Thursday, October 02, 2008

Planned Obsolescence in Game Design

There is a tension between game developers and game publishers. Game developers want you to play their games. Game publishers want you to buy their games. These two desires are not entirely separate, but neither are they entirely compatible.

A game developer, whether creating an abstract game that he hopes will join the ranks of legendary games such as Chess, or creating a themed game that she hopes will be taught in every 8th grade class around the world, wants to create a timeless game. He or she hopes you want to play this game for the rest of your life, and then pass it on to your kids.

A game publisher doesn't care if you play the game at all. They're happy if you buy it to put on your shelf to add to your collection. They want you to like what they sell, of course. But they're happier if you play the game once and then never play it again. That way, you're ripe to buy the next game they sell, which won't happen if you're still enjoying and playing the previous game.

Microsoft knows this; that's why their operating system is made only so good but not better. Windows XP was too good, and now no one wants to buy Vista.

Until the advent of television, the interests of game publishers and game developers were closely aligned. Publishers believed that selling great games was the best market strategy. They figured that it takes a long time to saturate national and international markets with a game, and by that time the next generation is going to want to buy a new copy.

Television changed this. National and international markets became instantaneous. Instead of steady sales for years and years to hit the entire country, everyone in the country knew about the game the moment it hit the shelves. And people became more interested in television than games as a form of entertainment. Appealing to them to break away from television meant producing games that allowed them to take the "fun" of the television with them to the table. That meant television licensed games.

The problem with television licensed games, other than that they are different on the outside of the box but not so much on the inside, is that their life span is as long as the television show that supports them. Dragnet the Board Game is dead once Dragnet the television show is off the air.

Did I say problem? It was actually a great benefit to game publishers, who could sell a few million copies of the game of the week and then go right back to the art and licensing departments to get the next game of the week. You can't design planned obsolescence better than that.

Well, maybe it's a problem once you get to the interactive age of computers and video games, and you discover that people don't want to play badly designed licensed board games when they can play interactive games that are actually original and fun.

And maybe it's a problem for the game designers, whose names don't appear on the game boxes, and whose profession has been reduced to art and licensing departments.

Now we have a publishing culture whose business is to get people to buy, not to play. That means games that don't last for more than a few plays, games that appeal to collectors or fad culture, and games that need quick massive sales in order to be worth publishing - because they're not going to be worth anything next year.

Away from the spotlight of quarterly statements and earnings reports is a world where craftsman still make cabinets and ceramics and games about which they are satisfied to get decent but steady sales over a long period. Perhaps because it's over a long period. These items are meant to be used for generations, not to be sold as quickly as possible while the fad is striking, and then ripped out to make way for the next one.

You have to ask: what business do you really want to get into? What kind of designer do you want to be? What kind of publisher?


Sheri said...

Heheh, made me laugh. My husband is a boardgame designer and gets really angry whenever he sees games that are just commercialized hacks of other games.

Anonymous said... designer really work hard with their excellence, but their games are used only for commercial actions...