Ethics, Economics and Crowdfunding
From early arcade games to today’s console, PC and mobile games, the economics of development play a very large role in the kinds of games that get developed and released in the marketplace. Capital, as in all other industries, fuels those who know how to amass a large profit. These gains allow the industry to indulge in ballooning budgets following on the heels of successful (and formulaic) hits. In today’s world, it’s impossible to secure an investor without mentioning “free to play,” “online co-op,” “retention numbers,” and “virality.” This is disappointing because it goes against everything the arcade industry taught us.
How did we get here? And how did crowd-funding services like Kickstarter enter the picture? I’m placing my bets that it all happened as a reaction to the endless cycle of first-person shooters and other easily replicated console and “casual” games.
In the early 1980s, video games were pure—created to “entertain,” and nothing else. Arcade machines were dreamlike, much like a magic show at a party. Kids were enthralled and lost in wonderment, while adults were bewildered. Back then, none of us predicted that games would quickly become a massive industry. Arcade games had invented the compulsion cycle; I call it the “Climax Effect.”
Before closing your browser window, consider this: Every arcade and handheld console game begins with slow pacing and deliberate, rising tension. As the difficulty level increases, players push themselves to prevent an early “game over” screen. If game over is unavoidable, most games will still celebrate the player’s performance with a massive fireworks display accompanied by the classic “high score” table. The relationship between game design and climax-inspired mechanics resulted in a heavily involved (and sometimes addicted) player base made primarily of young male teenagers.
Money for Nothing
In the late 1990s, investors recognized the profit potential of games in various areas:
- Advertising (franchises based on sporting associations like FIFA, NBA, NFL)
- Stickiness (MMOs)
- Transmedia (leveraging a franchise to sell products in a number of different media)
- Propaganda (using games for political benefit – such as first-person shooters that demonize nationalities other than North American and/or European)
The arrival of investors resulted in a decrease of developers with moral sensitivities. The industry became riddled with games displaying gratuitous violence, excessive gore, and blatant sexism. Jon Shafer recently stated in his “Ethics in Game Design” Gamasutra article:
“Games exist to entertain people, and that should be the driving force behind their creation. Find effective ways to provide players with experiences they value and you’ll make money.”
He later says that he is trying to draw a line somewhere. I believe it was easy for investors to forget about that line because there isn’t a sole person in a large game development studio or publisher who is fully responsible for an entire game—which makes it easy to blame others.
Another Gamasutra article by Charles Cox (“Why I’ll Never Work on First-Person Shooters Again”) led many in the industry to question themselves.
In 2001, video games became the most alluring sector for those who wanted to make quick money. Publishers rose and conquered. They created their cash cow IPs by spending millions and earning billions. Today, AAA sequels are still battling each other to the death until there are no survivors.
By 2008, as the Internet spread through most of the developed world, a new genre known as “casual games” was invented. A mixture of the climax effect of 1980s arcade games, egocentric MMOs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and slot machines, casual games soon became the next big thing.
It was the time of “whale hunts”: Tadhg Kelly wrote a priceless article on Gamasutra about the compulsive nature of casual games called “Ethical Design: Are Most Social Games Just Virtual Slot Machines?”
As a game studio, we created and monetized a social game and we also realized the ethical problems on the road. Casual games are bloody, and unethical by their nature – just like real whale hunting. Many non-gamers have become “customers”: unassuming minnows, sly catfish, and imposing whales. Facebook dominated the social network wars with casual games and smartphones soon after—going from “tools for business” to questionable “free-to-play slot/arcade machines.” New publishers arose and old publishers bought small previously indie studios. Nothing changed.
The opposite side of the coin was also boosted by connected technologies such as digital distribution. Here was a way to distribute games bypassing all those greedy publishers! It led to a few indie game developers who are now seeking to learn from the last 30 years of gaming to (finally!) explore the true language of interactivity.
In my opinion, this is the only honest thing done by the industry . . . ever.
Crowd-funding is making games that had been turned down by publishers a reality. It’s giving originality a second chance. Individual players, each with their own aesthetic sensibilities, are helping developers make their “dream games.” Without services like Kickstarter, we would be stuck in a never-ending hell of sequels and licensed games. I believe we have finally democratized the game industry, and it’s a beautiful thing.
I want to end with a note about our game, Monochroma. In it, we’re trying to ask a serious question: How does it feel to be a consumer? We believe we’re telling a dramatic story that makes players question the ethics of economic realities they face every day as consumers. A publisher would laugh at us if we said this in a meeting; I guess it’s good that we don’t have one 🙂