Talking about Games: Bad Analysis and Consumerism

Words: 2412 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

So obviously engaging in any sort of blogging is to engage in analysis. Whether it’s of culture, politics, games, books, and so on. Whether you’re looking at how we talk about games, or theming, or reviewing games. It’s all analysis.

And really, we are all engaging in analysis in some sense when we’re just talking about these things in anything other than a purely descriptive manner. If we’re talking about a game, doing anything other than just describing the mechanics and narrative is to do analysis. We might be doing it at a very rudimentary level, but we’re still doing it.

And as someone who has not only been engaging in analysis for a couple years now, but who was explicitly trained in tools of analysis (specifically philosophical and political analysis), I really care about the process. Which means, in turn, that there is something about really bad or sloppy analysis that annoys me. It is not the analysis of the person who dislikes something and is comfortable saying so. The person who sees their feelings as feelings and treats them as feelings is a level of honesty and care that is refreshing.

No, the kind of sloppy analysis I find aggravating is when people establish principles of design based on mistaken ideas – usually as a form of critique. When those ideas don’t get interrogated, and people cling to their faulty assumptions continually. It’s easy enough to see this stuff in the way that we normally talk about games, though there is often a blurry line between people just trying to explain their dislike of something and people trying to engage in thoughtless critique.

A while back I happened upon a post on Twitter that seemed like a really good example of this problem. The post is old, and numerous game developers stepped in to rebut the criticism being made, so I see no real value in linking the post here. Instead, the text itself is what matters.

“i get actively mad when i can pet a dog in a video game now. it only reads to me as either the dev being cynical and doing it for meme marketing or theyre reddit. thats how terrible it is out here”

Again, a lot of developers happened upon the post and explained the mistake – developers are generally putting in animal interactions because they want to add those animal interactions. But the claim itself (and the various people who agreed) really helped shed a light on a fundamental problem in how we approach critique and analysis.

So I wanted to use this “pet the dog” example as a springboard into the broader topic. What is the process by which a person ends up with this kind of incredibly cynical conclusion that is completely at odds with what developers are actually doing?

Money, Marketing, and the Development Process

I think a useful starting point is understanding the role of money in game development.

Games need to make money. Strictly speaking, they only need to make enough to pay the costs of the development team, though ideally a team or studio would want to make more. More money means better pay, or a cushion in case the next game doesn’t do as well.

The fact that any developer or studio needs money changes behavior in a variety of ways. Some studios may chase trends. Is a certain game popular? Then rip off whatever you can and replace what you need to make it different. Some studios struggle with monetizing games – how to put in microtransactions and developing an addicting gameplay loop that will keep people coming back. Some studios may try appealing to particular niche of players. It’s certainly not a secret that a studio has money in mind throughout the development process.

But this framing on its own doesn’t tell us anything. How much of the process is being driven by the concern for money is the key question we’re trying to answer. And what often happens is that the framing is used to answer the question: because studios are concerned with money at all, it must mean that everything is about money.

This mentality is really common to see when it comes to AAA studios or games that work with big name publishers. Since publishers provide a lot of the needed funding and resources, or AAA studios need to draw in a big audience to sustain themselves, it surely must be the case that if anyone is obsessed with money, it’s them. They will do every little thing to squeeze and trick money from consumers.

I’ve of course written about marketing and manipulation a few times, and in fact one of my longer research series was on the topic. My concerns in those posts was about the adoption of cryptocurrency and NFTs, and the ways that microtransactions were bad. In both cases, the argument I was making was that these two practices were at some level unethical. For NFTs, because they were built upon a false premise of how the technology would work and sold under that pretense. For microtransactions, because of how they feed addictive personalities without any serious attempt to prevent people from making serious mistakes.

Certain practices can be unethical without having to say that any concern for making money is wrong. Those practice should be done away with, but it’s still true that studios and devs need to be able to support themselves financially. That point always seems to get lost. There are times when we (rightfully) draw attention to big companies – particularly publishers – paying executives massive salaries and then laying off hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of employees and closing studios. But it can then seem like any discussion about money invokes a sense of greed. The characters that come to mind are the CEOs laughing as they count stacks of money, and not the actual developers putting in the hard work to make a game come to life.

Why Can You Pet the Dog?

But more important than just the discussion about the role of money and marketing is just the simple question of how something – an art asset, a mechanic, a narrative – actually gets into the game. The tweet that started this was based on the idea that if a game developer goes through the effort to allow a dog to be pet (certainly not a small amount of work), it is being done because the developer wants to drive attention to the game and use that mechanic for marketing purposes.

I want to try to illustrate why this premise is poorly thought out, and I will cover two problems.

The first is the most obvious, and was pointed out by the developers actually responding to the tweet. Developers generally include things because that’s what they want to see in the game. It’s easy for us to say that something in a game we didn’t enjoy was put in a game because it was required by some executive – and it certainly does happen. But most often the reason that certain mechanics or assets exist is because people thought it should be there. Even when those mechanics ruin the game in some way, it can be the case that the developers thought those mechanics would contribute to the fun of the game. It is better to think of things that don’t work as mistakes, rather than deliberate choices to make a game “unfun.”

The cynical argument also misses that people can do things for multiple reasons. That a developer could, for instance, allow players to pet a dog knowing that it would get some attention on the internet, and because they thought it would be nice. People don’t need to have only one reason for everything they do. The attempt to flatten our actions and thoughts down to this concern for money misses out on a core component of our own psychology.[1]

The second problem involves just trying to think about how the supposed manipulation actually works. The claim being made is that a developer allows people to pet dogs because that becomes part of the marketing. So let’s pick that idea apart.

Let’s say you wanted to engage in this meme marketing. You’re going to have dogs in your game, and players will be able to pet them. And you’re not doing this because you think players will enjoy it, or because you like dogs and the idea of being able to pet them in games. You’re doing it to boost sales. People will go on the internet and say that you can pet the dog in this game, and that will lead to more sales, and thus, more money.

Of course, for that to be true, who is going to buy the game just for that? After all, you will have people buying the game because the narrative seems interesting. There will be people buying the game because the mechanics are cool. There will be people buying the game because of the neat art style. None of those people are getting the game because of dog petting.

So then we look to the people who aren’t going to buy your game. Sometimes people don’t buy games because they don’t know the game exists. Sometimes people don’t buy games because they don’t have the money. Sometimes people don’t buy games because they don’t think they would like those games. That’s your potential market – trying to convince someone in one of those categories to buy your game.

But the marketing surrounding this strategy isn’t going to accomplish much. It could help you reach people who might otherwise not hear of your game – but that’s actually a bit of a long shot. The people who are least likely to be aware of your game are probably not going to get the information they need from a quick post on the internet. You might get a few here and there, but that’s about it.

Those who can’t afford your game – or more appropriately, are having to make a choice between your game and another – probably aren’t going to be persuaded. After all, they have to compare a lot of other things like the overall quality of the game, how much playtime they could get from it, whether they can play with friends, etc. “Can you pet a dog in this game” is going to be pretty low on the priority list for these people.

So then lastly there are the people who wouldn’t normally like your game. Are they going to suddenly be convinced your game looks good because it has a pettable dog? That’s highly doubtful. Because those people were likely rejecting your game on the basis of its story or gameplay, not the potential existence of dogs and the ability to pet them. They’re not going to change their minds just because of a brief animation, even if those people like dogs.

So for this whole argument to work, you would need to be reaching either A) people who would like your game but wouldn’t otherwise know that it exists thanks specifically to these posts being shared (as opposed to them seeing an ad for the game), or B) people who normally wouldn’t like your game or are on the fence but change their minds entirely because of they can pet a dog. Those two population are going to be tiny. Really, the only group here that you even have a chance of reaching are in Group A…and those people are going to be easier to locate with traditional advertising, rather than a handful of meme posts that will likely get lost among hundreds or thousands of others.

All of this to say that if you were going to be putting in the effort to allow players to pet a dog entirely for the sake of marketing, you would be wasting your time.

And that’s why this level of analysis ends up being so bad. It oversimplifies things and ignores any attempt to really dig into the details. It stops at the surface and declares its job done.

The absence of analysis would be better than incredibly sloppy analysis. In this case, that person – and anyone who might feel similarly – would instead just see a dog being pet in a game and simply not care. Or maybe even pet it. People would be better able to enjoy their games if they just stopped analyzing them badly.

Concluding Remarks

As I said at the beginning, this idea really stuck with me, and for a long time. This essay has been bouncing around in my head for months, now.

Because bad analysis has consequences. Not direct consequences, of course. No one is really going to be hurt by this tweet, or any similar statements. But those kinds of statements build up over time. They contribute to a set of ideas that make people feel entitled to harass developers. While the line may not be a straight one, you can still draw a line between the two.

And I will readily admit that a thoughtful analysis isn’t easy to do. Part of why bad analysis exists is that it’s simple, and we don’t immediately know that it’s bad. After all, if we knew it was sloppy, we probably wouldn’t do it. But the difficulty of doing good analysis illustrates why we need to be more careful with our statements. Sometimes it may be better to remain silent on a subject and learn, rather than open our mouths and say something stupid.

[1] This point is especially important because games are rarely the product of a single mind, but something that multiple people work on. One argument brought up in support of the original tweet was how marketers pushed for players to be able to interact with their dog companion in Monster Hunter Rise, with reference to the viral posts shared by users like CanYouPetTheDog on Twitter. Other people then responded how the player could pet animals in a Monster Hunter title a decade earlier – the idea of petting animals wasn’t really new to the franchise. In other words, the marketing isn’t what has to be driving the decision. Instead we’re just left to speculate if those interactions would have been implemented if the marketers never mentioned it. Given how many developers spoke up and said that they added similar mechanics because it was nice, there’s a very good chance that some on the Capcom team would have made it possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: