Money Is A Dead Muse

By James Hawkins in Features
Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 11:00 am
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Cash is corporate blood. It keeps parts moving and workers working. It pays for talent to run efficient operations, minds to design brilliance, and suit-and-tie guerrillas to puncture the market to reach consumers. There can never be too much, so long as social contracts remain intact, and it tends to perpetuate vertical and horizontal growth of itself. There can be too little. Without enough, visions get blurry and production limps until it collapses. It's necessary to grease the joints of the machine, and to propel the expansion of an entity.

Like every other industry in the world, the video game industry is dictated by cash. It has quickly become the entertainment industry most dictated by cash. This year, we've seen two $100 million marketing campaigns from two of gaming's weightiest publishing companies, and each year we see history's record for "largest entertainment launch" get a rewrite. Video games represent the largest and most efficient entertainment medium in the world. 

But their fiscal success has morphed video games into something I'm beginning to hate. It seems like many video game releases are too clouded by projected revenues, market-share, and mass production. Their young hearts are no longer driven by expression. For as much lip-service the "video games as art" argument gets, I think we've never been so far away. And I think we're moving further.

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by losney

I was blown away when The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture. For the entirety of the waning months of 2009, James Cameron's Avatar held the societal spotlight -- it was big, boasted incredible effects, and was seen by more people than any other film in history. Its 3D presentation pioneered and bought into technology's trend, dragging in tow dozens more bigger-than-life blockbusters. Quinton Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds threatened to net the director a new shelf-load of gold statues with its freshly minted maturity and cleverness. The Hurt Locker had none of these things in its belt -- it was contained, firmly inspired by reality, and bone dry.

In the end, Kathryn Bigelow's surrealist portrait of men at war garnered the highest acclaim that popular society has created for film, and it won based on its merit, not because it had the largest budget, marketing campaign, and the biggest stars painted across the screen in computer-augmented dimensions.

And, to me, the existence of all those pieces of entertainment is what makes film powerful. They are each remarkable in their own respects. They serve specific purposes -- one is a feel good, sensory-massaging blockbuster meant to delight the masses, the second is a gritty historical fiction, and the third discusses society and the experiences of a unique section of the populace. They represent functions of art and entertainment at its most commercially and critically successful, with the appraisers of each working somewhat independently of one another.

Films are not innocent of commercialization by any stretch, nor should they need to be vilified for it. Commercialism isn't the perpetrator. The millions (perhaps billions) of dollars that they bring in lines the pockets of executives and celebrities and everyone involved. They too have their marketing budgets, their name recognitions, and their projected revenues. However, film doesn't compete like video games do -- they exist within it together, and Universal Pictures didn't rout 20th Century Fox through press releases to win over fans. They were not competitors by genre or market; the film industry doesn't beg for the same viewer to only see their film and not the others. Tarantino didn't tout Inglorious Basterds as the film that would take down The Hurt Locker, though they both dealt with war. They just did it in their own ways, and enjoyed successes due to it. Their vision was placed before their projected earnings.

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Right now, we're sitting halfway between punches in a slugfest between EA and Activision. Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Up to this point, their paths have been nearly identical -- they've followed the same marketing schemes, claimed to be "winning" the contest for market-share, and rallied their camps to angle against one another. The two are competing for the attention of the same group of people. And in doing so, they are becoming the same. We see more arcade features in the Battlefield 3 multiplayer experience, while Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 reinstalls tanks into the multiplayer landscape. The competition hasn't pushed these two franchises to become unique -- instead, they are now defined by containing each other's features.

The stories within their narratives will be subtly different, but themes of terrorism, realism, betrayal, and heroism will be pervasive inside of each. Having not played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, I can't swear by that statement, but its advertising has all but confirmed that projection. They each sport comprehensive multiplayer experiences, both cooperative and competitive, with "elite soldier" wartime stories occupying their single player campaigns

These games aren't the expression of two groups of artists trying to communicate their art to the people who want to experience it. This is Coca-Cola and Pepsi, boasting Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb. Sprite and 7-Up. Toyota and Honda, featuring Lexus and Acura. These are products that have features and benefits to try and gather up the lion's share of the marketplace. The publishers and developers monitor Metacritic reviews and hype because they perceive success on how many people will buy their product when all is said and done. If scores are low, people won't buy the product. If people don't buy the product, the studio is dissolved for failing to win.

I struggle with this because, while it is still early in gaming's history, the gentrification of the big and small games has begun to permeate into other genres, ones that I care about. Right now, we have a pretty diverse selection of game genres to choose from -- RPGs, shooters, dungeon crawlers, open world adventure, puzzlers, platformers, sports, racing, you name it. But if this sort of competition is a trend, and the perception that a franchise can "win" by annihilating its competitors, we're headed for dangerous waters. If a singular entity owns its market, the only way for it to expand is to begin trying to overtake other groups' market-share.

I don't mean that Call of Duty will all of sudden start to compete with Resident Evil. But how far are we away from a first-person shooter Resident Evil title? In 2003, it would've seemed preposterous. Now, I'm not so certain. The action aspect has been emphasized to ensure that the series can stand its ground against any other franchise that offers "action" as a benefit. What next? In 2025, how different will these games look? Will Resident Evil 7 give me the option to sprint, or cook grenades with a button press? It is a "survival of the fittest" mentality that will cause the extinction of uniqueness. The annexation of competitors' features will kill off true innovation.


When money is the inspiration for creation, the end result is what has happened to the military first-person shooter genre, and what is flooding into elsewhere. The moves Activision and Electronic Arts have been making are damn near perfect from a business standpoint. But placing emphasis on "business" it isn't what has made the video game industry such a lovely part of my life in the past. The games that have stuck with me through the years haven't been the ones that mimic others, or that feel propelled by the desire to offer me everything I could possibly want in the genre.

They are the ones that offer me the exact opposite: they are the games that allow me something I can find no place else in my life, and ones that emphasize the beauty of other games in the genre. Playing Limbo made me go back and play Braid, and playing those games in tandem was peculiar to experiencing their genre, a portfolio of works that satisfy smaller parts of me inside. The first game I beat after playing BioShock 2 was Half-Life 2, because my emotions and intellect were tremoring, and injecting myself with more, different, fueled the hum.


Well over a century after the first film was ever screened for an audience, we can find successful movies that are totally different from one another finding monolithic success in pop culture. As consumers, we feel no pressure to love one or the other, to pick a side. We get to just experience them as they are -- separate works informed by one another, yet unthreatened by them. I'm not so sure that after that same space of time, we'll be able to say the same about video games.

Follow James on Twitter: @JamesHawk1ns
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