home > Articles Archive > archive > Elitism in Gaming (and the business model that supports it)
GamesFirst! Online since 1995

Elitism in Gaming (and the business model that supports it)
Articles Archive
posted by: Monica Hafer
date posted: 12:00 AM Tue Jun 14th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Tue Jun 14th, 2005

Unlimited Game Rentals Delivered - Free Trial

In the console world, the big three - Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft - have been jockeying for primacy and market saturation.  E3 is where all the new titles get shown, and there is a certain status in announcing exclusive? titles or technology.  This year, Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft all announced their new consoles using varying strategies.

Microsoft decided to announce a week before the other via an MTV televised event with a more limited physical presence of press.  This was the sort of preemptive strike? for which Microsoft is coming to be known.  They were the ones whose early announcements of price reduction precipitated falling overall prices for consoles in 2003.  Their business plan began with the idea of losing money for two years in order to facilitate their emergence into a competitive field.  And the latest stroke of brilliance is naming their new platform the 360? which makes people automatically equate it with a 3rd generation system because of the first number in its name.

Sony also limited their access during their press conference, and the discussion of exclusivity and breakthrough technology were the buzzwords for the day as well. The new technology behind the PS3 and the Xbox 360 is daunting.  While many companies are striving to program up to their technological potential, others simply don't yet have the capabilities.  One has only to look at the list of developers and publishers onboard with the new technologies to see a list of the big money power players in the console world.  

It was actually a breath of fresh air to walk into the Nintendo press conference and have the words inclusivity? be the focus.  Their strategy in allowing consumers to download nearly 30 years of content with the new system was designed to envelope old school? gamers and bring timeless titles to a new generation.  They stressed that their focus for the Revolution was to make themselves more available to a variety of smaller and larger developers.  Though Nintendo has been accused of having less than optimal 3rd party conditions, I fiercely applauded the fact that this is something they see as worthy of their attention (or, at the very least, giving lip service to).  I also like the fact that many of the latest game programmers to sign on to the system are the same people who have been pioneers since the company's inception - to their credit, they have a strong institutional memory, as well as an ability to bring in new life-blood with new personnel.  

When you get right down to it, the idea of exclusivity? means to exclude.  As a proponent for the gaming world as an inclusive system, many of the things I heard from the larger companies smacked of elitism.  I think that in the world at large it has always been true that people want what they can't have, and would rather be in an in? crowd rather than on the periphery.  But I don't believe the foundation of the gaming world has been, or should be, built upon elitism and exclusivity.

If it were just the fact that some systems acquire unique games and have their own special niche, it would be one thing.  But I believe that this elitist mindset brings about the use of certain business models that are harmful to the industry and the people who work and play in it.  When the bottom line is the eternal focus, it brings about the possibility for mass production of inferior product, the constant scramble for technological turnover (which makes your system obsolete before you open the box), and the decision of how to recruit and maintain employees linked to who can be paid the least.

As I began to ponder this notion, I decided to use people at E3 as the sounding board for my germinating theory.  My first discussion took place with one of my editors, Sarah Wichlacz.  After I had ranted for a while, she pointed out that the gaming industry is still only in a pre-pubescent stage.  She compared it to the film industry, reminding me that the development of mainstream, independent, and experimental film was an ongoing process.  Film started as experimental, quickly moved to be the sole possession of the larger production houses and then had begun to break up and decentralize again over time.  What I needed was to understand the necessary and important contributions that each time in history provided for the nascent industry.

While I grudgingly admitted that this was true, I still had a hard time taking this capital-focused paradigm with a grain of salt.  I have too many friends who are employed by larger companies that work insane hours, are forced to put out a product that is not up to standard (or sometimes even really ready to be played), and who are stressed out beyond belief.  I also have friends who work in the support industry who are fired every six months or so to make sure that the companies they work for never have to provide benefits.

All of these people are struggling under a business philosophy that views people as a renewable resource,? meaning the expected lifespan of personnel is five years from hire to burn-out.  At that time, the company will troll from the new batch of bright-eyed workers and the cycle starts again.  This has driven many talented people out of the industry and has created a climate where the final product is suffering for its sins.  But again, maybe I am just hanging out with the malcontents.

As I was mulling this over in my head, I was fortunate enough to take a meeting with the gentlemen form Stardock.  While my fellow reporter Chris Martin was being shown their new title (Galactic Civilizations II) by owner Brad Wardell, I was able to talk to his team, comprised of Paul Boyer (Artist/Designer), Scott Tykoski (Developer/Artist), and Brian Clair (Director-TotalGaming.net).  What I found was a group of men who were relaxed, fulfilled in their jobs, and genuinely excited about their company and product.  What was it, I wondered, that created people who were the antithesis of the up-tight, harried, and paranoid people I had been around in the past?  It didn't take to many questions to start figuring out what this company had going for it.

The first thing I discovered was that these gentlemen worked a regular workweek of 40 to sometimes 50 hours (as opposed to the 80 to 120 hour kind).  When overtime did occur, it was to meet a deadline or because (gasp!) they were inspired to work on a particularly compelling part of a project.  I followed this question by broaching the subject of renewable? or rather disposable? human resources.  Each of the men felt secure in their positions, and what's more, since they had a lot of cross-pollination on projects over time, they were learning and growing both occupationally and creatively.

Another element that added to their job satisfaction was the ability to go back and fix or add to a game and retain much of the creative control that affects the final product.  Putting out an inferior game was out of the question.  They would test different ideas and use what best suited the outcome for the game, not what would increase the bottom line.

I have been really proud to work for a smaller, independent magazine, and I asked Stardock's programmers what the challenges were working for a smaller company.  One of the drawbacks is the company's location in Michigan.  The fact that it's outside of what most people think of as the hub for gaming can be a problem for recruitment.  However, as Stardock proves, people can create anywhere.

When asked about some of the other things that were challenging, Paul Boyer commented that many times the attitude of smaller companies constituted their worst enemy.  He said that it saddened him to see lots of the indie developers coming to E3, comparing themselves to the larger companies, and subsequently becoming focused on all the things they could not do.  He said that independent companies really needed to shift their paradigms and go into development of games with realistic expectations.  Of course they won't be able to do some of the things larger corporations can do, but the attitude should be how to maximize a company's personal potential and focus on what they can bring to the table.  Smaller companies should focus on what they have that is unique, rather than focusing on perceived shortcomings.  This meant that smaller companies needed to have stronger storylines, more unique gameplay, and divergent methods for distribution.  He also stressed that independent companies were given the luxury of being able to be more experimental and test new ideas for their feasibility.  All of this sounded fabulous to me, and exactly what I felt games should be focusing on.

Scott Tykoski said that there were moments, of course, when they wished that they had a larger set of resources to pull from.  Lest I get too jaded about the larger companies, I should remember that they perform an important function.  They drive technology.  I asked him to explain why this is important to Stardock, and he said that because those companies create flashier games that required massive system requirements to play, many computer gamers (even casual ones) have systems with high-level capabilities.  I remarked that the audio-video cards and memory required for high level gaming now were a standard part of almost all generic computer packages sold by stores.  Jason said what this meant was that independent companies were now able to create much better quality games than they would have been in the past because the hardware and system requirements of the consumer base had been prepped? by the market drive.

From this point, I was compelled to ask how a smaller company dealt with the element of piracy.  This had been a huge focus at the IDSA press conference and was obviously a worry for some of the larger groups.  Paul mentioned that although mass-production and overseas piracy is a concern to everyone, single unit domestic piracy really isn't.  Frank clarified their position by saying that larger companies always considered pirated copies as lost sales,? whereas Stardock believed that these people were never actually intending to be consumers in the first place, and might not have purchased the game if it were otherwise unavailable.  Jason also pointed out that much of this was like music downloading on the internet.  Some people wanted to be able to listen to an album before paying a large sum of money.  If they liked what they heard, they would buy it so as to have the liner notes, pictures, etc.

Brian Clair stepped in at this point and added that the industry had to change to fit the changing consumer, and it was their opinion that one of those ways was by making the product easier (better) to buy than steal.  This is part of the Stardock's online focus.  When you are plugged into your consumer base via the Internet, you were always part of the feedback loop.  This way you can see where problems in the games are occurring and also find out how the fans want the games to evolve.  One of the problems with larger publishers is that they abandon support for a title after a very short time, so the time and money for additional support service rests on the developer.

Brian also said that they are getting ready to launch phase two for their Internet business, where not only can people purchase and download standalone titles, but can get great discounts on other titles as a member.  The benefit of having a strong online support system is that Stardock Central allows people to talk to each other and for the company to provide information or materials that are necessary to the game's continued playability.  One of the most interesting things Brian was telling me is that Stardock allows a number of independent developers a central location to show other great titles.  They support their corner of the industry with a show of solidarity.
Brad Wardell had said that the first Galactic Civilizations game outlived its expected lifespan by a tremendous amount, and after talking to his staff, I have a pretty good idea why.  And I have a good notion that their new titles are only going to be better because of their business philosophy, and their connection to the needs of the consumers.  To me, the success of their game is a karmic return for a company that does not view its human resources as disposable, and for their commitment to providing the best quality gaming experience to the broadest potential consumer base.

After my meeting with Stardock, I suppose I am more understanding of the part large companies play in pushing technology for the good of the industry.  However, I am even more convinced that indie groups have a superior business model.  The proof, as they say, is in the product.  Even more importantly, it is in the night-and-day difference between my friends who are slaves to a corporation, and the relaxed and creative spirits I found at Stardock.

Although Keats and Einstein did their best work when they were young, I can't help but think of Picasso and Theodor Von Karman.  What if they had only been allowed to work for five years and were then relegated to lives as plumbers or pizza delivery people? Think what our world would be like if all businesses functioned on the Logan's Run? style of a five-year lifespan for employees?  I appreciate the fact that there is always going to be a hierarchy in any industry, but I believe that some of this elitist thinking (and the business model it uses to increase the bottom line) is an anathema to the spirit of gaming.