M. Brandon Robbins has written often as a guest blogger here, and takes on the position of games columnist for Library Journal next month. As part of our hand-off, he has written one last guest blog that addresses the state of gaming in libraries. He examines how shifts in the gaming industry, and the current state of games and gaming as a hobby, may affect the future of games in libraries. The picture he paints isn’t altogether bleak, but it’s not a pretty one. ‚ Liz
Like every entertainment industry, the gaming industry has good years and bad years, ups and downs. The past couple of years have been very good: exciting new technologies, great games, and more entry points to the hobby‚ both digital and tabletop‚ than ever before.
This year saw some great digital games released, and tabletop gaming continues to make a quiet comeback (as if it ever went away). But we’ve got to take the good with the bad: those quality games were almost all sequels, signaling the threat of creative stagnation in the industry.
And there is one great big problem with gaming right now. Although digital rights management seems to be growing less obtrusive, with fewer publishers requiring constant online authentication for their titles, and many publishers (including the well-loved Polish developer CD Projekt RED, famous for The Witcher series) are releasing their games without DRM, publishers everywhere are assaulting the sale of used games.
GAMER TREASURE, PUBLISHER TRASH
For years, gamers have been able to enjoy recent releases and reliable classics at a comfortable price through the secondary market. Stores like Gamestop have offered trade-in for credit on other games, and re-sold those traded-in games at a reduced price. Used games were generally $5-10 cheaper than their shrink-wrapped counterparts. For older titles, the savings were usually fantastic: great titles could be had for as little as $1 in some stores. Frugal gamers dived into many a bargain bin, hunting down the titles they missed the first time around, or building up their catalog of games for a newly-purchased console. It was a comfortable economic arrangement that extended the shelf-life of older titles, especially when the sale of used gaming consoles was considered.
Then digital distribution caught on, especially for PC games, and things changed. Titles bought digitally cannot be traded in, and even boxed releases are rendered obsolete as soon as they are registered with the digital distribution service of a gamer’s choice (usually Steam), at least for those titles that required the service for multiplayer or‚ more recently‚ anti-piracy authentication.
Publishers and developers realized how much money they were losing on the secondary market. When a gamer purchases a used game, the retailer selling that game gets 100% of the profit. The publisher sees none of it, and the creative teams get no royalties. To recoup their losses, they had to adapt.
ADAPT OR DIE?
This adaptation came in the form of the online pass. For many recent releases, new copies of a game are bundled with a code to receive bonus content via download. The code can only be used once. Thus, acquiring this content without a usable code‚ necessary if one buys the game second hand‚ comes at a price. The secondary-market buyer must fork over a premium, paid directly to the publisher and/or developers, even though the game has been entirely paid for once already.
Recent titles that come with an online pass include Batman: Arkham City, Mortal Kombat, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and Battlefield 3. Many sports games require an online pass simply to access any of the multiplayer features. This means that gamers who buy a used copy of these games must pay another $10 if they wish to play the game online with others.
Retailers were already scaling back what they pay for used games as trade-ins. Thus, used games are worth less and less, especially to the consumers whose savings on used games get gobbled up paying for the features and content once native to most games.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Libraries should care because this severely impacts collection development and circulation of games. Should a library invest in what is essentially an incomplete game? For now, the content requiring passes is largely bonus material not integral to the core game play, but many gamers are still crying foul.
But even setting aside the practice of charging extra for content, think about those sports games that require passes for online play. That’s like selling somebody a used book, but having the publisher charge an extra $10 for the right to talk about it with people outside their homes. It’s an undemocratic process that libraries need to take very seriously.
This is not to say that libraries should no longer develop their game collections‚ there are classic games out there that were published long before an online pass existed. But going forward, librarians must do their research. We have to accept‚ and this is really hard for us librarians‚ that in order to be fair, we are going to have to deny patrons access to the total relevant content for the material they check out, and let the patron decide if they want to spend their own money for those extra features. If you leave the online pass with the game on the shelf, then the only patron who will get to use it will be the first one to check it out. When it comes to an online pass for multiplayer, one must wonder if a librarian should even carry such games in their collection at all.
Of course, one could always wait for the inevitable Game of the Year/Complete/Gold/Supreme edition of big-name games, which often includes all downloadable content at a lower price point. Our ability to provide current media is hampered by that solution, and even then? That content is usually claimed with a code or pass that is only good once.
TELL ME DOC, IS IT SEQUELITIS?
Sequels are as “new” to the video game industry as they are to the movie industry. Sequels are easier to make, often built on existing game engines, and they are easy to sell because they use well-loved characters and play mechanics. Still, completely novel characters and stories pop up in brand new games. Sometimes those new intellectual properties soar, sometimes they don’t, but they are almost always a welcome change.
Recently, though, gaming’s sequelitis has gone terminal. Every single major release late in 2011 was a sequel: Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Gears of Wars 3, and Sonic Generations.
Is this really a big deal? Should it matter as long as we’re getting great games? Speaking honestly, we want awesome games first, awesome stories second. So even considering how much potential these games still have for telling great stories and giving us great characters, the answer to “Is it a big deal?” has to be “Not really.” Unlike movies and books, a gamer usually doesn’t even have to have played a previous release to enjoy a subsequent one.
Is this a bad thing? It can be if a gamer comes into your library wanting something new and fresh, and equally as frustrating if a gamer who has played every warfare shooter or superhero team-up game out there wants more of the stuff that feeds their habit and the only thing on the shelf are the games they’ve already played. But as we so often say in libraries: this shouldn’t be a challenge, it should be an opportunity!
Sequels and spinoffs and copycats establish familiarity and provide in-roads to backlist titles, and that’s a good thing in its way. If a gamer has played every Modern Warfare to exhaustion, maybe they want to give the Halo series a try? Or if a gamer really loves Batman: Arkham City, they may want to give the darker, grittier predecessor Batman: Arkham Asylum a try, or maybe another open-world title such as Crackdown or Red Dead Redemption.
And if the game-play well is tapped out, a savvy librarian can suggest they start looking at narrative genres. Gamers who have saved the Earth from the Covenant more times than they can count might want to give Mass Effect a roll. Both feature a galactic sci-fi setting, but Mass Effect‘s role-playing game plays differently from the first-person shooter that is Halo.
As when conducting readers’ advisory, research is key to connecting gamers to good games, even in the face of a seeming deluge of similar titles and annual updates. Sequelitis can be a frustrating thing, but you can put some of its apects to good use. It’s definitely no reason to stop or slow down the collection development.
A WORD ABOUT TABLETOP GAMING
Tabletop gaming never truly went away, but it certainly has taken a back seat in recent times to its flashier offspring, video gaming. That may not be the case in years to come.
Wizards of the Coast, publishers of the long-loved role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and the highly-competitive trading card game Magic: the Gathering, tried something different this year: releasing Dungeons and Dragons board games. The designers use the same mechanics and monsters from the role-playing game but are adapting them into a more familiar board game format‚ at least, the set-up is more familiar to those who never played a role-playing game. Most notably, the board game version of D&D allows everyone to play at the same time, and doesn’t require a Dungeon Master (the game’s narrator and rules arbiter) to run the game. These new games can be a great way to spread the love of the game to a new generation of gamers, offering a taste of these kinds of heroic adventure before getting into the rich narrative and complex rules of a true D&D campaign.
A very exciting development in the board game industry is something I like to call the Great European Invasion (mostly because it sounds epic). The board game industry in Europe is absolutely booming, and some of the best board games in recent years have come out of Germany and Eastern Europe. Settlers of Catan is probably the best known, first released in 1995.
European board games (“Eurogames”) are becoming more and more mainstream in the US. Dedicated gamers and hobby store shoppers have been playing them for a long time, but now families who enjoy a Casual Game Night are cracking open Settlers instead of Sorry. Some fine board games are now available on big-box store shelves, where those who might never set foot in a hobby store can pick them up. This will bring more quality board games to more people, and the public will find it easier to understand that all games are not just “kid stuff.” It will be much easier to attract patrons to library game nights using such Eurogames, so keep an eye out for what’s available in your community.
[I must interject that librarians ought not neglect their friendly local hobby store, with their knowledgeable proprietors and staff. Games stocked in the big-box stores increases basic awareness in the general public, but for in-depth knowledge, an independent game store has as much more to offer about games as an independent book store offers about books.‚ Liz]
What’s more, people are catching on to the fact that gaming that doesn’t require technology is cheaper, easier to implement, and has the potential to be more engaging on a creative level. Take advantage of this renewed interest with some great board games for your library.
Video games are enjoying technology that seems downright futuristic. The Internet is making it possible to buy games and play them with the whole world, while sitting at our desks in our pajamas eating pizza rolls straight from the pan. It’s an exciting time of change and innovation. But difficulties come along with those changes, putting those who make the games we love, those who publish them, and us gamers that buy and play those games on opposing sides.
So, what should we do as librarians? We persevere. We stick with it. We continue to offer our game nights and RPG clubs. We keep stocking the stacks with games that patrons ask for. We keep playing games in our own time and teaching others how to play. We do this because‚ when all is said and done‚ gaming still matters. Games still matter, for the same reasons they have mattered all along.
We do this because publishers and developers are more than just corporate entities trying to maximize their profit‚ they’re working people with a passion for games as deep as our own, and they’re trying to adapt to changes in culture, economy, and technology. These are the same challenges we deal with ourselves. It is a time of growing pains all around, and we will hit the sweet spot of modernity sooner rather than later. As long we remain vocal as librarians and active as gamers, we’ll be able to not only adjust to change, but influence it as well.
So, in the words of my dear friend Liz Danforth: Game on!