Last week, Epic Games announced that it was dropping its Unreal Engine 4 subscription fee for students and academic institutions, and heralded a new, "democratic" approach to pushing the technology. It's just the latest example of the democratization of game development, the lowering of barriers to entry in the industry across the board.
This is unquestionably a Good Thing. By reducing the financial hurdles needed to make a game, we are opening up the industry to a more diverse array of creators, which carries benefits for everyone: the developers, the audience, and the medium itself. But like virtually every Good Thing, it's not an exclusively positive force in the world.
Some of the biggest problems the industry faces today have their roots in this trend. Just look at the mobile market. Inexpensive and easy-to-use developer tools, phones that double as debug units, modest app developer fees, and digital distribution have inspired a flood of new talent to join the field. That's great to see, but there are more quality titles than there is virtual shelf space to effectively promote them, and the mechanisms in place don't exactly ensure that the most deserving games are the ones that get promoted. The result is a discoverability crisis that disproportionately impacts anyone not already successful or attached to a huge license.
The race to free is happening everywhere, impacting the creation, distribution, and consumption of virtually any kind of content that can be stored digitally
The lower barrier to entry also leads to a devaluation of games themselves. When developers spend less making games, they can charge less for them. Again, that's great on one level because games can be an expensive hobby and this allows some less affluent audiences to enjoy them as well. But when you combine the incredible amount of competition in the space with the ability to charge less per game, you really see just how cheap games can get.
And even though the mobile world is its own unique corner of the industry, it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Just look at the dedicated handheld market and consider how much of the family-friendly audience that drove DS sales has migrated to free-to-play iPad apps rather than spend up to $40 per 3DS game.
As Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said in January, "We must take a skeptical approach whether we can still simply make game players, offer them in the same way as in the past for 20,000 yen or 30,000 yen, and sell titles for a couple of thousand yen each."
The devaluation trend has even spread to the AAA console world, as evidenced by services like PlayStation Plus, Games With Gold, and EA Access. It's now surprisingly common for publishers to give away last year's big games for free, or for indies to include their games in such services on launch day. Even when the deals they strike make sense for each individual game or company, developers and publishers are still giving their premium-priced releases that much more competition--competition with a huge inherent advantage--and increasing the pressure to drop all their products' prices that much faster. For everything else, there's Steam sales and pay-what-you-want bundles, which have conditioned half the PC gaming audience to wait for the inevitable deep discount. A game just isn't worth what it used to be.
The race to free is happening everywhere, impacting the creation, distribution, and consumption of virtually any kind of content that can be stored digitally. Take the games media, for example. Once upon a time, there were barriers to entry. When the industry was young, magazines were the main discovery filter for games. The costs of writing content, layout and design, printing, and distribution were a significant hurdle for pretty much everyone except existing magazine publishers and giants like Nintendo.
The content that can keep independent gaming sites solvent in the short term is the same content that can make them irrelevant in the long run.
Then the internet democratized (and subsequently devalued) everything. Now creating a gaming press outlet is a trivial matter. There's no shortage of free blog sites to host content and provide templates to make it look acceptable. There are no printing costs, and there's no shortage of writers willing to work for cheap or free. You barely even need any prep time. Today's controversy can spawn tomorrow's new press outlet in a more literal sense than ever before.
You don't have to look very hard to see the impact this has had on the largely ad-supported media. When there were barriers to entry, there was less competition. When there was less competition, there were fewer innovators, and the ones that did exist were less audacious. It was a lot harder to throw the old way of doing things in the garbage when you had invested everything just to get a foothold in the market.
But in a medium where anyone can join and success is measured in eyeballs, it didn't take long to figure out that sensational headlines and list articles attract a lot more eyeballs (and are a lot cheaper to produce) than nuanced, in-depth coverage. It's a sad lesson that we don't want to be true, but supporting evidence of this fact emerges at roughly the same rate a well-funded outlet can talk themselves into believing otherwise. As with the devaluation of games, this devaluation of the media only seems likely to get worse. A staff of round-the-clock paid-by-the-post writers churning out new content every 20 minutes is still more expensive than one charismatic YouTuber cobbling a daily video together.
That competitive pressure has plenty of upside, ensuring new voices have an opportunity to be heard, particularly ones that might be free of the burden that comes from acting as one small part of a massive operation and the various conflicts that produces. However, that pressure also makes it harder and harder for the independent press to function properly. Producing quality content takes time and money, thus it is a luxury. When competition gets fiercer, sites focus on the content that provides the best return on investment.
Sooner or later, the cut corners and emphasis on things other than quality content show up in the final product, leaving the door wide open for publishers to set up official blogs or hire their own "brand journalists" to market directly to the audience. And that audience will welcome this, because they didn't see much difference between marketing and what the independent press was doing in the first place. The content that can keep independent gaming sites solvent in the short term is the same content that can make them irrelevant in the long run.
"When there is a seemingly endless array of people able to make, cover, and consume content, it can't help but minimize the value of any one developer, any one writer, or any one customer in the chain."
But in an industry where the product and the press are devalued, it would be odd if the audience wasn't subject to the same forces. Puppy Games' Caspian Prince pointed out recently that the average customer is virtually worthless to him because the average customer paid virtually nothing for his game. As Prince perhaps bluntly underscored, the relationship between game creators and game consumers has changed in recent years.
When games sold for more money and the ratio of revenue to customers was more skewed to the former, creators were better able to offer customer support on a one-on-one basis, or reflect on individual feedback in a meaningful way. With the value of games eroding, developers have had to make up for the reduced income from the average customer by dramatically expanding the number of customers in total. But when you increase the number of players that much faster than the corresponding revenues, it's functionally impossible to continue treating customers as individuals rather than price tags or data points.
Naturally, the audience doesn't really care about all this. Gamers value "free" considerably more than they value the benefits of theoretical customer support if they have a problem, or not having their existence in the developers' eyes boiled down to heat maps and ARPU. And just as with the media's response to its own devaluation crisis, Prince's answer to this predicament, embracing a free-to-play model for the upcoming Battledroid, can only accelerate the trend he was bemoaning in the first place.
Again, in most aspects, this ongoing democratization of the industry is a Good Thing. But when there is a seemingly endless array of people able to make, cover, and consume content, it can't help but minimize the value of any one developer, any one writer, or any one customer in the chain. It threatens to make all of us that much more disposable, even as the industry becomes increasingly essential.