A Brave New Philosophy of Mediocrity

About three years ago all the big publishers save one seemed to be talking about a renewed dedication to quality and new properties. And, what do we have to show for it as the odometer on this first decade of the new millennium rolls zeroes? Well, as it turns out we have three pretty damn good years of video gaming, capped off by a far better than expected 2009 that shined with a little bit of everything.

For all the things that gamers can get all up in a fuss about, quality hasn’t really been one of them. It would seem that the efforts most of the largest publishers put into creating quality games and new properties, led by highly publicized EA initiatives, should be the model for the future.

Shame that the big boys have all but abandoned this brave new philosophy.

Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality rightly points out that UbiSoft’s recent announcement of a shift to shoring up a “focus on competitive AAA core titles” is suspiciously similar to Take Two’s new approach which is basically just EA’s new approach which itself is just Activision’s approach to game publishing for those three years in which everyone else seemed actually interested in making good games. Like a tentacled nightmare that has risen from the deep of my subconscious to drag me into the ichor of its labyrinthine depths, my long feared universal adoption of the “Kotick Doctrine” seems headed for a nice, tidy global takeover.

It’s hard to argue with Activision’s success. While everyone else has been struggling to build a market that develops new talent and new ideas, Activision has been literally oozing Call of Duty and Guitar Hero games as though from an infected wound that won’t stop seeping no matter how much Azithromycin they take. The result was a virtually recession-proof corporation that lurched into prominence on the back of what seems like quick, relatively cheap rehashes built on marketing muscle and focus-group-think. This is, as it turns out, very bad news.

I have been pointing at the sky and insisting it's falling for a while now, and I have been doing this because bits of it keep hitting me in the head. News that Modern Warfare 2 has crossed the billion dollar threshold, a nearly Avatarian feat, is to me like a great chunk of blue the size of a city block thundering into the wooded groves of my soon-to-be lost Eden.

It would be irresponsible to stand here and say that Activision’s aggressive business model, and more specifically the mass market adoption, has duped other publishers into conforming to what I suspect may be an unsustainable approach while condemning consumers to a coming storm of mediocrity and creative bankruptcy, so I will simply imply it and look innocently about as though I have no idea what we’re even talking about. It might help to imagine that I am whistling a jaunty tune and looking pointedly up at nothing in particular.

I hate to think that the culture that produced the stellar games of 2007, 2009 and to a slightly lesser extent 2008 may be in jeopardy, but a renewed emphasis from all the major publishers on the “safe bet” is not a good move for a business that trades in interactive stroytelling. It’s not that I don’t like a game like Modern Warfare 2 — though in a lot of ways I don’t — it’s just that I don’t want to use it as the recipe for success. I don’t want guys in big conference rooms pointing at the Call of Duty franchise and saying, “how do we throw everything else out the window and just do that?”

But, if the trend that appears to be true holds, then we have the biggest leaders in gaming abandoning their business models and being lured into the inevitable tempest of Activision’s plan. Beyond even the jealously selfish worries about cookie-cutter games, I fear that this is a doomed strategy. To see why, simply ask yourself, what the hell is Activision going to do when the market for Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk inevitably dries up?

The historically proven problem with relying on a limited stable of go-to franchises at the expense of building your roster is that when those key elements stop performing you end up like the St. Louis Rams — sure it’s all super bowl rings and big offense when Kurt Warner, Marhsall Faulk and Big Game Torry Holt are in their prime, but when the party ends all of the sudden you’re making the Detroit Lions look like Pro Bowlers. I present this comparison with apologies to my NFL-disabled readers. I think probably I’m saying something about eggs and the value of diversified basket ownership.

The only option when the well runs dry is for them to bring someone else in from the cold and absorb them into the sickly hive-mind to spend their remaining days churning out regurgitated versions of their once mighty hit. It’s not like we’ve never seen this before — Kotick is ultimately just Larry Probst (former EA El Jefe) 2.0, the man who devoured and laid waste to companies like Origin and Bullfrog.

This problem is only exacerbated if all the major publishers are adopting the same strategy. Sure, the talent pool will be there, but without the resources of large investors like EA or Take Two willing to take chances on helping develop the talent and creative properties, the mediocrity from a “safe bet” driven industry will trickle down. Instead of working tirelessly to put together a creative new game, developers with even moderate resources will be looking to prove they deserve to be swallowed whole into the safe belly of bigger fish, because that's where all the money is going now. These developers will be forced more than before into playing it safe as the virgin culture of independence that has held sway of late is lain on the alter and sacrificed to the old gods. I fear that independent game development will be a race to prove that you can build a platform to be whored out year after year.

Thus the pendulum inevitably swings, I suppose. I just didn’t expect it to come round again so quickly on the heels of what seemed like a nice little gaming renaissance. I suppose the upside is the increasing rise of smaller, independent developers and publishers who may be able to create a gaming underground.

I hope I am wrong; that my dire predictions are the uninformed grumblings of the terminally pessimistic. I suppose that “for the masses” this might even be a good thing, because Lord knows that it’s going to take at least 5 Assassin’s Creeds before we can really lay that puppy to rest, and wouldn’t it be great to have them all by 2014? Part of this is maybe about elitism, but I prefer an industry with the agility to take bigger budget chances and stay diversified. I like an industry where each major player has a different strategy and embraces real competition. More than just being good for gamers, I think this fosters long term sustainability, and these sloppy, irresponsible mid-course 180 strikes me as reactionary mismanagement. If I can give Activision credit for anything, aside from the potential genocide of creative culture, it is at least to creating its own path through the tangled jungle.

Comments

The irony will be that in half a year to a year Activision will announce a renewed push towards more creative games on the back of its ailing music franchises effectively showing that it really is the market leader and the other companies are all just mindless sheep.

I should put that in my predictions for 2010....

Oh man... "Avatarian" is an adjective already?

Duoae wrote:
The irony will be that in half a year to a year Activision will announce a renewed push towards more creative games on the back of its ailing music franchises effectively showing that it really is the market leader and the other companies are all just mindless sheep.

I should put that in my predictions for 2010....

Ew. The thought of that just gave me a cold sweat. I think my hands are shaking.

Well written article Certis.

I agree! I am quite good, aren't I?

Got the wrong Sean(Shawn?) Rob

You are of course right Elysium, and I'd say that the tony hawk and guitar hero well is already tapped to capacity. Also just wanted to point out the italicized typo, because it burns my eyes like a hot iron "Modren Warfare 2".

Ah bugger, sorry Elysium. I'll just go commit seppoku now.

Well written article Elysium. While I agree with you that "The Industry" is heading for tough times with it's current strategy of re-hashing the same games into infinity, I can't help but disagree with you that it going to be a creative wasteland. Sure there won't be as many creative and unique AAA titles, but it's never been easier for independent game makers to get their games made and distributed to the public. They may not be huge budget blockbuster games, but the independent games have always been the one driving innovation. And with as many ways to distribute games online (Steam, Impulse, D2D, etc.) apart from big publishers like EA and Activision, I think we're still going to see plenty of interesting games coming out of small teams to sate our jones for creative games. Big business may be sowing the seeds of their own demise, but we've been there before. They'll fall on their face and realize they need creative talent to drive the machine back on course, then they'll fall back into the same routine of re-hashing the same schlock. It's a cycle, I'm sure it'll come back round.

(Edited to give credit where credit is due)

Rob_Anybody wrote:
Well written article Certis.

Wait for it...

Great article Elysium. It read like it was a lot of fun to write.

edit: damn, tanhausered.

I suppose the upside is the increasing rise of smaller, independent developers and publishers who may be able to create a gaming underground.

I feel as though the games industry has been shadowing the music industry at a 4-5 year lag, which would indicate that this sentence is exactly the case, as the music industry is well into this part of the cycle — the four majors are within a hair's breadth of collapsing under their own bloated carapaces, having recycled the same acts over and over again for far too long, and all the action is coming from the regional indie front. We'll probably miss the big high-production blockbusters for a little while, but as long as there are enough Torchlights and Pixeljunk Shooters to see us through we'll be okay. I can't tell you how it ends yet, though, as music has yet to pen the final pages of that story.

Modren Warfare 2

Sixth paragraph.

Typo fixed. Thanks.

So how does this make you feel about MMO's? Usually there is one big successful MMO that survives for quite a long time. It treads out expansions adding minimal features and some extra in-game content (more levels, abilities, zones). Meanwhile, every competitor either garnishes a niche market - barely keeping it alive due to its defining features - or stumbles into an early grave. The budgets on developing an MMO are always large and risky, yet they almost always lose to the biggest franchise going. Do you think that the business course you desire is still viable or are MMO's too unique of a genre to make you reconsider the broad dream of an "industry with the agility to take bigger budget chances and stay diversified"?

Rob_Anybody wrote:
Ah bugger, sorry Elysium. I'll just go commit seppoku now.

Seppuku.

You are denied the honor of an dignified death and must forever live with your two-fold shame.

Count Elmdor wrote:
Rob_Anybody wrote:
Ah bugger, sorry Elysium. I'll just go commit seppoku now.

Seppuku.

You are denied the honor of an dignified death and must forever live with your two-fold shame.

How about everyone hangs themselves on their office doorknobs and we'll call it even?

It's a good article, but I don't think I've got much to add.

Sales have shown that more familiar, less innovative titles will consistently sell, so when you've got developers making big games with big budgets, that need big companies to finance them motivated by big profits, they're not going to take a big risk on a big loss.

It seems that the AAA area of the market often isn't the place to look for interesting things to play, because there's no motivation for the industry to do it. Developments like this always seems to start small and then get acquired or copied.

Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist but there seems to be enough new stuff that did well enough to keep us going for a while yet. Bioware seemed to do pretty well with Dragon Age, Borderlands suprised a lot of people with how well it did. Apparently Darksider's has greatly benefitted from it's early January release date. Don't know how Bayonetta sold but it's pretty much universally loved.

Activision did well with Call of Duty but they don't seem to have a whole lot else going for them that I can recall, outside of the - waning - plastic instrument market (well, ok, they do have Blizzard in their back pocket so I suppose they can leech off of them).

And there'll always be the little guys to move in and fill any gaps that appear, until the next wave hits.

Lex Cayman wrote:
Count Elmdor wrote:
Rob_Anybody wrote:
Ah bugger, sorry Elysium. I'll just go commit seppoku now.

Seppuku.

You are denied the honour of an dignified death and must forever live with your two-fold shame.

:)

just add a quick snobby brit-fix as well while we're at it

I honestly do hope that some big publishers have some forward thinkers amongst them, because this scenario:

Elysium wrote:

To see why, simply ask yourself, what the hell is Activision going to do when the market for Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk inevitably dries up?

is going to happen sooner than what many people are realizing. Guitar Hero's zenith has come and gone, and the Tony Hawk series is a shadow of its former self with the new gimmicky/finicky controller. You can already hear the collective "meh's" on the internet with the announcement of this calendar year's Call of Duty:Vietnam. Activision may have just generated a billion in sales with Modern Warfare 2, but they have nothing in their future release portfolio that looks to generate even a quarter of that revenue.

I'm rooting for EA, Ubisoft, and THQ. I hope that EA turns a nice tidy profit on the sequels to Army of Two, Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, and Battlefield: Bad Company. That's 4 separate new franchises launched in 2008, that can hopefully generate a stream of revenue for EA over 2010. With (expected) lower development cost on each sequel, EA may surprise a large number of people with higher than expected profits on each.

That's what I hope anyways. I would like to see EA's long term vision of establishing new franchises to be rewarded, while Activition's a dead-horse-will-still-twitch-if-you-beat-it-enough style of releasing material is shown to be the flash in the pan that it is.

Nice! I agree with everything except for this one little bit about indie studios:

Instead of working tirelessly to put together a creative new game, developers with even moderate resources will be looking to prove they deserve to be swallowed whole into the safe belly of bigger fish, because that's where all the money is going now.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't that been where the money has been going for quite some time now? If these small/indie developers were only interested in going where the money is, I feel like they would have been taking this course of action quite some time ago.

My sense is that these small companies will continue to push out creative content and break even by keeping development costs down - and with bigger companies continuing to "play it safe", they will get even more attention and have more success than in the past.

stevenmack wrote:

just add a quick snobby Brit-fix as well while we're at it

Come on now, let's give ourselves the dignity that we deserve.

Back somewhere near the topic, I really enjoyed this article, partly because it makes me want to argue!

While it may not be the most popular game on the Conference Call (and I would make the point that it is far from my favourite game) MW2 seems to come in for an unnecessary amount of stick because of the Activision hate. I really do think that Infinity Ward put a hell of a lot of effort into creating a sequel that surpassed the original. It has been said several times on the Call that there is absolutely nothing wrong with refinement, after all.

Similarly, Guitar Hero 5 initially seemed to me to be the flogging of a horse so dead that it had already been made into a French meal and then defecated out, the refinements involved make it the best of the bunch. I won'teven try to make that argument for Band Hero. DJ Hero occupies a strange space for me; I have no interest whatsoever due to the nature of the music, but a friend whose opinion I really trust loves dance and hip-hop, and loves the game.

A lot of what Activision may have done in the last couple of years might be distasteful from a creative front, but the "rehabilitation" of EA, which occupied the hate-orade space for so long, is really based on a couple of games, and they have continued to churn out the old franchises in the background. It surprises me that the idea of Activision changing their business model to a more creative model causes anyone to break out into a cold sweat; as long as someone is doing it, great, but if it is someone with a lot of cash behind them, all the better.

Ultimately, Activision will continue to milk a franchise only for as long as we buy it. If they need new properties to make more money, then that is what we will see.

Spider, I cop totally to an unrepentant dislike for Activision, but even when I put my bias-neutral hat on I can't get anywhere near the statement the MW2 was 1) better than the last game or 2) was a refinement.

I once cursed EA, but when they changed their model to better jive with what I thought a healthy company should do, I changed my tune. If Activision does likewise then I will do the same. I'm not holding my breath or anything.

Elysium wrote:
Spider, I cop totally to an unrepentant dislike for Activision, but even when I put my bias-neutral hat on I can't get anywhere near the statement the MW2 was 1) better than the last game or 2) was a refinement.

From playing though both in fairly short order, the only thing about MW2 that was less developed than the first game was the way in which it told it's story; I didn't play either for story anyway, but I will concede that MW2 was fairly atrocious in that regard.

I'm not saying that 2 was a "deeper" experience, but it looked better, played more tightly, and increased the volume on the more successful aspects of the first one's gameplay. For a game of this nature, that's about all the refinement that one can expect, surely? The multiplayer is not something that I have much experience of, but I am informed that it has been similarly improved.

The thread is not "Which is the better game?" I know, but I don't have any real bias towards either game, and preferred the second because it seems to do the same job more comprehensively.

Another COD related point that might be a bit more closely related to the topic; the Modern Warfare branch of the series is only 2 games old. Why is it OK to be excited for Dead Space 2, but Modern Warfare 2 is almost felt to be moneygrubbing bloatware?

Jesus, my urge to argue is turning me into an apologist for a company I don't really like, and I'm using a game I'll probably never play again to do it. You would think that 7 hours in court would be enough arguing for one day.

stevenmack wrote:

And there'll always be the little guys to move in and fill any gaps that appear, until the next wave hits.

This in spades. For all that the big publisher's business models are flawed, us lot aren't going anywhere. We're still clamouring for games, waving our $20 bills over the videogaming bar to attract the attention of the developer barman.

I've played and loved AAA titles over the last few years. But I've also played and loved smaller, cheaper games too. Were there less 'big' titles, I'm sure I'd have bought other games to replace them.

spider_j wrote:

Another COD related point that might be a bit more closely related to the topic; the Modern Warfare branch of the series is only 2 games old. Why is it OK to be excited for Dead Space 2, but Modern Warfare 2 is almost felt to be moneygrubbing bloatware?

Jesus, my urge to argue is turning me into an apologist for a company I don't really like, and I'm using a game I'll probably never play again to do it. You would think that 7 hours in court would be enough arguing for one day.

I don't get this argument. CoD is pretty unchanged (e.g. an intensely designed set-piece-o-rama set in large scale warzones, switching between the points of view of disparate characters who play bit roles in the grand scheme of things) despite a change in temporal setting since it's inception several iterations ago. It's not like MW2 is the second game.... no, in fact it is the nth game. Maybe when we get to Dead Space: Luxian Chronicles 2 can we start to compare them on that level.

So far we've had Dead Space (a survival horror in space game), Dead Space Extraction (an on-rails lightgun shooter) and Dead Space 2 (well, soonish, another survival horror game in space that follows on the storyline of the first). They don't exactly fall into a genre that's overly saturated with titles.

[edit]
I forgot to mention the streaming spawns of baddies until you advance gameplay as well.... Anyway, my point was apart from graphical and storytelling refinement the singleplayer portions of the game haven't really done much new over seven years. I'm not saying they're bad games - i enjoy the Call of Duty series - and i think many people are/were excited for MW2 but the point of the article, from my point of view, is that it's a safe, uninspired bet.

I love these little spitfire articles. Yeah, I think for the next few years we're going to have to look for our novelty from the smaller studios who we don't even know exist yet. I'd love to see some smaller indie groups make a stab at taking back our PC heritage by going on a mech-game/space-shooter/flight-sim bender, but I'll settle for the next Mount and Blade.

I don't think in all of this you can ignore the impact of the economy a a whole. The credit crunch + Great Recession will have long-term consequences that, because of the lengths of the development cycle, will only be felt later. We'll only be missing the great, imaginative ideas that are being killed off today in several years.

On the flip side, the opportunity for a second- or third-tier developer to make the leap into the top rung is wide open due to the inevitable vacuum up ahead. If anyone has any brilliant ideas that can be developed with minimal capital infusion. (As Dysplastic just beat me to saying!)

The Rams actually beat the Lions this year. It was their only win. The Lions finished 2-14, but one of those wins was against the Redskins so I think that still makes the Rams better.

Comparing Avatar and MW2 is brilliant. Both are tremendously overrated.

This article seems like a case of Misanthropy for Misanthropy's sake. Somehow I picture Elysium locked in a room somewhere listening to the CURE, complaining about how all life is pain.

I look around the video game industry as an outsider and I don't see how it has changed all that much since when I started gaming. Sequels dominated then as they dominate now. The only change seems to me that companies are more forward about the process of building an IP into a brand. And they are more conscious of the brand potential of new games.

Look at the most egregious example of "sequelization" this year, Bioshock 2. Yeah, in a perfect world it probably should not exist. But it does and I can guarantee you that if Bioshock had come out in the 90s a publisher back then would've pushed for and gotten a BioShock 2.

And in a perfect world where no one does a sequel unless Elysium says its OK what do you think a developer like Infinity Ward is going to make? "Oh, guess what we can't make Modern Warfare 2 I guess we better go make that JRPG about daisies." No. Infinity Ward is going to make another military shooter called something else that doesn't appeal to you because its not World of Warcraft.

Articles like this represent more of an effort by groups of Old Nerds to reclaim a hobby that's largely become mainstream in the last ten years. "Games where better in my day! Not as many sequels! You stupid jocks playing Modern Warfare 2! BUY SOMETHING ORIGINAL! Stop making games for the Masses! THEY SURROUND US! And I'm starting the 01/14 project to take gaming back!"

Fine. All games sucks unless its a game you like. You go build your Fortress of Moral Gaming Rectitude out of Magic the Gathering cards. Meanwhile the world will march on, gaming will continue to get more sequels, and most people will largely buy them, enjoy them, and ignore the nerds in the Magic Card fortresses.

Please don't bring Magic cards into this. Otherwise we cool.

When can we stop using Torchlight as an example of some great bastion of indie creativity? I love the game, but it's hardly original on the scale that Mirror's Edge was. Even Dead Space wasn't exactly the most original idea going. It's basically Resident Evil 4, in space, with a story an American could actually follow.