Originally published August 19, 2015
This was the installment that made me aware that the column had succeeded in creating a marketplace of ideas. It was a controversial subject, published only a year after the GamerGate tsunami. If my readers weren’t willing to meet me halfway on this one, the column might very well have ended then and there.
But, they did. There were some who were offended and complained to the editor-in-chief, but the discussion that followed was civil and, in the main, non-judgemental. In that moment I knew that I could cover any controversial subject I wanted, and my readers would give me the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagreed with me.
TO MISQUOTE BATTLESTAR Galactica, it has happened before, and it can happen again.
There was a time when box stores like Future Shop and Best Buy had rows upon rows of PC games. There were so many that the stores had to divide them into genres. Every month there were multiple AAA releases putting even more games on the shelves. It was the late 1990s, and it was a good time to be a computer gamer.
And then, over the course of a couple of years, almost all those games vanished. All that seemed to be left behind were a couple of big franchises and the massively multiplayer games. By the mid-2000s, a number of commentators were wondering if the computer game was going extinct.
What had happened was that piracy had reached the point where the computer game business model was no longer sustainable. In the late 1990s, it was possible to crack the copy protection on a CD-ROM, but the games were so large in comparison to the hard disk space at the time, along with the slow download speeds, that the only way to pirate a copy involved stripping out a lot of content. So, you might get the gameplay, but none of the cut scenes or voice acting. But, by 2000, high speed Internet was more common and hard drives were now large enough to comfortably hold the contents of a CD-ROM.
The piracy got so bad that Tweakguides (a website that actually did some quantitative research and tallied pirate downloads against sales figures) estimated that a popular game on the PC was being pirated between 10–12 times for every copy sold. On top of that, the pirates had waged an effective PR war, claiming that the piracy was being necessitated by the presence of the very DRM being used to stop them (a theory that was promptly disproven when Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed without any DRM at all, and the game was heavily pirated).
So, despite the fact that the PC market was orders of magnitude larger than the console market, PC game publishers shifted their attention to the consoles. After all, on the consoles they sold multiple units for every copy pirated, you had to hack your console just to run a pirated game, and with the standardized hardware it was easier to make the game work.
The exodus to the consoles was a business decision. Anybody reading this who is involved in business will know that such decisions do not tend to be emotional in nature. It’s ultimately a simple calculation: profit vs. loss. Profit is the money you will make after expenses from releasing the product, and loss is the costs involved in getting that product to market and supporting it.
Today we face a similar situation — the groundwork for an exodus has been laid. But, in this case, it has to do with harassment.
Things are pretty bad. The poster child for this right now might be Zoe Quinn, who at the time of writing has yet to be able to return to her home due to the recent unpleasantness (and is drawing closer to becoming the video game world’s fatwa-era Salman Rushdie by the day). But this has been going on for a while, and the industry has been bleeding talent for years. For example, Greg Zeschuk admitted to Polygon in 2013 that the departure of he and fellow Bioware founder Ray Muzyka was at least partly due to harassment. More recently, John Smedley stepped down from his position as CEO of Daybreak Games, after a period of long harassment by Lizard Squad that saw his credit rates destroyed, bomb scares, and his home swatted multiple times.
It was particularly driven home to me at the start of the recent unpleasantness, when The Escapist ran a series of interviews with female developers. Within those interviews was a tangible sense of fear, with some interviewees stating that they were fairly close to packing it in.
Indeed, dealing with death threats against their developers have become part of the cost of doing business for any AAA game company. Matters as small as a change in gun firing rates in a patch can result in a stream of death threats, which the company now has to deal with. While the recent unpleasantness has drawn attention to the sexism that can appear, there are no gender barriers as to who can become a target — a 2014 Pew study found that, overall, men are a bit more likely to face online harassment than women (44% of men vs. 37% of women), while within that online harassment women were more likely to be stalked and sexually harassed, with young women in particular facing disproportionately more severe harassment than their male counterparts. The time and costs involved in protecting and retaining employees in the face of this are part of the “loss” section in the profit vs. loss equation.
(I did reach out to a couple of industry organizations to get figures for the game industry itself, and was unable to do so. The only firm response I got was from the IDGA, which said that while they have no hard figures yet, anecdotally the harassment seemed to be concentrated on women and indie developers, which I actually found a bit surprising — I had thought that most of it would be concentrated on AAA developers. That said, there are proportionally far more indie developers than AAA developers, and that should also be taken into account.)
AAA game publishers target their products towards what they call “core gamers” for a reason — this market segment plays around 25% of the titles released, but these titles bring in just over half of all the money spent on video games. This suggests that the core gamers are spending as much on video games as the rest of the video game market combined.
But this is not a barrier to major franchises disappearing. The more the industry bleeds talent, and action becomes necessary to support and protect developers from harassment and death threats, the greater the “loss” side of the equation becomes. When the balance tips, it won’t matter how large the core gamer demographic is, or how much money they spend — it will be more profitable to make games for everybody else. Once that occurs, an exodus can and will happen.
After all, it happened before…it can always happen again.