July 3, 2022

SFTW: The Middle.

Insert song lyrics here.

Capitalism vs. Socialism.

Yes, we’re starting with politics because there’s often a lot of arguing over which of these is better. A socialist state that tries to help and protect and serve the people, or a wealth-increasing rule that allows businesses and companies the freedoms and mechanisms to make that money? It’s been more than a century since the two ideas began to conflict, and the UK in particular went from a very Socialist state in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to a very capitalist one in the last thirty years. We’ve seen the swing from one side to the other – once industry was completely broke and nothing much got done. Now of course we have a banking sector that is still not regulated for fear of it being seen as too “socialist”, scaring them off to other countries.

Thing is, neither system is perfect and the ideal system is a combination approach of the best of both worlds. You NEED Socialist ideals to protect people – children and vulnerable adults, older people, those terminally ill and so forth. If people are not protected then they can’t do or own anything with what they have. Similarly, you need Capitalist ideals to generate that wealth and create jobs, which generates tax revenue which can be used to improve public services and fund the socialist principles which we all seem to agree are important. There’s too much of a focus on being one or the other – the ideal world is a combination approach of both sides of the argument. In reality, Socialism and Capitalism are just two sides of the same coin. You need both. A one-sided coin just looks weird.

The same is true of video games, really.

We’re not always very good at seeing a bigger picture as gamers. Whether it’s criticisms of EA and its reckless expenditure under John Riccitiello which has left it having to cut jobs and let studios go in order to save money, or simple criticism of Nintendo and its traditionalist focus on its own IP, it’s often very challenging to remind people that a world without EA and/or Nintendo would be a poorer place. You may not like their ideological focus, but the truth is they are two very important extremes of the same argument. Both give us different and variable conditionals that work in very different ways. Without EA, one can argue that people will simply look for another big, villainous publisher to complain about all the time – probably Activision, although truth is Activision are hardly the most evil out there right now. They’re likely not even in the top five any longer. EA spent recklessly and have cared little for the consequences of their rampant growth and increased expenditure. Similarly, without Nintendo, there would be a huge void in the home console market. Nintendo may not always be spot on all the time, but they do at least keep things interesting. They put a lot of focus on their customers, probably moreso than they do nowadays on their bottom line. EA is Capitalist. Nintendo is Socialist. And whilst they are two extremes and both deeply flawed, both are necessary in a world which needs the two extremes in order to create a middle ground.

We complain that not enough risk is taken on new IP; fortunately, this year sees lots of new IP. Thing is, we’re not very good at supporting it at all. Habitually, gamers tend to stick with that they know. Most people remain in very tight-knit camps and do not stray too far from their entrenched positions. When companies do dare to be new and different, we don’t take the time to support them. Sometimes we shouldn’t – not all that it is new is inherently good. Heck, I made that point this week. But more often than not, we don’t even try looking to see if this new thing is good. Lots of people have criticised the Wii-U. I’d say two-thirds of those bitching about the machine don’t even own one or have tried one. They simply want something to complain about. They’re happy in their little camp, in their own little portion of the market and yet because it is so open are happy to throw stones at anyone else without considering if their arguments can be applied to their own camps. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are not that dissimilar. They all stick to the same basic principles, looking for new ways to develop their market and sell their product without considering the consequences of their actions. They rarely pay heed of each other – each machine has things to commend. The X-Box 360 has arguably the best controller design and the smoothest UI. Sony, arguably, have the best premium service of the lot – PS Plus offering free games, often really rather good games as well. Right now, Okami HD and Demon’s Souls are available for free through it and they are both some of the finest gaming experiences you can have. Nintendo have the best back catalogue of any of them, and Miiverse, and it’s all free and actually very nice. And the U-Pad is alright (even if my screen has bubbled slightly!).

You can argue that they are all corners of an equilateral triangle. Without them all, you have a straight line which ultimately ends up being a two-sided “A or B” decision. Very often this just ends up with one being considered as an excess, and all the attention is focused on the “biggest one”. With three of them in the market, all trying different things and each with their own unique IP and selling points, there’s a bit more of a dynamic between them all. It’s more complicated. Which sounds terrible, but it means all three get their own bits of attention and that’s not a bad thing. They all co-exist; it’s not always pretty, but that’s business for you. It’s not always pretty and very little goes according to plan at the best of times. There will always be people who look for a winner – because that’s how we are. We’re not often good with concepts like “choice”, even though the Wii may have technically won the now-ending generation, does that mean it had all the best games? I’d say not… the conditions for “winning” are not quite as simple as, “Who made the most money?”.

It’s funny that as gamers, we mock what the industry calls “Casual Gamers”. But in reality, casual gamers are far easier to please. Far more open to new ideas and concepts. A Core Gamer may indeed stick with their chosen product – be that Mario Kart, Call of Duty, Battlefield or World of Warcraft. But they don’t tend to venture outside that. And even if they do, they are unlikely to spend the money needed on it, often waiting for the price to drop. Fortunately, I’d say “Core Gamers” are becoming an increasing minority in the market. But on the flip side, Call of Duty funded Skylanders. Skylanders is set to fund something else. There’s a serious argument to be made for some of these people to stick with their chosen product. They may be risk-averse and play it far too safe, but they are a reliable pillar of finance when companies do eventually make enough to take risks on new ideas and concepts, and perhaps that new IP will create its own little core audience. Who will never venture far from it, even though Nintendo and others are looking to see if they can replicate its success (and will likely fail miserably). People never strayed far from Pok√©mon, after all – in spite of a good half-dozen variations on the theme, like Digimon.

Nothing is simple. We try to rationalise, we try to make it sound very simple because thinking about the complexities of the industry and the relationships we have with it as consumers, critics and customers is headache-inducing stuff. And this is before you get to the relationship both sides have with retailers. And with each other. And with third-parties. And with their own internal development studios. And shareholders. And a lot of other things.

We stand in the middle of this storm of political wrangling, financially-muddled flurry of activity and to some it looks like chaos. To others, it looks interesting and to some of us, we like to reach out and touch, look closely, watch what happens. Hypnotically entranced by it all, we ask questions and whilst we don’t always get answers, it’s interesting to try and make sense of it all. But we’re in a great place to watch it all happen. And it’s never going to stop – it will always be a conflicted, confused tangle of ambition, glory, hopes and dreams, financial instability mixed with ego and heartbreak. It creates new things to look at all the time, raises new questions with alarming regularity – but this is at least interesting. Heroes rise and fall, villains come and go, names fade into the ether and return when you least expect it. Without all these extremes, it’s just boring. It’s seeing them all, seeing them create this maelstrom that is the industry, that makes it interesting and shows us how good – and bad – things are. And without them, we simply wouldn’t know where the middle ground actually was.

But on the flipside, if the industry was trying to rush for the middle ground, you’d push everyone out to the extremes. And that’s probably more damaging overall. There’s never enough room in the middle for more than one party… and in this equation, the consumers are in the middle of it all.

That’s not a bad result, really.


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