Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Games Are Really Not Like Cars

As things cool down on the GamerGate morass a little bit, the various press outlets have started to voice their own opinions and declarative statements on where they stand.  As one might expect, there has been a fair amount of tightrope walking in these, and occasionally, a writer falls off the rope and racks himself.  Of these, none are really more befuddling than the Escapist’s take on the whole thing.

Their general stance, as near as I can parse, is “GamerGate is the Publisher’s fault!”  The problem, you see, is that game publishers are trying to make enthusiast games for everyone!  What they should be doing, apparently, is selling Grand Theft Auto for $3000 bucks a box.  That way, devs won’t have to cheapen or weaken the hardcore hooker beating simulation that all true hardcore gamers crave.

I’m employing some hyberbole here, but not as much as you’d think.

[T]he automotive industry does something amazing that the game industry does not: The automotive industry sells a car for every type of consumer….And as a result there is never any conflict between car consumers and car enthusiasts. Why would there be? They have nothing to fight about!

What the hell game industry are you looking at?  We are an industry that produces Call of Duty, Madden, the Sims, Rock Band, Civilization, Candy Crush, Flappy Bird, Katamari Damacy, Farmville and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.   For fuck’s sake, we made a god damned pigeon dating simulator.  The variety of gaming available VASTLY outstrips the variety of ways that Detroit has managed to combine 4 wheels and a motor.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe where the only cars available are sports cars. In this universe, you are a Corvette enthusiast who has driven Corvettes for decades. Mustangs? No way. You’re hardcore for Chevy in the Muscle Car Wars. Then one day, Chevrolet announces that the new 2015 Corvette will have a smaller engine, to make room in the back for a new set of pre-installed child seats. The automotive press lauds the fact that Corvette has become a more inclusive brand which has embraced the family driver. When you, an outraged Corvette fan, begin complaining loudly that this is a betrayal of the Corvette brand… you are criticized for hating children!

Let me give you a better analogy.  Imagine that every single sports car manufactured came standard with a naked woman airbrushed on the hood.  And imagine if a woman said, “You know, you’d probably get more enthusiasts, both male and female, if there was, I dunno, maybe one sports car available that wasn’t tackier than an velvet Elvis painting.  Can we at least, I dunno, airbrush a blouse on her?”  Now imagine that the overwhelming response from an intensely vocal minority was “FUCK YOU!  Airbrushed Bazongas are integral to the artistic vision and internal functionality of a fine automobile!”  Then imagine that said woman had to go into hiding and call FBI for fear of her life while the aforementioned assholes went onto the internet and said that the REAL problem was that auto journalists spent time letting her point of view see print.

But no.  This article is going to treat legitimate critics of the art form as misguided soccer moms determined to destroy everything that is awesome about games.

Nowadays a top game costs as much as $250,000,000, but still sells for about the same inflation-adjusted price as it did when it cost $500,000.

Big game publishers had two ways of responding to this challenging economic trend:

  • Develop different types of products at different price points for different consumers.
  • Make Ferraris and sell them to Honda buyers at Chevrolet prices.
  • Car manufacturers, movie studios, television companies, clothing retailers, and everyone else have chosen the first course of action.

Big game publishers have, until very recently, pursued the second course of action….Fortunately, the big game publishers are beginning to realize that “one game to sell to them all” might be the wrong strategy.

Here’s the thing – using the car analogy is very, very wrong here.  First off, a car enthusiast’s pride is established by one car, maybe two cars.  Only the very rich is going to have multiple Lamborghinis.  By comparison, a gamer’s passion is typically indicated by the wide berth of content he consumes.

Secondly, many games, particularly multiplayer games, require a critical mass of population in order to be able to provide human opponents to players, which requires getting a lot of people in the front door.

Third, unlike the Maserati market, a huge chunk of our enthusiast market’s purchasing decisions are guided strongly by, say, their weekly allowance from their parents.  This is one of the primary reasons why F2P is taking off, and is resulting in all possible price pressure competitively pushing prices down.

A much better analogy for the games enthusiast is the movie enthusiast, as making games is very close to making movies (and nothing like, as asserted here, just like cars).  Sure, there are hundreds of different movies made every year.  For the most part, though, a movie ticket is 8 bucks whether or not you’re seeing a $300 million dollar spectacle like Avatar, or a $1 million dollar indie film.  Wait a couple weeks and both will be at the dollar theater.  A couple months, and both will have DVDs that cost $20 bucks, and be available on-demand for between 4 and 6 bucks.  Half a year later, both will be on Netflix and HBO for no visible charge to the customer.

Hardcore fans of a particular movie may purchase a collector’s edition or some merchandise (just like games), but in most cases, hardcore movie fans are hardcore because they watch a lot of movies (just like games), and instead invest their money in high end theater equipment for an optimal home experience (just like games).  Also, many hardcore movie fans who don’t blink an eye at shelling out a ton of money for a high end HDTV will refuse to actually pay anything for the art that they love, which has the unfortunate quality of being infinitely xeroxable and downloadable off of BitTorrent (need I say it?)

One more similarity: if you spend $300 million dollars making a film that turns out to only have art house appeal, you WILL go out of business, and probably never get to make a film again.  As long as the topic is AAA games with AAA production values, your moneymen are going to demand you make back your investment.  Your choice, if you’ve just shipped Grand Theft Auto, is that you need to sell 10 million copies at $30 bucks revenue apiece just to break even (keep in mind, retailers and distributors get a huge cut of your $60 box), and businesses get sued by their stockholders if they are just in the business of breaking even.

If you decide that you’re only interested in making more hardcore games for only the 100,000 or so REAL HARDCORE game enthusiasts out there, then congrats.  You need to come up with a business model that extracts $3000 from each customer.  In a gaming ecosystem where players can choose to play League of Legends for free.

Now, you might argue that $300M is too much to spend making a video game, and that they should instead make a game for only $30M, or maybe $3M.  At which point, I can only say ‘congratulations, you’re no longer AAA’.  And there are a ton of great games you can download on Steam that had those production costs or less.  But there’s no way you’re getting anywhere near GTA’s content quality of comprehensive feature set.

Right now, you can have your AAA game in any style you’d like, as long as it’s an online-enabled multiplayer game from one of 4 acceptable genres with a T or M rating with cutting-edge graphics and about 10 hours of single player gameplay that costs $60. That’ll change, in time.

Just because only 4 genres dominate the enthusiast press doesn’t mean that the actual, real gaming ecosystem isn’t a lot more vibrant than that.

And we’re even seeing publishers make Ferraris, price them like bicycles, and ask us to pay more for gas to make up the difference. (Those games are called free-to-play MMOs.)

A better analogy would be jeep customization.

And those games will always be closer to World of Warcraft than Candy Crush, more Corvette than Volvo S60, because the former rewards an investment of time and energy in a way the latter simply doesn’t.

“Those games for those other people?  Those aren’t real games.”  I should note again that more than 70% of all people who play Candy Crush have reached max level without spending a cent.  Based on my experience, doing so would take vastly more time and skill than finishing Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4 combined.

Look – I am in no way saying that the central point – that gamers should be taken to mean game enthusiast and should be held as a seperate concept as those who play games –is invalid.  It’s an apt observation.  But the idea that the game companies erred somehow in trying to broaden their appeal to a wider audience in order to actually pay the paychecks of the developers of their AAA titles — that’s quite a leap, one which I can’t seem to make.

But let’s say he’s correct, and that game publishers should focus on making games for an audience only, say, one-fifth in size.  The hardcore one-fifth as opposed to just letting anyone in the turnstile.  Which would be better: for the resulting game to have one-fifth the content and complexity, or to be five times more expensive?


  1. Read the article and noticed the omission of a third option of car construction… are we keeping the metaphor going?

    3) Crowd funding such as Kickstarter and cutting out the publishing middleman.

    This is a garage saying, this is the car we want to make, we need some resources up front, who wants to contribute and get a chance to take it for a spin once we get the wheels on the chassis?

    I think I’m labouring the car thing a bit too much.

    But, it will be interesting to see the impact games such as ‘Elite: Dangerous’ and ‘Star Citizen’ can have.
    Both crowd funded through Kickstarter as a means of showing audience desire.
    Both serious space sim contenders a genre publishers have steered away from for nearly a decade.
    Both for PC gaming enthusiasts an audience sector largely overlooked for AAA releases.
    And, just to tie it in with the previous Blogs, both a source of ‘My games better than your game.’, ‘This game sucks.’

  2. I (finally) learned a couple years ago not to listen to other gamers. While this has the unfortunate side effect of making me understand why developers are less likely to listen to me personally, it does help my sanity quite a bit.

    A great example of how stupid the vocal minority can be is found in a Steam forum thread from the most recent Alien vs Predator game. (Terrible game, but hey, let’s stick to gamers.)

    I can’t find the article now, but basically, they had this cute little option that didn’t show up in early pirate copies of the game to turn off massive default mouse deceleration. Countless people would show up on Steam and official boards looking for support for their illegal copies of the game.

    Yeah, the car analogy kind of sucks, and while I occasionally dislike some of the results of accessibility, I tend to understand the reasoning behind it.

    It’s generally only a bitter pill to swallow when accessibility ends up hurting core gameplay. Some of WoW’s experiments with balance come to mind.

    “Why are you giving out charity epics?” Well, who gives a shit? Charity epics don’t affect your E-Peen at all. Gamers are a bunch of little hipsters with their digital crack, and how dare those casuals get something?

    Coming from someone not in the industry, the hipsters need to quit bitching, if it didn’t affect your gameplay, be glad the casuals and scrubs get enough love to make them buy the game, because if it didn’t turn a profit, you wouldn’t get to buy it either.

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