Thought Bubble: Gaming’s Uncharted Problem

Turtle Rock’s Evolve has been out for a little over a week now, and I will confess to being mildly curious about the sales results. Though the marketing and DLC strategy reflects the worst corporate cynicism, the game is nevertheless an unproven IP with the backing of a major publisher. I want to know how that plays out with consumers.

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get an answer anytime soon. Unlike the film industry, where early sales receipts are tallied before the weekend is over and results are finalized in time for coffee on Monday, the games industry treats sales figures as precious commodities that should never be shared with anyone who might talk about them.

The information we do get is either late or anecdotal. Evolve opened at the top of the combined UK charts and the Xbox version sold better than the PlayStation version, but we don’t yet know how the game performed internationally, nor do we know how many units it actually sold. We just have the UK trend, a factoid that is meaningless without a point of comparison.

We’ll have to wait for more accurate results, which gives publisher 2K plenty of time to amplify any positive results or spin the negative ones. In both cases, the audience’s voice will be diminished, which is concerning because retail is really the only way for audiences to tell publishers what they want. We vote with our wallets, and in a capitalist society that’s ultimately the only repercussion that matters.

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The problem is that while people are voting with their wallets, we never actually get to see the results. What’s happening in the games industry is like casting a ballot for President and then spending the next four years listening to the Speaker of the House while an unknown Commander in Chief sits behind a curtain in the White House. We just have to trust that it’s the person we elected.

So what do consumers have to say about Evolve?

Though it looks a lot like any other shooter, Evolve is a risky and expensive project without an established fan base to draw on. It incorporates elements from different multiplayer games instead of repackaging the same set of features and claims to offer something qualitatively different. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll concede that there’s an uncommon degree of uncertainty.

If the game does well, it would indicate that paying customers are indeed willing to take a chance on something new, which goes against conventional wisdom. Should it flop, it could be the result of poor design or fan backlash to the aggressive and unfriendly DLC campaign. It could also mean that the suits are right and audiences won’t buy something new, as loath as I’d be to accept that argument.

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The point is that it’s impossible to know for sure without some hard evidence to analyze, and while the studios have that information, the rest of us are left to speculate about a game’s performance. Sometimes we get extreme hints when a studio closes or Activision wants to brag about the sales records for Call of Duty, but there’s a whole lot of in between that we just don’t know about.

The limited information we get is useful, but it creates a wildly skewed portrait of the industry, where only the best and the worst sellers seem to matter. Contrast that with film, where we usually have ballpark estimates about how much each movie makes when measured against its budget. It’s common to see $20M horror movies on the same screens that showcase The Avengers because both types of movies can be profitable.

Gaming seems unconcerned with the additional data points that give texture to an otherwise flat consumer report. When you only know what the best looks like – when every game is measured against Call of Duty – then almost every game is going to be found wanting. A better understanding of midrange profits helps manage expectations for those without the resources to compete with Activision. That’s how you stay in business without being the biggest.

I’m curious about Evolve because it seems a litmus test for games that are not quite Call of Duty. I’d love to know if that’s viable, just as much as I’d like to have figures for smaller games like Life is Strange. Octodad sold 450,000 copies. How accurately does that reflect recent trends in the independent market?

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Knowing those answers would allow for more accurate observations about the industry, providing a much better gauge of audience demand and making it easier for studios to make the games that audiences want to play. That seems like it’s good for everybody, making niche projects less risky and allowing for more diversity without reducing current options.

Instead, the lack of transparency clouds judgment and becomes a way to avoid accountability for bad decisions at the highest levels. For years, the triple-A industry has insisted that we only want one type of product, whether explicitly or implicitly through the video games it produces. According to E3, games need to feature male protagonists in multiplayer settings with the most photorealistic graphics available.

That thinking has come under fire in the past, but the homogeneity is often framed as fiscal responsibility rather than a lack of creativity. Games need to be masculine because that’s the only thing the market will tolerate. To deviate from that pattern is viewed as financial suicide.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Games that followed the template have gone bust (Homefront, Medal of Honor: Warfighter), while games that break the mold have done well. But no matter how many exceptions we find, the conventional wisdom stays the same, and we can’t disprove it because the analysis takes place behind closed doors.

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Sadly, I get the impression that publishers have learned the wrong lessons, adopting the logic that games underperform because they don’t mimic Call of Duty closely enough. It becomes an excuse to keep doing the same thing regardless of considerations like market saturation or diversity, a failure of execution rather than principle that ignores the fact that tastes are always changing. Culture is far less homogenous than the current output would imply, but we’re still supposed to listen while corporations tell us what we want.

Publishers are free to make the games they choose, but if redundant brown shooters are what they’re truly passionate about, they should be able to defend their decisions artistically as well as financially. Citing numbers without providing numbers is a deflection, a self-serving justification to avoid any meaningful self-reflection.

I’m not expecting publishers to account for every dollar spent during development, but I am suggesting that the blanket silence is doing more harm than good in a stagnating industry. It would be nice to have a better sense of where the industry is headed while there’s still time to adjust the course, and greater transparency between corporations and the people represented on sales charts would help bring supply into line with demand.

Game publishers are supposed to be accountable for their products. That can’t happen until audiences know what they’re buying.

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