Co-Authors: Clipper Arnold and Sam Thomas
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
The gaming industry is a recent victim of capital’s constant need to revolutionize itself, resulting in its own ossification. The telos of gaming has changed: no longer do game developers seek to develop a use value, but a commodity for exchange. In doing so, developers have forsaken the quality of the use value of the game. We contend, then, that capitalism, and more specifically commodity production, is worsening the quality of video games.
Symptoms of the Disease
As with any disease, the disease of the commodification of video games exhibits symptoms. We enumerate, then, the symptoms that plague the video game industry.
“A thousand golden icons gleam in light,
The only product that they buy is blight.”
Mobile gaming appears as an unfeeling wasteland built to capitalize on superfluous microtransactions. Handheld devices hold far more capability than many consoles did even as little as a decade ago, yet there remains a marked sparseness of actualization to the form. Super Nintendo epics held on cartridges and depicted in rudimentary 16-bits capture more artistic merit and beauty than their counterparts, which use supercomputing hardware (by comparison) with assemblages of graphics and gameplay whose primary intent is to beg for credit card transactions at any given opportunity.
This is not to say there haven’t been breakthroughs, independent or otherwise, in the medium. Games like Monument Valley have been lauded for their beauty and ingenuity. Ports of various games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Rome: Total War, or various Sega Genesis, SNES, and others make the hardware not a complete waste. Many have also taken advantage of the hardware by creating third-party mobile emulators. Despite all this, if the most playable and engaging entries tend to be re-releases or emulations of older games in a sea of soulless, rehashed tower defense, kingdom building, or puzzle games, that does little to push the medium forward.
While mobile gaming is a new market, it is one that has seized the greatest part of the market in recent years. Figures from 2015 estimate that mobile gaming is the largest single generator of revenue in the video game market, though not as large and PC and console gaming combined. This is a new phenomenon, and as such, it seems that mobile gaming will be the future of gaming.
If the future of gaming is in mobile games, it is a bleak future, filled with shoddy, unfinished games that turn joy into nuisance. While it is impossible to list every malady of the mobile game market, the following are the most grievous offenses the industry commits.
The first malady of mobile gaming is the practice of microtransactions. A microtransaction converts real world currency into an in-game currency which players use to buy buffs. By no means are microtransactions a phenomenon exclusive to mobile gaming, but the practice started on mobile and continues to be a major nuisance there. The bulk of the mobile gaming industry seems intent on hacking together crystal-buying simulators from licensed or unlicensed IPs. Accounts from some in the industry claim that the mechanization of this process is so ubiquitous and crass that it has led to the departure of many game developers from the mobile gaming industry. Companies throw a few thousand dollars into a project, get a developer to hack something together over the course of a few weeks, a product rife with microtransactions, before moving on to the next one. While the term development hell connotes a game which is stuck in development and will never actualize as a release, this is development Hades: a Sisyphean punishment in which developers push the same shit up a hill every few weeks.
There are countless examples of the egregious microtransaction paradigm coupled with generic game design, but the Dungeon Hunter series is a rather disappointing example. The games themselves are rather derivative of Blizzard’s Diablo franchise. They are action RPG dungeon crawlers with skill trees, randomized item drops, sprawling maze-like dungeons, etc. The derivative nature of the games wouldn’t be a massive problem were they not to have pushed the so-called “freemium” paradigm to its extreme. Having only played the first and third entry in the series, I slogged through the first game and had a somewhat pleasurable experience. Revisiting the series with the third game, the gem-buying and inventory/spell upgrades prompting me on every other screen repulsed me to the point of having to uninstall the “free” app. A further example of nauseating microtransactions that incorporates consoles and PC gaming is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which included a companion mobile app, to the chagrin of players.
Microtransactions gain the company profit at the cost of quality. The buffs microtransactions pay for lower the risk involved with the game. The minimization of risk occurs to such an extent that it saps the enjoyment out of the game. If there is no risk of failure, why play?
It is worth pointing out the obvious: the reason microtransactions are so repulsive. The developers’ greed guide microtransactions and represent something further to users. They represent an increasing circumscribing of a player by their consumer identity. When people turn to a game for fantasy, enjoyment, or release and find their agency or enjoyment of a game is in part correlated to their real-life buying power, it is a disillusioning and frustrating experience. It is turning to a dreamworld, as a temporary escape from the totalizing nature of global capital, and instead finding yourself interrupted by a series of paywalls that remind you of your true value (or lack thereof) to those whose sandboxes you play in or virtual labyrinths in which you toil.
Games that allow the sale of a gargantuan amount of microtransactions to such an extent that their sale all but entails victory have gained a reputation as “pay-to-win games”. The name is self explanatory. Buy a large amount of in-game currency and use that to get unstoppable buffs, and claim victory. Multiplayer real time strategy games exacerbate the problem with microtransactions. Players with enough money to invest in the game can all but buy victory over players who cannot afford to buy as many buffs. This ruins the game for everyone, since the rich have no challenge, and the poor have no hope of victory.
A second malady of mobile gaming is using false advertising to increase app downloads. A mobile game will often use footage from a popular game in YouTube ads. For example,a mobile game called War and Order allegedly used footage from the Mount and Blade series in a YouTube ad. This is not unique to Mount and Blade, the same game has allegedly used footage from multiple games. A different mobile game, War of Colony, has also allegedly stolen footage from other games.
A third malady that plagues mobile gaming is the lack of innovation. Instead of treading new ground, mobile games are content to put new skins on tower defense or real-time strategy games and put it out as a separate app. While using stale formulae to develop games is by no means exclusive to the mobile market (especially with regard to shooters and sports games), the sheer amount of clones and ripoffs in the mobile market has created a cottage industry of re-skins and ripoffs. Due to the lower cost of manufacturing mobile games, and its large market share, mobile games are host to a nest of vultures that leech off of the hard work of programmers and video game developers.
The culprit is the dire market which enables mechanized and derivative works and the profit incentives which developers chase in the same manner in which their users lust after virtual boxes of gems. This is because markets exist for their own ends and serve their own purposes. The market erases subtlety, nuance, beauty, and meaning. It wreaks havoc and leaves these concepts in its wake.
DLC and its Discontents
In an expletive-laden rant against Total War: Rome II, YouTuber Reynold Sanity categorized DLC into three types: “expansion, fluff, and bullshit”. Using, but renaming, these categories, we distinguish between three types of DLC: expansion, cosmetic, and cut content.
An expansion pack is additional content for a game that a developer develops and releases after the base game has seen release. They are traditionally smaller scale endeavors than developing a new game, being both cheaper and having less content than the base game to which they are attached. The tradition has gone back for decades, Wolfenstein 3D, for example, came out with an expansion packs in 1992. The key, however, was that developers did not develop expansion packs (and what we define expansion DLC today) until they had tested and released the base game. They are thus optional to having the game, because the software company developed the game as a standalone product with the intention of providing a complete experience. Expansion packs, then, were boni that diehard fans of a particular game could throw a few bucks on to get a few more hours of enjoyment out of the game.
This is not to say that every expansion pack was good, or even worth their paltry price. While expansions in the Total War series often create experiences that rival or even surpass their base game (such as Barbarian Invasion for Rome: Total War, or Fall of the Samurai for Total War: Shogun II), they were the exception, not the rule. Developers were in most instances, more focused on the next full-length title from the company, leaving a smaller team to develop the expansion pack. However, the fact that the base game was already established at the conception of the expansion meant that, on par, both the base game and the expansion had gone through beta testing and remedial bug fixing before release.
Perhaps expansions aren’t the most objectionable of aspects regarding DLC so long as users feel like they can have a whole, detailed experience from the source material and simply wish to expand upon it afterwards. The uneasy part of this is when it crosses a line into cut content, which will be discussed below–or if the expansions are so good that the only way for people to get a holistic experience of the game is to shell out more cash–quickly turning a $60 purchase into an $80+ one. Still, some expansions have enough content to almost merit their treatment as almost standalone material. For instance, the DLC packages for Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns game (Dragonfall, Hong Kong, etc.) were Kickstarter rewards that expanded significantly upon the initial release–which, it should be noted, was also an open-source game where users could develop their own missions and adventures–which is fitting of a tabletop-inspired game environment.
For this reason, we have few problems with expansion packs as a category of product.
The second type of DLC, cosmetic DLC, is downloadable content that changes the appearance of parts of the game. Whether it is a skin for a weapon, a character, or a unit, cosmetic DLC does not change any aspects of the gameplay, but rather just how it looks. Though rarer, music packs would also be cosmetic; music does not change gameplay.
Cosmetic DLC, much like expansion packs, are far cheaper than the game to which it applies. Any more than a five dollars is usually anathema for cosmetics. Because of this, people often buy it to line the pockets of developers they like at a small cost. Since it does not affect gameplay, fewer people will invest in it than in expansion.
In most instances, cosmetic DLC is not an active harm to the game. However, it can become an overall detriment. The most objectionable aspect of cosmetic expansions is when developers expend unnecessary resources and effort into superfluously minor visual tweaks, palette swaps, and “hats” because they are monetarily incentivized to do so rather than developing more content for a game or allocating resources to another project. At a certain point, it can magnify some of the hyper consumptive habits of users, who throw piles of cash into randomized loot boxes, hoping to procure a certain accessory or outfit to modify their virtual persona which they will likely grow tired or bored of in a month.
In the case of Team Fortress 2, a class based first person shooter, the search for cosmetic items comes at the expense of the game itself. In TF2, a certain amount of playtime will sometimes yield a crate containing either a cosmetic item or a weapon.To open the crate, the player must purchase or trade for a key, which they must either trade another player for, or buy from Steam. The emphasis on collecting hats, and thus collecting keys, meant that as time went on, Valve, the developer for TF2, switched from having cosmetics be a side benefit to playing the game to having it become the primary focus. Updates would only change a few things about the gameplay, but release more and more hats or reskins. Thus, instead of new maps or weapons keeping the game fresh years after release, TF2 became a hat simulator.
A similar case is Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, another first person shooter. While here, it was weapon reskins, and not hats, that became the focal point, the prioritization of cosmetics came at the expense of updating the game.
All this is of course immensely profitable for Valve, thus making them invest more resources into cosmetics at the expense of updating games or making new games (HALF LIFE 3 WHEN). Other companies have followed suit. Paradox Interactive has released a myriad amount of cosmetic DLC for their games Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, in the form of portraits, unit reskins, and music packs. Buying all the cosmetics for Crusader Kings 2 alone costs more than the base game itself (barring Steam sales)! And while Paradox does release far more patches than most developers, its focus on cosmetics most likely drew resources that would have otherwise made new games better upon launch, such as Hearts of Iron IV.
Many see purchasing cosmetic DLC as a small way of contributing to a developer they support, but some see purchases of DLC as impulsive, regrettable decisions that adds little to nothing to their enjoyment of a game.
This is what would essentially constitute buyer’s remorse–a phenomenon in which a consumer purchases a unjustifiably romanticized product and later experiences feelings of regret, guilt, or remorse. This is usually due to feelings of being duped or fooled–a sort of “post-decision dissonance,” where the decision-making process of a sale is later regretted.
Thus, while cosmetic DLC is not inherently bad, it does have a tendency to become the focal point of a game, lowering the amount of resources a company has to improving gameplay or bug fixing.
What differentiates cut content from the other two types of DLC has less to do with what the content is and more to do with when it comes out. While expansion packs come out after the release of the base game, cut content comes out on release date. This type of DLC markets itself as a “pre-order bonus” or “exclusive missions”, their existence comes into being at the same time as the rest of the game. It would thus be possible for these pre-order boni to just be a part of the game upon launch.
Rather than viewing the pre-order bonus as a bonus, we should thus view it as cut content for everyone besides those who pre-order the game. Since its development coincides with the development of the game, the bonus is thus integrated within the game as a part of it.
Another problem with this style of DLC is that is churns out games before they are sufficiently beta-tested. Rather than patch the game and bugfix before the game is released, companies will rush out an unfinished game and only bugfix and patch after the game is released. In Hearts of Iron IV, the AI was so poorly optimised that a cottage industry of YouTube gaming channels sprung up making fun of the horrible AI. For example, a YouTube channel under the name of Valefisk detailed how to conquer the entirety of the United Kingdom in HOI4’s World War II scenario with six paratrooper divisions in six months. Another YouTuber, iSorrowProductions, frequently uploads footage of him exploiting the HOI4 AI’s inability to defend itself in his videos.
Rather than focusing all efforts on attempting to fix the broken AI, developer Paradox Interactive released two major DLC in the span of twelve months. Even the DLC that Paradox released was sub-par: Hungarian YouTuber Goulash Guy released a video explaining why DLC related to the Kingdom of Hungary’s role in World War II was inaccurate. This is emblematic of a larger trend in the video game industry: rather than fix the gameplay that breaks the game in the first place, developers slap a price tag on new set of features in an attempt to divert attention from the broken state of the game.
In this sense, DLC appears to us backwards. Rather than fixing first, and then adding something new, developers are content to add something new to a game that has no solid foundation. And to continue the architecture metaphor, when you add new content to a shoddy foundation of a base game, the only reasonable outcome is collapse.
The Growing Obsolescence of Console Markets
Profit-based incentives in the video game industry are becoming noticeably more blatant by the growing obsolescence of console markets. There was a time where specialized, proprietary hardware would have been understandably necessary and required to play a game (such as on arcade machines, handheld devices, or even early consoles). However, the ubiquitous spread of technology has rendered the hardware capabilities of consoles less important.
Perhaps until what is termed the sixth generation of consoles (Playstation 2, Dreamcast, Xbox, Gamecube), most consoles had graphics processing capabilities and other schematics that outperformed many desktops and laptops of the time–there was even talk of Saddam Hussein weaponizing 4000 PS2s for supercomputer military applications, or the United States’ 2009 purchase of thousands of PS3s for the same purpose.
The issue, however, is that most decently powered contemporary laptops, desktops, and even smartphones can keep pace with modern hardware standards of consoles, and easily hurdle over previous ones–which is why many older console titles are finding second lives as PC ports or through emulation. Modern growth of digital technology is usually attributed to concepts such as Moore’s law, which dictates that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years–which is why consoles are exponentially more powerful over time or why external hard drives of today have innumerable more space than those a decade ago. Ultimately, all modern games are first designed on computers anyways and don’t require much more than strong graphics processing and a USB controller.
Why, then, aren’t all games PC titles–or, at the very least, multi-platform? Other than people who would rather buy a console straight up without having to worry about graphics cards configurations, or Nintendo-esque models of novel proprietary hardware that is essential to gameplay (Wii-motes, Dual-screens, etc.), it’s primarily because there’s still money to be made of spreading out different IPs.
This concept actually runs parallel to the current streaming markets in music:
The reason why Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. still are capable of competing–often to the chagrin of consumers–is because there’s enough of a demand for Taylor Swift, Jay Z, Rihanna, or other exclusive albums to merit the carving out of different apps and proverbial territories.
The reason why Sony and Microsoft still compete without having much difference other than some negligible hardware specs–often to the chagrin of consumers–is because there’s enough of a demand for Final Fantasy, Halo, or other exclusive titles to merit the carving out of different consoles and proverbial territories.
Nintendo typically sidesteps this issue, not only with their first party games, but with what is termed a “blue ocean” model of marketing, which relates to their proprietary hardware discussed earlier.
Other issues might be that the consumer market is relatively unaware of emulation technology or simply prefer buying consoles for their ease of use.
So, yes, perhaps there are those who would rather have a standalone, single-purpose piece of video game hardware, but other than that, there’s a blatantly lessening importance of the console model as PC technology continues to become more powerful–and if the only justification of a console’s existence is warring over 50-100 exclusive titles, they might not last very long. A solution might be a sort open source gaming on PC, which, if we follow trends in emulation and ports, tends to be what the end result of most games is over time, anyhow. Perhaps the general public hasn’t caught on yet, or perhaps the console markets are still content to gate off games for short-term, profit-based gains until the market completely evaporates and people aren’t willing to fork over hundreds of dollars on consoles up front just to get a chance to play a handful of exclusives that appeal to them.
The issues raised in this essay are a microcosm of symptoms of profit-based incentives as they might apply to any market under capital. Various tensions will inevitably arise that threaten to tear apart the markets that have been established, or render them meaningless and devoid of any real human value or utility. If the market rewards wack shit, those impulsed by greed will rise to the whims and incentives of the market, and subsequently create an uninhabitable wasteland for those who do not play the game of capital–either because it is a hollow pursuit, or inaccessible to those without the means to produce on the same level.
The problem with video games stems from their production in a capitalist economy. The production of video games as commodities means that the only way they realize their value to their creators is through the alienating process of exchange. The producers of video games get no use value from their creations, and only get value at all merely through the process of exchange. Thus, video game creators do not care about the quality of video games except as a means to maximize the amount of money (as the symbol of value) they receive for their creation. Quality of the video game, then, is a minor concern for the producer of video games, since quality is a feature of private, concrete labor which produces use value. Instead, sale, the process by which the labor becomes social and abstract, gives the producer the money commodity, which is concerned with quantity and not quality.
Thus, it makes sense that the best video games have gamers producing them. John Romero plays DOOM regularly still, for example. A whole slew of indie developers get use value from playing video games, so it makes sense that they are concerned with the quality of their game directly: they play it. Indie developers, as well, have more control over the product they make, what hours they work, and so on. In this sense, they are less alienated than the producers at AAA companies. This is not to say that some return to a petit bourgois model of economy, where the individual producers do own the means of production, or even a co-op model, where the workers collectively own the means of production. Nothing less than the abolition of private property, markets, and the commodity form can unlock the full potential of human creativity, whether that be in video games or in more traditional forms of art. Producers, let us unite!
Engels, Friedrich and Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
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Retrieved from https://twitter.com/search?q=war%20and%20order%20ad&src=typd
 Retrieved from https://twitter.com/search?q=war%20of%20colony%20ad&src=typd
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 Valefisk.HoI-IV | How to Take Britain with 6 Paratroopers in 6 Months https://youtu.be/xrV8ljl56CA
 iSorrowProductions. https://www.youtube.com/user/iSorrowproductions
 Goulash Guy. Hearts of I want my $10 back https://youtu.be/bdOcCb0fMNk
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 The following argument draws from Marx’s Kapital, Vol 1, Part 1: Commodities and Money