Phil Hartup on videogames

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Yes, gamers are angry, but why wouldn’t they be when the games industry hates them?

Gone are the days when you just bought a game and then played it. With the pre-orders, rushed productions and all the patches, the relationship between producers and customers is becoming ever more adversarial.  

Titanfall, aka Call of Duty with robots. Image: Respawn Entertainment
Titanfall, aka Call of Duty with robots. Image: Respawn Entertainment

With autumn looming, bringing with it many promised new video game releases, it is clear that a newly minted tradition of the last few years is about to play itself out again. The tradition goes something like this. Games are released, most of them are critically praised while disappointing audiences, and the complaints of the gamers themselves are dismissed as them being “entitled”.

The supposedly entitled gamer is a relatively modern phenomena born in a large part out of an increased capacity for disgruntled players to make their voices heard over social media. Gamers got angry back in the day as well, but the options to express the rage were more limited and more importantly gamers back then didn’t have nearly so much to be angry about.

What lies at the heart of the modern gamer’s agitation and sense of entitlement isn’t just that gamers today are worse than they were before. This is evidenced by the existence of many big and cuddly game communities, like those attached to Dwarf Fortress, Skyrim, or Kerbal Space Program and the plenty of other games with friendly fan bases. The gamers haven’t changed at all, but what has changed is the games industry, particularly the big producers.

There was a time and it wasn’t very long ago when you bought a game, and you’d play it, and you might buy expansions for that game, what we now often call downloadable content (DLC), but that was that for that one game. I can remember buying expansions for games as far back as Laser Squad on the Spectrum and it’s never been an unwelcome practice to give the players more of what they want. Equally it wasn’t so long ago that in order to be assured of getting a copy of a game as soon as it was released you might pre-order it, because then you wouldn’t have to wait for new stock.

Those times are gone now of course. Pre-orders are now a chance to coax players into ordering games before they face brutal vivisection under audience scrutiny. Discounts, exclusive content offers, early access to beta versions of the game, what used to just be a guarantee that you’d get your game on time is becoming a sophisticated gambit to get the customer to cave in to marketing and open their wallet on blind faith. The extra content for pre-orders was traditionally a trifling addition, maybe a cosmetic change to the character or a bit of a leg up in the game, but we’re now seeing games like Alien: Isolation offering first dibs on what you’d think would have to be a pretty substantial part of the game. Other games offer items that affect the balance of the game, or provide an advantage in multiplayer competition.

It should be obvious that this is a dodgy practice that people shouldn’t embrace, and yet it is continuing to happen. Games are marketed very hard with budgets for marketing often comparable to the budget for producing the game itself. Tens of millions of dollars earmarked for adverts, press junkets, favourable coverage from Youtube channels and so on. Plus, as we’ve seen with games like Watch_Dogs and Aliens: Colonial Marines among others, players are often being sold on highly polished tech demos that do not reflect the final game.

When a game hits the stores and players get their hands on it, the results can be vicious, and sometimes deservedly so. Very few games manage to hide their badness from their intended audience. Games like Dragon Age 2 can impress reviewers working to tight deadlines, but not always the players. Although there is something faintly ironic about a player spending forty hours glued to a game only declare at the end of it that he has not been entertained.

Pre-orders are a fishy element of business, but they lead to another problematic aspect of the games industry these days which is games that just do not work when you get them. This was a problem for SimCity and Battlefield 4, which were both plagued with huge technical problems at launch, as was Total War: Rome 2 and Watch_Dogs. The ubiquitous nature of the internet has meant that games can be patched, which is great, it means you can fix a game that is buggy at release, but the flipside of this is that developers can now release buggy games knowing that a lot of the problems can be fixed with patches later on. Releases that should be delayed press on regardless while the developers working on the game, usually now deep into the brutal crunch phase of development are made to carry the can for these failures and work even longer after release to bodge together fixes.

So between pre-orders and rushed productions the average gamer is being tempted to fork out top dollar for brand new games that may not have seen much, if any, real critical scrutiny, and which will probably need a patch to work as fully intended. What we end up with is in some ways more of an adversarial relationship than friendly business practices between many producers and their customers.

The game publisher seeks to present the game in the best possible light, regardless of its final quality for obvious reasons, rather than just release the game and let it sell itself through videos and word of mouth, which is vastly more powerful than it used to be. More than ever before we’re seeing the games that deserve attention and that deserve to be played getting that attention, from the likes of Day Z and Dark Souls to League of Legends and Minecraft the good games get found, it just takes a little while. The big publishers don’t have time for that though, they’ll sell most of their copies in the first month.

The elephant in the room though and the reason that the big titles, the AAA releases as they are called, have to push for those early sales is that most of them, well, they just aren’t that impressive any more. A generation of consoles that hung around arguably far too long, followed by a new generation of consoles that sits four or five years behind cutting edge hardware means that mainstream games that can genuinely offer something amazing and deliver on their overblown promises are increasingly uncommon.

That is not to say that games are getting worse, but their power to blow audiences away has been on the wane for years. When a games company promises the Next Big Thing™ and it turns out to be merely Assassin’s Creed with a cellphone or Call of Duty with robots, the inevitable disappointment breeds resentment and cynicism. That cynicism is what fuels the so called “entitled” behaviour.

The cure to all this is simple. If publishers and developers want a less hostile and seemingly less entitled audience, they need to stop treating the customers like marks in a short con. Gamers act like they are entitled to more because year after year they are promised more and year after year nothing really improves. Getting expectations closer into line with reality would be a very smart move for everybody involved.