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

At least some of the problem with trying new models and smaller games rests with gamers being hesitant to want to try those new models, and looking at everything as a cash grab. EA tried to release Battlefield Heroes as a free to play game. They got the balance wrong for unlocking the best weapons at launch, and people found it too easy to play the game to unlock those weapons. Thus, not enough people had the incentive to pay for them. When EA tried to correct that balance, the community got upset. Sure, maybe EA went too far the other way, but until these things are more mature, you have to expect some growing pains. Also, if you're playing a free to play game, I think you should expect to eventually have to spend some money if you want to play at the highest levels all the time. If you don't care, then don't spend it.

DSGamer wrote:
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.

Is GWJ becoming a site that rags on Kotaku as one of our favorite punching bags? If we were to go down that path, it might be hilarious.

wordsmythe wrote:
DSGamer wrote:
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.

Is GWJ becoming a site that rags on Kotaku as one of our favorite punching bags? If we were to go down that path, it might be hilarious.

I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not.

I'm not ragging on Kotaku. I largely ignore them. However, I found that sentence pretty funny.

I'm not sure how serious I am, either.

wordsmythe wrote:
I'm not sure how serious I am, either.

Well, then we agree on something.

We used to agree on more. (sad face)

DSGamer wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
I'm not sure how serious I am, either.

Well, then we agree on something.

We used to agree on more. (sad face)

I used to be more opinionated.

... And post about it more.

I think game companies are giving the market what the market wants. What people say they will buy and what they actually buy are not the same things. Why would anyone be surprised that MW2 would tip the scales? It's like a big giant sign that says "hey, do you really need more proof than this?" to a developer. It's a huge seller, ridiculously huge! It's just another shooter with soldiers and guns, sure, but it's done well, and that's enough for the people who bought it. This is nothing new, indie films and oscar contenders don't do great box office, but Transfomers 2 does.

The problem is that the game industry hasn't been able to create a model where they can make money on games targeted at small audiences. Not long ago a million dollar seller was considered a hit, now it's considered borderline failure. Part of the reason is that next gen hardware has raised the bar of expectations for a AAA title. The amount of work increased and team sizes went up as well. AAA games are extremely expensive and in order to make money they must be hits. This made it necessary for games to sell much much more. The best way to do that is to play it safe. For good or ill the games industry is still in love with the block buster model, but, to be fair, gamers are voting with their money. You give the market what it wants, not what it claims to want. To torture an anology; Gamers claim to want Tolstoy, but they really buy Dan Brown.

Maybe some day someone will figure out a way to make high quality games that appeal to the equivalent of foreign film snobs (of which I am one) and still make money. I don't know. But we are not there yet. There is a lot of talk about the indie developers, but how well are they doing? Do you know how many went out of business? I hear that Braid has not made any money because of the marketing and development costs involved. That was a stellar sell!

No one ever went out of business apealing to the lowest common denominator, but the road is littered with the corpses of innovators. It's a sad reality and it's why we should enjoy the gems when we find them - and stop expecting more gems than we get. It's never going to happen.

New IP Up 106% Since 2007

From 2006 to 2009, the market share of new intellectual properties on the seventh generation home platforms grew from 16% to 22%, which may seem insignificant, but in absolute terms there were 61 new properties introduced in 2007, while 2009 had 126 --a 106% increase in new intellectual properties being introduced since 2007 on the next-generation home consoles.

Sure as hell doesn't seem that way, does it? The author goes on to explain...

The point, I believe, has a lot to do with a misconception or communication breakdown between consumers and publishers. When we see the same game being released year-in and year-out with little being done to improve or increase the game’s features, we show our dissatisfaction with our pocket books. Publishers and other industry professionals take that as a sign that the best strategy is to create new properties to replace the stalling ones. This leads to a publisher launching four new properties, but three of them will likely fail and be unprofitable. And for the one that does succeed, publishers instantly begin to think about how quickly they can extract profits from this new property; this mentality, of course, leads to problems such as feature stagnation, which ultimately causes the new brand to go stale, bringing us right back to the beginning!

When a publisher creates a new hit franchise, the company should be thinking about how best to elongate its popularity, rather than how to extract its riches as fast as possible.


I couldn't agree more with that last sentence. I think EA/BioWare is on the right track with Mass Effect and Dragon Age (day 1 DLC for sale notwithstanding).