Cheer Up: That Doomed Games Business List
I've never been a huge fan of games journalism journalism, but I took exception to GamesBrief's 'doomed games businesses' piece proliferating as far as it did, most especially its repost in full on Kotaku - presenting millions of gamers with a neat list of apparently damned games, developers, publishers, concepts and business models.
I wasn't, I admit, at all troubled when it was primarily exposed to industry types, journalists and analysts. I'm not going after the author - I've met him a couple of times, he seems smart and nice, has written a bunch of insightful stuff in the past, and he told me this morning that he didn't do this for the hits - but I am extremely unhappy about the broader games media mentality that perhaps birthed and encouraged such a piece.
I have no interest in debating the accuracy of the list's picks, by the way. In private, to colleagues, I might very well raise my eyebrows at a number of the entries in this list, and at others still. It could quite possibly turn out to be on the money with some, maybe even all, but that's not the point. They aren't doomed. They just might be.
GamesBrief's Nicholas Lovell has, by the way, told me he's working on a follow-up post to better explain his reasoning for doing the list, and I'll certainly edit in a link to that here once it's up. He's interested in discussion, which I wholeheartedly applaud. UPDATE: here's that promised explanatory post, an admirably honest mix of defence and mea culpa.
But here's 10 reasons why I believe that list - or one like it - shouldn't have been published on a consumer site, and perhaps not at all.
1. Whatever the intention, it comes across to me as an assassination piece in the guise of business analysis. It doesn't matter how much you qualify it (and the author does qualify - explaining his reasons for each pick and giving a little coverage to how they might avoid their prophesised apocalypses), when it's titled in a way that's essentially "10 Shit Things," it's attracting people in a specific way, and really only leaving one take-home message. Whatever the intention, it does look like hit-chasing.
2. Its definition of 'game business' is extraordinarily broad, consisting of an awkward mix of studios, concepts and specific games. That's the thing with lists. You have to bend the rules an awful lot to get your nice round number (as demonstrated by how much I've repeated myself in this one). Is Project Milo, a tech demo that ultimately didn't spawn a retail game, a business? Or does it mean Lionhead? Is CCP the doomed business, or is DUST 514 specifically? Or is it about getting up to 10? Worse, this particular list lumps proven failures (e.g. the axed Milo and the known, dramatic decline of GAME's revenues) and arguably suffering ongoing projects (such as Miniclip and Virgin's gambling thing) with unreleased titles and speculative business models. By simple dint of proximity, the stuff that is indeed in deep trouble spreads outwards like a stain to darken the outlook on unproven, unplayed and even non-existent games and concepts.
3. Now it's on Kotaku rather than its original inter-industry home on GamesBrief, it's telling x many million people how they should think about several unreleased games (by which I also include businesses working on unannounced titles), that they should not trust them and they are not worth caring about. Sure, they have their own opinions and will come to their own conclusions, but even the old guy on the street with a megaphone yelling at shoppers they're going to hell can worm his way into a few minds. This may not affect sales or investments even slightly. Not the point. There's a reason even a site as prone to cynicism as RPS never outright says that an unreleased game is a disaster. We might say we're concerned, or we don't like this feature or that aspect, but we wouldn't tell our readers it's up the creek without a digipaddle. It isn't here, we haven't played it, and we don't know. There's a reason that these games, technologies and business models aren't out yet: they're still creating them, trying themselves to help make them work.
4. 'Worried about' and 'doomed' are fundamentally different concepts. The piece itself tries admirably to be the former, but again the title is the latter, because that's likely to gain more attention. One can be legitimately concerned without using emotive, consumer opinion-twisting language like 'doomed.' If you're paying any attention whatsoever, you'll note I'm not arguing that these projects should not be criticised in public. There are a lot of interesting arguments to be made about all the strange, risky, money-grabbing and/or progressive business and design models these and other companies are taking, and they should be made. But a title like that risks shutting down a lot of discussion because the companies are earmarked for death rather than simply as being risky. Can any and all of we journalists be more comfortable with subtlety, please?
5. '10 ways to make these risky projects less risky' would have been a much less upsetting feature, both for people like me who took against this piece, and for the businesses it attacks. '10 children that won't live' doesn't encourage their parents into useful debate. It could have been constructive: these things do need to be talked about. Destructive commentary doesn't build better things.
6. The throughline, whether intended or not, of a Danger! Danger! piece in this vein is that interesting projects and companies trying to do anything other than follow current successful trends are deemed too dangerous to bother with. It's arguing for a future of safe blandness, where bold projects shouldn't be given air. Sure, that makes business sense, and I believe that's one of the major reasons that list came about (though see points 1 and 6) - but this is videogames, a sector based around progression and digital innovation, one that's young and evolving, one that regularly offers up success stories no-one ever anticipated. Hello, Minecraft. So, again: what's a piece like that doing on a gaming culture site like Kotaku?
Actually, I don't have a 7, 8, 9 and 10. Screw lists. They never helped anyone.