Retrospective: The Line Between Business and Growing the Audience and Industry

The year is closing so I’d like to take a step back and look at some of my own writings more closely.  In particular, I’d like to look at my response to Spec Ops: The Line.

What I wrote earlier this year about The Line was very angry, but it was truthful.  I felt betrayed at what was being held as an example of what great games could be and how the barrier to more meaningful games were being broken.  Maybe The Line did indeed do some of that.  However, to me, even now, it didn’t do enough.

I slowly came to the realization that the main problem is that the main audience that consumes games are oftentimes children.  Not to say that gamers are young but the mindsets of gamers are young—gamers act like children.  This is a very broad statement here and it doesn’t mean that all gamers suffer from this generalization.  However, it accurately describes how corporate marketing sees their audience and how this group of people may react to things happening in games and in the business of games.

In fact, I’d go as far as to call the entire medium of games and game making child-like when compared to more seasoned mediums like books or film.  We have so much more to understand about what games can be and how to use them to convey completely unique messages that no other medium could.  At the same time, games and game designers face a difficult obstacle to overcome in that the player has agency.  The player has the ability to control, to some degree, how they interact with the world that designers create.

There are opposing forces at work in the traditional game industry.  The business side wants to sell a product to as many people as possible.  However, it’s up the designers to hold the golden standard of what games are and should be.  It’s a constant war between the cold coin of finance and the creative endeavors of auteurs.  There has been some success with independent development that breaks away from the traditional publisher-developer relationship but it sacrifices a great deal at the same time.  Reach and influence is drastically reduced.

The audience consuming games have not grown greatly because the products that are sold to them are still catering to a child-like mentality.  The overt sexism, hyper violence, the list can go on.  It’s what sells because it’s been selling for so long.  The only way to solve this is to produce games that elevate above the muck.  Spec Ops: The Line tried to elevate and did so respectfully but at the same time lost the fight, probably, against their publisher’s marketing arm.

The Heart of Darkness is classic high school literature.  If not, it should be.  Maybe I place high expectations on those around me because I place the same on myself.  How hard do we have to fight to rise up above all else?  What can a designer do against the pressures of financial stability?  What can an independent developer do to be seen as not just an indie title?

I don’t think games and gamers have found the secret to eternal youth.  Growth and maturity will inevitably happen along with society as a whole.  Games, and what sells, is but a reflection of our own society and its never-ending cycle of over-advertised products for our consumptive desires.

Every opportunity we have as developers and designers, we should try to improve and do right in some way.  As an indie developer, I think we’ve made strides in combating toxic behavior with strict social policies and also created an image that you can actually talk to developers by being open and accessible to the community.  Was there more we could do?  Of course.   Would it have been feasible?  Maybe not.  In light of bringing my game to consoles, that means greater visibility, reach, and influence.  As a developer and designer, I have the duty to ensure that my product is raising the stakes and helping the audience and industry grow.

Everyone should ask themselves those questions: what are they doing to grow the audience and industry, and if they fully took advantage of the resources at their disposal.

I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, but I wonder how  much the developers behind The Line really fought publishers, if they did, or how much was their original intention.  Was there more on the cutting room floor?  Or did this game simply have have shoes too big to fill?  It seemed to me that there was a lot of opportunity that was missed and instead stayed too conservative.

Are there any other games out there you felt betrayed by?  Felt that they could have done more?  Thought that it was held back by an external force?