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Soapbox: Technoholism - A 12-step Recovery Plan

December 29, 2004
 

Technology is great, isn't it?

In our industry, technology has driven massive progress and financial returns, the likes of which were undreamt of 20 years ago. From 'rumble packs' and EyeToy-s to 3DFX cards and analog pads, we are blessed with the fruits of a golden age of, well, stuff. We have come to rely on technology. We await new formats, new capabilities and new toys with something approaching high passion.

But there is a dark side to techno-love. We have come forward leaps and bounds in hardware, but the software lacks far behind. The industry, especially in the console and handheld sectors, remains immature and hardware-led. Games are now much more expensive to develop. Geometric cost rises are not matched by equally geometric rises in sales. Creative game content is not evolving, and release schedules increasingly carry the whiff of déjà vu.

The industry is becoming more the equivalent of an electronic comics industry rather than the usurper of film that it aspires to be. Technology, bizarrely, is now part of the problem rather than the solution. We rely on greater and greater hits, trying to achieve better-than-photo realism through ever-more complicated graphics technology, massive physics systems, and ever more complicated consoles. Yet while we seek these new electro-thrills, we seem increasingly oblivious to our own atrophy, to the arguably failing state of the games we produce, and to our own future.


Illustration by Erin Mehlos

We are technoholics.

What are we addicted to?

1. We are addicted to new toys. Who doesn't want to play with new hardware and software?
2. We're addicted to a business model that values hardware over software
3. We are addicted to trusting that new technology somehow magically translates into new money
4. Mostly, we're addicted to the ability of new technology to anaesthetize fear of the future. Technology has become the catch-all solution.

Technoholism is a downward spiral. The rate of return for increasing investment thins from one generation to the next. The faster turnover cycle between console generations leads to market fragmentation. The pay-offs in terms of the games themselves are now lackluster. The media and the customers are increasingly cynical about over-inflated promises.

Costs are spiraling. Most developers are not having much success in bringing costs under control, and they know that the situation is only going to get worse. In the UK, over a hundred development studios, big and small, have gone out of business in the last three years. The next round will cull nearly everyone else.

Yet all is not lost. Addiction can be beaten and sanity restored, if we learn to recognize the problem, admit that there is a problem, and then take steps to re-affirm the decision to mend our ways. So, throwing taste and caution to the wind, how better to solve our problems than with a 12-step program?

Step One: We admit that we have made poor decisions.

All addiction recovery starts with an admission of responsibility.

Many studios made the leap from PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 development without stopping to think whether it was a good idea. PS1 development was typically inexpensive, and therefore afforded a good rate of return on even a modest scale. PS2 development changed all that, ramping up the costs by four times as much, and increasing development time.

On the surface, it was a great prospect. There were millions of customers out there. They recognized the brand, they would upgrade smoothly. It was rock solid. The customers moved over, the PS2 brand became ubiquitous. The problem that many developers discovered was that what was good for Sony and EA was not necessarily good for them. But they discovered it too late.

Responsible businesses would not have made the leap instantaneously. The PS1 still had (still has, in fact) a huge user-base and a platform technology that was well understood. It could support any number of games, and yet the industry by and large turned its back on this.

Yet in their legions the developers bought in to what, on the surface, was a mad proposition. From an objective standpoint (and with the benefit of hindsight), the decision was simply poor beyond reckoning for many companies. They came to believe in the mythic power of PS2 to somehow save them. Somehow they would leverage brands. Somehow they would manage to move increasingly unwieldy teams from one project to another. Somehow the money would be found to pay everyone. Somehow new publishers would be found.

What was a benign and successful situation quickly melted into a quagmire of paranoia and layoffs. Hundreds of collapsed businesses, an industry that has become deeply unpleasant to work in, a console hardware industry spiralling out of control, release catalogs of nothing but franchises and sequels. A few people are making money, but the majority of the industry is suffering. This is where technoholism has gotten us.

The reason for such poor decisions is blind faith. Like a self-reinforcing prophecy, many developers and publishers automatically believe that any new format with backing must be a success, and therefore they must be a part of it. They frequently do not stop to consider whether the new format will be good for their business, regardless of whether it is a success or not.

Step Two: We realize that stability does not mean death

What is often assumed is that companies technologically move forward because they have to, as customers drive the technology forward through their desires, and companies are only doing what the market dictates.

Let us imagine that Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Intel, and everyone else decided tomorrow that they would never develop another iota of hardware again. Does anyone seriously think that Joe Public would throw out his existing hardware and cease buying hardware ever again?

There are quite a few people who do believe it.

There are many examples of media formats where stability has done nothing to destroy hardware sales. CDs are still going strong. DVD is dominant despite hardware-lusters on the Internet decrying its shortcomings. I hear the book is doing well. The Spectrum and C64 played host to nearly ten years of games apiece. There is strength in stability.

Stability is the key to both creative and financial success in any medium, because stability breeds experimentation. An excellent analogy can be drawn between the games industry to the music industry. In music, new instruments emerge from time to time. There are guitars, there are 808s and 909s. There are drums, horns, pipes and violins. But the upgrade cycle of musical instruments is slow, and so musicians are afforded the time to not only learn them, but to master them, become artists and learn real creativity. They create music, which is in a sense the software of the music industry. And they create endless variations with the same tools.

This is because the music industry, from the most asinine pop to the most breath-taking music from the masters, is focused on the software rather than the hardware. Despite a few bumps in the road of market conditions, nobody expects the music industry to collapse if Fender stops inventing new types of guitar, or if Roland went out business tomorrow.

Similar examples can be drawn from the worlds of film and television, the works of poets and novelists, playwrights and artists. Stability in the basic instruments of any art form allow for real work, real development and, by the way, real financial success. Even the poor corporate-dominated comics industry has its independent side that is making real inroads toward becoming a respected art.

It is exactly the same in the games industry. Coders need years to learn to become masters. Designers need stable platforms to try out ideas. Artists need standards that they work with the produce excellent work. Producers need certainties to learn how to become professional managers. But because everything shifts and everyone is chasing after the golden egg that technology offers, nothing settles. Instability rules the roost, corporate conservatism tries to manage the vast risks involved, and everything slowly slides downhill.

In some twisted logic, many in the industry have come around to the idea that capitalism breeds innovation, new hardware breeds competition, which feeds further innovation, and that we are therefore living in the best times the industry has ever seen. Those of us still living on Sanity Island beg to differ.

Step Three: We recognize our pushers.

Where do we get our fix?

Primarily, technoholic hits come from hardware manufacturers because the industry is structured in such a way that it makes them a lot of money. Like the comics industry, the games industry relies heavily on the branding of its major labels (swap PlayStation 2 with Marvel, Gamecube with DC, and Xbox with Image, and so on). This keeps the power and media focussed on the hardware.

Manufacturers wield most of the real power in the industry, as they own the core brands, they are the gatekeepers, and it is in their interest for the core brand to recycle on a regular basis. They are in competition with each other for total dominance, and therefore total ownership of what amounts to a huge slice of revenue at the till. Unlike a movie studio or a music publisher, console manufacturers know that dominance means long-term rewards, and the best way to do that is with new hardware. Even the PC industry is caught in the same vice.

New hardware equals new brand, equals new opportunity for angles on the existing industry. And so it goes until one of the manufacturers runs out of money or ideas or, often, both.

The key to all this is enchanting developers and publishers with the idea that their new technology is going to somehow change everything. Remember the Emotion Engine? Now, do you see the Cell plan on the horizon, or the whole XNA idea? Nintendo's "Revolution", or the furore created over touch-screen gaming? Remember the UMD?

The whole point of all this information is not really to enchant the greater buying public. The whole point is to enchant you. By irrationally jumping after every new shiny thing that manufacturers produce, developers keep themselves in the financial doghouse. There is always so much to learn, new markets to be proven, untested engines and processes to be learned, new dev kits to purchase. All of that continues to cost developers big. They can rarely sit down and actually make the best games in the world because they're too busy tripping over themselves to catch up.

Wouldn't it be better to catch one's breath and not follow the red rag?

Addiction recovery recognizes the importance of changing one's pattern of behaviours, no matter how difficult it would seem. One recognizes that the pattern that one is following, no matter how well rationalized, or inspired by fear, will lead to one's destruction. This is exactly the pattern that all developers great and small (and not a few publishers) find themselves on. Developers have to learn to behave maturely, rather than as grown-up kids clubs, if they are to survive.

Step Four: We realize that the media is not the market

Customers don't, on the whole, need the most advanced technology in their games in order to buy and enjoy them. They just need good games, need to know that they exist, and find them appealing.

The PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto games have never been the pinnacle of racing, character control or firearms-based games. The Sims has never been a game hailed for its technological firepower. Cult-favourites Rez and Ico are relatively low-tech compared to many a game. Who the hell bought all those copies of Deer Hunter? Why does such a comparatively low-tech shooter as Halo 2 do so well in the days when Half Life 2 and Doom 3 are abroad?

It's the entertainment value, stupid.

There are some customers out there to whom tech-level is very important. There are lots of journalists who seem to think so and write about it constantly, but we must realize that the media is not the market. Internet forums are not the market. The market is much vaster than we realize, and its tastes encompass a vast array of experiences. Most of them are not dependent on how many polygons are flying in front of them. And we're not just talking about those consumers who like to hunt virtual deer to pass the time.

What we need to do is really understand our customers. Who are the people that walk into game shops? Why do they come in? Who else might come in if they only understood what was on offer? What do customers see in games that we may not? What do we see in games that they may not? These are the questions to which many of us have off-the-cuff answers, but which, if we're deadly honest, most of us know very little about.

Step Five: We decide not to buy into the next round until it is proved to be profitable

The fact is that for many of us, we are simply moving forward on the assumption that we have to keep pace. It will be more expensive, break-even points will be much higher than before, and we will find ourselves increasingly mired. We must examine what we get from the new technology.

Will we see increased sales of games? That is unlikely. The customer base for any new machine is going to be much smaller than the current console bases. Will we see increased profitability? Hardly. Publishers are under ever-increased pressure to sell as many copies and make as much money as possible, and the natural course of action in those circumstances is to squeeze development as much as possible. Will we have a chance to develop that million-selling mainstream game that we've always wanted? It's cold in hell, but the outlook is clear.

Therefore, it's a bad business decision to move over to the new platforms for most publishers and developers. There are 70+ million PS2 customers out there. They actually like to play games, and they buy them. There are another 30+ million Xbox and Gamecube customers, also big on buying games, despite owning "dying" platforms. There are many hundreds of millions of PC customers who have machines that are older than brand new. Many of them like to play games as well.

It's not a cardinal sin to realize that these people can be entertained, and that you are allowed to make money in the process.

Part of the reason that the television industry has been so slow to move over to high-definition broadcasting is because they know full well that they have a huge audience in regular broadcasting, and any move they make is going to involve expense, adjustment and so on. And for what? The ability to shoot soap operas in HDTV? They ask themselves whether it's really such a compelling proposition.

Games industry developers and publishers need to be asking themselves the same question. Is it really such a good idea to migrate staff, pay giant costs and permanently increased budgets? To make what? Generic platformers, racers and FPS shooters? Is that really such a compelling proposition?

Step Six: We admit the need to organize to right our wrongs.

The industry very badly needs a professional association that represents the software side and cuts hardware out of the loop.

Currently, everything is fractured, and there is an air of kill-or-be-killed. This suits a large publisher or manufacturer right down the ground, because it keeps the developers under the thumb. The only way that publishers can make money in the current scenario is if they keep developers scared, because manufacturers are taking so much money out of each sale that their margins are much reduced. With the advance in technology at every stage, this problem only gets worse.

Some of you may say that that's capitalism, but it isn't. It is in fact the extended effect of monopoly. The games industry as a whole is not a monopoly. Rather, it is a series of competing quasi-monopolies. Once you're in with a hardware manufacturer, you are in their monopoly, operating under their brand with little or no capacity for negotiation. They assume that you want to work with them (and let's be honest, you do), so they hold all the cards. There are, after all, hundreds of PS2 games produced every year, and what is one game missing off the catalogue? Nothing.

Software is the actual power in the industry, but developers are beguiled into believing that things are the other way around. Games sell consoles, much as films such as The Matrix sold DVD. The developers need the outlet, but the outlet needs the developers more. Where Nintendo may be relatively comfortable without needing third parties, Sony and Microsoft absolutely rely on them. Aside from the key releases, their consoles both need the appearance of great libraries of software. It looks bad if a console only has ten games.

A professional organisation of software developers and publishers would act as a lobby group, negotiating with hardware manufacturers and encouraging stability. Much as it sounds tempting to have the new toys, there is more mileage in being able to produce games for an existing audience than constantly being forced into the new thing. Similar associations exist in the film and music industries (The dreaded MPAA and RIAA). Much though these associations may be hated, it cannot be argued that they wield heavy power in favour of the software of their respective media.

In software, there are associations like ELSPA and some smaller ones, but they are comparatively toothless and the hardware manufacturers are heavily represented within them. The figures speak for themselves. Sony, Phillips and the DVD consortium make a small amount per title of every CD and DVD sold. Console manufacturers take up to 30% of each release on the shelf.

This money may be used to subsidize the hardware and keep it cheap, but that is something of a straw man. It is the hardware manufacturers that are pushing new technology in the first place, after all, so are they really that deserving of our sympathy?

Step Seven: We admit that limitations are a good thing

Poets use rhyme schemes for a reason. They are limiting and liberating all at once. Limitation encourages creativity and innovation. This has been a lesson learned in practically every art form that mankind has ever engaged in except for games.

In the games industry, it is often thought that hardware advances encourage innovation. Technologically, this is true. There are some innovations that open up new ways of looking at things, like the EyeToy and the FPS engine.

But we are still making the same sorts of first person shooters as we were back in id's day. They have new and different features, but they use the same conventions of quasi-military garb and blasting aliens. Platform games are still replete with moustachioed plumbers, racing games are still covered in the trappings of Formula One, and RPGs are still using creaky-old D+D as their main inspiration.

Limitation encourages lateral thinking. The long era of the Spectrum and C64 saw an awful lot of real innovation. In modern terms, hardware is thousands of times more powerful than those early machines, and yet games are often much less interesting on either a mechanical or an aesthetic level.

If anything, the industry has moved backward. In 1998 it was cool to create racing games set in the future to then-underground thumping dance music. You could set an adventure game in the Mexican underworld and see it released. You could play an FPS in which you were a scientist. It was cool to be an evil dungeon keeper. There were the glimmerings of a real sea change of imagination in the industry as a whole. And then came the increasing costs, and that all died a short death.

There have been a few (a very few) games in the last five years that are somewhat aesthetically imaginative, but nothing like the promise of earlier times would have indicated. Videogames, once the most amazingly creative medium in the world, have become a hole of relived glories, movie tie-ins and the odd manufacturer-sponsored success.

In chasing the technological dragon, we have lost the ability to laterally think. Lateral thinking costs money if you're always hot-footing it from one platform to the next because it has reached its "limits". Anyone who tells you that the real limits of the PS2 and other machines have been reached is simply wrong.

Step Eight: We realize that there's more to sales than tech.

Courting the press, publishers and public has become an ever-more important part of the industry. A large publisher like Atari might get away with selling some piece of rubbish to the unsuspecting public through blanket advertisement (akin to a pop promoter), but for the smaller and more discerning fry, promotion requires a lot of skill.

Typically what most developers do is to talk tech. The pattern here is to invite a gaggle of journalists into your company's offices, show them something on the screen, and talk long and loud.

The problems with this approach are that:

1. It can end up committing the company to a course with the game that they later realize was in fact a mistake, and
2. Everybody does it.

There are other ways to sell a project that don't require technology.

What most developers don't realize, or haven't realized to date, is that the games business is not a software business. It is not a business in which software is continuously developed at length to create a compelling game that then lives in eternity. The games business is exactly the same as every other medium in the world: It's an entertainment business.

Watch how the other media sell themselves. The majority of films are sold without any hint of a word of technology ever being mentioned. They are sold on their trailer, on their stars and their image. Books are sold on their authors, their jackets, their extracts and their covers. Music is sold on its videos, its play coverage, its celebrity coverage and its style. All these media are sold on their content. Hell, even porn is sold on the sex.

Technology has very little to do with any of that, and it proves that there are whole dimensions of interest that can be harnessed over and above bits and bytes. While it is easy for a large publisher or manufacturer to crank out a video reel to advertise their game like a music video, many smaller companies often rely on trying to generate technology-press. However, as we said in Step Four, the media is not the market.

How many people is this technology advertising actually reaching, and how might that time and effort be better spent? How many developers have relationships with the mainstream press? How many of them spend money on their branding? How many of them spend appropriate money on their PR? All too few. The technology press is all that they can think of (again, think of destructive patterns of addiction), and so it is all that they do, and so they come to believe that the only market out there is the technology press. It's a silly and self-destructive practice.

Step Nine: We realize the need for a common format.

Some of you may think that the whole point of this piece is essentially and extended attack on hardware manufacturers. It isn't really. Hardware is a business much like any other, and the actions of manufacturers are perfectly acceptable in light of the financial framework in which they operate. It must be recognized, however, that the hardware manufacturers' method of operation is responsible in part for the plight of many developers. It is also, by being so brand-focused and transient, limiting to the industry overall.

Games don't, on the whole, feature in the collective unconscious of the over-thirties. And even many of the under-thirties regard them as something of a cultural underpass, home to vagrants and nerds the world over. PlayStation may have made gaming relatively cool the world over, but that aura has faded, and nobody's pushing games into the ubiquity territory that DVD and the music CD occupy. Games remain shackled by their hardware-dominated feuds.

By buying into this sort of hardware-and-brand competitive structure, what we the technoholics are doing is actually limiting possibilities. Creative limitations may be a great thing, but business limitations are generally held to be suicide. Imagine a world where we could go into the local media shop and buy a music CD, a game disc or a DVD without ever having to ask an assistant whether it would work for our console, whether we have the right one, why some games are only available in one format or another. This sort of total availability is what we need, but we often don't see it that way.

We need to. As part of the activities of its software association, the developers and publishers of this industry really need to push for a common format. Every other media industry manages to get its act together and develop common standards from which the whole can operate. Why can't the games industry manage it?

Step Ten: We learn that there are more numbers than one and zero

It is commonly thought that the only way to real success in the industry is to be number one. This is a quaint notion, but it's not true. Nintendo are not number one, and they don't seem to mind a bit. In any business, there are slots available all the way down the chart, and numbers two, three and twenty can often be quite profitable.

The problem in the industry is therefore one of scale. Number twenty can be quite profitable, but only if he's not spending the same sort of money that number one is. Some companies have made a good living from this sort of attitude.

Climax has some high profile titles, but the company has made a not insignificant portion of its money in racing games. Climax has produced a lot of racing games that aren't yet necessarily brand-leading names. Yet they do well enough in this business because Climax have developed the tools that allow them to turn around this specific type of game quickly (and, more importantly, cheaply) with very little fuss.

The only time when being number one is critical is when you're spending a lot of money in the first place. The chief means by which a company spends a lot of money is by hiring a lot of staff for a long period of time and, essentially, dicking around. Technology is central to that.

How long does it take to develop an engine on a new platform? How long is a piece of string? How much art resources do we actually need? How feasible is our new design on our new platform? These are the sorts of unanswerable questions that wrestling with new technology brings. We may lament or blame producers (and we do) for these apparently mismanaged states of affairs, but the thing is that most of the time the activities of mismanagement come from the inability to answer unanswerable questions. Producers also never learn to become good producers if they are always battling against such invisible enemies.

And yet, with an attitude that drives toward stability, many of these problems would not be so intractable. Rather than hazily guessing at the specs of the Xbox Next and trying to pitch development toward it, couldn't we ask ourselves whether it would be better to just make a game for the PS2 instead? It's a known quantity, after all, and it has limitations. But limitations, as we already said, are a good thing.

This is an entertainment industry, possibly even verging on an art. We are about making money, but there is more to wanting to work in this industry than just making money. We make games because we want to, because we like the product. It's not the stock market. It's not kill-or-be-killed. It's a competitive community. Once we learn that it's ok to aim for number ten or even twenty, provided the budget can be kept tight, that will be a sign of true success.

Step Eleven: We accept that games will never be perfect

No matter how far we go down the road of technology, though it may take us over the edge into oblivion, games will never be perfect. There is no technology that will create the perfect self-generated storytelling experience, nor the perfectly animated human. There is no technology that will recreate the world in its entirety in game form, or if there is it is wildly beyond the games industry's ability.

This is an entertainment industry, not a science project. We are artists, not researchers, and we are here to entertain people, maybe touch them with our creations. We can do this with the tools that we have today. As the tools become more widely understood, the costs involved decrease.

The film industry has evolved to the point where, with straightforward technology that hasn't changed that much (CGI excepted) over the decades, they have evolved the ability to create grand visions. Movies will never be perfect, and neither will games. But that's not the point.

The point is that perfection is not a sensible goal. It is an immature goal in many ways, like the wish to draw the perfect circle, write the perfect novel or sing the perfect note. Perfectionism is the addict's way of not dealing with the world as it is and not engaging with the world as it is. You can carry on tweaking and refining that game engine forever and ever and it will never be perfect.

What we must learn, as new, responsible, recovering technoholics, is that the imperfect is as good as it's going to get, and so we must learn to write novels rather than endlessly tinkering with the first one. We can pour money and endless hours of frustration down the drain of technology if we like, but all we will end up with are pink slips and bankruptcy. And quite possibly a huge sense of disappointment and disillusionment.

In order to do this, we must learn to become decisive.

Step Twelve: We admit that times have changed

Let's be honest. Addicts only recover when they are honest.

The next round of console gaming is going to be just like this one. The advances are not going to be enormous. There are only so many layers of textures that you can apply before you have to squint to notice the difference. There are only so many ways to surrounds us in sound, and there are only so many ways to control plumbers rescuing princesses, cars careening around street corners and blocks falling from the sky. There are only so many ways to make a box fall over realistically before it takes a super-brain to notice the difference.

The greatest danger that developers have to contend with is thinking that the past is the future, and that everything is going to return there some day. There are many people in the industry that pine for such yesteryears, looking toward handhelds, independent gaming and mobile phones for some sense that the revival is coming. It isn't.

In those days, technology drove whole new kinds of games and gaming, but those early discoveries have come and gone. The challenges of the future are no longer the frontiers of the past, and its technoholic hangover.

The challenge is now depth. It is in taking the instruments that we have, learning to play them well, and making all kinds of beautiful music. Like the musician practising with his violin, it's time to become masters rather than going back to the music store to try the latest SuperObo.

Technology may be great, but it's long past time to move on.

______________________________________________________


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