Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

Content Bloat


Yet Another Failure of Capitalism

The Guardian of all the books I’ve collected


Apparently, it’s not enough for some people that unregulated, late-stage capitalism causes an increasing wealth gap that then leads to poverty, lack of access to basic resources and ultimately early, preventable death for the majority of our population. “Not my problem,” they say, “it doesn’t affect me.” Ah, but it does affect them. In fact it hits them in the one thing they might actually care about, their entertainment. That’s right: comics, movies, TV shows, and games are all being dragged down by the weight of capitalistic greed. All those things that make slaving away eight to ten hours a day, every day for a group of people that don’t know you and think of you like a disposable resource? We’re getting the worst possible version of those things. 

First of all we have to come to an understanding. Most corporations have no interest in making products, providing services, or ‘innovating.’ They are interested in money; that’s literally their only job. They engage in the other things because that’s how you make money. “That’s not true!” the nay sayers will yell, “there’s mission statements and CEOs and stock options and stuff! You can’t prove that corporations only care about money.” Sure I can, watch me:

A corporation acts, for lack of a better term, like a hive mind. Its culture and values are ultimately a conglomeration of the culture and values of the individuals that comprise it. But, it’s not an even spread, like most sci-fi/fantasy hive minds, there’s a greater weight of importance factored into the values of those higher up in the command chain, the higher you go more weight is added to your values and opinions. Ultimately however, even the highest levels of the hive are beholden to the owners of the corporation. Who are the owners? The shareholders of course. That’s literally what stock is, a small portion of ownership of a company. And if you’re a publicly traded company then your owners don’t give a shit about anything you do other than to make them money. In all my interactions with the wealthy I’ve met exactly one person that invested in a company because “they believed in the company” and they’re the one that wrote this article. And that’s just one company. Every other company I own stock in I did it because I wanted them to make me money. So yeah, if a corporation’s ownership is based on a bunch of people who only care about how much money it came make them, that ideal and culture is going to propagate all the way down the corporate ladder (the real trickle down theory is how someone’s greed trickles down to ruin YOUR life).

Right. So if a corporation’s main interest is not providing goods and services, but making money then it’s naturally going to do everything it can to lower its operating costs and increase its profit margins. Now, there’s a whole discussion to be had about ethical and unethical ways of doing this (mostly discussions around the fact that, yes everyone has to operate like this on some level, but maybe, just maybe, if you’re forcing your workforce to work 80 hours a week, and then taking bets on who’s going to die of covid you’ve past point in which you are ethically lowering your operations costs and increasing your profit margins), but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about one of the more ethical, yet obnoxious effects of the primary greed paradigm corporations have: content bloat.

Content bloat is the effect wherein a specific IP (intellectual property (like the Marvel Universe, or Call of Duty games)) is overloaded with meaningless, frivolous, or often downright harmful content. Specifically I’m referring to the infinite amount of DLC, micro-transactions, expansions, sequels, prequels, and remakes entertainment corporations seem intent on producing. While this type of behavior makes money (a lot of money) it comes at the cost of innovation and actually makes existing IPs less accessible. 

Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The initial Avengers movie provided a great entry point to an IP that was pretty much inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t been reading comics since the 1970s. But then they started adding more and more movies into the universe until they came out with Avengers: Endgame the “biggest crossover attempt in history.” Great for existing fans, but now people like me are in the situation where if I want to fully understand what’s going on in say, Spider-man: Far From Home, I have to have watched Endgame, and to understand that I need to have watched the previous Avenger movies, etc etc. It’s not bad now (and easier for me because I could watch them as they came out), but eventually we’re going to hit the same problem the Marvel Comic Universe has, an exponentially increasing amount of vaguely intersecting plot lines that requires a PhD to untangle. 

The real shame is how the MCU stifled innovation in movies. Ironically, the first few movies in that IP revolutionized superhero movies. They’d managed to find a way to make them accessible to people not already heavily involved in comics, while still being entertaining to the amazingly picky old timers. Then they just stopped. They found a formula that worked and stuck with it ad nauseam. The whole industry is stagnating, and it’s sad because there’s so many more narrative plot lines and character depth that could be explored.

If you want to see real content bloat at its worst take a look at most online multiplayer games. Let’s take a look at the game League of Legends. LoL was (and still probably is) one of the most, if not the most, played game in the world. But the creators’ back themselves into a corner with a business model that depended on them constantly creating new content for the one game. It’s been about 10 years since I last played that game and the character roster has more than tripled (last I check there were 100+ playable characters). Since the game is an online, team based, competitive game you can’t get away with learning just one character really well. No, you have to learn how to all the other characters play so you can appropriately counter them. In fact, since it’s a team based game you actually need to learn all the characters, in various combinations, so you can figure out what players are going to do based on which other characters are being played on their (and your) team. It’s scary than it sounds, assuming you’ve been playing since the beginning. If not, well good luck, it’s a hell of an entry point.

Of course the popularity of LoL then went on to stifle innovation in other companies. Within a few months of the game taking off in popularity every other larger gaming company had made their own clone of the game. I say, “stifle” it’s not like large gaming companies are known for making unique and exciting products. They’re all too busy engaging in their own form of content bloat releasing DLC and paid content packs for their own games. The only time they take a chance is if another company proves that style of game is worthwhile (AKA League of Legends). The whole system is built around providing the lowest quality product that’s least offensive to the sensibilities of the most amount of people. 

And why shouldn’t it be? Remember the whole point of a company is to make money for the shareholders. If EA (Electronic Arts) or Blizzard can push hundreds of thousands of units by slapping the Star Wars or Warcraft brand onto the same tired game with updated graphics, why wouldn’t they? We’re stranded in an entertainment industry where the people who can afford to take risks don’t, and the people who do take risks are either pushed into destitution, or bought up by the larger groups and then told they are not allowed to take any more risks.

Now, I want to be clear: This is not actually a huge problem. In terms of terrible things unregulated capitalism has done this ranks just slightly above “I can’t find a comfortable gaming mouse that doesn’t also light up like a fucking police car when I’m gaming.” It’s not really a priority. I don’t go around donating money to “gamers for better games.” But, since a huge portion of our population isn’t moved by the horrible conditions of an ever increasing portion of our population, I figured I’d try giving my readers some ammunition to appeal to the inherently selfish. After all, if you’re only going to think about yourself, you might as well do it properly and demand the best quality entertainment, as opposed to the endless stream of “just good enough” movies, games, and comics. You deserve better; we all deserve better.

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

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