Well, we all knew it was coming, and it looks like it’s finally here: subscription based gaming services – the “Spotifys of gaming” if you will (and tech companies definitely will). There has been much debate about the concept, however we find ourselves now amidst the full-steam execution, so what now?
Much of the idea is still nebulous and shrouded in corporate mystery. How will devs be paid? How is the amount they’re to be paid calculated? What the hell does “engagement” mean? All good questions, and crucially important, but we need to also address the dev-side of the equation and ask what this shift means for the future of the medium and our approach to video game development for these stream-based platforms.
Let’s take the service model where devs are to be paid primarily through nebulous engagement metrics focused on time spent in-game and hone in on this in particular, after all, while a developer might be paid an upfront fee (for some platforms at least), a vast sum of a game’s life-time revenue comes from the much-ballyhooed “long-tail”, the period post-release where a game finds itself purchased in smaller quantities across the long-term. Now, let’s say you’re a game developer with bills to pay and a stomach to keep full (like me and countless others), and you’re looking at this new payment structure with the dawning realization that if your game doesn’t gain adequate traction in terms of the time players spend with the game itself, that long-tail is going to start to look a lot more like a short-tail.
It isn’t hard to find article upon article on the effect that streaming services have had on musicians’ income, and while that industry is mechanically quite different to gaming – having to contend with record labels, contracts resplendent with legalese, and rights disputes aplenty – it starts to paint a relatively grim picture for the future of game development under a streaming-service model. Like all services, experiences, and artistic endeavours, streaming services create an ephemerality of that which they provide, moving from an artistic creation in the minds of the consumer to that of a consumable- a neatly packaged product to be ingested and discarded immediately thereafter unless it provides a mercenary skinner box or endless content eating expanding dev time ad infinitum.
So, what is a developer to do when the industry has decided to do a capitalism? When you spend your life making games, the answer for a lot of folx seems obvious: you game the system. There are plenty of simple ways to do so really; you can reduce stage sections in games to make them quick and easily digestible for someone playing your games on the bus, on their lunch break, etc., you can create a system that gives the illusion of infinite endorphin-dumping content, or you could embrace the core of games-as-a-service mentality and endlessly update your game to extend its life well past its initial release. Each of these choices, however, requires that you fundamentally tailor the game, or your approach to its development, with a view to ongoing engagement as opposed to its message, its themes, what you wish to convey, the core facets of the game’s artistry.
Now, streaming services are unlikely to subsume all of gaming, or even the majority of it (yet), and we’ll still have our itch.io’s, but as these services catch on, prove profitable, and have general uptake amongst the audience, it’d be naive to think that the landscape of game development will not fundamentally change in line with the new model. After all, we have mouths to feed right?
I don’t believe in indiepocalypses. Indiedownturns, absolutely, but indiepocalypse implies an extinction level event for the industry, one that I think is unlikely to come, however game streaming has a form far too close to that of a meteor wobbling worryingly close to the planet for my liking.
In the face of developments like this, it’s important for us to come together as a community and have a discussion about what the future of the medium will take in the face of new monetization models, what their impact will have on the landscape and profitability of video games for smaller and particularly marginalized creators who don’t have the financial backing or privileges that allow them to enter a potentially heavily hostile and highly competitive marketing space.
On a personal level, I think it’s important to start discussing the need for independent creator unions that can allow us to collectively bargain with monumentally gigantic corporations like Apple and Google. After all, games as a streaming service hides a more pressing encroaching reality- that of the video game developer gig economy and its fundamental shift from the the current form of endless contracting for large projects to being a potentially unpaid gig-developer for streaming services, a space that is horrifyingly hostile to workers and will, inevitably, pit us against one another in much the same way that other gig economy jobs already do for other industries. Given the financial, labour, and time investment associated with game development, the worst outcome that we desperately need to work to avoid is that of payment in exchange for positive consumption metrics, after all, the last thing an already-ailing industry needs is a shift to youtube-like payment schema which will crowd out the development space and subsume large sections of the industry as a whole.
Time will tell what the impact of the meteor that is streaming-as-a-service has on the world of game development, but we’d be remiss if we don’t take this potential threat to our industry seriously and start talking about what pro-active steps we may need to take in the face of a possible mass disruption to the space of game development.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.