When you look at the budgets—and subsequent profits—that game publishers are now dealing with in the current market, one thing starts to become very clear; the traditional model is no longer sustainable. Every time I look at another big hit, and on a more regular basis, another failure, it points towards an industry that is on the apex of a major change in how games are made and sold. One of the biggest culprits in this is the increasing amount of production value put into games. And it’s the one area where most publishers and developers can exercise a lot of control.
The market that hardcore gamers and hardcore game makers live in is one that is dominated almost entirely by the mega-hit. The Modern Warfare, the Mass Effect, the Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. These are the kinds of titles that make the waves in the market, the kind of performance that the publishers are trying to replicate in a controllable, reliable way. As long as the “standard model” for a successful game is a mega-hit, games will be required to have stupendously high budgets, and that massive production budget will require a similarly high number of sales just to turn a profit. We’re already seeing this at work to an alarming degree in the console area, with a “big three” for publishers in the same way that there’s a “big three” for console manufacturers. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are largely serviced by Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. There are still smaller publishers that aren’t operating at the apex of this pyramid—notably Japanese labels like Capcom and Square-Enix—but the “role model” for what a successful game is has largely been established by the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare template, and everyone else—including the Japanese—are trying to emulate this with varying degrees of success. The result of this is studios trying to pitch their ideas in ways that are either first or third person shooters similar to Modern Warfare or Gears of War if they want access to big publisher money. It results in publishers looking at the numbers required to invest in a game, and deciding to forgo a project if mega-hit status isn’t assured, such as United Front’s abandonment by Activision when it was decided True Crime: Hong Kong wasn’t going to make as much money as Grand Theft Auto. It has meant, unfortunately, that studios that play the roulette wheel of promising a mega-hit and then failing to deliver in sufficient numbers get shut down, as seen with the Kaos Studios closure in the wake of the unbalanced but interesting Homefront American invasion FPS.
If the industry is going to survive, it needs to start changing its approach. There will always be a demand for the $60 mega-hit with high production values, but the entire spectrum of games doesn’t have to start and end there. The film industry discovered the “summer tent-pole release” in the late 70s thanks to movies like Jaws and Star Wars but previous to that, a whole range of films were made and not all of them required high production budgets and massive audience attendance. After the “summer blockbuster” became a staple of the industry, the same remained true; not all films were made to be blockbusters. The gaming industry needs to learn this lesson as well. The indie scene has already been showing the viability non-AAA titles with games like Sword & Sworcery or Journey being produced on relatively modest budgets, to great critical acclaim and respectable profitability despite not selling in the tens of millions. The lower production value of these titles is what allowed them to make money when the sales numbers on such games would mean closure for a bigger studio. More games, more developers and more publishers turned in a profit before games were “required” to have fully voiced, motion-capture cut scenes while a small army of programmers worked to get the net-code right on a multi-player component that wasn’t even actually required or desired.
All of these things are thought of as “mandatory” for a modern, retail game, but none of them are actually required for the game to be good. With smaller production budgets, lower pricing, and more experimentation in actual mechanics, maybe we can once again see a return to the explosive game design advances of the 90s. Back then, the only thing you needed to make a profitable game was a good idea with solid, common sense implementation.