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:
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:
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.