The Game Industry Correction

The average AAA game costs $60, despite inflation. Publishers and game studios have taken to DLC, Season Passes, and microtransactions to offset the costs and make their products last longer once they’re in the market. But that’s not enough. A game can’t merely make its money back; it must exceed all previously set bars to prove that their game was successful.

While I cannot speak for non-US countries, wages have been stagnant for the low/middle class for a long time. The tech industry has grown significantly the past 20 or so years and has given many people well-paying jobs on paper, yet, in some of these areas making $100,000 is cutting it due to how expensive homes, food, transit, and daily expenses are becoming. The industry is in a cost spiral due to self-fulfilling prophecies and success stories: developers want to be in X area because that’s where all the talent is, which incentives people to go to that area.

But those areas aren’t cheap. Income inequality is growing significantly, with no signs of slowing down. The North American game industry is centered and driven by California; with the Seattle area becoming the next major tech hotspot. However, Seattle is rapidly getting more expensive too. Unfortunately, more people are trying to justify the costs of going to and living in these areas than wondering why the industry is so West Coast heavy and growing beyond the coast.

Working in more affordable areas in North America is a death sentence because as far as the game industry is concerned if you’re not in those areas, you don’t matter unless you have a well-known publisher backing you or you’re one of the few major success stories on release. There are a few exceptions in small parts of the East Coast and Canada, but for the most part, if you want to go into games seriously, you’re hampering your growth not being where everyone else is.

It becomes the player’s problem to fund a lifestyle that’s probably forced them, or their family out of their homes. Also, there’s a stigma associated with working in these areas. It’s hard to admit it but, there’s this idea that if you’re not working in a major tech hub that maybe you aren’t that good, because if you were, you would be where all of the “talent” is. Let’s not get into how a lot of the game industry feels about Middle America, despite those people contributing to their livelihoods due to efforts (i.e., marketing) by the same industry people.

We live in a time of oversaturation of content. Not only are there a ton of games being made/published every day, but there are also YouTubers, Twitch Streamers, TV shows, music artists, and more fighting for your attention and dollars. To stand out from the noise, studios and publishers have to spend way more on aggressive campaigns to make sure people remember that their game exists.

That’s not cheap.

On top of that, the content marketplace has adopted a race to the bottom mentality for their products. Thus, there’s no urgency in making a purchase. I would argue that players having the ability to wait and carefully choose what they want to consume is pro-consumer, but it stresses out content creators. Did it not sell because people forgot about my product? Did it suck? Or are people waiting for the 20 percent price drop because they’ve been trained to think that way? If they do buy at the price drop, how do I recoup the 20 percent?

With oversaturation, what’s the easiest way to create urgency?

  1. Give away something for a while
  2. Threaten to take something away after a while
  3. Create incentives to make them play with friends, rooting the experience in their personal lives
  4. Hamper a player’s progress to make them feel inadequate compared to their friends and the broader community
  5. Give the player a chance to get something if they keep returning to your game

These techniques are what drove the mobile industry into generating billions of dollars and is what’s affecting game monetization today. Because despite how little the low/middle-class person to spend on entertainment, that urgency is enough to make them give their dollars away. Once this behavior became normalized, it became less of a question of “If,” and more “How?” to the game industry. Now games are becoming services; things you never put down despite how much content is thrown in your face every day. And while it’s nice to praise and point to that One Indie Game™ that made it as the example for the industry to follow, a lot of them fall by the wayside, leaving their developers riddled with debt, stress, and regret. The players almost never hear their stories.

It’s absurd.

This cycle isn’t sustainable. At some point, a correction in the game industry will happen, and when it does, it’s going to be nasty. As an industry, we have to learn how to spend better, budget better, and diversify our investments. And I’m not just talking about studios and publishers; consumers need to step it up too.

Making Vulnerable Games

Vulnerable games are games that are themselves in front of players. Like seeing a person open up and share themselves with someone they trust, vulnerable games take a chance at trying to connect with the player by “being themselves” rather than hiding their true selves under layers of misdirection. While opening themselves up allows players and critics to easily cut deep with directed (and sometimes valid) criticism, these games take the risk in hopes that they leave a long-lasting impression on someone that plays it.

Unfortunately, a lot of games that try to be vulnerable end up feeling pretentious instead.

What do I mean?

Pretentious tends to be used by gamers to mean “artsy game that I don’t like” which devalues the term. Something that’s pretentious is something that has an unjustified amount of importance placed on it. Pretentiousness can make genuine experiences feel fake and manipulative, like having a friend confide in you only to realize that they were stretching the truth to ease you into them asking for a big favor. The key thing to take away from this analogy isn’t that the “friend” stretched the truth but rather that they embellished it to make it seem more important than it was so that they could get something from you. They were more concerned about making you feel a certain way than connecting with you. I’m not claiming that these games are doing it intentionally, but it’s hard to bond with something that’s putting on airs while “letting their guard down.”

Have you ever seen a couple that looks like they’re trying to live in the honeymoon period forever? That must show how unique their relationship is despite how typical it is? That bring an air of insecurity surrounding their relationship, and must always be doing something to prove how great their relationship is?

When I feel that sensation from a game, it feels pretentious.

Have you ever seen a couple that when you look at them, you just know that they’re together? They may not show public displays of affection that often, or talk about their relationship that much, but you know they’re comfortable with each other? Like they don’t have to prove anything to each other and everyone else?

That feeling is what vulnerable games are.

Vulnerable games are their experience; all of their pieces, no matter how polished or flawed, come together to form a genuine experience.

Vulnerable games have stories, characters, systems, and mechanics that don’t have to remind me why I should care about them.

Vulnerable games make me feel, not because the game is telling me to, or because of virtue signaling from influential people, but because I genuinely feel something from engaging with the game.

And I would love to see more of them.

Owning Your Criticism

I’m not going to single out anyone or pretend that I have the power to tell people what they can and cannot do. I’m not going to say that a person’s views or values are invalid or worthless based on my knowledge or beliefs because I acknowledge that I’m a person. My experiences, friends, family, social standing, and preferences create biases and can influence how I think. I also acknowledge that I don’t know everything and that there are cases where I might be completely wrong or miss the point. But at least I expect that I own up to what I say. Continue reading

Understanding Creative People

­We see them splashing inspiration on a canvas, and the results look amazing. They bring the imaginary and the abstract into our world, shaping how we look at reality. They speak in arcane tongues, weaving speech spells that enhance our everyday. They create, and they can’t help themselves.

These are creative people, and they are struggling in the game industry.

Continue reading

Don’t Change, Iterate!

In the game industry, developers love sharing their experiences with others. By sharing their experiences, they allow others to learn from their mistakes while internalizing the lessons they’ve learned. But what I find is that a lot of developers do not differentiate between change and iteration:

“So for our platformer, we had a jump mechanic. It worked, but it didn’t mesh with the feel of our game. After changing the jump for nearly a week, we nailed the jump, and it made our game even better.”

Rather than digging into what drove these decisions in more meaningful detail, they are described as “change,” as if the iterative process didn’t exist. Change has become a romanticized idea that values bold action over careful thought and planning; as if doing something different will always yield better results.

This is wrong. Continue reading

Games as a Medium

Over the past couple of decades, video games have become a popular form of entertainment that millions of people enjoy daily. They allow us to experience wonderful worlds, interesting characters, and overcome obstacles that create a feeling of accomplishment.

In this post, I would like to briefly look at games as a medium of human interaction and expression. This post is primarily targeted at those new to video games and/or consumers but I feel that it may be useful reminder to those in development as well. Continue reading