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Truth or Hype: Are There Really "Too Many Games"?
We keep hearing the clarion call of "There's too many games!" Is there really? Are we facing a crisis-- or just growing pains as an industry?
March 29, 2017
12 Min Read
I keep hearing it again and again throughout the industry: "There's too many games."
But why does no one ever say there's too many movies? Or too many books? Or art installations? Or songs? Why is it that games are picked on?
This is a phenomenon I've been pondering for a while. Because let's think about it for a second: look at the dizzying array of TV shows and means to watch episodic content that we didn't have before. You still have network and cable TV, but now there's Hulu and Netflix making original shows. YouTube Red is even now producing their own movies and shows, in addition to the web shows already being made by creators monetizing their work with ads, Patreon, or both. That hasn't even delved into how excited people get when old shows resurface once Netflix, Hulu, and so on obtain the rights to them like the countless tweets I saw celebrating the Golden Girls being picked up and rerun.
I don't even know half the newer shows people around me are talking about. Got a Hulu Plus subscription which gets underutilized. But yet I never hear anyone day, "There's too many TV shows!"
Then take movies. A significant force in shaping our culture that can entertain a few on a cult level (like The Room and those other amazingly terrible movies I adore) or widely change the perceptions, hopes, and dreams of millions worldwide. There's all the movies that have been made since the invention of the medium in the late 1800s, independent films, short films, long documentaries, superhero blockbusters and forgettable films from indistinguishable eras that come on TV late at night that you'll leave on just so the house isn't so damn quiet.
It's also impossible to keep up with all the movies out there, and no one could possibly see all the films ever made. Yet you never hear, "There's too many movies!"
We live in an age of information overload, a 24/7 cycle of information plus endless choices of entertainment. Any number of different kinds of media is right at your fingertips, digital or not, which can totally cause decision fatigue. We've all gotten decision fatigue with something at least once before: spending easily half an hour trying to decide to watch on Netflix. Deliberating forever at the gym as to make the most curated playlist ever on Pandora or what's in your device's library. But yet it's only games that get derision for being too numerous.
So why is this?
Why do games get picked on?
Why are there too many games-- a medium far younger than film, TV, music, and literature that also has had technical difficulties when it comes to preservation-- but not too many of anything else?
I haven't even gotten into podcasts, streams, music, print and e-books, and other forms of media and entertainment. Where once again you never hear that there's too much of any of these. Just too many games. Why? I just ask you, *why*?
Before you say, " BUT INDIEPOCALYPSE!" and "But THE MARKET111!!!1!1one" let me remind you that there was a time when only a couple studios made movies to the point they had actors on contract, and indie games used to be called shareware where you got laughed at by the couple big fish that were pioneering the notion of computer software as entertainment after the great cartridge crash.
The internet and accessible game dev tools somewhat democratized things for better or worse. Today, you have unprecedented opportunities to start a digital media company, create entertainment, and find an audience. That just didn't exist before. Is it a given you'll find a fan base and make a lot of money? No. But that doesn't stop people from making independent films, doing podcasts, writing novels, or having bands. All of these things take time, skills, and resources whether they have a modicum of financial success or not.
For some they'll just be hobbyists while others are hopeful professionals. I'm not going to tell you which path is right for you just from writing this. (Unless you're specifically coming to me for career or business counseling.) But the art and business of games changes just like the business models for these other mediums change throughout time: Steam distribution is no longer the guaranteed meal ticket it was, but talk to professional writers about how much print publication rates declined after the internet age. Ask any given punk or hardcore band about how schizoid it is that there's all these means to discover independent bands today but then it's like pulling teeth getting these people to come to shows. (I'd say that rampant, overly corporatized gentrification strangling the life out of cities' live music culture and venues also has a lot to do with this, but that's a whole other article.)
But let's put business models and likelihood of financial success aside now and just examine this phenomenon purely from a matter of perspective and the medium of games in and of itself.
I hate to say it, but games has something of a PR problem.
Despite the strides that have been made for our medium that is barely middle-aged, there's an incredible amount of people who still have a negative connotation with liking and playing video games. It's not even solely older generations that do this either. Because although there's been more games being made period, games for new audiences and various skill levels plus games that could have a purpose purpose beyond entertainment? There's also a negative connotation with gamers period. (Think recent Bioware brouhaha. I need not say anymore.)
Games aren't just for kids but many people still think they are.
Too many people are also still under the impression that video games are meant for young children. The ESA reported that 155 million Americas play games, about 48% of the population. Compared to Nielsen reporting that 116 million households watch TV. Of course, this only counts households that own at least one TV and not the millions like yours truly who watch their shows on a tablet or laptop but don't own a TV. "Household" doesn't necessarily mean a family either: it can be a single person living alone, roommates living together, or a couple without kids. So, unsurprisingly the ESA also found the average gamer is a 35 year old man (43 years old for women) and that without regard to age or gender,has been playing games for 13 years.
There's still a huge market for kids whether you expressly design for them or not, but we need to address the idea that video games are automatically meant for kids because it's problematic.This perception is one of the drivers for that negative bias. This mindset is also why parents buy games that have a glaring M rating from the ESRB without bothering to look at the content first because they assume "video game" = "this must be child-friendly".
This could definitely factor into the perception that there's too many games: that just because the chief audience and gamer type has changed over time while people hang onto an outdated outlook, now you can call it a saturated market.
Games are simply a more intense form of entertainment.
Taking the medium of video games itself for what it is, it can just seem dizzying because the possibilities are endless as to what your game can look and play like. You definitely have fewer options when it comes to live-action filming no matter how talented your DP and script writer are. Possibilities aside though, playing a game can be an intense undertaking.
I've addressed this in the paradox of how indie developers are often so worn out that many don't even have time and energy to play games anymore, which is an unfortunate reality for many. Games are just inherently more time consuming. When you're busy and tired, more passive entertainment like TV becomes favorable. Although that can intense too because of decision fatigue or just plain lacking mental energy. How many times have you heard someone say they were so excited to have a totally open weekend to catch up on TV shows? Or the staggering amount of people who don't read for pleasure at all, or they only save diving into a good book for vacation? But once again, it's games that get the short end of the stick.
Well, this is really just the stupid overwork culture American society is prone to (people in other countries reading this, feel free to give your perspective on media consumption and how it relates to work culture!) that leaves you too physically and mentally exhausted to do much else. But playing games doesn't have to be this zero sum game (pun intended) where it's "I need to spend several hours on No Man's Sky or nothing at all!" That's the exact mindset that causes people to never write that book they've dreamed of writing all their lives or finish making a game, ever: waiting for that mythical day you'll have several hours to do nothing so if that opportunity ever arises...you take some much needed time to do nothing and recharge your batteries. Case in point, I did absolute fuck all the other day AND IT WAS EVERYTHING I EVER DREAMED IT COULD BE.
As current or aspiring game creators, we need to take time to play as well as get real actual rest. Remember what got us into this. Look at what your peers are making and putting out in the world, whether it's an indie title put together with spit and staples hoping for a market and fanbase, a AAA franchise already played by millions, or a polished socially conscious game that needs to get its message out to many. Don't worry too much about what's already been done. So long as you're not trying to totally rip off a game completely, you'll be fine. Look beyond games as well: what visuals, sounds, motion and physics, and life experiences make you want to put it into something playable? Making time to play is what does that. You don't need several hours. Just 1% a day. A little more time if you don't have weekend plans.
Don't let the perception of time stop you from playing, let alone, making games: but most of all, don't think about volume because very few think of other mediums this way.
Decision fatigue is totally a thing if you're just plain overwhelmed by what to play.
But the sheer plethora of games out there shouldn't be intimidating, or chastised, for being too voluminous when the same can be easily said about any other medium out there. As a game developer, you shouldn't let the volume of existing games stop you if it's truly what you want to do-- artistic and business challenges and all.
Does the fact that approximately 600-700 Hollywood films are released a year (per Box Office Mojo stats) stop both big budget and independent films from being made?
One trillion songs were streamed in 2015 alone. Music experts who contributed to the The Evolution and Equilibrium of Copyright in the Digital Age also reported that 40,000 albums and singles used to be released per year worldwide but is now about 100,000. Does this stop both major and independent artists from making music?
As of 2015, there were 409 original scripted TV shows airing, not counting re-runs and streaming older shows, plus independent shows picked up by Hulu and so on. (Interestingly, I got a couple search results for "Are there too many TV shows?" after I researched this particular stat but I still don't hear this claim as much as I hear "There's too many games!")
Let's put games somewhere in the middle of these mediums. A game is likely far longer than a song, could do a whole play-through in the length of an album, or if it's a major franchise and/or episodic content you could place that on par with a TV season or movie franchise. Alas, there's still no 1:1 comparison.
Because games also haven't been tracked as heavily throughout time as these other mediums first due to being much younger then because of the stigma attached to it, it's difficult to figure just how many games get released every year. Steam and App Store stats can only tell us so much and it's only the AAA developers who are legally obligated to report their sales on account of being publicly-traded companies.
But upon looking up "how many games are released every year", this has resulted in:
Games released on Steam in 2015 double that of 2014 (3,500 commercial titles from devs of all calibers, up from 1,500, on Steam alone.)
Yikes! That is indeed a lot, far more than the number of films released per year. Not sure if I would call it a "hellscape", but I still think it's a matter of perception: it's not that there's too many games now. It's that the industry is just going through growing pains, just like it did when it had its awkward teenage years in the early 2000s long before the dawn of game design programs in schools and "shareware" turning into "indie developers".
It means that you can't just put a game out there now. You have to show that your game has your unique fingerprint, and can garner a devoted audience.
I find it a little ironic that many of the same people I've met throughout the gaming and tech industries who love to talk about the power of the free market are suddenly crying that there's too many games. Or maybe that they just don't think that much of it to begin with.
In closing, stop saying there's too many games. It could be subconsciously revealing what you really think of your craft. Or perhaps your confidence as a developer.
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