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Art and product management

 

Lately, I've noticed the increasing number of product management job ads in gaming companies. On one side, it's great to see product management continues to develop as a discipline and a growing number of companies embracing the role. On the other side, it's a bit worrying that certain industries that previously were considered artistic now hire product managers.

A good computer game is an art. As part of the entertainment industry games evolved from early, simplistic time killers ("Space Invaders", "Mario") to the true movie rivals with complicated narratives and personal expression ("Detroit: become human", "Death stranding"). The games industry really matured in the past years and became an important way of artistic expression. 

However, the situation is changing now. While there are numerous artistic games still being made, some other games are being created to be products. And because of the latter, plus the revenue potential, the game industry is currently hiring PMs. What would they do? Probably what PMs always do: drive product success. In the case of games-as-products, success means money.

That's probably why the most successful (financially) games of late are services designed to get either high time/effort or money investments from their players.
But how about art? Are games no longer art?

Product management and art have complicated relationships. Some would say one excludes another. True art cannot be mass market, right? While a product is by definition should appeal to a large group of people.

Besides, in product management most, if not all, is about functionality. Everything should be usable, valuable and feasible. There is a "why" behind everything we create and the answer cannot be "just because we feel like it".

Art on the other hand seems an antithesis of functionality. The value of art is subjective, art often hardly usable and most often not feasible until created. There is a lot of personality in good art.
However, not all art is the same, right? There is another kind of art that is much closer to being a product. Pop art. 

A new song in the top ten charts, a new superhero movie, paperback fanfic with a colourful title, a fourteens' edition of the military game with bright and loud expositions. Let philosophers decide if that is art or not. But it certainly smells like a product, is it not?
  • It solves a problem.
  • It is pervasive - appealing to a lot of people.
  • People are willing to pay for it.

Sure sounds like a product. Hence no wonder the product managers are there already, helping the creators to reach product success.

Why the gaming industry wants to make products, not art

One obvious reason is to reduce risks. Modern games require huge resources to be created while there are not that many ways to validate and ensure the returns. You just can't iterate easily on a game. Yes, there always used to be demos and now there is "early access". However, it's still way too expensive to get to these stages, way too much already invested. 

Another problem with creating games as products is that customer research is not that useful. Usually, PMs ask customers about their problems. 
- I am bored, - most likely will be the answer of our potential players when we ask them why they play games. 
That's not very useful for PMs. So they tend to look at competition as the main source of market research. They see what resonate with players in other games, in movies or in books. That's the reason most big games these days are very similar. PMs are combining all working mechanics on the market to create entertainment products with low risks of flopping. 

But how about art in games?

It still exists in the indie category of games where tiny teams or sole artists self-express. Those folks don't need PMs, they are taking huge individual risks to create something of a true artistic value. Most of these efforts sadly but inevitably will be in vain. Like with other types of art - huge luck is required to stand out and be recognised. True art creates more problems than it solves. It appeals to a few people and often to almost none. Very rarely do people want to pay for art, especially art that is not rated by other people. 

Have product managers ruined the games industry? 

Well, no. Games just follow the trend of other forms of art and split into games-as-products and games-as-art. One is for the mass market and PMs there could help reduce risks and increase profitability. While the other stays PM-free, where individuals craft experiences they want, just as any other artists would. 

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