Expecting More

Sherlock (my PC) is still in the shop, so we’re not looking at a full post today. Instead, I’ve hooked up my laptop, with its barely-functional keyboard, to write a short, but necessary, post.

In the past, I’ve mentioned that we need to expect more from our developers, but I’ve never really bothered to go into what that means. It’s an important point, because it can mean many different things. In fact, according to some people, expecting more from companies has done quite a bit of damage to video games in general. This is true, but it hinges on what more means. For many years, this has meant expecting better graphics and faster processors. The hunt for these things has gone on for many years and developers should be proud of the results they’ve managed to scrape together. On the other hand, the price of developing a AAA title has increased substantially as a result of this same hunt. This has had obvious ramifications for game developers but has had a substantially impact on gamers, as well.

Higher prices mean fewer risks and a greater emphasis on making a return. I’ve complained for a few weeks about the changes in tone that have been made to the Dead Space franchise, but they’ve got a very reasonable back-ground logic to them. EA is a gaming behemoth, but, in recent years, it has been hemorrhaging money. As a result, they’ve attempted to shore up their losses by breaking into the casual gaming and micro-transaction markets. Part of the reason for this is the low return video games make compared to the cost of AAA development. Even the most popular franchises have made marginal returns compared to their gross sales. Still, they’re making enough to keep investors interested. At the same time, that means that the biggest developers and producers are going to be looking for mass appeal, or, at least, what they think is going to have mass appeal. So, we get soup-games and safe games. These are games that either try to be everything (soup) or try to be nothing too unexpected (safe). Somehow, these are supposed to be sounder investments.

I’d like to interject on my overall topic for a second to address producers directly. Quality is what you’re shooting for in a single game. I understand the attraction of multiple games making small returns versus investment in a flagship title. We’ve seen that strategy work in the App market, and, indeed, larger companies need multiple IPs to stay afloat. I get that, but, if we’re going to do something then we need to do it right. Let’s look at some of the world’s most popular games… Minecraft: who in the bloody hell would okay this game in AAA development? League of Legends: a polished version of an extremely popular fan-made map with at least 2 direct competitors. World of Goo: everyone loves triangles and goo, right? Okay, they’re not the best games of all time, and I’d have liked to pick others that are good, but they’re indisputably successful. Why? Several reasons each. Let’s assume that it’s possible for a game to be original in the way it presents an old idea and give each of these the honor of possessing that trait. Minecraft is pretty friendly with its modding community and up-dates constantly. League of Legends’ Riot Games keeps in pretty close contact with their community. World of Goo is pretty much the only place you can go for its game-play. They’ve each got unified aesthetics and story elements woven through the fabric of their designs. They’re easy to learn:  tough to master. They take simple ideas and explore what you can do with them. Okay, the list can go on and on. My point is that they are quality games that stay true to their purpose and design throughout the experience.

Clearly, we can make good games that aren’t devilishly expensive. We’ve seen this proven time and again in the indie market. Minecraft was originally developed by one guy! Personally, I’m horribly grateful for Steam and its Greenlight Project. I’d lose a lot of hope without it. We can’t all be Minecraft, though. I use it purely to illustrate that graphical fidelity and wordy game-play aren’t the be-all and end-all of quality gaming. This comes right back to what I was talking about when I said “better.” We’ve got a new generation of consoles coming up, and it’s a scary time for many people. Some people are wondering if it’s going to be the last console generation and if tablets and computers are going to dominate the market. So, there’s a lot of pressure to really give us a show. We’re going to be hamstringing ourselves and our developers if we spend our time demanding the bloomiest bloom. I’m sure you’ve heard, but, if you haven’t, then go check out Dead Space 3’s metacritic reviews. Not just the critic reviews, go check the user reviews. What you’ll get from this are two things: Dead Space isn’t a horror game anymore. It looks and plays really well. This isn’t EA’s failing; this is a symptom of a larger systemic problem.

It goes like this. How do we tell a company like EA what we want? Right, we give them money. How do we give them money? Ahuh, we buy their games! How do we communicate displeasure? Correct, we stop buying their stuff. What do they do then? They serve a different market. Dead Space is a property that I’ve loved for many years, even when it was clear that it was getting wackier with time. However, I’m well aware that games that look great sell better. Also, I know that better looking games are going to require more investment. Thus, they’re going to need to make a larger return. It’s almost like, the minute a game becomes really popular, it is going to have a tendency to stop serving its niche. I’m not sure how big the horror niche is, but, seeing as fans of the series (besides me) are going to have a tendency to buy the third installment of a series they loved, and the action-adventure niche is huge, I’m doubting that any company would put all their eggs in the horror basket. So, we got the game we did. You can see why someone like me, who loves psychological horror more than all the beautiful pre-rendered cut-scenes in the world, would recommend something like SCP or Silent Hill. They may look like ass, but they’ve got a real commitment to their niche. You need commitment to make effective psych-horror.

Customer Service

It’s more than that, though. If you haven’t heard about the SimCity tragedy, then I’ll let Penny Arcade fill you in on the specifics, but, in short, the game didn’t really work out of the gate. Furthermore, this viral picture shows how one EA rep supposedly reacted to a request for a refund. I can’t verify its accuracy, but there’s that. If EA wants to get into the micro-transaction business, and they’ve lately announced that they intend to include it in all their games, then they need to understand something that even Blizzard learned a long time ago: when you’re never done making your game or serving your customer, then you need to treat them well. Digital media distribution is doing something interesting to games; it’s ensuring that the game is never quite complete. DLC was quite an alien notion not too long ago and patches for games were unheard of. To me, this SimCity debacle shows exactly how not-ready EA is to serve the on-line community. It’s giving me flash-backs of the PSN network problem. It’s a shame, too, because it’s, apparently, quite a good game. I don’t doubt it. However, I bring this up to highlight another problem: in an on-line community where you’re constantly serving your customers, when is the game finished? When is the onus no longer on the company to deliver their product? SimCity may be a fantastic game, but how a company treats you and how a game works in practice are part of the experience of playing the game, especially when you’re never quite done dealing with them. I love Steam, but, if their service goes down, then I’ve got almost nothing to show for it. The knowledge that I’ve got a library of games somewhere and a bunch of e-mailed receipts? Memories of the games that I did finish? Sure, you could argue that that’s the same for a broken disk, but the service is theirs to provide and I shouldn’t be held accountable for their tech problems. Should I pay for something they can’t deliver? If you buy a game and then can’t play it because the game they sold you can’t be accessed due to server issues, then what exactly did you buy? Thankfully, I’ve never had to answer that problem, but quite a few people have had to ponder it lately.

I’d like to think that Steam would handle the problem better than it was, but that’s just the faith of the blind, at the moment. So, in the future, we should probably focus on overall game quality and developer service. Graphics are fine, but we need to communicate that those two things are a necessity. It’s not just that companies are greedy; they need to make the money back or they can’t keep making games. I’m positive that there are many eager, innovative designers out there with good game ideas. We just need to ensure that those are the ones we tell publishers we want, even If that means missing out on a few bloom-fests in the mean-time. You see, as long as well-executed, but ultimately soulless, games keep making money, then they’ll keep getting made. That doesn’t mean they’re all going to be bad. I just mean that we need to let publishers know that they can take some chances and make some good mediocre-looking games. By today’s standards, mediocre-looking is still pretty good. After all, developers are just as trapped in this high-fidelity nightmare as we are. That brings us back to our systemic problem.

There are people who just want the same game over and over again. There are people who just want something that looks good and plays alright. There are legions of individuals who are apparently using micro-transactions. We’re a pretty diverse market now. As actively as we might complain about generic games and sinking quality, companies are looking for new markets. The less we invest, the less interest producers have in keeping us happy. For a little while, I was concerned because I couldn’t see a way out of the feed-back cycle. Then, I realized that I was looking at this in a very silly way. A diverse market means many different suppliers. So, we simply invest in those people willing to serve us as individuals. Thankfully, there are usually a few of them. There are a lot of suppliers coming out of the indie scene that are spending much less to make decent games. A few of them are making amazing ones for a fraction of what it takes to make something in the AAA industry. So, your dollar will stretch farther here in terms of influence. There are some high-quality AAA titles dropping soon. If they’re good, then we need to snap them up. We need to communicate our demands somehow. We can communicate via e-mail! If sales are dropping and people are complaining, then any company will see where their best interest lies. How do we judge a game’s quality without buying it? Our dear on-line community, of course. I like meta-critic. (Pro-tip: Use the critic reviews as a gauge for quality of execution and user reviews as a gauge for experience quality. The two will overlap, but that’s my general rule).

Some people are okay with the state of the industry. It’s not the end of the world. Honestly, we’re producing some pretty awesome games, but with market diversification, digitalization, casual-gaming, on-going game development, micro-transactions, free-to-play, another console generation, and everything else in the last year, gaming has changed a lot. The rules for what makes a game good and how we communicate with the industry are morphing rapidly. It’s exhausting just thinking about it from where I’m sitting; I can’t imagine how it must feel from the top of an empire built on electronic entertainment. The vertigo must be maddening.

What do we do? I think we need to buy more carefully. Right now, at times we’re buying some really impressive movies with button sequences in them. Is that the future we want for gaming? Do we want to mash X to push Bowser into some lava? Should we Hold R and press B to order our squad to attack the nearest Metroid? Do we have a future in which, should we fail the quick-time event, James Sunderland’s long-lost best-friend will be incinerated in the nuclear explosion that covers up the Silent Hill incident?! Do you want to see Gradius reduced to a rail-shooter? This seems like hyperbole, but I’ll remind you that, right now, you can spend real money to buy a cool gun to play on-line co-op in the latest AAA survival-horror game. If you can’t grasp how insane that sounds, then maybe it’s a losing battle already. We may all want different things from our games, so expecting “more” can mean many different things. That’s a given. BUT, should we continue rewarding blind cash-grabs and mediocrity, then we’ll continue to get them. We won’t see what gaming can be, because there will be no drive to be it. I assure you, it’s worth missing a few bland experiences if we can encourage a drive towards overall quality. There’s no game that won’t be improved by encouraging publishers to care about the quality of its experience. Believe me, if a game sells based on that, then all of gaming will benefit. We need to change the first question we ask from, “Will it get made?” to “Should it get made?”

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