There are people sitting around a conference table determining how best to monetize fun. It's been obvious for years that games are often consumer products that exist as a way to separate us from our hard-earned money, and we accepted this relationship because we place such a premium on our own entertainment. However, there comes a point when a line is crossed and those idealistic dreams we hold dear--that games are more than cash vacuums--are dashed. GameStop, the corporation that serves as the gatekeeper for so much of the retail sector, has disclosed plans to invest in the development of games. Those pre-order bonuses that dangle precious content above our heads like a carrot taunting a hungry donkey may be influenced by GameStop if their goal is realized.
GameStop CEO Paul Raines spoke to Time about their plans in a recent interview. “I do foresee a world where we can help facilitate create [sic] great content,” Raines admitted. Pre-order bonuses have been used as an incentive to rope in those who crave an undiluted experience for some time, although the origin of such content has never been fully revealed. There was no way to know if the development team was behind such practices, or the marketers who control the outward message. We just knew that certain content was being held hostage unless we ponied up our money before a game was even completed, and had to stomach this questionable practice if we desired a complete game. Any illusion about who controls the strings has been dashed with this revelation from Raines. It's GameStop that not only wants said bonuses, but is willing to facilitate their creation.
This is a troubling truth to swallow. Regardless of the warning signs that the biggest, most heavily marketed games were birthed from a place of greed, I still had hopes that labeling them as consumer products was cynical. A game is a work of art, so much more personal than a washing machine or dustbuster, that I refused to believe what was staring me right in the face. Those pre-order bonuses that separate a game into so many pieces that it's nearly impossible to get everything out there could have been created for any number of reasons. Granted, I can't think of any altruistic reason why Watch Dogs would be sliced into so many bits, but it was at least possible that such things were designed with the best interests of players in mind. Well, it's safe to wave goodbye to that state of mind. If GameStop is influencing development, there's no happy explanation for what this portends.
Any illusion about who controls the strings has been dashed with this revelation.
I should note that GameStop isn't going to force those who man the register to try their hands at coding. Said Raines, “We will not be involved in the artistic or creative process.” That's a mild relief, considering GameStop is in the business of, well, business rather than creation, but that doesn't change what's going on behind the scenes. We know that GameStop wants to be involved in pre-order bonuses, wrestling control away from those who have devoted their lives to developing games and putting it in the hands of those who just sell them. “When you think about the business of gaming and the cost of developing games, we think there’s an opportunity to put capital at risk with publishers and developers in exchange for exclusive content that would be distributed through our online platforms, in stores, our download business, et cetera.” said Raines.
It's clear how GameStop would benefit from this practice; people would spend their money at the specialty retailer rather than elsewhere, giving them money in advance of release to secure a copy the day it comes out. And, as Raines said, the developers would win in this deal as well. “The upside for developers will be much stronger guarantees around distribution and audience with our loyalty program and so forth.” That sounds good, right? Except for that part of guaranteeing distribution. If a developer doesn't agree to work with GameStop to create DLC, would that put the distribution of their game at risk? I have no idea if that's what Raines meant or not, but the implication is certainly there, and limiting distribution unless developers churn out pre-order content sounds like a terrible situation for those who design our games.
Furthermore, you may notice that one part of the pillar is completely ignored in this scenario. What do consumers get from GameStop meddling with our games? If we shop at another store, or decide to buy a game after release rather than blindly plunking down money before we know if it's any good, we miss out on aspects of the game. Sure, there are certain situations when pre-order bonuses are offered later on for everyone if they're willing to shell out more money, but that's a poor solution to the problem. Games are expensive. When your choice for all of these bits and pieces is to either shell out money before a game is released or spend even more money for downloadable content, it's much easier (and cheaper) to look elsewhere. There are so many excellent games for less than $20, that aren't designed to drain every dollar bill from our wallets, that it's hard to stomach supporting such business practices.
But it's easier for me to say we should ignore such distasteful ideas than to convince others to follow suit. Like I said earlier, we are being held hostage by these corporations. Even though the industry is more diverse and exciting than it's ever been, smaller developers can't replicate what their bigger competitors are churning out. And when Evolve, Alien: Isolation, Destiny, every Ubisoft game, and countless other projects are in the habit of nickel-and-diming us, we either have to find our entertainment elsewhere or swallow what they're serving. It's a bad situation, and with GameStop's open involvement in securing exclusive content, it's only going to get worse in the future. I can't force others to follow my lead in how to deal with this problem. However, there comes a point when we have to take a look at how we're being treated. And if we decide we deserve better, only then can we enact change.