More Drama: Why Are We Like This?

Not so much a post about MMOs today, as much as about the gaming industry in general…

I’m talking about this:

“Bungie are a very unusual company. They’re probably the last remaining high quality independent developer.”

Bobby Kotick, CEO, Activision Blizzard

And of course, an inevitable response:

“You were quoted saying that Bungie is the last remaining high quality independent developer. As a former executive vice president of Bungie, I need to tell you: If this is true, you’re screwed.”

Peter Tamte, President, Atomic Games

Tamte proceeds to challenge Activision on its vision and ability to innovate, and issues a (ridiculous) challenge. Now, we the gaming public get only pieces of both sides, most likely taken out of context. Kotick may be well-known for making vastly unpopular, broad generalizations and for putting investors and profit before customers and fun (shocker!), but what would prompt anyone to make a statement like this? Being at the top of the heap doesn’t mean you get to piss on everyone “below” you.

And, honestly, why would Tamte even bother to respond? Paying it more attention, and devoting time and energy to a public response just lends validity to that type of behavior. I get the “stand up for the little guy”, and I even agree with Tamte. But the best response is often no response – let it fly by in our consciousness and die a quick death of inattention. Shrug it off; is Kotick’s opinion of your company that critical, or carry so much weight, that you need to do anything other than ignore it?

Why does it always break down to smack-talk? Why is this considered “news” for our industry? (As a somewhat related aside, Manifest Pixel posted a good argument on the validity of the label “Games Journalism” – well worth a read.)

What prompted this post was a response on Kotaku:

“The video game industry is so weird.

It is strange how the constant verbal sparring between companies is publicly disseminated by the game industry, yet it has no effects on the game or the game sales.

[…] It essentially feels like it’s melodrama for the sake of itself. The only value existing in the artificial sense of social interaction with people that are otherwise inaccessible.

I mean we don’t see article’s elsewhere about how much of a jerk the CEO for Hostess is.”

This got me thinking about the video games industry as a whole, and how we seem to be unique in our behavior (both the industry of developers/producers and the fans). You don’t see this kind of behavior in any other form of mass media. Movies, books, television – none of them compare to the drama to which we subject ourselves. Why does the games industry behave in such a juvenile manner? It’s almost as if the stereotypical behavior of their audience has somehow bled into the thinking of these companies; “Our customer are trash-talking teenagers, so we have to be the same way…” I think this is a part of it, but there’s something more to it.

One, I don’t think we (gamers) necessarily see this kind of behavior in other forms of media and art because we’re not plugged into those circles the way we are into gaming culture. If we were heavily involved in movies, we might take notice of this kind of news (if it exists, I have no idea). We have sites entirely devoted to “news” about our hobby, why wouldn’t other hobbies? And because our sites tend to be focused quite narrowly (on average, only covering games) we don’t tend to see any information on other forms of media.

Two (and this one if far more responsible), I think that the games industry is somewhat unique in that it’s relatively young for a form of mass media, and is “growing up” in the age of the Internet. In an age of instant gratification and immediate, ubiquitous access to information, the games industry is saddled with creating products that have budgets similar to movies and television but which require years of development. Combine these factors:

  1. Incredibly complex technology to produce a “leading edge” product, requiring years of work hours to produce, which often leads to:
  2. INSANE budgets that become immense investments requiring mass popularity just to cut a profit
  3. Built by a combination of corporates, artists, and “IT geeks”, often at odds with one another

And you get the melodrama we see on a daily basis coming across gaming Web sites. I’m guessing that a good amount of it is intentional. Maybe not conspiratorial in the sense of developers-playing-the-gamers, but certainly as a means to maintain attention on any given product. How else do you keep your company, and product, in the headlines for months (or years) at a time when your audience has the overall attention span of a toddler?  We may grind our teeth every time Kotick opens his mouth, or facepalm every time David Allen or Derek Smart decide to extend their personal vendettas onto the Internet, but the fact is we pay attention. We criticize, but their antics work after a fashion.

In the end, I agree with Tamte, and I’m not the biggest fan of Activision, or Kotick. If we’re just talking about making good games, they’re mediocre at best; if we’re talking about advancing the art of creating fun games, Activision (not counting Blizzard) isn’t exactly a leader. They are a victim of their own success, and fill a role in the industry that may not be the most exciting or forward-thinking, but is necessary nonetheless. They release solid entries in established franchises. There’s fun there, but ‘change’ for them is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Numbingly slow, but there is change.

But I also see the ability to innovate as a natural part of being in Tamte’s position as “the little guy”; major corporations answer to a host of authorities – from investors to the Board of Directors to the SEC and big sums of money draw huge attention. Yes, companies tend to play it safe when maximum profits are Priority One, and this often becomes (or appears as) laziness. Smaller companies don’t necessarily have these pressures, and can afford to take some risks. As Tamte states, in many ways they need to take these risks. It’s a trade-off.

But does any of the above really require the kind of one-up-manship, character assassination, and verbal sniping that is so rampant in gaming circles? Does maintaining attention on a company truly equate to increased attention for a product, and therefore increased sales? Isn’t it enough to present a product leading up to release, and let the game sink or swim on the merits of its content, instead of on the reputation or notoriety of the company releasing it? One would think so, but if you do you’re not in Marketing.

When I think about the future of the gaming industry, I look at my four-year-old son. For him, computers and the Internet are not things to be learned. They simply are, and he’s never known any different. He learns them the same way he learns to speak – by watching and playing and not being afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. He absorbs those skills in a way that only children can, and now knows more about some things technical than his mother (his old man still has the edge, but for how long?). Because these things are a natural part of his world, he will see things technology can do, and devise things he wants technology to do, that we will never see or imagine. Should he choose to create games, I can only hope that the tools with which he will work will enable his generation to create in such a way that they can put aside the puerile tactics being employed today, and mature the industry.

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