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Executives: How Hard is it to Stop F***ing Up?

There was a time when I’d write about games. Now I write about how industry executives keep stepping on rakes.


I should preface this by saying I’m not the multimillionaire executive of a trillion dollar company, so perhaps the line between “making customers happy” and “destroying an entire brand in a fire” is thinner than you might think.

Xbox this week shuttered two popular studios for reasons beyond public comprehension. There are probably reasons, but their marketing policy makes giving a simple answer impossible, and therefore speculation overruns sensible discussion. It’s the latest own goal following the woefully handled announcement that some Xbox games would be coming to other platforms.  That’s after two rounds of layoffs. Oh, and the biggest tech purchase of all time in Activision. Sorry, biggest tech purchase of all time so far. Meanwhile, they’ve yet to have a popularly received major game this generation.

And while that’s the worst of the bunch by a mile, other companies are in no position to gloat. Sony have suffered with a generation of remakes and remasters, coolly received sequels and odd decisions. They’re currently in the midst of their own controversy in which they are choosing not to sell PC games to people who live in places where PSN isn’t available in an effort to bolster their MAUs – nearly 120 countries. That’s after studio closures and lay-offs of their own.

Look to any corner of the industry and you’ll see delays, expense, stresses, cracks and misery. Except for Nintendo, who have all this to look forward to alongside the more powerful Switch 2.

Some of this isn’t the fault of execs. Game development is hard and getting harder. But some of it is baffling.

Just What Is Going On?

Listen, the games industry isn’t unique. The entire creative industry has decided creativity is expensive, and that industry can’t support it. If you own a billion dollar IP you’ll probably be safe – PROBABLY – but good luck convincing people to buy books, games, movies or music if they’re not invested in the purchase long before they even see the announcement.

Executives needed to convince people to experience things outside of their comfort zone and then try to convert that into further sales. Game Pass and subscription services in general were a step in the right direction for this, but then the metrics being measured swapped from people consuming quality content and making further purchases to monthly active users and time, and nobody has yet figured out how to monetize the latter. But damn it, please watch The Office one more time for free. Maybe it’ll work this time.

Speak to a gamer and the answer to all this is obvious. Create good games. Actually, that’s bullshit too, because people don’t buy good games. They buy popular games, or they buy well marketed games. Hundreds of good games die a death each year without getting an obituary in the major gaming press.

See the problem? The old way isn’t working. The new way is ill-defined and messy and risky. Nobody really wants to make any big choices, so everybody is kind of standing still and hoping to survive long enough that something happens. And honestly? The big tech companies probably hope they’ll come into work one day, the AI will have become sentient and suddenly game development will make sense again. I’m only half joking.

Stepping on Rakes

While we’re waiting for our new robot overlords to arrive, it seems the grand strategy of executives everywhere is to try and sneak out terrible decisions without being smacked down by the internet.

That’s not a strategy, and yet it very much is the standard of play right now. Marketing teams the world over are trying to polish what we’ll politely call “bitter pills”, while everybody involved hopes insiders don’t spill their guts before the announcement is ready.

You’d have thought an executive’s job would be to do just enough good things that you get away with not being perfect. This was always something Sony was very good at. They did enough really well and enough decently well that the stuff they sucked at ended up feeling like niche complaints. Annoyed you can’t use a Dualshock instead of a Dualsense? Pfft. The PlayStation Network isn’t as good as Xbox Live? Ha, Metal Gear Solid 4 would ship on 10 DVDs on Xbox. Annoyed you have zero control over your saves without paying for Plus? Play God of War and shut up.

Across the board, it seems the job of executives this generation has been to make cuts. To remove variety, quality and, hell, even people. It has been to increase spending from the consumer. No longer are you trying to be good enough to make this stuff palatable.


This all boils down to a single question: how hard is it for executives to stop fucking up? I’m being genuine.

How hard is it to take a breath and ask “will shutting this popular studio be worth the damage it will do to our brand? And if it is worth it, how do we deliver the news so that people understand why we did it?”

How hard is it to ask whether monthly active users on the PlayStation Network is worth blocking 118 countries from buying Ghost of Tsushima on Steam?

I understand difficult decisions need to be made and that these guys get a huge amount of money to make those difficult decisions. Not necessarily because they’re the right person to make them, mind, but because they have the personality type, connections and opportunity to be in the position to do so. I also understand that we’re living in interesting times. There is no “just”. You can’t just start making games like you’re developing for the PS2 again. You can’t just reduce budgets or decide that every game will sell 20m copies from now on.

But if a week goes by without some major controversy, it’s an unusual week. Make your difficult decisions, sure, but ask whether they’re also good decisions. Because so far it seems so much of this controversy has led to nothing but mediocrity and a sour taste all round. We need to get back to basics.

Are the games good? Is the marketing giving them the best shot at reaching an audience? Are they available where people want to buy them? Are they ultimately profitable?

If the answer to all that is yes, then you’re doing everything right. Obsession over KPIs and USPs and UFOs and concerns over limited growth can come once you’ve mastered the basics. It’s a bitter pill your marketing departments can’t polish, but it doesn’t work any other way round.


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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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Twitter: @matgrowcott