The door creaks open ominously. One by one, the adventurers creep into the dungeon as the dank odor of orc breath and raw meat mixes with the outside air. To the right, a long hallway fades into darkness – where legends say a cache of 100 gold coins lies hidden. To the immediate left, a dilapidated door leads to the storehouse, full of supplies and – you roll 1d20 to peak through the keyhole, succeeding – what looks like 1,000 gold coins spread out on the table.
The way forward is obvious. You eye the door, readying your axe. You roll the die.
But this is no D&D campaign, and there is no gold. Instead, these adventurers are game industry executives, and the treasure they seek is profit, pure and simple. For as much as the vocal gamer minority rails against corporate decisions to add microtransactions to your favorite triple-A console title, publish day-one DLC, enable deceptive pre-release version previews and abandon support for promising franchises before they can find an audience, they’re forgetting one important thing: all of us, gamers, developers and publishers alike, are constantly playing an epic role-playing game. Call it the ‘Games’ game. And the dungeon master is none other than capitalism itself.
All game companies, great and small, are on an epic quest for loot and treasure. Like any decent D&D campaign, there’s no definite ending to the quest – it just goes on and on, for as long as the company can sustain itself. Depending on the nature of the organization, they’ll take risks that make sense to the executives/adventurers.
Valve wants to get into digital distribution? Sounds risky, but it might pay off. Acclaim turns a troubled licensed BMX game into a raunchy re-imagining aimed at the Jackass crowd? Sounds risky, but it might pay off. Activision heaves out yet another Call of Duty game? Doesn't sound risky at all, and most likely will pay off.
What about cult hits? What about the games that, against all odds, finally find audiences long after publisher support dries up, their meager dungeons already looted for the last scraps of treasure/profit? This is where the gamer’s role comes in. If enough people vote with their dollars, time and enthusiasm, the likelihood increases that some roving band of adventurer/publishers will return to the franchise in search of untapped stores of gold.
Interestingly, this has been happening in television more than in any other medium – from the precedent set by the revival of Family Guy in the early 2000s to the upcoming next season of Arrested Development, if there is sufficient demand, the odds increase that capitalism finds a way for the wishes of the public to become reality. Already, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options have smoothed the way for well-funded revivals like Wasteland 2 and a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment.
The industry has never been as open to experimentation as it is right now. So while there might seem to be a glut of random game-y devices and approaches on the horizon, like Sifteo cubes, the Ouya and its Android-based console brethren, the Leap Motion gesture controller, and even games in email, isn’t that what we want? Ways to create and embark on new experiences?
At the same time, don’t we want to continue playing the games we’ve loved all our lives, and to support their creators in their endeavors to keep us entertained and full of wonder?
It won’t be a smooth ride – it never has been. Some of those new devices will struggle to find audiences; some will be forgotten before the end of the year. But over the long term, the gaming landscape will continue to evolve as tastes and technology mature, as it always has.
The secret is realizing how powerful you are. Don’t like microtransactions? Great, don’t buy them. But you can go a step further – research games that are MT-free, and recommend them to your friends. Use your social capital online to redirect attention toward games that you think should be heard.
Don’t settle for simple fanboyism either – create meaningful dialog about other kinds of games, and help raise their profiles to the surface. If you’re reading this site, that’s proof that you’re more influential about the industry than you think. Creating a site, writing a blog, starting a thread, responding to a question – this is how the conversation shifts, and how gamers win. Sure it’s more work than just accepting what you’re given, but wasn't that the problem in the first place?
Suffice to say, if there are trends occurring in games that you find serious fault with, it’s on you to do better. Don’t hate the player, and don’t hate the game. To take a time-honored lesson from D&D – if you have to hate somebody, hate the DM.
Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.