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Greg Costikyan in the Escapist issue 8

Mister Nizz

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Death to the Game Industry?

Long live games!

That's the eye catching title of a recent issue of THE ESCAPIST, a fairly interesting gaming industry and review journal, available online, for free, in PDF format. Do consider subscribing to it; it's a great little rag, filled with catty observations about the (mostly electronic) gaming industry.

Althought the mission statement seems a little chi-chi:

The Escapist covers gaming and gamer culture with a progressive editorial style, with articles and columns by the top writers in and outside of the industry. A weekly publication, its magazine-style updates offer content for a mature audience of gamers, entertainment enthusiasts, industry insiders, and other "NetSet" readers.

Anyhoo, Greg Costikyan recently posted a very interesting (and long) diatrbie in the Escapist #8 entitled "Death to the gaming industry/Long live Games!" which I found interesting and engrossing.

Greg starts out by quoting "Designer X"

"The machinery of gaming has run amok... An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation... It is time for revolution!"

- "Designer X" in the Scratchware Manifesto

Not too surprisingly (if you follow Greg's posted commentary here and there) Designer X is Greg himself.

Death to the Gaming industry is a long, well-thought out and presented article about the economic trends of the electronic gaming industry. Greg points out that development costs are starting to become overwhelming, mostly because of public perceptions about technology costs. "If the technology is available, then it has to be in the next game"... especially in the graphic rendering department.

Today, art assets (not programming) are the main cost driver. As machines become capable of rendering more detailed 3D models in real time, the market demands more detailed 3D models - and models are hand-created by artists using tools such as 3D Studio Max and Maya. All things being equal, a doubling in polygon count means a doubling in the amount of time an artist needs to spend generating the model - and a doubling in cost. Faster machines can push more polygons; more polygons means more cost.

Furthermore, the nature of the market and the narrowness of the marketing channel are causing a rise in prices and a dearth of availability. Costikyan invites us to compare the shelf load in a common book or music store with an electronic game store; in the former two you'll see thousands of titles; in the game store, maybe hundreds. I've noticed this in the local "Gamestop" gaming store in my community; a relative balkanization of titles and formats, a diminishing of PC game choices, and compared to an average browse in an old Waldensoftware of a few years ago, fairly empty shelves.

Add to that (as Costikyan points out) a diminishing gaming population to buy the titles that do come out, and he thinks it's obvious that our marketing and distribution channels are in for some trouble.

Where does it all lead? In Costikyan's words:

The result is that the average game (not the industry as a whole) loses more and more money. The publishers make up the losses on the few games that hit.
Ergo, a certain critical mass much be reached (in form of capitalization and tempo of operations), to survive. Small time game companies (in his words) are simply "fucked."

The solution? Again, from Cotikyan...

Spector is right. We must blow up this business model, or we are all doomed.

What do we want? What would be ideal?

A market that serves creative vision instead of suppressing it. An audience that prizes gameplay over glitz. A business that allows niche product to be commercially successful - not necessarily or even ideally on the same scale as the conventional market, but on a much more modest one: profitability with sales of a few tens of thousands of units, not millions.

Well, he's discussing scaling back expectations here, and to some extent I agree. I mostly come from a boardgaming and miniatures gaming background (as does Costikyan, although he hasn't done a boardgame in years). What Costikyan is describing here could be the prototype that board wargaming had to adopt when the distributorships dried up in the early to mid 90s. Perhaps customer interaction prior to the sale, along the lines of GMT's famous "P500" program, or some form of consumer buy in to help the company cover development costs. And a great reliance of cheap, direct marketing channels like the Internet... who knows, maybe boardgaming has a good small-scale marketing model to emulate, Greg!

Attribution: All comments quoted in the above by Greg Costikyan, the Escapist online magazine, issue 8