[Meta Gaming] On Closure

An update of a 2011 piece, which aged badly, but which has come to mind time and again of late, so it’s getting a brush up and scrub down…

I – Follow The Money

An old acquaintance of mine argued, eloquently and at length, that the very concept of a ‘games industry’ leads to bad design. It does this in the cause of creating and maintaining a functional business in order for developers to support themselves.

A business has financial responsibilities; bills, wages, costs, overheads.  To satisfy those responsibilities, the business must continue to produce and sell product, either by creating new product lines (games) or adding material to existing ones. The latter is easier, and follows on the “sequels and remakes for proven success” model at the heart of the creative industries.

However, it results in designs which are at one and the same time bloated (with material released for the sake of releasing something, creating a range) and incomplete (there’ll always be niches left or created, design space forced, new concepts crowbarred in).

I find it hard to disagree with him.

I’ve seen it in tabletop wargames, where an elegant game becomes buried under redundant pieces, competing for ‘slots’. I’ve seen it in tabletop RPGs, where a torrent of splatbooks and supplements convolute rules and settings into incomprehensibility. I’ve seen it in computer games, where expansion packs have given way to DLC, and no game is complete on release.

Don’t think for a second that this is creatively merited. I was finally provoked into revising this piece by this:

Lexa

Now, I don’t remember asking for this state of affairs. I don’t like buying half a game now and half later, in a series of instalments, whether that’s DLC for a digital game or a series of splats and supplements for an analogue one. Nor do I believe that a dearth of releases “kills” a game. I still play games I bought five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and nothing’s been released for them in years-if-not-decades and they are still playable.

A bit dated, sure, and there’s merit in a revamp of the core product a couple of times in a decade, responding to new thinking and trends – cf. Privateer Press’ gradual drift away from balls-to-the-wall bro-hood, which was funny at the time but kind of embarrassing when everyone’s grown up a bit and we’ve seen the toxicity that bro culture creates.

But there’s a difference between putting out a new version of your core offering every few years and putting out a steady stream of miscellaneous non-essentials in between times, on a schedule, filling slots.

I didn’t ask to have this crap peddled to me – stuff that’s been deliberately left out of the core game to create a revenue stream down the line, or jemmied in later where it’s not needed. Developers apparently didn’t sign up to continue working on the same project indefinitely, chucking out a job half done because everyone expects the thing to be ‘finished’ some way down the line, not with a bang but with a whimper. That can’t be creatively fulfilling, can it?

Who benefits? Follow the money. Who benefits from extending the spending of money and the doing of work? Publishers and distributors.

II – Joker’s Law

To pay your mortgage with your game developer money, and put ‘game developer’ on your CV, and to be introduced at parties with “hi, this is Berk, he’s a game developer” – to develop and be Damned, as Robert Anton Wilson might have said.

Now, this should not be taken as a call for developers to work for the love. Sod that for a game of soldiers. Free labour is a mug’s game; neither ‘the love’ nor exposure are legal tender. As with all things in life, Joker’s Law applies:

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Developing a good game takes time, time is money, and too much time spent not making money means having the pay the rent with Bullshit Integrity Dollars, which no nation in the world accepts as viable currency.

If you’re going to sink your time into making a game, that time should be remunerated. If you’re going to sink your time into doing anything it should be remunerated – and there’s the rub.

I detest the idea that we need one job, one stream of income, one vocation by which we can tidily identify (Damn) ourselves and earn our bread, and relegate everything else to ‘hobby’, stream-of-output status.

I am capable of doing quite a few things. I teach, I research, I write, and I play/think about/make stuff for games. Each of these things can become a stream of income, and I can identify as myself, rather than being ‘a teacher’ by vocation whose ‘hobbies’ are literary criticism and gaming. Oh – and I don’t need to do any of them full time. Because my livelihood does not depend on doing one thing, I don’t have to keep doing any one thing to keep the lights on. When it’s time to stop, I can stop.

 

III – One Door Closes, Another Opens

 

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.

Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.

Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The game, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ one, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with any given project, because it is not your only means of support.

People manage it. However, they generally manage it because they’re aligned with distributors and publishers. Middlemen. People who specialise in moving money to creators and product to consumers, in managing pre-orders and guaranteeing income while development work is carried out. People who’ve made a business out of these things.

There is merit in this; after all, those labour hours in the early stages deserve recompense, you have to keep the lights on while you’re preparing the product too. I can “publish” my ideas by typing them on here and mashing a button, but people receiving those ideas… well, I have to go around telling people that I exist and have ideas, I have to represent myself to them, and they have to want to come looking for me, and I’m not exactly good at self-promotion, so of course I should work with someone who can do the stuff I’m not good at. These are the “needs of the business” I talked about earlier – and it’s all labour, and Joker’s Law still applies.

But do I work with them, or for them? Do I hire them, or do they hire me? Follow the money. Follow the benefit. Who hires? Who fires? Who drives, and who is driven? Who makes the millions and who lives in the shitbox apartments? Who says whether a game lives or dies – is finished, or unfinished? Who gets to call time and close the project and say “it’s good, it’s complete, it’s done?”

Not the people who want the product, nor the people who create the thing.

Seems to me the middlemen have taken over.

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “[Meta Gaming] On Closure

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  1. >Can I hear an amen! With TheDude having spent time, energy, interest and money on trying to develop a game (or rather several different games over a variety of time frames) I completely agree with the tenent that you can't make it your LIVING. I've seen far too many of his works go down in flames because of limited (if not NO) return and the inability ti continue supporting them that subsequently followed. PS: Where are you thinking of going?

  2. @Greg: I wrote an enormous reply comment which either I deleted in a fit of good sense, or which Blogger et. I am uncertain.Anyway: I used to agree with him too, although the point has been made to me by another pal that the big name games generate awareness that the little ones just can’t. D&D is on the shelves in Waterstones, representing the practice of roleplaying; Games Workshop has high street shops in most large British towns. A hobby that’s only produced and represented by independents doesn’t recruit – it might grow slowly, or fitfully, but will it survive the attrition as people lose the time or interest?

    I do think that the industry currently supports about as many big names as it’s going to, although the market share could still stand to shift between them (some meaningful competition for GW in the UK would be lovely), and that the ambition to become a Big Name Game Developer leads to the toxic situation described above.I envy you the luxury of being able to work for free. I can’t do it – not out of any principled stance, but out of necessity.

  3. *Deep breath*

    OK, I’ll try and rewrite the major points I had yesterday. First of all, it’s hard to disagree with you on a lot of it. I think especially that “follow the money” and the question of who works for whom is connected to the rise of the odious eternal edition cycle in gaming.

    What I disagree about is your friend’s suggestion that the existence of an industry is going to inevitably result in these bland, middle-man controlled products. I actually think the blame lies squarely with creatives who, out of fear, arrogance, or whatever, have ceded too much control of the business side of their work to advisors whose goals don’t align exactly with the primary aim of an artisan (which is what any sort of creative worker is): to create a quality product.

    What I mean is that people who think of themselves as “creative” often lack confidence in their own ability to sell what they make. It’s a convenient lie, for everyone involved. It absolves the creative of all responsibility for building a successful business out of their own skills. They can sit in their studio (or whatever) making games (or whatever), and the risky, boring and hard job of getting these games to the people who want them gets conveniently put on to someone else. Little wonder that the other party ends up with all the power. It just seems obvious to me: if you’re so precious that you feel all you can do is make art or games, and you refuse to shoulder the responsibility of being the CEO of your own brand, you’ll inevitably work for someone else. What’s happened with IP-based media is just like the rise of HR in the 1970s and 80s. Bosses (naturally) didn’t like firing people, so an industry emerged that fired people for them. But then pretty soon they were also hiring, and now they’re mediating and testing and everyone is answerable to them.

    I think there’s no reason games designers can’t also be successful business people. Other sots of artisans and skilled workers take on the responsibility of running their own businesses all the time. Creative workers shouldn’t be any different. If the creatives acted with more courage, and learned some basic business skills, and took responsibility for getting the games to the people, there would, I think, be more good original content out there. And there are lots of people doing it. Like you said, it’s a freelance, hustle kind of industry. Make a game, sell it, when people get bored make another one. The only difference between that and the corporate play-it-safe approach of endless iterations is that the latter is likely to make more money once you’re established.

    It’s late and I’m starting to feel a bit muddled. Hopefully that made as much sense to you as it did to me.

    1. It does make sense. As a wise man once said, “Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.” I’m amazed at the number of artists I know who are… really fucking bad at selling their work. Now to be fair, they haven’t been taught how to be good at it, and I don’t think that’s their fault, but there still comes a point where one has to try it, fuck it up, try it, fuck it up slightly less, and by increments, manage to start selling stuff.

      I’m really bad at initial approaches, especially if the other party has something I want and I can’t work out what I offer them in return, but once I’m over that hurdle I think I’ve learned to negotiate.

      I wonder how you square this with your previous comments about paying a marketing expert. I suppose they’re YOUR employee or contractor, and that’s the difference – you’re not beholden to them, you’ve hired them to work on this specific project and when they’re done it’s tatty-bye?

  4. “I wonder how you square this with your previous comments about paying a marketing expert. I suppose they’re YOUR employee or contractor, and that’s the difference – you’re not beholden to them, you’ve hired them to work on this specific project and when they’re done it’s tatty-bye?”

    First of all, maybe I can’t, but I’m OK with that. I reserve the right to change my mind about things when new information it comes to light.

    Second of all, I can, In the way you suggested. Whoever is financing the project has the power and gets to make all the decisions. Everyone else is just an advisor. If you’re a game designer for example, surely you have confidence that the game you’ve made is good? If not, you’re not a game designer yet. If you do have that confidence, you can safely ignore anything an accountant, marketer or whatever suggests re: the product. You know your customers will like what you’ve made, you just need advice on how to get it to them.

    If you sell your company to a bunch of MBAs though, or go public, like GW did, then it’s a different story. The initial financing for projects is no longer coming from you, so you don’t get to make the decisions any more. You’ve ceded control of your product to someone else (shareholders or rivals) because you didn’t want to be responsible for it’s success or failure. You’ve voluntarily downgraded yourself from boss to employee, if you’re still working on the project at all. And I find it hard to see how this is the middlemen’s fault, much as I find the products made under their auspices generally boring.

    1. The tone of the original post may not be quite clear here; I approached the argument in terms of describing a barrier to Making Good Games, and control by middlemen is a problem within those terms, from that perspectives. Does that make sense?

      That confidence and that working relationship with your advisors seem vital. If I take the loose body of thoughts that I have about The Perfect RPG and boil them down into some sort of saleable product, I take the view that I’m giving people what I think they need, and if they don’t want it… well, it’s a free market, innit?

      I hope you don’t think I’m taking you to task – the tone of your “first of all” suggests you feel I’m doing so. Perish the thought. I question your thinking to see where it leads, not as a reprimand.

      1. Ha ha no, I didn’t think you were taking me to task; I was trying to be funny. I guess I was mentally picturing that scene in Futurama where Fry and Leela are impersonating robots, and Leela says “first of all, that’s a terrible idea. Second of all *breaks down into sick robot dance*

        I probably should have used an emoji but decided not to since we were Serious Adult Men Talking About Business :D

        And yes, I did lose sight of what you were saying a bit, and you’re right. When it cames to deciding what makes a good game, or movie, or what-have-you, middlemen are, unsurprisingly, not as good as creatives. That’s why creatives should not let middle-men design the creative thing. Which they will naturally want to do, if they’re the ones risking the capital, and fair enough.

        1. Emojis are a vital part of communication in this medium. To not use them or to overuse them is the act of a damned fool. (See, NOW I’m taking you to task. :p)

          That’s the thing isn’t it: investors thinking, quite rightly if I’m honest, that their taking a financial risk with the project warrants a creative say, even if they don’t have the skill to actually minimise that risk by having a say. It’s one of those moments where being right to do something doesn’t mean it’s wise to do something.

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