The Value of Entertainment

When it comes to video game news, and the sort of controversies that ensue, I can always count on two names to offer either similar, or differing opinions, and that is John Bain (best known as TotalBiscuit) or Jim Sterling (best known as being obnoxious, often). In two neat tweets, I got both:

Jim Sterling is always a hit-or-miss kind of guy for me, but it’s high noon somewhere, so in this particular case, his post entitled On No Man’s Sky And Refunds was pretty spot-on when it comes to describing the current aura we’re experiencing in video gaming when it comes to how consumers are perceived by the industry at a whole.

For many, the idea of playing for 50 hours and then deciding the game’s no good leaves them incredulous — how can you hate something and still play for 50 hours?

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room, and that is price. On yesterday’s Co-Optional Podcast, guest Geoff Robinson remarked about how games have always cost $60 even in the past, and together with Bain, seemed to infer that gamers are largely mistaken when it comes to price points and value, implying that they balk at higher prices in favor of low-budget games. While not completely false, I caution to latch on to this idea that gamers today demand low-priced games simply because of the existence of low-budget or indie titles that sell on Steam for $5–$25. A two-person development team that makes a 5–10 hour indie title with retro pixel art should reasonably sell that game in that price point because their cost overhead was not the same as a The Sims title that takes dozens, if not hundreds, of developers with a larger overhead. People will pay more for more game. But what we’re noticing, especially in this console generation, is that due to the hardware not significantly improving from the recent generation, more mind is being paid to the gameplay over the graphics, which has driven the value of a game over the past 4–5 hardware generations.

The fallacy that many developers are falling into, however, is believing that all gamers are cheap. They falsely assume everyone wants big-box, triple-A games for ten bucks or less, and that their decisions not to buy the game stem from entitlement rather than perceived value. This notion is absurd, video game software sales rose 7% to 16.5 billion dollars in 2015. That’s not chump-change, it represents an expanding industry that continues to grow. That would not be possible if more than half of all gamers were deliberately forgoing purchases of big games. Rather, thanks to the eroding climate of gaming journalism’s role in covering games, the rise of Youtube and Twitch streamers showing the games before they release, and better refund policies with digital sales, gamers are becoming more intelligent about their purchases and sending a clear message to developers; Make good games, or don’t. If anyone should be entitled, it should be the modern game developer, always assuming that their customer is going to just lap up whatever they give them with no questions asked. That worked for much of the 2000’s, but those times are changing, and like the RIAA in the late nineties with Napster, they’re mad. Mind you, I am not trying to suggest that all game developers are narcissistic or greedy, but unfortunately when ideologues lament about the culture gaming has created, a lot of that boils down to franchises like Call of Duty or Madden taking the video game and turning it into a formula, a formula that has since been repeated and reconfigured to place emphasis on quantity over quality. It makes it more difficult for the developers that want to innovate, change, or otherwise pour passion into a new idea because they not only have to compete in the funding game, they also have to overcome technical challenges. They have to make gameplay be something so incredible people are willing to put down their staples to try something new.

The real enemy should be free-to-play games. F2P has essentially stepped in and created an absolute race to the bottom for developers, because even with all that promise of getting people to nickel-and-dime your game to profit, the majority of your playerbase is going to play for free until they can’t, or won’t, and move on to the next thing. You’ll say “But Delta, what about X Game or Y Game, they make one-hundred-kabillion-million dollars and cheese!” that’s exactly it; One game did really well, so like Hollywood studios, let’s repeat that formula until we’ve beaten that horse real good. Formulas, like the above CoD example, are what continues to ruin meaningful innovation in the gaming space unintentionally. It causes some developers to quit big-box studios and focus on indie development because you can still get some money out of that, even if it isn’t at a full $60 price point. Undertale was 2015’s biggest hit, and we’re talking a game made by a small team of people using simple styles and mechanics. Of course, this will probably spurn another wave of indie developers trying to mimic this formula for success, but this is sort of how every entertainment industry functions, someone innovates, everyone else copies the formula.

Refunders have been written off as entitled scammers manipulating a system to essentially get a free game’s worth of playtime.

It’s easy to use the most recent controversies in gaming as a reason to levy unfair criticism against consumers and enthusiasts within the gaming sphere. But the worse mistake you can make is assuming that it speaks for everyone within that sphere. In actuality, a very small percentage of people are out there causing trouble and lighting the tires on fire, the rest continue to operate as they did before. But because they exist and they have a commanding presence, we start to negatively view things that happen as a result of that negativity. Implying that people are thieves for wanting a refund on something they spent money on is disingenuous and petty. It’s not you or I’s place to qualify how people make their money, or how they spend it, it’s entirely up to choice how a person spends their money. We have extensive consumer controls in-place elsewhere outside of gaming to protect consumers from greedy, manipulative practices. It’d be easy for me to turn this argument around and suggest that developers are trying to fleece consumers out of more money with Day One DLC, microtransactions, Season Passes, and other paid content. But I know that is not the case, because all of those things are extra content they paid good people to make and they deserve their due at the end of the day for making it. I work in IT, I know what it feels like when people undervalue your work because they think it’s pennies compared to a rocket scientist. Our sense of value has been warped tremendously over the past fifty years as things have gotten easier, more convenient, and more efficient. We expect a lot more for a lot less, and certainly we view entertainment as a cheap, disposable commodity versus the traditional painting or art piece of yesteryear. We’re unable to qualify just how much value something has because for something like a game, we can put it down, not touch it in six months, and deem it a “waste of good money”. The more you do this, the more you become choosy about what you buy in order to minimize disappointment, and that’s hard to do in today’s super-charged, super-hyped hyper-PR environment where everyone is trying to push their product on you any way possible.

What makes this issue somewhat difficult for me to wade into is that it deals with the contentions between creator and consumer, and video games seems to be one of the most volatile places we’re seeing where both forces clash on a regular basis, and I don’t reasonably see why. Perhaps it is the vague nature of gaming, where we’ve moved away from “canned” experiences of gaming yesteryear into more open and fluid experiences that change often. I got to thinking about evolving games like MMOs, or open-world games that get content updates, and I think “At what point, even after a hundred hours, could you get upset that it doesn’t meet your expectations?” Certainly we’ve seen the ups and downs of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft over the past decade and how they try with each new expansion to recapture the height of their initial release, but when you consider gamers today have so many games to play, you really have to make that critical first impression to keep them from being dissatisfied and wanting their money back. Truth is, these are not thieves, thieves would just pirate your game and pay you no attention, even negatively. Your paid consumers are the ones putting their faith in your work, and passionately sometimes, giving you the feedback that just may not be what you expect. I almost fear that the more we continue to excuse and shield the more constructive criticism from developers the more diluted and watered-down our gaming experiences will become. The way I see it, the successful developer will take the time to study the marketplace, study current and potential audiences, and make something that should hit the target, but potentially bring in new faces. Consumers will respond by spreading the world, streaming, promoting it on their social media, and praising a successful product. Mistakes should be expected, some negative feedback will happen, but it’s the perfect test of your constitution and integrity to learn from it and respond in way that wins those people back, and improves your product. Dismissing them and labeling them shitlords will only further alienate you from potential audiences that won’t bother because they just don’t want to get sucked up into the muck or targeted by the small sliver of trolls/fanboys out for blood.

It’s time we stop criminalizing gamers and allowing gaming journalism and other folks to peddle that narrative that continues to poison gaming. You want a better gaming community, one more fair, diverse, and profitable? Focus on the positive and ignore the negative. Don’t feed the fire. Polarized people have made up their mind, pay them no attention, focus on the people on the fence and speak in plain terms, not business-speak or college liberal arts-isms. They will respond to geniune, heartfelt character and integrity, I promise.

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