“Finally, the weekend is here!”
I announce to myself in sheer excitement, tapping my fingers carelessly against my steering wheel in some extravagant rhythm.
I’m feeling pretty good. The daily errands are finished. Laundry is folded. I bribed my wife’s affection by buying her favorite frappuccino in town. The article I was supposed to write today felt so natural! Ideas swam through my fingertips with such grace and fluidity that even Echo the Dolphin would feel a hint of jealousy. Finally, a chance to relax! I hop out of the car whistling magnanimously on the trek toward the doorstep. I fire up my Playstation.
I peruse a vast library of games, each title more thrilling than the last, but then the inexplicable happens! I find myself playing Rocket League – like I always do.
I scream outwardly toward the heavens, my voice coarse and dry.
Oh boy. The dreaded backlog.
Online forums and social circles alike are beginning to explode with the complaints of gamers with an increasingly large sum of untouched games. The gaming community is larger than it’s ever been before, estimated at 3.1 billion players worldwide in 2020. We are a growing demographic. As a result, the landscape around us is shifting at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, that ten-foot-tall-heap of disks cased in plastic wrap is starting to look like a dusty replica of a Wal-Mart sales bin. There are a lot of factors at play here. Developers are adopting new business models, advertising practices are becoming pinpoint accurate, and the market is saturated with new content on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s cast all that aside for a moment and dive into consumerist psychology first.
The psychology of backlog culture is pretty simple at surface level. You buy more games or media than you have the time (and oftentimes money) to consume. Much like an addiction, consumerism is an act of trying to replicate a sense of intoxication we find from buying impulse items.
We know we don’t need it. We often know that we won’t find the time to even use it for a while. Although we have a much more consuming thought biting at us in the back of our heads.
A primal instinct.
We’re trying to escape stress. We’re running from anxiety or depression or a terrifying deadline by purchasing something shiny, new, and exciting. More is better, right? There is so much ease in today’s market to make a quick little purchase to “treat ourselves” without even having to leave the comfort of our own home. “Buy Now with one click!” Amazon began to boast, as it soared up to the top of the commercial food-chain.
Studies are finding that, as a general population, we struggle to save money more than ever before. Spending money is just so convenient now. No generation before us has faced such simplicity or its consequences.
We live in a highly streamlined age. Working a retail job just doesn’t measure up to exploring the vast expanse of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Maybe your boss laid out a dense speech about how an aisle shouldn’t have been fully stocked with the barcodes visible, invalidating several hours’ worth of work.
Maybe you came home ranting to your significant other about this rude lady, pounding her fists into the table – each finger laced in glittering diamonds, demanding a refund for the hotel room she booked. Her blood was boiling because she couldn’t find the thermostat during her evening stay.
Maybe the pretty girl with the ribbon-like hair that you’ve been texting was out walking the perimeter of the park with your literal sworn enemy from the second grade. The curls in her hair bouncing in perfect harmony with the crisp laughter echoing eternally through the night’s sky.
Maybe you’re tired of the nightly lectures at the dinner table about how God states, clear as day, in the almighty Bible that you shouldn’t even like girls to begin with. Dishes pounding across the table with child-like angst, constant murmurs of “Oh honey, it’s just a phase” as though it was an ancient Buddhist mantra.
Maybe you miss getting lectured at the dinner table and regret how you treated your parents when you were younger.
The truth of the matter may be that you love your job, you married the love of your life, have a great support system, and have a perfectly healthy diet. If you’re still reading this, you probably suffer from a backlog as well.
One of the largest stressors in American society right now is an overabundance of choice. Seriously, don’t write this off. Recently, a blind woman by the name of Sheena Iyengar teamed up with Mark Lepper for a series of choice based experiments. Most seem to have been culture-related, but there is one in particular that has brought a ton of attention to psychologists around the world. We’ll call it the “Jam Study”.
The saleswoman hands you a coupon for a dollar off of your jam purchase – under the condition that you try them all and pick the one you like. (A coupon for trying a product? Is she Santa? Take notes, Nintendo!)
Now, imagine the same woman selling 24 types of jam. Same coupon, the same taste test. The study found that over 60% of customers appeared at the table with 24 flavors.
Only 3% of those customers bought a jar of jam, and fewer of the customers were satisfied with their purchase afterward. Meanwhile, the smaller Jam table had a sales conversion rate of 30% and was much more likely to feel satisfied with their purchase.
An abundance of decisions shows a direct correlation with buyers’ remorse. The extra options were said to have put buyers into paralysis. Expectations were also heightened. Afterward, guilt was placed on the purchaser for feeling uninformed during the process. This “Maximizer” mentality turned out to hurt the consumers’ overall experience with their product. Choice is good, but too much choice is overwhelming.
Alright. So your library of backlog games is so large that it puts you into a “state of paralysis.”
Having to choose between Hollow Knight, Shovel Knight, Night in the Woods, Little Nightmares, Little Big Planet 1 and 2, Planet Coaster, Roller Coaster Tycoon: Pocket Edition, and NEW Hyper Roller Skate Simulator: Japanese Body Pillow Ultimate Edition 3.
Yeah, I made that last one up. You can’t stop me. I’ll do it again, too. Come at me, bro.
Errr… back on topic. The list is endless… and overwhelming. That seems reasonable enough, right? Case closed? Well, there are still more factors to take into account here.
There has been an incredible change to the nature of games, in general. With a heightened cinematic experience, developers are dumping money into these productions by the truckload.
Graphics are king. Frame rate drops hurt sales. These expectations have consequences. Companies are working hard at retaining a player base on an engine that already runs.
CD Projekt Red estimates their budget for Cyberpunk 2077 has been well over 120 million dollars on development alone. It still launched as a buggy mess.
The average overhead for employing a single game developer is about 100,000 a month. Activision keeps about 500 developers on Call of Duty for every annual release.
It doesn’t end at development. EA publicly stated that marketing a game often costs double the price of development, (which also explains why FIFA is the same annoying copypasta game year after year. Yeah, we went there). Casting jokes aside, It is a pretty common practice to match a game’s development cost in advertising. You can’t buy a game you’ve never heard of.
With budgets like that, companies need a strong business model. We find that developers now squeeze in online events to add more cosmetics items into the game. They’re hoping you’ll purchase something later, at a lower development cost. A golden character skin or a disco-themed assault rifle for five bucks can alleviate those initial costs.
Let that sink in a moment: You’re dumping hours upon hours of grinding on a single game – just so some kid doesn’t smash the crouch button over your dead body during the clowns with frowns event in Modern Warfare 12. That’s fine if it makes you happy, but try to remember your plate is full when 2K inevitably shadow drops Bioshock 4: Eternal Afterparty-Triple-Remastered-VR-Expansion-Pass Edition – on Christmas Eve. (Boom! Another fake title. Still feel like I’ve got one more in me.)
Listen here, fellow Pikachu fanatics, don’t go dismissively pointing your finger at the FPS titles either. Your franchise hopped aboard the DLC train this gen, too – alongside a subscription storage service and competitive rating tiers. Nobody is immune. The new model isn’t genre exclusive: shooters, arcade fighters, and online racing games tend to gravitate in this direction.
I’m a little ashamed to admit how many hours I’ve dumped into Rocket League practicing new trick shots to further hinder my actual game sense in ranked play. The developers want me to stay. They pay content creators to churn out videos and drop new car decals to purchase every other month, There are hundreds of discord servers available for me to join, where hard-stuck platinum-ranked players can forge support groups among one another. It’s easy to stay.
The new battle-pass model popularized by Epic’s Fortnite is picking up a lot of traction as well – leaning entirely on post-production transactions for games you want to develop skills in as a craft. That sends us a pretty strong message on just how effective these events are at bringing in a flock of players.
It doesn’t stop there. Single-player titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3 try to squeeze out DLC packages to increase profit. Nobody is safe. Games just take longer to beat, end of story.
I’m not trying to argue this is a bad thing at all! I love this new trend of games being relevant for longer! We just have to adapt as consumers, I think. We can’t pretend to be able to make time for every new title being announced every fiscal quarter anymore. It’s time to pick and choose.
Our hobby is a great escape.
Video games do a great job of assimilating our inner-desires of mastery with stats and unlocking skills. There’s also the shrieking thrill of gazing upon a victory screen. The best part about it is that we can take the same muscle memory and essentially apply it to a brand new experience at the drop of a dime.
Heavy stories and heavy budgets are placing utmost importance on immersion. Their sole purpose is to pull you out of that dreary life cycle you may have come to loathe. The modern world can easily be summed up as too many choices, too many people, and too much repetition. Developers can relate. They are people, too.
The amount of refinement that goes into products in this day and age is a marvel, to say the least. The entertainment industry as a whole has come such a long way to producing astonishing, riveting experiences worth having.
In all fairness, I think video games are a pretty harmless source of intoxication. I also think it’s important to distinguish that while this has become a spectacular medium of entertainment, this is still an industry. Producers are doing anything they can to stir up buzz around their products, and the delicacy that goes into today’s marketing is equally as refined.
Marketing teams are more predatory than ever before.
We live in an age of data brokers. Your information is readily for sale. You probably already know that, but I’m going to bring it up anyway; because, to be frank, the extent of what information is available about you is baffling.
Sure, businesses have always known that a sale or a limited time offer pressures buyers into making an impulse decision. The difference in the 21st century is that there are spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of raw data for companies to observe. Analytics are precise.
They know when you are most likely to pick up a new product and how susceptible you are to social influence. They know what apps you frequent. A single company can boast of having 10,000 attributes on a list of 2.5 billion consumers. There are over a hundred of these brokers. Want some relevant proof? Amazon owns Twitch. Google owns Youtube.
They gather data about the things you watch.
With advertisements being so abundant and so personalized, it is hard to resist clicking on the awesome high-budget trailer for Grand Theft Auto Frontiers Deluxe: Ultimate Crabs of the Robot Multiverse Edition – a game you probably could have lived your entire life without knowing about (I told you I’d do it again). Personalized marketing is also sneaky. Ever wonder how many E-mails Dunkey gets to voice “his opinion” on a new release? I know I have.
They know who a demographic’s prime influencers are, and use them to tweet “leaks” or speculation, and let the overwhelming desire of the fanbase trickle posts from person to person. Having to fumble through Nick Robinson’s leaks of an upcoming Super Monkey Ball makes me feel like a detective. I feel obliged to share at that point. Then Google gets free analytics about my interest in Super Monkey Ball to keep the cycle going.
They have numbers to represent what business practices you consider predatory, They have numbers to represent what you may or may not be boycotting. Most importantly of all, they have numbers to represent how likely you are to buy a product despite these things. They have numbers to help increase those odds.
Mad about the Blitzchung scandal, and the idea of taking away someone’s prize money for voicing a political opinion during an interview? Maybe a remaster of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater can remedy that.
Let’s cast the tin foil hats aside. I don’t want to end this piece on a chalkboard littered with photos of random animals with lines directing toward members of the KGB. There’s no need for me to paint a paragraph with dystopian archetypes and spew a bunch of over-dramatized prose. I want to help, not inflict fear!
Instead, let’s examine my “backlog prevention” model for criteria I expect from a new game purchase, and help you to develop a backlog prevention list of your own:
Here’s my anti-backlog secret: I need at least 5 criteria met to truly enjoy a game. I also avoid looking over what’s on sale, since the games I tend to want are probably already in my library. Most games purchased on a sale didn’t actively engage my interest. I do not take a friend’s recommendations.
Remasters and sequels are traps. I may have enjoyed them my first time around. That doesn’t mean I’ll be ready to revisit them. I find these titles to be key offenders in my backlog.