Incompatible

How much is too much? Depends on what we’re talking about. Price. Profit. Free. Wage. How much?

Between gamers, developers and publishers, there’s some incompatible ideas that go into creating these little bundles of joy called games. These incompatibilities come from all sides and we hear them all the time: Games should make a profit, but they shouldn’t cost too much; Free games should be free, without item shops and other paid gimmicks; Devs should receive a living wage from their work; Companies should make a profit. Some of these parties involved won’t get what they want and it varies by game, with one exception: publishers. They’re the first ones paid so if shit goes down, the only people out of luck are developers and players. There’s plenty of money in game’s development to go around. Shareholders just aren’t interested in sharing the spoils with workers. They clap at board meetings when layoffs are announced.

All involved chant for great games, cheaper games, better game developers and career opportunities. There are always the diehard defenders of meritocracy, as if that’s actually a reality even as developers lose their jobs everyday. It’s like we’re playing musical chairs while pretending that we’re all dancing, all having a good time. As though all of us have a seat we can safely return to when the music stops. Worse are those who think their strength, their willingness to toss a fellow dancer aside in order to assure their own seat will save them from the silence of the music.

But the truth is that there’s no music playing and those with seats have been sitting down all along while clapping their hands and tapping their feet, telling the rest of us it’s a great song and that we’re having a wonderful dance. Some of us believe it. Some of us realized it was all a game eventually, but found we couldn’t stop dancing because it was still a viable option. We thought we were the players, but we’re the game. Cheap games and cheap labor are compatible with each other, but they can’t bring living wages, career stability and innovation. Those are incompatibilities.

Publishers and AAA Development

A recent article on Gamasutra discussed out sourcing. The point of the article was that this is a good practice with many upsides if only one used it properly. At it’s best, outsourcing is a profitable money-saver. Or so it wants us to believe.

The article didn’t mention that outsourcing is devastating. You can’t have well-paid developers, high quality games, a thriving industry, and profitable projects in the long-term while outsourcing. It’s great for depressing wages, lowering job quality, diminishing job security, and devastating industries which in turn devastate our communities. Those distant communities where the jobs are outsourced may initially see some prosperity, but they’re being exploited as cheap labor and are doomed to the same fate. Cheap labor. This idea is incompatible with living wages. 

This isn’t difficult to understand. Suppose I have a large million dollar company in a neighborhood in Silicon Valley California. Suppose I require a staff of 1000 employees to make games each year. Those 1000 employees live locally, where they buy houses, cars, food, and movie tickets. They raise families that go to the schools that their taxes pay for. They use city services and utilities. The residency of these workers boosts the local economy. With their taxes the community can maintain and improve city services like firehouses, hospitals and police departments. They can host things like science fairs, community centers, and computer training programs. The local community college can keep my company’s workforce well-trained. As long as my company does business in the community, it’s prosperity lifts all boats.

Outsourcing destroys this ecosystem. When those jobs leave, unemployment increases, businesses suffer and the city’s expenses go up exponentially due to the sharp decrease in tax revenues. This happens all the time when a job is outsourced – not some of the time, not rarely. Every. Time. I was disappointed, but not surprised that the Gamasutra article was praising its benefits while mentioning none of the guaranteed downsides which seem particularly relevant in the face of large, on-going industry layoffs and chronic unemployment. Honestly, I can’t imagine what working fool in this climate would speak of outsourcing as a good thing. It’s a case of “layoffs happen to those people, not me” self-deception, a willingness to deny the realities of labor.

An article a few years ago published on Forbes that I love to share gives a good summary of the general consequences of outsourcing. Companies may see some savings or an increase in profits in the short-term, but in the long-term this strategy undermines business by alienating workers, customers and communities. This isn’t an extreme case either. When it comes to outsourcing it’s always carried to extremes because the motivation is toward ever more extreme profits. Industries that use it inevitably destroy their workforce, alienate their customers, and decimate their communities.

Developers

The actual cost to make a game is beyond living wages for the average developer, even as the company that employs them reaps record profits – but that money doesn’t go to developers, who are laid off once the golden egg is hatched. Even if indies make a game on a shoestring budget, one can’t live on a budget like that. Aspiring programmers who pool their resources to rent shared apartments to use as makeshift live-in development studios are described as resourceful, bootstrapping keepers of the American Dream, ambitious entrepreneurs doing it the “right” way …instead of being seen for what they really are: impoverished workers who can’t find a living wage no matter how hard they work or how efficient their approach. Even those who strike out independently wind up becoming the team bought into a studio by outsourcing. Instead of being hired by EA or Sony, they’re contracted in for singular projects, contracts for pieces of their labor, contracts that promise to lay them off once the golden egg is hatched.

Some developers have taken to profiting at all costs. When your livelihood is on the line you can sell your soul in order to eat, or you can starve. Or at least that’s the way some people seem to think about it. Anyway, those pieces of software that are often labeled games but which work more like Skinner boxes are the snake oil of the industry. They mostly deprive the player of their money while harming their well-being by training them into behavior patterns that are difficult for them to break. I’ve seen these developers defend these products, even though they know the criticisms are legitimate. They believe they shouldn’t be held accountable for their creations. It’s the drug dealer claiming the drugs aren’t damaging lives, but the purchase of drugs is …even though they’re the salesman. And sure, drug dealers have dedicated clientele. Addicts have to have it. If this is the kind of relationship you’re cultivating with your players, please reconsider. There are better, more ethical ways to develop games which don’t involve behavior loops that enrich you while impoverishing your players. This isn’t the kind of compatibility you should strive for.

Developers have to make a tough choice: do they join in the musical chairs, hoping to take a seat next to the publishers, telling the players to dance and promising there’s a seat for them too? Or do they reject the industry business model and change the game? Changing the game is no small task for sure, but those are the only options on the table.

So how much is a game worth again?

Players

We demand innovation. We demand something new and affordable. We’ll usually pay whatever is asked though, as long as the game delivers us something excellent and as long as we have the money.

But with outsourcing driving industry developments, mediocre games are a promise, a mainstay. We can’t get great and innovative games from a model focused on reducing costs and focusing on ever narrower products. In other words, innovation and greater games isn’t a driving factor in game’s development at large. Innovation is incompatible mediocrity.

Developers may individually dream of this. They may individually put excellence in their work. But as long as their pay days are granted by stockholders, they have little control over the direction any given game project will take. They’ll make whatever they’re told to make. That’s especially true if those devs might not have a job when the game is done, or if parts of their team are already outsourced, or if their wages and benefits aren’t worth fighting for.

Skill and experience seem less important than the money. The first question an employer wants to know is “how much” and right after that  “how long”. Lay offs are an industry constant, which means this never really improves. Those are the current career prospects for aspiring game developers.

Outsourcing has helped create an unstable, product saturated market and our communities are littered with the fallout. The next time someone tells you that outsourcing “done right” is a net positive, let them know that outsourcing is never done “right”. Right means taking ethical considerations seriously and it means looking at the consequences of jobs being moved outside of the communities they’re built upon. Outsourcing always has devastating consequence, with layoffs being the most common.

Still think outsourcing is a godsend? A positive good? Ultimately beneficial?

Do you hear music?

 

Talkback: Paying it Forward

Talkback is a featured series for cross-blog topics.


What’s a good price for a game? Personally, I won’t pay $60 for a game any more, even though I used to pay $100 back in the 90s. Everyone has their limits. I guess age has made me a penny pincher. Or it could be my increasing poverty …

All the same, developers have to eat. Gamers want cheaper games and are increasingly unwilling to pay more than $40. How do I know this? I think the trends in free to play gaming and presence of micro-transactions show that companies need to lower the barrier to entry significantly if they want large crowds to pay for their games. The greatest barrier to entry is the price of a game. Yet free games and those with item shops have dubious quality. Even though we might download that free app, the advertisements which make it possible can be very intrusive and even ruin the experience.

So what do we do? How do we demand better games and ensure that those developers are around the following year to keep making them?

A recent report on GamesIndustry.biz discusses how the console wars have resulted in more expensive games than last generation’s. The report mentions that games like Forza – a great example of a gaming replacing the intrinsic value of its features with monetization – are giving you less game for $60 while making features formally included in the box price available as DLC. This isn’t the first time we’re hearing of this  either: Mass Effect 3 did the same thing almost a year ago. While Steam seems to be walking the opposite end of the price spectrum by birthing the sales model of Outrageously Under-priced Games, gamers and developers are getting mixed messages about what this next generation of gaming should cost us. I think digital should be cheaper in most cases.

There’s some research that has been conducted on whether our games are cheaper today than they were yesterday, but they tend to focus on costs and price. They don’t look at value (what you actually get in terms of gameplay fulfillment), which can, admittedly, be difficult to measure on a game to game basis. I think DLC is one tool developers use today that chip value from our games even as they’re only intending to add value. Where a game may have usually come with 10 levels, now they come with 8 and 2 are sold as additional map packs.

There’s also the fact that technology isn’t just getting better thanks to Moore’s Law, but also getting cheaper each generation. The relatively stable price of video games makes it seem like the games are cheaper, yet compensating for inflation we can see that console prices are pretty stable. They should be decreasing if our games are cheaper, so why are they getting more expensive?

One reason might be the huge development teams behind AAA titles. Teams 400-700 developers have been par for the course. As technology gets better, the need for ever more specialized experts to wield it increases. Or at least that seems to be the case. Destructoid published a piece last year questioning whether more developers actually made for a better game. In two examples in the article, the author pointed out that the games with large development teams suffered from inconsistency which negatively impacted the gameplay experience. More cooks in the kitchen did not a quality meal make.

Years ago I predicted that MMO games would go toward niche markets in the future. At this rate, all games will. The AAA mega hit is clearly little more than game snobbery – the Bugattis of gaming, if you will – and are priced for people who make enough money such that they can afford not to care about prices, or who scoff at them while they blow hundreds on pixels in the item shops. The rest of us get Steam, GoG, and Humble Bundle sales. There’s a strong portion of gamers out there who simply don’t have $60 to throw around, and most of those gamers are people who have been consuming games for decades. Gamers like me. Current pricing trends seem to price entire demographics of gamers out of the market. Going forward, I think there’s a few things happening in the industry which gives the poor gamer something to look forward to.

1. Indie Development

While more risky than the typical 9 to 5, indie development allows developers the maximum professional fulfillment. They get to make the games they want to make and decrease publishing and distribution costs. This has really taken off in recent years as digital media continues to evolve and become more accessible each year. Where in the past developers relied more on the PC markets to thrive as indies, consoles have really improved their platforms for digital distribution and as a consequence indie development has been brought into the mainstream. The fact that gamers are widely aware of such a thing as Indie Games is clear proof of this phenomenon. The bottom line: the bottom line (100% of money goes to the developer).

2. Indie Distribution

Stores like Humble Bundle and GoG help new developers by providing an additional distribution channel and it helps that they are usually DRM free. While most games featured at these stores are older, they are still a mainstream way to make these games visible to the most people. Indie developers know that the best marketing they can get is putting their games into as many hands as possible. Decreasing the cost to make a game through such channels is roughly equivalent in value to saving on billboard advertisements, so while the game has a lower price, almost every cent goes directly into the pockets of developers. These distribution methods typically also provide the option to distribute the money between the devs and charities. It’s the optimal win for all involved. Players get to name their price AND determine who gets the money. It’s a wonderful thing and I patronize these shops as much as possible these days.

What else can we do to make sure we’re giving enough money back to developers without completely stripping them of their ability to charge the fees they need to develop the games? This generation, through globalization and digital distribution, is bringing the cost of everything down to Free, but not with its own unique risks. It creates an industry in which only the richest companies can afford to compete. A perfect example of this right now is the development of Everquest Next as a free-to-play MMO. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) has massive resources to pour into a AAA quality game while also charging players nothing to play it. Indie developers looking to join this market will find it near impossible to compete with such a behemoth. Free to play doesn’t always translate into fair and healthy economic activity.

Over the past year, I’ve made the decision to buy more independently developed games. I figure I can at least be sure I’m paying developers for their work while also supporting games which are considered outside of the mainstream market. I also make it a priority to purchase things in free-to-play games if I enjoy the game. Nothing is truly free. If I can afford it, I support the developer in any way I’m able. I figure I can help keep the game free for gamers who truly can’t afford to pay.

What do you think: are constantly declining prices for games good for developers?

#f2pgames #indiegames #gamertalk