Last week I gave some advice to the leaders of the videogame industry. This week I’m going to wrap things up.
3. Stop with the Perma-Crunch
I already dedicated two entire columns to this topic last year, explaining why crunch is a bad idea and why crunch should be saved for emergency situations. The short version:
It’s been well known for years that productivity drops off sharply as hours increase. Above a certain threshold, increasing hours worked can actually DECREASE the amount of work accomplished! And that’s just regular boring office work. The effect is even more pronounced in creative fields. (Protip: Game development is a creative field.) You are making your employees miserable, un-creative, and disloyal, while generating negative press, and at the same time also fueling a high turnover rate within the industry that’s driving people out just as they’re getting good at their jobs. And after all that damage, you’re probably making games SLOWER than if you just ran a proper business. You are screwing everyone else in order to screw yourself harder.
Yes, there’s an extreme glut of would-be game developers out there. The game colleges are pumping out wave after wave of sad-sack graduates who are dragging heaps of student loan debt into the workforce. They’re enough to replenish the exodus of experienced workers. I’m only saying this because you’ve evidently figured it out already. (Otherwise, why would you be treating your workforce this way?) But the point still stands: Just because you can get away with treating people this way doesn’t mean there’s any benefit in doing so.
Do you know if it really makes business sense to rely on a work force of disgruntled, burned-out, and inexperienced creatives? Have you ever tried doing things the other way?
4. Go After Downmarket Sales
Some publishers are already in the process of figuring this out. They’re about a decade late, but I guess some progress is better than none. If you’re still blundering around under the misconception that keeping prices high is a good way to make money, then let me bring you up to speed.
Steam has already refuted the notion that high prices make for high profits, but I guess if you paid attention to the industry Steam wouldn’t have existed in the first place. No, I’m not asking you to launch Call of Honor: Shoot More Dudes for $40. Obviously that would be throwing money away. There are literally millions of people willing to buy it for $60 + DLC. The thing is, those people are the core fans of that game. They want the new entry as soon as possible. But there are lots of other people out there who kinda enjoy Call of Honor, but not enough to slap down $60 for it. They might pay $40. Still others might buy it at $30. Some folks might not care anything about the genre, but for $15 they might play it as a goof. Also, there are people who might love the game but can only afford it at those lower price-points. Instead of squeezing those core fans even more, you should be trying to get money from everybody. I don’t know if you’ve done the market research, but the group “everybody” is really big!
I’m not asking you to be more generous, I’m asking you to be more greedy but less clueless. Just keep lowering that price each year. I know from my own buying habits that this works, and I know from your pricing habits that you can’t prove me wrong because you haven’t done the homeworkAgain, some publishers more than others. EA has messed around with this a bit through Origin. I suspect their floor price is still a bit high, but they HAVE experimented with lower prices so I’m a little less eager to second-guess their behavior..
Keeping prices high just gives stupid Gamestop some space to operate their sad little gaming pawn shops. If you keep dragging prices down then not only will you make more money, but you’ll strangle the second-hand market you hate so much. People are going to buy the game for $15 either way, so you might as well be the one to collect the $15.
5. Don’t Forget to Polish
I thought about giving some suggestions on how to devise new IP and help it grow in this sequel-driven industry, but that topic is so large and complex it could be an article all by itself. So here is some smaller-scale advice.
If you look at a lot of all-time classics you’ll usually see the games show a great deal of polish. The pacing is solid, so you don’t have action that lasts too long and causes fatigue or downtime that drags on into boredom. There isn’t an annoying character that everyone hates. There isn’t a brutal difficulty spike that makes people quit, or a sag in challenge that makes people lose interest. In many cases all you need to do to turn a good game into a fantastic game is take out the bad parts.
(I’m avoiding specifics here because they will just side-track the entire thread with people insisting that game X isn’t really a classic, or that game Y is, or that Y is actually better than X, and we won’t get anywhere. I’m trying to talk about the importance of polish, and I don’t want to get in a six-sided debate about which games are better than others. Assuming you hire a gamer like I suggested, they can probably cite some examples of could-have-been-great games for you.)
Polish will yield diminishing returns. That first month will greatly improve the game. The next month will make more modest improvements, and the month after that will be very smallObviously the exact intervals will be bigger / smaller depending on the size and scope of the game.. Polish begins once the game is more or less complete. Which means that if you’re throwing the game together at the last possible moment and slamming up against the ship date, then you’re possibly missing out on huge improvements. Sometimes that happens and it can’t be helped. If the team falls behind and you really need to hit the Christmas release, then I guess you won’t be able to polish. But if this always happens then you’re passing up a huge opportunity for a massive increase in quality for a modest increase in cost.
Again, this is another situation where it helps to have a gamer among the executives. Someone experienced with a wide variety of games and genres can play the game themselves and appraise the quality on a deeper level than, “Are the graphics pretty, does it look superficially like other successful titles, and are there obvious bugs?” You can tell if there’s room to turn a good game into a great one, or if there’s not much to be gained from additional fussing.
Okay, that’s all the advice I have for you. Thanks for listening, captain of industry. You can go ahead and put your gamer friend back on now.
Like I said at the start of this series, people often defend these companies using an appeal to authority. I have some bad news for you young people who are tempted to do this. That news is this:
Well, maybe not “nobody”. Clever people do sometimes end up in positions of power, but I don’t think there’s a strong correlation between the prestige of the position and the competency of the person. Sometimes your minimum-wage barista is brilliant and sometimes the guy running a ten-billion dollar corporation is mediocre and drastically over-promoted.
It took me a long time to realize this. When I was a little kid, I thought teenagers understood the world. When I was a teenager, I figured adults knew what they were doing. And when I was in my twenties, I imagined that by the time I was thirty I’d be good at making wise decisions. That didn’t turn out to be the case, but I still held out hope that by the time I hit middle age I’d magically gain whatever wisdom and insight the rest of the world had access to. But now that I’m middle age myself, I can see I spent the entire time chasing a mirage. No matter how old you get or how much wisdom you accumulate, you’re still stuck in an imperfect world where you’ll make big decisions based on outdated assumptions and incomplete data. Sure, you get a little better at making decisions as you age, but the complexity of the decisions also goes up, and the stakes increase as you climb the career ladder so your blunders have a bigger impact.
I realize this is an uncomfortable thought. We want to believe the people above us have some unique qualifications to be running major governmentsYeah, I can see the snarky political joke that just popped into your mind. Everyone else thought of the same thing, so there’s no need to go there., world-encompassing institutions, and global corporations. It’s comforting to believe that world leaders and captains of industry know something we don’t, because the alternative is that the world is being run by people just as dumb as we are. And I’m sorry to say that this seems to be the case.
I don’t know. I’ll let you know if anything changes when I turn fifty.
 Again, some publishers more than others. EA has messed around with this a bit through Origin. I suspect their floor price is still a bit high, but they HAVE experimented with lower prices so I’m a little less eager to second-guess their behavior.
 Obviously the exact intervals will be bigger / smaller depending on the size and scope of the game.
 Yeah, I can see the snarky political joke that just popped into your mind. Everyone else thought of the same thing, so there’s no need to go there.
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Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
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