When we think of the first and fourth quarters of the year from a gaming perspective, we think of a period when many of the year’s most successful or most acclaimed games are released. But for the past several years, it’s also been a time of course correction, where publishers shed employees and close studios – and the most recent sixmonth period has proven no exception.
From Viacom selling off Harmonix, to Activision cancelling True Crime, shuttering its Guitar Hero division and laying off 500 employees, the ‘right-sizing’ of the console and PC game industry proceeds unabated. Publishers continue to wrestle with rising costs, the increasing dominance of a handful of franchises and the shifting of occasional gamers towards social and mobile games.
Meanwhile, at February’s DICE (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) conference in Las Vegas, game design guru Mark Cerny delivered a talk titled The End of Death, the Crash of 1982 and Other Topics. It was an interesting presentation, in part because rather than take the customary tack of comparing a downturn in the present to the collapse of the console market in 1983, Cerny instead looked at the crash of the arcade market a year earlier.
What went wrong? According to Cerny, the market had become saturated with arcade machines. This forced designers to create more elaborate games and cabinets to stand out from their competitors. However, these machines were also more expensive, which in turn meant that arcade operators had to raise the cost of each play. The newer games were also more complicated, which further alienated casual players.
Cerny didn’t claim that the situation was precisely analogous to what publishers and developers are currently facing – thanks to the Wii Remote, Move, Kinect and the DS’s touchscreens, dedicated gaming systems are more accessible than they’ve been in years. But years of escalating budgets have caused him to question the sanity in creating games that cost tens of millions of dollars at a time when only 60 games have sold more than one million units. As he saw it, games have become like movies, where the once-ridiculed price tag for 1995’s Waterworld is now merely the entry price for a summer blockbuster.
From Cerny’s perspective, the only solution is for publishers and developers to take advantage of the current quiet period that comes as a result of a delayed transition to new hardware, and rein in costs. In theory, it’s sound advice. In practice, however, we don’t see the budgetary arms race disappearing anytime soon. Publishers and developers know that only a handful of franchises can become platforms for healthy sales at their initial retail prices, grow and maintain a substantial online community, and sell thousands upon thousands of units of downloadable content.
Singleplayer successes such as BioShock, Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed have had to incorporate substantial multiplayer modes into the base game and DLC, while multiplayer-only franchise Battlefield had to add a robust campaign mode to justify its price tag. The Call Of Duty games have strong coop modes, as does Red Dead Redemption. Because each of these IPs has a large audience, their backers can justify tactical overspending to make it harder for their competitors to, well, compete.
This is definitely true for established franchises such as Call Of Duty, for which Activision can rationalise increasing the number of studios that work on the brand and running TV ads in June for a game that ships in November. But it’s also true for upstarts such as The Old Republic, whose use of fully voiced characters and NPCs over text will help set it apart from its rivals. The level of quality and scope that Ubisoft is able to bring to Assassin’s Creed on an annual basis has made it one of the few non-Rockstar blockbusters in the tough-to-break-into open world game category. During the earnings call in which Activision announced the cancellation of True Crime, publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg stated, “Even our most optimistic internal projections show that continued investment wasn’t going to lead to a title at, or near, the top of the competitive open-world genre. In an industry where only the best games in each category are flourishing, to be blunt, it just wasn’t going to be good enough.”
In other words, good enough isn’t good enough anymore. Fewer titles, bigger bets – this is the modern mega-publisher’s conservative recipe for success – or at the very least, for survival. The traditional portfolio is unlikely to be the norm, when money spent on marginal concepts and riskier ideas could be doubled on surer bets. The danger is that if everyone follows this path, where will the next Wii Fit or Guitar Hero come from to blaze the trail for entirely new categories of gaming? It’s at times like these that survival and mutually assured destruction look virtually indistinguishable.
N’Gai Croal is a writer and videogame design consultant. You can follow him online at ncroal.tumblr.com, or read and follow all N'Gai's columns on his topic page.