Another month, another column! Today, Tappers, I submit for your consideration a Culture Clash installment full of holiday cheer. Should be on the IGDA website in the next few days if you prefer to do your considering over there.
This topic has been on my mind since I got a Kindle of my own. I love the device; it’s certainly increased my reading, but it – like Steam – does represent a fundamental shift in the way we exchange presents. This year should still be relatively… analog, but one can imagine where we’re heading on this (exciting) digital path. In the interest of bring the whole thing full-circle to the madness of the video game holiday release cycle, you’ll find some reflections on that as well. Enjoy!
A Zero-Sum Game
By Matthew Sakey
November 7, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
As the release schedule for the next two months so obviously demonstrates, the holiday season is fast approaching. It’s a time when some portion of the world will be exchanging gifts wrapped in bright paper, then tearing that paper off, and then toting their new loot to the store to exchange for something else. This cross-cultural phenomenon has gone on essentially forever, and while modern commercialism ties it to a few religious holidays, the fact is people have been exchanging gifts since the cave people swapped rocks for other rocks.
Now, though, it is changing. The very concept of “giving” is changing in the digital world. That classic image of a mountain of presents beneath the Christmas tree, a memory well established in my own family, is less and less a reality, even as we arguably exchange more gifts than ever. Gift-giving is undergoing a very strange metamorphosis: quite simply, there’s less to unwrap.
What does that mean? From a gift-giving perspective, it means that if you’re planning to get your favorite bibliophile a stack of new Kindle books for <Insert Holiday>, they’ll be getting the same worth in gifts but nothing to open. And modern gifting culture is built around having something to open. Plus, since the comparative infancy of digital gifting means that Amazon doesn’t offer a way to schedule the arrival of gifts, unless you shop on <Insert Holiday Eve>, your recipient will know what they’re getting – will even have it – way in advance. So there’s less reason to dash down the stairs in pajamas to see what <Insert Jolly Elf> left in or under the <Insert Object>. We give more these days, but because of digitization it can feel like we get less.
I often exchange Steam gifts with friends, completely unplanned. Someone buys me something and I reciprocate, or the other way around. It’s modest indie stuff, usually. The gesture is nice and everyone enjoys getting a treat. We wouldn’t exchange these small gifts (many of which don’t even exist in packaged form) otherwise. So “not having something to unwrap” is not a complaint so much as an observation about how much is changing.
Even today, and certainly when I was growing up, one of the things I most loved unwrapping was a new game. My folks realized that I could identify that loot through the wrapping simply by the shape of the box, so they devised ever-more elaborate ways to conceal what was actually beneath the paper. I got games in huge moving boxes, I got games that had been opened and wrapped as separate components, once I even got a game in a box of office paper, and actually believed they’d gotten me paper for some bizarre reason until I took the lid off.
Now, though, I buy most games on Steam, and receive many gifts of games through the same channel. And though the service does send you a little graphic of a brightly wrapped parcel, clicking “click here to unwrap your gift!” isn’t quite the same. Consoles still exist mostly in the packaged-goods domain, but sooner or later digital distribution will reach them as well. What it means is that those who cleave to the traditional concept of wrapping and unwrapping presents will start getting a lot of socks and toasters, because a huge amount of entertainment will have become digital, and rightfully so.
Now, at word 591, I will actually get to the point of this column: the holiday release cycle for games. It’s always been a little obscene, and it’s certainly self-defeating. In a way it’s the only time video games are actually competitors. One of the founders of ArenaNet recently commented to Edge Magazine that he didn’t really perceive World of Warcraft and ArenaNet’s upcoming Guild Wars 2 “competitors.” After all, he said, many gamers will buy both. Games aren’t like television sets, where you purchase one brand and all the others lose out. Essentially it’s not a zero-sum game, where everything earned by one player means less for the other players to earn.
Except around the holidays. Arkham City. Uncharted 3. Rage. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Stronghold 3, Saints Row the Third, Sword of the Stars 2, Battlefield 3 Modern Warfare 3 Skyrim Dark Souls War in the NorthSpaceMarineGears3HeroesVIGameofThronesSeriousSamHardReset…
It goes on. Those in the industry (self included) maintain color-coded Excel spreadsheets to manage it. Those outside the industry are like leaves in a storm, buffeted by the typhoon of new releases, of which they’ll only pick up a handful. And then it does become a zero-sum game: it’s practically impossible for new IPs to survive, and great games often simply fall by the wayside because they went unnoticed or de-prioritized in the flood. Publishers who insist on games shipping in time to wind up wrapped in paper under the damned tree are often sabotaging their own businesses.
In this age of digital releases, the holiday cycle should have become a thing of the past. A couple years ago the industry went through a sort of spasm and had a mini-storm in June, but that’s not precisely the same as simply spreading big releases out across the year. That developers are, of course, pressured to release unfinished games in time for the holidays doesn’t do the medium any favors either. Some sanity about this cycle would do the industry a world of good; more games would sell, more IPs would be recognized, and better quality would be likely.
I’m hardly the first to complain about the madness of the holiday release cycle in the games industry. It’s been going on forever. In 1995 I unwrapped a box the size of a washing machine and found, suspended by string inside, a handwritten note indicating that the box contained “The Spirit of Wing Commander IV.” Because of course Wing Commander IV had slipped, and those who’d preordered the game to give it as a present got the shaft. Of course, all the same, I had something to unwrap. And with the current culture of gift-giving that’s half the fun. But the winds are changing, and the industry might do well to collectively realize that changing with them would be both wise and profitable.
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