The Art Of Asking – And Video Games!

I’ve been sitting on this idea for well over a year. But I think I’ve finally worked out how to say this…


 

Almost three years ago, Amanda Palmer gave perhaps one of the most impressive and interesting TED Talks I’ve ever watched.

Most will not have heard much about Amanda Palmer, aside her successful KickStarter campaign and the media furore that occurred when she continued her “wacky” freeloading antics from a period where she was less successful and/or less noticed. I’ve been a fan since The Dresden Dolls “A is for Accident”, so Amanda Palmer is quite a thing for me. I don’t always like what she says or thinks – that’s basic facts of life, and you can’t always 100% agree with people. Even those you like and admire. And that’s fine. I enjoy her work, and that’s perfectly reasonable.

Amanda Palmer talked about her career – moving from street performer, through to her time in The Dresden Dolls under a record label contract and into her recent venture with her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. She had noticed early on the tides were changing; her period as a Living Statue, performing on the street, had given her insight into connecting with her audience on a more personal level. And as The Dresden Dolls were considered a failure, failing to shift more than 50,000 albums in its first week, she saw signs of consumer attitudes changing, with people approaching her after gigs, offering her ten dollars because they “burned” the CD – from a friend, or from the Internet. Amanda Palmer had become accustomed as her statue “The Eight Foot Bride” to taking peoples money – but supporting acts and artists found the process of actually taking money from their audience directly a little awkward.

The advent of KickStarter and crowdfunding must have been everything Amanda Palmer had dreamed of; she had no real problem, as a performer and musician, taking money from people. She would do her thing, give her work, give her time and talent and she’d hope that people liked it enough to want to part with money for it. Her fanbase was vociferous in its support; paying for flights and places so she could give private performances, grouping up to share the financial burden, and KickStarter itself allowed her to bankroll an entire album, art books and much more besides, as well as making a comfortable living for herself.

Her conclusion was profound and important; “I think we’ve been obsessing over the wrong question… we’ve been asking how to make people pay for music. What we should be asking is – how to we let people pay for music.”

If Amanda Palmer saw the changing tides of the music industry in the mid to late noughties, then I think it’s also clear that we’ve all seen the changing tides happening in the sphere of video games. Rising development costs and stilted hardware has created an awkward situation for many. Piracy will never go away, but never before have video games pirates felt so much that their acts are a moral imperative, highlighting the cavernous divide between what paying customers have to go through as compared to those who effectively download fully cracked games which comes with everything as standard. The increasing practice of cutting out content for Downloadable Content, or to sell back as part of a Season Pass – itself no guarantee of actual quality – has become so toxic that thousands of blogs and consumers remain incensed to this day about it. Even more respectable sites like Forbes have been asking, “How is the Console Market still alive?”, especially when the environment seems so radioactive.

The increased costs are not surprising; making video games, like making music, has become a much more expensive endeavour. The time required, the materials needed, the living wages, the software to make everything come together alongside additional expenses like rent, tax, travel and advertising have made it harder for companies to profit from even the most successful of projects. And when projects are made sensibly with sensible budgets, a modest success isn’t nearly enough – we’ve reached the ludicrous point where some money isn’t enough. To pinch a line from Spaceballs; “We’re not doing this for money… we’re doing this for S***LOADS OF MONEY!”

DLC, Day-One DLC, Season Passes and Microtransactions are all part of the same problem; the industry needs to get us to part with more cash for their content, so all the additional extras mount up to at times doubling the cost of the base game. The end result, as we’ve been seeing and hearing lately, is painfully predictable; a growing cry of anger and resentment, less actual revenue for the companies themselves as many of us take a moment to look at this warped amalgamation of business practices and think, “You know what? I’m fine, thanks, I’ll keep my money.”

Even with the rise of software protection that is proving difficult to hack, we’re seeing that taking away piracy as an option isn’t necessarily going to drive more sales. I’ve said before that focusing on piracy figures as some kind of lost sales figure is a dangerous practice; these people may not be likely to buy your game, but they really don’t have to buy your game. If they never intended on purchasing it, is it really a lost sale? That’s aside other problems with the issue of piracy figures, which I detailed myself a couple of years ago.

But there are other options.

The rising success of “Humble Bundle” packages, giving customers the option to pay what they can afford or feel like paying, has been something to behold. When asked to pay what they want for bundles sure, some people will only pay the bare minimum. And that’s fine; not everyone is so flush with cash that they can blow tons of money on these things. Focusing on the lower end of the spectrum is pessimistic; what we should be looking at are those paying over the odds for their content, happy to support charity and developer/publisher alike by willingly parting with their money in order to keep the wheel turning. That’s a positive, optimistic viewpoint that more companies need to take.

And though I hate crowdfunding and KickStarter for what it has become, I’m certainly not blind to the positives. Games like Hand of Fate, which was one of my top five games of 2015, would never have been possible without KickStarter and people willingly parting with their money. And whilst there’s certainly a curious problem with the likes of Yooka-Laylee having talent you couldn’t imagine having any real issues getting funding otherwise, it’s not really the fault of KickStarter that bigger names are turning to the service. As investment in the top-end of video gaming demands higher returns, there’s a validity in making nothing more than a reasonable living – enjoying the market you create for yourself and not the market you feel you deserve, or feel you are entitled to. Knowing you have a supportive fan base who will support you and part with their money so you can keep doing something you love? That’s a rich seam of gold in an otherwise over-mined quarry, and fewer companies feel that digging for it is worth the effort. Why have some gold – when you want all of the gold?

Even Early Access, another thing I don’t usually wholly support, has a grain of validity at its core. I paid for Ziggurat whilst it was in early access; a rogue-like first-person action-RPG hybrid, kind of like a randomly-generated Heretic. I’ve more than got my moneys worth from the game though – and it did release at full price, and it’s still a great game. Getting people hooked into the project when your game is in a relatively playable state makes them that much more invested in its eventual completion and/or success.

But for the most part, successes in these fronts have come from the lower end of the gaming spectrum; indie companies who aren’t interested as much in having all of their respective markets – just in making a decent living, and doing something they love and want to do.

The future is going to prove interesting; Shenmue 3 has cross-funded from private equity and KickStarter funds, which is certainly a risk but it’s an interesting take on the idea. Yooka-Laylee and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night prove that consumers want top-tier games of different genres and they are not afraid to put their money where their mouth is. In the coming years, we’re going to have projects being released who have crowdfunded their projects and in their own right could be considered “Triple-A” releases; with your own market being your so-called investors, the price of failure would be the catastrophic loss of consumer trust and likely the ruination of your entire business. But the fruits of success would be that you get to take away any and all profit from your work, however modest or however large.

To quote Amanda Palmer again, “It’s about a few people loving you up close; and those people being enough.”

The era of huge publishers feels like one that is dying; stunted by inept marketing decisions, strangled by clueless executives and drowning in some of the most egregious business practices possible. To these companies, only complete domination is enough – it’s not enough to be successful, because there can be only one (which reminds me of my quip about The Highlander Quandary. Man, I’ve spent years calling this stuff!).

Forbes may be asking if consoles are dying – they’re not, at least I don’t think they are. But the market has changed, irrevocably, and some publishers and developers are too large and too bloated to slim down for a new era of business and consumers. This is where smaller or more streamlined companies will find their success – able to simply outmanoeuvre bigger publishers and get games people want to the consumer at a lower cost. Triple-A Games were fine when they had support from a middle market able to generate multiple streams of revenue; but on their own? The weight of expectation on each and every release is a thousand tons of crushing pressure that cannot be sustained forever. Especially when many of us are equally as happy playing a £15 indie game on PC as much as a £50 Triple-A product like the incoming Dark Souls 3.

And it’s about seeing what you have as enough; Nintendo may be looking at this the right way. Is 11-12 million Wii U sales a failure? Perhaps from one angle. But with Mario Kart 8 selling almost six million units, with Super Mario Maker already past one million sales and a new IP in Splatoon selling 2.6 million units, Nintendo can look at its software as its primary success; these are figures a lot of publishers can’t get on the PlayStation 4, with almost three times the user base. Nintendo may not be killing it in hardware sales; but it’s software? That’s a different beast, and it’s clear that Nintendo is becoming comfortable pleasing the crowd it has right now than trying in vain to sell to people who have already made their minds up. It’s a profitable endeavour; surely making money is better than losing it? Why can’t they be happy for what they have?

The industry is changing; the tools are getting there for such notions to be truly successful. But it’s not enough unless the mentality of the games industry can get beyond archaic terms of market domination and learn to share, and receive, fearlessly and without shame. The market is big enough to support them, and consumers have proven time and time again that they really are willing to give money to worthy titles and noble development teams. And perhaps the change needs to be at a core level of perception; rather than all rushing to be the biggest-selling, why can’t we all accept and admit that success in all its forms is worthy of praise? Some successes are small, others large, but they are all successes. No-one is losing anything. Can we not be happy for success in all its shapes and sizes?

But the industry needs to embrace the changing tides. We cannot imagine our lives without video games, so we all have a vested interest in the overall health of the industry. And that means, sometimes, the industry is going to have to trust its customers more – especially when it comes down to the costs. Because for every Dark Souls, with hundreds of hours of content, there’s a The Order: 1886, costing £50 and clocking in at about four hours total. One of those things, for me, is worth more money than the other – and we all know it, deep down. The industry needs to trust in us that we can assess the value of something, and pay accordingly, and will pay accordingly. If you overspend on a product, the customer isn’t entitled to pay you more for comparatively less – that’s facetious logic being masqueraded as a serious consideration, and it’s exactly the sort of nonsense that IS hurting the industry!

We all know these games aren’t free to make; and we all know that we should be spending more money in some cases. But it requires the industry to open channels to accept this money; to take, without shame, what people want to give. And to feel comfortable with that, knowing they have a supportive audience who wants them to succeed. This isn’t charity – it’s a relationship between the artists and content creators and their audience, built and founded on trust and faith. We don’t have to give, no – but if we should ever want to, why shouldn’t we bung another twenty quid/dollars towards a developer who has made something we love and have spent hundreds of hours playing? We want to keep some companies afloat, and rather than staying distant and believing they know better, the future for me is more intimate; it’s letting your admirers get closer, and accepting their love and passion – and yes, money – unconditionally.

Because we do know what we want to be paying for. And I’m sure most of us would part with extra money… but let it be on OUR terms. Selfless acts of kindness are easier than forced extraction, after all – and the former leaves us all feeling much better in the long run. To paraphrase Amanda Palmer; “I think we’ve been obsessing over the wrong question… we’ve been asking how to make people pay for content. What we should be asking is – how can we let people pay for content?”

And we will. The industry just needs a little faith… and to ask.

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