The Political Machine: Kickstarter and the changing landscape of the games industry

Election_PicFlickI feel like we’re only a small sneeze away from having opinion polls in the games industry.  It’s a popularity contest, a preferred Prime Minister racer, a two-party preferred poll.  It’s indies versus the mainstream, hardcore versus the casual, high flyer versus the new comer.  And with the bankrolling of large publicly listed companies, the games industry has become a political machine.

The products of the companies are increasingly being sidelined in favour of clever public relations and marketing campaigns, or worse, unrelenting onslaughts of charisma.  They say the right things, at the right time, to the right people.  And there is no shortage of people to spread the message, and the media fights for its share of the declining readership and advertising revenue.  The games industry isn’t immune to the impact of the 24 hour news cycle, and it’s forcing developers to fight over every bit of air time, in a war of the gaming public’s mindshare.

Their mindshare and, of course, part of their contestable discretionary income.

After months of hard campaigning and clever catch phrases release day is here. The voting public go to their local retailer to cast their vote. It’s finally election day, with the pollsters counting up the votes, delivering their verdict.  Years of hard work comes down to this.  A single number.  The number that will decide the next few years for the team.  Succeed and there’s a mandate for future projects.  But fail and it’s back to the drawing board.

Of course along the way there are always slip ups.  The private uttering of the “f-word” or the “c-word” that the microphone picks up, lofty promises that don’t stand up to journalistic scrutiny, or uncertainty over the price of downloadable content in the future.  It all comes down to messaging, developing a product that the public will buy, and ultimately about how marketable a product, a team, an individual is.  In the blink of an eye it can all come crashing down, approval ratings plummet, and the competition starts to look like a viable alternative.

With shareholders involved, risk aversion sets in, and business as usual means appealing to the greatest number of people possible.  It’s less about ideals, and more about hoteling’s law, positioning yourself as close to the opposition as possible with a few token differentiators.  In Australian politics this is the Labor and Liberal parties.  In video games this is Electronic Arts and Activision.   For some though, this convergence of the party political leads to disillusionment and disenfranchisement with the major players.  What then?

The rise of the micro party, the indie developer, the little guys that stand for principles and ideals.  The Australian political landscape has been peppered by these throughout its history, from the rise of the Democrats in the mid to late nineties to the recent revival of the Greens movement achieving record votes across all jurisdictions.  For games it’s the rise of the meteoric rise of indies, out to capture that point of differentiation the major publishers and developers and missing, to restore people’s faith in the industry.  For some, like Vlambeer, it’s an organic extension of their core beliefs and success comes accordingly.  But for others, it’s about living up to a myth, about living up to being the ‘alternative’, for being about ideals unencumbered with the need to deliver to shareholder expectations, instead trading on consumer goodwill and buy-in.  Kickstarter is just the tangible manifestation of this.

And for the latter, the cycle continues, as they feed the 24 hour news cycle hoping to grab attention and mindshare of the consumer.  Just like the big businesses it becomes about PR and messaging, massaging the media vying for that next headline.  The election cycle begins at the Kickstarter campaign and ends once the product ships.  Succeed and you’re a god.  But fail and you’re media fodder and political collateral.

And that’s sadly been the story for 22Cans, and Peter Molyneux’s approval rating couldn’t be lower.

4 Comments

  1. Great post! I was thinking just the other day after reading that disastrous interview with Peter Molyneux about those select people who are pariahs in the games industry – Denis Dyack, Phil Fish. At a certain point (whether deliberate or not on their parts) these guys loomed larger than the games they were out to sell. It’s bizarre to think that the question of whether gamers on forums were “for or against” Denis Dyack would affect sales of Too Human. And as you say, Kickstarter brings that sort of popularity contest to a whole new level.

    1. You’ll find that popular politicians who sell ‘slogans’ ultimately have shorter careers than those unpopular ones with hard-line but principled policies. I think to Thatcher in the case of the UK, and people like John Howard or Robert Menzies in Australia, who were at times unpopular for their economic rationalism, but still the longest serving Prime Ministers in our country’s history.

  2. Great post! I’m ignorant of Australian politics but seems like a close enough parallel to US politics where I wholeheartedly agree. Gaming becoming mainstream is totally a double-edged sword, as you so elegantly explained in this post.

    1. thank you! It’s ultimate to the detriment of the industry, but the problem isn’t with ambition per se, it’s with giving the market perceived agency in design decisions and production timelines.

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