The descent of the games industry: an adventure gamer's perspective
First posted on 15 March 2013. Last updated on 15 March 2013.
There are many parallels between the workings of the film industry and the games industry. In films, innovative and imaginative works are often followed by disappointing and unsatisfying sequels that cater only to an established market, offering little that can be called "meaningful" artistic contribution. In games, similarly, the current market is saturated with big budget releases which generate enormous profits (comparable even with Hollywood films) but which make few advances for the genre. A new "best game ever" appears every year, with critics conveniently forgetting their own opinions of past releases. Gamers are made to think, through the self-fulfilling games media, that games are getting better all the time. Of course, today's games are technically superior, in that they look better and sound better. However, the constant drive for increasing technical innovation, with increasing concern over profitability in order to recoup rising development cost, has choked what makes games enjoyable—innovative gameplay, engaging story, and immersive interaction—over what makes them marketable—brightly lit action scenes, manly grunting, and sexualized characters.
It would be inaccurate to say that the best games were those from the distant past. Games took a long time to develop. As the games industry evolved, games became more ambitious and creative, until finally, in the late 1980s (excuse my nostalgia), many excellent games began to appear, spanning many different genres. It was a time of experimentation. There were many popular and commercially competitive games. Of course, there was also a lot of trash. Eventually, there came a brief golden period for the games industry in which technology was advanced enough to create a believable and immersive world while still allowing the old design concepts of creativity and imagination to show through. For the adventure genre, the twin peaks of the early 1990s and the late 1990s saw the releases of many classic graphical adventure games such as the King's Quest and Monkey Island series as well as many survival horror adventure hybrids such as the Clock Towers, Fatal Frames, and Resident Evil (Biohazard) series. Survival horror games were notable for mixing adventure elements with those of other genres such as action and role-playing. All of them succeeded by placing emphasis on storytelling, atmosphere, and some amount of mental stimulation.
Then came the fall. Precisely when it happened for the games industry was debatable. It was likely around the time when first-person shooters rose to prominence, most of which shamelessly sought to appeal to the new generation of gamers craving for visual stimulation. Half-Life 2 used realistic physics in its graphics to full effect while featuring a wonderfully arresting storyline. By comparison, Halo: Combat Evolved and Doom 3 featured intense combat gameplay that took precedence over its narrative. Though not favored initially by many game critics, Deus Ex: Invisible War eventually became the model for action and role-playing hybrid games to come (such as Bioshock and Dishonored). Other genres were gradually pushed into relative insignificance. Further advances in computer graphics meant that every spot and wrinkle and bead of sweat on a character could be animated with precision on a backdrop of some brown, clichéd, cyberpunk or steampunk world. Gameplay, on the other hand, ceased to be much fun. Map reading became too complex of a skill for modern gamers, who were now to be led slowly from waypoint to waypoint by an objective arrow.
Such judgment is, of course, purely subjective. Even so, if games are to be compared by their relative depth of storytelling, it is apparent that there has been a turn for the worst. The Maniac Mansion and Broken Sword series are obvious examples of what has once been achieved. Even the early Resident Evil games seem highly intellectual by modern game standards. Occasionally, a few completely new and truly innovative games may be released that are genuinely good (such as Portal). However, any unique innovation remains a singular erroneous blip, rebelliously situated away from what is a huge, ongoing, downward correlation.
So, why does this happen? The reason is simple and depressingly obvious—money. As in films, increasing expenditure and profit seeking usually result in decreasing quality. This may sound counterintuitive. Unfortunately, the same law that is ruining the film industry is also crippling the creativity of the game industry.
Game companies often start out small. Most likely, they are just a dedicated team of fanatics who are developing games out of pure obsession. For Frictional Games, the developer has since grown from its humble roots to become a multimillion company with the successful release of the horror adventure game Amnesia: The Dark Descent, while still employing less than a dozen designers, programmers, and artists (1). The company's founders have always been aware of the dangers of expansion and want to remain small but flexible.
However, such a strategy is only sustainable if developers are able to consistently appeal to a particular specialist sector of the games market, and that is assuming gamers' tastes do not change over time and that other developers do not compete for a slice of the pie. In most cases, game companies feel compelled to spend in order to compete, so the tendency is towards increasing expenditure and expanding infrastructure.
Here is where the principles of economics come into play. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall stipulates that increasing spending on production by a company (in any sector) may result in the company earning a larger revenue, but the more capital the company invests, the smaller profits become as a percentage of total expenditure.
In 2012, Frictional Games reported a return of over $3 million USD on an investment of only $360,000 USD (1). By comparison, Electronic Arts reported a net profit of only $76 million USD on a total revenue of over $4 billion USD for Q4 2009 (2). Activision, despite being the publisher of the world's most commercially successful games, reported a net loss of $286 million USD for the same period (3).
Big game companies run big risks. They need to spend large amounts of money just to break even. To consistently make a profit, they have to progressively spend more whilst receiving less back as a percentage. They streamline the business operation by reducing expenditure on certain areas of production or by trying to expand their target market (at the risk of possibly incurring greater expenditure). In practice, most game companies engage in all of these tactics simultaneously.
In the meantime, game quality suffers. Nowadays, it is not unusual for a game to have a development budget of millions of dollars. With this kind of investment, a company is understandably less likely to take risks. Given the need for more staff and a larger budget, concern for profitability is greater than that for artistic merit. In going for maximal sales, the target market broadens, leading to a pursuit of the lowest common denominator. Conversely, elements that are not considered important because of their apparent lack of profitability are curtailed or ignored. New business models are created, based not on quality or the desire to contribute to the artistic development of the games industry but on the pragmatic need for short-term monetary gain. Features that are not immediately marketable, such as complex storytelling and innovative gameplay, become secondary.
As with films, developers and publishers realize that a series is likely more profitable for games. Instead of providing a satisfying story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end, games are being developed to end part way through a story with no real resolution. If the series then gets canceled because of poor sales, gamers who have invested in the earlier games will be left wholly frustrated.
Here, I feel inclined to self-indulgently mention my own favorite game of all time as an illustration—Realms of the Haunting.
Realms of the Haunting was released in 1997 by a relatively little known British game developer called Gremlin Interactive. The game had ambitions unlike any other games of its time. Sadly, it was poorly marketed (especially considering that it was published by Interplay Productions), had poor sales, and made little money. Despite this, the game was a triumph in design, with awe-inspiring attention to details, a deep storyline, satisfying gameplay (over 40 hours), relatable characters, well-acted Full Motion Video cut scenes (honestly), excellent sound, and an intensely immersive atmosphere. It was also a very scary game. The game was developed on the DOS platform and used a rudimentary 3D game engine that looked rubbish even then. If the game was to be made now, the player character would be an inhuman, grunting lump of muscle (or in the case of a female, the character would be an athletic nymphomaniac with disproportionate breasts, occasionally hinting at having girl power so to deflect any potential criticism of sexism), the puzzles would simply be deleted, exploration would amount to just following the arrow to the next waypoint, and dialog would be halved. The game would also be released in several parts as a running series, each adhering to the same episodic structure with repetitive cliffhangers, before it would get cancelled halfway through. Realms of the Haunting was proof that ingenuity and imagination were enough to overcome technological failing to create a truly unique gaming experience.
The future is bright, however. The development of new game technologies has heralded a new generation of game developers. Notable successful indie titles such as Braid and Limbo show how it is possible for small studios with limited budgets to develop compelling games. With the games industry saturated with mostly derivative trash, indie game designers have an excellent opportunity. It is hard to see how, without drastic adaptation, big game companies that are concerned principally with profits can continue to compete in a changing marketplace in which smaller developers can create and easily distribute their own games directly to the gaming community. Perhaps with the removal of profit as the primary motivation for game development, games (adventure or otherwise) can finally return to being about what they are always supposed to be about—mental simulation and fun.
2. Electronic Arts, Inc. (NASDAQ: EA), 2009
3. Activision Blizzard, Inc. (NASDAQ: ATVI), 2009