IT’S NO LONGER A GAME – The meaning of time in the games industry

Source: Pixabay

Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). As the GDC franchise took over Austin, Texas in October and attendees already start to register for GDC San Francisco 2013, we are reminded of how important these spiFkes in the industry’s global calendar are. August 2012 saw Cologne, Germany, host two of the prime European games industry events – GDC Europe and GamesCom. Held back to back, they are significant high points for professionals and consumers alike, with another being the Nordic Game festival at the end of May.

All of them peg handy slots between the games shindigs in the USA and their counterparts in China, Japan and Korea. But these European events not only offer an opportunity for cementing hand-shake deals from other events, they also serve a purpose which in this industry is becoming increasingly vital.

They are beats in a rhythm that is crucial to an industry in which a company can go from obscurity to world domination in months, only to see its market share plummet as the next best thing races past it, heading for equally dizzy heights. These companies and their products are borne on a wave of high-speed frenzy generated by a gaming population ravenous for novelty, often for its own sake. And as sneering “told-you-so’s” among the industry observers stand by rubbing their hands in glee, those at the centre of it scratch their collective heads and wonder why success is often so short-lived, and what can be done about it.

One reason is that games companies are subject to the same mundane parameters that apply to any company in any other industry: in order to be effectively run, they need sober management, proper allocation of resources – human and otherwise – financial, sales and production strategies and so on. But unlike companies in most other industries, games design and production companies are often started up and staffed by individuals who by and large do not set great store by the achievement of management or corporate goals. It is not that they are disparaging of them in any way – it merely doesn’t occur to them to worry about it. They are creatives in a creative industry, and trying to align the objectives of these two disparate types of individuals within a single corporate framework is a little like the proverbial attempt to herd cats.

The truth is, the yardstick with which the games industry is measured has different markings to any other. And not even the major developers and publishers themselves have a handle on exactly what that means, nor how to usefully predict trends because the use of established practice and historical fact is at best frustrating, and at worst a waste of time. Each individual rags-to-riches story is different from the last, each accepted norm or business model that is upended 180° adds to the overall confusion rather than contributing to a body of knowledge that can be drawn upon.

Even looking at the computer games consumer market, we are stumped by the dramatic swing in player demographics. It is no secret that the middle-aged lady targeted by games developers only three or four years ago has indeed been brought into the gamers fold, and is showing especial enthusiasm for casual smartphone games . A survey carried out recently in the conservative German market by BITKOM, Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, illustrated clearly that the classic, wide-spread image of the gamer as a young, ill-educated male was way off the mark. According to the survey, one-third of all high-school and other academics are gamers. Of school-leavers from the non-academic secondary school stream, however, only 26% played games. Slightly more than a quarter of all women are now gamers, and the average age of gamers is currently around the 37-year-old mark – all evidence that in this industry, there is no such thing as a cliché. Nothing sticks around long enough to become hackneyed.

But to make it even more complicated, this velocity is not evenly distributed. According to Thomas Dlugaizyck, head of the Berlin Games Academy, there has been a huge increase in the number of students graduating in a wide variety of games-related job fields over the past few years, but the number of vacancies open to them has not risen proportionately. “There are now 60 educational institutions in Germany alone, all churning out media, design and games industry graduates. But the question is, whether the games industry in Germany is growing fast enough to absorb them all.” Given that games companies are, as we have noted, subject to universal economic conditions, many games developers have had to tighten their belts as the industry’s trend and style shifts are compounded by the rising cost of living, with its knock-on effect on disposable incomes. This means games development companies are having to run leaner, meaner design and development teams, leaving an oversupply of qualified game designers and developers all scrambling for the same jobs.

Another leading light in the German games industry, Professor Dr Linda Breitlauch, of the Medien-Design Hochschule games design college in Dusseldorf, deplores the situation as well. “My students graduate, full of enthusiasm, great ideas and high expectations. And then, more often than not, they are reduced to having to take a job where they are merely required to knuckle under and do something that is at best uninspiring – and be thankful to have got a job at all. Their creativity and bright ideas seem to fade along with their hopes. How can we as educators keep our students motivated when they observe what is happening around them, and wonder what their own futures will be?”

It is said that in the Games world, one year is equivalent to four “ordinary” years in the rest of the commercial and industrial world. As we have noted, however, these worlds are all subject to the same external influences. Will the conflict between internal velocity and external forces causes major ruptures within the games industry? Or will it respond by demonstrating a concomitantly rapid maturing process and show itself able to cope with the demands made on it? One thing is for sure: this is an industry that has come to stay. It is an industry that is already having a pervasive and powerful impact on the way we live our lives, whether we like it or not. And this impact will widen as its products are incorporated into our education and training systems, and as it increasingly affects how we interact with one another in our own society and brings us closer to other cultures around the world. In truth, it’s not a game anymore.

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