Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Follow the money

Economic theory uses a model for human behavior which is the homo economicus, "a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” If you look at the general behavior of people playing games, you'll notice that the homo economicus can be found there as well. People try to get maximum fun for minimum cost. So there are always lots of people in free-to-play games, but if a game comes along that costs money, players are nevertheless willing to pay for it, as long as it is more fun to them than what they could have gotten for free.

If you were a game designer looking for a mission statement, something like "providing the maximum fun to the maximum number of players" is a pretty good option. And because of the homo economicus players, this strategy also works quite well for making money, which you need to develop games in the first place. Most players want good-looking graphics, and that means hiring an army of artists and coders to make your game, if you want to go for the maximum fun category.

There has been a lot of criticism towards the game industry, accusing them of being unoriginal. Sequels, sequels, everywhere. Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, GTA 4, Halo 3, The Sims 3, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, not to mention the annual versions of various sports games. Why can't game companies be more original? Because game companies are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, making the games that players want, and the players don't want original games.

Just look at action RPGs on the PC: There have been dozens of games between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3: Titan Quest, Sacred, Dungeon Siege, and many, many more. None of which sold as well as Diablo 2, and Diablo 3 will again outsell them all. The action RPGs from other developers often were more innovative and added new elements to the genre. But what the players really want is another Diablo.

It isn't the game companies that are to blame, but the players. Players vote with their wallet, and game companies just follow the money. The last game of Madden NFL will be made when players stop buying it. It isn't as if game companies don't release new games as well as sequels, it is just that sequels very often sell better. There are tons of original games out there, but you find them in the bargain bin, or distributed online from some independent company, because there simply aren't all that many people who want to buy such a game. Why would anybody expect Blizzard or EA to make a conscious effort to make a game nobody wants to buy? Why complain about a game like Diablo 3 being developed, if we already know that millions of people will buy it and enjoy it? A few people might have preferred Blizzard to develop a text MUD instead, but we all know that only a handful of people would have played it, even if the idea would certainly be original.

Adam Smith said "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." I can only add that it isn't from the benevolence of the game companies that we expect our fun either. The game that makes the most money is the game people were willing to spend the most money on, because it was the maximum fun for the maximum number of people. What the complainers really want is for big companies to spend millions on making a game that is in the little niche they prefer. Hey, I want Blizzard to make a $50 million turn-based strategy game! Not going to happen, because there aren't enough people like me around; I have to play cheap Russian remakes of King's Bounty. Complaining that the game companies make games for the majority and not just for you is just selfish.

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