We need more games (and other stories)

Our stores are broken.

2017, it appears, is when folks entirely forget how stores work and just make stuff up instead. We’re a little over a week and a bit into the year and I’ve already hit upon so much bad store analysis, seemingly divorced from any sort of reality, it’s kind of hurting my head a bit.

Of course, in amongst all the graphs that folk like to pull out, all the truly bad readings of numbers and everything else, you can pretty much guarantee that someone, somewhere is going to go back to The One That Does My Head In, the subject of too many games.

I’ve tackled it, less than tactfully, a few times before. Once to bluntly state, as Doug Lombardi once did, that no – there are not too many games. Following on from that to mention the fairly ridiculous premise that the argument is built on – how, exactly, can you have such a thing as too many games? And if it is that much of a problem, folk can just stop adding to the pile for a bit and let someone else have a chance.

I’ll admit, I find it an entirely unconvincing argument at the most fundamental of levels – it really just doesn’t make sense to me at all. Yet here we are and one of the latest ‘solutions’ we seem to be returning to is some sort of inventory limit. Often going so far as to suggest that we should cull lesser performing titles from the store – where of course, we get to dictate what lesser performing is because of course we do whilst we’re making up arbitrary rules for problems we’ve invented. There’d be little point otherwise.

Yet, I think there is a more profound point to be divined from this nonsense – whilst in videogames (as elsewhere) we’re prone to pointing the finger at folks just getting by and feel something must be done about them (for rarely convincing or accurate reasons), our stores do have some fairly serious issues with them and they’re not really being addressed all that well.

The depressing truth of videogames is that our stores are barely fit for purpose in the main. I’m fairly sure that whilst there’s genuinely people who want to disadvantage others in order to provide themselves more of an advantage (videogames are populated by humans, after all), a lot of the complaints around stores just evade the obvious. They’re mainly broken. Especially, but definitely not limited to, stores on consoles.

Shopping for games online is fairly often a way more difficult task than it ever needs to be. Our best storefront by a clear margin is Steam and whilst Valve’s experiments are bearing fruit for people and slowly improving sales from the bottom to the top, there’s still a great deal of wiggle room for improvement on there. There’s still a legacy of unclear navigation in parts, things are hidden or difficult to find that really shouldn’t be difficult to find or hidden, the necessity of separating the store from the community is a thing that keeps Steam up and running more often than not but still, it makes for a disjointed experience and there’s still a lot of room for improvement navigating outside the recommendation engine Valve have built.

And that’s our best store. Our best store still has an almighty heck of a way to go in functionality and user experience to be the best it can be. Which isn’t slating Valve’s work here so much as acknowledging how much work is involved in building and supporting an online store that works for people buying and people selling videogames. Doing it well is an enormous task.

This is, partly, why I love Itch.io. Aside from its willingness to support folks who would normally be left out by Valve (an essential task), it’s the only store willing to take on Steam on its own terms. Normally, when folks try to build something to rival Steam, what they tend towards is either a more traditional olde style limited inventory storefront (Hello GOG) or just completely ignore all the things that really make Steam work and assume it’s about keeping those eyeballs in client. Don’t get me wrong, it partly is just that but there’s a lot of detail, important detail, that gets lost. You know, like the stuff that makes people want to stay in and around Steam. Most barely get past throwing people some sort of reward scheme or free games bone – which is sort of OK when you’re dealing with your own works but not so much when folks need to make a living from your store.

This is the longest ass way yet of me saying look, there’s a reason Steam is as big as it is and other stores struggle to come close. It seems absurd when I write this but if I click on something on Steam, I can be pretty much guaranteed to walk away with enough information to help me decide whether I make a purchase. This is also true of GOG and… GOG and maybe GOG as well.

The problems here aren’t one of volume, stores are often broken at the most basic, fundamental of levels. They’ve been broken so long, we barely bat an eye and instead go reaching to blame people who deserve to be served better by their storefronts, especially considering that stores take a percentage from these people for carrying their works, right?

Whatever complaints I have about Steam, they all pale in comparison to just how poor browsing for and buying games is on a console. The last time I tried to look for something on the Microsoft store, I found it tiring and frustrating. Sony’s offering is often the same. Nintendo opting for a more traditional store route (and erm, having barely any games) saves them from some of the more pressing issues but still – it’s not a thing you’d go out of your way to describe as a good experience in the main.

I don’t want to single one store out as the worst here, they’re all fairly grim in their own ways. There’s a distinct lack of useful, granular, searching. There’s no guarantee of walking away with all the basic information you need – you know, like a humanly readable description, a decent set of screenshots of the game and an appropriate video. Never mind anything more elaborate. Basic stuff is missing.

Due to needing to have some friction to purchases, buying the things you may want to buy is often way more cumbersome than anyone would like. And then, of course, after you’ve bought the thing, there’s downloading the things and there’s nowhere near enough being spent on providing fast and efficient downloads to people in the way Valve do. I don’t pretend these are simple or cheap issues to address but when I can download a 30–50 gig game on one service in an hour and on another I find myself having to leave a console on overnight or for days on end – the difference in experience is a stark one. This is of course what you get when companies are bean countered within an inch of their lives to maximise profits in ways Valve can afford to set aside but still. It makes for a poor user experience.

Before we ever consider culling titles or punishing up and coming folk for daring to try and sell their work, it seems sensible to me to address the far more serious issues that go towards our stores being less than good places to buy videogames. The fault here doesn’t lie with the people making games, no matter the quality, the fault lies with the stores making filtering somewhere between difficult and impossible, buying a chore and downloading things even more so. You know, let’s request that the folks with the money and the power use the money and the power to make a not rubbish experience for more people, right?

Our problem in games really, genuinely, isn’t one of too many games – it’s stuff doesn’t work right.

Discussing this in term of too many games also ignores just how underserved most people are by videogames. There are a lot of people with wildly varying tastes in games, these tastes come into and out of vogue too and as a result, people find themselves with huge dry spells for new games in genres they like. Some folks barely get anything at all on consoles or in stores that cater to them. I’m not even joking when I say that I make the games I make because few people are around to make that sort of stuff for me. I’m far from alone and far, far from the worst case of not being catered to in games.

The answer to this most definitely is not fewer games, right? We like to pretend that games are one market but really, they’re very much a broad and wide medium with a lot of tastes and wants. There’s probably around ten or twenty people who make the sort of things I do and sell them. I’m working to a small market of folks at the best of times, I chose to work within a niche because it’s a niche I love and I want more games I really enjoy playing because of course I do. I’m lucky if I get one or two a year in my psychedelic arcade corner, right? That’s still more than what some other folk get.

We’ve got so much more room for so many more games, we need so many more games in order to keep videogames fresh and vital or comfortable for many. We need more games to keep pushing out at what videogames can be, we need to be less destructive to our legacy not more because the issues with obsolescence are brutal enough due to the innate issues around our technologies, this one thing alone already culls the pool of videogames as stuff stops working through no fault of the people who made them. We need to remember that most folks are barely being served with the stuff they like but there’s also often stuff out there they might like that’s fallen between the cracks.

Rather than rid ourselves of the works that might interest people, we need to be better at helping people discover that work. To do the other is needlessly destructive and pointless for a medium that already struggles with preserving its works.

Every time someone proposes we get a little more destructive, work harder to remove things from the pool which most people in or around games barely get to see anyway, I’ll admit, it does make me sad. It’s needless and effort that could be spent building more ways for folks to find more things they might like. The problem with selling games isn’t the volume of games made, that’s always, always going to be on the rise. It’s we need to be better at making sure everyone can find the things they might like snd supporting people in making those things too.

It’s not an easy task and it’s a long road to get it right but it’s so much easier, so much more worthwhile than trying to destroy livelihoods and our own legacy for no good reason.

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