Guest article by Erik Harmon
I used to be a gamer. A big-time gamer. How could I not be? I was born at just the right time to be inducted into the second golden age of video games, that is to say the first age that stuck: the age of the NES rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Atari apocalypse, and the bright flare of the video arcade before the burnout. But with the mass acceptance of gaming came the very thing that drove me from it. But now I’m back.
What drove me away, and what brought me back again? In many ways it was the inverse of why some people were not gamers, and are now. In the beginning, games only had a few things going for them: they were new. They were also expensive. There was still often a social stigma attached to being a gamer, which may seem alien to a generation that seems obsessed with photographing itself holding a controller wrong and proclaiming itself "such a nerd, lol." And to be honest, old games were frequently badly designed and just plain hard to play.
I assert that games then had a quality that many modern, polished games of the Playstation generation that followed for years could not replicate: they were still products seemingly crafted by the hand of human beings, not a Skynet-like autonomous marketing division. Even if only because of a lack of maturity, this cottage industry was sometimes able to create works that one could find compelling without being manipulated like a rat in a Skinner box. they were often the product of relatively few people, in some cases only one, and the creators’ personalities came through in final work.
Fast forward to today, and I personally hate knowing I am being railroaded into buying trash or being left out. Game companies have consolidated, and they are only interested in blockbusters. The desire to squeeze maximum profit from the near catatonic zombie consumer whoredom of video gamers has caused an inevitable market backlash and split. Before the internet, if you couldn’t find a game that catered to your segment you were just screwed. Take it or find a different hobby. I walked. I grew up with Quake , Call of Duty wasn’t doing it for me.
I attribute this to distribution models. When you’re printing thousands of copies and spreading them across the country to hit every buyer, you can’t take risks. With the internet it became a little easier as an entrepreneur to try to pick up these lost or disaffected customers. But that was just the first problem. Then payment processing was then an issue. Paypal comes along and makes it a little easier. I would guess the two biggest problems with being an indie publisher used to be advertising and distribution; how do I get customers attention, and then get the game to them practically; and second, I hate to say this but DRM. Appstores like iTunes, Google Play, Steam all have basic mechanisms to prevent gross piracy. They are not insurmountable though. But I think it’s a consumer choice tradeoff.
In many cases there’s an understanding that if you want to pirate it, you can. But appstores offer you such incredible convenience and the price is so low, you don’t have the traditional piracy motivators anymore. That is, the game being too expensive/intrusive or difficult installation/wanting to try before you buy. The appstores fix all that.
I won’t buy an EA game for a console or PC, screw them. My time and protection of my sanity are valuable. There’s now a thousand choices out there of game where the deal is: “We make a good game, you buy the game, and everybody wins.” Not this “You’re a fan of the franchise, so we can screw you for eternity.” Because of Steam, I NEVER have to enter a Gamestop. Do you know how valuable that alone is to me?
There is noise that digital distribution will kill resale of used games, and I think this is true. But I’m paying for a different kind of convenience, and the tradeoff they offer me is often worth it. Why do people buy used games? People loved used games because new games cost too much. It made it worth it to go into sketchy pawn shops every weekend in the hopes that somebody traded in a game you wanted.
Gamestop is more or less premised on the idea that they can beat out the pawn shops by being bright and clean and completely game-related, and I suppose this is valuable for a lot of consumers, but I think they are in reality usurpers. Because in the end they try to screw you price-wise too: Their trade-in price is a joke, and they sell the used game for a ridiculously weak markdown. The entire reason people bought used games was because of price, and Gamestop does everything in their power to minimize the difference there. I include the fact that you could sell your old game in that equation. That’s why it’s so frustrating that they give you crap for trade-in yet only sell it to somebody else for four dollars less than new. They have people convinced that if it has "game" in the name, it’s better than going to a pawn shop. It’s clearly worked for them, they’ve successfully run out nearly every competitor. But it’s a miserable experience every time I step into one.
So remind me why I should go in a Gamestop again? I am the person who dropped out, because the game companies and the used game market vultures alienated me. Now I buy games from appstores and Steam, so screw them. I don’t have to even get off my chair.
It is ironic that for a 99 cent game, the majority of the sale price goes to the distributor, the appstore. I just spent paragraphs complaining about being ripped off. But nobody cares all that much because $0.99-2.99 is chump change to the consumer and the indie developer makes their money in volume. It could be said that the appstores are ruining everybody as middlemen, worse than Gamestop or EA ever did. But it doesn’t hold up because they aren’t the bad, obstructive middlemen; they are useful facilitators in the market. So I say it’s ironic because in the end I choose to pay a higher percentage markup than evil scum like Gamestop or the original giants that publishers forced me out of the market over, because in the end I just wanted to spend a reasonable amount of money for a fun game. And this is what the appstore provides. What I want is, low price and convenience and not feeling like I’m being railroaded. Isn’t that what we all want? And that’s why appstores are better and indie publishers provide the games I actually want to play.
This only goes so far though; obviously there are sometimes games you just want so bad you buy it anyway. I own Super Street Fighter IV on the Xbox 360. I feel cheated though because I bought regular Street Fighter IV and then they came out with SSF4 almost immediately and I ended up basically paying twice. They got me because I really wanted Street Fighter. And you got me. I never said a big company can’t make a good game, but yes, they will still screw you every chance they get. I paid a lot of money for the privilege of having an up to date version of Street Fighter. At least it’s actually a good game.
So in summary, I left games because my niches weren’t being served, and digital distribution and easy payment has since opened back up the niche market and I can enjoy games again. Steam summer sale just concluded and I loaded up on bullet hell shmups meaning some indie developer avoids a drudging corporate nine to five, and Gabe Newell keeps his Scrooge McDuck-esque giant money bin topped off. Humble Indie Bundle and Indie Royale let me set my own price point and gave me some games that even if I’m taking a risk, aren’t too expensive and give me some novelty to play with for a while. I know I’m not the only one. People are even still buying blockbuster cutscene I-thought-we-don’t-make-those-UI-mistake-anymore abominations, in record numbers making their companies boatloads of money. Hopefully, a diverse ecosystem means that we won’t have another crash. Everybody wins. Except Gamestop. And doesn’t that feel great?