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The Video Game Industry We Deserve
The video game industry is an interesting beast. For one, there’s more interaction between creative forces and the community at large. Don’t like something? It’s much easier to encourage change simply by being vocal. The Xbox One as well as Mass Effect 3’s ending are the primary examples that come to mind. Second, games are built from the ground up as interactive experiences. With the connectivity of the Internet becoming integral in recent console cycles, the core experience that many players face can be tweaked with the addition of post-release updates. Many games become increasingly tailored to meet the needs of the player as time moves forward, making sure that the market is a reflection of what its intended target desires.
And yet, getting what we want may hinder the video game industry itself.
I can argue that most were certainly unsurprised by the number of returning titles to Sony’s, Microsoft’s, and of course, Nintendo’s newest consoles. The Assassin’s Creed titles have made a console appearance six out of the last seven years. We’ll also have more entries from Mario, Halo, and Infamous this year. Franchises of the past decade have come in with staying power, and issued titles in spades.
None of this is to say that these titles don’t deserve recurrent visits to their respective universes. My growing concerns are about how we the consumer, may pose a challenge in allowing developers to tell the stories they want to be told.
The current environment of AAA studios often employs the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Problem is, things tend to go stagnant when no fixing is happening. In particular, the annual entries often add little innovation specifically from year to year unless the public outcry is large enough. The process makes it easy enough to see our favorites return for new adventures, but can make it difficult for newcomers, as well as the teams responsible for making those returning games.
The first example I have lies in Dontnod Entertainment’s Remember Me. The sci-fi romp had its fair share of difficulty in finding a publisher. Studios were reportedly reluctant to take a chance on a brand-new female protagonist entering the fray for your hard-earned cash. In a world where Samus Aran, Lara Croft, and Jill Valentine had proven to be hard hitters, Nilin was an unknown variable to the equation. Such uncertainty meant that buzz for the franchise would have to factor out starpower in attracting a fanbase. The game would later go on to be published by Capcom, where it would receive somewhat positive reviews.
While longstanding franchises are viewed as detrimental to smaller and up-and-coming developers, the issues with much of the state of the industry can be felt throughout. 2013 though now has found many developers falling short of sales expectations. Games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite were often critically acclaimed, yet sales figures did not equal the aggressive figures studios anticipated seeing. Since January 2013, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Irrational Games, Big Fish Studios, Capcom, Crystal Dynamics, Square Enix, Sega, 2K, and Sony Santa Monica have all laid off workers. It is true enough that many studios have adopted the culture of hiring a staff for certain projects only, but the amount of resources in developers, money, and time have impacted the ROI of games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite.
Games are a consumptive media. We as consumers are normally excited for the chance to play around in a space established in a previous entry. The problem has become that studios are erected to reflect just that: the specific franchise from a studio that we want to play. In the advent of digital distribution, game sales are much more frequent and impactful on initial sales. Price too steep? The vigilant players can find a 50% off sale within the first 6 months easy enough. I myself bought Tomb Raider for $20 during an Xbox 360 Summer Sale.
The indie developer community has also had time to build real traction. Titles like FTL, No Man’s Sky, and Divekick have developed their own communities. With a consistently lower starting pricepoint, indie titles encourage players to buy more games for the same price as a AAA studio’s latest game. Free from the conventional restraints, indie developers have more incentives to take big risks and deviate from an established norm.
What’s to be done? The larger studios must find a way to reconcile such large projects with fluctuating sales numbers. Hiring people long enough to make a game only adds stress to the development cycle. Taking a chance on a new idea may not pan out, and transfers into real time losses.
The simple answer is you. As complacent as the Internet has become with complaining about the current state of affairs, we’ve directly influenced the environment that pumps out our favorite products. Buying pre-owned is a great way to save a few bucks if you are dying to have that game; that’s fair. But buying that way is also a great way to make sure the developer makes no money from the sale. Keep in mind that game publishers make on average $27 dollars from the sale of a new game. The rest of that price tag covers distribution, royalties owed to the console manufacturers, the retailer’s margin, and even the unsold amount of discs that may be returned. That breakdown doesn’t include the developer.
Buy games. Offer feedback. Support the franchises you love, but don’t forget to take chances on those unknowns. The funding and feedback alone are important in shaping the industry.