It was originally my intent to post on Sundays, so I've been holding off on posting until today. The game industry is pretty much in a lull over the weekends, though there is still new entertainment on Saturdays (The always NSFW Red Dead Ridiculous, for example). As such, from here on out I plan on posting my opinion articles on Sundays, and will continue posting reviews as I write them.
When is the last time you heard how much a game cost to make? I’m not talking about a general “Games are three times as expensive as last generation,” but actual hard numbers, an educated guess at the production of a specific game? I honestly can only recall a handful of games to do this, and most of those were small, indie games where the “cost” is absurd, because a lone programmer in his own apartment doesn’t get a definitive wage. I heard rumours that Witcher 2 cost 1.5 million to make, but even if that was at one point true, they’ve put much more work into it now, that number doesn’t really hold up.
Why is this important? We tend to view this medium as a close relative to movies. We regularly hold it up to that standard, we use terms like “cinematic” on a regular basis. We want, regardless of the truth, to be held in the same regard to film. We want “gamers”, which I will from here on out refer to as gamephiles, to be considered as legitimate as a cinephile, and the title of game critic to be just as good of a position as a film critic.
In another blog, I’ll address a few things keeping all that from becoming reality, but for now, I’ll just mention the simple fact that, with film, we usually have access to this data. I know that The Croods, last week’s number one movie, made $43.6 million, and cost $135 to make, and has not yet made its money back. I can use this information as a consumer to help inform my decision to see this movie, or see it again. If the movie is failing, I can help it out, or let it die, and that’s my choice. The people making the movies can use it for their own benefit, or compare themselves to similar films. It promotes financial responsibility. If Studio A spends $50 million and only makes $40 million, but Studio B releases a similar title for $30 million, and makes the same $40 million, Studio A sees that and then looks at what they should have done to cut costs.
Neither part of this information is available for video games. Most games, there isn’t even an attempt to guess at how much the game cost to create. It’s not unless a game is exceedingly expensive that a guess is made. Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example, cost an estimated $200 million to create, which is supposed to be the most expensive game ever created according to many sources. How advertising focuses into this, however, is up in the air.
There are a handful of sites that take guesses at how many copies of a game have been sold, but none of them are reliable. The NPD only reports by the month, and Ben Kuchera of The Penny-Arcade Report has already written about why they should be ignored. Steam, the largest platform for the purchase of PC digital sales, doesn’t report sales numbers, preferring to keep this information private. Sales information is, plain and simple, not available, so not only do we not know about the state of a specific game, but the industry at large.
Why does Valve, the studio behind the creation of Steam, keep these numbers secret? I really don’t have an answer. My best guess is that it relates to their company philosophy as a whole, which seems to revolve largely around secrecy. We know very little about the structure of Steam as a company. We don’t know how many employees they have, what daily life is like, or what their strategy is for the future. They rarely make announcements very far in advance, and we don’t have much of a concept of what games they are working at, beyond assuming they are making sequels to their larger titles. They are an odd company, almost a shadow organization on some level, though more benevolent than the term would imply.
The industry is crying out that development costs are rising. They load microtransactions and DLC upon us because they need to supplement their costs. They do what they can to find new ways to get more money out of their consumers. Make no mistake, they are asking for our trust when it comes to finances. When THQ went out of business, Darksiders 2 was essentially a last ditch effort to keep the company afloat, and we are told that it wasn’t successful. Personally, I have my doubts over whether that means the game didn’t make money, or it didn’t make enough money to keep the company afloat.
So where does this all leave us? With an industry that is only held liable by its stockholders, and not its consumers. The only concrete financial information we receive is about the individual publisher’s profits or losses. A handful of companies hold information that could help change the market into a consumer driven one, and choose to sit on it.