Dear Jameson Durall: YOU Feel Used?

Jameson Durall, a design director over at Volition, published an opinion piece on Gamasutra that was found and sent to us by our own Surly Badger. And it needs commenting on because it reveals the somewhat antagonistic relationship that lies between gamers and game companies, especially over used games.

The entire editorial can really be summed up in one line:

People often don’t understand the cost that goes into creating these huge experiences that we put on the shelves for only $60 (emphasis added by Gamma Squad).

If you find that enraging, don’t read the rest of the piece: Durall is in favor of the next XBox not playing used games, and thinks the current “online pass” system doesn’t go far enough. Leaving aside the value of used games or the fact that abridging our rights as consumers is not a good thing, it’s very much about shoving the blame onto everybody except the games industry.

It’s not that the sentiment is misplaced, per se. Volition’s latest title, “Saints Row The Third”, cost tens of millions; some AAA titles have budgets of $100 million or more. And money is on his brain: it has to be, as his publisher THQ is in danger of folding. But it’s that “only $60” comment that I think illustrates the problem here.

It’s not that we here at Gamma Squad are opposed to developers making their money back: witness our Tim Shafer lovefest yesterday. Nor is it deniable that GameStop is oriented towards selling you used games and keeping you away from the new ones; that’s what makes them money, and developers have a right to be frustrated over it. And we know the economics of the game industry are rough, and only going to get rougher; a game studio only makes money once the publisher makes its money back, and it only sees a very small portion of the proceeds.

On the flipside, though, it’s not “only $60”. $60 is a lot of money to be entertained, period. When we write our game reviews, that $60 is foremost in our minds. $60 buys a lot of entertainment in other media, and frankly, pieces like this smack of blaming the consumer for the indulgences of developers and publishers. To put in in perspective, $60 would buy four copies of Double Fine’s adventure game, which is part of the reason it’s breaking Kickstarter records: they essentially asked customers to pre-order the game to make it happen, and they did. In droves.

That’s part of the reason we’re so hard on games here, including Volition’s: quite frankly, about what 90 to 95% of what the games industry puts out isn’t worth sixty bucks. Sorry, but it’s true. Repetitive level design, bad writing, sloppy mechanics, the fact that the people who buy the game when it first comes out are now largely expected to be unpaid beta testers until you patch the damn game…most of it isn’t even worth $30.  Part of the reason so many new games go out the door new and come back used within a week is that they stink for some reason: if you don’t like multiplayer, and you finish an FPS campaign in a few days of playing, why not turn it in for the credit and get something else?

Secondly, there’s no effort on the part of the games industry to cut costs or be innovative. For every “Catherine” or “Portal”, there are a dozen “Call of Duty with Honor and Medals On the Battlefield”. EA got the license to the beloved action/strategy franchise “Syndicate” and decided “This would make an awesome ‘Deus Ex’ clone!”.

If the games industry were making a sincere effort across the spectrum to make all sorts of games for all sorts of gamers, and better games, we’d be more charitably inclined. But they aren’t. Where are the space sims, or the flight simulators, or the side-scrolling beat-em-ups, or the puzzle games? Why is it more exciting to see Konami releasing a port of an arcade game that came out nearly two decades ago than it is to see their major releases? Why is a game like “I Am Alive” more exciting than most of what Ubisoft puts out in a year?

And it’s becoming more and more important because the pressure to lower prices, and quality of games, is only going to go up. The entire games industry seems to be in very severe denial that the iPad and mobile gaming is about to breach into the console gaming sector in a big way, but realistically, there’s an OnLive app and wireless controller for every major platform, and the iPad can already handle PS2 games. The iPad 3 is going to be much faster. Apple has a TV ready, and Lenovo has already built a television with Snapdragon mobile processors.

The tech industry breaching into the console gaming sector is only a matter of time. And if the games industry thinks they’re NOT going to undercut them on price, they’re delusional.  Gamers are conditioned to pay $60 occasionally: the wider market isn’t, and they’re not going to read op-ed pieces like this and decide suddenly that they are.

In short, if you think gamers are ungrateful, Mr. Durall, that’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. In fact, to some degree it might even be true. But don’t act like the problem lies solely with gamers or the used game industry, because it doesn’t. And both developers and publishers need to learn these lessons quick, before their audience disappears.

image courtesy Volition, Inc.