Friday, July 21, 2006

Gaming Miseryguts versus the Great Unwashed

There's a lot of misery in the gaming world lately, and not just because of the summer dearth of new releases (which happens every year anyway and gives us a chance to catch up on our movies and books. When we're not watching Big Brother, of course).
Mark Rein, VP of Epic Games, made some ripples with his keynote address to the Develop conference in Brighton earlier this month, where he laid into the barely-there-yet concept of episodic gaming with much force and gusto, labelling it a 'broken business model'. The same day, he criticised Intel for killing PC gaming by pushing integrated graphics chips that can't run particularly intensive games. Elsewhere, David Jaffe blogged at length on how he's lost all desire to tell stories in games, preferring to focus on 'interactivity in the most purest sense' ('most purest'? Ouch, redundancy) which would appear to mean twatting things with swords and skipping cutscenes. A couple of weeks back Ron Gilbert was lamenting the lack of storytelling in games and the resistance of publishers to fund a more involved experience. There's a lot of grumpy gamers out there lately, it seems.
Gilbert, at least, admits it: his blog is even called Grumpy Gamer for presumably the same reason mine is called Adaptive Perfectionist, and he makes a very good case - given that many in the industry (consumers and producers both) seem to regard Metal Gear Solid 3 as the very zenith of videogame storytelling I can sympathise with his frustration. But reading between the lines it seems apparent that he simply misses the old days when Doom was a maverick shareware success story and point-and-click was the language of adventure gaming: not because this new-fangled 3D nonsense has taken over but because nobody can afford to experiment any more. It's all about the bottom line and the craft has been lost.
Rein, on the other hand, is a little less frustrated and a lot more derisive. Episodic can't work because the initial costs of developing a game are too high, the price of the game must by necessity be what he regards as too low (he keeps quoting $20: it's a little hard to convert to pounds because of the ludicrous surcharge levied on the European markets, but £20 would be a cheap game here in the UK) and this means the game must fail because you can't afford the advertising spend - 'Distribution without marketing is worthless', he says. 'It's pretty hard to justify a huge marketing budget on a game you're going to sell for $20', he scoffs.
Absolutely it is. But that just means being a bit more creative with what you do have to spend. I know some people in marketing and I've watched them come up with ingenious ways of squeezing every last ounce of publicity from tiny budgets: you have to work harder is all, bend some rules, try some new stuff, experiment.
Rein's ranting at Intel is even more complacent: it isn't Intel's fault that your games won't run on their cheap chips, Mark, it's yours. Once upon a time the predominant model of games machine was the 8-bit microcomputer: I remember playing a fantastic shmup by the name of Firefly in 1988 and being astounded by the music - Ocean Software (now Infogrames UK, I believe) had somehow managed to persuade the one-channel beep speaker in the Sinclair Spectrum to do pseudo-multichannel music that would have done the Pet Shop Boys' Fairlight proud. Ah, those were the days... anyway, my point is that back then you pushed existing hardware to its limits and beyond, not wait around for somebody to build a machine that can cope with your inefficient coding. Moore's Law has a lot to answer for.
Rein's point about episodic is that it's bad business. It doesn't fit with how games publishing is run nowadays and therefore cannot make a sufficient profit. The bottom line is all.
Oh dear. The bluster of Thatcher's children lives on in the game industry...
Listen guys: innovation isn't the enemy of profit, and nor is experimentation. Craft is an asset if you apply it properly. Everyone in the industry is whining that the market needs to expand, but people like Rein still think it's the responsibility of others to meet the needs of the games and not the other way round. How about expanding the market to people who don't have 3GHz monster machines? How about expanding the market to gamers who want to care about their avatar and uncover their story? How about expanding the market to people who want to buy their games in chunks rather than all at once?
Rein's comments damage the industry, not because they reduce confidence in the episodic model or because they reinforce the let-them-eat-hardware-cake mindset but because those comments disregard the customer, when the customer is perfectly able (and in gaming, likely) to read them. Business is about meeting the needs of the customer, not lambasting the customer for not meeting your needs. Grow up, take a class in customer service and for God's sake cheer the fuck up.
(Not you, Ron. You're on our side, and carry our frustrations with you.)

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