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

Consumers aren't going to take risks with the retail price of new games at $60. There's of evidence out there that publishers have priced retail releases too high but no one wants to be the one to blink and bring the price of games in line with DVDs.

I think the point is less "Sequels are Bad", but more that "It's Scary to Think that the 'Yearly Releases That are Only Marginally Different Than the Previous Iteration' Model may be Adopted Industry Wide", and I'd wholeheartedly agree.

Man, f*ck Activision.

larrymadill wrote:

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 think that's the only paragraph I can support, the rest seems of this rant feels like a hammer falling down full force because you're sure to hit the nail, when actually you're gonna miss by an inch or two, hitting your thumb:

I have to admit that most of Elysium's articles, while wonderfully written, have this "emo" vibe about them where the gaming industry as a whole is going down the rhetorical tubes. This is just shareholders sniffing the money and setting up camp. It's doesn't make games, consoles or the market niche worse (or better), it just gets financially safe and that--sometimes-- conflicts with creativity.

Some indie developers will get swallowed because it was their initial goal; big bellies "feel safe". Other will do it for the pure love they have for the genre until they have other mouths to feed.

Isn't at least part of the reason that this retrenchment is happening that all those stellar and innovative titles that EA or whoever pushed out did not make money?

Can't really expect people to keep shoveling the cash into such ventures.

Ultimately the games that get made are the games that people buy. I could get deeper into the psychology of why people tend to buy games that are similar to those they are already comfortable with, but I think we all understand that, especially those of us who play a lot of WoW.

Great article. I understand where you're coming from. However, how can you lump all of these companies into the 9th ring of hell when capitalism is 100% based on consumer spending? We are ultimately the ones to blame for the future of the video game industry.

The whole argument is about the death of indy companies is moot. Independent companies will always be around to make the lesser-known gems even after one leg of them whores themselves out to suit and tie land. What would you do if you were making $40K/year and were offered $1 million? That's an easy question. It's like any other underground movement. Some get headhunted and others replace them. The independent scene will never die in any entertainment medium.

Big game developers are always going to go with what sells. It's been that way since the beginning to some extent. Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario ring any bells? Those two have been swimming around in the belly of overdone for a LONG time. Does anyone want to make a logical, sane argument as to exactly why those games are still being made?

If you hate COD, that's cool, but don't point the finger at the companies, point them at us. We, as consumers, are the only hope of the future. If you don't like what's out there, go play your NES...just don't you dare put in SMB3.

Rob_Anybody wrote:

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

Seppoku is pokemon ritual suicide. Can't be done by people.

I agree that Elysium's article is more pessimistic, or "emo" as some have called it, than necessary, but that's probably intentional. The more comments, the better, right?

While I do admit that the “Kotick Doctrine” might be getting adopted to some extent by one or more other large publishers, I feel that it's mostly a reaction to the decrease in overall sales due to the economy that's struggling to get out of this recession. I consider their focus on IPs that can be franchises to be similar to downsizing by a corporation. That said, I am hopeful that as the economy eventually and gradually recovers, publishers will feel safe enough to go back to supporting creative new IPs. Well, maybe not ActiBlizzard, but the others.

In the meantime, I'm confident that smaller devs and indie devs, thanks to avenues like Steam and XBLA, will continue to produce good new games.

psu_13 wrote:

Isn't at least part of the reason that this retrenchment is happening that all those stellar and innovative titles that EA or whoever pushed out did not make money?

Can't really expect people to keep shoveling the cash into such ventures.

Army of Two had a sequel made (which just released last week) plus Mirror's Edge and Dead Space both have sequels in development. They must have made some money or else they wouldn't be getting sequels.

It is good business to focus on what your core competency is during a period of recession. All these examples that Sean brings up are examples of large publishers (who have shareholders to please) focusing on what they consider to be their core competency.

There will come a time, during the recovery, when the flat growth offered by these re-hashes will no longer please the shareholders, and pressure will come to expand via acquisition or new IPs. My prediction is that we'll see several large publishers going the x-box live model a bit more seriously and scooping up indie developers.

Just give it a year or so when they're willing to take risks again.

On another note, I think that services like Steam, etc, take a lot of the pain out of publishing. You don't really need someone to market the game for you with the power of the internet. You don't need to find someone to press DVDs and create packaging, ship through distribution channels, etc. I'm actually pretty enthusiastic that Digital Download services lower the bar so much for smaller shops to get their gaming product in my hands.

Love your podcast Sean, but you're a bit too pessimistic on this issue.

I agree with bandit. Look at all the great innovative indie games that have come out in the past couple of years: Braid, Machinarium, Gratuitous Space Battles, Audiosurf, Zeno Clash, Osmos, Eufloria, etc. Where would any of these games be without digital distribution? Would they even make the podcast if we were still in the retail box-only era? Challenge: Name one pre-2006 indie game. But in 5 years, if I ask you to name an indie game from the naughts, you'll come right out with Braid or one of the other more famous ones.

bandit0013 wrote:

On another note, I think that services like Steam, etc, take a lot of the pain out of publishing. You don't really need someone to market the game for you with the power of the internet. You don't need to find someone to press DVDs and create packaging, ship through distribution channels, etc. I'm actually pretty enthusiastic that Digital Download services lower the bar so much for smaller shops to get their gaming product in my hands.

There's no way anyone could actually take this statement as accurate. Marketing your game is even more important with digital distribution. You don't just throw your game up on Steam, and watch the money start rolling in. You have to either give Steam money to give your game prominent placement, give away copies of your game to "taste-makers" like our very own illustrious podcasters, or others like them, or find another way to get people to give your game a chance. There are plenty of indie games on Steam that we've never heard of, and never will. Sure, we can browse around and stumble across it, but thats far less likely than seeing a box in a Best Buy and deciding to give the game a shot.

While I understand and agree with concerns that the games market is currently focused on producing those fairly predictable titles that will sell extremely well there just doesn't feel like the industry will loose it's edge. There seems to be so many fresh ideas from so many different potential sources that I can't feel that pessimistic about the industry.

If I ever start to think that way I then compare it to the current anime buissness model (which is fairly unspeakable while being in a slow nose-dive) and in comparison gaming seems to be a continuing source of original and entertaining experiences. Big companies with big money will capture most of the market for some time but thats the success you reap for appealing to the most amount of people.

Taking this great article into consideration i see the kotaku article on Assassins Creed co op to be the hereld o doom.

However i am going to keep a hopeful outlook on gaming life, as i will consider 2010 to be the year of the backlog of all the wonderful games that i missed out on the past three years. Thank you for starting that off, steam sale.

MeatMan wrote:

While I do admit that the “Kotick Doctrine” might be getting adopted to some extent by one or more other large publishers, I feel that it's mostly a reaction to the decrease in overall sales due to the economy that's struggling to get out of this recession. I consider their focus on IPs that can be franchises to be similar to downsizing by a corporation. That said, I am hopeful that as the economy eventually and gradually recovers, publishers will feel safe enough to go back to supporting creative new IPs. Well, maybe not ActiBlizzard, but the others.

This. Playing it safe is the mantra of the entire business community these days and is going to be for a whole as the recession is far from over and even when it is, businesses will still be risk averse for some time going forward. Nearly every publisher has had huge cuts across the board and virtually all of them are still losing buckets of money. They just don't have the resources to put into risky new IPs right now, even if they wanted to. As a gamer, I think this sucks huge (especially since most of the safe IP is stuff that I don't really care for) but I can understand it.

This is also why I think it would be insane to announce a new console this year and possibly even next year. Publishers still can't manage their spending properly and have only just started to figure out proper project management in this generation. The graphics arms race is killing them all but they can't stop ratcheting it up. To announce a new, more powerful console now that will drive budgets even higher when everyone is bleeding to death would be a stupid move on Microsoft and Sony's part because they'll just end up killing off the publishers they need quicker. Despite the control the platform holders have over their consoles, there is a symbiotic relationship with those who write the software for it and I'm sure in backroom meeting we're not privy to, they're all going "Don't you DARE think about putting a new system out now!"

Playing it safe is the mantra of the entire business community these days and is going to be for a whole as the recession is far from over and even when it is, businesses will still be risk averse for some time going forward.

That's the thing, though. While we aren't living in 1999, much of the financial crisis appears to be over, the economy here in the states at least appears to be in a slow growth mode, credit is loosening up and while unemployment is a lagging indicator even that seems to be making a slow turn around. It's not boom times yet, but the economy is in recovery consumer spending is back on the rise and I'd call it fair to say the recession is, in fact, over.

Those better informed than I are welcome to chime in here and point out the fallacy of my thought.

So, what we have is, not surprisingly, big companies acting too late. Not only are they being reactionary, but they are being reactionary at precisely the wrong time. What's worse is that by the time they can really implement their change the economy will be even better, so there's a good chance they will be coming out with the wrong product for the times.

Nearly every publisher has had huge cuts across the board and virtually all of them are still losing buckets of money. They just don't have the resources to put into risky new IPs right now, even if they wanted to.

I'm not saying any business strategy change is stupid, I'm just saying that the one they are doing is wrong.

If we wanted to get more sophisticated in the debate, we'd bring in questions of streamlining the launch of new properties, but that's not on the table. Publishers aren't actually talking about cutting costs -- not in any meaningful way -- they are talking about spending that money on focus group driven content. It feels to me like a morbidly obese individual choosing to eat a different brand of frozen pizzas and potato chips instead of going on a diet.

The stuff about launching a new console system we agree on.

Elysium wrote:

That's the thing, though. While we aren't living in 1999, much of the financial crisis appears to be over, the economy here in the states at least appears to be in a slow growth mode, credit is loosening up and while unemployment is a lagging indicator even that seems to be making a slow turn around. It's not boom times yet, but the economy is in recovery consumer spending is back on the rise and I'd call it fair to say the recession is, in fact, over.

So, what we have is, not surprisingly, big companies acting too late. Not only are they being reactionary, but they are being reactionary at precisely the wrong time. What's worse is that by the time they can really implement their change the economy will be even better, so there's a good chance they will be coming out with the wrong product for the times.

I definitely agree here. If the publishers had implemented some of these sweeping changes before multiple quarters of heavy losses, they'd be in a much better position now. I think the biggest problem is that because modern titles take so long to develop, it's very hard to make quick, nimble changes to your production pipeline. This again is a consequence of the over-reliance on the bleeding edge in this generation. There was certainly no shortage of "the gaming industry it totally recession-proof" arrogance that contributed to that as well.

I wasn't really disagreeing with your overall point so much as I was just stating that as much as we don't like it, this is a natural reaction to the downturn in the industry and the economy as a whole. The problem is, because the industry's model is currently so broken, by the time these changes are in full swing, things will be looking up again and they'll want to swing back around the other way. Ultimately, the industry's actions will only serve to hurt them further. These multi-million dollar salaried executives need to get themselves in a room and come up with a revolution and fast.

Elysium wrote:

streamlining the launch of new properties

I read an interesting interview with John Carmack a few years back where he was talking about launching products from the top down versus launching them from the bottom up. What he meant was that most gaming products are launched from the top down: a lot of time and money is spent to create an IP for the top dog platforms (in this generation, Xbox 360 and PC) and then features are cut as it's ported down to lesser platforms (the Wii, the PSP, the DS, XBLA, PSN, and the iPhone). What he was wanting to explore was the possibility of launching products from the bottom up: building a successful mobile game and then expanding that upward until it grew into a robust, AAA title.

I would love to see gaming companies taking a similar approach with regard to creating and marketing new IPs. Consider, for example, Shadow Complex. It was a slick, highly successful XBLA title. If Chair were to announce tomorrow that they were developing Shadow Complex 2 as a AAA FPS, they'd get a lot of positive press and enthusiasm from gamers who had played the original title. In this way, XBLA was a less expensive platform that was faster to develop for that helped establish a new franchise.

Similarly, if EA had released Dead Space Extraction before it released Dead Space, I think there would have been more enthusiasm for both titles as the former would have been a stand-out Wii game and the latter would have built upon that. Dead Space Extraction would have also helped to provide funds for the more expensive property to come. As it stands, Dead Space Extraction was viewed as a dumbed-down version of a game that had already struggled to make itself known among other AAA titles on the PS3, 360, and PC.

This would also allow publishers and developers to quickly build and sell products on a trial basis. Properties and products that didn't gain any sort of traction on mobile and arcade platforms could be quietly abandoned without as much money having been spent on them.

Speaking of Shadow Complex, though, I think Chair Entertainment has hit on what could end up being a very successful business strategy. They created and own the Empire IP and have slowly been building recognition for it over time across a variety of media. By diversifying into both novels and video games, they've created multiple revenue streams that can feed one another. This is distinct from traditional licensing in that each product (in this case, Orson Scott Card's novel Empire and the game Shadow Complex) aren't necessarily launched in concert with one another and one is not necessarily dependent on the other for success. This is a business model that is already successful in Japan. Nintendo has used this with Pokémon, and SquareSoft has had success on the anime front with Full Metal Alchemist.

Frankly, EA, Activision, Ubisoft's troubles can sit and spin. They haven't been bastions of innovation for a long time in my mind, and there are enough alternative publishers cranking out neat new stuff that if all those three do is crank out derivitave shooters, more god of war clones and rhythm games for the next 5 years, I may not even notice.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Similarly, if EA had released Dead Space Extraction before it released Dead Space, I think there would have been more enthusiasm for both titles as the former would have been a stand-out Wii game and the latter would have built upon that. Dead Space Extraction would have also helped to provide funds for the more expensive property to come. As it stands, Dead Space Extraction was viewed as a dumbed-down version of a game that had already struggled to make itself known among other AAA titles on the PS3, 360, and PC.

I think Carmack's bottom-up design idea is a very interesting one but I think Dead Space Extraction is a bad example of this philosophy and demonstrates another problem with the strategies many publishers are employing today. In my opinion, DSE failed because they took a property that was developed on a different platform geared more towards hardcore gamers and then tried to release another game based on that property on a totally different platform that most of that audience doesn't own. If all you own is a Wii, you probably never heard of, much less care about Dead Space and if you played and beat it on 360, PS3 or PC and are not one of the small majority that owns every console, you're not going to care about a loosely-tied installment on the Wii. DSE was actually a great game, I liked it a lot and plan to buy a copy for my collection when I can afford it. But I played it only because I happen to own all the consoles and if I didn't have a Wii, I wouldn't have cared that I missed it.

This is also another example of publishers having something shown plainly to their face as not viable and continually trying to do it anyway, namely: Mature Wii games. Every mature rated title on the Wii (save the first Resident Evil rail shooter) has been not just a flop but an epic flop yet EA, Sega, Capcom, Ubisoft and others all kept trying to push mature rated stuff to a console that's considered more than anything to be a toy for families. Even when all the evidence pointed to the Wii as a horrendous market for these types of games, you kept seeing interviews with CEOs saying that the Wii was a huge, untapped audience for them. They didn't seem to get that just because something has the biggest install base doesn't mean you've automatically got a built-in audience that's large enough to make any title successful. It's only now after a string of failures and the hard year the industry has had that these executives are finally starting to admit that betting on the Wii was a bad call.

I think this is another sign that the industry still really hasn't found its footing and that a lot of the movers and shakers who are in charge at the top of these publishers really don't understand the industry as well as their positions would seem to indicate. I certainly don't have all the answers but a lot of these guys don't either.

Parallax Abstraction wrote:

I certainly don't have all the answers but a lot of these guys don't either.

I, on the other hand, DO have the answers and if anyone at EA, Ubisoft or THQ want to know them then know that my annual salary is £80,000 i demand a Swedish omelette with my morning coffee and a Turkish masseuse at 3 in the afternoon every Wednesday.

Elysium wrote:

we aren't living in 1999

You say that, but my music collection begs to differ.

Excellent article.

I still haven't finished Dragon Age, The Saboteur, ODST, Battlefield: Bad Company Single Player (Preparing for BF:BC2), Assassin's Creed or even Psychonauts. So while this trend is sad I vote for less games. I'm behind enough.

Look to indie games for innovation.

Again, as I have recently in numerous articles, I intentionally left out the word innovation. I think that's a loaded word with surprisingly subjective meaning.

A new article by Crecente at Kotaku, which kind of goes along with the theme of this article, has a closing that you might be interested in, Elysium, if you can overlook the word "innovation."

While it looks like the industry as a whole has weathered the economic storm, that doesn't mean it was left unchanged. Diving down into the numbers shows that a bulk of the industry's revenue was generated by a handful of the biggest publishers, companies like Electronic Arts, Activision and Nintendo. Smaller studios were absorbed or shut down.

This consolidation of development power will likely have a lasting impact on video game innovation and creativity. Only time will tell whether it will be a positive one.

Kind of an amateur ending to that article. "Only time will tell"? Really? I think we can safely say that the same games over and over again won't be positive. AT least not to most people.

DSGamer wrote:

I think we can safely say that the same games over and over again won't be positive. AT least not to most people.

Well, to the kind of people that frequent sites like this one, I think that big sales of non innovative games says that a lot people do want the same old. As an outsider looking in (I haven't played it) MW2 is the best current example of this, but there are others, WoW is MMO comfort food, C&C only really gets criticism when it strays from it's tried and tested formula, the familiar bald space marine gets reused as the player character.

There was a wonderful quote that I think was earlier in this thread, not that companies don't want to make different games as they're a risk, but that gamers don't want to buy them because they're a risk (which would reinforce the big publishers behaviour to finance the 'safe' projects). Perhaps experimental games need to be cheaper in budget and selling price, stop expecting everything to be a hit from the start.

Moan moan moan moan...

One thing that has always struck me about the podcast - which is excellent I might add - is this concern about how developers are not going to make games we to play. Lets be real there have been so many consistently good games to play on all the different platforms over the last three years. As a married guy with a small child - its bloody hard to get the time to finish these great games before something else interesting comes around the corner.

So what if some are sequels - one thing about games which are different to movies is that sequels are nearly always better than the original. Take MW2 - even if you dont the story you would have to accept that nearly everything else in that game was better than the first iteration.

Even if you dont like what the majors put out there is always something else interesting being made not to mention things you may have missed when they were first released. I for one am excited about the future of gaming and not concerned at all if these guys keep iterating on established franchises. If they are good I will play them - if they aren't there is going to be something else to play.

I think that's an easy thing to say when you're going through the "Golden Age" that we are. There have been some definitely lulls even in the past and thanks to consolidation there is a genuine concern that we'll have too many Modern Warfare 2s (actually Call of Duty 6) and not enough Dead Space 1.