Industrial creativity bows down to unshakeable profit forecasts.
Luckily, there are always brave voices that raise a red flag, proclaiming the need to break with the past and to open new paths forward. In order for an entertainment industry to survive and thrive further, it is profit forecasting that needs to adapt, bowing to the ever-changing shift in the tastes and needs of our increasingly accelerated, bewildered, stressed, rhizomatic society. Deprived of affection and quality time; craving for relief.
The effectiveness of manifestos, as a rupture device or as encouraging beacon lighting the way towards a new beginning, is perfectly questionable: neither art nor the political apparatus—the natural ground for manifestos—have prevented society from reaching the current status quo. Nevertheless, a retrospective, chronological analysis of manifestos proves useful on two counts: it allows us to evaluate the diagnosis of problems to solve, as well as the efficacy and validity of the solutions provided.
For a manifesto on the videogame industry to propose a valid path, its author has to perform a double intellectual somersault: empathizing both with the content creators—understanding the hardships they face—and consumers. And then, with both perspectives into account, make a proposal that satisfies both sides and ideally anticipates imminent trend changes. It is a tough task, and we should be grateful for the efforts invested by the authors mentioned below.
Let’s begin with this (non-thorough) review of manifestos around the videogame industry:
Seventeen years ago, under the moniker “Designer X”, Greg Costikyan exploded in a heated manifesto against industry practices, in which he spared no one. By then, videogames were distributed in big boxes, so each game competed for shelf space, enormously limiting the available offer in each shop and harming, who else, the humblest studios that were not backed by a strong publisher. Publishers’ attitude, regularly favouring low-risk, safe-bet titles, spread towards the game designer workplace: producers and marketing managers interfered in the creative process with the good intention of preventing the (predictably frustrated) designer from going off-track from the publisher’s expectations.
Physical distribution brought along severe creative consequences. Source: Wikimedia Commons
This chain of influences, contended Costikyan, ended up harming the end users, who saw their closest shops offering scantily improved clones of last season hits at ever higher prices. The solution proposed: Scratchware. Brief, affordable, innovative, professional-quality games, created by self-managed small teams, devoid from any kind of business mediation, and distributed through alternative channels: a win-win for developers and players (or in his own words: “Death to the game industry! Long-live games”). Although five years later he founded Manifesto Games, presumably with the intention of turning the Scratchware concept into reality, results were modest, to say the least. However, the dream of Designer X became true—although thanks to very different motivations—shortly after:
On one hand, the rise of Steam, a digital distribution platform, gave (and keeps giving) ample publishing opportunities to small and passionate studios with hardly any mediation, and allowing affordable prices for any player. Being digital, the library of games on offer can only grow; there’s no longer a competition for shelf space (Or is there? We’ll see later...)
On the other hand, the arrival of smartphones and the democratization of powerful development tools (like Unity or Game Maker) had a similar effect on mobile platforms, almost non-existent by the time Costikyan’s manifesto was written.
Project Horseshoe is a (self-denominated) elitist Think-Tank that gathers yearly to debate the challenges of the videogame industry from the perspective of Game Designers.
In their 2008 gathering, they addressed what they saw as the elephant in the room: the status of videogames as a means for creative expression. How could the videogame industry be recognised by audience and critics at the same level as other creative industries, like cinema or music? Their profuse manifesto, from a perspective that would certainly delight Ayn Rand, is summarized in three frontlines, proposing solutions for each.
The image problem: videogames are perceived as a juvenile pastime, sexist, superficial, and, in general, a blameworthy waste of time for those who enjoy them; a judgement that is not applied so indiscriminately to those who watch movies, play board games, or read best-sellers. Although it is true that a portion of the industry, the press and the players themselves has historically favored that “masculine”, brainless audience niche (defending their territory to profoundly indignant and retrograde extents), luckily there’s an increasing number of voices (and money) rowing towards wider diversity.
The preservation of videogame history proposed in the manifesto was backed, in 2012, by an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum revising the 40 years of the medium, to be followed by several curatorial initiatives in art centers around the globe, like the addition, that same year, of several classic games to MoMA’s permanent collection. Even acknowledging that just because something is exhibited at a museum does not imply that it is art, or high culture, this was a relevant step. Besides, the appearance of an independent title of high artistic value that also had remarkable commercial success came true in 2009 with Braid, which together with other indie projects at the time, finally opened the—until then—locked gates of mainstream home consoles to independent teams with visions and offerings far from the standard. The ‘indie boom’ of those years can be lived almost in first person through the frenetic, distressing and exhilarating documentary “Indie Game: The Movie”.
“The Art of Videogames” exhibition in Smithsonian Museum, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The leadership problem: the manifesto highlights that creative directors have a hard time earning enough authority and respect to be allowed to accomplish their creative vision. You can almost count on the fingers of one hand the widely known names of Authors, (psst: there are women too) on Videogame History, because being a game experience designer has been a discipline historically unrecognized by the general public and roughly treated by production and profit requirements. Nowadays, the relevance of Game Design is finally apparent thanks to the presence of specific specializations in the academic syllabi of most universities and schools, in addition to the traditional focus on art and programming in videogame studies.
The money problem: the desire for new funding methods expressed in the manifesto, became partially true with the advent of Kickstarter, barely some months after the Horseshoe gathering, and the subsequent crowdfunding boom which prevails to this day. Another example is the micro-patronage platform Patreon, which debuted in 2013, and allows artists and creators to have a fixed monthly income contributed directly by their fans.
In hindsight, this one is undoubtedly one of the more accurate manifestos, for its spot-on diagnosis and because most of the solutions proposed therein have become a reality in one way or another.
Richard Garfield, creator of the wildly popular and profitable trading card game Magic: The Gathering, throws in “A Game Player’s Manifesto” a tough diatribe against what he calls “Skinnerware”, in reference to the Skinner Box used in experiments with animals to attain a given behavior through negative and/or positive reinforcements. Garfield stands in defence of “vulnerable” players who, despite not being able to afford it, may develop an addictive behavior towards the purchases offered in such games, pointing out that this vulnerability is more prone when susceptible players are enduring “difficult times”. It’s a possible reality, though neither Garfield nor anyone else can estimate its magnitude given how difficult it would be to know how many players are in that situation (low income plus vulnerable to addiction).
Example of a Skinner box. Source: Wikimedia Commons
"Free to Play” (F2P) games have led the gross bookings rankings year after year, starting in social networks with hits like Farmville, and then moving to mobile platforms, their genuine habitat, at the same pace as smartphones lowered their price and increased their penetration. The gargantuan profitability of successful F2P games, compared to games sold at a fixed price and offering no micro-payments (“Premium” games), keeps attracting the attention of investors looking for a high Return On Investment. This hypothetical gold rush has precipitated into an app market collapsed with “me-too” entertainment proposals, all of them competing for the attention of users, whose literal acquisition has become one of the highest costs a F2P company must face, leaving out of the field small studios that do not have enough marketing budget to acquire the huge user base needed for F2P to be profitable. In F2P, only the biggest fish can contend.
Estimated daily revenue of iOS games in USA, July 2017. Source: Statista
The solution offered by Garfield is quite lukewarm compared to the other manifestos: he basically calls all game designers to reject getting involved in such games, and asks players to stop playing them. Such calls may have a slow, reverberating impact within the industry, yet a proposal for a new business model would have been desirable; that’s no mean feat, but actually the currently, most-sought-after holy grail: a new business model for mobile games that keeps the profitability while removing the guilt of paying and improving the perceived value.
Rivers of ink have flown against F2P in particular and micropayments in general. The fact is that, to date and seeing the numbers, it is still the best solution the industry has found to satisfy an audience that vehemently rejects paying for a product before downloading it. Investing the price of a coffee in a mobile game or a virtual item, which may be enjoyed even for months, is still a taboo that few dare to confess aloud, maybe for fear of stigma or hypothetical social rejection; the image problem is still lurking, and F2P is the symptom, not the cause, of it.
It would require a long, elaborate and adventurous debate to determine if the Freemium business model is here to stay, or if it will be studied as a passing trend in the future, a sign of the times from the beginning of the smartphone era with always-online individuals. The ever-raising costs of producing and keeping alive a F2P game, the growing competition, and above all, an audience that learns, evolves and requires new ways of spending their time, will ultimately decide.
Not your typical manifesto, but the inspiring and inspired article by Brie Code narrating her vision about why the games industry is missing great opportunities, opens new perspectives (“Maybe everything we know is wrong”) and raises questions unheard of (“Are videogames boring?”). If almost 40% of the population never plays videogames, what is missing in the current offer to attract their attention? Can we create a new type of digital entertainment that can actually reach that huge amount of people?
A great percentage of the population can’t see what’s so funny about videogames. Source: Wikimedia Commons
What Code brings up is that the industry’s own endogamy—“(white and male) players becoming developers that make games for other (white and male) players”—prevents the appearance of more diverse proposals (and she’s not the only voice claiming this); not blaming capitalism, marketing people, or publishing platforms. People creating games, like us, do it thinking mainly in people that already like them, and that audience keeps being the same because it’s the only audience we’re supplying. On the other hand, it is plausible that many of those stating that they don’t like videogames are not actually aware of what games can provide on an emotional and affective level - it’s the image problem, the prejudice, again. And this problem persists, because videogames have historically taken advantage of a single stress response: “fight or flight”—which generates fear-inducing adrenaline—while other possible stress responses like “tend and befriend”—that generates oxytocin, which inhibits fear and facilitates empathy—have been underused. Maybe women, elders and a big chunk of the population do not need simpler games, but ones that allow them to exercise their empathy and bonding skills. The solution proposed, which she is trying to accomplish in her own studio, is to create new games hand in hand with people that don’t like them. In its day, the Nintendo Wii, or even the selfsame Candy Crush Saga, managed to attract new audiences towards videogames with a conceptual approach which couldn’t have been more successful: simplify as much as possible the control devices, and the games themselves, so as to attract females and elders. I couldn’t find any report that confirms whether the dozens of millions of WiiFit owners, or the hundreds of thousands of grandparents who were gifted with a Nintendo DS to play Brain Training, have become gamers forever, or have lost interest in digital entertainment after the novelty effect waned.
It will take some time to know if Code’s approach, more practical and collaborative, is capable of creating new genres for new and long-lasting audiences. In any case, it is an intriguing new path that more people should start exploring.
What goes around, comes around. Or: “be careful what you wish for, it might just come true”. Costikyan’s yesteryear dream is nowadays indiepocalypse, as the alleged nirvana of videogame development brought along dramatic side effects:
There are several distribution platforms with little to none mediation; but there’s a strong monopolization, as the number of actors is quite small (Steam, Google Play, App Store...), and even allegedly alternative platforms do not allow full freedom of expression. In any case, the commercial success of a title brewed during years of hard work is decided within launch week, and sales only revive during discount periods.
The democratization of development tools and the low cost for entering the market flooded mobile stores with countless imitations and low-quality amateur projects; the rise of Free-to-Play and smartphones led to a war of decreasing prices, in which the smallest studios lost, and players, still reluctant to pay for their entertainment time, are regularly assaulted with ads that degrade the play experience.
The knowledge and skills needed to develop games can no longer be acquired only in faraway universities, but in countless forums, affordable online courses, or endless lists of video-tutorials; paradoxically, this has not facilitated that titles from economically underdeveloped countries to compete in the global market with equal opportunities.
Devices capable of executing videogames are more affordable and widespread than ever, while the traditional audience of videogames is now in it’s 40s and it is more and more difficult for them to find time to play.
Time, not space, is the final frontier of entertainment. Source: Wikimedia Commons
“MaxMaxing Attention Economies in the Age of Cultural Overproduction” is the subtitle of the quasi-manifesto in which Paolo Pedercini elaborates a lucid, grim portrait of the hysterically stunned society we’re living in, and provides some hints on how to shove even more digital entertainment in it.
Pedercini’s solution is grounded on the certainty that the usual audiende of videogames already has a much bigger entertainment offer than what they’re capable of assimilating (in addition to an pandemic lack of attention), so we either slip in games in habits not yet ludified (during sleep, sexual intercourse, ...) or go looking for new players (the elderly, pets, ...). An expansive approach very similar to the one proposed by Brie Code, yet undoubtedly filled with irony.
Here ends this brief review of the most remarkable manifestos that appeared in the past 17 years that tackled production and business topics. Manifestos centered exclusively around expanding the limits of artistic expression in videogames have been deliberately omitted—there are many, and they deserve an article on their own.
The end of capitalism as we know it is not nigh, so the videogame industry faces a new evolutive cycle in which, as usual, only the ones who adapt to new the times with new ideas and new ways will survive, as it happened in the past two decades. The industry has overcome hurdles often put there by itself, and from the creative limitations derived from competing for shelf space, we’ve arrived to the creative limitations for achieving something that attracts our attention for more than ten minutes straight and is profitable enough to sustain a business.
Nowadays technology allows creating an amateur, high-quality videogame for the same effort and cost of shooting a full-feature amateur film, or recording an album without leaving your bedroom. The medium of videogames already has yielded critically and commercially acclaimed pieces that deal with ‘adult’ topics like immigration and totalitarianisms, death and family, or mental health with the same rigour and profoundness as a renowned film or documentary, and on top of that, turn those topics into unique interactive experiences that offer a range of expressivity and empathy impossible in other medium. There’s plenty of reasons to, despite everything, be optimist.