeks: for all their lack of social graces, they often reserve their passion for the things that deserve to be supported. No, it’s the ordinary people who keep handing over their money for overproduced, soulless shit that doesn’t need to exist, either because they don’t know any better, or worse: even though they do.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.


Related posts:

  1. A grammar of games
  2. Streamed games – hype or hope?
  3. The future of digital distribution

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Fraser Allison

Fraser comes from a long line of tinkerers and troublemakers, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree. He's an internet addict and a friend to animals. In 2010, he completed an honours thesis entitled "The prosthetic imagination: immersion in Mirror's Edge", which you can view here. You can follow Fraser on Twitter, or hang out at his house and play Top Spin, whatever.

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