Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Business of Fun

It seems that no matter how much gaming news we receive, it is never enough. Gamers hear about possible specs for a new console and suddenly expect an announcement releasing all the info that Microsoft and Sony have tried their best to keep secret for however many years said new system has been in development. E3 rolls around and we see a plethora of new games that are exciting and well worth the $60 price tag, yet we want more. Gamers everywhere are criticizing the lack of original titles and Nintendo not announcing a Zelda game. We are ranting online about when Microsoft got Usher to dance on stage, and some of us almost choked on our Red Bull when Flo-Rida rapped on-stage for the Ubisoft press conference. In my opinion, games are supposed to be, above anything else, fun, but lately I’ve noticed a lot more business and a lot less fun.

In the current market, there are two main parts that generally make up where a game comes from: the developers and the publishers. While many publishers are developers, (EA, Ubisoft, even Nintendo) most games made by a publisher come from development teams that are contracted through the publisher to make a certain game. Take the original Halo as an example: Bungie is the development team behind the Halo franchise, and Microsoft invested money into the game expecting a return on the investment. At the moment, that’s how the majority of games are made: A publishing company like Activision invests in the creation of Modern Warfare, and Infinity Ward gets paid to make a game, as well as a portion of the sales and revenue. Unfortunately this relationship isn’t always mutually beneficial, or smooth and friendly.

Unlike game developers, who are paid money upfront to make a game, a publisher’s result is directly related to their bottom line. Because of that, especially in this economic turbulence, many Publishers are taking less risk. To a game publisher, risk means a new IP, or Intellectual Property, that might not guarantee the highest return on investment.  That’s part of why at E3 last week, we saw Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Dead Space 3, Halo 4, and the 4th game in the Gears of War franchise with very few original IPs. It’s unfortunate that the current success of a video game is determined by the amount of money is made, since I’d like to think that a game is successful if people think it is fun to play.  Development teams, which are typically a little more creative and more likely to think in terms of quality and fun, can clash with the business-minded Publishing Companies.

Imagine being a part of a dev team making a new game with EA. You want to make sure the game is as complete and as fun as possible. Whether that translates to no bugs or glitches or a lack of multiplayer because your game is a single player experience, you want to spend as much time as you can making a game with the highest quality. Unfortunately when EA’s Producer believes that a multiplayer component should be in the game because every game that had one was successful and made X amount of money, you start arguing and fighting over what should and should not be in the game. Concessions have to be made on both sides to make everyone happy and the game isn’t exactly what you wanted it to be. This kind of relationship isn’t unique to video games. Imagine the contracts, arguments, and ideas behind movies and TV shows. When something that is made to entertain us, as well as make a lot of money, it seems that there is always something that is missing or not up to the quality it could have been. Right now, the gaming industry is going though sequels and remakes to keep the money coming. But the games being released, sequels they may be, aren’t bad games.

Assassins Creed 3, Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and Borderlands 2 all look like amazing games. The fact that EA, Microsoft, etc. are making games that are continuations of a franchise is mostly an effect from us paying millions of dollars to play the previous games in the series. Whether that’s through XBOX Live subscriptions to play Modern Warfare 3 with your friends or selling millions of copies of any Halo game on the shelf, Companies look at the numbers and say to themselves “Well since the last Call of Duty game sold millions of copies on its first day, we should make another.” But telling a dev team to make their game that is supposed to be unique and fun like other first person shooters, because it will sell more, is almost silly. At this point it seems to be getting a little too un-original, but is that just fans finding something to complain about, or a legitimate concern?

While looking at this problem, I noticed a few solutions and alternatives. Double Fine received over $3 million dollars from fans who made their wishes known by simply giving Double Fine money to make a point-and-click adventure game. Minecraft has made millions of dollars through word of mouth as a great indie title. One of the best options we as fans have is putting our money where our mouth is. That doesn’t mean we should just not buy games we don’t like, but instead show publishers and developers alike that we would pay money to see something that we enjoy. I think that through using tools like Kickstarter projects or communicating with your friends the games you really liked, we as gamers will be able to really show what we want, and hopefully publishers will listen.

To me, I think the industry right now could use some innovation and original ideas. When I look for original ideas or interesting new concepts, I find them in the digital market, in portable games, and even in Kickstarter. It seems that since larger companies with “AAA” titles releasing every year, the innovation and original concept responsibility is falling into the hands of the smaller, indie dev teams working together to turn an idea into a video game. I think that for now, that’s okay.

If we as gamers want the larger corporations to listen to us when we say we want more innovation or new IPs, then it’s up to us to make them listen. If we are active in developer and publisher forums, invest our own money in projects on Kickstarter, even write letters and emails to the heads at EA, they will listen to us. As fans and consumers, our greatest tool is the ability to communicate with the developers and publishers alike. Tell Miyamoto whether you liked the fact that the last Zelda game had a unique artstyle. Tell him that you wish the next Zelda title was more like Twilight Princess. We as consumers have the ability to help shape the media we consume by taking the initiative to communicate with the creators. In the end we all love to play video games and want more of them, so why not try to be a part of them in some way?

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