Going Gold

Going Gold
Faster Horses

Christian Ward | 18 Feb 2009 17:00
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Just as everyone in Hollywood has that one script in their head they're just waiting to write, seemingly everyone in the games industry has the idea for that one game they are just waiting for the chance to create.

But while the rubbish that ends up on shelves would certainly make you think otherwise, publishers can be unsurprisingly unwilling to hand over $20 million plus on the basis of a single good idea.

Very few packaged games come from a single concept, a single person, in the same way that a great movie can still spring from the pen of one gifted, unknown screenwriter. While the Kojimas, Wrights and Miyamotos of the world still have the clout to get their visions turned into fully realized products, the increasing cost and complexity of development means they are a dying breed.

And while digital distribution is becoming a great way to put "concept" games like Braid, World of Goo or flow out to customers, offering an outlet for pent-up creativity, it is still a small and risky one. The $180,000 investment that Jonathan Blow put into the development of Braid will no doubt prove to be a smart investment in the long run, but it could just have easily been a disaster. Compared to penning a screenplay or writing the Great American Novel, games development is a costly and time-consuming endeavor that can rarely be done alone.

So just who decides the titles that end up on the shelves of your local Gamestop, and on what basis? The industry is in something of a midlife crisis when it comes to deciding what gets made and why. The days when approval would be granted to games like Shenmue, ludicrously ambitious and expensive projects powered by one man's vision, are long over. Shenmue's costly retail failure may itself be one of the main reasons why.

But unlike the movie industry, which neatly breaks up its releases into worthy spring Oscar nominees, big-budget summer blockbusters and Christmas feel-good family movies, the games market is too immature and volatile to be accurately predicted. There is only one period of the year when you can be guaranteed customers are buying games - which leads to the sight, more moronic every year, of every publisher squeezing their releases in the crowded three-month window before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

A crowded market on the Xbox 360, a smaller-than-expected userbase for the PlayStation 3, and the wildcard that everyone has struggled with in the Wii means no one is sure just where to put their chips. Deciding what to make and when is a guessing game. Directors try to imagine what titles will get the green light. Producers try to imagine what will sell two years down the line, and where. Senior management looks at what is selling and orders "something that looks like that."

That's why we get not one WWII shooter but two dozen almost identical ones, why every team sports game still plays off the basic riff of the original Genesis version of Madden and why every third-person shooter looks more and more like Gears of War than the last. With everyone aiming for the lucrative North American market, games become ever more generic.

One of the more interesting stories has been the tale of EA over the past few years. Derided by serious gamers as a creator of cheap licensed ports and by industry insiders as a slave-driver of workers, it seemed they had learned the right lessons and earned gamers' respect by publishing games such as Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Left 4 Dead and the most critically acclaimed version of FIFA they've ever released, all in the last few months of 2008.

Their reward: posting a $641 million loss in the third quarter of last year.

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