Faster Horses


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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The gut instinct of many is to equate this correlation to causation, and say that EA’s investment in “innovation” is the reason for their financial troubles.

The case could be made that the time and money spent improving the quality of something like FIFA was unnecessary, given how the series has shifted millions of units year in and year out, regardless of its review score. But extremely polished, entertaining and full of interesting ideas as a title like Dead Space may be, let’s not confuse being a new IP with being innovative – and if a company of EA’s size cannot afford to publish a handful of new IPs every year, then we’re all screwed.

Certainly for a game of its quality sales of Dead Space have been disappointing, but one could make the comparison to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, a similarly “mature” title focused on the single-player experience, one that I would regard as vastly more innovative yet by every definition an inferior game. Like Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed was a new IP that launched in the October-November crunch period, usually regarded as a deathtrap for original titles.

What’s the difference between Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed, then? This is the problem: we don’t know. Both had superlative marketing campaigns, excellent word of mouth, and production values only topped by their review scores – but the bottom line is that Dead Space struggled to shift a million units while Assassin’s Creed easily sold five times that. Anybody who says they can tell you why is merely guessing.

Our understanding of who plays what games for how long and why is still ridiculously incomplete. And we industry insiders get so caught up in talking between ourselves that we end up making games for each other, and not for the customers. It’s easy to read the specialist press and think that the opinions you read represent how the average user feels, but they don’t. If that were the case, Beyond Good & Evil and Zack and Wiki would be some of the biggest sellers of the last five years. If you’re already reading The Escapist, you’ve got a vested interest in the gaming industry that surpasses that of 95% of the videogame buying audience.

So we get what the games industry gives us today: bandwagon jumping and nervous guesses.

Comparing the lineups of the market leaders of the past two generations, the PlayStation 2 and the Wii, makes for depressing reading. The PlayStation 2 was a success precisely because of its diverse and nuanced library – in the truest sense of the term, it had something for everyone. But because the Wii is seen as the “console for everyone,” we’re all trying to sell to everybody at once – despite the fact that the only companies that can make a single product appeal to all audiences are Disney, Pixar and Nintendo themselves.

Perhaps if MadWorld and The Conduit do as well on the sales front as they have in their pre-launch hype, we’ll see this situation change. Or perhaps they’ll end up like titles such as Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a highly praised game that stood out against the violent shooters that make up the Xbox 360’s library, but failed to find an audience on the console.

In a still-maturing industry like gaming, it’s no good even asking your audience, because most people don’t know what they want. A focus group might be able to tell you that people want Game X to be more like Gears of War, but before Gears’ release they could not; nobody could have told you in 1980 that they wanted an experience where you controlled a plumber jumping on people’s heads, or in 2003, that simple maths and words puzzles on a touch-screen handheld was just the kind of thing they were looking for.

Maybe the only option, then, is to make the titles you believe in, and let the market make its own decisions. The job of both management and creators is to come up with the ideas that customers don’t know they want yet, but will buy in their droves when they’re released. Or as Henry Ford is alleged to have put it, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and is sick of seeing only faster horses.

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