We all want to feel like our opinions matter.
We all want others to take us seriously; to consider our thoughts, feelings, ambitions, likes and dislikes, whether in the context of simple interpersonal relationships or on the larger, grander scale, such as when we leave feedback with a company about a product, or write a letter to our politicians. It's human nature to want to be valued and that desire is healthy and reasonable.
When it comes to gaming, the sad, sorry fact of the matter is, we (as individuals) no longer matter.
We are not customers or consumers, we are statistics.
We are not characters, opinions, personalities or people. We are metrics. To game developers, we exist solely as an actuarial algorithm, and our desires serve to move the pie chart one thousandth of one percent in a predetermined direction, based on specific, carefully constructed criteria.
We are wallets, to be studied, poked, prodded and surveyed to cull from us the best methods by which we can be exploited.
All of the forum rants, the impassioned blog posts, the scathing (or cheering) reviews, the time invested, the heartfelt friendships and relationships, the progression of the genre as a vehicle for storytelling, interaction and positive potential. None of this matters anymore.
Welcome to your corporate sponsored gaming experience...
... brought to you by us, the players.
We Are To Blame
We did this to ourselves, I realized today, as I perused the forums for my soon-to-be-expired World of Warcraft account. I watched the typical forum arguments, the intensifying, eternal back and forth between opposing viewpoints, to be found in any place where human beings of disparate types, thoughts and goals congregate. I saw a sentence, repeated again, that I have seen a lot lately in discussions about gaming integrity, monetization and MMORPGs:
"The company is a business trying to make a profit," said one poster, as a rebuttal in an argument regarding Blizzard's recent offering of max level characters in their World of Warcraft cash shop.
The way this statement is constantly brought up and the context in which it's used shows me two things:
1) Many, many players are surprisingly adamant about defending gaming big business at their own expense; and
2) There is an increasing number of players who seem to believe that many of the questionable monetization and capitalization practices of major developers are acceptable and expected. Simply par for the course.
But it wasn't always this way.
Many years ago, when you purchased a video game, for better or worse, you purchased a finished product. There were no expansions and there were certainly no add-ons or downloadable content. The idea of buying a game, and then having the developer charge you even more to access features, characters, areas, or other aspects of the game, on top of the cost of the game itself, would have been anathema. It would have been met with an outcry loud enough to drown out a nuclear explosion, and the company who tried it would have been burned at the stake as a witch.
If you made a successful game, you were rewarded with players purchasing your game and giving it a solid review. If you did well, you might even earn the capital to create a sequel or another game. In this way, brand loyalty was created between companies who wanted to and did make good games, while the excited players showed their support for developers by paying for products they had grown to love.
It was a win-win for everyone involved.
Fast forward to today. You can hardly purchase a Triple A game anymore that does not have one or more of the following available for additional money: DLC, microtransactions for outfits or gear, expansions, side quests, collector's editions, the list goes on.
We created this culture ourselves. We perpetuate it on a daily basis because as a whole, as the sum and substance of our parts, as a statistical entity, we don't care.
We simply don't care anymore.
"The company is a business trying to make a profit," has become a catch-all, absolute defense for many, many gamers. Charge them $10 for a hat? "Oh well, the company is a business trying to make a profit, so it's fine." Charge them $60 for a max level character? "Oh well, the company is a business trying to make a profit, it's expected." Raise expansion prices? Create artificial paywalls and boring content and then sell a way to bypass it in your cash shop? "Well, you know, the company is a business trying to make a profit, so I can understand it."
Not only do the major gaming companies nickel and dime us at every opportunity, but we now defend them for doing it against anyone else who speaks up.
So What Happened? How Did We Get This Way?
In short, the gaming industry grew. And grew. And grew. It grew until it had assimilated, statistically, almost everyone with a vague interest in gaming and gaming culture. Then it couldn't grow anymore on the backs of gamers.
"The company is a business trying to make a profit," turned into "The company is a business trying to make a profit by any means necessary."
So as an industry, if you have already acquired all of your potential playerbase in one demographic, what do you do if you're a company trying to make a profit? You target all demographics.
You stop making games for gamers, and you make games for people who hate games.
If you are a pizza restaurant, and your research and metrics indicate that 25,000 people in your immediate area regularly consume pizza, but you want 100,000 customers, you need to start appealing to people who don't eat pizza. There is no other alternative for expansion. You start offering things other than pizza. You start changing the ingredients of your pizza to seem like it isn't pizza, but something more popular than pizza.
And thus the 'casual' movement was born. Those who didn't have time to game were targeted, and games were stripped of depth, meaningful content, 'grind' and community to appeal to them, slowly, of course, but sure as I'm writing this, it happened. New revenue models and monetization types, many pulled from venues other than gaming, were experimented with and eventually implemented.
And again, the industry expanded, at an absolutely alarming rate. Exponentially even.
But it was no longer the same.
Casual gamers don't like gaming. It is not their primary interest. It is something they do that is fun for a short time, to pass the time, and then they do something else. Revenue generation had to evolve to support that type of gamer, and suddenly, it no longer made financial sense to charge a box price and a subscription for MMORPGs, because the casual gamers they were targeting never had any intention of sticking around for months anyway. That's not their modus operandi. They have far more important things to do.
But since "the company is a business trying to make a profit," the company had to find a way to get money from these players. Because there are so very many casual gamers, the camaraderie and closeness in the gaming community, the relationship between good products, consumers and developers fractured and then disappeared entirely. When revenues, profits and losses are measured in the billions instead of the millions, there is no possible way for any one person to matter anymore. When one person ceases to matter, it is the statistics, the majority, the masses who do matter, and we 'gamers' become one of them. The same in force and effect as the increasingly more and more casual audience the companies try to attract.
Casual gamers, brought into mainstream gaming in recent years, don't know anything about the way games used to be. All they know is Zynga charging them for crops in Farmville, Candy Crush charging them by the game (or however they monetize, I don't play that nonsense). They 'play' and are inundated with a countless, nameless, endless and faceless sea of mobile, simple 'games' designed to be devoured in intervals of minutes rather than hours and monetized piecemeal in much the same way.
So when they gradually find their way to Triple A titles, to MMORPGs, to the games that we gamers try to hold onto with all of our might, we become outnumbered, outgunned and outclassed.
The new generation of casual gamers expects to pay piecemeal for every single little thing.
They don't remember a time when all the things they now voluntarily open their wallet for were offered for free with a smile from the developers and a sincere hope that we would enjoy their game enough to recommend it to a friend and to buy their next game.
They will defend the developers, because that is what they have done in every game they have picked up. They have paid for that dungeon, that hat, that downloadable character, that new level, that side quest. When a new game releases, they open their wallets and look expectantly toward the developer to find out how else they can use their wallets to improve their gaming experience because they simply don't know anything else.
So you tell me, everyone. Let's say you are a business trying to make a profit by any means necessary. You have a small group of people criticizing every decision you make, complaining endlessly and to the nth degree about the most minor of details, and saying it's "for the good of the game."
Then you have the faceless masses, who outnumber that small group by orders of magnitude. They open their wallets and throw money at you for the game, then they open their wallets again and happily look to you without a single complaint, simply wondering what other things are available for them to buy from you. They defend you against the small group of complainers. They don't cause trouble, because they are not emotionally invested enough in the game to care about its success or failure. They simply want something new and exciting to throw money at.
Which of the two do you cater to?
When you answer that question, you will find out why the 'gamer' is now just another cog in the wheel. An irrelevant 1% in the very industry they launched. A footnote and an afterthought, whose sole purpose is to carry the flags of history, nostalgia and better times, through a world that couldn't possibly care less.
I am part of the 1%, and I welcome you to your corporate sponsored gaming experience. There is no escape. There are no safe havens. There is no hope on the horizon. We sit on the rocking chairs of electronic entertainment and listen to the dirge and death knell, gleaning what we can from what is left, until our worlds are nothing but a fading memory.