Diversity for the Amoral

The new year started off with a fresh set of outrages to scourge Real Gamers™: Kick McKeand wrote a good article about diversity in games, Emily Grace Buck (who’s started a new program for story games) reminded us that old gaming quip about story and pornos isn’t all that clever, and it turns out Soldier 76 has a boyfriend. To this last bombshell, the people who complain about games more than play them offered the penetrating insight of “dying game makes character gay for attention” which put me into a personal crisis since I was really coming around after seeing “Getteth woketh, goeth broketh” (as it originally appeared in the King James Version) for the thousandth time and now I see that the causal chain is completely backwards.

There’s no point in worrying about people who are wrong on the internet, and there isn’t a shortage of coverage on diversity in gaming. I am sympathetic to articles and personal anecdotes about characters from underrepresented groups, because I assign some value to the wellbeing of others. It also means I believe people when they say they’re indifferent to the happiness that the presence of more diverse characters might bring others. The existing discussion around diversity does not offer anything to these people, even though inclusion does not need to rest on a moral imperative. This article is intended to present the amoral/apolitical reason why diversity is good for gaming, and why this should be unsurprising in a business context.

More gamers help keep prices down

Everything in gaming is growing except the prices. There are different ways companies have been able to maintain and increase their profits with varying degrees of acceptability among gamers. The most notorious of these methods are loot boxes (and other microtransactions), but DLC and subscription plans are included with varying degrees of acceptance or consternation. There is no consensus as to the acceptability of these practices, as EA faced pure mockery for appealing to a player’s sense of accomplishment, while CD Project Red’s same appeal with regards to the recent changes in Gwent’s economy went without remark. Judging by these reactions, diversity is already here and addressing it has consequences for the bottom line.

A developer has lots of options available to respond to the increasing costs of development, but many of these options will be constrained by the intended audience. If a developer can’t raise prices, it can attempt to reduce costs. This means cutting back from the game and most buyers will want more game, not less. A developer might seek some kind of guarantee or favourable financing terms in the form of a platform exclusive. This choice reduces the workload and removes some of the risk of development, but necessarily limits the audience for the product. If these options, along with loot boxes, subscriptions, DLC, and price increases are untenable, then the only other option is to get more people to buy the game at a price that is less than the cost of acquiring them.

A game producer does not need to push any agenda other than making enough money to keep the lights on in order to see that there are audiences beyond the a stereotypical gamer and that it is less costly to reach out to this market. Outreach can mean a direct marketing appeal to this broader audience, but the underlying product needs to be something they want to play in the first place. Games wanting to appeal to a broader audience will reflect the interests of that audience, and that can mean stories and characters that are unfamiliar. Some gamers will like this, some gamers will be indifferent, and clearly some gamers will dislike it. For gamers who dislike more inclusive elements, the decision can be expressed as a tradeoff: Is the removal of inclusive elements worth a price increase? Loot boxes? In blunter terms it could be expressed as “Pay up or get out of the way, there’s gaming to be done!”

This is less about a Social Justice Stazi threatening to take developers’ thumbs if they don’t meet a representation quota and more about gaming becoming more accepted and businesses responding to increased demand. It’s much harder to feel like you’re caught in the crossfire of a culture war when you imagine some politically incorrect Mafioso voice saying “Itsa just buisanees!” But this issue really seems to matter to some people. This review for Battletech appeared after about 3 hours of playtime in my Steam friends (anonymized to protect the guilty):

review.png

The majority of this negative review deals with elements of the actual gameplay, but it is worth noting that the inclusion of a third pronoun in character creation (essentially a drop down menu) gets top billing as “the most obvious fault…” Since that review was written the game has delivered 73.1 hours of additional gameplay. It’s easy to ridicule reviews like this, and I think it’s entirely possible for someone to put lots of time into a game and still not recommend it. All I want to point out is that the pronouns for the game haven’t changed, and they have not prevented this reviewer from opening the game up with some regularity. Based on this information, I don’t think this player would undo their Kickstarter pledge (if they had one) if they had the option, let alone pay extra to remove gender options. Essentially, this is a matter of annoyance, rather than something material.

There are lots of things in games that annoy us individually that do not prevent us from getting some overall enjoyment of the game. I get kind of annoyed when games make me push a button to do something horrible and then say “DON’T YOU FEEL HORRIBLE YOU DID THIS!?” No! I have never felt bad at one of those moments and I wish these games would stop hovering over my shoulder like some ethical sommelier describing the subtle notes of pathos I should be recognizing. But I get that people like these bits, and I’m perfectly content to let the specialists who make games decide what they want to include in a game.

Not all the choices of game developers are going to appeal to everyone. It’s not news that some people prefer the way games used to be rather than the way they are now. Indie games especially have been relying on this market to stay in business. But in order to push the envelope big games will continue to need to be a big tent that appeals to a large enough group of players to justify their budgets. Narrower games with a tighter scope don’t have the same commercial pressure. Games becoming more inclusive is just another step evolution of the industry, and people who would prefer things to stay the way that they are aren’t so much being squeezed out so much as their preferences are becoming increasingly niche. I don’t really choose my games based on politics, but if Real Gamers™ are abandoning mainstream gaming due to their politics on diversity, then I expect the exact same market forces to produce something that appeals to them. In fact, I bet they have lots of suggestions about what would make games great (again).

Mobile gamers advanced gaming

Another form of diversity that YouTube shouting heads have had a really tough time with lately has been the diversity of platforms, specifically the release of high profile mobile titles such as Diablo: Immortal and Alien: Blackout. Mobile gaming has periodic waves of contempt from Real Gamers™ that tend to hit their peak when monetization strategies from this format make their way to larger PC and Console titles. The latest outrage stems more from the perception that some game that would have otherwise been made is now not being made in favour of a mobile title. Opportunity costs are a real thing, and no studio can ever hope to do all the possible projects available to them, but it does not follow that mobile is displacing PC and console gaming. To the contrary, mobile has been and continues to be a net benefit for all of gaming, including players who don’t play mobile titles.

Objections on the basis of opportunity cost can apply to just about every decision a developer makes, including activities outside of game development. Plenty of popular franchises now sell merchandise and this is rightly perceived as a very smart business decision instead of an inexpiable waste of time and resources that should be going into a new game. We are apparently willing to endorse the formation and exploitation of new and beloved IPs but draw the line at the release of a large and revenue generating marketing campaign that mobile users install on their devices (colloquially known as ‘a game’).

Some of the biggest stories in gaming right now are a result of mobile gaming. Chair Entertainment Group began by developing games for the Xbox live arcade and was acquired by Epic in 2008. Its first two titles were successful, but the studio gained notoriety for its mobile series Infinity Blade, originally released on iOS in 2010, and all subsequent releases from that studio have been mobile games. In acquiring Chair, Epic acquired its creative director, Don Mustard, who is a lead on Fortnite.

Fortnite did not just beat its competitors to mobile, it utilized a free-to-play model which has its origins in mobile. It’s a lot easier to have broad appeal if you put the game on systems people want to play it on and, as the largest growing segment of gaming, it’s pretty clear that people want to play on mobile devices. The title’s success does not rest on the efforts of one person or one factor, but both the revenues and the player base are what people are talking about and both of these have a direct connection to best practices in mobile gaming.

I played a little bit of Fortnite in Alpha before there was Battle Royale, and have played exactly one round of Battle Royale. I do not consider the game Fortnite to be a personal benefit. However, the windfall from producing a cultural phenomena has now translated into Epic offering more favourable terms to asset creators for their engine, and the launch of their own storefront with a revenue split that cuts the store’s take by more than half. While it’s too early to say if the Epic store will be the Steam killer some predict, it’s been a major PC gaming news story and likely marks a major shift in digital distribution. Even if I never play another Unreal Engine game and delete my Epic Store account, the competition brought into distribution results in developers investing more in their games as platform fees go down.

The biggest stories in gaming from last year come from a team that spent a lot of time on mobile, brought the lessons back to the PC platform and are now reshaping the broader landscape. Gamers who don’t like mobile games do not need to play them to receive the benefits. As with most variety, the worst that can happen is an additional option I can safely ignore. Of course, looking at Steam’s best sellers, it’s clear that gamers aren’t ignoring titles that have inherited from mobile games.

Business cases

There is absolutely nothing new in this amoral case for diversity, as firms outside of gaming have realized and capitalized on it for decades. IBM’s hiring policies tend to pre-date US civil rights legislation and can trace its progressive hiring practices back to 1914. Ruth Leach Amonette, IBM’s first female VP, summarized the logic by asking “Doesn’t it make sense to employ people who are similar to your customers?” The CBC’s podcast on marketing Under the Influence had a rather good episode on LGBT advertising and how marketers attempted to appeal to this demographic before it was more broadly acceptance and how overt appeals marked a shift in acceptance. I think these two stories can tell us why gaming looks the way it does today.

No one group is ever going to have all the good ideas. As an industry that sits at the intersection of technology and creativity, gaming has to maximize the number of ideas it generates, which means not cutting itself off from ideas for superficial reasons. This is the IBM story. There is also a commercial incentive to seek out underserved markets since it costs less to bring in customers and there is goodwill towards genuine efforts at inclusion. Diversity pays.

You could say that’s also the Under the Influence story, but the program is not definitive on this point. The program allows for the possibility that the coded messages to LGBT buyers may not have come from the marketing departments, but were rather snuck in by the artists working on those ads. Even if gaming is not actively courting a more diverse audience, it makes sense that its output will reflect its increasingly diverse workforce. Whether greater diversity in character and story reflects a response to commercial incentives or a diverse workforce, the consequences are available for everyone to see: more of us are playing games, and newer platforms such as mobile are the fastest growing.

Personally, I prefer a more ethically founded justification for diversity in games. I trust developers to make decisions about every other aspect of a game, and I think they should be able to make the games they want. I think people live a happier and more fulfilling life if they do assign some value to the happiness of others, and you can justify it through a macho band-of-brothers-we’re-all-in-this-together attitude or the most humanitarian bleeding heart appeal to our better nature. Despite this preference, I don’t think this attitude is a necessary condition to benefitting from more diversity in games. We all realize a massive benefit from the fact that games remain profitable without price increases and that there are lots of new titles experimenting with new ideas which we then get to choose after someone else has paid the bill. It is just simply unaffordable to be insular at this point.

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