Why Does the Games Industry Seem So Dysfunctional?
If you take a look at video game industry at present, it isn’t exactly enjoying universally good PR. 2017 saw numerous damaging revelations such as the “loot box” debacle, several high-profile studios going to the wall (and not just because of financial mismanagement), and more recently there have been serious allegations of bullying and sexual harassment within several high-profile studios. Despite being a “modern” industry it seems to have all the flaws of those that have existed for centuries with respect to abuses of power and financial skulduggery. This raises the question "why does this industry seem so dysfunctional?" Just because gaming is a multi-billion-dollar business we naturally assume that successful companies are efficiently run, by competent captains of industry as well as skilled and professional staff. It is therefore confusing when this illusion is shattered due to evidence to the contrary. This begs the question, why do these institutions so often have metaphorical feet of clay?
To start let me declare my own background as my own experiences are relevant to this discussion. I have worked in IT for over twenty-five years in both the private and public sector. I started in first line support and worked my way up to running my own consultancy, from which I retired in 2016. I have worked for companies such as HP, Symbian and government departments such as the NHS as well as the DWP. I have been directly involved in several national projects, some of which have been successful while others have failed miserably. None of these situations are identical to the gaming industry, but I believe there are a lot of similarities between the way big businesses work and make decisions. I also read a lot about the gaming industry and at times find it a lot more interesting than the actual products that they develop. This has often been the focus of our discussions here at Contains Moderate Peril both in posts and on the podcast. Therefore, when I read stories about the iniquities of the gaming industry, I often view them through the prism of business, rather than fandom.
So, returning to the initial question of dysfunction, I would argue that the gaming industry is no different from any other major business or governmental entity. Politics, big business and the entertainment industry are as equally rife with the same problems you will find with smaller employers. In fact, I think a lot of people would be surprised at the similarities. Both ends of the spectrum have issues with under qualified staff, office politics, feedback loops, laziness and that social phenomenon that is “square pegs in round holes”. The latter group seems to be subject to a quota system that no company is excused from. Despite rigorous recruitment processes, there always seem to be a small percentage of wildcards that somehow seem to slip through the intense screening. Or alternatively, we later discover that the screening isn’t that thorough to begin with. Then of course there is the Dunning-Kruger effect which impacts on all social groups both in and outside of business. It is possibly one of the commonest problems of our time.
The problem is that the general public erroneously assumes that successful big companies have gained their status through efficiency and vision; that their internal business structure is a model of the best methodologies and practises. Sadly, this is often not the case. Corporations suffer from the same flaws as smaller enterprises but have the advantage of monopolies, more effective marketing and sheer momentum due to their monolithic size. Then there is of course the concept of being "too big to fail". Often a major business will be granted a lot more leeway by during difficult times because of their overall potential. Creative accounting is also a factor, as having a legion of financial experts and financiers at your beck and call, means that you can present a positive financial image, whether there is one or not. Smaller companies cannot hide behind such smokes screens as easily.
As consumers, need to take a lot of people and companies off the pedestals on which we've been placed them. This is especially relevant to gamers where the cult of personality and brand loyalty still hold sway. We also have to make a clear distinction between the creative staff within a business and those in senior management. One group may well care more for the end product, while the other has a totally different agenda and more financially orientated goals. It is also prudent to consider the issue of size. I have found that the successful management of people decreases exponentially as the size of that group grows. There is also a wealth of data available on all the inherent flaws of managing staff via a traditional business hierarchy. Ironically, a lot of the attributes that are encouraged to be successful in modern business, actually seem contrary to the moral and ethical behaviour we expect in a civilised society. It is this paradox that seems to be the Achilles heel of all business, regardless of their nature or size.
So next time we find ourselves surprised by some example of big business making bad decisions, take a moment to reflect upon the following. The launch of “New Coke” in 1985, Kodak’s failure to market digital cameras despite being a leader in its development, and Blockbusters rejection of a buyout by Netflix in 2000. In light of these, it is hardly surprising when you discover that the developer of your favourite MMO has clumsily handled a PR situation, or not listened to player feedback. It’s not gaming as an industry that is dysfunctional per se, but the fact that so many gamers have a skewed perspective of it. We make judgements with our hearts and fail to use whatever sense of business acumen we may have. We also tend to romanticise certain jobs because the end product is “cool”. Yet, if you visited a game developer’s offices, you’d probably find a work environment not that different from your own. Staff are more than likely grumbling about pay, the failings of the boss and Tim in HR. Ultimately it is that random human factor that breeds dysfunction, so it is inevitable that it spreads everywhere. So why should the games industry be any different?