2013 is racing to a close with its typical consumerist fervor. And, frankly, what a year it’s been. There have been so many events occurring on various fronts of the industry that it’s easy to wonder what hasn’t been in the news cycle at some point.
I don’t find it particularly interesting to simply recap events, so instead, let’s examine some trends that are emerging in the industry and entertainment medium that we call videogames. Frankly, there are a handful that beg for attention. Some will be expansions of events that existed prior to this calendar year. Several are normalizations of past anomalies; a special few arrived out of the blue. In any case, they all merit consideration for the industry going forward. So, in no particular order:
Consumers Effecting Change…
For a group that can be incredibly vocal, gamers don’t typically succeed in influencing the companies whose decisions they bemoan. That’s why the fan reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending in 2012 – it could conservatively be called explosive – and Bioware’s subsequent release of the Extended Cut DLC was so notable.
Yet 2013 is proving how that kind of influence is slowly becoming normalized. Right in January, XSEED announced a North American release date for Pandora’s Tower. Were it not for campaigning by Operation Rainfall, both for Pandora’s Tower itself and for The Last Story, which became XSEED’s most profitable title in history, Pandora’s Tower wouldn’t be in North America. It’s a clear-cut example of influencing a publisher’s decisions.
In May, EA dropped the Online Pass system, which forced buyers of secondhand games to pay an additional fee to access online multiplayer modes. The backlash against the company’s catastrophic Simcity release, combined with its being voted the ‘Worst Company’ award by the Consumerist – a feat only possible thanks to gamers’ sheer hatred of the company and its business practices – can certainly be considered factors in that decision. To consumers, online passes were a symbol of the publisher’s anti-consumer (albeit anti-piracy) attitude. The motivation to eliminate the passes was image rehabilitation, and it was proof that gamers can make their voices heard and influence boardroom discussions. Why else would EA forfeit Online Passes as a revenue stream, if not to improve their PR and attract gamers who were put off by the company?
(Also of note: Ubisoft followed suit in October, eliminating their own version of the online pass for future and existing games.)
In June, gamers again flexed their outrage, this time at the Xbox One’s DRM policy, whereby physical copies of games would be ‘locked’ to individual accounts and publishers could charge fees to used games purchasers. To put it lightly, Microsoft became toxic, and Sony’s PS4, whose February reveal had been middling, suddenly attained rockstar status as the consumer-friendly alternative. Within quick order, the PS4’s pre-order numbers began surging ahead of the Xbox One’s. The twin PR and financial blows forced Microsoft to completely reverse course less than two weeks after E3, at which point the Xbox One began seeming like a genuine contender in the eighth generation console race.
…Or Not So Much
At the same time, it’s important to remember that one event does not guarantee a similar outcome in the future. Nintendo recently went on record (again) as stating that Operation Rainfall didn’t influence their decision to localize Xenoblade Chronicles.
Similarly, I would argue that Project Crystallis (and Operation Suzaku, a similar campaign focused only on Type-0) haven’t really had any impact. Crystallis did several innovative things that can be tools in future campaigns: they built a community from the ground up with their 13 before ’13 project, where they live-streamed playthroughs of every main Final Fantasy title, as well as other Square Enix classics. In addition, they broke a gamer/developer divide by interviewing two Final Fantasy XIII voice actors, something which (to my knowledge) has never been done by a fan community, as opposed to gaming journalists. Those two events cemented a community that lasted into the beginning of 2013.
Operation Suzaku is notable for the #JRPGVita twitter campaign: when a Sony executive asked on Twitter what Vita JRPG fans most wanted to be localized, Suzaku organized a mass tweet campaign to push Type-0. To the extent that Type-0 was specifically mentioned as a top contender, it can be considered a success.
Suikoden getting a lot of interest. Type 0 huge interest. Quick question. What did you think of Alundra? #jrpgvita
— Shahid Kamal Ahmad (@shahidkamal) June 7, 2013
Yet neither Crystallis nor Suzaku can claim any substantive impact. Crystallis, which pushed for better communication from Square Enix regarding the two games’ development, has failed flatly on that front. If (or when) Type-0 is released, it will more likely be due to Square’s desire to promote the upcoming iOS title Final Fantasy Agito, which exists within the Type-0 universe.
(Disclosure: I contribute articles to Project Crystallis’s website. I am not involved in Crystallis’s campaign or organizational decisions.)
The Culture Wars Rage On…
The videogame industry has been embroiled in societal culture wars for decades, shown in the finger-pointing after the shootings at Columbine and Aurora, Colorado, Utoya (Norway), and Newtown, CT. As far back as 1993, videogames have been a scapegoat. Witness the outcry in US Senate Judiciary hearings over Night Trap, which was taken as representative of the entire medium and described as “repellent garbage” at the time by Roger Simon, now Chief Political Columnist at Politico. Videogames have long been a proxy battle in society’s larger culture wars.
But now the industry is experiencing an internal battle centering around the sexualization, objectification, and overall representation of women in games. While there have been controversies in the past – the racism & sexualization charges against Resident Evil 5, the Penny Arcade ‘dickwolves’ scandal (still ongoing), and the harassment of Felicia Day and Jennifer Hepler are but a few.
Yet in 2013, the issue has ramped up in prominence, and the debate has seeped from gamer culture into game development and game journalism.
Just look at five games released this year where gender became a discusstion topic: Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Remember Me, Dragon’s Crown, and Grand Theft Auto V. The first two opened the floodgates regarding marketing strategies and focus testing when Elizabeth was scrubbed from the front cover. A mini-bombshell was dropped when Ken Levine, creative director at Irrational Games, remarked that the marketing is geared towards “frat boys”. Focus groups led to Elizabeth’s removal from the boxart even though she’s central to the plot, and she’s further objectified by the text on the back cover: “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” It explicitly suggests that Elizabeth can be commoditized and viewed as a dollar figure, not a person.
Similarly, when Naughty Dog revealed some of their struggles with The Last of Us, it dominated headlines. The fact that the developer had to fight to include Ellie on the front cover, as well as their need to demand that female focus testers be included, as opposed to women’s presence being a given, was a revelation for many.
Remember Me made fewer waves, but Dontnod’s explanation that numerous publishers rejected the game – purely because it had a female protagonist – is even more outrageous than the news coming from Irrational and Naughty Dog.
Moreover, gender became a serious discussion for game reviewers and critics as well. Writing for Polygon, Danielle Riendeau unintentionally set off an onslaught of criticism when she remarked that women in Dragon’s Crown were oversexualized and objectified, declaring it “distracting” and “gross”, giving the game a 6.5/10 score. The outrage (and pockets of reasonable analysis) that followed exposed both the continuing rift in gamer culture about gender equality and a growing divide among journalists about what’s considered legitimate to critique in a review.
Finally, Grand Theft Auto V, as befits its position as a lightning rod of controversy, was criticized for its denigrating representations of women. The lack of a female protagonist – when there are three men filling that role – only added to the debate. Of note are Carolyn Petit’s remarks on the subject, in her review for Gamespot:
GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.
Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny, with ads that equate manhood with sleek sports cars while encouraging women to purchase a fragrance that will make them “smell like a bitch.” Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism.
Petit’s review (and the predictable subsequent backlash) confirm and underscore the extent of the gaming’s slow evolution on the treatment of women both in the industry, culture, and medium. The quick succession of these five titles – Infinite, Remember Me, and The Last of Us dominated the pre-E3 headlines, and Dragon’s Crown and GTA V consumed the pre-holiday news – suggests that these debates will only increase in frequency until a consensus is rebuilt.
(My personal hope is that next time, male game reviewers can also speak out on these issues without being prompted to by assaults on their female counterparts.)
No Barriers to Entry
The past year has also seen an explosion in challengers to the Big 3 home consoles. After the Ouya’s successful Kickstarter in July 2012 and subsequent release in 2013, several competing Android-based consoles quickly stepped up as challengers to Ouya’s own position as an alternative console. Playjam’s Gamestick, Bluestacks’s GamePop, and Mad Catz’s MOJO have all been announced and/or released this year.
All four consoles are evidence of the deteriorating barriers to entry for the console market. The Ouya launched with roughly $25 million in funding between its Kickstarter and private investors. The other three consoles are made by relatively tiny companies. By comparison, the Big 3 make billions in revenue each year.
There’s also the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that looks to become a peripheral add-on to games. Oculus VR, the company behind Rift, has raised nearly $100 million to develop the device; its first home looks to be Valve’s Steam service, which recently added a ‘VR support’ category.
Finally, Valve is making its own venture into console gaming with its upcoming ‘Steam Machine’, which will compete with the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U. It has yet to launch, and it’s unclear whether it will be more of a living-room complement to Steam or a genuine competitor to the Big 3. Yet it does bear further evidence of the falling barriers to entry.
By no means are all the devices mentioned on the same playing field. The Big 3 and the Android-based consoles occupy separate strata of the console market, and both Oculus Rift and Steam Machine are wildcards. Yet the fact that there is a stratification at all is new, and assuming that all the entrants don’t become massive financial flops, it suggests an increasingly competitive console market. (The handheld market has already been blown wide open by smartphones.)
Revenue? Ain’t Got Enough of It…
A slew of high-profile publishers have experienced financial troubles in the past year. 2013 kicked off with THQ’s late 2012 bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation, yet what seemed like an anomaly – a major publisher under extreme financial stress – soon became a pattern. In March, Square Enix revealed that as a result of underwhelming sales, their fiscal year was dismal. After FY 2012’s $100 million loss, Square seems to be recovering with the relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, but only time will tell.
In the social market, Zynga’s financial woes are continuing but slowly tapering off. Apparently Don Mattrick is a great executive when he’s not creating PR disasters.
Furthermore, Capcom and Atlus had their own flirtations with headlines regarding their finances. Capcom revealed a startlingly low amount of cash-on-hand back in September, and it may very well lack the financial resources for an easy transition to a new console generation. The publisher plans to increase DLC prevalence and spend more resources on the mobile market, but the next few quarters will be extremely consequential to the publisher’s ability to thrive in the next generation – or even survive at all.
Atlus, on the other hand, is in perfect financial shape; its parent company, Index Corp., wasn’t, and it declared bankruptcy in late June. Nothing at Atlus was actually disrupted, and Sega later bought all of Index, including Atlus, in September. It’s just another addition to publishers’ financial issues and uncertainties.
Paymium & Microtransactions: More than Your Gamestop Purchase…
In an effort to increase revenue, publishers are increasingly seeking ways to wrangle more cash from gamers after a game is already purchased.
I really like the term “paymium” for these kinds of games. In any case, it’s increasingly clear that publishers are getting more aggressive about post-purchase monetization. So far, these attempts have mostly angered certain segments of gamers while attracting others (the ratios of which are unclear); Dead Space 3 and Forza 5 are notable examples. Both show the PR risks fraught with microtransactions, and it’s clear that kinks, from parameters defining what should be purchasable to the pricing of content, have yet to be ironed out. ($30 for a single car in Forza 5? Turn 10 & Microsoft: what were you thinking?)
Yet it’s also clear that post-purchase monetization is not disappearing, so the only question is how it will be implemented in the future.
Trigger-Happy with Lawsuits?
There were two notable lawsuits filed against publishers in 2013. First, a class action suit filed against Gearbox and Sega regarding false advertising of Aliens: Colonial Marines is officially going to court; motions by Sega and Gearbox to dismiss the case were rebuffed.
Second, EA is now being sued over misleading statements about the financial prospects and developmental state of Battlefield 4. Investors allege that EA made these statements knowing that they were false, and that executives profited by selling their shares at artificially high prices that resulted from these statements.
It’s unclear if this is normal or an anomaly, but I don’t recall (in my limited memory) legal action like this occurring recently in the industry. The Aliens suit, filed by consumers against developers/publishers, is of particular note. It simply feels wrong not to mention these two events.
For some random status updates: I’m still working on the second part of the Gnosticism/FF7 analysis. I also plan on writing an economic/financial argument (from the consumer’s viewpoint) against season passes when I get the chance. There are serious moral hazard & adverse selection concerns present in season passes (and pre-ordering in general, but especially so in season passes), and I don’t see anyone pointing it out in the broader media. (Jim Sterling does make an argument in one episode of the Jimquisition, but he uses anecdotal evidence, not the underlying economic reasoning.)