Saturday 8 December 2012

Accepted Reality

This is intended to be a short, mildly ranty piece about the accepted reality found about the Video Games industry. Not necessarily from the developers who actually make the games, but from a consumer/reviewer point of view. I apologise for the length, but this is something I have felt strongly about for some time.

* * *

Let me ask you: in comparison to the original DS ...has the Nintendo 3DS has been a success?

If you thought the answer to that was "no", then I'd say you were completely wrong. The 3DS has sold relatively more than the DS. "Aha", you cry after five seconds of research, "they slashed the price so it was bound to sell lots". Yes, they did, but what was your point? Is business profitability the hallmark of a good idea? It can only be a good idea if you can make a profit on it? Did people go and buy a 3DS solely because it was $70 cheaper, and suddenly they were getting a bargain in product cost to sell price ratio? or was it really that they wanted one, but originally it was a little out of their personal price range.

There seems to be this general feeling, and I have seen several articles on the subject, that the market for Handheld Consoles is dying/dead, and that the 3DS itself has been a failure. That smartphones, with their 99p/cent games are taking over and Nintendo itself is doomed for continuing to try and make these dying products. 

Let me go into why I think this version of reality exists :

'What suits me'
Smartphones are more common than Handheld Consoles. A lot of people own a smartphone, and can not see the point of getting another handheld device just to play games; a perfectly sound approach. Not many people are interested in gaming enough to justify a second purchase - despite them not offering the same gaming experience. Smartphones are miles more expensive than Handheld Consoles, but people feel they 'need' a Smartphone, and something like the 3DS/Vita is a luxury item. The idea is that if this is a continuing trend...eventually everyone will have a smartphone and no one will have a portable gaming device.

■ Why is this false?
Because it relies on the assumption that the market can only support one type of consumer. Smartphone use goes up, therefore Handheld Consoles must go down as there is no room for both; people want one or the other. Current sales figures do not support this assumption. What suits one consumer, may not suit another! Smartphone use is continuing to rise, but sales of Handheld Consoles are rising too (e.g. 3.07 million 3DS's sold in first half of 2011, 5.06 million sold in same period 2012). There is no negative correlation, currently.

Smartphones are new, relatively speaking. They've been around half a decade now, but still are quite new in the grand scheme of things. In terms of our access to information, they're changing the world; and it is certainly much harder to get lost these days. But Handheld Consoles are not new. Remember those big, clunky GameBoy things in the 90's that ran on AA Batteries? Yeah? Since Smartphones are newer, and sort of occupy the same conceptual 'space' (handheld computer devices that can both run games), they must inherently be better somehow. Humanity progresses technologically, and learns from the mistakes of the past. Cars replaced horses. Hoovers replaced brooms. And we are better for it.

What's wrong with this?
Well, there are no facts here. It's just a vague feeling about the technological progress of humanity. I get the impression that if you're in an industry that prominently features technology, there is a pressure to be up-to-date. I actually have some business experience with this myself, with people wanting to move to 'the cloud' without fully understanding why, or what it is. There is a general feeling of newer is better and whilst it may often be the case, is it always true? Or is it just a fairly wide assumption that people are letting influence their factual outlook?

Public Consciousness
Smartphones get a lot of news coverage, for various reasons. Lawsuits. Profit discussions. Share prices. When you go on a train in/out of London, it seems everyone is using a smartphone and not a Handheld Console to be found. Therefore you feel that they are more successful; they are at the forefront of public consciousness all the time. Handheld Consoles are hardly ever in the news, because "selling reasonably well" is not newsworthy. It seems these days of that an item has to sell million-billions to gain news traction (like Call of Duty or the iPhone). Handheld Consoles are in the news when they do not perform particularly well, or have a mistake. (like the Sony PSP). So, because what little coverage is often negative, people assume the entire market is that way.

■ The problem?
It's just news coverage. There is a whole host of problems with treating news trends as fact. To look at the people on the train example, you could only say that Smartphones are hurting the sales of Handheld Consoles if you knew for a fact that all those people would have bought a Handheld Console instead; which is obviously flawed. Smartphones are very popular, but again...the problem is that although it sounds logical to compare them, they are different products that happen to minutely overlap in one area. Are we saying the world can only sustain one type of portable technological device? Current sales figures say no. The news is a fine institution that has set itself generally as the provider of factual information, but there is nothing wrong with exercising a bit of intelligent caution towards it sometimes; they're only human.

So anyway, this is how I think general ideas/feelings can become accepted facts. And from here it gets written into reviews/journalism pieces/stock assumptions, either deliberately or accidentally, and this leads it to becoming more established. We get so much of our knowledge from news/reviews now that the line between opinion and fact is starting to blur. Once something becomes an accepted reality, a certain types of news slant is expected, and is then catered for.

But ask yourself this: what do you really know about Research In Motion (Blackberry)? Do you understand what is going on? Have you checked anything you've heard? Or do you simply accept they're bad/doomed/dying because: Apple has positive news a lot, the iPhone is newer than Blackberry and RIM's negatives get more coverage than their positives?

* * *

But surely this is just the way of the world? Why get worked up about it...

Like many people, I read countless news stories about a topic I am fascinated in and, for me, that topic is Video Games as an industry. But today I read something that literally made me seethe and was a prime example of what I've been talking about. The article was describing the new launch of Steam's "Big Picture" software (playing Steam games through a television). But how did the article start?

"If you are disappointed in the Nintendo Wii U, or do not have enough patience to wait for the next generation Xbox and PlayStation 2013 consoles, then Steam may have the answer for you... <rest of article about Steam Big Picture>"

The article had nothing to do with Nintendo. Or consoles at all really. The reviewer had decided to play off prejudices for an opening line, and in doing so also helped to re-establish them. Why is the Wii U potentially disappointing? Obviously everything is potentially disappointing, but then the opening line could have read "if you are disappointed with that sandwich, perhaps Steam can provide a different source of entertainment". Why is the Wii U disappointing, but the implication is the Xbox and PlayStation will not be? Consoles we know absolutely nothing about? 

You may say I'm reading too much into it and it was meant in a light-hearted way, or that he uses the word "if" to allow for differing opinions....but I disagree. This article did not need a comparison drawn, however subtly, between Nintendo and the other two. It did not need to pull the Wii U out of thin air and to frame in a negative light, so that if unchallenged the assertion is just accepted. It is basically this frankly crap journalism that I have come to despise where they can not separate opinion from news reporting, and they play into established facts that they are responsible for establishing. To say an opinion factually and then defend it with the "opinion is protected" (or hidden behind clever use of language) is, the ultimate defence of bad journalism in my eyes. 

* * *

There are too many of these occurrences to examine in detail, but here are some of the general ones that annoy me when I encounter them:

"Will the Wii U revitalise Nintendo?"
● The Xbox 360 and PS3 are for the hardcore gamer and the Wii/Wii U is a children's console/casual/old persons gamer product.
The PC market (especially the gaming side) is dying due to increased sales of tablets (or some other factor). And/or because console games sell so much more. 
● Piracy accounts for 90% of computer games played on PC.
Video Games are somehow responsible for violent tragedies.
<insert name> was a failed console (often inexplicably said about the GameCube)

These a very big statements and are often expresed without hesitation. Terms like hardcore gamer, dying, cloud computing...these are all thrown around in the press/consumers with no one stopping to try and define them. They're buzzwords designed to get across an idea, without actually having to represent something specific; "Hardcore Gamer" or "Core Fanbase" being a great example. But if consumers of media do not feel the need to check facts themselves, or brand incorrect journalism as "bad", then why would it ever improve?

I understand why you sometimes hear this stuff from the gamers themselves. People often like to strongly defend their beliefs and purchases. The "my console is better than yours" arguments have existed as long as I can remember, and to be honest it is primarily the result of the developers themselves. But why is it rare to encounter a balanced piece of journalism on this subject? Why is there a lack of intelligent discourse, without apparently being marred by :
- Assumptive Journalism about an industry they are not really that informed about.
- The fact that Video Games have not been accepted by many as a valid form of entertainment, so are approached in the way you would review any other niche thing.
- Appealing to the assumptions of their reader? (this is tenuous, but I think may exist).
- Journalism for hire (i.e. wildly positive reviews to get pre-releases of games to review).

What do I want?
You may very well wonder. Or may not. It is true that there is a degree of "this is the way the world is", but I honestly see an opportunity. Thanks to the rise in smartphones/internet in the last 10 years, people can be more informed than ever before. We have the ability to seek out more opinions or to find actual facts. It does not take much effort to discover actual sales numbers, for example.

I want opinions to be clearly separated from factual statements. When someone says that the industry is dying, I'd like it to be prefaced with "I think...the industry is dying". I would like opinions to be kept as opinion, no matter what degree of information or intelligence you have. An informed guess is still a guess.

I would like more justification, especially with the throwaway lines mentioned earlier; rather than just attributing their use to "everyone knows". Just because 'everyone knows' something, does not make it inherently true. There are millions that believe different (and conflicting) religious ideologies. I would like people to state why they think what they do, and I would like the consumer to wonder why the reviewer believes that. Not just take it as fact because it was said so.

I would also like more specificity. Everything seems to be related to some large and generic concept. Of course there are general reasons for things, but it becomes too easy to use them as labels. i.e. "Handheld Consoles are doing badly, because Smartphone use is on the rise". It seems that we are not interested in the specifics any more, and want to generalise because it is easy to digest. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure.

And ultimately...
Acknowledgement that people like different things, and to erase the idea that some things are innately better. A Facebook game is no better or worse than a console game. Yes, there are definable elements that can be compared (sound quality, graphical fidelity, bugs, etc.) but the enjoyment one derives is, and probably always will be, relative. Who are you to determine what gameplay is "better", or what level of enjoyment is more or less worthy?

Some views are just prejudicial and we should not be afraid to ignore them. Misinformation should be open to being corrected, with no other intentions. Any grand generalisation should be treated with caution, even if based on some fact. Opinion is vitally important, but should be kept in a separate box from factual statements.

I'm not a PC gamer, or a console gamer, a hardcore gamer, or a casual gamer. Or maybe I'm all these things. I enjoy the video games I enjoy... I am just a gamer. And maybe you are too. You've probably at least got Angry Birds...


1 comment:

Comments and opinions always welcome!