Recently I read a letter to a magazine that said a games quality can be determined by how well it sells. If we are to accept the generally accepted American view of capitalism, this should be true. But then why do terrible pop artists always dominate the charts, why does MTV exist, and why has no one murdered Bill O’Reilly? Clearly, there is some sort of flaw in the system.
While it would be fun to give a socialist lecture, I will stick to the video game market today. Why do good games not always sell? The first obvious reason is that games are expensive so the consumer cannot try all of them. A cheap product, like a pen or mayonnaise, can easily be purchased by most segments of society. In time, if a consumer wishes, a large number of competing pens can be bought and tried. Thus, it is possible the free market can “decide” on the better pen. Games cost a lot of money and thus most consumers only have a handful. The idea that the best games sell is reliant on the consumer having perfect knowledge of all of the products available to him and this is not the case.
Another reason good games don’t always sell is that people are ignorant of them. Anyone with access to the internet and a little free time can find droves of reviews and information on nearly any product they can think of. Games with terrible reviews often sell well and games with great reviews sometimes utterly flop. If people are reading or hearing recommendations they are certainly not always acting on them. So the consumer not only does not have experience with all possible games on the market, but he is uninformed.
So if what sells isn’t necessarily good then what does this mean for capitalism in the game market? At the most extreme, it is an indication that capitalism, at least when it comes to the arts, is merely a circle of logic that says what’s popular sells well and what sells well is popular. Qualitative judgment has been removed from the process and thus it is left hollow. Even worse, if what is bad often sells then the market reinforces the production of bad games. This is what has happened with Hollywood and music and is now happening with games as they reach a wider, less discerning audience.
The implication of all this is that appearances are ultimately as or more valuable than actual quality. This could have easily been my starting point since most cynical gamers think it to be true. If appearances were this important, we would expect a market driven by graphics and not by innovation. Of course, this is exactly what we find.
Here is something that depresses me terribly: Microsoft was the original publisher of Psychonauts but they dropped the game. This tells me they do not care about the industry beyond making a profit. I understand that their underlying goal is to make money for their share holders. This sounds all fine and good, but the ultimate reality of this seems to be a world where no one is willing to believe in another’s talent if belief is not a clear path to profit.
“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” – Henry Ford