So I was listening to classic rock the other day and Rush’s 1980 anthem “Spirit of the Radio” came on the playlist. I’ve probably heard this song over a hundred times in my life starting all the way back to my dad driving me around Knightdale, NC and playing classic rock on FM 105.1, but something about the second verse really hit home this time around.
All this machinerySpirit of the Radio, Rush
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
It’s really just a question
Of your honesty, yeah your honesty
One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity, yeah
Neil Peart’s lyrics were about the transition of free-form radio to the commercial format we know today. In the 1970’s, radio was fairly fluid where DJs could play whatever music they fancied or talk about whatever was on their mind and there wasn’t really a structured format to it. Towards the end of the 70’s, radio was beginning to commercialize; there was format and the main focus wasn’t the expression of the DJs but selling airtime and maximizing commercial value.
I’m not some crazy huge Rush fan, I couldn’t honestly name 5 Rush songs, but these lyrics are so applicable to a lot of my experience in the video game industry today. People my age experienced NES and floppy disc gaming during our early childhood. Then we grew up playing SNES/Genesis and controversial shooters like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D. Puberty set in during the sprawling multi-disk JRPGs of the N64/PSX era while PC gaming was reaching new peaks thanks to the advent of the internet and CD-ROMs.
I was lucky enough to experience some amazing video game generations at pivotal times in my life. Looking back on those periods, they were special because it felt like games were competing on quality for our money. Final Fantasy VII sold a trillion copies because it is a truly landmark interactive media experience. Look at the narrative alone, the game literally starts out with you as a domestic terrorist and features some of the most impressive unreliable narration in gaming.
Fast forward to where we are now, I truly argue, outside of some console games, modern games no longer compete on quality. Games today are about aggregating as much data as possible to psychologically take advantage of their users. Users are “acquired”, not marketed towards. Users have experiments ran on them to optimize revenue, not presented a tirelessly crafted piece of entertainment. Games are now a service, not an interactive experience. We are not playing something to drive emotion, fun or play, we are playing something carefully optimized to turn our rational decision making off and have us engage with it as much as possible. We are targeted by this services through data collected by our search engines, digital stores and social media platforms. All of this is done to find the “lucky” few who have psychologically traits that make them subjective to gacha machines, desperate buys, near misses or spend-based PvP so that they have no choice but to whip out their credit card and buy until their dopamine hit is registered.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m to blame for this just as much as anyone else. I’ve worked on these games wearing many different hats: the designer that laid the blueprint, the engineer that built it and the product manager that optimized it. And I’ll be 100% honest, I’d rather work at a place that has mastered the art of gaming live ops rather than a company that wants to make a nostalgia driven money burning project. Companies that successfully compete in the Games as a Service space keep their lights on and pay out salaries; companies that can’t compete in the current landscape lay employees off after 6 months of crunch.
It’s very strange to work at a Games as a Service development studio. Everyone grew up on these amazing pieces of entertainment that were marketed more off of word of mouth in the school yard than terrible magazine covers that were paid for. 90% of people in these studios cite The Legend of Zelda, Half-Life or Halo as reasons they work on games; yet we spend our days clone whatever dominating app store category game with slightly different art and names, trying to win via making CPI lower than LTV. One of my favorite quotes while working at a Games as a Service company: “There is no metric for fun”. No there isn’t…
Do Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans, League of Legends, Fortnite or any of the modern games inspire young people in the same way I was growing up? Are there moments in DOTA2 that equal Sephiroth dropping down and shoving his over-sized katana through the flower girl I just wasted my Golden Saucer date on? Is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s somber, time-traveling story really better than Dungeon Fighter Online? I honestly say yes, yes it is; the title screen music alone is better than Dungeon Fighter Online. I don’t think there is an analogous experience for kids, teens or young adults today to what I had growing up and I truly think that is a really sad thing to realize. The top grossing games of 2018 are a collection of F2P, Games as a Service shells that reuse the same handful of monetization techniques; all lacking story, meaningful art and long lasting impact on the users.
I think we’ve all truly chased the glittering prizes and made many, many compromises to get there. We, game developers, are the ones to blame for this state we are in. We were all too proud of ourselves to reach $1 million in daily revenue or $1 billion in IAPs a year by shoving slot machines into every aspect of the words game mechanic that we could. I really think we’ve lost control of this machine at this point and now we must sit and wait for it to finish steering its course.