If only the Mighty No. 9 disaster was the first time I’ve heard this in gaming…
Whatever you think of Keiji Inafune and the Mighty No. 9 fiasco, one thing will reverberate around the industry in its wake. A comment wrongly attributed to Inafune himself (it was a throwaway remark by Ben Judd), but no less an important and foolish thing to have said. Words that will haunt us. Or, more accurately, have haunted us for years in the games industry and as consumers of this amazing entertainment medium.
“It’s better than nothing.”
I’m pretty sure we’ve seen this before; gamers complain that something is broken, nerfed, underpowered or just plain awful and the usual response from the media and those in disagreement is “Entitled Gamers” – as if after spending £40/$50 on something, we should be grateful to have anything at all! We should be privileged that we were allowed to spend a significant chunk of money on something which is subjectively or objectively terrible. The insinuation is no different to what Judd opined during the Mighty No. 9 Launch Stream – It’s Better Than Nothing, so shut up and be thankful you got something out of it in the end.
Except, we all know… that’s not how it works!
This isn’t a free gift you are given, a present from on high. Video games – regardless of their potential artistic merits – are, ultimately, products that require consumers to purchase them in order to make back development costs. Or, in the case of crowdfunding sources like IndieGoGo and KickStarter, the money is already given by your customers up front, and you need to sell more on top in order to make a profit back on the original project to ultimately continue on your small independent studio shtick. Consumers expect a game; more than that, they expect a decent game that works. After spending £200-£300 on a console (or more on a mid-to-high end PC), a game is an additional expense on top of that initial hardware outlay. This is not an inexpensive hobby, where a game is something you can just toss aside willy-nilly. Even if we do with physical media, we remain out of pocket as we throw our disc into the mire of second-hand sales, losing anywhere between 50-70% of our original outlay.
Judd’s comment only affirms what I’ve long thought about those who come from the big-budget, traditional development scene; quality is a happy byproduct of a project, ultimately it’s about meeting goals and muddling through the motions in order to get a product to market. This generation, gamers have been exposed to an industry which, in its hubris, thought it was untouchable. That gamers would roll over and do what they said. From the abysmal Knack on the PS4, through to Assassin’s Creed: Unity, to Batman: Arkham Knight and Mortal Kombat through to EA in general, the attitude has been repeated over and over again; this is better than nothing, so give us your money.
I cannot think of another industry that has demonstrated, repeatedly, such an appalling lack of respect and understanding for its target audience. Video games grew through experimentation, through pushing the boundaries and there have always been failures, but even many of those could be considered noble failures – ones with good intent. However, in the last decade, the games industry went through some weird transitional phase with big investors pushing for bigger profits, and the end result has been evident for all to see – it’s about paying back the investors, rather than you know, entertaining the masses.
Thing is, we know that such things are not mutually exclusive. Nintendo makes games on relatively smaller budgets and they generally turn out to be bloody amazing – and, more notably, turn a profit. Say what you like about the Wii U’s trifling 13 million sales units, but when even a new Nintendo IP in Splatoon can sell in excess of four million units and Mario Kart 8 is pushing closer to the eight million mark – those modest budgets come with big returns. Making truly great games can and does make people want to buy them; we want to see what the fuss is about, we want to enjoy them too. This means more software sales – and often, more hardware sales as those on the fence finally start to take the plunge. Pleasing gamers can and does lead to higher sales, which equates to higher sell-through and more money being made.
Not all great games end up this way, of course. Beyond Good and Evil floundered on the market, despite its brilliance. So did Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. But in time, even those games can grow and cultivate a cult following, making sequels or high-definition updates of them a more appealing prospect. Sometimes, you need to play the longer game rather than the shorter one and have faith that things will come good in the end.
What we’ve got today is a disposable games market; games come, games go, they don’t stay around long enough to make any meaningful impact and most will just be forgotten to the ravages of time. Those that stand out through the darkness do so through one of two actions; they are either truly amazing, or truly awful, and we remember them as such (which is why an HD Remake of Resident Evil 5 made me laugh so much. “Oh wait Capcom, you’re serious huh?”). But those are few and far between – most just end up being mediocre, and we move on. Which in a sense is understandable – you don’t want your studio to stand still long enough to feel bad about the steaming dump they just took on the market, you want them back and excited for something else. But nothing seems to get learned; studios and publishers alike are making the same mistakes, over and over again, and that’s not okay. It’s really not!
Mighty No. 9 – well, the problem there isn’t that it was a bit pants (though it clearly was). It’s that people hoped KickStarter and its ilk would make things better – and to be fair, without KickStarter we wouldn’t have games like Hand of Fate, Pillars of Eternity, Darkest Dungeon, Shadowrun Returns, Divinity: Original Sin, Shovel Knight or any number of actually really nicely done games. But KickStarter is also littered with the likes of Godus and Broken Age. What do they have in common? Tim Schafer, Peter Molyneux and Keiji Inafune come from… oh yes, the traditional games industry of old. All they’ve done is bring that old sense of consumer disregard with them.
People are shocked by what Judd said… but I am not. Ultimately, at the end of it all, Comcept delivered a product people paid money for up-front; they did the bare minimum required to not get into trouble with KickStarter. Because that’s what it’s about at the end of the day – don’t rock the boat, avoid those pesky financial punishments and give the consumer something, anything, to call it quits and move onto something else. Of course to Comcept it’s ‘better than nothing’. Their next project is already funded and in the works, and perhaps this is a project that the studio and Inafune himself are in danger of actually giving a toss about. Who knows? Who cares…
I want to say thanks to all the studios who go above and beyond for their craft; you are wonderful people and I love you all (in a totally platonic way. Well, unless you’re the people behind Link’s Awakening. In which case I WUVS JOOOOOOO!). These studios make the games industry better and shine brighter than those cynically cycling out mediocrity in order to generate money. But we should expect better from the rest – this is an industry that’s seeing slower software sales and less hardware sales than the prior two generations. It can’t afford to be making its target audience unhappy. Your future is at stake.
In the case of Comcept… I think whatever they do next, we’re soon going to tire of them in the same way we tired of Sonic and the market is tiring of Call of Duty (if the downvotes on its recent trailer are any indication). Eventually… consumers get tired of being screwed around. Actually, human beings get tired of being screwed around. Eventually, we move on to other things and leave the snake oil salespeople far behind as we strive ever onwards for a better experience and a better future. Still, there will always be studios who think, “Eh, good enough.”, where “Entitled Gamers” are the enemy, and “It’s Better Than Nothing” is the ultimate end excuse for a poor critical reaction. The games industry is a big place of big business, and people who just want the most money for the least effort will always be attracted in. And the only way to kill them is to not buy their future products. After all, there’s another phrase we can throw in here. ‘Fool Me Once, Shame On You. Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me.’
If investors keep tossing money at them after that… well, that’s their own stupidity at fault. We don’t have to buy anything… so no game is “better than nothing”, because with nothing we’d at least have kept the money which we could have used to buy literally anything else. Nothing would be preferable to a bad game. We wouldn’t have been hoodwinked into buying it then.
The games industry needs to drop all these stupid terms and derogatory views on their consumer base. Gamers are your audience. They want good games. Without them, you’d have no job, no career prospect and no money. They are literally paying you developers to make games. You should be honoured and privileged that we continue, after so many years of abuse, to continue to believe that this industry has a future – let alone any artistic merit at all. You should be flattered that we continue to spend insane amounts of money on this hobby (though admittedly more is flowing into PC and Smartphone markets nowadays…).
Failing that, perhaps we should fight back. “Entitled Developers”, maybe?
Or perhaps, “I’ll pay 50 pence for your game. Sure, you want £15, but hey. It’s better than nothing, right?”