Opinion: Art and business – Gaming’s greatest struggle

For as long as I have been a gamer, I have been a purveyor of games being an artform. Even as I was just a little gamer larvae, the one thing I wanted was for games to be taken seriously in the eyes of the public. The reasoning behind it is simple; I know how games have managed to enrich my life and when you look past the rudimentary and the mundane, you can find something spectacular. Not all of it is about shooting people in the face or spending your time jumping from one block to the next collecting coins. There is deep emotional value, there are reflections of this chaotic world we live in and there are interpersonal epiphanies that can be found if you just look hard enough. But even just their ability to instil a sense of joy and fun can be enough for them to be considered art. Games are a polymath of emotions and sensibilities that I honestly struggle to find in other less interactive mediums.

However, gaming has one crucial and debilitating weakness. Something that is holding it back from transcending to its final true expression. A fatal flaw that will forever haunt its footsteps and cause it to be held back. That weakness is itself. When gaming first became an industry back in the days when coin-operated machines ruled our cafés and gaudy advertisements were plastered all over electronic shops, the trajectory was already clearly spelt out. This was now about making a profit.

Is gaming turning into a business a bad thing? Absolutely not, it’s the central component of why this medium has elevated itself to where it is today. Without capitalism, gaming would have died back in the Brookhaven National Laboratory when Tennis for Two was made. When Pong became a commercial success, it made people perk up at the idea of using this new medium to make money. And here we are, gaming is now the biggest entertainment industry in the world. We owe a lot to those coin-guzzling machines back in the days when your dad owned a Datsun and went to the disco.

However, hubris is a slow and insidious killer and along with hubris, comes greed. Gaming companies were now exactly that; companies. They had shareholders, shares, company retreats and the CEO has a mini-golf course and a gold bust of himself in his office. In these spaces, games were not personal experiences that were the product of an undying passion and love for a craft, they were just a product. A line on a graph that was either up or down. How many “units” have been shipped before the end of the fiscal quarter. Games can just as well be replaced with $60 potatoes and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference in the eyes of the upper echelon.

The greed of the companies was clearly shown during gaming’s development phase. The big video game crash of 1983 happened because of corporate greed, blatant ignorance and a fundamental disrespect for the medium. Companies would push out tens if not hundreds of games that were made in the space of a few weeks just so that they can turn a quick profit. Many associate the colossal disappointment and failure of Atari’s E.T. with the crash, but that horrendous game was just the epitome and final death rattle of a necrotic industry that imploded on itself. You tell me, was this crash caused by passionate game designers who wanted to share their vision of joy and fun with the world? No, it most certainly wasn’t. It was caused by the collapse of any sort of self-awareness by executives slumming it up in air-conditioned offices. Did nobody at any point bother to think “maybe we’re going too far?”

The crash was gaming’s memento mori that caused a shift in the paradigms that gaming companies adhered to for so long. The NES started the renaissance of home consoles and gaming gained enough momentum to be where it is today. Proper management and an actual respect for gaming got gaming back on its feet and back in a dominant position. However, and I think you know where I’m going with this by now, we’re seeing a lot of parallels to that dark time in gaming’s compendium. Remember that one sentence I wrote in the introduction to the crash of 1983?

The big video game crash of 1983 happened because of corporate greed, blatant ignorance and a fundamental disrespect for the medium.

It’s entirely naive and unreasonable to think that a second major crash will happen to modern gaming as we know it. The industry is so large and diversified at this point that it would take an impossible cataclysm to completely burn it to ruins. However, that does not make the above statement in bold invalid. What we’re witnessing in modern gaming at the current moment is the destruction of passion in favour of the dollar. Creating a chasm between the art of gaming, and the capitalistic ideal. We have no shortage of examples, so you better strap in.

The gaming industry has always tried to take us for some kind of ride and that ride usually involved a hefty entrance fee. Companies were becoming more ambitious in their ways of monetising their products and we gamers were always caught in the crossfire. We reached some kind of stabilisation point during the early to late 2000s when you bought a game for a relatively fair price and that was that. Imagine that? You got your game, maybe installed a 4 MB patch and you could play it without interruption for as long as you possibly want. A few months later, there might be an expansion pack or a new map pack that added a plethora of new content for you to enjoy for a modest fee. It almost sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

The start of the collapse of this idyllic vision of gaming came from a place that you might not have considered. The mobile gaming industry. Our favourite little cancerous cavern of misery. The rise of the mobile gaming world was unprecedented and its corruption was equally as swift. The “free-to-play” monetisation model went rampant following the release of King’s Candy Crush and the much-copied Clash of Clans by Supercell. They took cute cartoon characters and match-three candies and turned them into a nihilistic birthing ground of shameless profit. These games would use psychological trickery to inundate you with the desire to invest your life savings into them. And it was majorly successful. Every mobile game under the sun wanted a piece of this pie and so, our app stores were turned into greed-induced wastelands.

When you’re an executive of an entertainment company sitting in your posh purple office stirring your afternoon brandy and you see that Candy Crush makes over $2 million a day, you will surely throw a stapler at your butler and demand that something similar to this is done with your existing products. That’s how we ended up having to pay for screws in Dead Space 3 and then get the subsequent tsunami of games that include “timesaver packs”, “digital credit cards”, “premium currency bundles” and “collectable cards”. These business models wouldn’t be out of place in a game that was already free-to-play, but these are full priced games where you already had to pay a premium just to own them.

The controversy de jour at the moment is the particularly egregious rise of loot boxes in AAA, fully priced titles. Microtransactions were one thing, but I firmly believe that loot boxes are far more vindictive and damaging to the sanctity of this industry. With microtransactions, you at least knew what you were buying even if you knew that you really shouldn’t. With loot boxes, you’re buying a lottery ticket to perhaps get something of worth that should have been attainable in the game in the first place. Don’t give me that “it’s only cosmetics” excuse either, this practice promotes an unhealthy obsession with gambling that some people in the population are extremely susceptible to while offering something of very little value. This is exploitation at its finest and it ticks all the boxes of taking advantage of your customers.

This is nothing to say of the myriad versions of digital editions you can buy, the awful season pass epidemic which is just as much a gamble as a loot box, the fact that something can be called a “complete edition” with a straight face, maps being gated and crippling a community, premium passes, online passes when they were a thing, “games as a service” being something that is being paraded in front of corporate meetings like some kind of sick pinata filled with dollar bills and the list goes on and on. We’d be here all day if I had to outline and explain all of them and I feel like I will sully the ultimate core point that I want to make; how the business aspect of gaming is systematically ruining games as we know it.

Look at Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Its integration of loot boxes was entirely against the vision that the developers had of the game. Make no mistake, there were some changes that had to be hamfisted into an otherwise commendable experience. Little things that had to be oh so carefully tweaked so that people might grow frustrated and end up buying ludicrously priced boxes with Orcs in them. Why was this implemented? To fill the pockets of Warner Bros. of course. There’s literally no other reason. Was this to benefit the player? If you consider having to unlock content for your game by pure luck in an overpriced market as an enriching experience, then yes, but that’s not the case here is it?

The new Need for Speed Payback had to go through major changes in order to force you to use cards in order to race your vehicle. We are all familiar with the Battlefront II controversy by now.  All of these marketing ploys, the false advertising, the egregious money-grubbing, the horrible practices all form this potpourri of misery. This is not what I signed up for when I played Super Mario Bros. on a knock-off NES until the early hours of the morning. I don’t want to report on another majorly anticipated game having microtransactions and then expecting nobody to be surprised. And you want to know the most depressing part?

It works. 

It bloody well works. 

Publishers are seeing those numbers fly in from a business model that took them almost nothing to implement and they want more. They are not satisfied with just receiving your money upfront for a crafted experience, they want you to keep dishing out, piece by piece until you finally call it quits. A recurring customer, a pawn they can keep sacrificing in order to elevate their bottom line and have good news for all of those shareholders at the next lunch where they show off their whales. Is this what we signed up for as gamers? Is this the art that I have been defending for so many years?

Here’s where that corporate greed, blatant ignorance and fundamental disrespect comes in again. Publishers don’t care about you, the artform, the developers or the lives they impact. They just want those little numbers to rise. They will pressure, prod and pull as much as they can until we ultimately end up in a coup. We’re already seeing a resistance against these practices and the outrage is starting to boil. There is just so much that a passionate gamer can take before they crack because they realise that they are treated like a child being sold candy out of a van.

And here’s the thing that might constitute as a twist, I fully understand why these companies do this. I’m not ignorant of how capitalism works, you want people to give as much money as they can for your product. The gaming industry is also not the sole place where this happens, by a longshot. The movie industry throws out trash action movies to turn a profit, the book industry actually had something called penny dreadfuls, the clothing industry charges hundreds of dollars for a piece of ripped cloth made in a sweatshop, the phone industry charges customers ludicrous amounts of money for cables and the fact that there is a picture of an apple on the back of a phone. Business is business, and business is tainted by the drop of a pin.

Games are becoming more personal, there are great strides being made in uncomfortable themes being implemented and games are challenging the status quo. Gaming is on a positive trajectory of being considered true art and having an actual voice in the annals of history. But the business of it can be its ultimate downfall. We’re in this frustrating struggle of wanting to be taken seriously while being treated like cattle. It would be expected of me to say something along the lines like “vote with your wallet” or “stand up for what you believe in”, but if we did that, we wouldn’t be sitting where we are right now would we? Still, the onus falls on you, the gamer, if you want all of this to change.

I leave you with a quote by the late Satoru Iwata:

On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.

The industry would be wise to heed those words.

I am way too tall, played way too many games and I love to write about what we love about games. In the end, I'm just being #Thabolicious

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