By Chris Chung, Catlateral Damage
I’ve been a gamer for the majority of my life. I grew up with Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Pokémon Blue and have been playing games ever since. I’ve been immersed in gaming culture for the past 15 years, have been working in the industry for the last 2 years, and I’m now beginning my career as an indie game developer creating my first commercial title, Catlateral Damage. I still absolutely love games and we have lots going for us, but there are quite a few things that I believe should change to make the industry better for everyone.
What’s going well
Video games are as accessible as ever now. It feels like everyone plays at least one game enough to be considered a regular player. Lots of young kids are playing Minecraft on Xbox, teens and adults are playing League of Legends on PC, moms are playing Candy Crush on their phones, and grandparents are playing Words With Friends on tablets. Games are everywhere! When I was a kid, you’d be made fun of for being a “gamer”! I’d attribute this to the popularity of the Wii (well, Wii Sports) and Apple’s ability to put a small computer/game system in everyone’s pocket. The wide variety of available games means there’s something for everyone.
The multitude of games may be attributed to how easy it is to create them nowadays. When I was starting to develop games in high school, I was using Game Maker to put together simple platformers. If I had trouble implementing something I could search the forums with a ~50% success rate. There also weren’t great places to distribute my games, which were Windows-only executables. Now, anyone can boot up Unity, watch a few tutorials, and make a game from scratch. Unity works on almost every platform, so you can make your games playable in a browser window for the whole internet to see or put them out for free on mobile app stores. Social media, notably Twitter and Facebook, are great for getting the word out, too.
A lot of independent developers are taking advantage of this ease of entry and are creating awesome games like we’ve never seen before. Games that change how we think about games (Antichamber, The Stanley Parable), let us experience an uncommon perspective (Gone Home, Surgeon Simulator 2013), or just distill gameplay to its purest form (Super Meat Boy, Super Hexagon) all exist because of talented indies. I’m sure there are still infinite other things we haven’t experienced that indies will come up with some day. While AAA companies stick with their tried-and-true gameplay and IP, indies dare to use their freedom to do the unimaginable.
AAA companies are catching on, though. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have their own programs for helping indies distribute the games on their platforms. Sony seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of capitalizing on current trends, such as Twitch streaming and virtual reality technology. Where indies typically innovate with software, big companies are able to innovate with hardware and the infrastructure that allows us to play games. It seems to me that even though some of these innovations aren’t too welcomed by gamers (e.g. the Kinect), they are still a step in the right direction.
What’s not going so well
Although AAA is trying to innovate with hardware, they still seem to be stuck on the notion that all gamers are young heterosexual caucasian males. There is an abundance of gritty shooters with white male protagonists and barely any gameplay variation. Nintendo tries to bring something new to their well-established IP, but even those can feel uninspired, too. And it’s not just AAA that is failing to create new experiences these days but indies, too! How many “puzzle platformers with a twist and pixel graphics” have you seen? The accessibility of game development is also leading to a lot of new developers recreating games they enjoy rather than making something unique.
It’s not just gameplay that is lacking imagination, but also themes and narratives. It seems the majority of the industry hasn’t caught on that gamers are actually quite diverse. Today, there are just about as many females playing games as males, yet many games are still targeted towards the male demographic. Women, as well as non-white races, are frequently under- and misrepresented in big-name games. This may be a result of the demographics that make up game companies, though it’s not just these demographics that could change for the better.
Working in the industry isn’t the glorious fantasy that many gamers dream about. At larger studios, QA testers are underpaid and overworked, free-to-play design is all about using psychology to get users (not players) into spending money, and anyone can lose their job at any time for no good reason. On the non-AAA side, indies work for months or years on passion projects with limited resources only to have their games compared to big budget titles and possibly return little to no profit. Everyone’s fighting to garner the attention of the masses to survive and the ones with the most money are usually the ones that come out on top.
Among the masses that companies are trying to please is a vocal group that feel like they are entitled to be given what they want. Rather than appreciating the hardworking people that poured years of work into these games, these gamers aim to point out everything that’s wrong with the game and why they deserve things to be a certain way. These gamers also tend to be quick to make lasting judgements based on first impressions without learning more about the game, its development, or the people behind it. More than anything, this harms the people who are trying to bring a quality experience to the gamers who are criticizing them. The harsh comments don’t help developers; they just kill motivation and make gamers look brashly ignorant children.
What can we do?
Developers, both small and large, can make an effort to push the medium forward by creating unique experiences that explore uncharted territory. New game mechanics, uncommon characters, and serious themes can all be represented better in the future. Show gamers there are more interactive experiences than just shooting bad guys as a powerful male hero! Taking risks may not yield the best profits, but it has a chance to have a positive impact on video games as a whole.
Bigger game development studios can start treating employees as humans rather than cheap labor. Making people work 80 hour weeks for minimum wage is unacceptable. Laying off staff in large quantities can be minimized with improved planning and handling of finances. If the industry wants to be sustainable we should be focused on what we’re creating and how we’re creating it rather than how much profit we can pull in. There’s a lot more to life than just money.
Gamers can become more knowledgeable about the game development process rather than just assuming they know how things work. They can also learn more about the developers behind the games they play or games they see for the first time before making potentially harmful generalizations about the game or the people behind it. The internet may allow you to be an anonymous troll but it also allows you to be more informed and a constructive member of society.
And in general, we can all try to be more thoughtful, compassionate people. We’re all in this together, so we might as well try to work together for our shared love of video games. Take the time to think about others’ lives, troubles, differences, similarities, dreams, and opinions. Games should be for everyone, so no one should be excluding or devaluing others. Let’s all try to make better games, enjoy the games that are made for us, and just treat each other like humans!
Day 5 | Chris Chung