State of the Videogame Industry, June 2014

A while ago, I was on a podcast talking about E3. I talked about all the big publishers announcing their games. Lately, I have realized that the videogame industry is decadent. As a note, it seems that many people don't know what that word means. Decadent means decaying.

First, the big publishers, or the "AAA" ones (whatever that's supposed to mean). So once every so often, they will create a completely new game with new gameplay, new characters, new world. It's released and ends up selling pretty well. Work on a sequel starts, with plans of making everything bigger, better, more in-depth, varied gameplay, and so on. This uses resources (money mostly), so the game is changed to appeal to a wider audience, so it will sell better to make up the difference. This sequel gets released, and ends up selling even more, so they begin to work on the next one. They want the third to be the biggest game ever, so they focus even more resources into it to make it so. Of course, they have to cut even more things and add things from other popular games to make it appeal more, but do too much, making the game loose the charm that it's predecessors did. It's released and no one buys it, no one knows who this game is for, and management is scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. They decide to focus some resources to a few new titles, hoping to make up the loss, and the cycle begins again. Maybe in five years, the series will be "rebooted for a new generation".

The problem with this model is that too many eggs are in the basket, and too many chefs are in the kitchen. In the rush to make everything bigger and better (a completely natural thing to do), risks escalate. To mitigate it, some elements are compromised, and the result becomes less appealing to everyone. Too many chefs making the game end up making it bland, and the game sales drop fast, breaking the eggs. In the end, we've had more and more grizzled white dudes and buff space marines running around in a sea of brown, competing for a smaller piece of a slow growing pie.

On the other end of the industry, there are the "indies". Sometimes these are guys who just got out of college, and want to make something. Sometimes these are game devs for the "AAA" leagues that were disenfranchised with watering down other franchises to make them bigger. The thing is: everyone is making indie games, and now there is glut of them. The problem is that the market hasn't grown to compensate. Sometimes they get Kickstarted, and that's great. Other times they set out to remake something that doesn't need to be remade, and go back to wherever they came from.

Everyone else has realised that unless you're Blizzard, ArenaNet, or Sony, MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) aren't going to work for you. I think the same thing is about to happen with MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas). Just this past month or so, Bethesda, Crytek, and EA are working on their own. I look forward to seeing how much of the DOTA 2/LoL pie they can steal.

So what do they do? They resurrect 10 to 20 year old business models and genres. In what is sometimes an accident, doing something that you've done well and doing it again well is a good thing. I love big, but smaller games. For example, I like the first Mass Effect better than the others. I think that's because between the first two, Bioware (who made it) got bought by EA, who gave them money to make it bigger, etc. Jim Sterling points out, time after time, that small horror games are great. About ten years ago, AAA publishers decided that certain genres of games don't sell well with no proof for it. That fact alone has fueled the current indie game market to a fantastic degree.

It's sad that THQ went under, because that's the type and size of a game company that I like. Zenimax has committed to releasing only one or two games per year. I think that's good: a mid size company making a handful of games at a time, and not releasing them all at once. Granted, the industry has problems. Even if there is a big industry crash coming, it will survive. The industry is vast, and it's too much a part of popular culture for it to just disappear.

Posted under Gaming.

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