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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I’m actually more intrigued by your original point that the “important bit” you were leading up to, Steerpike. It’s not a point I’d given any thought to, but it’s so true. Are we approaching the point where festive gift-giving is purified into a 100% proof corporate-consumer act? Devoid of wrapping paper and context?
It’s yet another moment where I get all curmudgeon and think my childhood is being torn up into digital shreds. In thirty years, will there be anything under the Christmas tree or will we all synch our iPadlets over Bluetooth and exchange DRM signatures?
I often thought I would go with flow, I would not be the kind of person who would get upset at the march of technology. But, damn, approaching the forties, it still gets you. Is anyone immune to this sort of thing?
I haven’t been keeping track of new releases at all, and I feel so desperately behind… maybe Christmas will let me catch up but I definitely doubt it.
One of my favourite Christmas memories is unwrapping Monkey Island 2 purely because of Steve Purcell’s amazing box artwork emerging out of the wrapping paper. I’ll miss the idea of kids losing out on moments like that but it seems these days that gifting has become almost grotesque with kids getting so many tangible (as well as intangible) presents that those potentially magic moments simply get lost amidst the flurry of unwrapping (never mind the lack thereof).
“Those in the industry (self included) maintain color-coded Excel spreadsheets to manage it.”
I did that but then it started getting hard to manage so I ditched it and now follow my gaming mojo.
@HM: like you, that first portion of the article was what really interested me. But as I progressed I began to feel the whole “less to unwrap” angle was well-covered, so I decided to add another thought to the mix.
I remember receiving Castlevania one Christmas morning. This was before my parents had started getting creative with their wrapping, so it was shaped like an NES game and I knew what it was – at least, that it was a game. I played all day.
Like most, I love unwrapping gifts (and watching people unwrap gifts I’ve gotten them). It’s strange to think we’re migrating away from that. Perhaps we’ll still wrap things symbolically – if I get you a Kindle book, I could wrap a tube containing a nice printout of the cover or something. Regardless, it will take some getting used to.
@Gregg: my Excel sheet needs a complete re-work. I plan to recreate it for next year and make it a little more dynamic. Maybe there’ll be an app to track releases by then…
I think wrapping gifts is a waste of time and paper. Bring on the digital age. Let me watch gift wrap counters die, strangled in many colored bows, paper, and ribbons.
I still like to read paper books. Kindle is too sterile for me. Yeah, I’m personally killing a few trees… I don’t give a shit. I do enough good and recycling in my daily life!
I can’t rub my hands on that Kindle and feel that sweet paper texture. I can’t enjoy that wonderful paper smell.
I’ll always read paper books, and give paper books to others, and socks, and toasters, and homemade shortbread, etc.
Long time reader, first comment.
Interesting point about the gaming industry. I agree that the gaming industry is only a competative market when relseases and important sales periods overlap, such as the launch of a console or when two big games release opposite each other. Sadly, game studios rush foward games for the Holiday dough. The Yuletide shopping blitz rams into a choke point comprised of limited spending cash–games therefor compete for a scarce resource they otherwise would not. So, thanks for dousing the industry with a cup of sober analysis!
It is insightful commentary like this that has anchored me to my screen, happily reading the connect posted on this site (slowing down my work but keeping me happy!).
Thanks Chris D, and welcome.
The core drawback of the holiday release cycle – what we in the industry refer to as “the holiday massacre” – is that it actually harms overall sales because too many games are competing. In general gamers buy many games over the course of the year, but they’re far less likely to buy, say, six in six weeks. It costs too much, and they wouldn’t be able to give attention to so many games. Publishers dictate when studios ship their games, and publishers insist on this ridiculous holiday season blowout, to the detriment of all.
For the few digital items I’ve given out as gifts that I want to wrap up, I’ll just print out some choice screenshots of the game along with the receipt of my purchase and then put the papers in a box and wrap it up. Then, after the person goes ahead and opens it up and (hopefully) squeals for joy, I’ll go back online and proceed to gift them the game because if I do it before it will appear in their email before they open the gift.