Economists calculate what are called “concentration ratios” to determine the relative competitiveness of certain markets, and to try to identify different types of market structures based on the market share of the 4 largest firms in an industry. These ratios range from 0% to 100%, with 0% meaning no one firm has total control of the market, and 100% is essentially a damn monopoly – and not the fun kind with Boardwalk and Free Parking.
Video game consoles crack the very top of the list at 100%. A feat maybe one or two other industries manage to pull off – We’re number 1, guys!
Our industry, how it operates, is rotten on nearly every level.
Why can I not put a PS3 game into an Xbox 360 and have it work? Don’t comment with some explanation – I’m being facetious, my dears. The specifics are not important: It should work. No other media industry operates like this. It is insanity. It is a terrible convention, an outmoded and obsolete limitation still pressed upon us because Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are hell bent on driving out competitors for their own sake. Proprietary console formats should have died out in the 80s with the Atari and the presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis, yet here we are: Gears of War 3 sits in my PS3, and it looks at me like I’m some sort of spoon-licking moron.
Imagine if DVDs or CDs were like this. I’d want to listen to my Celine Dion albums, but could only do it on a Sony Walkman instead of my random piece of crap made by JVC. I’d have to go out and shell out money for a Walkman just to listen to 3 CDs, only for Celine Dion to turn around and sign some exclusive contract with Panasonic and their CD players, making her future albums only playable on their devices.
How is a man supposed to get in touch with his feminine side in this kind of market?
But we don’t see any attempt to alleviate any of this. Because we’re dealing with an oligopoly. Three firms – Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo – who have no intention of making life easier on the consumer, and every intention of crushing the others for their own sake and profit. I mean, for Christ’s sake: I learned this in my microeconomics course. Our industry is literally a textbook definition of an oligopoly!
Now, would this require more of an investment on the part of consumers? Possibly. One of the benefits of our current market is that, because it is under such tight restriction, the three dominating firms effectively control the pace of the technology, limiting how often consumers must upgrade their hardware and possibly saving them money. These are benefits which may be lost if the reigns were handed to an uncoordinated, competitive market.
Then Microsoft charges you $100 for a network adapter and $50 for a power cord, leaving you to wonder just what money you really saved. People were shocked when Sony originally announced the launch price of the PS3: “$600? They’re insane! What are they thinking!?” They thought they were a monopoly that could get away with it, with no real alternative or competition to stop them.
They were only about half right.
Software has its problems as well. There are about 110 independent video game publishers currently in operation around the world. In comparison: There are about 68,000 pizza restaurants in the U.S. alone, let alone what the number is in the world. Now, making pizzas is a lot easier to do. One of the metrics used in these concentration ratios are what are called “barriers to entry,” or how difficult it is for new participants to enter a market – of which the very nature of our industry automatically erects barriers in the form of development and marketing costs. Games are simply expensive to produce, meaning the competition we’re going to see is going to be limited from the get-go.
But again: No attempt to address the subject, not even any sort of discussion about it. I cite publishers, and not developers, for a simple reason: Publishers act as the gatekeepers for our entire industry, deciding what games see the light of day and what you get to play. Developers really don't have a horse in this game per se – they're in it to make awesome games. But these publishers, like any other business, seek to thin their numbers and reduce the number of choices available to consumers. These are aspects of every other industry in the world, but it is a little shocking just how much these facts are not a part of our collective consciousness given it is perhaps one of the most followed industries in the world. You don’t see many blogs with real time updates of the happenings of the pork industry on a daily basis, for instance.
These seem like crazy notions, especially since we’re about to enter the holidays and there are more games coming down the pipe than my wallet can handle. But really think about it: All the games that have come out over the year, made by a host of different developers, how many of them have the same publisher? EA, Activision, Take Two, Namco, Capcom. We may have a lot of games, and a lot of titles competing with each other, but only so many actual companies to which these titles belong to competing.
And they go out of their way not only to undercut each other, but to stamp out the indie studios as well. Or, if they can’t stamp either of them out: Acquire them and bend them to their control. How many studios have we seen fall to the sword and die out in this manner? Former creative juggernauts like Rare are absorbed to the whims of larger developers, concentrating and diluting the creative capability of the industry. What could Infinity Ward have created if they were not acquired by Activision and forced to bang the Call of Duty drum for the rest of their existence?
It is this environment which leads to the absurd era of endless sequels and price jacking, peddling already-made features as “downloadable content” which were once a part of the actual game. I have no problem with DLC in and of itself, but charging me $4.99 for a 400kb notepad file which unlocks crap already in my game surely isn’t anything that blows my skirt up. But again: We are dealing with an industry with monopolistic structures, orientations, and urges. Which leads me to the newest, greatest travesty in this saga which it is truly both comical and depressing:
The season pass.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as I stood in line at Gamestop the other week, listening to the cashier explain to another customer the benefits of Modern Warfare 3’s Hardened Edition.
“Well, if you buy the Hardened Edition, you’ll be able to get all of the DLC for a year for free, instead of having to buy them. So you’re saving money.”
Whoa. Hold on. First, let me clean all this soda I choked on. For the last couple of years, we’ve had these map packs coming out for $15 a pop. In the course of less than a year, I've spent $60 for the game itself, followed by another $60 for maps to run around in, and now you're interested in saving me money?
Let that sink in. Anyone who has bought all 4 of these packs has paid the retail price of a full game for simple environments to run around in. No new mechanics, no new gameplay, no new music, story, visuals: Just some square maps.
Now, people can spend their money however way they wish, and I’ve certainly spent more absurd money on Gundam models which serve to do nothing more than to throw me in a nerd frolic every now and then, putting a serious dent into my productivity on some days. I have no problem with these map packs – whatever makes people happy.
But don’t insult my intelligence by telling me I’m saving money by ponying up $40 up front for $60 worth of maps when they would have been $0 a decade ago. It’s like clocking me in the face 8 times and insisting I should be grateful it wasn’t 9.
Which leads me to my next target, the literal monopoly of the monopolists: Gamestop.
I am not here to talk about their lousy trade in values, gutted game cases, or most of the usual crap we complain about when this subject comes up.
I am here to discuss their abhorrent labor practices.
I have been in a constant search for a new job since the first day I started my current one (and that was 4 years ago). I work at a grocery store. An apt description of what I do is: I sweat. I round up shopping carts outside, I stock and arrange the shelves, and I patiently explain to the homeless people that they can’t use the toilets as a bath. But I get paid $9.25 an hour with dental, vision, and stock in the company just for showing up. It’s not terrible, especially while I’m in college, but it definitely doesn’t always cover the bills.
So a while back, I managed to befriend one of the girls at a local Gamestop (who I really just wanted to take out on a date). They had a few positions open, and my tolerance for cheese-related inquiries was at an all time low. I was genuinely interested in taking on a second job, and then I asked her how much it paid.
Minimum? As in, minimum wage? To arguably do more work which was twice as dangerous, what with every other Gamestop being robbed every other week? It’s like Gamestop goes out of its way to see if they can make me spit out whatever drink I bring into the store with me.
I mean, it’s bad enough going in there are a customer. It is truly one of the most atrocious shopping experiences one can endure, as the place is always hopelessly understaffed in an attempt to drive down costs for the corporate office, in turn leaving one poor soul to deal with a line of about 5 or 6 people – and each of them require 10 to 15 minutes of interaction on average at the minimum.
There of course is the annoying instance of the membership cards, the magazines, of placing pre-orders. The biggest annoyance however, and one I don’t see discussed often, is the hassle of canceling a pre-order, which often turns into one of the biggest guilt trips I have to endure in my life. The associates plead with you not to cancel your pre-order, even if you have to use it to pay for a game you’re buying. Literally, I had one of them tell me the other day, with a huge line behind me:
“Could you not cancel those, or put $5 back on them? We’ve gotten a lot of cancellations today and we just can’t afford this on our numbers.”
She then tried to walk it back, but my Tommy Lee Jones face was already on. I was fucking pissed. It wasn’t her fault though – they tie how many hours they get each week to the pre-orders they make and cancel, even though my cancelations have nothing to do with how good of an employee these people are. Most of the time, they’re simply because my own job doesn’t pay enough. Not only do they have to man long lines often by themselves for a despicable wage, but they then must grovel to their customers to act against their interests in order to spare the poor associate from not being able to work.
Why don’t they just give the managers a whip? It doesn’t seem like the employees are motivated enough to aggravate me, through no fault of their own.
But that is the mentality of the industry. It is the mentality of those who make hardware, software, and those who sell them. It is the mentality of a monopolist: Squeeze everyone and everything for all it's worth. Bleed them out for everything they have. Take shit out of games and make them pay more for it. Make them have to beg their customers in order to hawk our fucking crap. Dangle their hours over their heads if needed.
It should disgust anyone.
Our industry simply is not designed to foster an atmosphere of transparency and accountability, which explains a lot of this behavior. Coming from the academic world, especially the social sciences, you are instructed and trained not to be full of shit. Or, at least, to try not to be. There are plenty of people within the social sciences who are full of shit, despite years of education. But I digress.
When you make arguments, you are held to standards. You have to back up what you’re saying, and they need to be creditable sources from researchers who have spent the time required and earned the right to be listened to. I cited a Wikipedia article in this very page – if I were to do this in a research paper, I’d get laughed out of the room. Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article, and although it does cite scholarly sources, whether the information accurately reflects those sources is left up in the air because simply anyone can come in and put whatever they’d like.
These people include corporations like the ones I have named in this article, or their lobbyist group, the Entertainment Software Association, allowing them to edit and distort articles and information to their own ends. You may recognize the ESA: They run E3 each year, allowing them to distract everyone as they spend the other months bolstering and ensuring this near-monopoly.
I had to do it though. Because we simply have no sort of group or institution to even try to keep track of the industry, or get stats on things in an objective fashion. Let’s face it: Video games are not really that important a subject for researchers to give a shit about. I would rather they spend their time on other things.
But it does make discussion within our community difficult, and holding companies accountable even more so. Getting numbers to debate software trends within the industry is near impossible, necessitating endless fanboy flamewars because we have no actual, factual data to disprove anyone’s notions – we’re just left to sort of argue what we feel and what the industry tells us because we have no alternative. The only source we have is the NPD, which is for profit and charges money for its figures (and perhaps rightly so), since publishers aren’t going to release them unless they sell millions of copies for a particular game. It’s this environment which allows Sony to tell us how many Move units they’ve shipped without telling us how many they’ve sold, as if it’s the most useful piece of information they could dream of.
If I ship 100 shoeboxes of my own, well-polished turds to Gamestop, that doesn’t necessarily mean any of them will be sold. Exclaiming this accomplishment is ludicrous at best.
Which leads me to the final mark: the journalists.
Our press is lousy. Most of the time, they do nothing more than read off of issued statements handed to them by these publishers, or the ESA, and pass it on, verbatim, without challenging their veracity. No sort of thought is ever put towards what these companies are doing because they don’t want to screw up their chances of a review copy for this season’s big blockbuster, or put their ad buys at risk. They then sit around and pat themselves on the back, assuring each other they’re doing great work as their revenue increases more in more while they sell out their readers, becoming silent accomplices in the industry they so love.
I have thought a lot about the question Niero founded this site on lately: Does games journalism take itself too seriously or not seriously enough? After all this time, I have finally reached my own answer:
It is why I love and adore Destructoid so much. I have sat and read this site for more than 3 years. It is one of the only institutions at least trying to question the meager, insignificant world around us, and not simply be a blow horn for Activision. Destructoid has always thrived on that idea, on it being able to pull in readers on an intimate level and have with them adult conversations with particular topics. It differentiates itself from competitors because of that sole reason, and it is why it continues to grow in my opinion.
Sometimes we see opinions on the front page which are not widely agreed with. They are soon shouted down with rage and anger, kneecapping whoever dared to post it in an attempt to silence the debate. This kills the spirit of Destructoid, as a long time reader. We must cherish and protect all opinions on this site, even ones we, or most of us, do not agree with. For the death of one opinion is the death of all opinions, and the death of all opinions is the death of Destructoid and an active, critical press. It is something we, as the consumers, could work on, among other things. Such as allowing everything I just wrote to continue, and supporting it with our dollars.
The people and institutions I have just criticized are not villains. They do us a great service by providing us with so many great games each and every year. They inspire and entertain us, and without them, none of this would be possible. Sites and magazines must work with publishers, and sometimes do things they may not want to – they are businesses as well. It's all a part of the game, so to speak. That does not make them perfect though, and my, or your, allegiance should not be to them: They should be to the consumer. You should not pledge yourself to one company or another: You should pledge yourself to good products and practices, and not tolerate poor versions of either for the sake of any business.
I have written a lot of things and made a lot of suggestions. Not all of them will be agreed with. Not all of them are possible to address, or possible to implement. Some of the characteristics of our industry are simply because of its exclusive nature and high production costs. This essay was not to serve as a silver bullet to these ailments.
It is, at the very least, an attempt to start some kind of discussion.