Hey, games industry, now bend – or break.
Malmö, February 2017
We are in danger of becoming clichés. Our habits, others' prejudice and a simplistic professional language is constraining the games industry. We're boxed in, doing exploitative entertainment and uncomplicated fun. We have no other purpose – and this is just not good enough anymore. Developers need to start working more than one side of the fence.
I bloodied my nose badly myself making multi-player mobile games, in the stampede 15-16 years ago. All telcos loved the idea, but no-one wanted to buy first. Doing IT consulting, websites and, at times, advergames saved us, and kept us in games. I hope you think that eventually turned out to be a good thing.
Our collective behavior is now outright stupid again, especially in relation to how smart the people in our industry are. These lemming-like rushes onto new hardware, into F2P and VR, are incurring enormous losses for so many of us.
But I really do love games the way they are, the way they were, and most likely also the way they will be. But I don't like the games industry the way it is anymore. (Nordic Game customers excepted of course. I'll always love you just the way you are.)
What is it that we do?Play is a very important fundamental of mammal learning, a basic drive that provides much of its own rewards, from the biochemical to the more intellectual. Thus, our industry is not just a little bit, but actually quite perverted, right? The games that we are so proud to make are actually related to learning the same way that pornography is related to procreation. They certainly tickle glands similarly - but whether you get any useful takeaway from the exercise is quite another matter.
The way future games will be, is a result of how we think and talk about them today, and how we think and talk about ourselves, the makers of games, past, present and future. This is where we need to change.
We need to bend, to be more flexible, to adapt while still having a grand vision of what we're about. Focus got us here, where we've had enormous success and optimized just about everything, but it won't get us any further. We've matured into mainstream mass-market, and beyond is by definition decline – or change. Focus is of course very often a good thing, but it does tend to conserve and reinforce existing structures. And, yes, it is certainly good to know your limitations. If you have such.
Are you into signals or into pain?How you think of yourself determines what happens to you. Back in the middle of the last century Theodore Levitt taught that the US railroads went into decline because they were busy with tracks, signals and locomotives, while what the booming society needed was transportation. One critic said that that is all very well, in hindsight. But if you're making horse whips, and need a strategic re-think, how do you know if you are in transportation control systems or part of the flagellation industry?
These situations are about what the cool start-up kids today call a “pivot”, a strategic change that re-states a company's business offering and market approach. We're today making games as we know them - but will with absolute certainty end up doing games as we don't know them yet. Or making something that's closely related to games, but also has something else on the agenda than the players' pure entertainment.
What products you should consider working on is dependent on your ability and resources, on business strategy, personal taste, morals and possibly your CSR mission statement, if you have one. If you're not above doing IT consulting, why not do VR-porn, online gambling, e-sports betting, advergames, professional e-sports stuff or military simulators?
What shouldn't you do?Of course games will eventually take over all of our senses by way of DIN plugs behind our ears, or some similar interface. Imagine, or predict, your own milestones between here and there, if you like. I'm really not very interested in the hardware right now, however body-alteringly cool, but I am fascinated by what we'll be using games for.
What are games not supposed to be used for, today? What are the constraints, the limits to what we do, how we think about it, and the terms describing them? Let's for the moment please disregard gibberish like “AAA”, “indie”, “gameplay”, “platform”, all those terms that have people arguing for hours without getting any the wiser.
I'd say that “real” games are today not supposed to be for sex, betting, learning, violence, for you being paid to play them, or for your personal development. You can just add your own “non-preference” to that. We're all supposed to want to do real games, nothing else, really.
This is like film people, who are supposed to want to do feature films. That is the real stuff of their industry, the hard core: some people eventually get there by first proving themselves with short films. You don't prove yourself by doing TV commercials, documentaries, or training films, that's more your fallback, a way of making a livelihood, leaving your ideal behind. Moving in and out of the core, or spending your mornings invoicing for your work and your afternoons and late nights on your epos, that actually sounds more like business strategy than a personal failure to me.
The most conscious movement in this direction that I've yet seen, particularly in the Nordics, is in Finland. I see the Finns clear-headedly questioning what games are and the “city limits” of the games industry, such as with their serious games clustering efforts. Some of their seasoned “real”-games people are moving into more-or-less educational games – and managing to attract VC funds for it, too.
So, to paraphrase: Do you want to stay inside the box, and keep selling blinking, pinging stuff to kids, or do you want to help change the world?
(Click here for suggested sound track on Spotify.)