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The State of the Video Games Industry

32.4 million people in the UK (or 49% of the current population) play video games of some description. However, the events of the industry rarely break into mainstream news, despite it being such a popular pastime. In fact, it’s so popular that the most financially successful media product of all time is a video game: Grand Theft Auto V, published by developer Rockstar Games.

However, not all news coming out of the industry is so positive: earlier this year the publishing company Activision Blizzard found itself under scrutiny after laying off approximately 800 employees. One might assume this was because the company was struggling to meet financial demands, but over the last 6 years Activision Blizzard has grown from $10B to $60B in worth, and last year it brought in profits of $1.8 billion (about £1.37 billion). Activision Blizzard “achieved record results in 2018,” according to CEO Bobby Kotick, during an investor call, but that record success wasn’t enough. In what other profession would “record results” be regarded as a failure, so much so that it is deemed necessary to remove 8% of your workforce? The excuse given for such a drastic action is restructuring to boost profits, but is that really needed when you are already reaching record heights?

Unfortunately, this kind of behaviour is growing all too common in the modern games industry, where exponential growth is expected to an unsustainable degree. These companies don’t want the massive amounts of money they already have, they want more. From the outside it appears as if these corporations don’t understand the finite resources of a consumer; they expect us to be constantly paying for the latest releases, extra content, physical merchandise and more. This is seen most explicitly in the new trend of “games-as-services”, which is an online game, sold at full price at release with little to nothing in it. Instead, a “roadmap” of content is laid out over the span of several years, leaving players waiting for something to do, bored in a game consisting of only the essential functions and some repetitive missions. This is most apparent in EA’s latest release: Anthem, produced by Bioware, a Canadian studio. Many people have abandoned the game after less than a week of playing due to its utter lack of content.

Furthermore, on the topic of content, in days past, buying the game got you the game – the complete package all in one, save perhaps a few expansion packs or extra add-ons (DLC) here and there. However, nowadays buying the game doesn’t get you the whole product, it gets you the equivalent to a starter pack (“the base game”) which can then be supplemented with further purchases of DLC, expansion packs and microtransactions (small payments for in-game items like certain outfits or virtual currency). Furthermore, various different “editions” of most games are sold at release; for example, Ubisoft (a publisher notorious for this practise to a ridiculous extent) had to create a spreadsheet to help customers understand exactly what they were purchasing with each edition of the game “Rainbow Six: Siege”, all priced at different levels. Other examples of this practise have seen certain versions having exclusive content, with others having their own special “extras”, forcing consumers who want the whole experience to go out of their way to purchase multiple copies of the same game, which for many people is simply unaffordable, seeing as collector’s editions of games can be priced at up to and over £100. I’m not saying that having different versions of a game is inherently bad, but when it gets to the point that you need a spreadsheet to understand who gets what, it’s bordering on ridiculous. Companies are using the confusion surrounding all these different versions to exploit consumers into dishing out more and more cash at the expense of their wallet, and what for? More money? Don’t they already have enough? This exploitation and manipulation of people’s FOMO is unacceptable, yet we see no intervention to stop it.

However, this being said, there have been areas within the industry where intervention has been taking place, and in some cases, legislation has been put forward to protect the consumer from these malpractices. In this case I’m talking about the controversy surrounding “Loot Boxes”, which had been branded as a fun way to earn in-game items, but in reality were a malicious money-grabbing scheme designed to exploit people’s gambling tendencies. “Loot Boxes” first gained major attention over a year ago, when Star Wars Battlefront II was criticised for having a “Pay-to-Win” system, in which the people who purchased more boxes got more chance to receive the rewards within them which cause their character to level up. This was later altered in an update after a massive community backlash, but the incentive to pay money in order to be better at the game didn’t sit well with anyone. This all culminated in 2017 when countries like Belgium and the Netherlands declared loot boxes to be a form of gambling, and therefore illegal in many situations. For example, the largest concern regarding these boxes was that they were being put in games with age ratings below 18, thus meaning that they were potentially targeting children, which is highly illegal. As a result, many games were forced to change their systems in countries affected by these new laws to comply, or face going to court. This change is an example of what can be done when knowledge of these malpractices becomes mainstream, and people use their voices to effect change. Sadly, this seems to be the only recent example of such a case.

Some journalists and critics within the industry are constantly commenting on matters like these but their points never seem to reach people outside of their relatively small communities, despite their relevance to both the industry and the economy at large. Therefore, the point of this article isn’t to encourage negative attitudes towards the games industry, because there are, of course, still many studios and individuals producing beautiful, fun and expressive games, but rather it’s to raise awareness; to start a conversation about the issues affecting people in and around the industry, and hopefully even to improve the failings of the industry itself.

By Amiko