When I was 14 my favorite game, Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, came out. I biked 10 miles to the Big Name Box store and paid $70 for the massive tombstone sized box with my new prized game inside. Nobody even knew about the game and I had to follow community blogs to even know when it was released. To me, this was the golden age of gaming.
I contrast this memory against the current massive ecosystem of games where everybody is more interested in talking about games that suck instead of games they enjoy. I believe it’s because there are a few elements working together which allow for bad games to be released and still make massive sales – and here they are; reasons why games don't have to be good anymore.
Steam Early Access
“If you buy early access, you’re going to have a bad time”
I have nothing against Steam and nothing against people doing this, but it has single-handedly changed my perception with the gaming marketplace. When I was a teenager, it was exciting to find a bug in Pokemon but now it’s just blatant negligence.
I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because a ton of amazing games have come out of this program, but I do wish there was more diligence on Steam’s behalf to ensure a level of quality. I’ll lump crowdfunding into this section because it’s the same principle. You’re paying for the idea behind a game rather than the game itself. The potential abuse of the system is evident in the countless refund requests that Steam users open and almost never receive.
Open Source Engines
When I first started marketing games, the only companies to do work for were the major studios or new start ups. Now, the majority of my work are small team projects, often with the development team living in their parent's basement. There’s no problem with this, in fact, I love it! Everyone has the ability to make their own games, but at the same time... everyone has the ability to make their own games. I will confidently say this has lowered the quality of the average title launched through a digital distributor, but there still is an obvious tier of excellence in quality a large portion of games strive for.
That being said, I find roughly 90% of games on Steam or bundles have zero interest to me. So many games just reiterate an old concept and the number of studios looking to capitalize on pop genres is disturbing (zombie/survival open worlds). What blows my mind is when I talk to some of the studios who launch these crazy knock off games who have still earned millions in revenue from Steam sales alone.
It’s only now being openly revealed, but there is large dark side industry around game marketing. The latest revelations about YouTube sponsored videos have become a mainstream tactic that most games include in their launch strategy. It’s obvious that every YouTuber will get access to your game once on the market, but marketers and product managers know they only have to manage the opening reception of a game to acquire the initial onslaught of sales.
A game should speak for itself and if you have to curate who showcases your game (because you're paying those people to like it) you’re manipulating the perception of the game. I do think YouTube should be an essential part of any game’s strategy, but only through unbiased means - I wrote about this before.
This issue is further compounded by a copyright holder’s ability to pull a video which doesn’t give a favorable review of their title. Total Biscuit has already exposed the very common occurance of this happening. I won’t pretend that the majority of YouTubers ask for a paid review, but enough of them do. It’s hard to judge though – would you turn down $10,000 to play a game and make a few videos about it?
Take a think on your favorite big publisher. EA, Blizzard and Ubisoft are no longer in the business of publishing video games, but instead sequels. Once a game has been well received, the development and monetization team figure out how to milk the property dry. There’s rarely attention given to how the gameplay can experience innovation or advancement and a string of titles and transmedia merchandise burst forth onto the market.
I’ve worked with some of these guys, so I won’t play innocent. The politics of gaming companies has become something fascinating as you see people with a shocking disregard for consumers brought into leadership rather than committed and passionate creative individuals. The saddest part is that the majority of the decisions I saw made while working for bigger studios were based around better earning potential rather than the consumer’s enjoyment.
What This All Means
There is a life cycle in economics where demand and supply enjoy an exciting relationship. With the video game industry entering an age of maturity we’re experiencing the shift from pull marketing to push marketing.
Games used to rely on putting out marketing material like press releases, screenshots, demo disks (remember these in cereal boxes?) and maybe a cinematic.
But now we have Steam sales to push volume, obscene bundles which cannibalize the perceived value of games and social media platforms urging you to join so they can propel marketing material to you. The average game can’t rely on sharing basic trailers and screenshots, but with sales teams and distribution tactics.
I realize that games rely on large investment to make and require huge sale payoffs to be considered successful but the gaming industry is starting to be run by business executives rather than game makers.
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