by: Nick Michetti
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African-American President-Elect in United States history. Throughout Obama's presidential campaign, he ran on a platform of change -- a platform that has captured the hearts and minds of a great number of the American people. From a more bipartisan government to promises of lower taxes and more, Obama has laid out a path for himself on how to accomplish the change he has promised. Americans, in the midst of two wars and the greatest economic crisis in this country since the Great Depression, sit with baited breath and fingers crossed that Obama's change is exactly what America's doctor ordered.
We, the video game industry, need change -- and we need Barack Obama as well.
The game industry hasn't exactly had a positive relationship with the United States government in recent years. Senators like Joe Lieberman, Leland Yee and Hillary Clinton have verbally decimated the industry in front of their peers. Eidos, in a statement about their relationship with the government of the United Kingdom, proclaimed that they feel that the U.K. treats video games "as the red-headed stepchild of the creative industries, one notch up from pornography in the eyes of most of the establishment." But that really does exemplify -- at least partially -- the industry's relationship with the U.S. government as well, doesn't it?
The U.S. government is seen in general by the industry as one step away from treating gaming with an Orwellian approach, and a number of bills have been introduced that would attempt to regulate the industry from a federal standpoint. Entities like the ESA and the ECA have stepped up to challenge these bills and remind opponents of the video game industry about the First Amendment, perhaps the biggest cornerstone of our democracy. The industry is undefeated in striking down these bills, challenging them in court and costing the government -- state or federal -- thousands of taxpayer dollars with each court ruling.
I know what you're thinking: How can Obama help us, though? He doesn't have the best track record when it comes to video games, especially with his infamous "put the video games away" comment. He has also stated that he would like to examine in greater depth the impact of video games on the development of children -- studies that usually never favor the industry and are peppered with errors.
There are some bright spots, though. First of all, Barack Obama is a big advocate of the First Amendment and First Amendment rights. Second of all, he is also an open-minded individual, with tremendous patience, intellect and focus. Third, he is the first presidential candidate to advertise in video games, spending over $44,000 in paid advertising to appear in EA titles like Burnout Paradise and Madden 09. Fourth, he has directly addressed the gamer population -- albeit in a somewhat negatively toned ad -- in an effort to get them to vote. These are all traits that are not usually shared by opponents of the industry, which leads me to believe that his mind can be changed and that the industry might be able to address him in a more open manner.
There is no better opportunity than now to try to engage Obama in open dialogue about our industry and correct some of these mistruths. I implore ECA President Hal Halpin, ESRB President Patricia Vance, head of EA Sports/industry veteran Peter Moore and a journalist of proper caliber (Geoff Keighley, Rob Fahey and Dan Hsu all come to mind) to approach President-Elect Obama about having an open dialogue with the industry and speak to him about our most pertinent issues. I'm not talking about a radical ally-making process here, but rather about establishing an open line of communication so that Obama and Congress will be more receptive to hearing about (and reacting upon positively) industry issues in the future.
The issues I'm most concerned with though, are business related. Our industry is in desperate need of growth -- specifically, growth from the indie scene and young minds. This industry was rebuilt from the ground up in the mid-1980s from an epic crash by young minds -- minds like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto. Many of these minds still define this industry today. But youth isn't being provided with the opportunity to affect and influence this industry the way that Kojima and Miyamoto did. The cost of creating a PS3 game with a development period of 25 months is $20 million USD. The cost of development is simply too high for young developers to become anything other than publisher seekers, which is vastly unfair, considering that our industry's post-1980s "founding fathers" were allowed to build their companies into monolith publishers that still have the greatest impact on this industry today.
Middleware developers also need a break -- the unsung heroes of our industry. Havok, SpeedTree, Euphoria, Gamebryo, Bink Video -- any of these sound familiar? They should -- they've powered some of the biggest hits of the industry today, including The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto IV, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Fallout 3. Middleware, with each generation's rise in costs and technological complexities, becomes more and more critical for developers to use -- especially those who embrace multiplatform development. Middleware helps cut development costs and enables developers to make our favorite games quicker and more efficiently. The developers of Middleware technology need recognition and need aid to remain independent, instead of being bought out like Havok and RenderWare were, although the situations between the two are akin to apples and oranges.
Middleware developers should get tax cuts so that they can: A) Remain independent and B) Grow their sector so that more developers will create and invest in middleware, thus more middleware can become available. Console manufacturers who include Middleware technology as standard in their SDKs should pay a mandatory sizeable licensing fee to help middleware developers stay afloat. Also, middleware developers who begin early work on next-gen middleware tools should receive federal grants for research and development so that they can continue to create more software without having to worry about any losses that they might incur.
How does Obama figure into these issues, though? Well, first of all, Obama definitely has a soft spot for two video game industry company demographics: 1) American companies that don't ship jobs overseas and 2) Small business owners. I would like my video game industry Obama-approaching dream team to emphasize to Obama that the current state of next-generation development is high risk -- our budgets are so big that one or two titles going south commercially could capsize anything but an EA/Actiblizzard-sized publisher. We need tax cuts for independent developers, especially for smaller developers like Double Fine Studios, who get hurt more than most at retail simply because they decide to pursue creative titles.
If they aren't already, we need for software development kits and Java development kits to be tax-deductible as work expenses for publishers and developers. For large teams embracing multiplatform development, especially PS3/360 development, the cost is quite high. The cost of SDKs is starting to escalate rapidly and if we don't do something about it, developers will start paying the same amount of money for SDKs as they do for video game budgets.
Publishers and developers who decide to develop for expensive and complex new mediums like Blu-ray should also get a tax cut or console manufacturers who use the new mediums should be forced to take smaller portions of their fees until the price of the medium comes down appropriately. Also, we need the government's help to fund research and development for what I call "middle mediums" -- affordable discs that all home console platforms should be forced to support in order to aid smaller or more multiplatform-focused developers.
We also need to rein in the used games market and not with DRM. It is fundamentally unfair that developers are being robbed of profits for work that they've done. If the ESA will not offer a mandate, then we'll need the government to do so. Publishers and developers should be entitled to at least half of the price from the sale of every used game. However, we need for there to be caps on used game prices and a Blue Book system for video games to prevent price gouging. We also need for developers to respect our tradition of the second hand market and have part of the mandate state that developers cannot use DRM to inhibit used sales.
Perhaps it's my own personal audacity of hope at work here -- that President-Elect Obama will care enough about our industry's plights to create, introduce or sign into law legislation that will benefit us as a business. Or maybe it's audacious enough to suggest that he'll even have the time to address these issues as America tries to pull itself together in the midst of everything that's going wrong. One thing is for certain, though: what the industry is doing now isn't working for internal growth and expansion.
Having the federal government aid us with tax cuts and such, though, in light of all of this industry's expenses, could do wonders. With the right amount and types of aid, especially for small developers, this industry could boom. We could see increases in the number of independent, second and third party developers. With budget aids and developers getting a cut of used game sales, the industry could potentially more affordably cut video game prices at retail and take more risks on creative games. When prices come down, the industry will expand even further. With greater industry expansion and an open line of communication with the incoming administration, we might finally be able to bury the bloodstained hatchet between the federal government and our industry. We'd establishing a new era of trust and the proper respect for video games as the greatest, most creative medium in the world could finally commence.
Or maybe not. Maybe this doesn't work. Maybe Obama won't be receptive to our problems, maybe we won't want to reach out -- maybe this article is a plentitude of pipedreams doomed never to come to fruition. But we need to try. Our growth is stunted, we're heading towards an industry crash and things might be so far gone at this point that the kind of powerful reform we need might only be possible through the government. We need to reach out and at least give peace between the video game industry and the United States government a chance. Otherwise, we'll continue on our steady decline and lack of growth, caused by a stubbornness incurred by a grip on an old hatchet -- and that, my friends, is our Bridge to Nowhere.