Tag Archives: Video Games

Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 

THAT ISN’T HOW IT WORKS NOW.

Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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Steve Ballmer to handle the Xbox division…himself

This is a joke, right?

No. Really. This must be a joke.

In an internal email sent by Ballmer today, shared online via official Microsoft channels, the CEO advised Mattrick’s directs to report to Ballmer himself, as it appears the company has no immediate replacement for the departing exec.

It’s unclear if this is a temporary measure, or if Microsoft is actively seeking a candidate for the position, which will be crucial as the November launch of Xbox One approaches.

Here’s the email in full:

“Zynga announced today that Don Mattrick would be its new CEO, effective July 8. This is a great opportunity for Don, and I wish him success. Don’s directs will report to me and will continue to drive the day-to-day business as a team, particularly focused on shipping Xbox One this holiday.

This is ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. Even if Ballmer had the faintest clue about gaming, and there’s been no indication that he does, he’s still got way bigger problems to deal with. He needs to bring the public around on Windows 8 or reorient the OS in reaction to 8’s failure, he needs to revive the Surface brand after the debacle that was Windows RT, he needs to get Windows Phones in people’s pockets he needs to hire proper replacements for Sinofsky and Allard to bring some vision back to the company…

…and he’s supposed to be the gaming guy, too?

Yeah. Ridiculous.

Sure, if the Xbox were a year out, that’d be fine. But it’s four months out. Even if he’s only taking over temporarily until they hire a replacement for Mattrick, that’s still months before they have a new guy up to speed and able to handle the situation. Mattrick’s replacement in the event he left should have been sorted out ages ago, so that someone could smoothly pick up the slack.

This is honestly more of a bad sign than the DRM thing was. That was just arrogance. This is laugh-out-loud incompetence. The latter’s far harder to fix and they simply do not have time. What happened to the smoothly, almost impressively competent Microsoft that conquered the sector in the first place?

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STOP IT. Stop with the formalism thing. Stop it right now.

A very simple response comes to mind:

“Tadhg Kelly, please stop trying to tell me ‘what games are’. To be extremely blunt, judging by both your site and your CV, I don’t think you’ve earned the right.”

Granted, I haven’t earned the right to tell anybody what they should think is or isn’t a game either. But I’m not trying to claim it

You know who HAS earned that right, though? Anna Anthropy. Remember her? The woman who’s supposed to be at the vanguard of the “zinesters”? Her output has been excellent. Lurid title or no, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars demonstrated a clear mastery of simple, elegant, oldschool game design, and she went into no small amount of detail in explaining exactly how she employed that mastery. She’s done that over, and over, and over. She’s a good critic and a great designer.

If she’s calling stuff like Dys4ia a game, I’m going to be very reluctant to disagree with her, because she’s actually really good at making and judging the things.

The funny thing is that I’m not actually a gigantic fan of the anti-mainstream backlash. I get it, but I think that there’s more mastery and craft in mainstream than the “zinesters” are necessarily always willing to admit.  I also  don’t root my disagreement with Kelly in the political and identity elements of games as Anna does. (Though I do respect those responses.)

I’m simply not impressed by these attempts to turn games into empty systems of rules, and to straitjacket criticism by forcing critics to engage them solely as systems of rules. If that was EVER the case, it’s long over. It’s over in board games, it’s over in card games (CCGs are far more than their rules), and you’d best believe it’s over in video games.

If you want to know “what games are”, you don’t need Kelly. Go read Grant Tavinor for the definition of games:

X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.

INTERACTIVE FICTION. “Rule-bound gameplay”… OR INTERACTIVE ‘EFFING FICTION.

This problem is solved. This discussion is OVER. Grant Tavinor solved it back in 2008. Now go do something productive.

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Private provision of public goods

This piece by Patrick Miller in the wake of the 1UP/UGO/Gamespy closures is bracing, painful, and absolutely necessary. It details the desperately broken economics behind game enthusiast websites: they have to rely on advertisements, but the audience just isn’t valuable enough to advertisers except in mass quantities, so the sites are forced into churning out lowest-common-denominator, hit-focused pabulum like lists and slideshows and “best ofs” and whatnot. Good articles get overlooked while clickbait rules the day.

And why?

“Compared to, say, selling cereal/hamburgers/cars/video games, journalism works on a different model–a strange kind of model ostensibly designed to produce something approximating a “public good” but produced through private enterprise.”

There’s your problem right there. Good journalism and criticism is absolutely a public good that will pay off for decades or centuries to come. But there’s no possible way that anybody but the wealthiest individuals could pay for it. That was fine back when advertising was valuable, but that’s the problem: nobody’s willing to pay more than a pittance for online advertising. So, now, it seems like there’s only two options: either cater to smaller, more valuable audiences (specialist trade publications and the paywall thing both do this), or try to convince unpaid or underpaid writers to churn out as much material as quickly as they possibly can to the broadest possible audience (the Huffington model). Neither is healthy. Neither rewards skilled writers with fair pay and solid public exposure. Yet those are the only two options.

(Well, okay, unless you’re Yahtzee. But you aren’t Yahtzee.)

Even if you aren’t just writing, you still aren’t better off. The most valuable part of 1UP for me was always its podcasts. The articles and reviews were fine, but 1UP’s podcasts in its heyday were quite simply the best gaming discussions on the Internet. Only John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s Warcraft stuff even came close. Yet 1UP had to shutter its podcasts, because there just simply wasn’t enough money in it; and judging by what YouTube, it looks like the gaming-focused video market is flooded as well.

So what to do? Damned if I know. I wish I did. I have my own financial issues to work out, and nothing I’ve written about gaming has EVER been paid work. I’ve never even expected to get paid for it; it was all about building a solid portfolio of writing that I could point to when applying for paid work. But what I’ve seen is that there just isn’t a lot of paid work out there, and the people fighting over it are hungrier and more desperate by the day. Talented, skilled writers and analysts are having to look for day jobs or are going back to school to do something else.

And the truly sad thing? This was supposed to be what piracy does, but it’s not even about piracy at all. It’s just a straight-up broken market for writers and journalists, and for the life of me, I don’t see how it could improve. Maybe it isn’t going to. Maybe public goods really do need to be publicly provided. But how?

(I’ll tell you one thing, though…it certainly hardens my heart when it comes to shitty writers. Every time I see a terrible, lazy paid piece, especially from some smug editor or columnist, I just think of all the skilled people who  could put that money to better use. But I don’t think I want to name names here. I’ve picked enough fights.)

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Gaming and the Election 5: American and Global Economic Problems

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming.

Now we get to the economy. Prepare for many words…but nowhere near enough. I’m still thinking about doing a big Nightmare Mode feature about this issue.

5) Remember Clinton? It’s still the economy, stupid.

Identity issues are important. But the big lesson of the election may well be that the economy is universal. The only reason why it was even as close as it was had to do with dissatisfaction with the economy; the Republicans lament that social conservative outbursts made it less and less likely that people would vote for them as time went on. The economic conservatives in the Republican coalition are furious that an election that they saw as a “gimme” turned into a rout.

Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that the American economy just isn’t doing well right now. That’s very slowly changing, but there’s a lot of reason to believe that it’s going to be very slow indeed. More than that, it’s going to be uneven; there’s a gap growing between the wealthiest Americans and the “99%”, and that gap isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also not just an American phenomenon; doldrums are happening in pretty much every part of the world that isn’t directly pumping out oil.

The results of the election may help with that, but they probably won’t. The president has something resembling a mandate, but the House is still controlled by a Republican party that owes its control of the chamber to the Tea Partiers. All of the other issues and recrimination is only likely to redouble their commitment to financial and economic conservatism, which means that any sort of stimulus is unlikely. In fact, if the “fiscal cliff” isn’t averted, America could be staring down a second recession. The only way that that will be averted, unfortunately, is with the kind of revenue-generating tax increases that the modern Republican party simply cannot accept. So things aren’t looking promising.

(That’s not a figurative “cannot”. That’s literal. If any of them try they’ll get destroyed in the only elections that worry them in a Gerrymandered house: Republican primary battles. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge hasn’t gone anywhere.)

How does that affect gaming? Well, gaming is expensive. Really expensive. For all that publishers regularly whinge about the cost of production, the simple fact is that laying out sixty-plus for a five- to six-hour-long game with maybe two hours of truly engaging content is almost ludicrously pricey in a world where consumers are facing huge financial challenges. Why do you think so many PC and mobile games are free-to-play? “Free” is about all that users can afford!

(And, please, don’t go on about how they can afford smartphones and PCs. Being willing to lay out ten times the cost of a game for a device that has a thousand times the utility and entertainment value isn’t hypocrisy, it’s financial sanity. Besides, most smartphones are bought using plans.)

Gaming, as a hobby and as an industry, requires a strong, healthy, prosperous middle class. Even the free-to-play games require “whales” that are willing and able to outlay significant sums to make up for all those free players. Some might be wealthy, but I suspect that the truly wealthy aren’t likely to be spending their time playing F2P games in the first place. No, many F2P players are going to be middle-class people who are willing to fork out for something they or their children love. Nothing wrong with that…but they have to be able to do it first.

That’s the reason why console gaming is having a tough time. It’s not really about budgets and whatnot. It’s not about a lack of innovation. It’s actually straightforward: people aren’t going to be able to buy new consoles or many new games. When they DO buy new games, they’re very conservative, so they tend to pay for  tried-and-true franchises and  accessible, multiplayer-focused games that can add a tremendous amount of value to their purchase.

You wonder why Call of Duty sells well to the “core” audience each year? It’s a series they know, it’s got predictable gameplay they generally like, and it’s got a gigantic and reliable multiplayer community that generally includes their friends. The better question is why it wouldn’t sell under those conditions. It’s all network effects and path dependency.

Sure, consoles still sell. But it isn’t necessarily for gaming. They’re becoming convenient Netflix Boxes, and Netflix’s monthly-fee model is one of those models that DOES make sense in a recession-strapped economy filled with people who are trying to stretch their dollars. That doesn’t even help console manufacturers; a Netflix Box ain’t one that’s paying them those sweet, sweet platform royalties. Frankly, if the economy doesn’t change, things look pretty dire.

If things turn around and American incomes even out a bit more, then things might be different. Dedicated consoles and dedicated console-style AA or AAA games are worthwhile, and the price to create them is only going to go down as the tools become more and more accessible. Not every genre or game can or should be an el-cheapo mobile-style game or a social F2P game. There’s still hope, but only if these trends reverse.

As to whether they will…well, it really depends on whether or not everything remains deadlocked. A complete victory for either Romney or Obama could have changed things. I believe that Romney’s plan would have changed everything for the worse, but at least it would be a change. As it is, American government is still divided; there’s still going to be a House controlled by Republicans that owe their jobs to the tea partiers and serve at the far right’s pleasure, arrayed against a Senate and White House controlled by emboldened Democrats.

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Gaming and the Election 2: Women are here to stay

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. Second one’s today, and it’s about women. It’s important.

#2: Women are here. They’re staying. Deal.

The big roiling issue in gaming right now–other than the horrific decline of consoles in general and triple-A console gaming specifically–is definitely gender. All over the Internet, across every single gaming website, and especially on Twitter, we’re seeing female gamers and female game writers assaulting the Boys’ Clubs of gaming. Good on ’em. A lot of somewhat sketchy stuff is being brought into the light; and though there are debates to be had on the appropriate balance of allowing free expression and debate in quasi-public spaces vs. also ensuring that said spaces are welcoming to women, the very fact that we’re having these debates is the kind of leap forward that you normally only see at the Olympics.

Well, guess which other Boy’s Club is getting broken down? The SENATE. That’s right: with this election, the United States of America is going to have more Senator women than it ever has in its history. America’s even seeing it’s first Lesbian senator! That’s kind of a big deal! More than that, though, the fact is that it’s women–especially minority and single women–who were the drivers of the Democratic victory. Dems have to be very, very aware that  issues that affect women are no longer any kind of “sideline” issue. Women are at the heart of the new Democratic coalition, and they aren’t going anywhere.

In a country where “women’s issues” are now at the apex of politics, it’s unlikely to the point of impossibility that any sane person would continue to see women’s perspectives as some kind of sideline in gaming. Women matter, guys, and they’re going to keep calling you out on all the crap that you used to get away with back when it was just a He-Man Girl Hater’s Club. It doesn’t mean they’re going to “censor” you–the cases where that sort of thing actually got some traction were, historically, generally due to alliance with the same social conservatives that flamed out so badly last Tuesday–but you’re going to have to deal with the Female Gaze in your life online.

(Though I still don’t get why there’s this whole thing against men wearing hats.)

Another tomorrow, running along this same line.

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Gaming and the Election: End of the Censorship Wars?

So. Obama won. The Republicans got routed. But what does that mean?

Okay. It means a lot. It means an awful lot. Obama’s going to have a lot more legitimacy; he’s got as much of a mandate as Bush ever did. There are more Dems in the Senate, and the’re more progressive Dems at that. Judicial appointments are on the way, as is the implementation of Wall Street reform and ObamaCare. This election result is going to change America. Hell, it’s going to change the world. No doubt about that.

Since my wheelhouse is supposed to be “the intersection of politics and gaming”, though, it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at what it means for gamingSo I’ve put together a short series speculating on how the Democratic triumph (which, honestly, is what it was) is going to change and/or be reflected in the future course of gaming. First one’s today. It’s short. Don’t worry, they get longer.

#1: The wars over censoring game violence are probably over. At least for now.

This may sound a bit weird, considering that it’s often progressives that are at the forefront of “won’t somebody please think of the children!” reactions to video games. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, it seems pretty likely that it’s over for a while, even over-and-above the Supreme Court decision. Why?

In a word:  Pot. Marijuana is one of the other issues where parental concerns and fears about their kids often tend to dominate the debate. The fact that two states have gone with out-and-out legalization suggests that the forces of fear are less powerful than they used to.  If parents aren’t screaming about their kids getting high, it seems pretty unlikely that they’re going to be screaming about their kids possibly playing GTA, especially when dad (and, yes, mom) are probably gaming too.

The complete collapse of the anti-gay-marriage movement points in the same left-libertarian direction. even if the social conservatives aren’t happy about the more small-“l” libertarian shape of American politics, they clearly can’t do much about it. I’m sure that the younger, more big “L” Libertarian conservatives in the Republican party are already keen to take the reins after this drubbing, and are well-positioned to do so. Are a bunch of young Libertarians going to go after Activision for their latest FPS? Not fucking likely.

Especially because, frankly, we all have more important crap to deal with. Nobody’s going to worry over their kid playing GTA when they’re too busy worrying about how to feed them.

More tomorrow.

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