The Political Clash Between “The Game Artists” and “The Whale Hunters”

From 2012 onward, the games industry has been a fiercely divided place. Two extreme positions have emerged, and a lot of industry folks are stuck somewhere in between.

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On one side is a group of professionals and industry leaders that love games deeply. They favor making games on PC and console. They commit to delivering products with great stories, satisfying endings, and a reasonable price point for all. Emotionally, I have always landed on this side. There are challenges, though… this group – we’ll call them the “Game Artists” – tend not to want to make games that are mechanically accessible to the broadest possible audience. I love Dark Souls III and Bayonetta 2, but my wife cannot find enjoyment from these titles. And while products from the “Game Artists” are often great, the financial returns they show do not tend to impress investors, who prefer the folks on the other side of the industry…

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The “other side” side is a group led by people who are more interested in how much an individual game can make than how fun they can make that game. This side is made up by an army of empiricists who trust data over instinct. Let’s call them the “Whale Hunters”. They are eager to figure out how much money they can mine from individual players. They are deeply opposed to spend caps. When Whale Hunters boast about how ‘good’ their game is, their focus will be on where it stands in the Top Grossing charts, not what it received as a score from IGN.

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To be clear, I’m talking about extreme positions in this piece. Most people in the industry are not as idealistic as “Game Artists”, nor are they as monetization-focused as “Whale Hunters”. Just like politics, most people in the industry sit somewhere just north or south of the middle.

Not me. Just as I am “far-left” politically, I am also “far-Game Artist” personally and professionally. I have always looked at games more as an enthusiast consumer than as a business person, so I find myself personally offended by the idea of trying get thousands of dollars out of a single person for a single game. I know it’s not stealing, but it feels like stealing to me. I know that retention and habituation are not exactly the same thing, but they feel so closely aligned that they mean the same thing to me. I’ve heard articulate arguments from both sides, but the “Game Artist” argument speaks to my heart. It is the position that feels right. That’s where I have to be, both as a consumer and as a professional. Trying to do otherwise creates a level of cognitive dissonance I have found that I simply can’t live with.

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I have learned this year that it’s possible to be fulfilled as a player and as a member of the games industry without having to accept any of the “Whale Hunters” view of the industry. As a player, I have rejected free-to-play, paid gacha, and virtual currency 100%. I carry a Vita or a 3DS in same pocket as my phone, wherever I go. I recognize that I may be missing some good stuff as a result… but there are so many awesome experiences on the premium side of the fence that I don’t care.

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As a professional, I’ve been thrilled to be a part of the virtual reality movement. The market is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years, and I believe it will always be lead by premium gaming experiences. I’ll remain in the VR space, for as long as that remains true.

For years, I have heard pundits and friends say that F2P has completely won over casual consumers – and that there is no going back to premium for that audience. I disagree. I believe there is still a strong base of casual players that are willing to pay up front for worthwhile gaming experiences. Nintendo has defined a path forward for those consumers:

  1. The “NES Classic” is the Tickle-Me-Elmo of 2016. The audience that wants it is primarily a mainstream audience – and they’re happy to pay up front. My guess is that there are a lot of lapsed gamers here: folks who played NES as a kid, but didn’t carry on with the hobby through the PlayStation era.
  2. The launch of Pokemon Sun & Moon (3DS) was massive. It’s on track to be the best-selling game of the year on any platform. This indicates that mainstream customers are still willing to pay upfront for portable game experiences.
  3. The December 15th launch of Super Mario Run will likely reinforce that mainstream customers will pay upfront for great experiences. And it’s wonderful to see Apple support Nintendo’s premium effort.

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If you are part of the NES generation, the games we love are not disappearing – they still have the potential to be massively successful. And it’s still possible to work in the games industry without working on titles that uncap spending.

We are not living in an all-or-nothing environment. The traditional market is alive and healthy. F2P will not supplant the markets that have come before. The fear of that happening is over.

Work on games you love. Purchase games you love.

 

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