Are Gamers Relevant?

December 10, 2008

Recently, EA has had to grapple with the problem of making good games that don’t deliver the sales numbers they expect. EA, who’s name used to be synonymous with corporate greed in the industry, has really turned around this year and delivered some original IP with innovation to match. Recent releases like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge are praised by critics, but EA is not doing as well as it was.

This year, EA has shipped 17 games with a Metacritic score of over 80, compared to 7 last year. So, if they are making better games, why aren’t they making more money? The answer to this question lies in the fact that the “hardcore gamer” is not a relevant market anymore for big companies. Sure, there are probably millions of people who are pretty deeply interested in games, but this number will always pale in comparison to the number of people who just play games. For every person playing Counter-Strike competitively, there are probably four more who play for a bit in public servers now and then. For every person who preorders a collector’s edition copy of a game the day it comes out, there are many more who will simply buy it when it is convenient to them. Video games are a mainstream industry now, and orginality and good gameplay will not always mean success for a game. As more and more people play video games, the market of people who actually follow and care about the industry is becoming less important. More and more games are being released, and they are getting crappier and crappier.

Now, those of you who are well-versed in game industry history will probably realize that this is a bit like the industry situation before the big crash in 1983-84. However, it seems people do learn from their mistakes. Market saturation isn’t really a problem anymore because the barriers to developing games is so high now. The developer-publisher relationship that we have now, didn’t exist like it does now. The games industry is in the hands of a handful of big companies, and these companies are out to get the money of more than just people who consider themselves gamers. They want everyone’s money.

Right now, the industry is stuck. Games are being made that offer small amounts of innovation, but anything done is very incremental. For example, Gears of War can be considered innovative for its use of cover. It was one of the first games to pioneer a cover system, and one of the first to do it right. People have been hiding behind objects and shooting at each other for about as long as guns have been around, though, this shouldn’t be something to get too excited about. This means that it took almost 15 years from the first FPS games(Doom, Marathon, Wolf 3D) for someone to finally add the ability to hide behind stuff.

This lack of innovation stems from the fact that most publishers don’t want games that will only appeal to people who are good at or interested in games. They want to sell as many games as possible, and they are willing to let gameplay suffer. It’s no secret that in game development, more time and money is spent on art assets than any other area. The general public has to be tricked into buying these mediocre games by fancy explosions and bump-mapping on walls. There are attempts at innovation in the industry, but overall, our industry is producing crap. Even the games that are generally accepted to be great games, simply aren’t as could as they could be (Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty:World at War, I’m looking at you).

Because video games are viewed largely as a source of entertainment, the mainstream aspect will probably never go away. Publishers and developers both need to realize that game quality is lacking, and that they can’t keep stifling innovation in an attempt to make more money. People may be buying cheap rehashes of previous games(Call of Duty:World at War, you again), but can this last forever? How long can you ride on the coattails of a successful franchise?

Simply put, the industry is slowly disenfranchising its core market, and I don’t think that gamers will put up for it much longer. While a industry-wide collapse is probably not likely, I don’t predict that people will look back on this time favorably in the history books.

So, are gamers relevant? Do we make a difference in the industry that we follow? Yes. We are still recognized as a large source of revenue for the industry. Ultimately, it is that core audience that can make or break a game, and to be a true part of the industry, we need to evaluate ourselves as game players and purchasers.

There are many gamers who buy most big name games simply because they feel they have to, and this needs to stop. The term “gamer” should not refer to someone who goes to Gamestop regularly to snag their preordered copy of whatever big name title just came out. I consider myself a gamer because I care about video games. I want to see and play the best video games I can, regardless of who makes them. The mainstream industry has the power to create some awesome things with today’s technology, but the pursuit of money is keeping these things from being realized. The industry is refusing to acknowledge its core demographic, and if this continues, I can see a lot of unhappy gamers looking elsewhere for their games.

So, what can gamers to do stop this? Don’t buy games. If you suspect that a game might be mediocre, don’t buy it right away. It usually only takes a few days for everyone to know if a game is good or not, but gamer culture tells us that we have to have the newest games right away. A prime example of this is Kane & Lynch, a notably mediocre game that has gone to sell over 1 million copies. I bet that if everyone who preordered or purchased the game at release waited a few days, this number would be about half that.

In our free market society, ultimately the buyers have the power, especially with a nonessential item like video games. If enough people stop blindly buying games, the industry will eventually get the clue. If not, then the mainstream game industry will eventually turn into what the mainstream film industry is today, a joke.

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