The games industry is always an interesting thing to look at. Games rise and games fall, as do studios and developers, juggling a need to create, intrigue and entertain alongside basic financial business sense and the need to make money. But since the two are not usual bedfellows, how serious is this conflict of interest?
They say the purpose of art is to have no other purpose than to itself.
Personally speaking, I find this to be a facetious argument at the best of times – I find this excuse to be nothing more than a justification of some pretty terrible conceptual works, usually wheeled out over the sorts of thing entered for the Turner Prize. From dirty lavatories to used condoms on a bonsai tree, sometimes it seems art has become almost a parody of itself. I admire “artworks”, such as sculptures and paintings (both physical and digital) but there is some art I look at and think, “What am I supposed to be thinking here?”
You see, for me art has to challenge, engage and provoke thought and dialogue. Art needs to provide mental nourishment as well as provide an emotional, if inexplicable, connection with it. My concept of art, as it turns out, covers a much wider spectrum of creative thought and process than you might expect – and it is often found in the world of video games.
But there’s a catch. There always is.
You see, the process behind making games isn’t always in and of itself able to be considered as ‘artistic’, with teams of dozens to hundreds working away on computers to bring about the creation of a new world, new characters and new and exciting stories. This requires them to be paid a living wage, and often bonuses, along with the overhead costs of the offices, the supplies, the computers themselves, travel expenses and various other financial problems like loan interest. Even if we can quantify SOME games as inherently artistic, the harsh reality is that behind the scenes, it is often simply a matter of cold, hard business.
Of course, art and money can mix – look at works submitted for the Turner Prize each year. But much like those inherently vulgar indulgences, video games based on simply making more money for its owners can often feel a little cold and pointless. Some may argue the end result is “art”, that if I can profess Shadow of the Colossus to be art then so too Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 must be considered as art too, as it provides engagement and intrigue in the end product as much as the former. Again, if it were only this easy to nail down what art actually was, we wouldn’t have all these conflicts of interest.
You see, for many artists critically acclaimed today, the reality is that most of them have passed on. Their works have become admirable and interesting posthumously. When these artists were alive, some of them lived cushy lives living off their parents millions, but a lot of them lived in abject poverty. When they were alive, few people gave a toss about their work and their artistic ethic. Many years after their deaths, their works begin to trade and attain the kind of critical adoration and financial liquidity that eluded them so much in life. It is quite ironic when you think about it, to live for art knowing that your art may only attain any real intrinsic value after you are gone.
Likewise, it isn’t until games are cancelled, or their studios disbanded, that many of us pay attention to games. Team ICO has been struggling with their latest project The Last Guardian, already many years overdue. It has become lambasted as an auteur project, a self-indulgence that will likely never make back the many millions of dollars being invested into it – but it appears to be the last project from that team, and say what you like, that is sad. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are beautiful, inspired gaming experiences that feel like watercolour art, ethereal and beautiful in so many ways. It is because time has passed and we know the studio is, effectively, at an end that we look back and begin to deconstruct their previous works with a more appreciative eye. Never mind that these games never really became commercial hits, because we love them now, right? Long after the window of opportunity for these games, we like them now they are rarer, more aged and ultimately, contribute nothing more to the studio that made them.
Because these people can’t make more games if we do not buy them, regardless of their respective and probable artistic merits. Other examples of this are Beyond Good and Evil – a visual and narrative experience that has over the years become more and more lauded for its balance of political intrigue with trashy science fiction. This game was critically acclaimed almost from the moment it hit the market – reviewers loved it and those of us who bought in at that early stage were treated to an incredible and enjoyable gaming experience, one that was not constrained by any one genre but dabbled and indulged in numerous brackets to give its world some life. But guess what? Commercially, it bombed and whilst a Beyond Good and Evil 2 is in the works, it has been nine years since that game. And the project, despite an increased public attraction to it, is still considered a low priority because they simply cannot be reassured that the title would break even if they did make it.
Similarly, EA – not themselves known for artistic indulgences – some years ago dabbled with a game we now call Mirror’s Edge. It wasn’t the most polished of games, granted. It wasn’t the most forgiving of games either. But somehow, for some peculiar reason, it worked. Mirror’s Edge was a breathtaking spectacle that engaged and enthralled us in equal measure, and critically we once again lapped it up. But did it make money? Of course not, don’t be silly!
So why is it that games that are critically praised do so badly, whereas annual franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield and FIFA perform above and beyond commercial expectations? That’s a hard one to quantify, because it requires some psychoanalysis of the buying consumer and that, of course, is something that you’d only do with the aid of a diving bell and after having all your shots done.
I kid, I kid. Perhaps it’s simply a case of advertising by volume – these annual games advertise themselves, and the next years title (being the update) replaces the original. It’s a self-sustaining commercial ecosystem, where the games essentially market themselves and their future sequels in huge volumes, attaining the sort of brand recognition that one may afford the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonalds. It is incredibly hard to stay away from them and as a result, with huge budgets for TV ad space, word of mouth and a hype machine months in the making, people end up being convinced this time, maybe this time, the game will be better.
We usually end up disappointed. But hey, maybe next year, right?
When it comes to smaller, newer attempts to break into the world of video gaming with a more artistic and/or innovative approach to a genre, commercially they cannot often afford that kind of advertising budget. There is no predecessor, so there is no word of mouth. People don’t want to waste money on a game only a few people have reviewed, and therefore decide not to take a risk on it and instead buy the latest First Person Shooter, or the next best MMO, only to it seems be inevitably disappointed with THAT game as well.
It’s a terrible cycle.
It’s become a world whereby the big get bigger and there is less and less space for breakthrough titles. The only games in recent years to attain the same dizzying heights of Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls and FIFA are the likes of Portal and Gears of War. And despite all of these things, the last Final Fantasy was very average, Skyrim was buggier than the average Hollywood penthouse suite, Gears of War simply makes no sense and Portal 2, in itself, was not as good as the original.
It is often these unique games and IPs stepping out into the market for the first time that entertain the most these days. But with it being so expensive, and a considered lack of interest in the gaming public’s consciousness to buy into new games, it’s becoming harder to do that. Most are running for smaller games, or platforms like Facebook and iOS, where costs are more manageable. But if their hope is that these places value creativity and artistic integrity, they will be disappointed – they’ve turned into a super-enhanced version of the bigger games market. They have less money to lose – but they will still, by and large, lose money.
And so back to that reference to the Turner Prize. Sure, that bonsai tree covered in used condoms may seem pointless. But it will have been valued at millions, purely because it is in a space where it has that kind of massive exposure. Its value is tied to where it is and that it has been seen there, rather than what it is or why it is there. Games are very similar – if Call of Duty was a new entrant into the market, given its often rushed and slapdash approach, do you honestly think people would buy it in nearly the same volume that they do now?
My guess is no. It sells because it has been around for so long. It feeds itself and grows ever larger on the market, unfortunately providing less and less space for others to attain remotely respectable financial profits.
So people will of course now try to be different, artistic and innovative. But ultimately, without market space to grow into, many of these products will be one-offs, unable to recoup the costs required to bring them to the market in the first place.
And that is so depressing I think I may go and cry now.