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The Love/Hate Relationship Between Video Games and Fans

Video games exist in a weird kind of bubble.  The medium is not nearly as popular as film, television, or music, it is not nearly as popular as the majority of sports.  The barrier of access to the aforementioned industries is fairly simple, $15 can get you into any movie, you can purchase a TV for a couple hundred dollars (a living room staple), and music can be accessed through almost any device.  Video games are something completely different.  Even if you purchase a $500 Xbox this November, you will have access to only a chunk of this bizarre industry, purchasing a Playstation 4 along with it, would get you most of what is available.  In order to play every game that will be released in 2013, one would need a PC, iOS device, Nintendo 3DS, a PlayStation Vita, a Nintendo WiiU, an Xbox 360, and a PlayStation 3, in addition to the impending next generation consoles.  Obviously most buyers would assemble such a roster through piecemeal purchases, but combined the cost would come to nearly $3000, not to mention a TV to play everything on.  When the price of admission is so steep, is it any wonder why video games have the most fanatic, vocal, and wonderful fan base of any medium today?

There is a danger, when one invests in a video game system, the lingering fear that your purchase could be “wrong” or “unsupported”.  As kid, I owned a Sage Genesis and found myself an outsider looking into the wonderful world of the Super Nintendo.  So I jumped to the Nintendo side and got a N64, only to find out that everyone was playing Playstation.  It has created a long history of myself playing games like Mega Bomberman and Perfect Dark while my friends talked about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Metal Gear Solid.  There was no ridicule for having the “wrong” system, it’s not like people teased me at school, however it excluded me from conversations I wanted to be apart of.  Thus, like so many fans, the feeling of exclusion drove me to become a “fanboy”, clinging to Nintendo when they released the Gamecube, pointlessly arguing with my friends that it was the superior system.  A year later, I caved and got a PlayStation 2.

NeoGAF is a forum website, known for its large community and colorful conversations.  The website is everything that is amazing about the devoted community of players that shell out hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars each year for video games, their hardware, and the peripherals offered to enhance one’s experience.  The site offers interesting conversations about all of the hot button topics from DRM to DLC.  Sites like this are proof of the fanaticism that surrounds the video game industry.  Since the internet has brought together these fans, giving them means to connect and unify their voice, they have become the most powerful communities in the history of entertainment.

There is a consciousness of fans by video game developers, an acknowledgement that without them there would be no game.  This doesn’t happen in any other industry, all other artists hold themselves above the consumer.  One such example is the way that games promote themselves, with Kickstarters, Steam Early Access, demos, and conventions.  Sure, films and television show up at comic-con and there might be sneak-preview at some point, but compare that with the promotion circuit the recent hit The Last of Us went through.  Naughty Dog’s game first premiered at the Spike VGAs  in 2011, since then it has shown a hands-off demo at E3 2012, another trailer at the VGAs in 2012, was playable to the public at PAX East in 2013, and released a downloadable demo all before the game’s physical release this June, that doesn’t even include the closed-doors events for the press.  Sure, these kinds of events are devised to help garner attention for a title, which in effect should increase sales, any cynic knows that.  But there is something else at work, there is a desire to share between developers and fans, especially when the work is worth sharing.

The relationship with fans is not always a good one.  Like any relationship there are arguments and rough spots, less to do with quality and more to do with business.  As video games have grown in expense, they have needed to find new ways in order to recoup their high budgets.  Downloadable content, digital rights management, and other spats have developed in the video game community, leaving many fans distrustful of video game companies they onced adored.  It is hard to ignore the writing on the wall, with companies like THQ going bankrupt and developers shuttering their windows more and more.  Video games are quickly approaching movie-esque budgets and those that can’t produce are discarded.

Even when games become hits they can lose plenty of money.  One of the biggest concerns for publishers and developers alike is internet piracy.  It is hard to give an accurate figure when talking about the money lost to software piracy, but according to a study from the University of Western Ontario, as of 2007 video game companies were claiming piracy losses of $3 billion a year.

In order to prevent such extravagant losses, publishers began to enact measures to make piracy more difficult, the most popular being the online passes that were pioneered by Electronic Arts in 2010.  More measures, including games being played with a constant online connection we enacted to further try and stem the losses from piracy and the used game market which publishers suspected was also contributing a lack of revenue.  Player response was volatile.

Unlike other forms of entertainment, where the audience is a merely an observer, video games make players an active participant.  Players control the destiny of their favorite characters, such as Master Chief, Nathan Drake, and Mario.  These protagonists could not reach their objective without the help of the player, thus part of the player becomes essential to the experience.  It is because of this investment that things like DLC, DRM, or other publisher policies to maintain control of an experience feel like a direct attack upon the players.

An interesting statistic from the Entertainment Software Association is that the video game audience is growing older.  It shouldn’t be a surprise as the first generation to grow up with games is coming to middle age, but it also means that the average player has less time, more responsibility, and more monetary commitments.  This demographic doesn’t have time to understand why game have to always be online, or figure out why an online pass is required. The only thing that they are aware of is that between installs and system updates, these requirements are just one more thing getting between players and the game.  Not only do video games have significant price barriers, but now they have technical barriers and ownership barriers that serve as just one more thing to keep games from being a truly mainstream medium.

These “barrier” policies, from Mass Effect’s Day-one DLC, to Sim City’s always online requirements, to the Xbox One’s game policies came under hard scrutiny from players.  Each one of these controversial decisions have been scrapped or resulted public apology from developers and publishers alike.  Skeptics will say that these changes are made for financial reasons, that the public has little to do with these influential decisions, but those financial numbers come from fans.  It is very rare for a filmmaker, musician, or comedian had ever apologized for a disappointing performance from their medium.  It is almost unheard of for movie studios and music labels to reach out and communicate to the people sitting in theaters and downloading their music.  Video game companies reach out to their fans constantly.  Double Fine is streaming development meetings of Massive Chalice for Kickstarter backers, Remedy’s Sam Lake made a six minute video explaining why Alan Wake 2 was not their next game, and Mass Effect 3 changed their ending in order to appeal to fans upset with the game’s final moments.    No fan base, in any industry holds that kind of power.

That power can turn abusive.  Publishers and developers live and die by mob mentality. Games now go through rigorous focus testing, essentially watering them down to bland copies of proven ideas.  Publishers start to rely on bizarre rules believing consumers won’t play games with female protagonists or first-person shooter mechanics.  As previously mentioned, a creator’s vision can be altered due to unhappy masses, such as Mass Effect 3’s ending.  A slip of the tongue can lead to a quick firing, something Adam Orth learned the hard way earlier this year. When controversy sprang over Lara Croft’s latest depiction in Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics wondered internally if the game was dead before it was even released.

Every industry needs money, every industry relies on consumers, but few are as intertwined with them as the games industry.  It should be a source of pride for both the business and the fans.  The voice of the player is something that gets complained about constantly with the criticism that players should simply be happy with what they have.  I believe that as consumers it is a right and responsibility to be as vocal as possible, something the consumers of this industry are very good at.  I hope that as video games continue to grow and expand that players can continue to be informed, educated, and vocal.  It also important to remember that we are lucky enough to have more access to the products of this industry than any other, that developers and publishers never waver in their recognition of fans.  There are plenty of disagreements between these two sides of video games, but people would be hard pressed to find as much love in any other medium.

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