Art can be many things, ranging from kitschy pop art to the abstract to the mass-consumed fare like superhero films and first-person shooter games. Art can play an integral role in our daily lives in many forms, but regardless of the format or popularity, one thing is omnipresent and that is the money involved. Money is involved on every level, be it in exchanging currency for a glimpse or being a creator striving to make ends meet. Just like everything else in our lives, art is tied to the beast of commerce, which can become almost oppressive as an influence on all of the art that we consume. Our relationship with art and those that sell it to us can be incredibly complicated, if not exploitative and depressing. In many ways, it’s much like a relationship between a drug dealer and an addict.
With video games in particular, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of commerce on the artform, especially as gaming evolves and grows as a medium. Perhaps this is why many gamers turn inward to childhood memories and become obsessed with games that remind them of those “better,” simpler times. Gaming was, at one point, a single transaction medium where the end consumer would purchase a game and that was it. There wasn’t anything else expected beyond playing the game and hopefully enjoying it. As with everything else, that relationship between consumer and game publisher has grown with the times and has become more parasitic in nature.
No longer are the players expected to simply purchase a game, play it and hopefully enjoy it, now there is the weight of commitment with every transaction. For years gamers have lived under the threat of a Sword of Damocles dangling above their heads by the way of mobile games. These titles were ready to not just permeate the market, but obliterate gaming as they knew and loved it for a more svelte, micromanaged experience pock-marked by microtransactions. When that dystopian future failed to materialize, game publishers instead decided to alter their relationship with their core consumers, which involved exploring other avenues to extend the relationship between the gamer and the publisher. The resulting chaos usually looked closer to the formation of lynch mobs to retaliate, but that energy never lasted that long and resistance proved to be futile, with the end result being healthy balance sheets.
Games Aren’t Increasing in Price
Games, much like everything else, exist within our current socioeconomic conditions. That means that while everyone might be sick of politics, or topics like censorship, representation, online harassment and financial divides, they are still very much a part of the gaming world. The divides that exist within the macro are just recreated within the micro. Much like an entire generation is finding that consumer goods are cheaper now while literally everything else is more expensive, all while they work more and make less, gaming is following that same path. Games haven’t really gotten more expensive with time, even though the budgets and scope of most modern games has increased drastically. Realistically, game companies pushing up the average price of games would make sense, right? Instead of paying $60 for a new title, paying $80 as a standard wouldn’t seem entirely unreasonable. Hundreds, if not thousands of people work on most bigger titles now and it only makes sense that with an increase of scope, game duration and intricacy would come an increase in price. Yet, the game prices hasn’t gone up. In fact, software, televisions and toys have actually dropped in price, all while housing, childcare, transportation, medical care and food have all increased in price.
Of course, the gaming industry follows these trends, because the cheaper the initial sticker price, the easier it is to get consumers hooked on their products without much concern about things like quality control or lasting power. Cheaper materials, labor and packaging help to drive costs down in the short term in most instances, even if the products weren’t built to last. Game companies have grappled with the shelf lives of their own products for decades now, with PC games being the first to jump onto game expansions that would cost only a percentage of the price of the original game, but add more content to said game and get more life out of it. The penetration of the internet into our daily lives and digital distribution channels for games has helped to make expansions a norm within the industry, breathing more life into games after sales had started to drop off.
From there, the inclusion of microtransactions has helped to further push publishers into a new realm of income-gouging where they could continually charge their most loyal customers for new ways to enjoy their game. We as consumers are always taught to “vote with our dollars” when it comes to showing big companies what we want or don’t want in products, but when players bond with a game or a series of games, exploitation becomes a lot more simple. The best example is Electronic Arts, the monolithic entity that casts a shadow over the entire gaming world. They are, for all intents and purposes, the evil empire of the gaming world, yet all of us – every single one of us – have helped to fill their coffers and send mixed messages to the ruling elite of the gaming world.
Organized mobs of consumers attempted to send a message to EA when sales of Star Wars Battlefront II were stagnant for EA. So when YouTubers shouted into their cameras about the corruption and greed, when people bombarded EA’s social media with cruel words or simply boycotted their products, market expectations were that EA was in trouble. Yet EA was ultimately unaffected by it. Why? Because EA has the license to Star Wars, one of the most beloved franchises in history. On top of that they have virtually every major sports league in their fold and their Ultimate Team modes are teeming with microtransactions at every turn. So while EA’s stocks may have taken a small hit over the backlash, they still made $787 million dollars in microtransactions in their last fiscal quarter and their stock is back on the rise again.
At this stage the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” is just as real and frustrating in gaming as it is in the real world. Game publishers like EA, Ubisoft, 2K and many more control the market, control the franchises that gamers love and are releasing the biggest, most exciting games that money can buy. In part, the root cause is because they have that money and smaller, independent studios don’t have the money, manpower or resources to make games with grand scopes or advertising budgets. That’s why those smaller developers tend to err on the side of “retro” style games that use 2D graphics and chiptune music over full orchestral scores and hyper-realistic graphics that’ll push a modern graphics card to its limits. Even then, you have companies like Ubisoft forming their own in-house “indie” studios to pump out more simplistic-style games to appeal to the audience more in-tune with retro-style games. The difference is that it’s all a facade being put on by one of the goliaths of the industry, with all of the same money and resources at their disposal when it comes time to promote and distribute the game.
Game publishers aren’t raising the prices on games because, simply put, they want to get as many copies of these games into the wild as they can, then try to push for sales of additional content. Think of it like a virus where the sole purpose is to spread it as far and wide as they can to infect as many as possible. That’s why so many games go on sale within months, often times the prices being slashed fifty, maybe even eighty percent: they just want you to get hooked, then to see that there’s much more to do as long as you’re willing to shell out the cash for it. Avoiding these pitfalls is virtually impossible, as even I’ve bought loot boxes for games like Overwatch with the hopes of snagging a skin for one of my favorite characters. Most of us have spent money on some sort of in-game extra at this point, I’d wager.
Are these extras fruitful and enriching to our overall experience? Probably not. Perhaps at times, but other times it feels more like games are being rushed out the door as incomplete products with the hopes of being able to sell the consumer on further updates that would make the game “better” with each iterative expansion. Next time you’re on your PS4 take a gander at the trophies for games that you’ve bought expansions for, then look at the percentage of users that have said trophies. The most common trophy usually has a pretty solid percentage, then the drop off is pretty steep. I remember glancing at the trophies for Battlefront one night while having trouble finding servers to connect to so I could actually play some of the newer content only to see that of course I was having trouble finding servers, nobody was actually playing the damned game. Why should they? By then something new and probably better was out, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t buy an expansion pass early on only to grow tired of the game.
For companies like EA, they have no need to provide gamers with a better product, because what matters is the bottom line, which is still getting better. If you are like me, you were duped by the last Mass Effect game, Andromeda. As a die-hard fan of the Mass Effect series it only made sense to buy the latest game in the franchise, even if I felt ambivalent to a sequel set in the future with an entirely different cast of characters and where the relation was mostly in name and ambiance alone to the original series. The game was a critical failure and, by all means, not that great of a game compared to the previous ones. All future DLC plans were axed and the series was put on ice, yet reports have shown that the publisher rushed the game to market to meet an unattainable deadline and knew that they were shipping a not just incomplete game, but one that wasn’t very good. Yet, they’re still making money off of it by selling merchandise and books that follow the lore and characters of this new ill-fated trilogy even though it looks doubtful that there will be a sequel to Andromeda. Why? Because people will still buy it, because they love Mass Effect and want more of it.
The current relationship between game publishers and consumers is symptomatic of the late capitalistic world that we live in now where those in charge have no monetary incentive to keep everyone fully satisfied. Instead they are looking to only maintain a baseline happiness because there’s money to be made in consumers not being fully satisfied and always wanting more, not in delivering something wholly satisfying from the start. This tactic keeps the consumer on the hook and happy (or simply addicted) just enough to hold on for the next burst of content before the rug is pulled out again. In a way, it doesn’t matter when a game series like Destiny makes the same mistakes in the sequel that it did in the original, because people still bought Destiny 2 and the expansion pass. These same people will feel burned on the first two games but preorder a third with a vain hope that it’ll finally deliver on the promise from the publisher and developers that was originally given.
So no, it doesn’t matter how sick you are of Call of Duty, or how all of those games sorta bleed together and whatever is sold as innovation just feels like a cheap gimmick to push out a new iteration of the same thing. As long as game reviewers keep grumbling then tossing high marks at the games, as long as consumers complain about how stale or bad the games are but still preorder to get a special gun part or an exclusive set of maps, the publisher will never have a reason to do anything different. Truthfully, you’re on a treadmill, not in a race where you make progress and move forward.
Is There a Solution?
Trying to find a solution to these problems feels downright oppressive. If you truly love games you’re going to play games. Most of us grew up with games and there is a generation of people in their 20s and 30s that grew up with gaming and never let it go. That’s a powerful bond and is something that companies like Nintendo have been able to push for decades now with it only backfiring a select number of times. Those failures were simply offset by runaway successes like the Wii or the Switch. When consumers grumble and attempt to unite – like by not buying a game like Star Wars Battlefront II – the end result is that a colossus like EA only sells seven million copies of a game, not a projected fourteen million like they thought, but they still turn a giant profit anyway because they are EA. So no, it doesn’t seem like depriving yourself of a game you might briefly enjoy can really make a difference anymore, not when game publishers are so large and so powerful. Asking gamers to not buy new games would be entirely too difficult, especially considering that this is an industry that thrives on creating addicts out of its consumers and has done a shockingly good job at it. Big-budget games are being made specifically to rope you in for the long-haul now and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight outside of gamers standing up and refusing to budge.
All that we can really do is be mindful of what we’re consuming, of the implications of our own little addictions and try to support projects that we truly feel strongly about. Stuff like loading up a digital library with games that’ll never be launched might feel satisfying in the moment, but eventually just turns into another form of oppression knowing that we’ll never have enough time in our lives to complete each-and-every one of these games that are sitting there, calling out our names. Buy what you love and love what you buy. Be patient. Support projects that are trying to take the medium to a new level, that are promoting growth and not simply trying to bleed your wallet dry. Those games exist, you just have to be looking for them. Games like What Remains of Edith Finch remain interactive, tell a compelling story and could do so without a massive budget. I’ve lost more hours to Stardew Valley across multiple platforms than I have in most big-budget, open world affairs that feel recycled and are obsessed with overloading the player with worthless macguffin quests to consume time just to boast just how much content there is in said game to investors on a quarterly conference call.
Life feels complicated and over-stimulating enough as it is, for gaming to remain an escape there needs to be an actual way to escape. Preordering for a gun skin or spending an additional $20 for three days of “Early Access” sure doesn’t feel like that, does it? Reclaim the thing that you love before it’s too late, because right now gaming is firmly in the grasp of those with money and power, not in the hands of the gamers.
Dave Walsh runs the kickboxing website LiverKick.com, and has written for Uproxx, EGMNow, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter.