Damned Audience Part 2: The Man and Demographics

I’ve recently taken up work as an editorial assistant in the marketing division of one of Hong Kong’s companies. They make premium kitchen appliances that are absolutely the bees’ knees, and I’m not saying that because I’m paid to lie.

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I figure this is as good a time as any to discuss what the industry – the non-pundit-side of the industry at least (i.e. not those wretched, pitiable beings we call games journalists) means when it uses the word audience.

It is very important to understand that before I even get into the real meat of the matter that the people who make decisions are Not Us. They are The Man (The Mans?), and we are the people who work for The Man so we can have a place to live, enough food to eat, and enough entertainment to distract us from The Man keeping us under him so we can go back to working for The Man without complaining too much or lowering productivity levels or joining a union or starting a bloody 2-year revolution campaign followed by at least 5 years of widespread poverty.

(The Man is not always white, I’ve found. But mostly. In recent years there has been a politically correct upcropping of The Woman – or should that be The WoMan? – who are almost always white, but these specimens are rare, as The Man, like all of us, dislikes change.)

The Man is invariably old, or born into money and power. The Man has had what he calls experience being The Man in other industries, like cotton or oil, and he wishes to apply what he perceives as his vast breadth of knowledge to other industries (what they call “expanding the business” when they really mean “buy”). In this way, The Man’s influence has grown, and when they reach level 36 they gain their second evolution – a The Man (I hear grammar teachers sobbing in impotent fury) who has gained control over a conglomerate. On occasion these organizations become megacorporations that hire thousands of people globally and have fingers in a dozen pies. With this success – because it is success – comes arrogance.

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At some point in the process, The Man takes what he has earned and “goes public”. This means two things:

1)      That The Man has made absolutely tons of money in a very short space of time thanks to stock sales and bond agreements, and

2)      The Man has become accountable to the whims of shareholders.

As you can see, a successful “going public” procedure means a lot of money in a very, very short amount of time, as people race to be the first to invest in a hot new property. Demand drives price, and shortly the company finds itself flush with cash. Stocks are nothing but imagined value, and as long as the imagination holds, the value holds. And therein lies the danger – imagination is fickle, and The Man needs to show hard results.

Again, I feel the need to mention that The Man is not you or I. He may indeed carry vast amounts of knowledge, but much of that knowledge is either specific to one market or product line. His circle of advisors consists of his friends, his immediate family, and other The Mans, none of which think wildly outside his own parameters.

(This explains the phenomenon known as Let Them Eat Cake – how would one having been served both bread and cake for every meal expect to understand the scarcity of the poor? More on this in my Universal Pocky theory.)

Now we come to the most egregious of The Man’s faults. It is one shared collectively by every single one of The Mans who has ever been successful.

The Man hates, hates, hates, HATES losing money.

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He hates it the way you or I hate the plague, dealing with a spouse’s irritable parents, or Perez Hilton. He hates it like bipartisan America hates the other half. He hates it so much that he will go to extreme, often hilarious attempts in order to avoid losing money. Such is the hate that The Man will shy away from even discussing spending money – even if he hasn’t spent it yet. The only exception to this rule is what The Man spends on himself (or herself). You will see one of these curious individuals drive a car worth upwards of half a million dollars – the upkeep of which would cost more than you or I make in a year – all the while complaining that one of his employees wants a miniscule percentage raise that would amount to an extra annual $1500.

I distinctly remember one of the meetings I had when working in toys. The CEO stood up, put his hands on his hips, the bright florescent lighting glinting off the crisp sheen of his gold Rolex, and angrily addressed the room with the following:

“I wanted you to make something cheap!”

That is the thought process of The Man. Any money he does not spend on himself is a wasted investment, and money must be made where any money can be made, in a manner akin to squeezing blood from rocks – good to the last drop.

It is perhaps unfair to depict The Man as being singular-minded in his pursuit of money; but it is his most distinguishing characteristic that he makes money at the expense of others while spending as little as necessary. This system is not inherently evil; after all, capitalism has made our world what it is today – but it is important to first grasp the psychology of The Man, and what makes him tick – in order to understand why the video game industry is in the state it is in today.

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The second most distinguishing characteristic of The Man is ignorance. Again, it is perhaps unfair to say that one of The Mans can be identified by ignorance, for we are all ignorant, but then again, you or I are not responsible for curating a company with thousands of employees. It is the sad truth of capitalism that the ones who lead us are not the ones who are most intelligent, or most suited to lead by nature of example, but merely the ones with the most solvent economical assets. In industries that serve a limited commodity (steel or textiles), or necessary commodities (oil, natural gas, electricity), this is less of an issue. Those industries have existed for hundreds of years and will continue to exist for hundreds of years more. By dint of history, ignorance can be rectified by simply looking at what has come before or correctly identifying demand. Everyone has needed electricity in the past, everyone needs electricity now and will continue to need electricity for the foreseeable future; therefore the energy industry makes money and any cash invested in energy production is almost guaranteed bank. It’s a fairly simple process.

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Things get stickier in creative industries, such as film, music, or art. There is no inherent value in them; you can’t eat film without getting horrendously sick, you can’t keep your utilities running with music unless you’re a Broadway musical, and you can’t drink art unless it’s one of those modern art pieces of a crucifix steeped in pee. They are not limited commodities. The digital age has made that abundantly clear, to the eternal chagrin of many of The Mans, who have been The Man for many generations where limited commodities were inherently understood and sold.

Enter videogames. We all know by now that videogames are big business – Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV, despite a development budget approximated at over a hundred million dollars, is to date one of the most profitable pieces of media entertainment in the entire history of mankind, bagging over 25 million copies sold for a mind-blowing one point five billion dollars in revenue (net profit on investment of 1500%). The simple mathematics of the thing dictates The Man’s attendance in the field of videogames. GTAIV was only one of many giant, glowing neon dollar signs that pointed to gargantuan potential net profits. Even those who dismissed videogames offhand as childish curios or a passing fad (in several different console generations, no less!) cannot ignore the sheer amount of revenue generated when a game hits the big time.

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The videogame industry is unfortunately, compared even to the burgeoning film industry, very, very young. It has existed for an eyeblink in terms of commercial industry; about the only industry in the world less-understood is the internet – the barriers to entry which are far flimsier than the ones for videogames. So of course The Man and his ilk know nothing about videogames. At most they were lucky to be working in videogames when the industry was first growing, and made small fortunes before the whole thing went belly-up in the great North American Atari Crash of ‘83. Maybe they have an exceptionally spoiled child who won’t stop playing Minecraft or is addicted to Call of Duty. That is the sum total of The Man’s experience with videogames.

Surely, The Man thinks, my business acumen and experience in other markets gives me an easy path to success in the videogame industry! Those people aren’t businessmen! They’re engineers and technicians who make things for children! Under my brilliant leadership we can all get filthy rich! And glasses were clinked, wine was had and pinkies were extended.

I hope at least one of my readers remembers those godawful “plug and play” controllers from the 90s. It’d be in a cheap plastic blister and often advertise 50 or so games for a low, low price. You’d bring it home and plug it to the TV, realize how terrible it was, or how much Mario it ripped off, and never touch it again, whereupon the parent you nagged endlessly to buy it for you throws a fit and vows to never buy you anything ever again. There were tons of those.

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There is a widespread truth in business that marginally smarter people tend to know as a 101 type deal. When doing something new, it’s important to understand at the very least either the product (what you’re selling) or the user (who you’re selling to). Ideally you’d understand both. What we have in the videogame industry is an catastrophic failure on both accounts. We have an abundance of people working in videogames today who don’t understand what they’re selling, while at the same time cultivating a complete misunderstanding of the consumer base.

And unfortunately, thanks to the very nature of The Man, it’s going to go on like this for at least a few more decades.

Have you ever looked at a videogame, or a piece of marketing for a videogame, or one of those eponymous “dev diaries”, and gone “What the hell were they thinking?” Fist-shaking, burning crosses, painful laughter, etc. I’ve done it several times over the last year alone, and I’m pretty sure I can land at least one more before the month is out. The widespread confusion and shock displayed whenever one of these ill-informed commercials airs, or half-baked design decision is paraded around like some great innovation and a leap forward for the genre, never fails to elicit a rueful smile from me. How could these people, given all the human, monetary, and production resources in the world to play with, have gotten it so wrong?

The Man’s thought process and internal logic doesn’t get it either. All he sees after a few years in the industry is slumping profits and continual siphoning of cash to fund development, so he falls back on what he knows (or thinks) sells. Traditional business intelligence states that you compete with the market leader by offering a better product, a better price, or look for new markets entirely. The Man barely knows the existing market for videogames, so how is he expected he to go about seeking new markets? And the only way to make the big bucks, so the thinking goes, is to spend big bucks on production values, following Hollywood’s example. Nobody thinks a low budget horror movie shot by two students over a weekend in the park is going to make the bank of Transformers.

When this fails, The Man tries everything he knows and what his people tell him is the next big thing. Websites. Social media. Attempts at viral marketing. All of which cost money to develop and maintain, even it just means paying the guys doing the work for you. Someone is bold enough to suggest focus testing and market research. The test groups are heavily weighted to support existing biases both in The Man’s mind and the dev team’s.

All along, they wail, with increasing desperation, “Where is the audience? Who are the demographics in the market? Market research suggests that more and more people are dropping out of gaming! The Wii made bank off old ladies and soccer moms! Quick, tell me what old ladies and soccer moms like, and we’ll put it in the next game! Kids think dubstep is cool – we have to have a dubstep soundtrack! All our marketing has to use dubstep!”

This is the tale of abject failure on the industry’s part to understand what the word audience means.

Audience does not mean “demographics”. Audience does not mean a particular group of people. Audience means a singular identity – in extreme cases, just one person. And if you can’t sway even that one person, you can forget about trying to sway everyone else. The humanistic (naïve?) way to put it is that we are all special snowflakes, and we are all different. The very real conclusion from this naïve statement is the following: just because 18-25 year old males like Rambo does not mean that putting elements that 18-25 year old males have been known to enjoy, like supercars and Jessica Alba’s midriff, in a Rambo reboot is the recipe for success.

Maybe I’m super, super gay and I don’t like Jessica Alba’s midriff.  (I’m not, and I do.)

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(Seriously, she has a very nice midriff. I’d buy – as in go to a store and spend physical money on – a hard copy of a photo album that was composed of nothing but Jessica Alba’s midriff.)

(That’s how not-super-gay I am. This is my affirmation of heterosexual masculinity. I don’t need sharp sticks, a cave, raw meat I tear off animals with my bare hands or a fire to grunt and dance around. All I need are glossy high-resolution images. They can even be retouched in Photoshop – I don’t care about the lies, gimme the pictures.)

We saw this fallacy played out with the Wii. For the longest time, during the Gamecube years, we were privy to comment after comment from developers who bemoaned that only Nintendo games sold well on Nintendo platforms. Clearly that wasn’t true, because we bought Resident Evil 4 over one and a half million times off the promise developer Shinji Mikami made to saw his own head off if RE4 ever came to PS2. Also because it was a good game. (I might come to claim on the head-sawing thing if Evil Within ends up sucking, Mikami-san. Now that’s a promise.) The Wii’s Expanded Audience was interpreted by the games industry at large as grandmothers, soccer moms and very young children, and was tarred with the brush “casual audience”. Without ever thinking about the implications of the Wii’s cross-demographic appeal, the industry collectively decided that the Wii owners craved cheap, toothless family minigame collections – because those were the sort of games they thought the casual audience played and Wii Sports was kind of a thing – and proceeded to crap out turd after turd made as cheaply as possible in pursuit of this elusive “casual audience”.

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These bombed. I am fairly certain that after each failure The Mans collectively scratched their heads and fired some people, and public relations came out with the same tired line they had used during the Gamecube years – that only Nintendo games sold well on Nintendo platforms. They won’t be using the same line during the Wii U years, I’m sure. And then sooner or later, the people making these games begin to hate their audiences, because the market’s rejection of their products is a rejection of the philosophy that created those products – the philosophy that says they were wrong to think in terms of demographics and that the “casual audience” is a complete fabrication.

I am repeating myself in an already overlong piece, but I feel like this needs to be said again. Audiences are not “demographics”. Audiences are people, no more, no less, in all their beauty, ugliness, and individuality. Part of the great thing about shared experiences is that it allows people to connect, despite their differences, and for the longest time, that’s what videogames meant to me. One of my oldest friends is someone I met over a videogame – not even a good videogame, mind, one of those basic flash games from when the internet was raw and new and hate websites garnered a lot of hits. We’d get together during lunch and click to beat up Pikachu until his eyeballs bulged out of his little yellow skull and his fur was matted with blood, brains, and bone fragments.

We grew up with fairly well-adjusted psychological profiles, in retrospect. I’m pretty sure neither of us really hated Pikachu, it was just funny to watch his – you know what, never mind.

Next up, I’ll spend some time addressing the most misaligned group in gaming today: the gamers.

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