Commentary Corner - The Consumer Impact of Big Business in Gaming

Commentary Corner - The Consumer Impact of Big Business in Gaming

I have spoken to the impact of big business in the video game sector in the past. Like a dog with a bone, though, I want to make sure my readers know how large corporate entities fit into the increasingly complex landscape of video gaming.

I might cross over some old ground here, raised in my other article on the subject, here.

That isn't unexpected, however. There is a crossover between mistreatment of your workforce, the pursuit of perpetually growing revenues and the end product. Whilst society is slowly coming to understand that modern, first world society doesn't exist without cruelly standing on the shoulders of those less fortunate, it appears that the consumer base of video game products don't seem to understand that this sad state of affairs applies to them, too. Indeed, some of my correspondents have demonstrated a dangerously aggressive apathy when being confronted with such truths.

Truths such as the majority of Blizzard's workforce not being paid a living wage to the point where they cannot afford to eat at their workplace's cafeteria.

But today I don't want to zero in on the poor treatment of industry staff. That is an important issue and before I hand-wave it away irresponsibly, I would encourage all my readers to read about concepts like developer crunch, underpayment, exploitation and unethical workplace practices. Read, and learn - and understand the human cost of the media you consume.

Today is all about the consumer. As we know, is the market is fickle, but not particularly smart. After all, I'm a consumer. We all respond in different ways to different stimuli, but the key part is that we respond. We can be convinced to buy new products very little provocation. In many ways, we are dependent on corporate entities to steer us away from the path of darkness and toward good products.

No prizes for guessing how that turned out.

Source - Statista

That bar graph, the above snarky remark demonstrate that this is a problem.

As we all know, the video game industry is now fully mature. At the height of their power, video game publishers are multi-billion dollar, publicly traded juggernauts with command over a vast army of developers. We've come a long way from pong - and even from the somewhat less predatory 80s and 90s. Provided you gloss over that whole "arcade machines designed to suck down pennies" thing.

Now the regular consumer doesn't think about this when they buy the latest triple-a product. I'll acknowledge that it's a big ask that everyone does their due dilligence in vetting every title they play when video games are about leisure, not adding additional layers of stress. But change happens in chunks, not in a big overnight movement. If I can convince just one reader of this publication to look critically at the organisation(s) behind the production and be self-aware in their purchasing habits. Or at the very least understand that publishers (and sometimes devlopers) are evil and not to be trusted.

A practical example, perhaps. Consider a game even I played and enjoyed (although wouldn't recommend), Ghost Recon: Breakpoint.

This game had an entry price of eighty dollars. In its initial year of release you could purchase boosts to experience and loot, with currency. In bullshit-speak, these were called 'timesavers'. The game also featured cosmetic loot boxes and eventually, additional downloadable content.

Suppose you were a consumer in 2010, teleported to the year 2019 for the launch of Breakpoint. If you knew everything about this title, including all the different ways that Ubisoft was planning to leverage the player base for money - would you buy it? Knowing that you'd be asked for money at every turn?

And, perhaps more importantly, would you buy Ghost Recon knowing that all these additional purchasable items would not improve your experience?

Of course not. But this is the modern reality of triple-a video games. Multiple ways of generating ongoing revenue in order to continue to acquire currency at a steady pace. But why?

Well, as I've covered before (but from a different angle) - because money is the sole goal of a publicly traded triple-a publisher. Whilst the video game industry has been maturing since the early 2000s, it has been enough to innovate and steadily offer better products to keep profits growing and investors happy.

But now it's getting lean. And the facade of caring about the consumer base to deliver the best products has well and truly faded, in favor of unabashed corporate greed.

In case you're wondering what these players are smiling about, it's because they've got your money.

Triple-A video games are about making money. Not just money, but a proliferation of revenue. They're about ensuring that even a consumer of an older game still has the opportunity to contribute to their coffers. Games from these sources aren't for the player anymore - they're for the shareholders. It's also progressed beyond optional - that's why big triple A publishers drive their developers so hard to incorporate recurring revenue streams. Because in order for the executive class to continue at their stations, they need to continue to deliver on the only outcome that matters.

The stock price.

Now, don't get tunnel vision here. I might've used Ubisoft as an example but there are no triple-a publishers immune from this vampiric thirst for cash. It's scary to even think about being a regular consumer of any of EA's sports offerings - because when you combine an ignorant consumerbase with a devious publicly traded company, that's where things get wild - and depressing.

It's not difficult to find horror stories of kids, or gambling addicts who have run afoul of titles like FIFA, or Madden, or even some Call of Duty offerings. These games are designed to extract cash from those who cannot do math (like me) at a frightening pace - and the results are shocking. Ten years ago, eighty dollars got you the comprehensive FIFA experience. Now it just gives you the right to shovel more money directly into Andrew Wilson's wallet.

In case I haven't reiterated it enough, these games don't have to be like this. Introducting additional revenue streams doesn't make a game better. It doesn't aid innovation, improve the game's writing or make the visuals nicer. If it did, maybe I'd not be writing this article. Assassin's Creed (I'm not sorry for picking on Ubisoft, fuck Ubisoft) didn't become a better game because it became an RPG with XP boosts, loot boxes and the ability to pay for power. It did become more profitable though.

But let me guarantee you, Assassin's Creed saw no tangible benefit from Ubisoft getting a bump in share price.

So there's about a thousand words of doomsaying right there - but what can you do?

The answer is education. I've bought Ubisoft games before and I may again. But I read about the games. When I tell people I've enjoyed a Ubisoft title, I don't hide the caveat that I bought it at a steep discount, after launch and that it's largely a skinner box. Also that Ubisoft is evil.

I'm really fun at parties.

I don't want to be a buzzkill - and after getting pilloried for telling people how to enjoy their games, I don't want to tell people how to live their lives. But you owe it to every consumer who doesn't have your self-awareness and willingness to look behind the barred curtain, to do your due dilligence. Know what you're signing up for.

And maybe, just maybe, give those bastards as little money as you can.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

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Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.