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THQ, Wildman, & The Problem Of Voting With Our Wallets

For My Next Trick, I'll Make Money Talk!

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Vote with your wallet. We constantly preach it as an approach that actually Makes Important Things Happen, but does it? Does it really? It’s such an easy be-all, end-all argument to toss out, but things are rarely that simple. The recent death of THQ and potential failure of Gas Powered Games’ Wildman represent very tangible examples of how “vote with your wallet” can screech and shatter like so many piggy banks being hurled into a craggy abyss. But there’s hope, too, if you know where to look for it. The industry’s changing. Here’s why that makes us – its most vocal, diehard fans – equal parts more and less powerful than ever.

It’s never easy to say goodbye.

Sometimes, though, acceptance comes quickly. All good things must come to an end, after all. But watching THQ go from slow tailspin into inescapable nosedive last week just left me with this wretched knot in my gut. It felt equal parts unreal and all wrong. I mean, here was this fixture of the gaming industry responsible – especially in recent years – for some games I legitimately fell in love with (oh Metro 2033, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Saints Row: The Third, let me count the ways) crashing and burning. And I was powerless to do anything about it. So I just looked on from the sidelines as a vulture storm of other publishers lapped up the remains.

Here’s the thing, though: much as it tears me up to see super talented heads roll, the part that really bothered me concerned THQ as an organization. Because ultimately, it did a whole, whole, whole lot of things right. Or at least, its publishing choices were correct by our traditional, gamerly views of correctness. I mean, the Activisions of the world steer clear of risk and novelty with the cold, calculated expertise of a professional figure skater. An evil figure skater. But while THQ certainly wasn’t innocent of dipping its bucket into a well of stagnation (hi, Homefront), it certainly did its fair share of rolling the dice. Metro 2033 was a shot in the dark, Saints Row evolved into a gloriously unique rainbow cocaine explosion of pure madness, reviving Company of Heroes in a climate where RTSes are (depressingly) near-dead financially may have been madness, etc.

But it died. It died horribly, a fact that can mainly be chalked up to one awful business decision. Kid-friendly doodle peripheral uDraw failed miserably on Xbox 360 and PS3, and – for a company that needed a boost while the digital era forced everyone out of their comfort zones – it was the beginning of the end.

Sad? Absolutely. And we really couldn’t have done much to halt the screaming car-plane-boat-train-hovercraft-dilo-bat wreck short of buying a whole heap of uDraws, either. But therein, I think, lies a very important lesson: us media types always like to preach about “voting with your wallet.” But when the stakes are this high and the factors playing into them this nuanced, what does that even mean anymore? How feasible is it to tell a company “Good job, you’re doing the correct thing” when it could be doing something completely incorrectly with a different product or audience, or dealing with financial strain from some other, only vaguely controllable factor entirely?

Of course, this brings us to another core tenet of the “vote with your wallet” creed: frequently, it refers to withholding money – not spending it. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. Etc. But once again, we hit a showstopping snag. Other, less informed customers will often buy whatever “it” is anyway, and bad/derivative/objectionable ideas will live to fight another day.

Are there exceptions to these cases? Sure. But they often involve specific products and licenses. It’s a different thing entirely to encourage or discourage ideals – especially in large companies. To say, “Hey, Company X, pregnant with the loathsome parasite that is a brood of shareholders, thanks for not being evil or lazy – even though it might be to your financial detriment to do so. Thanks for trying. Thanks for betting things will work out in the long run, even though you just had to lay-off, like, a billion people in the short term. Even though other companies are dropping like flies.” More often than not, people will opt to do what they have to if it means getting by. Ideals be damned.

But hark, on the horizon, a potential bright side: gaming’s entering a new era. Audiences are communicating more directly with game-makers than ever. Kickstarter, self-publishing, Greenlight, Indie DB, and so on and so forth. And yet, once again, the present provides us with a somewhat troubling example of how the “vote with your wallet” process can break down. On paper, Chris Taylor and co have done a lot of things we – hardcore, RTS, RPG, and depth-obsessed PC gamers – asked for with Wildman. They’ve based a Kickstarter around a new property instead of stuffing the moldy teat of nostalgia in our mouths. They came out of the gate with details, footage of the game in action, and a willingness to communicate openly and honestly. Whether they were motivated by ingrained values or the promise of cash is irrelevant. They were paying attention to us.

Goodness, though, that’s not a particularly healthy Kickstarter total, is it? But once again, there are multiple issues at play here. Sure, Taylor and co are running a fairly strong, appreciably reactive Kickstarter, but is Wildman really a strong enough concept to support it? And at this point, it’s all so muddled in the post-layoff/rehiring drama that many lessons Gas Powered Games could’ve taken away from whatever support they get are moot.

Fortunately, we’re now in an environment where communication’s more direct, which means game-makers do actually read our words – not just the numbers on the sides of our money. But money will always speak louder, and it’s the thing that’s most likely to get other game-makers quickly following suit.

Am I saying we should give up on voting with our wallets? No. Definitely not. Sometimes, ideals and products and circumstances will align, and we’ll get to shout “Hey developers and/or publishers, do more of this” from the money-built mountaintops. But I am saying that we shouldn’t always expect that voting with our wallets will work. It’s an approach that’s a great deal more complicated than a lot of people give it credit for, and – now that the industry’s transitioning and morphing like a teenager who also got bitten by a radioactive mutant teenager – it stands to become even more so. So vote with your wallet. Just make sure you know what exactly you’re voting for first – and understand that it can only count so much in this day and age.

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Nathan Grayson

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