A Reminder that Game Developers Owe you Nothing

Author: Dom Rottman

Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce.” -Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

It is obvious that the primary function of a business is to maximize profit. Yet based on the sense of entitlement the gaming community expresses as consumers, one might think this is not the case. Rather, it seems that in the minds of some gamers businesses exist to meet the demand of consumers. While it is true that consumer demand affects what businesses produce, it is important to make the distinction that the purpose, the reason a business exists is to make profit, not meet demand. Rather, meeting demand is a means which can fulfill the purpose of increasing profits. Not only is it important to distinguish the means of meeting demand versus the goal of profit which meeting demand works towards, it is also worth noting that fully meeting demand is not the only, and therefore not a necessary means when it comes to generating profit; a business can just as well cut costs.

The point is that people should not be shocked or appalled when a business, a mechanistically selfish entity, actually goes out and acts selfishly. Diablo Immortal, notwithstanding its spectacular PR fiasco upon reveal, should hardly come as a surprise to the consumer in the age of a lucrative mobile gaming market. Nor should the calamitous comedy of errors that is Fallout: 76 shock the consumer in a modern capitalist society. A game developer can have no greed in his heart, but that does not change the nature of the mechanistically selfish business world.

Yet it is not so unbelievable that this is overlooked in the light of the positive value businesses can produce. A capitalist enterprise of food, for example, does not take away from the goodness of the food itself. Video games have positive value, including artistic value. A game developer can create a game for its own sake–though he or she may be forcibly attached to selfish mechanisms in order to do so–just as a painter paints and creates beautiful paintings for their own sake. Interestingly, even in such a case, if a game were created for its own sake, a sense of entitlement on the side of the player is still unjustified. If an artist creates art for its own sake, what does he or she owe to the rest of the world in their art? The artist, when acting independently, producing–or trying to produce–art for art’s sake is beholden only to art and nothing else.

However, some artists, especially today, are not always free to engage in such pursuits. Neither is it the case that this is the “default” function of the artist, that such art is what the artist always wants to produce–after all, such pursuits are not easy and take great effort–nor is it true that the total value an artist provides is contained only in her art; for the artist also provides social value when she takes commissions from the public.

This relationship is important because it seems to me that we are subconsciously deluded about our relationship as consumers to modern-day artists such as movie directors or video game developers in a way that, though quaint, is rather naive. That is, we seem to think we have some degree of a semi-direct relationship to an artist as one would in an old bustling city marketplace, and fancy ourselves patrons–and therefore, more or less equals–rather than mindless consumers. But save for maybe the idea that we as consumers are more or less equals to most artists–though equals in a much more depressing sense, mind you– this notion could not be further from the truth. Between us and someone like a game developer stands a daunting distribution chain that distributes not merely products, but loot. Retailers, distributors, shippers, publishers, and in some cases even more types of firms all not only have to recoup their costs, but must turn a profit as well. Game developers, for their part, are unlikely to say any of the actual $60 a consumer pays for a major title–they have in fact already been paid according to their contract. There exists no contract between developer and consumer as there does between commissioner and artist, even implicitly. Masahiro Sakurai has no contract with the players of Super Smash Bros. His contract is with Nintendo. A relationship between developer and player is nothing like that of a marketplace; it is one entirely formed from a developer’s good will and desire to connect with the players, and only so far as his contract allows. A developer can, for better or worse, do whatever he wants so long as he fulfills the terms of his employer’s contract towards the ends not of pleasing players or art for arts sake, but only the generation of surplus value for his employer.

However players may perceive their relationship with developers, or moviegoers with directors, or whoever with whomever, it is one always strained by isolation. For one thing, most consumers rarely if ever meet such people nor have a reliable way of communicating with them. That alone should greatly temper expectations. But even if people like Mr. Sakurai or Luke Smith lived among us and frequented our favorite coffee shops, they are still first beholden to their employer’s terms for what will and can be produced–lest they would rather not eat–and only then to the consumer, and only if they want to, for their needs have been met.

Yet, even if corporate responsibility and pursuit of profit did not overshadow artistic decisions, and even when the artist is beholden to patrons, who is to say that the demands and wants of patrons, consumers, players, or whomever, are even reasonable and/or good? For one thing, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. It is impossible to completely satisfy all of the desires of even only two human beings, much less millions. Demands will inevitably conflict at some point or another for a widely available product. Furthermore, it’s rather arrogant to imply that feature or suggestion X is right, reasonable, and good simply because “I want it.” In some cases this is not the only reason behind a demand, but in others its ultimately what a demand boils down to.

Consider the case of Waluigi in light of the latest addition to the Super Smash Bros. roster, the Piranha Plant. To suggest that the latter got in “over” the former is a poor way of looking at it. There’s no real reason for one to be and not the other beyond that fact that Waluigi is more popular. Popularity is an influence, sure, but it is hardly a determinant. Sure, its fine for one to feel disappointed about the lack of character, but feeling slighted or entitled to it simply because want existed is rather arrogant since its ultimately not a consumer decision.

It is also worth noting that the knowledge of a consumer–or even a patron, for that matter–is limited compared to the knowledge, vision, and experience of a practiced artist or developer. That is to say that a want or demand, however popular it may be, may ultimately take away from the total value of a project or a work of art in ways that can only be understood by their creator. A friend of mine was developer on a fan project, a game, and his feeling was that the finished game ultimately suffered because of all of the bending over backwards that was done in order to meet players’ demands. Who’s to say what the game would have been, really, since what was developed was what was developed, though based on my knowledge of the project’s development and developers I am personally inclined to agree. Take into account that for any project or work of art there is always a finite amount of resources, even if there are more in some cases rather than others, therefore it is physically impossible to incorporate everything and meet every want without conflict or strain. Take into account further that the case I presented is merely a fan project. It was done voluntarily by a few individuals, who have lives, in their free time, for no money, thus truly developing the game for its own sake–one might consider how this is similar to if not in fact a case of art for art’s sake. Imagine then that his situation must be amplified orders of magnitude greater at the professional level, where developers are more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more experienced, and also have the ability to dedicate their entire working day to their projects. Indeed, their life depends on what they develop, whether they like it or not.

This sort of ‘aesthetic entitlement’ is a rather foolish notion, all told. A business, where profits supersede all else, owes nothing to consumers for better or worse. The artist, for different reasons, owes nothing to a public either. The public, while not necessarily unenlightened, should not confer its aesthetic expectations or desires such that they would have it as an imposition, and then be appalled when they don’t get what they want.