Is Capitalism Killing Video Games?

Is Capitalism Killing Video Games?

Lorne Lanning, creator of the Oddworld franchise, is in the news today due to some rather powerful opinions he expressed about gaming and capitalism. As you can tell by the title of this article, he thinks that modern capitalism is strangling the gaming industry.

“As craftsmen,” Lanning said, “our opportunity lies in finding the niches where we know our audience, we focus on it, we listen to it, we respect it, we treat it with some grace.” But he went to say that capitalism prevents this from happening, as raising game budgets makes studios “play it safe” and treat their staff as expendable.

“So the budget’s going up, and now [publishers are] saying, ‘Now we’re spending $20 million on a title and not $5 million, and at $20 million, we need better terms. You’re going to do 10 times the work, but you’re going to get a fifth of the backside because we’re risking all this money.’ Depending on how savvy they would be with the deals, usually they never made money… They were able to stay in the business. But the way the deals were structured, they were basically dead.”

Essentially, modern day gaming projects require ten times the investment and ten times the work and make ten times the money, but the development staff isn’t seeing a pay increase at all. Combine this with the fact that studios have to be sure to see a return on their large investments, and you find a gaming industry that quickly stagnates.

I can already hear the angry typing of fans, as they rush to defend capitalism’s honor. But if you think about it, many of our opinions about how the gaming industry is run, specifically the wrong ways that it is run, are anti-capitalist ideas.

The free market is one of the main tenants of capitalism. Business is controlled by private owners, instead of the government. Aside from a few sensible regulations, that means if you can think of it, you can sell it. The worth or ethicality of said product does not come into the picture. Instead, it all comes down to the almighty dollar.

Is Capitalism Killing Video Games?

Doesn’t this sound familiar? What about all that DLC that made you pissed off at Evolve ? Or the on disc DLC that ruined Street Fighter X Tekken for you? Doesn’t it feel like the developers were just scamming you? But in a capitalist society, there’s nothing that says they can’t lock content on disc behind a pay wall. If they can think of it, they can sell it, and both Capcom and 2K Games made money off of these projects.

Microtransactions getting you down? Well capitalism says that they are A-OK! Getting tired of games ending on a cliffhanger, forcing you to purchase the next one to see how it ends? It’s all good in capitalism. What about constant update patches and re-releases that you have to keep purchasing just to be able to continue playing with the competitive crowd? Capitalism approved! Nearly everything you hate about the gaming industry’s business practices comes as a direct result of capitalism. Yes, even Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ 5 minute gameplay length.

Here’s the thing about capitalism and free market economics in general, they assume that all consumers will be acting in their rational self-interest. The idea is that bad products won’t get purchased, and thus creators of bad products will go out of business. Meanwhile, good products will get purchased, and thus creators of good products will prosper. The thought is that capitalism creates a meritocracy, where your effort and hard work pay off.

But there are many problems with this idea. First of all, you can work incredibly hard and fail anyway. Either this can be because of a decision that is out of your hands, say by someone higher up in your company futzing with your game and putting friction tape all over Sonic: The Hedgehog , or simply due to the rapid fluctuations of the market.

Second of all, people do not act in their own rational self-interest. Look at how many people spent nearly full price on Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae. It was a demo, a demo of a game that we still know next to nothing about, a demo of a game that has been in production hell for years and has swapped between several directors and designers. Yet people were willing to purchase it based on the Final Fantasy name alone.

That’s the problem. The product that is the best and the product that sells the best are not always the same thing. Just look at Michael Bay’s movies. There are lots of ways to “trick” people into buying a game such as pre-order bonuses, access to the beta, the sheer power of a brand name and clever advertising, so on so forth. In fact, with the death of rental stores and the rarity of demos, you pretty much have to buy games on blind faith and on what we games journalists tell you. I’ll be the first to say that’s not enough info for a game purchase. So by the time anyone realizes that a game is horrible, the game has already had its surge of first day sales and the studio has already made money.

Of course, the idea is that, even if this happens, eventually people will realize that the company no longer makes quality products, and that it’s useless to keep buying their games.

But Sonic: The Hedgehog is still alive in spite of flop after miserable flop. Psychologically, a brand has to fail numerous times in order to lose its staying power, because everyone remembers the good times and wants to keep checking to see whether or not the brand has bounced back. But these “checks” amount to purchases, which continue to keep the brand afloat.

So if you don’t have to be the best game in a capitalist society, why try to be the best game? That’s what Lanning was talking about. It pays far more to “play it safe” and package the same game over and over again with minimal changes, leaching off your brand. Innovation doesn’t pay. Stagnation does. The rich get richer, as games get worse. That’s the capitalist dream.

What do you think? Is capitalism killing games? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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