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.
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?
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?