Let’s Fix the Video Game Industry

Console sales are down, video game retailers are going out of business, analysts are calling the end of the world, developers are spending more time and money on “accessibility” than core features and some people are even calling Facebook a legitimate gaming platform.

What the hell has happened to our beloved video game industry? I ask this question every time I load up an issue of Google News and flick through the depressing doom and gloom articles day after day. There seems to be one recurring theme; the almighty dollar. This evil plague has finally caught onto the gaming industry in a way that is more damaging than ever before.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get rich from making a video game. Up until recently, though, the developers who innovated would be rewarded the most. Today, sadly, innovation has taken a back seat to proven formulae. This has tunneled all throughout the gaming industry and has made certain pockets of society raise unrealistic and frankly stupid expectations of the gaming industry. And through it all, the industry that once was about having a fun experience has turned into a business-oriented machine for the rich to get richer at our expense.

It’s time to take back the video game industry. But before we can do that, we must go back to what gaming is all about; we must understand what the gaming industry is and what it is certainly not, and what it shouldn’t become. If we truly want to fix the video game industry and prevent it from ending up as a footnote on entertainment’s history, I propose we start by doing the following.

Focus on Entertainment, Not Technology

Video games started in the dark ages of computer technology. In those days, it was considered “fun” to actually read the instruction manual (which were more like tomes) and program your PC to flash colours on your TV screen. This undoubtedly piqued the intrest of the “hacker gamer”, who would learn by experience ways to manipulate on-screen graphics.

As this sub-culture grew, so did the demand for better/faster computer technology until consoles like the NES were released. Suddenly, anyone could play games; no programming required. It was clear later on that games needed to be bigger and more immersive, like a movie or a good book. The second generation of consoles soon rolled out with a lot more colours and a lot bigger games.

This sparked the expectation that game consoles always strived for better technology. Any game that wasn’t using the latest tech became redundant. Fast forward to today, and video games aren’t even classified in any news publication as “Entertainment” – the “fun” expectation of games has been replaced with the need for better graphics.

This is evident in many different areas. There are no big awards nights for video games that are internationally recognised. There are very few “video game celebrities”, meaning the very people who spend all their time and energy to making these works of art are largely unnoticed. Video games are about skill, yet there are few video game tournament – rarely are they televised and they are never taken seriously.

It’s time to bring entertainment back into focus. The technology is fine. Sure, it’ll get better, but the gaming public can pretty much imagine how games will look in 10 – 20 years time. Unless someone is bringing out tactile holograms, not much will change fundamentally. Now that we have the technology, let’s focus on having a good time.

Play First. Analyse Later.

Another big issue of the video game industry at the moment are video game industry analysts, always giving their guesses as opinions to the mass media who are either too lazy or too stupid to check facts.

There’s nothing wrong with being a video game analyst. The problems arise when you’re more interested in sales and console release dates than you are about actual software. It’s incredibly sad that the recent Pokemon announcement did pretty much nothing to help Nintendo’s share price, for example. Pokemon has consistently sold in record numbers, and since it will launch on a console with a penetration rate of over 166 Million, there is more potential sales of the new Pokemon games than any other in the history of the series. And yet, investors don’t care.

There are a couple of reasons for this; the first is that investors are under the impression that buying into a video game company is actually buying into a computer company and if they’re not doing something that’s expected of a computer company, then they must be doing something wrong. They believe their money is invested into technology, not entertainment. The other reason is the analysts of the world never help the situation.

In the Pokemon example, analysts slammed Nintendo for releasing on Nintendo DS instead of their new 3DS console, forgetting the fact that they can make these games for a lot less money which will make a whole lot more profit. They also pointed out that Pokemon should be on Apple’s devices instead of Nintendo’s own devices. In fact, in ALL the analyst opinions on the announcement, not one mentioned how the game might play, or that if the game is bad or boring, it wont sell.

Analysts want to help investors make money. That’s fine. But when it comes to video games, you need to be a gamer to understand what a new Pokemon game, or a new Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty actually means to the industry. Turn your iPad off, flick the TV on and actually play a video game before forming an opinion on the game industry.

Communicate Better.

Sales figures of video games and consoles arise pretty much every week. We also hear lots of news from investor briefings and quarterly earnings reports. These give us an interesting insight into the video game companies and may allow us to figure out when new consoles are being made (for example, if a company’s P&L statement suddenly has a $1 Billion R&D budget that wasn’t there the year before), but are actually irrelevant to video gamers as a whole.

This is why it’s important to separate these communications. Stating that you’ve sold 200,000 consoles in the first three weeks on sale is all well and good, but if you haven’t released sales expectations that figure means nothing, and will get churned through the mass media machine resulting in bad press, which is very impressionable on prospective console buyers.

This information shouldn’t be covered up of course, but it’s important to understand that these figures rarely mean anything to you. For example, the latest Call of Duty might have sold millions of copies, but you might not like shooters at all. Since video games are entertainment and not software, what works for one guy may not mean anything to you at all. Likewise, a game that fails to sell in the millions required to enter the top ten does not make it a failure. For example, there are plenty of movies that don’t get a cinema release but have become beloved hits among millions of people.

Newspaper "The Sun" hired a "doctor" to take a guy's blood pressure, which she somehow does by making him watch her finger, which he apparently can't do after playing the Nintendo 3DS. What a load of tripe...

The general media plays a large part in this problem – it seems they are always looking for something negative to write about anything, rather than settling on the neutral, boring truth. If a game is dropping multiplayer, it doesn’t mean the game will suck and the company will go bankrupt – it may mean that the developers wanted to focus on fun single player gameplay. We can only expect readers to invest so much in what’s written – the onus is on the writers of news to not be morons and stick to the facts.

Understanding Reviews

Video game reviews as a whole are fundamentally flawed. The reason is that if the reviewer focuses on the entertainment aspect of the game, his enjoyment of the title may differ hugely from your own. If the reviewer focuses on the technical aspects of the game – how it “feels”, the sound, etc – then it’s impossible to score since so very many games use similar game engines and technologies.

When reading a game review, it’s important to read up on the publication’s review system, too. Some rate games in stars (like Aussie-Gamer), others will use a “100%” system, or a 100 point system – or even 5 or 10 point system. Browsing the internet, it’s amazing how readers seem to think that if a game were given 70% or less, it means the game sucks.

Of course, games should be good and they should all strive to achieve 100%, but again it’s impossible to do because two people could play the same game for the same amount of time but both experience different things, and form an opinion based on those experiences. For example, I might have stumbled across a powerful item and found the game easy and fun to play, while you missed the item and struggled. I might give the game 5/5, but you would score it 3/5, simply because of that one difference.

Reviews are largely crap. Well written ones will give you more information on the game and it’s features, and indeed it’s a great way for publications like this one to get out more information on a game without being accused of getting paid to do so. The final score of video game reviews are meaningless, unless you’re comfortable enough with trusting the writer’s opinion. If you find a reviewer who seems to like what you like, and hate what you hate, then you might find value in video game ratings.

My advice in general with reviews is actually read the review – take the time to read the text. If we give a game a 2/5 star rating, it may just have one issue – maybe the frame rate is too slow for out liking. This doesn’t mean the game is bad, or that you will hate it. But if you simply base your opinion off the rating before reading the text, you will be passing up a potentially good game.

Publish More

There has been a recent trend with publishers trying to play the “safe card”. Video game sequels are hitting the market en masse at the high cost of innovation.

It’s hard to believe that it was 10 years ago that the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube were new and fresh, inspiring a generation of video game developers to take advantage of crystal clear graphics, the internet and multi-device tethering. Since then, that excitement has seemed to have dissipated.

One example is the game Viewtiful Joe which originally released on Nintendo GameCube by Capcom but was later released on PlayStation 2. The game is a side-scrolling brawler with 2D graphics. Perhaps the reason it was so popular was due to it’s art style – this was something we’d expect to see on a 16-Bit console like the Super Nintendo, not a modern-day machine.

At the time, it was revolutionary – but it wasn’t a risk for Capcom. Back then, games like Viewtiful Joe that pushed the boundaries of expectations were pumped out by bright eyed developers every few months and often with very small budgets. But as more franchises appeared, publishers got greedy. It was a better business decision to force legendary developers to produce some Barbie sim than it was to take a risk at publishing something that nobody has ever heard of before.

Due to this cash grab, many, many development studios vanished. In Australia, there’s only a handful left. Those who graduate from game development school find themselves coding titles demanded of them by the publishers, not their dream game with kick arse features.

Recently, such developers have turned to Kickstarter – a website that encourages the public to donate small amounts of money to projects. This means that you and I are handing over money to developers to make games they want to make, while the big publishers – who’s job it is to pay for games to be made – waste talent to make games they know will sell despite how crappy the finished product is.

When I think about this issue, I always picture a game like Pokemon. Pokemon would have been a massive project, as most RPG’s are. The difference is the sheer amount of technology that had to go into the game; nothing like this had been attempted before. Trading Pokemon over GameBoy Link Cable, for example, was very impressive for a GameBoy game. But what if Nintendo didn’t take the risk? After all – it was just another RPG and in Japan, there are literally thousands of RPGs – many sell okay, some don’t, and rarely are they released globally. But someone said “let’s give it a chance, support it, and see what happens”. And it payed off – today, Pokemon still is worth billions every year.

Some think that iPhone’s App Store is the solution to these issues – I think that’s wrong. Sure, being able to self-publish means your game gets out there, but do you have access to the best technologies? Do you have the luxury of a world class brand backing your game? If something goes wrong, do you have resources to fix it? Who markets your game? Suddenly, to get anything substantial from the App Store means you will be self funding quite a lot and at the end of the day, you’re only seeing less than $1 per sale.

Publishers still matter, but they need to get their act together, grow a pair, and start taking more risks. I wonder how many “Pokemons” or “Angry Birds” Activision passed over in favor of the 9th Call of Duty title?

The video game industry has been transformed since the early days, but it’s at a serious risk of going downhill. I think the above, long winded, points are a good start to getting the entire industry back on track, but what are your pet peeves about the state of the industry lately?

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  • Bill de Berg

    the truth is that video games are mostly a distraction and too many people are content to devote 100% of their time to them.. companies recognize this weakness and pump out bad games, knowing that people will continue to pay for them. none of what is happening is a surprise. the gaming industry is one of the most actively fluctuating bubbles right now.. when it bursts, traditional video games will go back to being a niche market. I predict that 3d / holodeck-type simulations will absorb the mainstream gaming industry. Also, within the next 10 years, dedicated game consoles will finally become extinct.

    I think it’s great.

    • AussieGamer

      That’s like saying that books are mostly a distraction, that movies are mostly a distraction, that religion is mostly a distraction, that sport is mostly a distraction… or while we’re at it, that work is mostly a distraction. All of which is true, but that doesn’t make it an invalid way to spend your time.

      Perhaps a niche market is best for video gaming. A small but global group of people who actually appreciate what playing video games is all about, rather than a mass of cashed up people, buying a bunch of stuff that is popular for that week all to make a bunch of rich people slightly richer.

  • TheDevian

    Yes, very true, everything can be a distraction, it’s all in how you want to look at it, the real trick is how long you distract yourself, and what you are distracting yourself from. Right now I am trying to find a distraction, so I can get so engrossed that I distract myself from smoking, but I can’t find anything that good that I haven’t played to death already, no matter how good a game is, you can only replay it so many (dozens/hundreds of) times.

    My feelings are the industry are dying. Once again the free market is eating itself. As the article stated Innovation and content are dying in favor of the new shiny and it is stagnating. Just like writing is dying everywhere (reading too). The worst part is so many people don’t even know what they are missing having never lived in a time when such things were prevalent.

    While I used to like a lot of types of games, (though fighting games died to me with the death of the joy stick, peaked at VF2, and I got burnt on FPSs shortly after doom2) RPGs have always been my main love, and there are so few anymore that fit that description. If you are building your RPG on top of a FPS, it is still a FPS at it’s core (or 3rd, whatever), no matter how many rpg elements you add to it. I mean even Football games let you build up characters and stats and equipment and so on, but you don’t call that an RPG, it’s a sports game. The problem is to make a good rpg takes years of huge investment that in the end still won’t sell as well as Zombie Duty Shooter XVII that they can spit out in 1/5 the time and at a fraction of the cost, and investors don’t like to wait for their return. It’s all about churning out the next rehashed version of some well known title.

    Money is always the death of art.