Waiting for the Fall

I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. Specifically, I’ve been playing it on my PC using a mod collection called the "Direwolf20 Feed the Beast" collection. It adds all sorts of fantastic mods to the game; stuff that adds magic, industrial machines, new ores, new enemies and in fact, in some cases, entirely new dimensions. It is this incredibly dense, highly polished and seemingly endless procession of features and activities. It takes a game that already seemed to provide infinite replayability and exponentially jacks it up to some kind of hyper-infinity that likely is slowly eating away at the quantum flux of the whole universe. We’re going to end up living in a The Neverending Story nightmare, where we’re just floating on fragments of reality surrounded by the devouring Nothing created by my playing this game.

This is bad for the universe as a whole certainly, but for the games industry it’s even worse. Bad enough that the universe collapses, but what’s really unforgivable is that I have invested so many hours into a single game, finding a way to constantly enhance my experience without handing someone more money. Or, to put it another way, I had more fun than I should have been allowed without cashing back in.

Looking at the way the core of the games industry operates suggests that games are built to deliver a finite, intentionally limited, amount of fun on a per-dollar-spent basis. The result is some games that seem to be built with the explicit intent of being fun enough to be interesting, but not actually fun enough to exist as a complete and coherent thing. My gaming experience with something like Minecraft is anathema to this model.

Mainstream video games often feels less like a product and more like a doorway into a cash-syphoning system of diminishing returns, designed intentionality around hamstringing the customer. As far as I can tell, the biggest industry leaders have become so out of touch that they’ve backed themselves into a corner where this is the only way they know to make money. They’ve built a broken system and then locked themselves inside as it slowly builds toward a monumental collapse.

Which may not be a bad thing.

One of the common questions we’re asked on the podcast is something along the lines of, “Am I a bad gamer because I try to buy games on sale?” The answer is devastatingly simple: No, you are not. I do not position that as an opinion; I position it as a fact. Beyond the answer that sales support well run and responsible game developers, the broader point is that you owe nothing to an irresponsibly run industry. If Tomb Raider doesn’t make money unless it sells three million copies at full price, then that’s a broken and unsustainable system. It’s a great game, certainly, but it was terribly managed somewhere along the line.

I don’t know if that somewhere is in the office of the developer, the publisher or some other factor, but the revenue model doesn’t work, and you absolutely should buy that game at half or 75% off if you’re so inclined. Doing the right thing for yourself as a consumer isn’t the bad thing; forcing yourself to purchase it at full price because someone botched the plan to recoup expenses — and therefore enabling that kind of nonsense — is the bad thing.

I don’t even think the industry is kidding itself into thinking it’s got a sustainable plan anymore. Ask anyone if sales of three million before making a cent off the endeavor is a good business model, and my guess is that they’ll say no. But here we are, and the problem is far from uncommon. What’s unfortunate is that the solution to date has been to treat their customers as greedy adversaries who are immorally unwilling to part with the precious money-lifeblood that they guard so jealously. Isn't it just possible, though, that the solution could instead be to create trimmer, more realistic models for game development even for AAA game development?

I look at this industry and I get the impression that their most desired interaction between me and my game is for me to purchase it (preferably on a closed console system) at full price on day 1, play it for a few days, have a measured and reasonably bounded amount of fun, buy whatever add-ons are already available to enhance that experience, stop playing after a week so I can buy whatever new game is on the market, and return yet again when they offer the next morsel of over-priced gameplay (all without selling my used copies back to anyone). I look at that in comparison to my experience with Minecraft, where I bought the game during its development, was pushed inconceivable amounts of content and patches at no additional charge, enjoyed dozens of hours of the vanilla game, accessed the wealth of available player created content, and then played more.

Oh sure, the industry might respond, that’s because Minecraft became wildly successful and profitable, because it was created on a reasonably small budget by a lean but highly skilled team that was willing to make short-term concessions in order to deliver an exceptional end product that wasn’t built on a long-term monetization plan. To which I respond: exactly.

There are a lot of excuses made about why that isn’t a scalable model. Which is interesting, because it seems like every time people come along and demonstrate a positive gamer response to being treated fairly and with respect, the gut response is to say why that game or developer or situation was an edge case that can’t be applied to the bloated, sluggish, creatively-bankrupt, recklessly manipulative, volume-obsessed monster publishers that have sloshed and cavorted across the landscape of gaming like corrupt old gods shambling in malice across the face of the young world. To which I respond, again: exactly.

I realize that what I’m saying here has the flavor of irrational gamer screed, that really we should just grow up and realize that hitting customers with sticks is just a cold hard fact of business, and we should stop being children about it. Don’t people realize that it’s against the law not to hit customers with sticks? Not doing so would be a disservice to shareholders, who, by the way, are in the business of stick sales.

Fair enough. I’m finding myself a lot less inclined to be worried about whether we are being reasonable to the supposed business realities of game-making, realities which seem to be dispelled on an ever-increasing basis. After all, it’s an unequal model when we are asked to apply reason to a system that is not willing to apply reason in return.

So there is a part of me that waits for collapse, because I suspect that the longer it takes for collapse to arrive, the more painful it will ultimately be. Worse, I fear what will become of the business of gaming on the large if it never comes. I think in this moment where independent gaming is strong, where there are creative models for funding development and publication that can generate substantial dollars, we are in a unique place where if the collapse of the old model came tomorrow, the aftermath would be manageable.

I wonder what would fill the void, because I seriously doubt the answer is “nothing.” I ask myself: What if this was a year where there was no Call of Duty, no Assassin’s Creed, no Madden, no Halo, no Need for Speed, no Battlefield, no established recurring franchise from the major publishers that needs to sell to at least 5 million people to be considered remotely successful? What would take those games’ place? And, would I like that better? Would you?

Comments

I agree with pretty much everything Elysium said and that the AAA industry is currently on an unsustainable path that they seem either unwilling or unable to veer off of. Some of that is executives who don't understand that gaming isn't like selling widgets, some of that is the clueless market these public companies operate in (I firmly believe the stock market as it operates now is humanity's greatest threat) and some of that is just the risks inherent to operating in a creative industry. But I've said this elsewhere, I think gamers as a whole are in some ways, their own worst enemies. We scream that there's no innovation in the console space, that everything's the same and just trying to copy Call of Duty. That's not wrong but at the same time, no one steps up and buys the innovative stuff! There were great, unique AAA games that came out last year and they all bombed. As a group, I think it is a little hypocritical to claim that everything in AAA is just sequels and rehashes and then only buy the sequels and rehashes.

Now, you can point out the boatloads of innovative indie games that were successful despite niche sales because they were scaled appropriately for that niche and that's definitely a lesson the AAA industry can and should take to heart. If stuff that isn't Call of Duty won't sell 5+ million copies, then it should probably not be budgeted so that it has to. At the same time, I can feel for the industry on the point of view that people can't demand innovation and then not support it. It's the same problem Nintendo's had for years now. People say they rehash Mario and Zelda too much but look at the litany or new IPs Nintendo has launched in the last decade and how almost all of them were flops. Much as it should be up to the multi-millions paid executives to solve the problems of their businesses, I think in some ways, they're kind of doing that. Products that don't sell can't be made and gamers as a whole I think have some culpability for the current state of things as well. It's far from all our fault but it is a little bit.

Thanks, Parallax, I never saw that, and as a Kingdom Come backer, it's probably mandatory.

Jumping in late and with very little to say, I actually wonder if Capcom will have learned their lesson recently with games such as Resident Evil 6, DmC and Resident Evil: Revelations.

RE6 was over 400 people, and while it sold quite a number of copies, I'm not sure it sold enough to make a profit due to how many people were involved. Simultaneously, it didn't exactly receive the best critical response. Resident Evil: Revelations, on the other hand, a lower-budget title with a smaller, more focused team, has seen critical praise. I don't know what the sales are like now that they've ported it beyond the 3DS, but last I read Capcom is taking the better response to Revelations into consideration when it comes to the franchise's future.

RE6 was a product of pride and wanting Resident Evil to be a landmark franchise to compete with the likes of Call of Duty. It failed and lacked focus for this very reason.

Meanwhile, DmC was a focused, lower-budget project with only about 90 people on the development team, according to interviews leading up to the game's release. I highly enjoyed the gameplay, but I know initial sales were low due to the sudden shift in aesthetic. Not sure what Capcom may learn from that, but I imagine the losses faced by being about .8 million short of projections is a lot less than their expectations for RE6.

My hope is that Capcom can learn from this experience, in that trying to appeal specifically to the Western market, or at least in the manner they've been attempting, isn't going to increase their sales.

It should be noted by the end of 2013 Tomb Raider was "finally" profitable for Squenix. I can only hope there's a lesson there somewhere, too.

Also, Stylez linked me to this really cool blog post from last year by the creative director at Warhorse (whose Kingdom Come RPG Kickstarter I backed before reading this) about how top heavy modern AAA game development has become for no good reason, mostly because of clueless executives and shareholders.

RE6 was over 400 people

Reminds me of a recent Reddit comment on development of Assassin's Creed 3.

Perhaps the longer it takes for the collapse, the less the collapse will be noticed. The mid-tier seems to be undergoing a resurgence, and the "garage" segment is having a full blown renaissance. Obviously the consoles will be harder hit if there is a AAA collapse, but the farther down the road to a Steam-like (or iPod-like) model they go, the more agile they may become. As for the PC, well, it's been dead several times already and seems to be no worse for the wear.

I wonder what would fill the void

If one subscribes to certain opinions in the podcast, one might say the answer is Europa Univeraslis IV.

consciousness wrote:

Obviously the consoles will be harder hit if there is a AAA collapse,

See, I'm not so certain of this, as I feel the current AAA structure is more the result of bad strategy. "More more more!" is the notion, which has proved expensive and with little room for profit margins. Some of the most successful games of the past 14 years have been from smaller studios or on a budget, be they downloadable or on retail disc. Say what you will about Nintendo's current WiiU troubles, the software is still made at a budget and tends to sell really well.

Maybe this is me being optimistic, but I think what you might see is the middle-tier start to get noticed a lot more, or simply that studios develop fewer and fewer games. In truth, developing fewer games might be the best idea on the whole.

ccesarano wrote:
consciousness wrote:

Obviously the consoles will be harder hit if there is a AAA collapse,

See, I'm not so certain of this, as I feel the current AAA structure is more the result of bad strategy. "More more more!" is the notion, which has proved expensive and with little room for profit margins. Some of the most successful games of the past 14 years have been from smaller studios or on a budget, be they downloadable or on retail disc. Say what you will about Nintendo's current WiiU troubles, the software is still made at a budget and tends to sell really well.

Maybe this is me being optimistic, but I think what you might see is the middle-tier start to get noticed a lot more, or simply that studios develop fewer and fewer games. In truth, developing fewer games might be the best idea on the whole.

I think you're right. Mid-tier console developers will have more room, but indie teams won't be able to expand into the space the way they can on platforms with lower costs of entry.

I also think that what we are going to see is a growth in the mid tier, to the point that I don't think we will see the big crash many have been expecting, myself included.

The last two years just seem to have demonstrated that the industry is getting more active and flexible. While I think the really big games like COD will probably stick around, the second rung AAA games will see budgets shrink to reasonable levels, or the pubs will have the patience to wait to recoup costs over longer periods, after seeing examples like Tomb Raider.