The sultry cha-ching of registers echoes through the building. Like clockwork, people ebb and flow through the store. Shelves lined head to toe become emptied. Wallets formerly lined with bills become barren. The well-oiled machine of industry turns, each gear fitting perfectly into the next.
At first thought, one would expect some sort of blockbuster product to be the cause of such attention. However, this title might be much less notable. In fact, it might receive less than stellar praise from the critics, who claim it is nothing more than a 60 dollar coaster. It might be a game you have never even heard of, or it might be a title you wish you’ve never heard of. But in reality, it’s the answer to one of gaming’s simplest, yet most frequently ignored questions: Why do "bad games" get made?
The easiest explanations are often those visible in plain sight, yet they still are often overlooked for their more complex and convoluted cousins. The answer to the question at hand is obvious, as it doesn’t take an economist to point out one simple fact: games are made to make money. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but it still doesn’t explain everything. Wouldn’t it make sense to make the best game possible? The answer isn’t always yes.
It’s hard to deny simple fact. Hundreds of games are made each year, and a vast majority of these are not even worth one’s time. There are those few blessed titles that grab the attention of gamers everywhere for their strengths and contributions to society, and there are those few cursed titles that steal the hatred of gamers for their weaknesses and inherent proof of man’s depravity. And then there is the norm: the titles that float in one ear and out the other, passing the time between emotions; mediocre gaming staples.
When it comes down to it, things aren’t exactly black and white, but more about staying out of the red. No company wants to lose money, at least in the long term. This is when the ‘games as art’ discussion ends and simple mathematics starts. The game industry is a commercial industry — a commercial art form. While there are always exceptions to the rule, companies in the industry are here to make money. Economics rules the decisions, a giant controller placed in the hands of the invisible hand of capitalism.
While I’m by no means an expert in the field, I hope to impart some basic understanding that might clarify things the next time you take a glance at the “average” score on Metacritic. Everything comes down to maximizing profit. Sometimes that means a budget is kept low, forcing developers to work within their means. Other times, things just go wrong, forcing a developer to attempt to cut their losses by pushing a title out before it is ready. And in those most unfortunate of occurrences, there’s just no reasonable explanation.
Imagine, teenagers running out of a showing of the most recent adaptation of a comic book for the silver screen. Jubilant faces race through the mall. Adrenaline pumps through their veins as they rehearse the actions of the witty, smooth, and athletic hero. Suddenly their eyes dart to a cardboard cutout, beside which a box that holds a way for them to step into the shoes of the hero sits silently upon the shelves. In a moment of impulse that box is lifted from the shelf and purchased.
It’s hard to deny the success of games based around movies and TV shows. While the stigma of mediocrity stains them, there’s no stopping their creation. They are a marketing director’s dream: an established fan base with millions of members. Huge ad campaigns for the movies serve as perfect tie-ins for the game, and vice versa. From a business standpoint it’s one bandwagon that’s hard not to jump on.
A few months back, THQ announced they had surpassed the 1 billion dollar mark and had sold more than 50 million units during their partnership with Nickelodeon. For anyone with some semblance of knowledge of video games, this might cause a double take. A quick glance at Metacritc shows that the majority of these games scored somewhere in the 50-60% range. Wouldn’t one assume that eventually, there would be a visible progression where the scores improved over time in a franchise? Shouldn’t companies want to learn from their mistakes? The answer isn’t always yes.
Realistically, the majority of gamers aren’t going to let a game like SpongeBob end up as a blip on their radar; however, another group exists that would do anything to play the next iteration. It’s hard to deny the appeal, considering the impressive sales numbers. I’m not trying to single these games out in particular, as I have not played most of them; however, they lend themselves as a perfect example.
The same could be said of most movie-to-game adaptations. The games’ only real strength are their name recognition. They may be brilliant marketing tie-ins, but they are normally lousy games. To a degree this makes perfect sense, as the target sales group is limited to fans of the series, specifically in the case of ‘childish’ cartoons (this author has been known to enjoy episodes of SpongeBob on occasion). No matter how well you make a SpongeBob game, the majority of teenagers and adults are not going to play it. A new IP does not have this benefit/burden, as there is no established base and the game must rely on innovation.
Again, this is when the ‘games as art’ discussion ends, and simple mathematics starts. If a game costs more to be made than it is projected to receive in revenue, it is not made. If a developer knows they have a guaranteed profit on a movie game, why take a risk by driving costs up? They would rather have the quick, guaranteed revenue check. It makes more sense to cut down costs as low as possible since sales won’t really change. The target audience cares more about the IP than the game behind it, which can be seen through the successful sales of past titles. So in essence, some games are doomed to be intentionally bad, until someone takes a risk and is rewarded.
Some games, however, have the greatest of intentions. Unfortunately miscalculated steps derail these possible masterpieces, often beyond repair. With time and resources already invested, it’s hard to expect these titles to be outright scrapped. Wouldn’t it make sense for the problem to be fully fixed before being placed into the hands of the public? The answer isn’t always yes.
From an economic standpoint, firms cannot maintain operations at a loss for extended periods of time, however, sometimes they need to run at a loss to incur some revenue. This is the concept behind sunk cost, and games serve as a perfect example. If it becomes clear that completely bringing the game back to the drawing board would cause tremendous losses, companies may chose to just rush the game out the door, even though they know it will not meet expectations, in terms of sales. The goal is to just mitigate the loss, as the past effort, resources, and time have already been spent and can never be regained.
The firm has two options once they run against a wall like this. They can either quit and retry or just continue along. To quit would be to incur all the losses from the firm’s work on a title. By continuing along, the firm can possibly recoup some losses. The goal is to make a profit on the time spent after this point. If that is possible, the game will most likely be published. If not, they will probably just outright cancel it or bring it back to the drawing board, extending the budget and deadline.
Last year’s Blacksite: Area 51 seems to be the perfect example of this situation. When speaking to Wired, the game’s own designer, Harvey Smith, claimed, “The project was so f***ed up.” He continued, “With a year to go, the game was disastrously off rails." Once a playable build was finally made, he claimed, "it went straight from alpha to final." Upon the title’s critical lambasting, he claimed the low scores were “no surprise.”
Perhaps the saddest occurrence of a bad game is the one that fails beneath its own hype — a burden heaped upon it that can by no means be endured. These are the ones we remember. The ones that we hoped would shine as a light, breaking apart the mundane mediocrity of those destined to the darkness of the bargain bin. Unable to escape their own shadow, they instead fall into the depths, to be ignored by the general public and trashed by the gaming press.
I could list off dozens of example of this, but everyone has one title that comes to mind immediately, where throughout the whole game it was unclear what the developer was even thinking. "How could this mechanic make the game better?" "Why did they intentionally make this mistake?" "Shouldn’t the QA and play testers have noticed this flaw?" These are the questions that arise about those games that don’t know they’re bad until they see the light of day.
In the end, it’s clear that bad games will always exist, at least as long as more titles are produced than can actually be consumed. With hundreds of titles each year, it is impossible to think that each would be successful. We had the opportunity to ask Denis Dyack about this concept at E3, and he responded, “How many games come out in November? Was last year over 350? Is it possible for consumers to even digest that number of games? That is what is called ‘performance over supply,’ where the industry is over supplying what the consumer can actually consume. That model cannot continue, in the long term, anyway.” It’s clear that from an economic standpoint, it can’t continue forever. But for now, bad games will continue to exist; some will even thrive.