Pity the Poor Consumer

A trip to the store
I finally broke down and bought myself a PC-compatible machine the other day. It was quite an experience. I have been spoiled by the Macintosh, and so when I walked into the store with a good friend to advise me, I was not ready for the barrage of decisions unleashed on me by the salesperson. What motherboard did I want? Did I want 10 MHz parts or 12 MHz parts? How about floppy drives? Hard drives came in six different capacities, four different average access times, three manufacturers, and a price for each combination ranging from $165 to $600. Then there were monitors, display boards, joysticks, and the mouse. And, of course, for everything there was the choice between getting the standard brand or the cheap Taiwanese or Korean version. Arg!

With the sound advice of my friend, I got over these hurdles without sounding too befuddled. (And I used to build my own hardware just ten years ago!) We bundled it home and assembled the system. All worked well once we reversed the connections of some unpolarized connectors - ahem! We fired it up and, after low-level formatting of the hard drive (!) we played around with the software configuration. Then came the piece de resistance. I opened the mouse package and out tumbled four, count ’em, FOUR manuals. For a mouse!

The Consumer’s Problem
There’s a lesson here. The PC-clone is the dominant home computer, yet it is absurdly difficult to set up and use. Granted, my experience was towards the tail end of the ease-of-use bell curve; the fact remains, though, that a mouse shouldn’t require any manuals to use.

The consumer must choose between unacceptable options. The MS-DOS option is too unfriendly for home use, while the Macintosh is too expensive. The hardware manufacturers, remembering the price wars of 1983, have written off the home market. The home consumer, our major audience, is left to twist in the wind.

But the story doesn’t end with finger-pointing at the hardware people. I decided that the very first investment I would make in software would be a couple of games for evaluative purposes only, of course and popped down to a local software store to look over the possibilities.

Normally I scan retail shelves as a kind of market research, trying to get a grip on industry trends. This time, though, I was doing it as a consumer, ready to part with hard-earned dollars. What a difference that makes! The first shocking realization was that there was a huge array of titles in front of me. How was I going to narrow it down to a few good options? Fortunately, I’ve been around the block a few times, and I have a pretty good idea of what titles are good and what titles are not so good.

Then came a realization that hit me like a ton of bricks. The average consumer hasn’t been around the block a few times. He doesn’t have the benefit of the industry gossip that I have. Not being a professional, he doesn’t read every magazine in the industry. He doesn’t check out the national network services for opinions on games. How in heaven’s name can the average consumer possibly choose a title from this shelf?

The situation he faces with software is exactly analogous to the situation I faced in that hardware shop. All these options, and no way of making an intelligent decision. What’s the poor consumer to do?

Why it’s our problem
Now, at this point you may be tempted to shrug your shoulders and mutter, "Not my problem." After all, you may think, it’s the consumer’s responsibility to educate himself, to make informed purchasing decisions. You can’t worry yourself over the problems of the lazy consumer.

This kind of thinking leads nowhere. When the consumer has no ready means of making informed decisions, he ends up making random impulse purchases. If your masterpiece sits on the shelf nestled between two trashy games from Junko Software, Inc., the odds are two-to-one that the consumer will pick up the junk. It doesn’t matter that your game is better, that you spent months sweating the gameplay, that the graphics contain mighty leaps forward, or that you created entirely new algorithms for it. The crap that was tossed together in three months by the sweatshop workers at Junko will get the sale.

But that’s just the beginning of the problem. Joe Consumer, having purchased Junko-Man, will take it home, try it out, and be utterly unamused. He may come back and try something else, but the odds are that the second time around he’ll pick up something equally shoddy, and sooner or later he will come to the completely fair conclusion that computer games are cheap junk, that they do not provide enough entertainment bang for the buck, and that they are not worth either his time or his money. In short, Joe Consumer will have made the transition from Novice Computer Consumer to Experienced Computer Consumer, and he will no longer be buying our stuff.

This traps us, the game creators, in a futile hole. Since much of our market is composed of uninformed first-time purchasers, we find that quality is not rewarded. A bigger package with a bustier woman on the cover will do more to sell product than our own talent and energy. Marketing considerations pull far ahead of creative considerations. The industry stays locked in a trashy hole.

What we can do about it
We do have some options here. Our task is to inform the consumer as to the nature of our product offerings. The first cue we can give him is authorship. This is the primary means that consumers use to assess the likely value of other entertainments. Movies are sold to consumers on the merits of their actors, actresses, and directors. Books are sold on the merits of the authors. Music consumers rely on the reputation of the musician in making their decisions.

Note that the in all these cases, the corporation that sells the product stays discreetly in the background. Can you name Stephen King’s publisher? Who can name the record label that carried the Beatles’ early works? And when was the last time you rushed out to see the latest movie from Paramount Studios?

The games publishers have chosen to reject the hard-earned lessons from other entertainment media. Perhaps they think that people really will identify quality with a faceless business entity rather than an artist. Perhaps they are just indulging in foolish corporate ego-tripping. Either way, they’re shooting themselves (and the rest of the industry) in the foot.

There are two things that game developers can do to help the consumer. First, we can do our bit to educate them. When was the last time you went out of your way to speak at a user group meeting? Sure, it’s fun to speak at the monster meetings with 100+ attendees, but what about the little 30-person groups? It may not be cost-effective in terms of advertising your latest game, but its contribution to the overall health of the industry is important. We need informed consumers, and direct contact is the best way to inform them.

The second contribution we can make to solving the problem of the random consumer is more difficult: we have to raise our standards. We have to increase the probability that, when he randomly picks a title, he will get something good enough to induce him to come back again.

It is said that bad product drives out good product. This may be so. But we must ask ourselves whether we are prepared to surrender the shelves to bad product. If we acquiesce to the triumph of junk games, then we might as well give up and abandon the industry to the jackals. Our survival as a viable industry depends on our willingness to assert standards of quality high enough to ensure consumer confidence. And that willingness must come from each of us individually.