The videogame industry could learn a few tricks from the movie industry when it comes to money, says the veteran developer.
David Braben, co-creator of the classic space simulator Elite and head of Frontier Developments, says that publishers and developers will soon have to change the way they make and release games, because he thinks that the current model just isn't sustainable.
Braben said that a lot of triple A games cost upwards of $50 million to make and promote, and that was before the "large overheads" added on by publishers. He said that that figure was comparable to big Hollywood movies, but added that games had much less time and opportunity to make that money back. Where movies had multiple revenue streams like the box office, rentals, TV revenue and re-releases on new formats, Braben said that games really only had a small window - usually just a few weeks after release - before pre-owned sales started to cannibalize new sales.
He thought that this short window of opportunity, coupled with the high costs involved in development, was the reason that EA had posted yet another loss in the last quarter, and why Activision had shut down so many of its in-house studios recently. He also thought that if it weren't for Blizzard and the Call of Duty series, Activision would also be losing money, too. He said that publishers would have to examine the way they funded triple A games, and make some changes if they wanted to keep making them.
Braben thought that the best way for publishers to reduce the risk in releasing new games was to embrace online distribution models, and to make better use of product placement. By using online distribution as more than just an alternative to retail, Braben thought that publishers could create new revenue streams for games. "For much-anticipated games perhaps an exclusive online-only premium (charged by time) multiplayer play could be made available before the full release of the game? Building a game over time, starting with the minimal playable is perhaps another way of doing this - as already happens online in the 'social' space."
Product placement, he said, would provide much needed additional funding game development, and reduce the amount that publishers had to invest. Unfortunately, it meant that publishers would have to relinquish some control over their games. In the current model, publishers could cancel a game if they thought that they would be unsuccessful, or if they didn't have sufficient funds to release it, but Braben said that that also mean that securing outside funding was very difficult. If publishers wanted this extra investment, they would have to commit to publishing a game, and wouldn't be able to back out if circumstances changed.
Braben isn't the first person in the videogame industry to say that the days of big game development in its current form is on its way out: Both Rovio's Peter Vesterbacka and God of War creator David Jaffe have made similar comments in recent years. Where Braben differs from Vesterbacka and Jaffe, however, is that rather than just prophesize doom, he's suggesting solutions. Whether his will be the solutions the industry adopts is anyone's guess, but change will eventually come, and having more ideas on how to handle that change floating around doesn't seem like a bad thing.