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Can Gaming Afford to Lose Any More Players?

By Evigan Xiao

 
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For an industry that's all about entertainment and escapism, video games' brush with reality has been pretty severe as of late. It shouldn't be all that surprising; industries are traditionally beholden to (and shaped by) market climates. So when the engines of the Great Machine start to falter, it makes sense that things start to cool off. In this case: consumer relations and the frosty turn that they have taken.

Video games are primarily a creative pursuit, and just like it is with art: there will be supporters and detractors. Few games have been lucky enough to garner a near-perfect response; such cases typically involve pioneers of either genres or gameplay mechanics. As it has been a little over 60 years since the first video game (Pong) made its debut, the struggle to be genuinely original and innovative is soberingly real.

Yet, there is more to a great video game than just originality. Id Software's Doom (2016) remake was released to critical acclaim not because it delivered a brand new iteration of the classic first-person shooter. Rather, it captured the emotional essence of the original and presented it in a format that was relevant to modern gamers. Execution, not concept, proved to be the winning factor here. Similarly, Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo III (2012) was generally well-received by critics. While it did detract from the rogue-like dungeon crawler genre that its predecessors birthed, it succeeded in bringing a new generation of players to the franchise. Even if detractors were to claim legitimacy, Diablo III's existence in no way constitutes a step backwards for the series, but rather sideways on to a different path. And with the official reveal of Diablo IV, these same fans may finally get what they've been clamouring for.

ShutterstockA demon from Id Software's Doom (2016)
A demon from Id Software's Doom (2016)

Numbered Glory Days

Coming back to the point at hand, it befuddles the mind when one realises that Doom and Diablo III were somewhat outliers of their time. In that same decade, two other games debuted to rather scathing reviews. Aliens: Colonial Marines and Agony were released in 2013 and 2018, respectively, and while the initial announcements of their development were met with significant fanfare, their releases were an entirely different story.

With Aliens: Colonial Marines, there were numerous complaints regarding how the final product played several steps lower than that of press demos, indicated by technical problems, low-quality graphics and weak artificial intelligence. This eventually led to the filing of a lawsuit against publisher Sega and developer Gearbox for false advertising, which Sega eventually resolved by agreeing to pay $1.25 million. The scars still show to this day; the recent announcement trailer of Aliens: Fireteam on social media saw many people post comments that ranged from stark reminders of Aliens: Colonial Marines' lacklustre performance and voiced reluctances to go "all in" despite the exciting footage.

Conversely, Agony would not lay claim to a blockbuster heritage like Aliens: Colonial Marines, but its debacle was no less severe. Developed by Madmind Studio, Agony promised players a horrifying exploration of a depraved biblical version of hell, complete with nightmarish visuals and stomach-churning viscera. However, the same problem reared its ugly head: players found that the final release differed wildly from initial demos. Replacing photorealism and dynamic gameplay were garish neon colours, poor lighting and clunky exploration mechanics. There was also the issue surrounding censorship; this was tied largely to publisher contracts which required consistency across all platform releases, resulting in violent content being pared down significantly. Still, the damage was done: Agony ended up being rated one of the 10 worst games of 2018 – quite the fall considering that it started as being one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

ShutterstockA mock-up inspired by James Cameron's Aliens (1986)
A mock-up inspired by James Cameron's Aliens (1986)

A Rude Awakening

Whether this backlash was a knee-jerk reaction or a concerted pushback is unclear, but the message is anything but: gamers are legitimate consumers who take umbrage at being underestimated. The advent of social media allows the despondent to resort to guerrilla tactics: review-bombing can directly impact game sales by influencing opinion before the dollar drops, while video-hosting hatchet op-eds make airing one's argument and galvanising support an easy matter. 

The truth is that most committed gamers these days no longer comprise the slacker youths that mass media tends to portray. The accountant at your local bank or even your dentist could be a high-ranking player in their spare time. These are educated professionals who understand commensuration's place in capitalism. Video games are a commodity, but so is one's time. Add currency into the mix, and gamers have every reason to be as discerning as they please. Triple-A titles should deliver triple-A experiences, especially considering the premium that's typically involved. Likewise, if you're going to talk up a forthcoming release with superlative adjectives, it better damn well live up to the hype.

When it comes to cases like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Agony, it boils down to how the consumer base reacts when they feel like they've been deceived. Perception, regardless of the facts that present themselves, ends up dictating the response. And in today's social climate, people are becoming increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction. Particularly when it concerns entertainment or any medium that fosters a personal bond with the receiver. Failure to hold up one's end of the bargain is often treated as an attack, both on a personal and communal level.

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Going With a Different Grind

Video games also offer up several interesting insights into consumer culture, particularly concerning higher-level concepts like ethics and the principle of fair play. Case in point: EA's Star Wars Battlefront II (2017) ignited a furious discussion about pay-to-win mechanics and unlicensed gambling. The title furrowed more than its fair share of eyebrows when players discovered that unlocking content (which included character upgrades for multiplayer games) relied on loot boxes. This mechanic relied on in-game currency that could be accumulated via game progress, but could also be bought using actual money.

This presented a problem on two fronts: players could essentially buy their way into turning the odds in their favour, and the randomised nature of loot boxes meant that unlocking content was a crapshoot. Furthermore, the initial rate of progress was regulated to a snail's pace. A Reddit user ran the numbers and found that unlocking all of Star Wars Battlefront II's content required 4,528 hours. Assuming a player committed two hours of his/her time per day, the game would require daily sessions across six years for said player to unlock everything. The alternative, as the Reddit user reports, would be to fork out $2,100. This entire fracas prompted investigations from several governments, some of whom considered federal legislation banning similar mechanics in future games.

Meanwhile, the platform- and generation-sensitive nature of CD Projekt Red's (CDPR) Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) shed light on how game publishers would sometimes resort to pushing out an unfinished product for the sake of appeasing investors. This was a particularly sore point for CDPR, as Cyberpunk 2077's release was delayed on multiple occasions under the pretence of wanting to avoid that exact scenario. Yet, several players were left out in the cold when the title finally dropped. Console players bore the brunt of it, especially those who played on previous-generation consoles despite the studio's promise of backwards compatibility. Horrendous frame rates, glitching models and vanishing artefacts were just some of the many technical problems that surfaced. 

Yet, the rhetoric of the gaming masses was a philosophical one. Rather than take issue with what was objectively a poorly executed release, gamers were more upset that CD Projekt found it acceptable to publish its darling title prematurely. When it was discovered that many of CDPR's staff were forced to work overtime without due compensation, things just got worse. The matter at hand was one of ethics; not just with consumers but the industry's practice on the whole.

ShutterstockA futuristic backdrop, not unlike CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077.
A futuristic backdrop, not unlike CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077.

Pushing Forward

By and large, what has gamers most unsettled is how the best practices of the industry have veered towards maximising profits, with consumer experience relegated to the benches. There is a fraternal understanding between those involved in video games and gamers; the former often count on the latter to bolster its ranks. Therefore, it leaves a poor impression when gamers feel like they are second-class citizens of a landscape that would not have existed without them in the first place.

The road to recovery is indeed long. In EA's case, it took the better part of two years for its space opera title to fully recover from the initial firestorm. Cyberpunk 2077 is still struggling with its updates, as CDPR's first patch revealed new bugs in the midst of fixing existing ones (several hot-fixes have since been introduced, with another full update in the pipeline). And while the gaming community is generally open to forgiveness, they do not so easily forget. Scepticism is becoming a common sentiment amongst gamers, and it is affecting the newer generation of games. Fewer developers are willing to be experimental – favouring cookie-cutter approaches in a bid to find that hallowed ground that exists between happy gamers and placated investors. 

An ideal setting would see a natural equilibrium existing between publishers, investors, developers and gamers. But as always, reality has different plans. Conflicts of interest are as common in the gaming business as they are in virtually every other industry, but it doesn't mean that a tenable balance lies out of reach. In the eyes of gamers, at least, a good start would be to finally begin putting the consumer's interests first, even if it results in delayed gratification.