Is the games industry sustainable with so many new releases?

Currently we’re seeing upwards of 30 games being released every week on the Nintendo Switch alone, not to mention the hundreds of games that come out every month on Steam. Yet at the same time, there’s a massive downward pressure on prices, with games regularly being given away for free or rapidly discounted. Surely something has to give?

The AMAP writers gathered in The Manor’s drawing room to pour forth their thoughts on the matter…

Lucius P. Merriweather: The sheer number of games that come out every week just blows my mind. For example, in one week in April, there were 34 new releases on the Switch eShop. In March, there were 692 new games released on Steam, or around 173 per week. There are nearly 2,000 games now available for the PS4.

How is this sustainable?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we have so much choice, but at the same time, it strikes me that the market just can’t support so many new releases. People only have so much time and money, so surely there must be developers going out of business almost every day as their game fails to make an impact in a crowded market…

Professor GreilMercs: I’ve heard the same sentiment so many times from so many people it’s almost become a litany amongst older gamers: I’ve gotten older and now I have the money to buy games, but no time to play them. Ebay has made it way too easy to collect entire complete sets of series of games I’m never going to finish, and Humble Bundles and cheap Steam sales have made my collection of games even more impossibly bloated. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed for years, and lately it just seems like it’s gotten worse.

I think the key change that’s making it even more difficult these days for long-time gamers like me to make any progress on their backlogs is the shift in the industry from standalone game experiences to a deluge of constantly evolving games via DLC, patches and other updates. Before, even a long RPG such as a Final Fantasy game was finite, but it seems like any modern major releases you look at (Fortnite, Splatoon 2 and Smash Bros. Ultimate, to name just a few) receive regular updates that extend their shelf life way beyond that of the games of yesteryear. Many of these games run an endless cycle of limited-time events that put pressure on you to keep playing, and these games are designed to be addictive. Mobile games that fit this mold are generally still fairly casual at their core, and they end up just eating into time I would have spent playing a more substantial (and ultimately more satisfying) console release. The bevy of free-to-play games adds to the pressure and the feeling that you’re missing out.

Feeling overwhelmed by the huge number of highly regarded games being released seemingly every week isn’t a great feeling, and as a result I feel like I’ve been retreating further and further in the opposite direction and pulling into my myopic shell, only focusing on just a few games that I play daily or weekly, to the exclusion of all others. It takes a lot of effort these days for me to look beyond these core games, and although I enjoy them in general, I definitely feel like I’m missing out on the broader gaming universe. I miss the wide variety of games I used to play. It won’t be easy to break free from any of my “staple” games, but I’m hoping that something permanently shakes me out of the rut before too long (although I’m not that optimistic about it, to be honest).

James Keen, Esq.: I think the number of games being released is sustainable in itself, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The number of games added to Steam each year has grown exponentially since Valve let the leash off Greenlight. This shows no sign of slowing down, and even if it plateaus, it would still mean thousands of new games being added to the platform each year. The fact is, the bar is now so low that it’s possible to sell a functional albeit terrible game for minimal financial outlay.

While the volume of games for sale will probably continue to increase, the majority of these games will be cheap to make and not much fun to play. That’s not to say all cheap games are bad; video game development has never been more accessible, and there are some real gems to be found. To my mind, the biggest issue is one of visibility. Many good games from small to mid-sized developers are getting lost in the swamp. With so many titles to sort through, it’s increasingly difficult for the good, smaller games to find their audience. This isn’t just an issue for Steam of course, but it’s certainly more pronounced on that platform.

In terms of true sustainability though, I think there are more problems in the AAA end of the market. Massive budgets, pressurised workers and a constant clamour from investors for bigger and bigger profits should all be concerns for anyone interested in a stable games industry. They’re also driving increased monetisation and a move to more “live service” style games; games which invariably encourage a significant time investment. If your games backlog looks bad now, imagine if you add open-ended, multiplayer loot-shooters on top!

Ultimately, nobody has time to play all the games – but really that’s not all that different to all the books, music or films which get released each month. My video game pile of shame is as nothing compared to all the novels I’ve never read; maybe I should stop playing Stellaris… Anyway, I think the cycle will continue as is. Cheap games will continue to bloat the marketplaces, indie developers will try to make good games without going broke and the AAA publishers will try to claw in every last available penny. The names of the studios may change, but the pattern will likely repeat for the foreseeable future.

LPM: That’s a good point about AAA developers – the system seems inherently unsustainable, what with all the horror stories of overwork coming out. Just the other week, it emerged in a story on Polygon that developers at Epic are constantly working 70-hour weeks. That’s the other side of having games like Fortnite that are constantly being updated – the crunch never ends.

Plus there’s the fact that every console generation, AAA games get more complicated to make and require ever more people to make them. The Assassin’s Creeds and Red Dead Redemptions of this world already require literally thousands of people to make them, and that number is only going to go up. But conversely, the prices of those games remain constant – the games of the PS4/Xbox One generation cost the same as the generation before, so where is all the extra money going to come from? Presumably, unless the number of people buying games expands in line with the spiralling development costs, the shortfall will have to be made up by ever more microtransactions and paid updates.

There’s always the option of putting up games prices, too – but really, this would be almost unthinkable. If anything, the trend is for game prices to go DOWN. As the Prof mentions, games are two-a-penny these days, and it’s easy to hoover up a whole library of games for practically nothing – or even for free. Since I joined PS Plus, I’ve accumulated far more games than I’ll ever have time to play. Seriously, I could probably spend a solid year going through every title in my library and still not see the end. But the availability of cheap and free games is devaluing games as a whole – if people can get games for free, they’re less likely to want to pay £50 or whatever for a new one. And this problem will only get more acute as game streaming services come online, offering hundreds of games for a nominal fee.

I’m no economic expert, but the sums don’t seem to add up if games are getting cheaper at the same time as they’re becoming more expensive to produce. Surely something will have to give?

Map Schwartzberg: The funny thing about discussing sustainability in the gaming market is that it hasn’t inherently changed in probably decades. It’s overwhelming for sure, but with everyone from that kid at their desk making their first project to multi-billion dollar corporations making multi-billion dollar “events”, now more than ever there’s a chance for accessibility for them and everyone in between. There are more avenues o playing games than ever and that’s daunting, to the point where we feel like it all might come crumbling down, like the crash that happened in the early eighties. I think the truth of the matter is the way people think about games needs to make an about face.

The Professor hit the nail on the head – our free time is a commodity. Unfortunately, we all think we have more of it than we really do. In the early aughts I thought I could keep up; owning a GameCube, an Xbox and a PlayStation 2, attempting to try all the games of note to the detriment of my then freely opened disposable income. And maybe at that time I perceived I could do it. The reality is I only dabbled; never finishing anything even though I was playing everything. And the experience felt utterly hollow. Since then I’ve slowly scaled back, mostly for monetary reasons but eventually for philosophical ones as well.

It’s often said that when folks get older they lose their sense of open-mindedness to popular culture; as I’m fast approaching forty I’ve come to realize that the truth of the matter is we come to an understanding that our time is finite and we should fill it with the things we love while we still have it. This last generation I’ve decided to play games on only one platform, the Switch, on which I could focus a little better. I still see those games on other platforms that I wish I could play and pine for those experiences, but the FOMO I’d feel is gone. I’ve lived in the periphery of gaming culture for the better part of a decade now and I can’t think of a better perch to have. Because in what may be a shocking revelation for some, a game that is lauded and fun today will likely be just as entertaining five, ten years from now, when it’s ported to a system I own at a price point I can afford. I’ve also learned how to wholeheartedly curate my wish list to just those games I know I’ll finish, while occasionally requesting review codes for those I’d like to dabble in. My money and my time is precious and I’m guessing so is yours, so why waste it on something you’re uncertain about? In this day and age you can get a far better bead on games with the likes of YouTube and trials that let you see if these experiences are for you or not before you take the plunge. I still take gambles every now and again, but they are much more deliberate these days.

Video games are now a medium unto themselves, slowly ingratiating itself with the likes of writing, film and photography. The distribution of them is like a digital Wild West, with us now being able to see how huge it is thanks for the proliferation of the internet. There’s probably millions of them, yet they won’t collapse unto themselves. The horizon might change, but the same sunset will always be there. The real question I think isn’t whether the market for them is sustainable, but if the way we consume them is. There’s a very vocal minority that want gaming to be this homogeneous entity, which is truly the unsustainable thing. Not everything is made for everyone… and that’s OK. Get a little introspective and reflective and think about what really trips your trigger; focus on what interests you and not necessarily what everyone else thinks is interesting. There will always be a “next thing”, so enjoy what you’re playing before you get there.