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The Soapbox: Game companies exist to make money

Eliot Lefebvre

I'm going to start this article off with a statement, and it's going to be divisive, but not for the reasons you might expect. A good chunk of you reading this are going to read the line, roll your eyes, and immediately think that I've just written the most obvious thing ever. Some of you might even take to the comments to start calling for my termination just from this line alone. Ready for this?

Game companies exist to make money.

All right, so it was probably all of you rolling your eyes. This is pretty basic stuff, right? Except I'm willing to bet that some of you who rolled your eyes at that sentence still don't really get it. You understand that companies are trying to make money, but you don't really grasp what that means in a larger sense. So let's just accept that some of you are going to read this article and nod along the whole time without learning a whole lot. The rest of you will head to the comments and start demanding my head.

There's a persistent (and stupid) idea that floats through gaming culture: the idea that some company isn't really after money. Which company it is changes depending on the times. Back in the day, it was Blizzard, if you can believe it. Blizzard holds games back until they're perfect, only releases the best possible game, so surely these guys aren't just interested in money!

Yeah, turns out they're really interested in money. But don't get all high and mighty. The company was always interested in money. It just got better at making it. Here, let me drop a video on you.

That song is supposed to be a parody. Anyone familiar with it knows that. Selling out is an absolutely horrible thing, right? And that message is clearly portrayed in the video produced and funded by a major corporation, featuring a song written by several young men who were paid good money to write and perform that song and who conveniently were no longer in a position to worry about selling out or not.

Companies are all just concerned with making money. Every single one of them. Saying a company isn't just concerned with making money is like saying a lion isn't just concerned with eating meat. You know what happens to lions that don't care about eating meat? They starve to death.

I mean, you've noticed by now that the companies that people claim are the greediest are also the ones that wind up being the most successful in the long term, yes? Greed seems to be selected for more strongly in the corporate sector.

Again, some of you are just nodding your heads and wondering when this is supposed to get surprising. Others are talking about how there's clearly a difference. I mean, Electronic Arts is greed personified; other companies wouldn't try to make money through such transparent cash grabs. Like Bethesda, which is really hoping that you completely forgot about that whole thing with horse armor when the company made a transparent cash grab that blew up. Or Valve, which is swimming in piles of money from lockboxes in Team Fortress 2 that make some of Cryptic's offerings look downright generous.

A lot of people and characters are concerned with making money.  We call them successful.You know what the real difference is between Activision Blizzard and Perfect World Entertainment? The former doesn't need to convince you. It's swimming in pools of money Scrooge McDuck style, and people keep buying what it's selling. Why spend a whole bunch of effort convincing people you don't care about money when it clearly no longer matters? Light a cigar with a $100 bill and take the rest of the day off.

The same is true of big name developers. Why did Richard Garriott ask for people to donate a whole lot of money to fund his next game project when he could have just paid for it himself? Because this way he gets your money earlier, possibly more of your money later, and he still has his existing money. That sounds like a good deal to me (for him).

Does that mean that these people don't care about games? Of course not. I don't know if you've noticed, but working in the game industry in any capacity does not exactly shower one with riches and adulation. At no point have I been treated as a rock star for writing about video games as a living; the best I got was access to a couple of open bars, and one of those events killed my ankle. So I'm not saying that, say, Mark Jacobs just figured that video games were the surest path to fame and fortune.

But he did figure out that he could make a whole lot of money doing something he enjoyed, and he's more than willing to market you based on his name to keep making that money. (Still a lot of people nodding in the audience; that's great.)

Human beings can have more than one motivation for doing things. I write about video games because I love doing so, but I wouldn't write nearly as much if it weren't my job. The two go hand in hand. If the only thing that motivated BioWare was making great games that everyone could play, the company would give its games away for free and survive solely on the charity of those who wanted to subsidize those products with no expectation of reward.

Somehow I don't see this happening.

We like to think back to the days when the whole price of a game was covered in its subscription cost, which itself is kind of weird, since there were also days when the entire cost of a game was contained in its box cost. Free-to-play is a trick designed to get you to spend money, yes, but so was a subscription, and so is releasing a boxed game and then releasing a full expansion for the same price every year. Every single one of these models is an exercise in seeing what the company can get away with charging.

Things that are not cheap in this picture: heavy armor, lutes, training to play the lute.  Things that are cheap: that haircut.You know what would have been really refreshing when The Elder Scrolls Online announced that it would have a subscription and a cash shop? If the team had just said, "We want your money every month and realized that you'll still buy extra stuff from us on top of that." That's the actual reason behind the business model, and while it would not have been a popular statement, it would have been an honest one.

Yes, free-to-play games are meant to separate you from your money. Ideally, they look to take about $15/month from you, same as a subscription, but more is better. That's not unfair or cheap or charging you for things you get for free in subscription games; you don't get anything for free with a subscription. You can't even log on and wave in the center of towns. The reason that subscriptions reigned supreme for so long was because that was the most efficient way to get your money.

It's not greedy. I'm going to quote what I still consider to be one of the best lines I've ever written about whom you need in your company management: You need someone whose only interest is making money because like it or not, no game company runs off of unicorn farts and fairy giggles. Companies that don't make money cease to exist. We can talk until we're blue in the face about how much Tiny Speck loved gamers and how beautiful Glitch was in concept, but the company failed to make money and we lost a marvelously inventive game because of it.

This is how things work. This is the simple reality. You make money or you fold. And if you're not still nodding your head, it's time to accept the unpleasant truth that you are the target of years of advertisements telling you that company X cares about you rather than your wallet, but company X only said that because it was an easier route to your wallet.

Game companies care about making money. Done.

Adding something that asks you to buy something first is, by definition, not actually free.That doesn't mean these companies don't value you just the same; it means that in a race between getting your money and being your friend, the former wins every time. If a game refunds you money, it's not because they value you over your money; it's that the cost of losing that money is less than the cost of losing you as a customer. Prices drop due to player feedback when that player feedback is "we won't buy this" and the upper management says "lower the price until they do."

I realize this is not a pleasant thing to think about at first. But once you get it and really accept this fact, it's a lot easier to live with the reality of the situation. You stop wondering when one company or another got greedy. These companies always just wanted your money. You're just now noticing it, possibly because they abandoned all pretense.

And maybe you don't like giving money to a company for something, but it becomes a lot easier to accept that the market voted on something and you lost out. I don't like the idea of lockboxes dropping in-game and my being asked to spend money to open them, but I lost that fight. It's done. There's nothing morally wrong with it; it's a thing I dislike that has become accepted practice. Claiming a moral high ground for wanting more stuff for free isn't very sustainable.

It's as simple as accepting that picking your favorite company is like picking your favorite hungry bear: No matter how much you might like the bear, it's still going to eat you if it decides it's worth the loss. Every time you rail against some new way game companies are trying to make money off you, you're adding a bunch of moral baggage onto the simple reality that the company thought it could charge for this successfully. And a lot of the time, it's right.

Game companies exist to make money. Discussion over. Everyone still nodding?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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