Blood in the Boardroom: How Executives Are Ruining Their Own Games

We’ve all seen it- the general reduction of games to a homogeneous pulp, driven by ‘what the next big thing is’. Many shooters are now grey-brown warfighters, despite most of those games turning into flops, most recently the latest entry in the Medal of Honor series. Other games with more niche markets are being moved towards a mainstream presentation. While there are a few exceptions, many games come with mandatory multiplayer; not because it makes the game any better, but because some suit in marketing thinks that it is required to be successful  That seems to be exactly the problem- creative control and direction has moved from the creative part of the industry to a boardroom of people incredibly remote from gaming, gamer culture, and even the nature of their products. Executives will be executives, I suppose.

The first major problem is that game production is now feature driven, not quality driven. There is a general failure to realize that the Call of Duty and Halo franchises are successful and have such large market shares because they’re games that are fun to play, not because they have a large multiplayer aspect. In fact, mandatory multiplayer has measurably worsened games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Dead Space 2. The development of those two games was set back, money wasted on multiplayer for the sake of having it in the game. In both of those cases, perfectly good games had horrible multiplayer forcibly inserted into the product just to have it there. In fact, the lead designer of Spec Ops: The Line described the multiplayer of his own game as a ‘cancerous growth‘ forced onto the disc by their publisher. There seems to be some sort of notion that players want features, not a quality game in the boardrooms of most major publishers. While I appreciate good multiplayer as much as anyone else, it simply isn’t necessary in most games. Multiplayer isn’t the only feature forced into games because a suit from marketing says so- it’s simply the most obvious, and the most common example. Like in Dead Space 2, it’s clear to see when it’s another tick in the box as compared to something there to improve the game experience.

We all remember how well this turned out, don’t we?

Technology continues to advance, and graphics are getting better and better, it cannot be disputed. However, developers are alienating growing sections of the market by mindlessly pursuing ‘better graphics’ as a selling point. The state of the economy worldwide means that not everyone has the capability to afford a liquid-cooled, borderline sentient machine to run the latest games…which they largely can’t afford at sixty dollars a pop. As it is, gamers must pick and choose which titles they can afford at all as companies slowly price themselves out of the market in a way reminiscent of movie theaters. Sales going down does not mean that prices should be raised- in fact, the opposite should occur. However, a new game on release week remain sixty dollars give or take, with Collector’s Editions often costing over a hundred dollars. Regardless, all of these graphical advancements are borderline moot: a console can only give out a certain level of performance, and the number of people who can fully exploit a game’s potential is dwindling. Almost all of the money spent rendering graphics bleeding edge is essentially wasted- doubly so if the game isn’t all that fun to begin with. All that money could have been spent improving the game itself, or lowering the price point so that gamers could afford to give companies their money. The icing on the cake is that a large portion of sales are online, via services such as Steam or Origin- a game purchased there often costs the same as a physical copy.

These problems aren’t just effecting the end users- many game companies are posting losses. THQ barely avoided bankruptcy, and EA posted a loss of 381 million dollars for Q2 of this year alone. They also predicted further losses after the latest Medal of Honor failed to sell, and they aren’t alone. Zynga has had to slash jobs, and Sony’s game division posted a staggering 198 million dollar loss for the same period, which is less than the other horrible losses the company has suffered this year. Failure to adapt to a new business model- one that includes more variety in releases, lower budgets, and lower prices for games- is costing jobs and profits. There are profits in more niche games, if a developer doesn’t sink an enormous budget into trying to make it appeal to everyone. A niche game, like any other, will sell based on its merits and quality, and not on what is popular at a given moment. Dead Space, as an example, didn’t sell based on appealing to mainstream gamers, but instead a core audience of horror enthusiasts. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, without losing a large portion of that audience. However, seeing the promotional material for Dead Space 3, it looks (and seems to play) nothing like the first two in the series. Instead of claustrophobic, isolated horror, the game seems to be a co-op version of Lost Planet with necromorphs. There is no longer the claustrophobia of being in dimly-lit areas in space, a missed shot away from a hull breach- the outdoor ice-planet vistas make that clear. There is no longer the feeling of almost total isolation and pressure- the game has a mandatory co-op element. Essentially, the game has lost the greater part of their original audience by trying to appeal to a ‘broader audience’.

One of these things is not like the other.

Most people don’t want game companies to fail. They want them to succeed  to be able to make great games for players to enjoy- and if they succeed, they should theoretically go on making other great games. For that to happen, either executives need to leave creative and gameplay aspects alone, or become educated about them- or game companies will continue to sink.

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