Warning: All of this has been said before but needs to be said again
Itís both an exciting time and a depressing time for the games industry, never before have games been so widely accepted as a legitimate adult entertainment, with franchises such as Call of Duty and Gears of War being treated as blockbusters akin to major movie releases. And yet there is a dark side to modern gaming, expensive AAA development means that a single failure can be devastating leading to massive layoffs and the increasingly common practice of shutting down underperforming Developers, in fact just as I am writing this the news of Team Bondiís closure has been announced.
So even big name Publishers are in trouble and something needs to be done to save the industry, maybe the key is to create new big name franchises right? The Call of Duty franchise made billions so Publishers made the natural assumption that people must want modern day FPSs, but then came the reboot of Medal of Honour and that sold poorly, then came Homefront and that sold poorly and eventually it seemed that no one want FPSs anymore. Now the market oversaturated with these failed FPSs who failed to create a niche, so bad is it that not even a month after it was released the new Call of Juarez game had its price slashed almost by a half by most retailers. But why is this? In my opinion itís not the genreís fault for these failures but the current games market, $60 is far too high a price point for average gamers to take a chance on unproven franchises.
Most companies fail to consider that there are people behind sales statistics. Sure these are people who enjoy Call of Duty but these are also people who have bills to pay, these are people with partners and children and when you have these responsibilities buying brand new titles every week or fortnight becomes unjustifiable so people stick to proven franchises because they know for $60 they are guaranteed to be entertained. Now this seems like an obvious point to make but itís a point Publishers continue to fail to understand.
Review scores are also a major contributing factor in the failure of these AAA titles but again the studios fail to understand why, even journalists fail to see the big picture. Often I hear journalists say that people are wrong for ignoring games that score less than 8 out of 10 and I would love to agree but they donít have worry about paying for these games, at $60 I think itís perfectly understandable for people to ignore these games. And yet many journalists blame consumers when a game fails when they should be complaining about the Publishers and the ridiculous price points. How many times do you read in comments section Ďthis looks good but now I guess Iíll wait until itís on saleí? These arenít people being snobs, these are people on budgets
But putting aside physical sales for a moment, there must be some other way to increase cash flow maybe by changing the very way we buy games? It has become increasingly common for Publishers and Developers to say that Digital Distribution is the future, they say this because they assume that by going digital not only will it cut out the middle man and get the whole $60 to themselves but cut out the apparent scourge of pre-owned games that cost them millions of theoretical dollars.
Now the obvious model they wish to emulate is Steam, and I concede that Steam has virtually saved modern PC gaming but Publishers seem to ignore the main appeal of Steam; impulse buying. Steam has built itself around these sales and itís there that games we would never consider buying before get a second chance at life, for instance Mount and Blade is one of my favourite titles of lasts year and yet I would have never considered buying it full price. In fact I believe if digital distribution is to happen on consoles these kinds of sales must happen if it is to work but somehow I donít think this will happen, you just have to look at games on demand on the Xbox 360 to see that price cuts are rare if they happen at all. Again companies need to make cuts if they want to see a major return on their investments.
But what about handhelds, the DS did amazingly well considering its slow start and Iphone developers are making millions off of games that only cost $1, so it only makes sense for Publishers to look towards the 3DS for a share of that handheld cash. Well no, Nintendo have only just realised their brand will only go so far in terms of sales. Baffling mistakes have been made in the bungled 3DS launch, never before have I seen a company act so wilfully stupid and behind the times that they fail to understand that 3DS games are dying virtually on their price point alone. We are spoilt when it comes to portable gaming, especially with the Iphone offering cheap replayable games no one wants to spend more than $10 on a handheld game. Nintendo understood that the price of the 3DS was too high so why keep the games at the far too expensive $40 is beyond me.
To prove my point letís look at two new IPs that has found success, Demonís Souls and Dead Space. It took time but these new franchises did so well because they had three things going for them; a good idea, good word of mouth and, most important of all, a low price at online retailers. It took time for them to create a niche for themselves and while it seems Atlus was counting on this to happen to Demonís Souls, EA seemed surprised this happened for Dead Space. So what was the difference? Well maybe itís that Atlus is a far smaller company than EA and so can afford to take risks accepting that investments may take time to see a return, while EA has the pressures of a multi-billion dollar company so any game with a substantial amount of money behind it or else EA must answer to the share holders, it is this impatience and money pinching that leads to layoffs and studio closures. So can EA learn from Atlus? Well maybe, itís not a simple yes or no as EA is in another league in terms of money, but what they do need to recognise is that no matter how money you put behind a game not every game will be a hit, if they have patience and act a little more conservative then new IPs can build a foundation for themselves, a foundation that a sequel can launch itself towards Dead Space 2 sales numbers .
Iím not totally ignorant to development costs, any kind of game development can get expensive through no fault of the Developer or Publisher but when I sat through Deus Ex Human Revolutionís 5 minutes or so of credits itís hard not to think that AAA game development has become rather bloated. Publishers could easily cut costs too; advertising matters but simply having an advertising campaign is not enough, my best example is the campaign for Homefront. The campaign included an overproduced advert where real actors played out a scene set in the gameís universe, there was no game footage and the only time the game itself was mentioned was right at the end so unless you saw the end of the ad an average person would assume it was an ad for a TV show or a film. That advert alone must have cost a fair amount of money to create and yet it failed to properly advertise the game, you simply canít waste money on a new IP like that and the Publisher should have known better.
Maybe Iím making my own false assumptions and Iím completely wrong about these points but when I see the increasingly common practice of closing down studios due to failures something drastic will have to happen otherwise we will see an implosion in the industry. Companies like EA and Blizzard are big enough to take these hits now but they only need to look in the direction of SquareEnix and the financial problems they are in to see that eventually the bubble can and most likely will burst unless something drastic is done.