The Revolutionaries

The Revolutionaries
Gaming at the Margins, Part 3

Warren Spector | 4 Apr 2006 12:02
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Now, in one sense, more platforms are a good thing - platforms that don't require crazy graphics or support the depth of gameplay that drives costs up offer small developers new options. That's all to the good.

The interesting thing is what happens when players start expecting to be able to access their games wherever they are and via whatever hardware they happen to have handy. That day's coming, sooner than most of us expect. And we better be ready for it.

The Choice
Given the way the game business works these days, I'm not sure there is any choice to be made as we face a frightening future of high-priced hardware. Given our single-funding source model (publishers) and our near total dependence on boxed games sold at retail, you're either a player in the triple-A videogame arena or you're not.

You either spend what it takes to be competitive - $8, 10, 12 million and up - or you better not even try to compete. Go where EA and Activision and the big-time MMOG guys aren't. Make puzzle games or boutique games aimed at a more targeted (and likely smaller) audience. And spend a couple million bucks or less.

The Outcome
Until and unless the business model changes, I see only one possible outcome: A business that's already heading in a rich-get-richer direction will see the trend accelerated and the situation exacerbated.

Those who can afford to compete at the triple-A, movie-budget level will; those who can't will either be driven out of business entirely or driven to different parts of the business - boutique online games, cell phone games, casual puzzle games...

Even mid-pack publishers will have trouble competing in the coming years, and marginal ones will cease to exist. There just aren't many companies that can afford more than a couple of $20 million bets a year. If even one of those bets failed (and given the "four out of five" game failure rate the received wisdom says we suffer now, you know most of those bets will fail), a lot of publishers are going down.

And as far as games that operate across PC's, consoles, handhelds, cellphones and so on? Well, that's going to require IP ownership and distribution that reaches consumers on all those platforms - that's a mighty big play, one available only to the existing power players, or new players with sufficient cash and connections to buy their way in. Developers who own their own IP? They're going to be even more of a rara avis than they are now.

In many fields, more horsepower can provide the little guy with tools to challenge The Man. Call me cynical, but in the world of game development, I see upcoming hardware shifts benefiting the existing power elite more than anyone else, maybe exclusively. Unless the business changes in some radical way, and/or the powers that be support more interesting work than they've been willing to support in the past, gamers will be stuck playing prettier GTA clones, sports games, shooters, me-too MMOGs and the 1,001st damaged-DNA knockoff of Tetris...


The Situation
The internationalization of the game business is inevitable. It's no longer worth thinking about as something that might happen someday. It's already happening.

For years now, a bit more than half of my sales have come overseas. Last time I checked, a third of those sales came from Germany alone. From a business perspective, anyone who isn't thinking about foreign sales is leaving a lot of money on the table.

But internationalization means something more than just selling your product overseas. It means competing with developers who are as clever and creative as you are - and typically get paid a lot less. That's a scary combination.

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