This Dumb Industry: Free Advice Part 1

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jul 25, 2017

Filed under: Column 84 comments

Last week I promised to give some advice to the leadership teams of of major game publishers, who will never read this. I doubt this advice will strike most of you as profound or novel, but I’m doing this anyway in order to drive the point home that the people in charge are making expensive mistakes despite their financial gains.

First, the really obvious stuff: Microsoft needs to ease off the push for more intrusive platforms and invasion of privacyI guess they kinda repented with the new Xbox, but I suspect they’ll try again. They didn’t have a change in company values, they just needed to deal with a PR disaster. and fix the Windows 10 Store before it does some damage. EA needs to stop treating their creative teams like a rental car. I don’t know what Ubisoft is trying to accomplish with Uplay, but whatever it is isn’t working and they should probably just stop. But this is stuff we’ve all heard dozens of times before and all of these are just symptoms of a larger problem.

A Long-Term Problem

Some people have trouble telling the difference between Wall Street and Vegas. (Hint: Vegas is the one with the tits.)
Some people have trouble telling the difference between Wall Street and Vegas. (Hint: Vegas is the one with the tits.)

As some have pointed out, if you’re a shareholder then you might be pretty happy with how these companies are being run. If your only goal is to keep pumping up the stock price and focusing on the short term, then the current crop of guys are doing their jobs. When EA bought Playfish it was a pretty good example of this behavior in action. To an outsider it probably seemed “bold” and “proactive”. Hey, casual games are a thing and EA just made a massive investment in casual games. This must be a good thing! It’s a move made by people who don’t understand the industry, intended to impress people who don’t understand the industry. Sure, it was a terrible move in the long run, but if you’re the kind of jumpy investor who buys and sells based on fads, feelings, and the latest gossip out of the news ticker, then you’re not making long-term judgments.

Of course, you can't keep pumping up a stock forever. The hype cycle comes back to bite you in the ass when your big bloated, over-hyped AAA flagship title fails to deliverIronically, many small studios sold themselves to big publishers back in the aughts because they didn’t want to be in a position where one bad game could sink the company. But now they have to worry about their studio being closed if someone ELSE’S game bombs.. So the stock rolls up and down. Overall the trend might be upward because the industry itself is growing as more people join the hobby, but the whole thing is basically an exercise in chasing trends and engaging in a long series of destructive over-corrections.

My premise is that this is passing up on massive opportunities for long-term growth. Not just for the individual companies, but for the industry as a whole. The right leadership could turn one of these companies into something like the Disney of videogames. We could be getting better products for less hassle with less waste and with a less miserable environment for the developers. We could be welcoming more people into the hobby.

The Wii motion controller showed that a bunch of new people are willing to spend money on games and hardware. There could be some new innovation out there that could get those people to stick around. It's tough to know what sorts of things are waiting to be invented, but we do know they won't GET invented if the leaders are reactionary. And the Microsoft / Sony response to the Wii was VERY reactionary.
The Wii motion controller showed that a bunch of new people are willing to spend money on games and hardware. There could be some new innovation out there that could get those people to stick around. It's tough to know what sorts of things are waiting to be invented, but we do know they won't GET invented if the leaders are reactionary. And the Microsoft / Sony response to the Wii was VERY reactionary.

Instead of serving their customers, these leaders are actually serving the legions of skittish gamblers playing the market. That's probably pretty close to the rotten root of all of these problems, but getting into that is getting into politics. I have Many Opinions on the dysfunctions of the stock market, but rather than get on my soapbox and sanctimoniously explain why my policy ideas will save the world, let’s just set politics aside and continue under the premise that the leadership wants to run the best videogame company they can and are failing to do so. I encourage you to follow this example in the comments. If I’m not willing to post my own politics here, then imagine how much less interest I have in reading yours.

The fact that these big companies seem to sacrifice long-term growth for short-term hype is probably another reason Valve does so well in comparison. They're not a publicly traded company, which means there's no outside pressure to do something showy and headline-grabbing every quarter to keep people excited about the stock. They still make bad decisions, but they're not obliged to always focus on the short term.

In any case, there’s a lot to be said for focusing on the long-term, even if you’re more interested in selling stock than videogames. It’s surprisingly easy to get the stock to go up when you’re a beloved industry leader. Isn’t it strange how antagonistic the relationship is between these companies and their customers? I doubt the people at Disney are more virtuous than the people running EA, yet the two brands have vastly different reputations. Apple has a borderline abusive relationship with their customers and yet they still enjoy brand loyalty bordering on the fanatical. When was the last time anyone was actually glad to see the EA, Activision, or Ubisoft logo on their game? When was the last time anyone looked at one of those logos and thought, “Oh boy, this game is going to be good!” Even if all you care about is stock price, I still think these places could have better leadership than they’re getting now.

In any case, let’s get to the advice. If you’ve got a friend that runs a major videogames publisher, then now would be a good time to call them into the room, because I’m about to explain how they need to be running their company…

1. Hire Some Gamers!

Hire Some Gamers!
Hire Some Gamers!

Hire some gamers. No, I don’t mean do something with a focus group. I mean hire a person who has videogaming as their primary source of entertainment, and get them involved with strategic decisions. It can’t be that hard to find someone with both an MBA and a half-decent gamerscore. I’m sure there are lots of people who have successfully run a business and also successfully cleared Manus, Father of the Abyss on New Game+. I’ll bet somewhere in the resume pile is a person that can lead a sales team and also has what it takes to lead a raid on Icecrown Citadel.

And yes, I’m sure you’ll defensively claim that you “play games” in the sense that you sometimes sample your own products. I appreciate the gesture, but getting shoved into the pool doesn’t make you a member of the swim team.

Have you ever had an experience like this?

  1. See a videogame trailer that catches your interest.
  2. Drive to your favorite retail outlet for videogamesYes, retail is dying now. But if you’re a 50-something running a 30 billion dollar publisher then I really hope your relationship with the hobby is more than 5 years old..
  3. Purchase the game with your own money.
  4. Bring it home to your dedicated gaming space where you’ve got multiple platforms available.
  5. Go through the install process, agree to the EULA, agree to the Terms and Conditions, struggle to remember what password you use to sign in to your account with this particular publisher, and dismiss a bunch of popups shilling DLC.
  6. Stay up later than you should waiting for the day-one patch to download.
  7. Once the patch is ready, you try to launch the game but instead run into some oddball technical problem.
  8. Go online to look for help and promptly get sidetracked in a two hundred post flamewar on weapon balance.

If that little story arc sounds completely unfamiliar to you, then you are not equipped to make informed decisions regarding publishing videogames.

Note that I’m not claiming you’re not a “real gamer” if you don’t do these things. This is not an argument about who is or is not a “real gamer” (whatever that is) or if you know the secret handshake to be in the cool kid’s club. I’m saying you need to be immersed in the culture and understand the most common elements of the end-user experience before you’ll have any frame of reference for what the customer might like or dislike.

If you are not a regular, active consumer of games then you’re blind to opportunities and ignorant to your weaknesses. You shouldn’t be worried about Valve software. That ship has sailed. You should be worried about the next Valve. The next missed opportunity. The next small-fry company to pull the rug out from under you and grow into a dangerous billion-dollar rival.

Videogames are pushing the frontier in tortured, inappropriate racism metaphors.
Videogames are pushing the frontier in tortured, inappropriate racism metaphors.

Like the people in Moneyball, you’ve got to change the criteria you’re using to hire people. I realize this is hard because I’m suggesting you hire someone else to do your job, but think of this as rounding out your decision-making team. You are not running a regular consumer goods company. You’re not selling blue jeans, soft drinks, or body spray. You’re not making cars or snack cakes or selling insurance. You are running something altogether unique. Like Hollywood, this is a creative industry. But it’s also a technology company. There is no way you can make informed decisions on what projects to greenlight and how funds should be allocated if you can’t tell a good product from a bad one. And you can’t tell good from bad if you aren’t part of the hobby. The idea is ludicrous.

This industry is in a constant state of technological and cultural upheaval. This is a new creative medium that’s a blend of every medium that came before, along with a bunch of new challenges unique to the form. You can’t make smart decisions without having one hand on the pulse of gamer culture and the other hand on the pulse of technology. And just so we’re completely clear: I’m still not talking about hiring focus groups.

Alternatively, if you’ve already got some gamers involved with your decision-making process then you just need to start listening to them when their face curls into a sneer and they say, “Actually, this idea sounds like it would be really obnoxious.”

Project Ten Dollar, Games for Windows LIVE, the disastrous tone-deaf marketing campaigns for games like Dante’s Inferno and Dead Space 2, the Dungeon Keeper Mobile fiasco, the entire design of SimCity, and the consumer backlash against the original design of the Xbox One are all obvious technological, business, or marketing disasters that could have been avoided if the people making the decisions had even part of a clue of what their audience really wanted. These decisions betrayed a kind of casual contempt for your core audience and helped cultivate the often adversarial relationship you have with your customers.

This is an opportunity. Major mistakes are being made all over. If you can be the first company to stop making enormous and expensive mistakes, you’ll win.

EDIT: And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that hiring some gamers is a magic silver bullet and that any gamer will do a good job. Obviously you still need people with vision, leadership, and creativity. Hiring a gamer is the FIRST step, not the final one. Either way, you still need to innovate. But if you don’t know what your customers want then all your “innovations” will take the form of, “What if we make the customer buy the game one character at a time?”

2. Experiment More

There's no way this game could ever become a hit. It doesn't look ANYTHING like our other games!
There's no way this game could ever become a hit. It doesn't look ANYTHING like our other games!

I’m not asking you to randomly green-light every crazy idea some yahoo game designer brings in your office. I’m not asking you to dump fifty million bucks into untested ideas. I’m suggesting you take your proven project leads and give them a small budget for passion projects. The movies do this all the time. “I’ll direct the next ROBO WARS sequel if you’ll let me do this side-project about a quirky hipster Rhode Island couple who dream of winning the National Line Dancing Championship.” You do something big and safe to make money, and then you do something cheap and experimental to see if it pays off. Most popular modern games were a radical new idea at some point.

You’ve already realized that your safe, dependable income is the result of exploiting established IP. Well, where do you think IP comes from? I’m sure you’ve noticed that IP sort of burns out over time, particularly if you’re doing annual or biennial releases. Don’t be like the leadership of EA and buy the IP after it’s become a hit and shot up in price. Make it yourself. If it takes off, you’ll already have full control and you’ll have the original creative team working for you. This is better than doing the EA thing where you end up in a bidding war for a company with an incompatible corporate culture and a staff of people who don’t want to work for you. That’s a really expensive and destructive way to acquire IP.

For a non-videogame example of this sort of acquisition misfire, there’s the time AOL overpaid for WinAmp, let it stagnate, and then ran it into the ground. And then there was the time Yahoo! bought Flickr for a fortune, let it stagnate, and ran it into the ground. Within the videogame industry, there was the time Electronic Arts overpaid for Playfish, let it stagnate, and ran it into the ground. And let’s not forget the time Activision bought the Guitar Hero developers, let the series stagnate, and you get the idea.

You’d be better off growing your own IP. Even if a lot of them fail (and many of them will indeed fail) you’ll still be better off than overpaying for something that blows up in your face. You won’t run the risk that the original team bails after an acquisition because now they’re rich, their names are on a hit game, and they don’t want to work for a huge company because they were indies at heart. If you develop the new IP in-house then the team has a much better chance of sticking with you and maintaining the IP they created.

Someday our all-black equipment will look just as sad and dated as this stuff.
Someday our all-black equipment will look just as sad and dated as this stuff.

The PC is a great place to run some kind of skunkworks programAssuming you’re EA and you can avoid paying the Steam tax. Activision and Ubisoft have to hand over 1/3 of their take to Valve, which probably makes the PC less attractive to them.. Let a team make something on a small budget. If it works out, then polish it and port it to the “real” platformsXbox and Playstation, and maybe whatever contraption Nintendo happens to be selling at the time. where you can get bigger sales numbers. If that works out, then you can (if needed) ramp up the budget and make this IP another tentpole franchise. And if it doesn’t work out? No big deal, because you didn’t spend a lot of money on it. If the property itself is a dud, there still might be some new mechanics the team can take with them when they’re sent back to working on the next AAA blockbuster.

This is a good way to reward and retain successful leaders. Note how many big names leave the AAA scene to work on passion projects. They might stick around to pass on their insight and knowledge if you give them an occasional outlet for those passion projects. Doing so will also improve the odds that the next Amnesia, Portal, Minecraft, Bastion, Braid, Terraria, or Hotline Miami happens within your company. Sure, those games didn’t make Call of Duty money, but they provided a really good return on investment, they got lots of good pressWhy SPEND millions on remedial marketing to improve your image when you could accomplish the same thing while MAKING millions on small-scale critical darlings?, and they built up IP that could be leveraged in the future for larger projects.

That’s all for this week. I’ll finish this list up next time.



[1] I guess they kinda repented with the new Xbox, but I suspect they’ll try again. They didn’t have a change in company values, they just needed to deal with a PR disaster.

[2] Ironically, many small studios sold themselves to big publishers back in the aughts because they didn’t want to be in a position where one bad game could sink the company. But now they have to worry about their studio being closed if someone ELSE’S game bombs.

[3] Yes, retail is dying now. But if you’re a 50-something running a 30 billion dollar publisher then I really hope your relationship with the hobby is more than 5 years old.

[4] Assuming you’re EA and you can avoid paying the Steam tax. Activision and Ubisoft have to hand over 1/3 of their take to Valve, which probably makes the PC less attractive to them.

[5] Xbox and Playstation, and maybe whatever contraption Nintendo happens to be selling at the time.

[6] Why SPEND millions on remedial marketing to improve your image when you could accomplish the same thing while MAKING millions on small-scale critical darlings?

From The Archives:

84 thoughts on “This Dumb Industry: Free Advice Part 1

  1. Anorak says:

    Does that monitor say “Low resolution” on it?

    Edit . Or maybe it says “Less radiation”?

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      It actually says “Low Radiation”

      1. Agammamon says:

        Ah, the good old days. Where you pointed an electron gun at your face for 8+ hours of each day.

        1. Anorak says:

          how ELSE do you get a tan?

  2. Christopher says:

    Ubisoft has at points done those passion projects and been succesful with them, at least critically. Grow Home(and then Grow Up), Rayman Origins(and then Rayman Legends), Child of Light and Valiant Hearts. The latter three all used the same technology to make good-looking, somewhat Flash-y 2D games within the different genres of platformers, Japanese-style RPGs and adventure games. That stuff is endearing and refreshing, and I would love to see more of those and less of the generic open world games.

    (Not that Rayman is a new IP, but that character was practically dead in the water by the time Origins came out and it was a completely different experience. )

    1. rabs says:

      Was about to say that as well.

      Nowadays, their small projects I hear about are mostly on VR: Werewolfs Within, Eagle Flight, Star Trek: Bridge Crew. And the upcoming Transference (partnership with Elijah Wood’s studio SpectreVision), that I’m very intrigued about.

      But it’s a many heads hydra, I guess.

    2. Lars says:

      Microsoft did it in a more secure way. Ori and the blind Forest made by Moon Studios financed by Microsoft. Or MS just wanted to go trendy indy.
      SquareEnix has a program to support indy developers (mostly QA) and hopefully bind them to Square. Children of Zodiacs is one example of this program.
      And Blizzard – as in Activition-Blizzard – has a whole studio for innovative products, supported with tons of money. Hearthstone and Overwatch were ideas of that studio. Games that are additional fund raisers to WoW now.

    3. stratigo says:

      I’m not sure Ubi HAS actually done this. Shamus is talking about letting the teams that work on, say, an assassin’s creed produce a valiant hearts, not just funding a separate small team.

      1. Naota says:

        This much is very true from what I’ve seen… with the possible exception of Starlink.

        It’s not exactly a small or cheap indie-style title, but it isn’t up there with the mainline franchises in manpower or exposure, does something relatively different, and was made mostly by a “B-group” among the devs at Ubisoft’s Toronto studio.

        I wouldn’t include it with the likes of Valiant Hearts or Child of Light, but it was a rare case where they got to make a game from scratch under their own direction, and the core development was kept to a small, interconnected team.

        Granted… there’s probably also the allure of Skylanders megamoney behind the “modular toys” concept – but the approach of giving a smaller, invested team a modest budget to prove a concept is basically what Shamus described. The payoff for success is huge, and the losses for failure are (relatively) small.

      2. Christopher says:

        Ubisofts dozens of assimilated studios made this an annoyance to look up, but Rayman Origins, Legends and Valiant Hearts were all made by Ubisoft Montpellier, an arm of Ubisoft that has remained relatively pure. They’re Michel Ancel’s people, the folks behind Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil, as well as From Dust, the original Rabbids games and ZombiU. They have touched Ghost Recon Wildlands and AC Unity, but not to any significant degree.

        Ubisoft Reflections, which used to be the the Driver guys, developed Grow Home and Grow Up. They’ve mostly been helping out with Ubisoft’s open world franchises, like the driving parts of Watch_Dogs 2.

        Ubisoft Montreal, the Child of Light people, is the Ubisoft team and gets main credits for the Far Cry games, all the main Assassin’s Creed games, Watch_Dogs 1 and 2 and For Honor.

        It looks like a little of column A and a little of column B, but I haven’t got a clue how the smaller teams within the developer operate. I think having the full Assassin’s Creed team, which I think are two teams taking turns, direct something like a single Child of Light would be too many cooks.

    4. Tom says:

      Yeah, I do vaguely remember that in the early-mid ‘oughts, seeing the Ubisoft logo on boot-up was generally something to be cautiously optimistic about. And I know Shamus was being rhetorical, but I remember *exactly* the last time I got excited to see the Activision logo – Zork Grand Inquisitor, the last and best of a long and venerable line. It’s been a long time, but I recall a period when I perceived Activision games as the Expensive Good Stuff that was to be drooled over as it glittered on the shelf, before one reluctantly turned away and settled for a cheaper title, most likely a £10 White Label re-release of a LucasArts classic.

      A few other studio logos (very seldom publishers, though a couple, like those above, did have something of a reputation for having good taste in the projects they backed – an absurd concept altogether these days) were always a warmly welcomed sight when they popped up on my screen – LucasArts (RIP), Cyan, Infogrames (RIP), Bullfrog (RIP), Looking Glass (RIP), Interplay (RIP) and Double Fine.

  3. Da Mage says:

    Remember when Bethesda did a post Skyrim game jam and got a couple of ideas good enough (as decided by fan feedback) to flesh out into a full DLC?

    That’s the sort of experimenting gamers want to see more of, but it rarely ever happens.

    PS: Fuck focus groups. Useless things that are way overvalued.

    1. Mortuorum says:

      I am working on an MBA and have taken two graduate-level marketing classes. It’s well-known that focus groups are all-but-useless (unless you’re sneakily testing something other than the ostensible focus of the group… sometimes). However, until recently, nobody wanted to dispute the conventional wisdom that focus group testing is just something you have to do. That’s starting to change, though. Probably when the current old guard dies off focus groups will go the way of the dinosaur except for certain, very limited, applications.

      1. Viktor says:

        As Valve has showed, product testing is incredibly useful. It’s also expensive, time-intensive, and requires a company culture that’s willing to admit mistakes. I just hope that doesn’t go away when focus groups do.

      2. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        Um… maybe public sector is different than private sector, but the textbooks I teach from and the courses I took (it hasn’t come up in my consulting or working career) have always treated focus groups as something you do to get first-cut information which is then confirmed through more rigorous data collection -surveys, for example. The State of the Union Address focus group followed by large-n survey is a classic case.

        Is this not the standard practice in industry?

  4. Dreadjaws says:

    Remember PopCap games? They used to release games in a more or less regular basis until they stumbled upon their big hit, Plants vs Zombies. Once that game was out, they pretty much didn’t need to release anything else, they just ported the game to every platform in existence (and I do mean every platform, as anything that was capable of getting digital content had the game, and even some platforms that weren’t capable got it as well).

    Then EA bought the company, well after the game had made its impact. I don’t know if they sold because they wanted the money or because they didn’t have any new ideas and preferred to go with a bang, but the case is that I was sure that was the end for PopCap new ideas, and I was right.

    EA dedicated itself to exploit the Plants vs Zombies name (and only that from PopCap’s entire catalogue after they remember Peggle was popular too and released a sequel). They released a sequel (with a “freemium” model, of course), they released a spinoff that couldn’t be further from the original’s intent and worse, they modified already existent versions of the original game to make them worse. If you had purchased, for instance, the android version of the original game and you had deleted it, that was gone forever, replaced with a new one that was lightly freemium as well.

    As a result, a game I used to really like was transformed into one I lost all interest for. They didn’t just ruin the company’s future, they actually took an already established, popular product and completely unbalanced it in order to make it less enjoyable, in the hopes of squeezing more money out of consumers. This would be like George Lucas coming to your house, smashing your VHS copies of the original Star Wars trilogy and leaving copies of the “enhanced” version instead.

    Screw EA, is what I’m saying. I actually hope they don’t follow Shamus’ advice and a couple new competitors who do follow it rise to take their place so the company is done for good.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      If EA did actually change policy, and actually implemented Shamus’ feedback to make better games, that would still be a positive thing. Saying that they don’t deserve a chance to fix their mistakes, or to change as a company, is not helpful either to the customers of EA or to EA itself.

      1. Dreadjaws says:

        It’s been a long time. They’re way past “mistakes”. They know exactly what they’re doing. They don’t deserve yet another chance. We’ve given them too many.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          I think you are placing too much weight on a company’s past performance, rather than the product at hand. Consider the opposite scenario – a company with a history of exemplary service and products, but who comes out with a product that is horrible. In that scenario, you as the customer should be demanding a refund, rather than paying good money for a bad product, and should not be “giving them a chance” based on their past performance. Judge the company first and foremost on their current performance and products, and only use their past performance as an indicator for if any new product that comes out is likely to be good enough for your money or not. If a future product turns out to be good, leave a good review, and if it’s garbage, demand a refund and tell your friends not to buy it.

          A good or excellent game made by a company that has made past mistakes is not something to be vilified. In fact, such a game would be an indicator of the company having changed (or being in the process of changing) their bad management, habits, and practices. To boycott a good product because of past bad products is wrongly punishing a company that should actually be receiving positive feedback and reinforcement of the new, desired behaviour.

          1. Syal says:

            A good or excellent game made by a company that has made past mistakes is not something to be vilified.

            I’m using this as an excuse to link One Finger Death Punch again.

            From the makers of No Luca No, and Cassie’s Animal Sounds!

  5. John says:

    I’m pretty sure that the people who actually make the video games are gamers. It’s the upper management whose gaming bona fides I doubt. In principle, then, your bloated game-industry behemoth doesn’t need to hire some more gamers, it just needs to listen to the gamers it already has. It might even consider promoting some of these gamers to upper management positions. It’s something to consider, anyway.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      I think Shamus was including management in the group of people who “make” games. Either way, you’d want gamers in every level of a company or the industry, to make sure that good games get made.

    2. KarmaTheAlligator says:

      Pretty sure he said exactly that

      Alternatively, if you've already got some gamers involved with your decision-making process then you just need to start listening to them when their face curls into a sneer and they say, “Actually, this idea sounds like it would be really obnoxious.”

  6. Agammamon says:

    Regarding [1] – they slightly pulled back on the Xbox in response to that PR disaster, and then doubled down with W10 which is extremely intrusive.

    Then they pulled back slightly when people pointed out they didn’t like their information being harvested as a default. And then doubled down as soon as the press moved on to the next thing by ensuring that each major update reinstalls all the MS apps you’ve gone through a lot of effort to uninstall (because things like the Xbox app can’t be uninstalled without using Powershell) and reseting your privacy settings.

    And we get fed crap like ‘Cortana can’t be turned off and Edge can’t be uninstalled because they’re too tightly bound into the core functions of the OS’ – so unbind them then. All I need from an OS is for it to be a framework to run other applications in. Don’t need it to be a friend, confidant, and personal assistant.

    1. Droid says:

      Try switching your OS language to some more obscure version of the same language. I have Win10 and never heard a single sentence from Cortana because the default settings do not know what to do with my particular language setting which is

      language I want (country no-one cares exists).

    2. Tizzy says:

      Thanks for pointing this out so I don’t have to. Win10 and Office have been a never ending source of innovation in privacy intrusions and other ways of treating the customer as a product. (As in: why don’t you use your bandwidth to help our clients?)

  7. Primogenitor says:

    I’m a little confused by the analogy to Moneyball. Isn’t the point of that to *not* listen to the fans and the culture – because the culture may be stuck in a local maximum ? So why is point 1 suggesting that corporates should become *more* involved in the culture?

    I agree with both of Shamus’s points, I’m just unclear in my head why they both seem perfectly sensible and perfectly contradictory at the same time.

    1. Ilseroth says:

      The point was more that, right now, almost every publisher is busy trying to make their steam; Uplay, Origin, ect ect ect. None of these are an actual beneficial product to the consumer and while as a publisher it makes sense to not want to give the steam cut away, they should recognize that their chances of overtaking steam is pretty daft at this point.

      It would be as if the Wii had tried to market itself like a standard console back when it launched, directly competing with PS3 and X360. It would have been crushed. Instead they came up with a different direction and bam, TONS of money.

      In the Moneyball example, the guy clearly knew Baseball, that’s how he was able to come up with the new method. The idea is that you take the same idea and apply it to Games, what product or service do gamers need that they haven’t even thought of yet.

    2. Xeorm says:

      The idea I think is that you don’t want to hire corporate people from the gaming world, they’ll keep telling you the same things the gaming world is already doing. Instead you want that other guy who actually plays so that you can get out of the rut they’re in.

      I don’t think he was saying to listen to the fans/current gaming culture. You need someone who can understand that culture, but who can also work outside of it towards something new.

    3. Dreadjaws says:

      The idea is to understand gaming culture, not to listen to the fanbase.

      It’s as if you managed a Restaurant. You don’t hire a customer to prepare food, no matter how much they say they like it, you hire a chef.

    4. Shamus says:

      Seeing as how so many people misunderstood my point, it looks like I whiffed here.

      The entire point of Moneyball was just to knock the legs out of an appeal to authority. Basically, just because they’re in charge doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.

      1. Hal says:

        That was very evident in last week’s column. So I’m sure it was a very clear line of reasoning for you; I’ll bet you wrote both pieces more or less back-to-back.

        As for the rest of us, well, sometimes we’re like goldfish; we don’t remember what we read yesterday, let alone last week.

      2. Steve C says:

        If it makes you feel better, I got your point.

      3. Still confused says:

        Whats confusing to me isn’t so much the analogy (which works well), but rather that it seems to contradict point one. Particularly with the given example which I assume is supposed to be a blunder made by out of touch companies? But it reads almost exactly like most early adopters introduction to Steam. In fact I would say the intrusive drm client was the Moneyball move. By tying Half life 2 into Steam, Valve managed to get millions of consumers locked into their client/storefront, which snowballed into their current almost monopoly.

        So for this example, the Moneyball analogy should suggest they don’t listen to customers, because as Valve showed gamers may protest a lot but will keep buying when the next big release comes around. Even though they wont rival Valve, making their own client still makes sense just to avoid paying the “Valve tax,” which at 30% would be exorbitant* for a large company.

        * In the sense that making their own client is significantly cheaper.

        1. Shamus says:

          I agree that should make their own client. It’s just that they should have done so about half a decade sooner, and with the feature set focused on price and convenience (which is what the customer wants) instead of DRM and marketing (which is what the publisher wants). If they understood gaming from the customer perspective, then they would have understood what features they needed to have in their own platform.

  8. Lars says:

    In hardware development it is Microsoft who has got the hot iron. If the HoloLens will ever be so good, as the promo videos suggested.
    Playing Micro Machines with your family on a holographed racetrack inside your living room stearing with your thumbs, or building minecraft castles on your kitchen table – its dreamworld. And you aren’t isolated by wearing a VR headset.
    And the HoloLens isn’t for games only. (typical Microsoft) I hope they have a better Store when this thing arrives.

    1. Chris Davies says:

      Can we talk about how bizarre it is that every big software house seems to think they need to own a store these days? At no point during the retail years did it occur to EA that Gamespot and Electronics Boutique were somehow competitors of theirs and they should start their own bricks and mortar retail stores to sell their games.

      It seems to me that Valve also (notionally) being a producer and publisher of games has warped the thinking in this department. Now as well as there being some useful digital software stores, it seems like every publisher thinks they ought to have their own crummy effort that by and large only sells their own games, and exists only to pretend that the recommended retail price is a real thing. Then they stop selling their products on the real digital store fronts, and everyone is forced to buy their games through secondary key retailers like Amazon or shadier outlets like G2A.

      Why is it that Microsoft needs a store at all? They’ve demonstrated they’re consistently bad at building them, and they constantly rile up their customers by pushing awful “exclusives” through them. At what point do they take the hint and realise that running software stores is better left to a third party who actually knows what they’re doing?

      1. Abnaxis says:

        I’m pretty sure the Microsoft Store is less about competing with Steam and more about competing with Apple. Putting the squeeze on Valve is just a desired side-benefit.

        From MS’s perspective, Apple has already been massively successful through excluding third party sellers as much as possible, so MS is trying to “keep up with the times” by following suit.

        1. CoyoteSans says:

          Yeah, the real purpose of the Windows Store is to switch the Windows ecosystem over to the App Store model. In the latest feature update to Windows 10 (“Creator’s”), the default is to allow only Windows Store installs, and you have to manually tell the operating system to allow the traditional method of installing whatever programs you want, which is now referred to as “sideloading” to attempt to further push the idea that the Windows Store is the new legitimate application source.

          The obvious endpoint is prohibiting legacy programs and forcing people to use Windows Store entirely. Which is exactly what Valve was worried about and all that business about exploring expanding Steam into Linux and SteamOS and whatnot a couple years back was all about.

      2. Echo Tango says:

        It’s not that the distributors are competitors, but that they take a huge cut of profits. e.g. Microsoft would be a lot happier to get more money, instead of paying Valve 30% of the income from their games.

        If Apple, Valve, etc all charged something like 1%-5% instead, I don’t think we’d have as many storefronts all trying to clamor for customers’ wallets.

        1. ThricebornPhoenix says:

          I’m pretty sure that at 5% or less Valve would be [i]losing[/i] money. And 30% to Valve doesn’t sound egregious if they were previously giving 20% to brick-and-mortar and another 20% to the console manufacturer (as claimed here).

          1. Supah Ewok says:

            It’s egregious when it should be simple for them to have to pay 0%.

        2. Chris Davies says:

          But their choice is not between giving 30% of their revenue to Valve and keeping all the revenue (less the marginal cost of running their own store), it’s between giving 30% of their revenue to Valve or earning the traditional wholesale price from secondary key retailers, which is typically less money.

          The bizarre realities of software publishers having their own digital storefronts while at the same time preserving traditional retail relationships entirely neuters their ability to do business. They can’t undercut their retail partners, or they wouldn’t be able to do business with them. That leaves their supposedly lower marginal cost online business selling the same goods at higher prices than bricks and mortar retail stores or secondary key retailers. The only customer stores like EA’s Origin can capture are the lazy and stupid who won’t even do a cursory search to see if they can buy the same thing cheaper elsewhere.

          Valve got this part right when they launched steam. They converted entirely to digital distribution and therefore had no need to appease anyone else with their pricing policy.

      3. Supah Ewok says:

        Echo went kinda halfway on this, but here’s the whole picture: in the days of brick and mortar, retailers flat out bought games from publishers (or more likely from distributors that work with the publisher), and then re-sold them to gamers. So EA would sell 1,000,000 Shootertons to Gamestop for, say, $35 a pop, then Gamestop would sell Shooterton for $50 a pop and get a profit (numbers obviously made up, but that’s the relationship going on).

        Digital distribution is a different beast. You can’t really sell goods on a per-item basis when it’s all digital. I mean, you *could*, by working a deal with Steam or whoever that they can pay you for a million Steam keys, and cap off sales at a million for that game, but that’s really stupid. What’s been settled on is this: Steam gets the authority to sell games and just takes a 30% cut of the take. Which is a pretty damn big cut.

        You can see how the two methods conflict. Publishers *have* to rely on distributors and retail in the real world because that is a crap ton of extra stuff to set up within a company that’d take years to earn back a profit. So they gotta give those guys their due and give up that “lost” money. Meanwhile, the only cost of digital distribution is the *relatively* minute costs of hosting, database management, and web page design, which is a whole lot easier to set up. Therefore, even if the cut that Steam takes is roughly equivalent to the loss publishers endured at physical retail, it’s a cost that in theory *isn’t necessary.* And unnecessary costs are galling for any company. But it’s as Shamus said: the onus is on publishers for not adapting to the new branch of the market as it opened up, so now with something like 80% of PC sales going through Steam (and that’s probably a historic low), publishers gotta pay the price for their mistake, one copy of a game at a time, if they hope to sell in the PC market at all.

      4. Joe Informatico says:

        Basically, iTunes destroyed the music retail industry as it had been a decade ago and now every record label has to turn over almost a third of their income to Apple. Steam almost did the same thing to PC gaming. So every major content owner is wary of the next iTunes, whether that’s Netflix, Amazon, etc. If they haven’t tried or are trying out their own digital distribution service, then they’re looking into backing a competitor to the frontrunner in their medium.

  9. Abnaxis says:

    Not trying to get into politics, but to me a bigger issue with the disconnect from the customers isn’t just that decision makers aren’t in the gaming culture, it’s that decision makers make more in a year than 99.9% of your average member of gaming culture will in their lifetime. Why would you care about DLC popups, when it’s trivial to buy the DLC just to make the popup go away?

    Isn’t any top-level “gamer” manager going to put into this top tier of the income brackets?

    1. `Retsam says:

      I don’t think most of the “decision makers” really fall into that category. Yes, the CEO and a couple other top executives certainly make obscene amounts of money, but I don’t think they’re actually the ones who make decisions like “add a DLC popup here”. They may set the direction, but they aren’t making those sort of ground-level decisions.

      And, it’s not like someone with an obscene amount of money has no ability to understand that people have less money: they’ve got entire teams of market researchers for this. It’s not that nobody has told these CEOs that people don’t like seeing advertisements: it’s that decades of research has shown that advertisements work, at least in the short term.

      And, yeah, the whole “1% makes more than 99% combined” stuff is just flamewar bait.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        There’s a difference between having a team of people tell you about an experience, and having the experience yourself. Shamus is talking about hiring someone specifically in the latter category to help make decisions for the company.

        While I have no experience working for gaming companies, in my own software development experience adding new functionality like DLC popups or DRM or Steam-like online marketplaces is exactly the type of decisions the people at the top of the org-chart make, because all of those decisions require making a deal with a provider for said services. DRM et al is not developed in-house at a publishing company, it’s bought from a provider through a business contract negotiated by a chief officer of some description who was convinced of the benefits of adding DRM etc. to their product lines.

        I’m sorry if 99%, or 90% or 1% or any sort of percentage used to describe something is a trigger phrase on the internet, but the fact remains that if you’re high enough to have any sort of decision making power at this level, you probably have magnitudes of order more money and less time than your average consumer, and it’s probably unrealistic to expect all that much sympathy to the plights of said average consumer. That’s why focus groups exist, because everyone involved is in a bubble.

        1. Shamus says:

          I’m totally capable of having compassion for people in third-world countries who make in a year what I make in a couple of weeks. “Let them eat cake” isn’t an attitude held by rich people, it’s an attitude held by selfish assholes. And there are assholes in all parts of the income bracket. I’ve known some rich people in my time, and I can tell you emphatically that they’re about the same mix of compassionate saints and moronic jerks as the rest of us.

          More to the point, the major harm of shilling DLC is in the hassle, not the money. Project ten dollar offered you “free” content when you bought a game, but it was still a pain in the ass. Launch the thing, log in, type in the code, agree to the ToS and EULA, dismiss the confirmation screen. You can’t just put in the disc and playing the sodding videogame. Even if I had a billion dollars, I’d still resent in-game shilling for DLC and all the fiddly details of obtaining it.

          “Mass Effect 2 has a bonus character. Do I need her? Am I going to miss having her? Is the game going to bug me about it? Is she solid content, or just a tacked-on cash grab? Should I close the game and take care of this now, or can I get on with my entertainment?”

          Ah! Perhaps you’ll argue they’ll just buy the collector’s edition every time? Surely that will help them avoid hassles? But no. A lot of collector’s editions are complicated to sort out because now you have to figure out WHICH CE you want. Often those goodies are often just a handful of serial numbers you’ll need to type in to activate all the crap. (Well, moreso in physical copies than digital.)

          Even if money is no object, the customer still wants simplicity, clarity, and convenience. This nickle-and-dime stuff is the opposite of that. An executive who had gaming as their primary form of entertainment would spot this immediately. (Even if they’re a selfish asshole.)

          1. Dreadjaws says:

            Yeah, take a look at the famous Watch Dogs Editions Chart. Even if you made so much that buying all the editions was trivial to you, the amount of hassle you’d need to waddle through in order to get all the content would be supremely irritating.

            People forget that money isn’t the only important factor when it comes to making a purchase decision. Convenience is. That’s how services like Steam or GOG have done wonders to fight piracy. People have to pay for stuff they could get for free, yet they still choose to pay.

            1. Mintskittle says:

              The Watch_Dogs CE breakdown is one of the worst cases of a publisher trying to wring every last cent out of their customers I’ve ever seen. There is no option available where you can get all the goodies with one or even two purchases. The worst part is it still sold millions, letting Ubisoft know this is acceptable behavior now.

          2. PPX14 says:

            That Mass Effect 2 thing really ruined the initial experience for me in exactly that way. And was my first experience of that sort of thing. Who is Kasumi, is she important? What is the Cerberus network, does it matter if I’m connected, and why has it made the in-game menu screen into a shop front? Why do I have this ‘extra’ lightning weapon, am I supposed to have it? Immersion ruining stuff.

  10. Lars says:

    Hire gamers, build a dreamteam: Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, Shigero Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima (Wait – not a gamer), John Carmack and Gabe Newell and force them to make a baseball game.
    Where you manage your team of mushrooms, turtles and giant cows. Playing unfair by using magic carpets, digging wholes under the field, using gravity guns and jumping on your opponents heads.
    In the management part, all over the alternate reality US, you form an evil empire destroying the other evil league inherits Electromagnetic Artificial.
    And thanks to Carmack, it would look great in VR.

    1. Fade2Gray says:

      you forgot to mention the entirely unrelated mobile app that will randomly select one player to play as the leader of Electromagnetic Artificial.

  11. Syal says:

    Hiring people who play games just makes me think of Daikatana and the Bubsy series.

  12. silver Harloe says:

    When was the last time anyone was actually glad to see the EA … logo on their game? When was the last time anyone looked at [this logo] and thought, “Oh boy, this game is going to be good!”

    Late 80s, buying games for my Atari 800XL – EA’s logo didn’t necessarily mean the game was good, but it would be a good time because it would be different and interesting. Bard’s Tale, M.U.L.E., Archon, Populous, the Seven Cities of Gold, Starflight.
    Ah, those were the days.

    1. Joe Informatico says:

      Skyfox was one of my top favourites for my Commodore 128 back in the day.

    2. MaxEd says:

      For me, it was seeing CodeMasters logo on loading screen of a ZX Spectrum game. CodeMasters were hot shit then. And later on PC, the same feeling was evoked by MicroProse logo, and maybe Dynamix (I loved fighter sims in 90’s, but they grew too complicated for me later).

    3. PPX14 says:

      Gosh I remember 10 or so years ago, I was picking up games and seeing the logo and thinking wow, Ubisoft keeps popping up. Rayman, FarCry, Prince of Persia, Rainbow Six Vegas, they seem to make so many cool games, that I play when I’m not with LucasArts or Eidos.

      A few years later at university my friend who had also played Beyond Good and Evil and loves Assassin’s Creed, reiterated these sentiments but by that time I had finished Rayman 3 and found only Rabbids, and played not just Kotor but also Jade Empire and Mass Effect so had moved onto the phase of singing Bioware’s (though not EA’s) praises.

      Now times have changed, EA owns Star Wars, reboots have happened, and I’ve played some more older games, I’m in the stage of longing for the LucasArts and Eidos (Looking Glass, Ion Storm, pre-2013 Tomb Raider) of old and remembering when Ubi made games I cared about.

  13. Alex Broadhead says:

    …getting shoved into the pool doesn't make you a member of the swim team.

    This needs to enter the vernacular. I’m definitely keeping it.

  14. “the leadership teams of of major game publishers, who will never read this”

    Don’t sell yourself short Shamus, I got a suspicion that a few folks from Bioware (past/present) are aware of some of your articles, particularly the Mass Effect trilogy stuff.

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      But Bioware is a developer, not a publisher. The publisher would be EA, and they most certainly don’t care enough about gaming to try it, they won’t care enough to read about it, and certainly not from someone who tells them how to do their job (even if they desperately need such a thing).

      1. Some people in publishing are “gamers” too (although probably not in charge sadly).

    2. Joe says:

      I suspect some Bethesda people read this site too. There’s stuff in Fallout 4 that feels like a reaction to Shamus’ FO 3 posts. Only it was executed terribly.

  15. Good point Shamus. Many companies seems to lack a game consultant or more appropriately a “Game Historian”.

    A Game Historian could for example specialize in Fantasy CRPGs, having played most of them released the last 20+ years. Thus able to speak of the differences in their systems, quirks of the game engines. Why this or that interface is horrible on a console or PC and so on.

    Another Game Historian could be an expert on Sci-Fi/Space Action/Adventures/RPG hybrids like Mass Effect, KoTOR, Freelancer, and so on.

    These would be the kind of people suits, marketing, and game devs could poke and ask “is this a good idea?”
    And get a “no” “yes” ore “worth exploring/prototyping”.

    In an ideal world a Game Director should fill this role, but this does not seem to be the case. But nothing prevents a Game Director from hiring a Game Historian with a lot of experience in the type of game that is being planned for development.

    1. PPX14 says:

      Would be great if they also had someone identifying game tone. That Mass Effect, KoTOR, Freelancer list caught my eye and epitomises not only the genre I love but also (come to think of it) the tone, that for example will likely be vastly different in Cyberpunk 2077 regardless of how well they build that game world, and put me off.

      1. Check out Yong Yea‘s coverage of Cyberpunk 2077.
        Yong also did some awesome vids on Andromeda, his breakdown of a particular love since in Andromeda was interesting, as is the follow up video regarding the animator that did it.

        But regarding Cyberpunk 2077, I think it’ll redefine what Cyberpunk is.
        It won’t be the 80’s Blade Runner movie, Blade Runner game, Ghost In the Shell (original).

        I’ve looked at the characters as explained by Yong, and as CD Projekt Red has stated that all characters from the paper RPG will be included I have found a character class I already like.

        So Cyberpunk 2077 will be good (it’s CD Projekt Red after all. Hi guys *waves*!) But will I like it? No idea yet.

  16. Philadelphus says:

    One nice thing about Paradox (which I’m using as shorthand for both the company and their in-house studio) is how many of the developers at all levels are avid gamers themselves, often talking on the forums about how much they play both Paradox’s own games (outside of work time) and others. Even the CEO, Fredrick Wester, is reportedly a huge gamer and is not afraid to have fun, such as the short video clip of him providing screaming sound effects for The Reaper’s Due expansion for CK II, or poking fun at himself in the trailer for their first open-to-fans-convention this year by saying he had “a body crafted to perfection by years of sitting at a computer”.

    Of course, Paradox is also a sobering reminder that even IF a company is made up entirely of gamers they can still make decisions and go directions that not all gamers like, so…

    1. krellen says:

      It is impossible to make decisions all gamers like because the category of “gamers” is large enough and diverse enough that there will be outliers in whatever section of the community you choose to examine. Trying to make sure every product is a billion-dollar franchise is what got us here in the first place.

      1. Philadelphus says:

        Y’know, that’s a good point: the inability to make decisions that are universally loved shouldn’t stop you from making any decisions.

  17. Tariq says:

    Hey, long-time reader, first time commenter (maybe? I can’t remember if I’ve commented here before). I don’t know if I’ll stick around to see the responses to my comment, or even if I’ll be notified, so I’ll be as complete as I can here?

    I’m going to go out on a limb right now, and basically disagree with both of your points “” not because I think what games publishers right now doing are correct, but because I think you’re trying to solve the wrong problem.

    For suggestion #1, suggesting that the best way to solve the problem you describe “” the painful, horrible experience of installing new games “” is by hiring gamers into decision-making process? Hiring gamers won’t solve that problem, because, honestly? Gamers themselves have been embedded into the problem for so long, that to many of them, many of these problems are essential to the experience of gaming. Ditto with point #2, getting someone “with a known track record“ to develop off-beat, unusual ideas for gaming. The problem isn’t that these people don’t know that these problems exist “” but that for the most part, they won’t know how to start solving these problems.

    There are, basically, several different problems that need to be solved: one is the horrifyingly terrible experience in finding, installing, and playing new games, another is a dearth of original ideas and new IP for games, and another is, well, when you get down to it, why the hell should people play games, as opposed to doing something else? The first one is something that, conceivably, people whose primary form of entertainment is games will be able to grasp and fix, the second… maybe? But the third? Most gamers will dismiss this question, saying but of course computer games are superior, no one else will want to do anything else.

    Here’s the thing, though: they do. I mean, if you’re a gamer and you can’t understand why someone else would rather open Netflix, or open their Kindle, or, I don’t know, go out and hang out with their friends, rather than dedicate their time to building a dedicated gaming space for their needs… if someone were to make you the Lord President of Massive Gaming Publisher Companyâ„¢, you’re going to spend your time fighting a war of attrition against people who may be attracted to other forms of media other than yours, which is, let’s be very honest, actually requires a lot of time and emotional investment to get into. Being a dedicated gamer is probably great if you’re the head of a game development house, but it’s less ideal if you’re a game publisher, because your job isn’t just to engage with the audience you got (and I’ve seen many game developers do this with aplomb), but to also engage with customers you don’t have… yet.

    So maybe you don’t want to get someone who used to sell manufactured goods, financial services, or food products. It’d probably be someone who’s familliar with the entertainment industry. More importantly, it needs to be someone who understands the dynamics of the entertainment industry “” which is what gaming is, even if the fact that it’s immersed in technology “” but also understands that it exists in a larger entertainment context. That’s it, right? People are attracted into games because they want to have fun. How can game publishers facilitate that? What do they need to do less so that people shut their Kindles and turn off their Netflix and turn on that game? How do you reduce that friction? How do you make sure that people aren’t driven away?

    That’s another thing, actually. I didn’t want to make it about politics, but… well, screw it. Politics is about the business of influencing mass action, and when you have media that is engaged by the masses, that’s what happens, you will touch on politics, even if tangentially. The problem with your suggestion is that, the way to solve the problem with the games industry is to dethrone the current elite “” who are financial-facing and investor-focused, so their decisions and incentives are aligned that way “” and replace them with people who are still entrenched in the business of games, they’re just beholden to another group: their fellow gamers, or their customers. They’re not there to change gaming, and become more relevant with the larger market, they just want their interests maintained.

    I feel like many game publishers have missed not one, not two, but at least three different boats in recent years: there’s, of course, Steam and GoG, there’s consoles like the Nintendo Wii (which did the job in attracting non-gamers into the platform… it’s just too bad that Nintendo is terrible at follow-through) and mobile gaming (another innovation that suddenly made everyone gamers… shame about the exploitative game mechanisms). We’re at the cusp of several new potential directions, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. What I do know is that it’ll deeply affect the demographics and populations of people who are playing, and that means that sticking to existing ways of thinking will just mean fighting a losing battle.

    I don’t think looking at gamers and people with established track records in gaming will be the way forward. I do think you’ll want someone who sees the worth in gaming, someone who thinks that gaming has something to offer that other media don’t, and wants to spread it far and wide… I just don’t think that they have to be embedded in the current cultural context of what “gaming” means right now. Actually, if they even see it as an impediment to gaming as a medium of entertainment, and to gaming as culturally relevant? Maybe we’ll get somewhere, because, heaven knows, gamers need to be disrupted.

    1. Shamus says:

      To be clear, I’m not suggesting that hiring some gamers is a magic silver bullet and that any gamer will do a good job. Obviously you still need people with vision, leadership, and creativity. Hiring a gamer is the FIRST step, not the final one. Either way, you still need to innovate. But if you don’t know what your customers want then all your “innovations” will take the form of, “What if we make the customer buy the game one character at a time?”

      1. “Hiring a gamer is the FIRST step, not the final one”
        True. Although there have been oddball situations where a non-gamer programmer has been hired and they turned out to be perfect for it. (sorry I forgot whom it was).

  18. MaxEd says:

    One interesting thing that happened recently was Pathfinder: The Kingmaker Kickstarter (unfortunately, this blog tend to avoid isometric RPGs like plague, which is a pity, because it’s pretty much the only I really love, outside of Witcher series).

    But anyway. What was that interesting about The Kingmaker? Not the fact that it’s yet another nostalgia-based isometric RPG title, although I love this trend and buy every single game that came out of it. The interesting thing is the developer. Owlcat Games is a spin-off studio of the giant Russian corporation, which is best in the West known for Allods MMORPG. In Russia, it’s also known for multitude of other online games which it developed or operated, almost all of them of low quality and quite abusive monetization. Some of its internal teams also were known to others in the field to be a corporate hellholes with yearly loyalty surveys. All in all, was a bit like EA of Russia, disliked by both players and developers.

    However, from what I know, Owlcat Games is really different. It’s just the skunkworks project Shamus is talking about in this post, in the sense that it’s relatively low-budget (compared to $100+M Skyforge MMO), it’s single-player, it’s open to player feedback and from what I hear, working conditions are OK too.

    I was really surprised that found in itself the strength to start this thing, but I support them wholeheartedly in going along with it (backed it on KS, of course), even though I would preferred turn-based combat instead of RTwP.

    1. “isometric RPGs” I dislike them.

      Or rather I dislike the ones where I can’t rotate my camera. I understand in the olden days this made sense, but these days with modern engines and even a low end PC 360 degree isn’t an issue.

      I could even live without a proper zoom as long as I could rotate the camera 360 degrees.

      Another issue is that a lot of the isometric RPGs are turn based to the n’th degree.
      So you have to attack with party character 1, then wait for enemy 1 party character 2, then wait for enemy 2, party character 3, then wait for enemy 3, party character 4, then wait for enemy 4, party character 5, then wait for enemy 5, party character 6, then wait for enemy 6…

      That gets tedious as hell. Some games let you choose single character for you party (with cheats/hacked character this is fine) but then for some reason companion quest lines won’t advance if they aren’t in your active party.

      Let’s just say that my track record with isometric RPGs have been less than stellar over the decades, we don’t get along well.

      1. MaxEd says:

        My absolute love for turn-based isometric games, which I freely profess, was not really the point of my comment (but when the time and place is right, I can get into an intense holywar about how real-time combat will always be inferior to turn-based).

        1. There are ways to make turnbased more paletable rather than grindy.

          If you have a team of 6 characters, then let the player plan it out at the start. Then he game will do a single turn with all characters at once (under the hood each character move in their own turn, prioritized by their initiative/reaction etc).

          No need to cause a turn based game to feel like a cookieclicker.

          1. Droid says:

            You mean like Frozen Synapse did?

  19. PPX14 says:

    The technology company ethos that works financially in the long term seems to be [what is the extent to which we can push the intolerance of our customers to accepting an anti-competitive and inhibitive product environment, if we keep them interested in unique products. So they’ll lose some consumer freedom, but be happy(ish) about it and really “have no other choice”.] Apple, Valve, Microsoft, and with less succes: EA, Ubisoft etc (presuming they make games you like).

    Steam is amazing, yet it removes my ownership of games and destroyed my hobby of looking in shops for cheap and used PC games. I found my favourite game Thief 3 by chance on a budget games rack in Maplin for £4.99.
    Origin has a brilliant subscription service but doesn’t allow even owned games to be played offline (if I have to log in online in the first place to play in offline mode, it isn’t an offline mode!!!)

  20. I just wanted to point out an interview with Japanese devs Iga and Swery that was up on Gamasutra. Iga’s response is that he’d rather have a boss that doesn’t understand games so that he’s more likely to trust in the designer rather than interfere with the designer’s intuition by interjecting his own opinion on what makes a game good.

    I find this fascinating because it suggests a difference in corporate mentality between the cultures. In my mind, I feel like perhaps you should have a board that’s divided, but you want the business people to be visionaries themselves in some way. People that can recognize talent. I’m also reminded of the film Straight Outta Compton, how the younger representative from the California Raisins producing record company wasn’t just listening to the performance, but was gauging the energy of the people in the club listening to the performance.

    The other suits walked out without paying any attention to that. Like the Moneyball example, they were tallying all the things that weren’t “safe” traits that guaranteed sales, and thus abandoned it. And that, I think, is the downside with a lot of people going to get Business degrees today to help run companies. They’re taught equations and methods and theories about business that help define how current business works, but considering my knowledge of learning web development in College I don’t trust that it teaches actual skills. A lot of my education in College was using pre-written JavaScript and PHP code. You didn’t have to debug it, you didn’t have to figure out why it worked, just use it and then complete the remaining tedious tasks. So even in the practical course of needing to sit down and read someone else’s code, you aren’t properly prepared because you were never taught to change or fix. In other words, you don’t know how to interpret, read, or understand the code itself.

    So people with similar education in Business go in and of course it’s chasing trends. In truth, you don’t need someone to understand games, just like that one producer approached Dr. Dre and said “I don’t know anything about hip-hop, but you got something special” (and is apparently now getting rich off of Beats headphones). You need to be able to recognize talent, and to be able to trust in that talent as much as you reign them in.

    Which… man, it really is a complicated topic, because I’m also reminded of the producers of Jaws rolling in expecting to find another young director drunk on set wasting money and instead found a completely sober Steven Spielberg with sound and logical ideas for improving the movie he was filming.

  21. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    I have long said that the problem befuddling Hollywood and Videogames is that no one in those industries “makes creative products.” No one makes movies, no one makes videogames as an industry. They are all in the IP Management business. Directors don’t make movies, they manage IP and make sure that contract clauses are met so that the IP can continue to be used (see: ashcan copy -I will be nice and not TVTropes link you).

    Hollywood has enough money and people (and in the end, movies can be made cheaply even if they often aren’t) that some creative projects still get off the ground. Some directors, like Christopher Nolan, can even get enough money together to do things that then bleed into the rest of the industry. Other directors are at least workmanlike enough that if they put together a budget, people will give them money to experiment, like Michael Bay.

    Indies may provide that outlet for videogames.

    I have wondered though, whether the theater company isn’t a better model. That really videogame developers should be looking to put together ad hoc teams that fit the particular needs of their game, and allow the specialists to work across projects. No need for everyone to have a MoCap studio, for example. If your project needs it -hire one. And if you do MoCap, work for many different projects.

    It would additionally cut back on the risk for each individually (though it might create systemic risk like car manufacturing suppliers experience).

  22. Andrzej Sugier says:

    You made me realize, that there was a time when a Ubisoft logo was a seal of quality for me. Each and every one of their games was something I adored.

    That…Was quite some time ago. Shame.

  23. aunshi189 says:

    Come on Shamus, Manus on NG+ is EZ. Git Gud.

    Otherwise great points, though as you say, a shame this doesn’t seem to be the company’s priority.

  24. Darren says:

    Polish makes such a difference. I’ve been playing a lot of JRPGs this year, notably Persona 5 and Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse from Atlus and FFXII: The Zodiac Age from Square-Enix. One of those games is basically just a PS3 title, one is for 3DS, and one is a spruced up version of a PS2 game. And they all felt way more polished than a lot of current Western titles I play. Writing is legible thanks to font style, color, size, and positioning, so that even though they tend to be very information heavy they never feel cluttered or difficult to parse. There are no bugs that I found in any of them–though I did discover a weird quirk regarding how FFXII calculates the health restoration of Infuse–and they run at rock-solid frame rates. Each of them used different strategies to be visually appealing so that, despite being far from the cutting edge, they were all pleasant to look at (although admittedly, a lot of that comes from much earlier in the process with strong art direction, but I’m sure there’s plenty of tweaking at the back-end to make sure everything clicks together).

    I would go so far as to say that “polish” extends to sound, as well. FFXII has a new, orchestrated soundtrack that really adds a feel of opulence to the proceedings, and Persona’s high-quality, inventive soundtrack is an essential part of the experience. That’s something that seems largely lost on many developers; when was the last time you noticed a music track in an EA game?

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