It's incredibly easy to forget that most games start as any other product — with a sales pitch. Sure, people sometimes make these wonderful things because they love the craft, but they also want to profit from them.
Heck, even the seemingly humble Tim Schafer (Brütal Legend) jokes about never quite striking oil with most of his projects and makes tongue-in-cheek statements about the success of his Kickstarter campaign.
One money centric aspect of the industry that has stood out to me: Publishers, marketers, financers (whatever you want to call them) seem to pull more of the production strings than most like to acknowledge. Not only can this negatively affect the development process, but it sometimes actively dictates it. Many artists would agree that this is not ideal.
Between code and cash
Before I continue, I have to make a bit of a disclaimer: A lot of people, friends, and associates have placed a lot of faith in me. They were completely forthcoming regarding this subject, trusting I would do nothing to jeopardize their jobs. While it's incomplete journalism to not accredit a quote, I'm afraid I must refrain for the sake of many whom I know would be punished for their honesty.
Some important distinctions need to be made between the principles of developers and publishers. A dev's main focus is the product itself — the experience, quality, and content. A publisher's eyes are typically on numbers: Have games of this type sold in the past? How much? To what audience? Any room for growth or new markets?
The difference between these two approaches are often conflicting; one might require a consideration for something that the other has to disregard (i.e., the right time for a game to release, no matter how fine-tuned or finished it is).
Numbers matter to programmers and publishers, just in different ways.
Don't be late for that important date
Many people would assume that, obviously, the preferences of those actually working on the product should take precedent over those simply selling it. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong. A long-time friend and employee at Maxis stated, "We're constantly battling with our marketing department. Sometimes, they come to us with something like, 'You guys need to be done with everything in this area by this date.' Oftentimes, my response is, 'Uh, no, we'll be done with it when we feel it's done.' They don't really like that response."
When I asked why marketing feels so inclined to force such demands on their development schedule, my friend simply replied, "Finished games don't always keep stock prices from dropping."
Such is the goal of the typical game we play today — make a lot of money and please those on top … never mind what it takes to achieve that. Sometimes, publishers will trust the developer's sacrosanct focus on quality. More often than not, though, the basic principles of marketing — seen across several other industries — tend to undermine and ignore the efforts of those producing said product. Therein lies the issue.
Time: abundant yet fleeting.
The marketing tool that is the game preview
Last March, I did a hands-on preview of Darksiders 2. This particular build was broken and unpolished; not only did each station feature a strategy guide (not too common in previews), but several other journalists there outwardly expressed their frustrations.
I'm not joking. One of them even shouted, "This is fucking annoying!" among the sighs and grunts of several others. Even THQ representatives spoke quietly behind me about a section I was stuck on that they couldn't beat (they thought I was still wearing my headphones, I suppose).
Afterward, I asked an associate of mine at THQ (not at the demo) about that very build and why it was even shown. "You know what," the person said, "we have to retain enough hype for the game so that customers will anticipate its launch. Some people at Vigil didn't want us to show it, but the game had to somehow remain in the eye of the public." I greatly appreciate this person's honesty; they could have easily spun the situation.
THQ is a unique case. The company has had recent financial trouble, and a lot of their future relied on the success of games like Darksiders 2. Nonetheless, it's disappointing that the artists — who expend vast amounts of passion and dedication — can have their efforts so callously disregarded to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Video games are one of the few mediums where the press regularly experience early, incomplete builds. While most studios dedicate time and resources to these presentations, sometimes the previews aren't ready in time. Sadly, these artists are still forced to show their work before they're comfortable with it. Imagine a self-respecting chef obligated to serve a half-baked dessert. Why? Because the customers might leave.
Exposé: a French term meaning "to publicly expose or advertise."
It's just business…
One thing needs to be said: It's incredibly naive to think that marketing isn't necessary. We now enjoy such big titles with bloated budgets because of the efforts of keen salesmen. Arguably, without the sort of crude, obnoxious advertising that we sometimes scowl at, we wouldn't have Mass Effect, Halo, Uncharted, and so on.
As someone told me in college, "This is a business. Most people make games to make money." And while we've been fortunate enough to reap the success of that business via large-production nerdgasms like Skyrim, we should remember that pioneers like Nolan Bushnell didn't create Atari because he admired the potential artistry of the technology; he was an entrepreneur who wanted to strike gold. The same is true for many others who followed him.
Nonetheless, it's still a pity that the business side of gaming shows such disregard to the creators … the lifeblood of this medium.
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